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Early schools of Islamic jurisprudence also had a more flexible definition of sunnah than was used later, that being "acceptable norms" or "custom", and was not limited to “traditions traced back to the Prophet Muhammad himself” (sunna al-nabawiyyah). It included examples of the Prophet's Companions, the rulings of the Caliphs, and practices that “had gained general acceptance among the jurists of that school”. Evidence of the use of other “sunnas” at this time is found in the hadith comment made about a report on the difference in the number of lashes used to punish alcohol consumption (Muhammad and Abu Bakr ordered 40 lashes, Umar 80) — “All this is sunna”; and also on Umar’s deathbed instructions on where Muslims should seek guidance: from the Qur’an, the early Muslims (muhajirun) who emigrated to Medina with Muhammad, the Medina residents who welcomed and supported the muhajirun (the ansar), the people of the desert, and the protected communities of Jews and Christians (ahl al-dhimma).

In the 1960s, Fazlur Rahman Malik, an Islamic modernist and former head of Pakistan's Central Institute for Islamic Research, advanced another idea for how the (Prophetic) sunnah should be understood: as the normative example of the Prophet, but not "filled with absolutely specific content". Rather it should be "a general umbrella concept" that could and should evolve as a "living and on-going process". He argued that Muhammad had come as a "moral reformer" and not a "pan-legit", and that the community of his followers would agree on the specifics of the sunna. If Western and Muslim scholars found that the isnad (chain of transmitters) and content of ahadith had been tampered by someone trying to prove the Muhammad had made a specific statement, this did not mean they were fraudulent. "Hadith verbally speaking does not go back to the Prophet, its spirit certainly does". If hadith changed from the early schools to the time of al-Shafi'i, and then through tampering from al-Shafi'i to the collections of ahadith of al-Bukhari and al-Muslim's, they actually formed a kind of ijma (consensus or agreement of the Muslim scholars). According to Rahman they were "materially identical" to ijma.

According to the view of some Sufi Muslims who incorporate both the outer and inner reality of Muhammad, the deeper and true sunnah are the noble characteristics and inner state of Muhammad. To them Muhammad's attitude, his piety, the quality of his character constitute the truer and deeper aspect of what it means by sunnah in Islam, rather than the external aspects alone. They argue that the external customs of Muhammad loses its meaning without the inner attitude and also many hadiths are simply custom of the Arabs, not something that is unique to Muhammad. and Khuluqin Azim or 'Exalted Character' in the Quran, real sunnah cannot be upheld.

According to John Burton, paraphrasing Al-Shafi'i, "it must be remembered that the Quran text are couched in very general terms which it is the function of the sunnah to expand and elucidate, to make God's meaning absolutely clear." There are a number of verses in the Quran where "to understand the context, as well as the meaning", Muslims need to refer to the record of the life and example of the Prophet.

According to scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, unlike the Quran, the Sunnah was not recorded and written during the Prophet's lifetime, but was systematically collected and documented beginning at least two centuries after the death of Muhammad (i.e. the ninth century of the Christian era). He states: "the late documentation of the Sunna meant that many of the reports attributed to the Prophet are apocryphal or at least are of dubious historical authenticity. In fact, one of the most complex disciplines in Islamic jurisprudence is one which attempts to differentiate between authentic and inauthentic traditions.

Originally Muslim lawyers "felt no obligation" to provide documentation of hadith when arguing their case. Over the course of the second century under the influence of Imam Al-Shafi-i (the founder of the Shafi'i school of jurisprudence), this changed so that now there is "rather broad agreement that Hadith must be the basis for authentication of any Sunnah," and the "particular textual source for Sunnah is Hadith", according to M.O. Farooq.

In the context of biographical records of Muhammad, sunnah often stands synonymous with hadith since most of the personality traits of Muhammad are known from descriptions of him, his sayings and his actions after becoming a prophet at the age of forty. Sunnah, which consists not only of sayings, but of what Muhammad believed, implied, or tacitly approved, was recorded by his companions in hadith. Allegiance to the tribal sunnah had been partially replaced by submission to a new universal authority and the sense of brotherhood among Muslims.

Classical Islam often equates the sunnah with the hadith. Scholars who studied the narrations according to their context (matn) as well as their transmission (isnad) in order to discriminate between them were influential in the development of early Muslim philosophy. In the context of sharia, Malik ibn Anas and the Hanafi scholars are assumed to have differentiated between the two: for example Malik is said to have rejected some traditions that reached him because, according to him, they were against the "established practice of the people of Medina".


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