Lit. “A path or way, a manner of life” A term used in the religion of the Muslim to express the custom or manner of life. Hence the tradition which records either the sayings or doings of Muhammad. Consequently all traditional law is divided into (1) Sunnatu ‘l-Fi’l, or what Muhammad did, (2) Sunnatu ‘l-Qaul, or what Muhammad enjoined, (3) Sunnatu ‘t-Taqrir, or that which was done or said in the presence of Muhammad, and which was not for bidden by him.
Those things which the Prophet emphatically enjoined on his followers are called Sunnatu l-Huda, “Sunna of Guidance,” or as-Sunnatu l-Mu’akkadah as, for example, the sounding of the azan before prayers. Those things which have not been emphatically enjoined, are called as-Sunnatu ‘l-Za’idah, or” Superogatory Sunnah”
The Honorable Syed Ahmed Khan, C S L, says in his Essay on the Traditions, that “upon examining the sayings (or the Ahadis), and the deeds (or the Sunnah) of the Prophet, we find (1) some of them relating to religion, (2) others connected with the peculiar circumstances of his life, (3) some bearing upon society in general, and (4) others concerning the art of Government.” When Muhammad spoke on the subject of religion, he is held to have been inspired, and also when he performed a religious act he is believed to have been guided by inspiration, but with regard to other matters, the degree to which he was inspired is held to he a subject for investigation as well as for discrimination. In support of this view, the following tradition is related by Rafi’ ibn Khadij: The Prophet came to al-Madinah when the people were grafting the male bud of a date tree into the female in order to produce greater abundance of fruit, and he said, ‘Why do you do this?’ They replied, ‘It is an ancient custom.’ The Prophet said, ‘Perhaps it would be better if you did not do it.’ And then they left off the custom, and the trees yielded but little fruit. The people complained to the Prophet, and he said, ‘ I am no more than a man. When I order anything respecting religion, receive It; but when I order you about the affairs of the world, then I speak only as a man.'” (Mishkat, book i. ch. vi. pt. 1.)
Abdu’llah ibn Mas’ud says: “The Prophet drew a straight line for us, and said, ‘This is the path of God.’. Then he drew several other lines on the right and loft of it, and said, “There are the paths of those who follow the devil. Verily my path (sunnah) is straight and you must follow it.”
It is upon the sayings and customs of Muhammad that that traditional law is founded which is handed down in the Hadis, and which is treated or under the article TRADITION.
Based on Hughes, Dictionary of Islam