May 292011

The term “sunna” occurs fourteen times in nine Qur’anic verses. It is used in four verses in the expression “sunnat al-awwalin” or the “sunna of the ancients.” The term “sunna” is usually interpreted as meaning “example” or “fate,” but it is a more general concept that means “way,” “practice,” “course,” “tradition,” “habit,” “state,” or “situation.” So “sunnat al-awwalin” should mean “the way or practice of the ancients.” These are three of those four verses:

Say [O Muhammad!] to the disbelievers that if they desist then they will be forgiven what has past; but if they return, then the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) has passed away. (8.38)

They (the disbelievers) will not believe in it (the Qur’an), and the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) has passed away. (15.13)

Nothing prevented people from believing when the guidance came to them and from asking pardon of their Lord other than [arguing for] the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) to come upon them or for the torment to come upon them before their eyes. (18.55)

The term “sunna” appears eight times in five verses in the expression “sunnat Allah” or the “way of Allah.” One of these verses has both expressions “sunnat al-awwalin” and “sunnat Allah”:

Do they (the disbelievers) wait for other than the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin), but you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) and you will not find any change in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (from 35.43)

Some exegetes understand the reference to “sunnat al-awwalin” as referring to God’s punishment of those who rejected the messengers that He sent to them. In this case, this expression could be translated as the “fate of the ancients.”

These are the other four verses in which “sunnat Allah” appears:

There is no fault in the Prophet in seeking what Allah has ordained for him — the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) with those who passed away before. The commandment of Allah is a determinate decree. (33.38)

This is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) with those who passed away before, and you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (33.62)

Their faith did not help them when they faced our might; [this is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) which applied in the past to His servants, and there the disbelievers lost. (40.85)

[This is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) which applied in the past, and you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (48.23)

Finally, this verse uses the term “sunna” twice, first in reference to the way of the messengers that God sent before Muhammad and then in the expression “sunnatuna (Our way),” meaning God’s way:

[This is] the way (sunna) of those whom we sent [as messengers] before you, and you will not find any change in Our way (sunnatuna). (17.77)

To recap, in the nine verses in which the term “sunna” appears, it is used nine times to refer to the sunna of Allah, four times for the sunna of the people of old, and once for the sunna of the previous messengers of Allah.

So the Qur’an does not use the term “sunna” in the sense of the way/practice of Prophet Muhammad. The closest that the Qur’an comes to this use is in verse 17.73 which talks about the sunna of the messengers before Muhammad. Naturally, the reference here is to one sunna or way, as the essence of religion never changed, as so it must apply to Prophet Muhammad also. But this reference must refer to the one set of general practices and values that all Messengers followed, as commanded by God, rather than actions that are specific to any one of them. So the distinct meaning of the term “sunna” as the actions and deeds of Prophet Muhammad specifically is not found in the Qur’an. This observation, however, does not change the fact that the Qur’an commands the Muslim to follow and emulate the Prophet:

You have had a good example in the Messenger of Allah for the person who hopes for Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much. (33.21)

This command, of course, endorses the general behavior of the Prophet, both word and action, which is effectively what his Sunna means.

There are twelve verses that instruct the Muslims to “obey” the Prophet. To stress that obeying the Prophet is essential for obeying God, eleven of the twelve verses order the Muslims to “obey Allah and the Messenger” (3.32, 3.132), “obey Allah and obey the Messenger” (4.59, 4.92, 24.54, 47.33, 64.12), and “obey Allah and His Messenger” (8.1, 8.20, 8.46, 58.13). The twelfth verse tells the Muslim: “Obey the Messenger that you may be shown mercy” (24.56).

There are many more verses that command the Muslims to follow the Prophet. These verses confirm that the Prophet set by his words and deeds the best example for the Muslims, as God instructed him to do. This is why learning and understanding the behaviour of the Prophet is necessary for the Muslim. But we should always be aware of the fact the Sunna of the Prophet has never been as accessible after the Prophet as the Qur’an. Allah promised in the Qur’an that He will protect the Qur’an from being lost or changed, but He did not make such a promise about the Sunna of the Prophet. A number of factors affected what was written about and attributed to the Prophet over the decades and centuries after him. Indeed, various supposed details of the Sunna have been the subject of considerable disagreement among Muslims scholars from the early times after the Prophet. This fact should not stop us from being interested in learning the Sunna of the Prophet, but it should make us aware that this process is difficult and fraught with uncertainty. The suggestion that there is any source other than the Qur’an that we can fully trust about the history of the Prophet is in contradiction with history. To seriously study and examine the available sources of the Sunna of the Messenger of Allah is one way in which the Muslim discharges his/her duty to follow the Prophet.

The Qur’anic Verses that Contain the Term “Sunna”

قُل لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا إِن يَنتَهُوا يُغْفَرْ لَهُم مَّا قَدْ سَلَفَ وَإِن يَعُودُوا فَقَدْ مَضَتْ سُنَّتُ الْأَوَّلِينَ. ﴿8.38﴾

لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ وَقَدْ خَلَتْ سُنَّةُ الْأَوَّلِينَ. ﴿15.13﴾

وَمَا مَنَعَ النَّاسَ أَن يُؤْمِنُوا إِذْ جَاءَهُمُ الْهُدَىٰ وَيَسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّهُمْ إِلَّا أَن تَأْتِيَهُمْ سُنَّةُ الْأَوَّلِينَ أَوْ يَأْتِيَهُمُ الْعَذَابُ قُبُلًا. ﴿18.55﴾

