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What is the linguistic meaning of sunnah?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
Sunnah linguistically refers to several possible meanings; a way issued by earlier peoples and followed by later ones, circularity of face, image of someone or something, the nature or attribute and the story of a certain nation.


Linguistic Review

Sunnah comes from the root (سنّ) to prescribe or legislate. The linguistic meaning of sunnah (سنة) has several possibilities however the general meaning which all linguists agree upon is

'a clearly identified (good or evil) way that people follow. (Taj al-Arus, Vol. 9, p. 243, Lisan al-Arab, Vol. 6, p. 399)

It is mentioned in the classical Arabic dictionary Lisan al-Arab:

السنة: السيرة حسنة كانت أو قبيحة.
"Sunnah is the good or evil biography."

Allah says:

سُنَّةَ مَنْ قَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ مِنْ رُسُلِنَا وَلَا تَجِدُ لِسُنَّتِنَا تَحْوِيلًا
"(That is Our) established way (sunnah) for those We had sent before you of Our messengers; and you will not find in Our way (sunnah) any alteration." (Qur'an 17:77)

The Prophet (saw) said:

مَنْ سَنَّ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ سُنَّةً حَسَنَةً فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ كُتِبَ لَهُ مِثْلُ أَجْرِ مَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا وَلاَ يَنْقُصُ مِنْ أُجُورِهِمْ شَىْءٌ وَمَنْ سَنَّ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ سُنَّةً سَيِّئَةً فَعُمِلَ بِهَا بَعْدَهُ كُتِبَ عَلَيْهِ مِثْلُ وِزْرِ مَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا وَلاَ يَنْقُصُ مِنْ أَوْزَارِهِمْ شَىْءٌ
"He who introduced some good practice (sunnah) in Islam which was followed after him (by people) he would be assured of reward like one who followed it, without their rewards being diminished in any respect. And he who introduced some evil practice (sunnah) in Islam which had been followed subsequently (by others), he would be required to bear the burden like that of one who followed this (evil practice) without theirs being diminished in any respect." (Muslim 1017)

A famous poet (labeed) said in one of the best ten Arabic poems (al-M'alaqat al-Ashr):

مِنْ مَعْشَرٍ سَنَّتْ لَهُمْ آبَاؤُهُمْ ... وَلِكُلِّ قَوْمٍ سُنَّةٌ وَإِمَامُهَا
"From some people whom their fathers made a sunnah for them … Every people have their sunnah its producer."

The linguist and literature scholar Shamr said:

وهو طريق سنه أوائل الناس فصار مسلكا لمن بعدهم
"It is a way was firstly prescribed by early people and it then became a conduct of the later people." (Lisan al-Arab)

Some scholars, such as Khattabi, Zuhari and others, argue if the term Sunnah is not stipulated with evil or immoral conditions, it refers to the good and moral ways of don't something. (al-Mu'jam al-Waseett, Shawkani, Irshad al-Fuhul, p. 32)

Khattabi (d. 388 A.H.) said:

أصلها الطريقة المحمودة المستقيمة، فإذا أطقت انصرفت إليها وقد تُستعمل في غيرها مقيده، كقوله من سن سنة سيئة.
"It is original meaning is 'the praised and straight way, so whenever it is mentioned it refers to it. But it may also be used otherwise in a restrictive manner, as (the Prophet saw) said 'Whoever introduces an evil practice that is followed after him.'" (Shawkani, Irshad al-Fuhul, p. 31)

Sunnah also is used in reference to the circularity of face, image and nature. (al-Mu'jam al-Waseett)

The poet al-A'sha (d. 7 A.H.) said:

كَرِيماً شَمَائِلُهُ مِنْ بَنِي ... معَاويَةَ الأَكْرَمِيْنَ السُّنَنْ
"He is generous and his attributes is driven from the most generous by nature (sunnan); i.e. Bani Mu'awyah." (Diwan al-A'sha, p. 208)

The poet Dhu ar-Ramlah (d. 117 A.H.) said:

تُرِيكَ سُنَّةَ وَجْهٍ غَيْرَ مُقْرِفَةٍ ... مَلْسَاءُ لَيْسَ بِهَا خَالٌ وَلاَ نَدَبُ
"She shows you a circular face (sunnah)..." (Lisan al-Arab, Tajj al-'Arus)

The poet Tha'lab (d. 291) said:

بيضاء في المرآة سُنتها ....
"Her image (sunnah) is white on the mirror …" (Lisan al-Arab, Tajj al-'Arus)

It is also used to refer to the story of a certain nation. As Allah says regarding the previous disobedient nations:

وَمَا مَنَعَ النَّاسَ أَن يُؤْمِنُوا إِذْ جَاءهُمُ الْهُدَى وَيَسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّهُمْ إِلَّا أَن تَأْتِيَهُمْ سُنَّةُ الْأَوَّلِينَ
"And nothing has prevented the people from believing when guidance came to them and from asking forgiveness of their Lord except that there (must) befall them the (accustomed) precedent (sunnah) of the former peoples…" (Qur'an 18:55)


Conclusion

The term sunnah linguistically refers several meanings; a way firstly issued by previous people and followed by later ones, circularity of face, image of someone or something, the nature or attribute and the story of a certain nation.

References

Siba'I, Hujjiyat as-Sunnah
Rabah, Dalalit al-'Aqal 'Ala Thubut as-Sunnah
Shawkani, al-Fuhul
Taj al-Arus
Lisan al-Arab
al-Mu'jam al-Waseett
Diwan al-A'sha


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