Khalid Zaheer
“I am convinced about the veracity of my opinions, but I do consider it likely that they may turn out to be incorrect. Likewise, I am convinced about the incorrectness of the views different from mine, but I do concede the possibility that they may turn out to be correct.” — Imam Shafa’i
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Difference Between Sunnah and Hadith (1)

Question:
My current understanding is as follows:

We have two main sources of God's system (besides our conscience).

1) Quran, the book of God
2) Sunnah of the last prophet (peace be upon him).

I am confused on the understanding of the word "Sunnah".

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi convinced me that the word Sunnah would mean worship methods and other practices that reached us from Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) through the crowd.

Quran and Sunnah both reached us through the same source "crowd".

I have always been reluctant to accept hadees books as part of Islam mainly because I think God's religion cannot be based on hearsay. That is why Javed Ahmad Sahib's argument convinced me.

I was living happily thereafter until I got a chance to have an open minded discussion with a Mufti Sahib yesterday. I shared with him my position and asked him to tell me along with reasons if I am wrong.

He put forward a very basic argument and I was surprised I had nothing to say.

He said, if I am ready to accept that Sunnah has reach us through the crowd then why it is hard for me to accept that Sunnah can also reach us in written form through the same crowd?

Whatever is written in hadees books is also practiced by people (at least a group of people). Before hadees books were written down (about 200 years after the demise of Prophet pbuh), his saying were practiced by people although their written form did not exist at that time.

If I can say that methods implemented in the crowd is "sunnah" then what arguments do I have to exclude what is written in hadees books from sunnah category. The content of Hadees books' is a subset of what came to us though the crowd; as it is also practiced by people (at least by some group of people), besides the fact that it exist in written form as well.

Please spare some time to throw some light on this topic.

Here is another way of putting the question:

Lets take out hadees books out of the equation for a minute. If we want to define Sunnah in terms of what came to us through the crowd then how can we say that only A, B, and C will be considered as Sunnah, while D, E, and F will not be considered as Sunnah; although all A, B, C, D, E, and F are practiced by people and that is how they reached to us. And it happens to be that D, E, F are also written in hadees books.

God knows the best. May God guide me in the right direction.

Response:
It is good to know that you keep thinking about your religion with an open mind and you also allow others to criticise your understanding in the light of arguments. As long as you take arguments on their merit, even though you can at times be wrong, you will never be led astray, insha'Allah. I hope the Mufti Sahib you talked to and his students and followers also adopt the same approach.

The idea of religion coming to us through a crowd rather than an individual is very valid. It is indeed what distinguishes the reliable sources of religion (Qur'an and Sunnah) from the less reliable ones (hadith).

Indeed Mufti Sahib is right in claiming that Sunnah and Hadith are both followed by the crowd. However, the crowd of Sunnah started practising it right from the time of the prophet, alaihissalaam, and the crowd of hadith followed it more than two hundred years after the demise of the prophet, after hadith was collected and published. Prior to that event, hadith was khabare ahad: a report transmitted by one or a few individuals. Therefore, one shouldn't be confused by the mere mention of the involvement of crowd. The two hundred years from the time of the prophet onwards is critical. Whatever religious practices were followed by the crowd in that period were a part of the religious message of Islam. Whatever else was available could only be an explanation of it.

It is not correct to say that hadith is a subset of Sunnah. It is the other way round in fact. Hadith mentions lots of information about the prophet, alaihissalaam, and his times, while Sunnah is only his religious practice which was given to everyone to follow.

The only book of hadith that appeared in the second century Hijrah, Mauta Imam Malik, mentions hadith as a distinct source from Sunnah and Imam Malik expresses his clear preference for Sunnah compared to hadith.

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