Literally, Sunnah means a clear path or a beaten track but it has also been used to imply normative practice, or an established course of conduct. It may be a good example or a bad, and it may be set by an individual, a sect or a community.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Arabs used the word 'Sunnah' in reference to the ancient and continuous practice of the community which they inherited from their forefathers.
The opposite of Sunnah is bid'ah, or innovation, which is characterized by lack of precedent and continuity with the past. In the Qur'an' the word 'Sunnah' and its plural, sunan , have been used on a number of occasions (16 times to be precise). In all these instances, sunnah has been used to imply an established practice or course of conduct. To the scholars of Hadith, Sunnah refers to all that is narrated from the Prophet, his acts, his sayings and whatever he has tacitly approved, plus all the reports which describe his physical attributes and character.
The scholars of jurisprudence, however, exclude the description of the physical features of the Prophet from the definition of Sunnah.
Literally, Hadith means a narrative, communication or news consisting of the factual account of an event. The word occurs frequently in the Qur'an (23 times to be precise) and in all cases it carries the meaning of a narrative or communication.
In the early days of Islam following the demise of the Prophet, stories relating to the life and activities of the Prophet dominated all other kinds of narratives, so the word began to be used almost exclusively to a narrative from, or a saying of, the Prophet. [Azami, Studies, pp. 1-3 ]
Hadith differs from Sunnah in the sense that Hadith is a narration of the conduct of the Prophet whereas Sunnah is the example or the law that is deduced from it. Hadith in this sense is the vehicle or the carrier of Sunnah, although Sunnah is a wider concept and used to be so especially before its literal meaning gave way to its juristic usage. Sunnah thus preferred not only to the Hadith of the Prophet but also to the established practice of the community. But once the literal meanings of Hadith and Sunnah gave way to their technical usages and were both exclusively used in reference to the conduct of the Prophet, the two became synonymous.
Sunnah coming direct from the Prophet in the form of Hadith through a reliable chain of narrators is a source of law.
Proof-Value of Sunnah
The scholars are unanimous to the effect that Sunnah is a source of Shari'ah and that in its rulings with regard to halal (permissible)and haram (forbidden)it stands on the same footing as the Qur'an.' The Sunnah of the Prophet is a proof for the Qur'an, testifies to its authority and enjoins the Muslim tocomply with it. The words of the Prophet, as the Qur'an tells us, are divinely inspired (Qur'an, 53:3).
His acts and teachings that are meant to establish a rule of Shari'ah constitute a binding proof.' The words of the Prophet are proof on anyone who heard the Prophet saying them. As for the generality of Muslims who have received them through the verbal and written reports of narrators, they need to ascertain their authenticity. The proof of authenticity may be definitive, or it may amount to a preferable conjecture; in either case, the Sunnah commands obedience.All the rulings of the Prophet, especially those which correspond with the Qur'an and corroborate its contents, constitute binding law.
In more than one place, the Qur'an enjoins obedience to the Prophet and makes it a duty of the believers to submit to his judgment and his authority without question.
The Qur'an stresses that submission to the authority of the Prophet is not a matter of mere formalistic legality but is an integral part of the Muslim faith.
Types of Sunnah
The Speech of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
The speech of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) refers to his sayings. For example, he said: “"Actions are judged by their intentions; everyone will be rewarded according to his/her intention. So whoever migrates for the sake of God and His Prophet then his migration will be noted as a migration for the sake of God and His Prophet. Conversely, one who migrates only to obtain something worldly or to marry a woman, then his migration will be worth what he had intended." [Bukhari].
The Prophet (peace be upon him) also said: “"Whoever believes in God and the Last Day, should say something good or keep quiet. "
The above two accounts clearly show that the Prophet (peace be upon him) spoke these words. Consequently, these are known as his speech.
The Actions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
His actions pertain to anything he did, as authentically reported by the Companions.
For instance, a companion of the Prophet, Hudhayfah reported that whenever the Prophet (peace be upon him) got up at night, he would clean his teeth with a tooth-stick.
Also his wife, A'ishah reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) loved to do everything starting with the right side - putting on shoes, walking, cleaning himself, and in all his affairs generally.
The Silent Approvals of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
His silent approvals on different issues meant his not opposing or minding what he saw, heard or knew of the actions or sayings of his Companions.
On one occasion, for example, the Prophet (peace be upon him) learned of actions of some of his Companions from other Companions. Soon after the battle of Khandaq, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gave the order to the Companions to move quickly to surround the tribe of Banu Quraydah, encouraging them to hurry so that perhaps they would pray 'Asr (the late afternoon prayer) there. Some of the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) responded immediately and left without praying 'Asr. They arrived after sunset, pitched camp and prayed 'Asr- after sunset. At the same time another group of Companions formulated their judgment differently. They thought that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was merely encouraging them to hasten to their destination, rather than to delay 'Asr until after sunset. Consequently, they decided to stay in Madinah until they had prayed 'Asr. Immediately thereafter, they hastened towards the tribe of Banu Quraydhah. When the Prophet (peace be upon him) was told of how each group responded differently to his announcement, he (peace be upon him) affirmed both judgments.
Everything authentically narrated concerning the Prophet's complexion and the rest of his physical features are also included in the definition of sunnah.
Umm Ma'bad described what she saw of the great Prophet (peace be upon him). She said: “"I saw a man, his face radiant with a bright glow, not too thin or too fat, elegant and handsome. His eyes had a deep black hue with long eyelashes. His voice was pleasant and his neck long. He had a thick beard. His long black eyebrows were beautifully arched and connected to each other. In silence, he remained dignified, commanding utmost awe and respect. When he spoke, his speech was brilliant. Of all people he was the most handsome and the most pleasant, even when approaching from a distance. In person, he was unique and most admirable. Graced with eloquent logic, his speech was moderate. His logical arguments were well organized as though they were a string of gems. He was not too tall or too short, but exactly in between. Among three, he appeared the most radiant and most vibrant. He had companions who affectionately honored him. When he spoke, they listened to him attentively. When he gave orders, they were quick to execute them. They rallied around him guarding him. He never frowned or spoke frivolously."” [Hakim]
Along with his physical features, his Companions also described his habits and behavior with people. Once Anas reported: “"I served the Prophet of God (peace be upon him) for ten years. Never once did he so much as express any bit of displeasure nor did he ever ask 'Why did you do it?' for something I did or 'Why didn't you do it?' for something I didn't do." ”
From the above we can clearly see that when the term sunnah appears in a general context referring to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) it comprises anything narrated about the Prophet (peace be upon him) and authentically traced to him. Once a Muslim learns of the authenticity of any narration, he/she is obliged to follow and obey it accordingly. Such obedience is mandated by God as He declares «"...and obey God and His Prophet and do not turn away when you hear (him speak)."» [Qur’an 8:20]