Since pre-Islamic times, the Arabic word sunnah has referred to a body of established customs and beliefs that make up a tradition. In Muslim legal and religious thought, the term became associated more specifically with the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Inspired by God to act wisely and in accordance with his will, Muhammad provided an example that complements God's revelation as expressed in the Qur'an. His actions and sayings became a model for Muslim conduct as well as a primary source of Islamic law.
Because early Muslim teachings were transmitted orally, some disagreement arose about the basis of the sunnah. Scholars studied the various hadith, reports of the words and deeds of Muhammad, to develop a comprehensive, authentic source. The competing explanations and definitions of the sunnah reflected the intellectual and ideological diversity of the early Muslim community. The concept of the sunnah, however, always remained important to the quest for meaning and certainty in Islamic practice and doctrine.
The expansion of Muslim territory and the existence of local tradition in the new lands created a need for a framework to deal with emerging legal and administrative conflicts. In this environment, Muslim scholars worked to put together the various interpretations of the sunnah. In the 800s, Sunni jurist Muhammad al-Shafi'i ( 767 – 820 ) sought to establish a strict definition of the term. He believed that the sunnah complemented the Qur'an by illustrating the principles of the sacred text, and he wanted to use it as an additional basis for Islamic law. He insisted that scholars study the hadith very closely to document the authoritative sunnah.
Al-Shafi'i's definition of the sunnah created a formal, rigorous, and text-based framework for Muslim jurisprudence and legal practice. Sunni Muslims eventually accepted the notion that the sunnah of the Prophet was best preserved through this type of framework. Shi'i Muslims, however, continued to believe that the ideals of the Prophet could best be realized by following the teachings of the divinely guided imams, who interpreted the sunnah.
In Sufi writings, which reflect an emphasis on the mystical dimensions of Muslim thought and practice, the sunnah includes the Prophet's spiritual values. Sufis believe that Muhammad transmitted these values through a series of Sufi teachers. For Sufis, the sunnah provides a concrete example of how Muslims might imitate the Prophet's behavior regarding prayer and following the path toward spiritual perfection.
Since the late 1700s, when Islamic societies began to have more interaction with European powers, the nature and authority of the sunnah have come under scrutiny. New codes of behavior based on European models emerged, particularly in the areas of law, public administration, and government. Muslim reformers sought to halt this trend. Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abduh ( 1849 – 1905 ), for example, argued that Islam could be reconciled with progress and a scientific worldview. He advocated ijtihad (independent reasoning) and criticized taqlid, or unquestioned acceptance of tradition. Abduh did not reject the sunnah. Instead, he emphasized the difference between essential and nonessential traditions and urged Muslims to apply reason to the primary sources of Islam.
Traditionalist thinkers, by contrast, regarded the sunnah as unchanging and therefore not subject to human interpretation. Others have argued that the concept of sunnah remains valid because it serves as a tool to bring about change that benefits society.
In the later part of the 1900s, debate about the role of the sunnah took on greater significance as many Muslim countries attempted to incorporate Islamic tradition into their legal systems. This has been the case in Egypt, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and elsewhere. As in the past, however, the importance of the sunnah as a source of guidance for believers transcends its public uses. The sunnah continues to influence Muslim identity and to enhance the moral lives of believers throughout the Islamic community. See also Hadith; Law; Muhammad .