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Hadith, Sunnah, And The Objectives of Law

20 January, 2017
Q What is the difference between the Hadith and the Sunnah? How do they relate to each other and to the Quran?


Asalamu Alaikum,

Thank you for contacting About Islam with your question.

Dr. Shabir Ally addresses this question in the video below:


Aisha Khaja: Dr. Shabir, the question that we have today is from a viewer who watched our video on Hanafi testing of hadith, and has a couple of questions.

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For that particular video, the viewer is asking, I thought this school of Hanafi testing was concerned with Shariah. And then this viewer goes on to ask, I’ve also watch videos on the maqasid [goals or objectives] principles.

Are these developed outside of the four main schools of jurisprudence? And then there’s a bigger question, which is, what is the difference between hadith and Sunnah? And are they basically the same thing?

And then, they go on to say, I know there are six main hadith collections in Sunni Islam, but is the Sunnah written in any authorized versions?

Dr. Shabir Ally: Okay, because, I mean, I understand how this is all getting very complicated for some people who are trying to understand Islam for the first time. 

Now so, what we said about the Hanafi principles of testing hadith, that book that we reviewed, shows the interplay between the hadith, on one hand, and giving a juristic rulings—dealing with the finer points of Islamic practice—on the other hand.

The one is based on the other. And also, when we spoke about maqasid, or the objectives, goals of Islamic law, we are at the same time talking about giving jurist rulings for the details of Islamic practice.

But, we have to look at what were the original objectives of the Islamic rulings in the first place so that you do not put things out of their place and defy the original objective by being too pedantic: following the letter but omitting and neglecting the spirit of the law.

So, then what is the Islamic law then? How is it formulated? It is a complex result of the interplay between the Quran, on the one hand and its interpretation; the hadith, which is a collection—the viewer mentioned six compilations that we have. These are not the only ones, but six which are most popular.  

And they are collections of reports about things the Prophet (peace be upon) may have said or done or things that were done in his presence and because he did not object to what is being done, that forms precedent for Islamic law.

So, it’s a complex interplay between what the Quran says, on the one hand—what we believe to be the Word of God for our guidance. And then, the Prophet (peace be upon him) now acting out these laws that’s what is his common practice and his common practice is known as the Sunnah.

So, the Sunnah, the concept of what the Prophet (peace be upon him) generally did, this is derived from our study of those hadith collections. We want to know what he did regularly and what he did by way of instructing us.

So, it’s a complex interplay between the two, keeping in mind the objectives, but at the same time being aware that not everything attributed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) is authentic.

I hope this helps answer your question. Please keep in touch.

Walaikum Asalam.

Please continue feeding your curiosity, and find more info in the following links:

3 Meanings of Sunnah

Why We Need to Follow the Sunnah?

Where Lies the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad

Following the Quran, Sunnah & Ahl al-Bayt