In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sunna

  • Introduction

Islamic Studies Sunna
Jonathan A.C. Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0083


“Sunna” is the Arabic term for the prophet Muhammad's way of life and legal precedent. It comes from the pre-Islamic Arab notion of Sunna as the way of life of a tribe, which is reflected in the Qur'an's use of the word to mean “the ways of God” (Qur'an 33:37, 62) or “ways of life” of earlier peoples (Qur'an 3:137). The Sunna is an authoritative source in Islamic law because the Qur'an is understood as ordering Muslims to “obey God and obey the Messenger” (Qur'an 8:1) and to “take what the Messenger has ordained for you and desist from what he has prohibited” (Qur'an 59:7). In the framework of Islamic law, the Sunna explains duties left unclear in the Qur'an, such as how to pray; replaces Qur'anic rulings; and adds new details of law and belief as well. Although the Qur'an is held by Muslims to be the literal word of God and the ultimate fount of all Islamic teachings, from the earliest period of Islam Muslim scholars recognized that the Sunna's role as the lens through which the Qur'an was understood made it in effect more authoritative than the Qur'an. In providing the details for the general principles laid out in the Qur'an, the Sunna effectively defined what those principles were. The Sunna is not simply a list of Muhammad's legal pronouncements about what is required or prohibited for Muslims. It denotes his behavior in general, from the details of his dress to his interaction with his wives. As a result many details of the Sunna are not black and white requirements or prohibitions; they are either behavior that is recommended but not required or behavior that is licit but not recommended. Although Sunni Islam (the original Arabic term is ahl al-sunna wa'l-jamaʿa, “the people of the Sunna and the collective”) takes its name from the term “Sunna,” Shiʿite Muslims are equally committed to the ideal of imitating the prophet's precedent. Shiʿite Islam simply has its own vision of the Sunna, namely the teachings of the prophet as transmitted by the twelve imams and elaborated by Shiʿite scholars.

The Sunna and Islamic Law

Muslim scholars generally consider the sources of Islamic law to be the Qur'an, the Sunna, consensus (ijmaʿ), and various methods of legal reasoning. The most prominent debate surrounding the concept of Sunna was whether the Sunna was to be understood through the collection and implementation of individual sayings transmitted from Muhammad, known as Hadith (Arabic, Hadith), or as the collective practice of the Muslim community and its methods of religious reasoning as passed down from the prophet. This debate raged most fiercely in the early Islamic period between Malik b. Anas (d. 796) and his student al-Shafiʿi (d. 820). While Malik believed that the practice of the community of Medina, Muhammad's adopted home and the first Muslim polity, most accurately preserved the Sunna, al-Shafiʿi led the camp of scholars from other cities who felt that Hadith provided the best source for the prophet's teachings. Scholarly studies of the Sunna therefore often take place within larger discussions of Islamic law. Hallaq 1997, 2005 and Kamali 2008 are the most up-to-date and readable introductions to Islamic law. Goldziher 1971 and Schacht 1964 represent the first phase of the Western study of Islamic law, with Hallaq 1997, 2005 reevaluating many of their conclusions. On the matter of Sunna, however, both approaches consider it to have started as communal practice, which later was limited to Muhammad's precedent.

  • Bravmann, M. M. The Spiritual Background of Early Islam. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    Chapter 3 of this work (a reprint of a 1972 book) provides a fascinating discussion of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic understanding of the term Sunna.

  • Goldziher, Ignaz. Muslim Studies. 2 vols. Translated and edited by S. M. Stern and G. R. Barber. Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1971.

    This translation of Goldziher's German original, Mohammedanische Studien (1889–1890), remains one of the most lucid and perspicacious studies of early Islamic civilization. It contains a useful discussion of pre-Islamic Arab understandings of Sunna as tradition.

  • Hallaq, Wael B. A History of Islamic Legal Theories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    This is the most clear and useful introduction to Islamic legal theory, including the place of the Sunna.

  • Hallaq, Wael B. The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    This is the latest major introduction to Islamic law from the senior expert on the subject.

  • Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Shari'ah Law: An Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld, 2008.

    This work introduces Islamic law in more depth than the above books, from its origins to the modern period, and is useful for understanding the Muslim perspective as opposed to that of Western scholars.

  • Schacht, Joseph. An Introduction to Islamic Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.

    A dated but still useful introduction to Islamic law, although many of its conclusions are challenged by more recent works, such as those of Hallaq 1997, 2005.

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