Frequently, when people discuss acts of worship, they hear terms like sunnah, mustahabb, nafl, tatawwu`, and mandûb being thrown around. This causes no end of confusion for some people. Of special concern is the question: What is the difference between the term “sunnah” and the term “mustahabb” as they are used by scholars of Islamic Law?
All of these terms apply to legal rulings, just like the terms obligatory (wâjib and fard), permissible (mubâh), disliked (makrûh), and unlawful (harâm) apply to legal rulings.
The terms sunnah, mustahabb (encouraged), nafl (optional), tatawwu` (voluntary), and mandûb (recommended) are legal rulings that refer to acts that are enjoined upon us by Islamic Law without being obligatory.
We should begin our discussion by pointing out that the term sunnah, when it is employed by scholars of Islamic Law and scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, is being used on its narrowest possible meaning. This is like when one of us says: “This is a sunnah act while that other act is obligatory” or: “In this issue, some scholars hold the view that it is sunnah while others consider it to be a legal obligation”.
We need to be cognizant of the fact that there are other ways that the word sunnah is used by various scholarly disciplines, especially those disciplines related to the study of hadîth. However, these do not concern us right now.
As for scholars of Islamic Law and jurisprudence, they exhibit two different approaches in the way that they employ these terms.
The first approach:
The first approach is to treat them as synonymous. They use the terms sunnah, mustahabb, mandûb, nafl, and tatawwu` interchangeably. They all refer to the same legal ruling. This is the approach of Fakhr al-Dîn al-Razî. Al-Subkî declares: “This is the approach of most Shâfî`î scholars and the vast majority of the scholars of Islamic jurisprudence.” [al-Ibhâj (1/257)]
Some of the scholars who follow this approach define this legal ruling according to its legal consequences. They give definitions like the following:
– It is any activity that brings about reward for the one who engages in it.
– It is any activity that entitles the one who engages in it to reward.
– It is any activity that entitles the one who engages in it to reward if he does so as an act of obedience.
Others offer definitions like the following:
– It is any activity whereby the Lawgiver determines its performance to be preferable to its abandonment.
– It is any activity that is prescribed by Islamic Law without being made compulsory.
This last definition, I feel, is the best.
The second approach:
The second approach employed by scholars of Islamic law and Islamic jurisprudence regarding the terms sunnah and mustahabb is to give each of these terms a distinct meaning of its own. This is the approach employed by Hanafî jurists. It is also found among some Mâlikî scholars, a few Hanbalî scholars, and even some Shâfi`î jurists like al-Qâdî Husayn.
The scholars who follow this approach are not all in agreement about how these two terms are to be defined. It seems, nonetheless, that they agree that the term sunnah refers to a legal ruling of a higher-rank than the one referred to by the term mustahabb.
Some of them define the term sunnah as: “any activity that the Prophet (peace be upon him) engaged in on a regular basis” while defining mustahabb as “any preferred activity that the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not engage in on a regular basis.” [refer to: al-Bahr al-Râ’iq (1/29), Hâshiyah Ibn `Abidîn (2/375), Badâ’i` al-Sanâ’i` (1/24) and al-Bahr al-Muhît (1/378)]
On the basis of this definition, the term sunnah would be used to refer to the voluntary prayers that are regularly prayed along with the five obligatory ones and to the Witr prayer (for those who do not consider that prayer to be obligatory). With regard to the Duhâ prayer, it would be debatable as to whether it would be classified as sunnah according to this definition.
Distinguishing between these two terms on the basis of the Prophet’s regularity in performance is better than what some scholars have suggested – that the term mustahabb refers to “any preferred act that the Prophet (peace be upon him) engaged in only once or twice.”
The problem with this definition is that there are certain acts of worship that by their very nature, the Prophet (peace be upon him) only had the chance to perform once or twice, like the pilgrimage, the eclipse prayers, and the prayer for rain. On the basis of this definition, any activity associated with these acts of worship would only be classified as mustahabb, when clearly it would be more appropriate to classify them as sunnah.
Some scholars define the term mustahabb as: “any activity that the Prophet (peace be upon him) enjoined upon his followers but never engaged in himself.” [refer to: al-Bahr al-Muhit]
This would include the two units of voluntary prayer that can be offered before the obligatory Maghrib (sunset) prayer. The prophet (peace be upon him) said thrice: “Pray before the maghrib prayer.” Afterwards, he said: “This is for whoever wishes to do so.” disliking that it would become a sunnah act. [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (1183)]
Perhaps the scholars who chose this approach did so on the basis of this hadîth, arguing that the term sunnah has to refer to something of a higher degree than the term mustahabb. This is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) disliked that the two units of prayer before the Maghrib prayer would become sunnah.
However, this hadîth actually makes problematic the whole idea of differentiating between what is sunnah and what is mustahabb on the basis of the Prophet’s actions. The very context of the hadîth indicates that sunnah acts may be derived from the words and commands of the Prophet (peace be upon him) as well as from his actions, since by his merely enjoining these prayers upon them, they would have become a sunnah act. This is the very reason why he had to qualify his statement the way he did.
Some scholars – for instance al-Halîmî – define the term sunnah as: “any activity that it is preferable to perform and disliked to neglect” while defining terms like tatawwu` (voluntary) as: “any activity that it is preferable to perform and not disliked to neglect”.
Ibn al-Sam`ânî says something similar about the terms nafl and mandûb, placing the former below the latter in strength. [Qawâti` al-Adillah (1/21)]
In the Mâlikî school of thought, the term sunnah is defined as “any activity that has a higher degree of importance and that Islamic Law has gone to great lengths in encouraging” while preferred acts of a lesser degree are described with terms like tatawwu` and nafl. [refer to: al-Bahr al-Muhît and Sharh al-Kawkab al-Munîr (126)]
Though this question is purely one of legal terminology, if we look at the actual practice of Muslim jurists and legal scholars, we see that most of them use these terms synonymously and make no distinctions between them. The only exceptions to this is where we see a scholar stating directly that he means to make a distinction between these two terms in his discussion or where the context of what he is saying makes it clear that such a distinction is being made.
We see that when the scholars discuss topics like the sunnah acts of wudû’ or of prayer or of circumambulating the Ka`bah, they make no distinction between those acts that the Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraged but did not act upon himself and those that he put into practice. Likewise, they make no distinction between those activities that he engaged in on a regular basis and those that he did on occasion.
What we actually see the scholars doing is qualifying the term sunnah with another term to express greater importance or emphasis. They describe particularly encouraged activities as being sunnah mu`akkadah (emphasized sunnah).
Application of these rulings to the Witr prayer:
The Witr prayer is a prayer that the Prophet (peace be upon him) never left off, regardless of whether he was at home or on a journey. Moreover, he enjoined this prayer upon his followers and encouraged them to perform it, going so far as to warn them against leaving it.
For this reason, the Hanafî school of thought considers it an obligatory prayer. They declare it wâjib and make a distinction between wâjib (obligatory) and fard (emphatically obligatory) which others scholars do not do.
A number of early scholars considered it to be obligatory only upon those who have committed the Qur’ân to memory. They derive this ruling from the hadîth: “Perform the Witr prayer, O people of the Qur’ân!” [Sunan Ibn Mâjah (1170), Sunan al-Nasâ’î (1676), and Sunan Abî Dâwûd (1416)] This is the opinion favored by Ibn Taymiyah.
The Witr prayer is described by most jurists as being sunnah mu’akkadah. This is the best opinion on the matter. And Allah knows best.