فَهَلْ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَّا سُنَّتَ الْأَوَّلِينَ فَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَحْوِيلًا. ﴿35.43﴾

مَّا كَانَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ مِنْ حَرَجٍ فِيمَا فَرَضَ اللَّـهُ لَهُ سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ وَكَانَ أَمْرُ اللَّـهِ قَدَرًا مَّقْدُورًا. ﴿33.38﴾

سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا. ﴿33.62﴾

فَلَمْ يَكُ يَنفَعُهُمْ إِيمَانُهُمْ لَمَّا رَأَوْا بَأْسَنَا سُنَّتَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي قَدْ خَلَتْ فِي عِبَادِهِ وَخَسِرَ هُنَالِكَ الْكَافِرُونَ. ﴿40.85﴾

سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلُ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا. ﴿48.23﴾

سُنَّةَ مَن قَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ مِن رُّسُلِنَا وَلَا تَجِدُ لِسُنَّتِنَا تَحْوِيلًا. ﴿17.77﴾


Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved


  10 Responses to “The Meaning of “Sunna” in the Qur’an”

  1. […] the “sunna” or “way of life” of the Prophet not his family (see my article on the term “sunna”). This, for instance, is the version of ḥadīth that Mālik (d. 179/796) reports in […]

  2. Very intersting. I came about this website in order to clarify a point with my friend who insists that I should follow the Prophets sunnah. I have been fighting this and the ‘Hadith/Sayings’ internally for a long time and am very upset when people tell me it’s sunnah and so on. I always say that follow the ‘Religion of Abraham’ and I believe that I am correct in doing so. My reasoning is simple – Abraham followed and submitted to the god alone in worship. Mohammed stated that he was from the same ways as Abraham. Jesus stated that he was from the same as Moses. It would all be so simple if people stopped sectioning their communities and being so politically motivated and influenced by greed.

    Peace and thanks for the article.

  3. Your references to the word ‘sunnah’ in the Quran make it obvious that there is no clear verse indicating the number of prayers in a day nor the format of the ‘salah’ other than it being prophet Muhammad’s ‘sunnah’. This raises an interesting point as to whether it is necessary to pray in the current form or the number of times, as is made obligatory by almost all sects within Islam, since indeed no clear verse can be found to follow the practise of Muhammad.

  4. Thanks Aliudden. I deal with this specific question and the broader question of how to consider hadith narratives on worshiping practices when there is no clear Qur’anic statement on the subject in chapter 14 of my book “Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law.” My answer is that when it comes to matters that are not subject to reasoning, such as the number of daily prayers, one should go with the consensus, if there is any, which is the case here. The point is that it is extremely likely that this consensus reflects real history, and there can be no rational justification for trying to suggest an alternative number. 



  5. Thanks for a well written article.

    Many muslims still associate sunnah only with Our messenger (PBUH). How can we change this?

  6. Salaam,
    How does Muhammad (saw) practice Islamic Sunnah when he first received the revelation. I think Sunnah appeared from peoples after the death of our dear Prophet. Sunnahs can change in the present as well as in the future. Must we wear the apparel of Muhammad’s if we say its Muhammad’s Sunnah. Please clarifyme on this matter..

  7. Salaam alaykum,

    I found your article very interesting indeed. I’ve personally struggled with trying to understand what it means to follow the prophet (SAW) for many years. Everyone keeps telling me we need to refer to the hadeeth collections of Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi, ibn Majah, etc. But some of the things (not all of it) I read in these hadeeth collections have troubled me and caused so much confusion in my mind. Like how the Qur’an clearly tells us one thing but the hadeeth says the opposite. Believe it or not, most people go with what the hadeeth says! Isn’t this sad? And yet we criticize Christians for not following the Bible and we say: “Oh but that’s not from the Bible” and yet we muslims do exactly the same thing. Like stoning to death adulterers when there’s no such command in the Holy Qur’an.

    We muslims really need to come back to the Qur’an and use the hadeeth only if it is in total harmony with the Qur’an. SubhanAllah, but try explaining this to the majority of the muslims out there!

    Salaam :)

  8. I am a revert from 10 years and I have been feeling down and confused lately because for a very long time I have been made to feel heretical in my approach and thinking. These articles and proofs have helped me to reconcile what my conscience has been telling me. Thank you.

  9. Salam K-Anne, unfortunately, there is a strong tendency among some Muslims to object to any rational examination of past records and inherited beliefs even when they have obvious problems. They often go further than that and, as  you say, accuse those who try to apply reason and more scientific methods to the inherited tradition of being heretical. Throughout the history of Islam, scholars used reason and logic to develop their understanding of the Qur’an and Islam, and indeed to distinguish genuine from false narratives. To stop doing that, as some Muslims do, is to stop building on what Muslim scholars did over the centuries.  

  10. In the Quran ,Prophet Muhammad says “I follow only what is revealed to me”
    Therefore he was the living embodiment of the Quran.The Prophet was meant to show that it was indeed possible for a human person to adopt and practice the principles and guidance of the Quran. When the Quran says obey Allah and obey the Messenger , it would be addressing the people who first heard the Revelation and they being witnesses to that there was no discrepancy between the two.
    The so called sunna of the Prophet was a later invention long after his death , a clear departure from the Sunna of Allah , the only Sunna recognised in the Quran and the only Sunna which is sustainable. The only other Sunna mentioned of note is that of the ancients which as Allah says has passed and does not endure .

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