Prophet used to eat and drink sitting. Now, there are Hadith reports of him eating or drinking while standing. My question is, which is the Sunnah among them? Is it one of them or both or neither? I am not wishing for an answer exclusively for the specific case above but an answer for such type of cases in general.
First note that sunnah has a meaning in Arabic which is:
As-Sunnah السنة is the route, way, norm, practice, line of conduct ... (no matter whether it is a good path or wrong).
Applied to the prophetic traditions it is defined as anything which is attributed to the Prophet Muhammad () be it a saying (statement), an act or action, an affirmation, or an attribution.
From the above definition you may conclude that anything that is affirmed or attributed to the Prophet () actually is called sunnah. For us laymen this means that anything we do with the strong belief that it was done or ordered by the Prophet () is sunnah, as long as we haven't been informed (by proof) that it isn't.
A short overview on the methodology:
How to qualify whether a narration describes a sunnah or not?
Scholars therefore did some effort to separate the wheat from the chaff, select what is correctly attributed to the Prophet (). We can call this the fiqh of hadith, or how to conclude rulings from a hadith or from different ahadith.
You may actually find a few cases where reports attribute something to Prophet and others that actually report the opposite or a different description (this would be more often the case than that of an opposite action). In this case scholars start to check the hadith: circumstances, whether or not it was the Prophet () himself who did such or such, whether it was an oral report or order or a report of an action, they also check the sahaba () reporting.
For example you may find a hadith narrated by 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud () opposing one narrated by abu Hurairah (). Here a scholar would check whether the report of ibn Mas'ud actually was abrogated or whether it is a second option. As ibn Mas'ud is among the earliest Sahabah while abu Hurairah converted to Islam 2 or 3 years before the prophet's death. Also we have cases where we have a very young sahabi like Anas ibn Malik who certainly didn't witness a few things but heard them later, see for example At what age did Mohammed(PBUH) passed away?. A scholar then would continue checking the narrator chain, did narrator X meet the transmitter Y, are they trustworthy ...
Basically there are a few possibilities:
- The ruling which was provided with the 2nd narration is another option or a relaxation (permission) of a more general ruling. As sunnah is not limited to one fixed thing (We have different wordings of tashahud and none would say don't use that reported by sahabi "x" as it is not sunnah, see Is there a sect-neutral tashahhud?)
- The ruling was abrogated: At a time this practice was fine, but a revelation or sound hadith clearly says it was abrogated. See for example Are there obsolete hadith?.
- The ruling is specific to a person, for example for the Prophet (). I'm not aware of a ruling which is specific for other people unless one refers to rulings that apply for women or men only for example, or slaves or slave-owners, poor or rich, salesmen etc. so a ruling that might apply only to groups of people.
- Scholars may also conclude that a ruling is better done under certain circumstances. Like answering adhan is the best one can do unless one is praying a fard prayer.
- Or one of the ahadith is in a clear contradiction to Qur'an which would mean it is a fabrication or a ruling that must be rejected.
- There can also be a weighting according madhhabs: any hadith or narration that would contradict a hadith or narration which is considered as sahih or more trustworthy by the imams would have a higher ranking: For example in the Maliki madhhab a verbal order is generally lower in the ranking compared to a practical one: If Muhammad () just ordered to do such and such or recommended it, it is the same as if he () was reported to do so and so on.
So basically whether something is sunnah or not may to some extent differ based on the osol of the madhhabs and what scholars after checking the ahadith concluded from it.
The rule is, nothing in the Qur'an or the Sunnah contradicts itself or the other of them, all of it comes from Allah. Allah didn't just send down the Qur'an, He sent down the Sunnah with it. It is us who don't understand it. When this misunderstanding occurs, the Scholars of Usul generally agree, if it is possible to reconcile the two such that one can be used at one time and another can be used in another then we reconcile them and this is obligatory so as not to leave off any of the Sunnah. If it is not possible to reconcile them then we look to see which came later as the latter takes priority over the first and the first is considered abrogated and the second, abrogating. If it is impossible to determine which of the two came first, we resort to matters of preferring one over the other. An example of this is giving preference to the statement over the action and giving preference to the command over the permissibility. This is because his words are directed toward us while his actions may be something specific for himself' and because if something is permissible in one place but obligated (or prohibited) in another, there is the possibility of being punished so preference is given to warding off the punishment. Other forms of preference include comparing the authenticity of the report and the knowledge of the narrator.