What is “Sunna”?
Sunna is defined as “habitual practice, customary procedure or action” and “Sunna annabee” is defined as “The Prophet’s sayings and doings, later established as legally binding precedents (in addition to the Law established by the Qur’an)”. (definition from Wehr Cowan dictionary).
Almost as soon as the prophet passed away, disagreements arose between the prophet’s household (ahlul bait) and his companions/in-laws about things he had said, e.g. whether or not his family would inherit from him; Fatimah claiming she was entitled to an inheritance and Abu Bakr claiming the Prophet had said otherwise.
Given that there were disagreements between ahlul bait and companions (sahaaba) about what the Prophet said and did, it follows that there are different versions of what “Sunna anNabee” is. So when a Zaidi or 12 Imamer talks about “The Qur’an and the Sunna” this does not mean the same thing as when a Sunni or Salafi talks about “The Qur’an and Sunna”.
Moreover, there were disagreements later on between the “ahlul hadith” (people who loved to quote hadith) and the “mutakallimoon” (Muslim theologians) about what the Prophet had said and done. The mutakallimoon claimed that traditions (hadith) had been fabricated by the following groups to support their positions: Murji-ites, Qadarites, Jabrites, Rafidites, ascetics, fuqahaa, and anthropomorphists. They wrote a letter to Ibn Qutayba expressing their concern that “The traditionists (ahlul hadith) relate follies which cause people to disparage Islam, the unbelievers to laugh at the faith, those who wish to embrace Islam to abstain from it, and which increase the doubts of the skeptics”.
Given the historical context of the ahadith, the term “Sunna” can not be used to mean anything that is written in a hadith book. Zaidi Imams have attempted to preserve the true “sunna”, as described by the ahlul bait, for future generations.
Imam Rassi Society says:
“The Zaidi Imams consider the normative practice of the ahlul bait to be the sunna. For example, even though there are hadiths circulating which say one should say the word “Ameen” during prayer, this was not the opinion of the ahlul bait, and according to them it is an innovation. The preserved practice of the Imams of ahlul bait is considered the most authentic source of the sunna, even in the presence of contradictory ahadith.
The Zaidi attitude is similar to the attitude of Imam Malik, who considered the normative practice of the people of Medina to be the Sunna, even in the presence of contradictory ahadith. For example, he thought that the Sunna was to pray with one’s arms by one’s sides, even though there were ahadith quoted in his “Al Muwatta” saying to place the right hand over the left. His opinion was based on his observations of the people of Medinah.
In other words, the Sunnah is not something that can be written down. It is acted out and lived. Hadith, on the other hand, is what was recorded.”
What is the Zaidi version of “Sunna”?
Zaidis are fortunate to have in their possession the Musnad Zaid, the Amali of Abu Talib, the Amali of Imam Murshid billah, and Kitab ul ahkam of Imam al Hadi, which are sources of the “Sunna annabee” as transmitted by the Prophet’s great great grandson Zaid and other descendants.
Being passed from father to son, these are a more accurate and authentic source than that of the Prophet’s companions and their descendants.
Note: The works of Imam Rassi, now translated to English at the scribd website: www.scribd.com/imamrassisociety (as well as at www.zaydiyyah.wordpress.com) refer frequently to non- Ahlul bait (sunni) hadith transmitters as well as the ahlul bait Imams.
In this regard, Imam Rassi Society stresses that this does not mean they are considered to be authentic. He adds: “We refer to Sunni ahadith for the sake of our Sunni readers (they are, after all, in the majority). They do not, however, form the basis of Zaidi jurisprudence.”
In other words, this is done to be diplomatic to the Sunnis, not because Zaidis are in need of non-Zaidi ahadith.
Does the Qur’an tell us to Practise the “Sunna”?
There isn’t a verse that specifically mentions following the prophet’s “Sunna”.
The following verses speak in general of the Prophet’s role:
“Whatever the Messenger brought to you, take hold of it, and whatever he forbids you, abstain from it” (59:7)
“And We have sent to you the message, that you may clarify what is sent to them” (16:44)
These verses mean that it was the Prophet’s role to clarify the message of the Qur’an, and that it was his right to forbid things which are not mentioned in the Qur’an.
However, they do not say that Muslims should copy every aspect of the Prophet’s lifestyle for generations to come, which is what Sunnism encourages. As its name suggests, Sunnism places a huge importance on “Sunna”, with some Sunnis placing it on a level equal with the Qur’an.
Do Zaidis Place as much Importance on “Sunna” as Sunnis do?
In Imam Rassi Society’s view, Zaidis and Sunnis are in agreement as to the importance of the Sunnah. They disagree on some points about what the Sunna actually was, and also share some common ground. He says:
“The Sunnis did not and do not have a monopoly on what the Sunna is. Each group recorded the various statements and actions of the Prophet…inmost cases there is similarity but occasionally there are differences.”
Imam Rassi Society agrees with the Sunni view that, based on the above Qur’anic verses, Muslims should strive to imitate the Prophet in all aspects. He says:
“If the Prophet’s role was to elucidate the Qur’an, then those matters mentioned in the Qur’an (which range from worship to everyday dealings to character development) must be referred back to the normative practice of the Prophet (s.a.w.). Even in those matters which we may feel irrelevant to our lives, our love for the Prophet should encourage us to strive towards mimicking his life in all aspects.”