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This is a complicated question that could take someone years and volumes to explain and even then perhaps the explanation is not sufficient. Or perhaps the person listening cannot fully grasp the understanding of what it is.
Our previous attempt to answer this question seems pitiful now. We would like another attempt to answer this question and explain the impossible.
Literally the word (sunnah) means practice and that's what we want to focus on here. The practice of the Beloved (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him).
As we said before we hear the Imam screaming about following the Sunnah. Yet he nor most of the crowd know how or what it is. We understand the hadith about the flesh being removed from the face because of not following the Sunnah. This understanding needs to fleshed out and understood properly.
The greatest Sunnah of the Prophet (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him) was performance of the commands of Allah (The Exalted) and avoiding all prohibitions. We should never do what he never did. The greatest aspects of the Sunnah are ignored in this time. Instead we think that Sunnah is merely putting the right shoe on first. No the Sunnah is much more than actions of the limbs. This is just the tip of the iceberg as the Sunnah is all encompassing and it has more than one facet. It is multifaceted and more complex than the understanding of the Imam.
So if we are not performing the commandments of Allah and are performing unlawful actions; now we are opposing the Sunnah. This is what will make the skin fall from the face. This is what we should be concerned about but most are unaware of this aspect of the Sunnah. This is a basic level and anyone who opposes the Sunnah opposes authenticated actions. So where is the proof of this? Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) was the blessed wife of the Prophet (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him) and she said, "His character was the Quran." (Muslim). Our partners know us well and know all our secrets that we hide from everyone. So what does the Quran teach us? Stop lying, cheating, stealing, spying, be just, tell the truth, pray five times a day, believe (be Muslim), believe in prophets, respect authority, maintain family relationships, give non-Muslims their rights, avoid backbiting, tale bearing and slandering; and so on and so forth. These are the major points that everyone misses when they explain the Sunnah.
There different types of Sunnah in fiqh. You can have Sunnah Muzabaha/Frequent Sunnah which is something rarely left and Sunnah ghaar Muzabaha/infrequent Sunnah something done infrequently. Sunnah Mukada and Sunnah Mustahab: these are similar to the above definitions (See Commentary of the Initiation).
In Fiqh Sunnah is that which the evidence is not as strong as wajib or Fard. Now if Sunnah reached a level of transmission of mass transmission then it would be wajib/necessary. So anyone who is doing the wajib and fard action of something has not broken their action but has failed to adorn their action with the Sunnah. Performing ablution in the wrong order is valid with the Hanafi's because the order is Sunnah. Had it been fard then its non performance would break the action. It does with the Shafis but the point here is that without the Sunnah there would no adornment of the action. How few people would actually understand what one would be doing in they did ablution without the Sunnah.
Please detach your emotions now because getting in a huff by shouting 'We should follow the Sunnah' is not as simple as the person making the statement. As its often made by those who are outside the four Sunni schools of Islam. Islam has reached us by the four schools of law otherwise it would not have reached us. When sacred law was upheld it was by these schools. So anyone coming in now screaming that we should follow Sunnah has ignored the fact that we have been following the Sunnah from the first century of Islam; long before they came.
The Prophet (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him) made things easy for people and would not burden them with actions that they could not perform. So we can differentiate between two types of Sunnah: one the Sunnah adheres one to the commands and avoidance of prohibitions and the Sunnah that is extra beautification of actions. The latter is more important but people place more importance to the former. The second Sunnah, if performed is rewarded and not punished if not rewarded. Like standing under a tree and half of you is in the shade. Not following this Sunnah is not going to send you to hell but if its better if you do it. Do not misunderstand me if you are doing any Sunnah then keep doing it.
When we talk about scholars of the past following the Sunnah they already had adhered to the Halal and haram. Then they beautified this by following the additional Sunnah as explained in the second definition.
So do not get emotional and start sending me insulting emails. Why? Because the companions followed the Sunnah better than us and they did not get emotional statements like you have to follow the Sunnah. They knew the Sunnah and adhered to it. We just make statements. Many companions followed just what they knew and that was sometimes one statement.
Know that in terms of the hadith of the Prophet (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him) only the mass transmitted hadith/Mutawatir give certainty. So other categories of hadith do not give us certainty but that does not mean we do not follow them. It means that we cannot condemn its non performance but we advise instead when the matter is obvious.
In terms of Hanafi Mutsalah Hadith the singular statements of gharib and Aziz are not considered, especially when they oppose stronger evidence. Like the hadith that states Surah Fatiha should be read in every prayer when there is Quran ayah to say read what is easy from the Quran. So we go with the Quran ayah not the hadith. Weaker hadith are allowed to be followed by the agreement of the scholars in extra forms of worship. There are also times when weaker hadith have been accepted and stronger/sahih hadith have been left. Because the weaker hadith agrees with other evidences that other does not. The stronger hadith opposes other evidences. As we have said before hadith and reports of varying degree of certainty and Sunnah is the relied upon practice of the Prophet (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him). Hadith science is not about following the sahih hadith; it's about following the more reliable evidence. It's not a straight forward science because the majority of hadith have to be known, about one field, before a judgement can be given. The chains of other than Mutawatir are scrutinised.
The Sunnah is the confirmed practice of the Prophet (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him); look for specific compilations of hadith like Riyad Al-Saliheen by Imam Nawawi and his forty hadith collection, Imam Birgwis Path of Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings be upon him) which is an excellent book. Know that there are many other beneficial works. Picking up the collections of Al-Bukhari and Muslim will confuse you because you do not have the tools to check what scholars have said about so and so hadith. So taking it out of context, without understanding is a dangerous game. There are hadith that are simple to understand but when you are unaware of the reliability of the narrators; how can you be sure of the meaning? When you have deleted the commentary of the scholars! The companions understood hadith and followed them as much as they could and when they needed assistance they would ask the scholars of the companions like Ali, Ibn Mas'ud, Ibn 'Abbas, Ibn Umar etc. Umar would gather those who attended Badr; they did not read hadith and say it means this and no other possible meaning. Mu'awiyah used to send Ali questions (may Allah be pleased with all the companions). So the companions did not rely on themselves like the Wahabis and Selefis.
The Hanafis come from the teaching of Ibn Mas'ud (may Allah be pleased with him). The Malikis come from Ibn Umar (may Allah be pleased with him). Imam Shafi studied with Imam Malik and Imam Muhammad Al-Shaybani (Abu Hanafi's student) then Imam Ahmed studied with him. Its interlinked even though they disagreed on some points. Knowledge is passed on by the hearts of men and not from books. As there were no collections of Al-Bukhari that the companions referred to!
The Sunnah is not just external actions it was coupled with internal realities. This is not simple to understand. His (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him) external and internal state were the same. He did not act one way outside his home and another way in the home. He never committed sin ever. This was his internal state that was a secret between him and Allah. He (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him) was the greatest being to walk the earth.
Know to actually understand the Sunnah needs major study. And it's not something that can be understood without study as I am sure that you can now relate. So we hope that this has helped clear things up. The confirmed Sunnah has its place and the rare Sunnah are different.
So when you hear the hadith 'Whoever desires other than my practice is not from me.' You realise that following and adhering to hadiths is by seeing what the scholars practice. So find a reliable scholar of the four schools and see the Sunnah in action, hopefully. Only then will you understand what Sunnah is. Picking up books is not going to help.