The word Hadīth is often understood to be a synonym
for the word Sunnah. This is not correct. There is a great difference between
the two not only regarding the extent of their authenticity, but also their
content. I’ll try to briefly explain the meaning of these terms.
A narrative of the words, deeds or tacit approvals of the
Prophet (sws) is called Hadīth. It does not add anything to the content of Islam
stated in the Qur’ān and Sunnah, the two original sources of Islam. Ahādith
(plural of Hadīth) only explain and elucidate what is contained in these two
sources and also describe the exemplary way in which the Prophet (sws) followed
Islam. The scholars of Hadīth employ the term, Khabar for Hadīth. A Khabar bears
the possibility of being either right or wrong. In other words, the scholars of
Hadīth believe that a Khabar may be true or it may be false. For this very
reason, the Āhadīth are also called Zannī (presumptive or indefinite).
On the other hand, the word ‘Sunnah’ literally means ‘busy
path’, ‘trodden path’, ‘beaten path’. As a term, it means the practices of the
Prophet Abraham (sws) to which the Prophet Muhammad (sws) gave religious
sanction among his followers after reviving and reforming them and after making
certain additions to them. The Qur’ān has directed the Prophet (sws) to obey
these Abrahamic practices in the following words:
Then We revealed to you to follow the ways of Abraham,
who was true in faith and was not among the polytheists. (16:123)
The following three aspects further bring out the
difference between Hadīth and Sunnah.
Firstly, while Ahādith can be inauthentic or spurious, the
Sunnah cannot be so. The Sunnah is in fact as authentic as the Qur’ān. This is
because the difference in the nature of transmission. Ahādith have been
transmitted by a few individuals and therefore become dependent on their
character, memory and intellect – all of which can falter even if the person in
question is very pious. On the other hand, the Sunnah has been transmitted by
whole generations to the next. Such is the vast number of people who have
adhered to certain practices that there is no possibility of any error. The
memory, intellect and character of a few persons can falter but when thousands
of people deliver the same thing, any faulty transmission is ruled out.
Furthermore, not only have a large number of people transmitted these practices,
but also there is a consensus in the Ummah regarding the authenticity of these
practices. In other words, people not adhering to these practices also vouch for
Secondly, Sunnah is purely related to the practical aspects
of Islam such as the prayer, Hajj, Nikāh Wudū Tayammum. Issues that pertain to
belief, history, occasion of revelation and explanation of Qur’ānic verses lie
outside its domain. On the other hand, Ahādith are not confined to a certain
sphere of Islam. Its contents range from the practical issues of religion to
intellectual ones and from historical episodes to explanation of the Qur’ān and
of the Sunnah itself.
Thirdly, the Sunnah is not based on Ahādīth. For instance,
we have not adopted the prayers, pilgrimage, etc in all their details because a
few narrators explained them to us, but we have adopted them because every
person in our surrounding is either adhering to it or vouching for its veracity.
In other words, Sunnah is an entirely independent source of Islam. However some
Ahādith may contain a record of the Sunnah just as they may contain the record
and explanation of certain verses of the Qur’ān. But just as having a record of
the Qur’ān does not make Ahādith the same as the Qur’ān, having a record of the
Sunnah does not make Ahādith equivalent to the Sunnah.