Islamic Law Lexicon :: Ḥadīth

This entry provides a definition and analysis of the term ḥadīth, drawing on works by SHARIAsource Senior Scholar, Joseph Lowry, Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.


Ḥadīth = “the corpus of traditions from the Prophet”; reports of words and sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (for Sunnis) as well as to a series of Imams who succeeded him (for Shi’a); the text of the second source of Islamic law.


Muhammad is undoubtedly one of the central figures in Islamic law and authority. His legal authority emanates from two primary phenomena. First, he is the transmitter of God’s divine revelation, that is, the Qur’an. Therefore, he is the immediate, although not ultimate, source of divine commands. Second, a complex set of prophetical sayings and teachings is attributed to the Prophet (hadith). Though inspired by divine will, these sayings constitute Muhammad’s direct contribution to Islamic law, consolidating his centrality to Islamic authority. 

Sunna, as the second source of Islamic law, is defined almost entirely by the ḥadīthcorpus of texts. The term ḥadīth has come to denote various things over centuries of developments within Islamic tradition. In the early days of Islamic thought some, regarded sunna, which is “an instance of normative behavior, that is, a practice or precedent to be emulated,” to be concept much larger than ḥadīth . Sunna, in the early days of Islamic thought, did not only denote the Prophet’s practice and sayings. Instead, it meant, more generally, the way of living during the Prophetic era. The equating of ḥadīth with Prophetic sayings was a later development, led by two founding jurists of Islamic law, Shāfi‘ī and Ahmad b. Ḥanbal.

Some scholars advocated ḥadīth as a complement to the Qur’anic text. These ḥadīth -advocates came to be known as ahl al-ḥadīth [proponents of ḥadīth -texts]. Their opponents, who advocated for the exercise of interpretation through ordinarily legal reasoning wherever the Qur’an was ambiguous, were called ahl al-kalām or ahl al-ra’y [proponents of interpretation].

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