A translation of this fatwa from Naseem al-Sham
|Definitions of the word Sunnah|
Is there a difference between the terminology of the uṣūliyyūn and the fuqahāʾ? In the books of ūṣūl we find that the word sunnah means established by a necessity that is not decisive, while in the books of the fuqahāʾ we find that sunnah means what one is rewarded for doing and not punished for leaving.
Answer (Sheikh Muḥammad Tawfīq Ramaḍān):
Wa alaykum Assalām wa Rahamtullah,
Yes, there is a difference between some of the terms that are used in the science of uṣūl al-fiqh and those same terms when they are used in fiqh. One of the most prominent differences is the term sunnah. In fiqh, it means that which is required to be done by way of recommendation, while in uṣūl al-fiqh, it is the second source of legislation, and this means: what has been related from the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, by way of statements, actions and affirmations…and the matter manifests itself in more than that when one thoroughly studies terminology. This is because the science of uṣūl al-fiqh only deals with sources of legislation, what words indicate and the research behind rulings. As for fiqh, it looks for the detailed rulings that are derived from their revelational (sharʿī) evidences.
 (tn): Musa Furber, in his preface to his translation of Sharḥ al-Waraqāt by Imam al-Juwaynī (Wroclaw: Islamosaic, 2014), explains the translation of these terms by saying, ‘Knowledge of the legal status and performance of actions is the subject of the discipline of law (fiqh). How this knowledge is known is the subject of jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh). The English phrase “Islamic law” refers to the subject known in Arabic as “fiqh”. The original meaning of “fiqh” in Arabic relates to deep understanding. Imam al-Ghazālī and others note that the early generations used the term “fiqh” to refer to knowledge of the path to the Afterlife, knowing the subtle vitiations of the tongue, spoilers of deeds, having strong comprehension as to the paltriness of this life, intense desire for the bounties of the Afterlife, and fear being dominant in the heart. Later, the term settled on the definition we have now: “knowledge of the legal rulings associated with deeds, obtained through specific evidences.” A scholar of fiqh is known as a faqīh (pl. fuqahāʾ). The English phrases “Islamic legal methodology”, “foundations of Islamic law”, “Islamic jurisprudence”, and the like, refer to the subject known in Arabic as uṣūl al-fiqh, which is defined as “knowing the general evidences of fiqh, how to use them, and the conditions for the person using them.” A scholar of uṣūl al-fiqh is known as an uṣūlī (pl. uṣūliyyūn). The proper exercise of uṣūl al-fiqh is ijtihād – exercising expert reasoning.’ (p.viii)