The Categories of the Sunna
The Sunna is divided into three categories:
Verbal Sunna or the words of God’s Messenger
The first category of the Sunna consists in the blessed words of God’s Messenger, which provide a basis for many religious commandments. To cite a few examples:
- Our Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, decreed:
No bequest to the heir.3
That is, a man can bequeath a certain, small portion of his wealth before his death but he cannot bequeath at all to his heirs since they will naturally inherit the large portion of his wealth. A bequest can be made to the poor or some social institutions in the service of people.
- God’s Messenger has many concise sayings which provided a basis for several legal rulings. Among them, the following is one of the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence:
No harming and no returning harm for harm.4
That is, no one may do harm to any other, nor may he retaliate against anyone by doing him harm; he may not return ill treatment for ill treatment.
- The Qur’an enjoins alms-giving, but it does not set out for us what kind and what amount of wealth, and by what measure, one must give alms. All of these were established by the Sunna. For example, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, declared:
A tenth will be given (out of the crops grown in the fields) watered by rain or rivers; but half of a tenth (out of those grown in the fields) watered by man himself (by digging wells or building canals or carrying water on animals, etc.)5
- When asked whether one could do ritual ablution (wudu’) with sea-water, God’s Messenger gave the following answer, which has provided a basis for many other rulings:
A sea is that of which the water is clean and the dead animals are lawful to eat.6
Generally, the Qur’an forbids eating the meat of animals which have died without being slaughtered according to Islamic rules. The Sunna, however restricts this ‘general’ rule (commandment) by allowing as food the flesh of sea creatures that have died in water.
Practical Sunna or the practices of God’s Messenger
The Qur’an usually lays down general rules and principles and does not enter into details or particulars. For example, it enjoins prayer and pilgrimage but does not describe in detail how to do the prayer or pilgrimage. God’s Messenger, taught by God through inspiration or through the archangel Gabriel, showed in practice how to perform all the religious commandments. Thus he set, through his life, a unique example to be followed by all Muslims. For example, he led the daily prayers before his Companions five times a day and ordered them:
Perform the prayer the way you see me praying.7
The Sunna based on the approvals of God’s Messenger
God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, corrected the mistakes of his Companions, but not by specifying the one who did the mistake; he never exposed anyone publicly. Instead, he would usually climb the pulpit and warn: What ails the people that somebody does that?8 If, on the other hand, he saw in his Companions something agreeable, he showed his approval tacitly, i.e. by keeping silent, or in some explicit way.
For example, once two Companions could not find water in the desert to do wudu’ before the prescribed prayer and did the ritual ablution with sand (tayammum). However, when they came across some water some while later within the time of the same prayer, one of them did wudu’ and re-did the prayer while the other did not. When they referred the matter to God’s Messenger later, the Messenger responded to the one who had not repeated the prayer: You acted in accordance with the Sunna. Then, he turned to the other and said: For you, there is double reward.9
To cite another example, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, ordered a march upon Banu Qurayza immediately after the Battle of the Trench and announced: Hurry up! We will perform the afternoon prayer there! Some of the Companions, concluding that they should be quick to reach the land of Banu Qurayza and pray there, started out without delay. Others understood the order to mean that they should make haste to arrive in Banu Qurayza’s territory only and that they could perform the prayer before departure. God’s Messenger approved the actions of both groups.10
3. I. Ma’ja, “Wasaya,” 6; Tirmidhi, “Wasaya,” 5.
4. I. Hanbal, Musnad, 1.313.
5. Tirmidhi, “Zakat,” 14; Bukhari, “Zakat,” 55.
6. Abu Dawud, “Tahara,” 41; Tirmidhi, “Tahara,” 52; Nasa’i, “Tahara,” 47.
7. Bukhari, “Adhan,” 18; I. Hanbal, 5.53.
8. Bukhari, “Salat,” 70; Muslim, “Nikah,” 5.
9. Darimi, “Tahara,” 65; Abu Dawud, “Tahara,” 126.
10. Darimi, “Maghazi,” 30, “Khawf,” 5.
This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection.