What Is the Difference between Sunna and Hadith?

Answered by Shaykh Omar Popal


What is the difference between the terms “sunna” and “hadith”.


Dear questioner,

Thank you for your important question.

May Allah, Most High reward you for your desire to increase in knowledge.

In the Islamic Sciences, a student must distinguish between what the literal meaning of a word is and what its jargon (technical meaning) is based on what science one is reading.

The Literal Meaning

Literally, the words Hadith and Sunna have two distinct meanings.

Hadith: Any type of speech or spoken words. It comes from the root ha-da-tha which has an overall theme of “being new”.

Sunna: Any kind of habitual practice, custom, or norm. [al-Mu’jam al-Wasit]

The Various Definitions in the Islamic Sciences

In the Islamic Sciences, the words Hadith and Sunna have the following meanings;

Hadith: Any report that is attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) regarding his statements, actions, descriptions, or tacit approvals. What is meant by tacit approval is that a person said or did something in the presence of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) and he did not refute the action nor prohibit it; Rather he remained silent, therefore consenting.

In the science of Prophet Traditions, the word Hadith is generally synonymous with the word khabar (i.e. a piece of information or news).

These Hadiths or reports are categorized by scholars based on their authenticity, whose narrating them, and the various conditions of their chains of narration. Each category is then given a separate name. Ex. A Hadith that is mass-transmitted is called ‘Hadith al Mutawatir’.
[Abdullah Sirajuddin, Sharh al-Bayquniyya; Abdul Haqq Dehlawi, Muqadima fi Usul al-Hadith]

Sunna: The great scholar Shaykh Muhammad bin Alawi al Maliki says: “As for the technical definition of Sunna, it has been debated by scholars and received many different definitions based on the subject matter it is being discussed in.

The scholars of Prophetic Tradition deem it synonymous with the word Hadith.

The Scholars of Juriscprudic Principles (usul al-fiqh) say: Sunna is everything that came forth from the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) other than the Quran and is suitable to be used as evidence or proof.

The Scholars of Islamic Law say: It is every practice of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) that does not fall under the categories of obligatory or necessary.

The scholars of propagation and guidance say: Sunna is the opposite of Bid‘a. i.e. any innovated practice that goes against the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace).
[Muḥammad bin Alawi, al-Manhal al-Latif]

However, based on what science is being discussed, the definitions will change.

And Allah alone knows best,
[Shaykh] Omar Popal
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani