Sheikh Ahmad al-Rashîd
The Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) can be broken down into three broad categories with respect to how it conveys the meaning of Islamic legal rulings.
The first of these is the verbal Sunnah. These are the teachings that the Prophet (peace be upon him) conveyed to us by his words. An example of this would be when he said: “Actions are only by their intentions” and when he said: “There is no prayer for one who has not read the opening chapter of the Book.”
The second category is the practical Sunnah. These are the matters that the Prophet (peace be upon) him taught us through his actions. He showed us how to perform the Pilgrimage through his practical example after saying: “Take from me the rites of Hajj.” Likewise, he taught us how to conduct our prayers by performing his prayers. He commanded us: “Pray as you have seen me praying.”
This information was then conveyed to later generations by the Companions who had observed the Prophet (peace be upon him) directly.
Such hadîth are often related with wordings like: “The Prophet used to do such and such” like `A’ishah’s statement: “Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) used to pray at night thirteen units of prayer. Then, when he heard the call for the Morning Prayer, he would offer two brief units.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî]
Another example is Ibn `Umar’s statement: “Allah’s Messenger used to deliver two sermons, sitting down between them.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî]
The third category of the Sunnah are the tacit approvals of the Prophet (peace be upon him). These are matters that the Prophet (peace be upon him) concurred with through his silence about them.
An example of this is when Anas said: “During the era of Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) we used to offer two units of prayer right after sunset before the Maghrib prayer.”
Anas was asked: “Did Allah’s Messenger offer them?”
He replied: “He used to see us offering them and neither commanded us nor forbade us.”
All three of these categories are used equally as evidence for establishing Islamic legal rulings.
The Prophet’s actions, like his words, were one of the ways that he conveyed Islamic teachings to us. Whether a given action is understood as being obligatory, recommended, or merely permissible is determined by contextual indicators and from the circumstances in which the action took place. How this determination is made is one of the topics discussed in great length in books of Islamic jurisprudence. Many treatises have been written exclusively on the topic.
Source: Islam Today