Islamic Law Lexicon :: Sunna: Reports of the Prophet Muhammad’s and other Leading Islamic Authorities’ Normative Example  

By Alicia Daniel

Citation: Sherman A. Jackson, Kramer versus Kramer in a Tenth/Sixteenth Century Egyptian Court: Post-Formative Jurisprudence between Exigency and Law, Islamic Law and Society 8, no. 1 (2001): 27-51.

*Note: All page numbers used as citations refer to the above article.

Sherman A. Jackson, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Short definition:

Sunna = prophetic life example, reports of the Prophet Muhammad’s normative example of teachings and actions (includes reference to Imāms succeeding the Prophet for the Shīʿa)


Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad, as the final divine messenger to humanity, set an example of how to conform one’s life to the will of God. His followers therefore recorded aspects of his life in the collections of ḥadīth reports that they took to provide an account of his life example, the Sunna. The Sunna is a set of reports, originally transmitted verbally, of things to be learned and emulated from the Prophet Muhammad’s life and the lives of some of his followers. It includes the Prophet Muhammad’s habits, practices, teachings, deeds, sayings, and silent approvals and disapprovals. For mainstream Shīʿī Muslims, it also includes the habits, practices, teachings, actions, sayings, and silent approvals of the set of twelve Imāms who succeeded the Prophet in religious leadership.

After the Qurʾān, the Sunna is the foundation of not only Islam, but also the Islamic legal system. These two bodies of literature form the two primary textual sources of Islamic law. All other sources of Islamic law are interpretive tools that purport to flow from them in Islamic legal theory (even though sociological, political economic, and personal preferences in fact help inform the law). Some majority-Muslim countries name the Qurʾān and Sunna as sources of legislation.

There are different ways of using the Qurʾān and Sunna in Islamic legal scholarship. During Islamic law’s founding period, from the 7th to 9th centuries, scholars relied solely on legal interpretation, called ijtihād, by which they sought to interpret scriptural texts directly instead of through the lens of intermediate sources. After the founding period ended in the tenth century, they shifted to another type of legal interpretation, taqlīd, is the dominant method of studying the Qurʾān and Sunna in Islamic legal scholarship. Taqlīd involves using previous legal scholarship to interpret scripture and give weight to one’s own legal opinions.

There are three types of Sunna. The first is Sunna Qawliyya, which includes the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings as recorded by his Companions. This type of Sunna is typically considered synonymous with ḥadīth. The second type, Sunna Fiʿliyya, is a record of the Prophet’s actions that are normative. (The actions may be religious or secular, but only the religious actions done in his capacity as a prophet and intended to be normative form part of the Sunna). The final type is Sunna Taqrīriyya, which documents the Prophet Muhammad’s approvals of others’ actions. For this type of Sunna, the Prophet’s approval could have been shown either by passive acceptance of someone’s action or his active display of approval of it.

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