The Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has been accepted as an important source of Islamic law, next in importance only to the Holy Qur’an. This status of the Sunnah has remained unchallenged and undisputed throughout the centuries. There have been differences among Muslims in their juristic opinions, but the authority of the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) has never been denied by the jurists.
Qad taraktukum mahajjatil baydaa Layluha ka nahaariha La yazighu ‘anha illa haalik
I have left upon you something which is very clear, so clear that its night is like its day. And no one strays from it except for the one who is destroyed.
The Sunnah has been defined by the scholars of the science of Hadith as follows:
“Whatever comes from the Prophet (PBUH), other than the Quran itself, in the form of his speech, actions or tacit approvals”
We would like to identify some of the characteristics of Sunnah to help us understand and appreciate the legacy of the Prophet (SAW) better insha Allah.
1. As the Sunnah, with all its three kinds (speech, action and tacit approval) relates to the Prophet (PBUH), its true status in Islamic law cannot be established without ascertaining the status of the Prophet (PBUH) himself. So, the first pertinent question in the subject is: What is the status of a Prophet when he is sent to a people? Does he serve as a message-carrier who, after delivering the letter, has no concern with it whatsoever?
And we sent no Messenger, but that he should be obeyed by the leave of Allah. (4:64)
The Prophets are not sent merely to deliver the word of Allah. They are also required to explain the divine Book, to interpret it, to expound it, to demonstrate the ways of its application and to present a practical example of its contents. The Holy Qur’an leaves no doubt concerning this point by saying:
Allah has surely blessed the believers with His favor when He raised in their midst a Messenger from among themselves, who recites to them His verses and makes them pure and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom, while they were, earlier in open error. (3:164)
2. Now everything that the Prophet has said is based on revelation. When he receives a revelation he makes no mistake in communicating it in its entirety. When he does not receive a revelation he simply waits because the Prophet himself has no control over revelation.
An example of this can be found in the context of revelation of Surah Kahf. When the Makkan disbelievers asked the Prophet (SAW) the questions that they had received from the Jewish tribes in Medina, the Prophet’s response was that I will let you know tomorrow. However, the Prophet forgot to say insha Allah. Allah (SWT) in order to teach us the Muslims a lesson did not reveal Surah Kahf until after sometime; according to some traditions, after 40 days. And we see that the Prophet having no control over revelation simply waited.
3. To better understand the nature and authority of Sunnah, consider an example of an ambassador who brings with him a message of his sovereign to another people. Generally speaking, the letter itself would not carry much detail. In the discussion that follows on the subject however, every word uttered by the envoy would be taken as the word of his sovereign. We have a similar example in the Sunnah of the Prophet. From our perspective, the status of a command given by the Prophet is the same as that of a command given by Allah. The difference between the two is mainly because the process of collection, collation and preservation of the Qur’an has been different from the one followed in respect of the hadith.
4. What’s interesting about the Sunnah of the Prophet is that we do not find any parallel to it in other religions. So you have the Torah and the Gospel which were revealed to Musa and Isa and in terms of revelation these are parallel to the Quran revealed to Muhammad. But we do not see an example corresponding to the Sunnah of the Prophet in these other traditions. So there is no detailed account for example of how Isa prayed.
5. Preservation of Sunnah – We all know that Allah (SWT) has promised for the revelation
Verily We have revealed this reminder and We shall preserve it.
In this verse, Allah Almighty has assured the preservation of the Holy Qur’an. This implies that the Qur’an will always be transferred from one generation to the other in its real and original form, undistorted by any foreign element. The question now is whether this divine protection is restricted only to the words of the Holy Qur’an or does it extend to its real meanings as well. If the prophetic explanation is necessary to understand the Holy Qur’an correctly, then the preservation of the Qur’anic words alone cannot serve the purpose unless the prophetic explanations are also preserved.
And so we see that by the will of Allah (SWT) our scholars of hadith have exercised extreme caution in authenticating and preserving the prophetic tradition. For example, ‘Abdullâh ibn Lahi’ah is a well-known Egyptian narrator of hadîth. It is established that his memory was weak and he used to narrate those traditions which he wrote. At a particular time, his house was burnt by fire and all his books were also burnt. After this occurrence he sometimes used to report ahâdîth from his memory. Therefore, some scholars have decided that his narrations before the accident are reliable while those narrated after it are not worthy of trust. Now, the pupils who have heard ahâdîth from him in the early period, their narrations may be accepted, while the reports of those who have heard from him in the later period cannot be relied upon. The scholars have scrutinized the list of his pupils and have specified the names of his early pupils, like ‘Abdullâh ibn Wahb, etc. and have declared that all the rest should be treated as his later pupils, and no trust might be placed on their narrations.
6. Embodiment of Quran
Aisha (RA) who was aware of this in her understanding and insight gave expression to it in a brilliant manner. When Saeed ibn Hisham asked her about the Prophet’s character, she said, “His character was the Quran”.
His character, ethical stature, virtuous behavior was the Quran. The Quran describes many of the qualities of the believers such as the one Surah al-Mominun, people who when they pray are in awe of their Lord, people who abstain from vain talk, people who honor their oaths, people who help others. And since the first of the believers was the Prophet, we see that he was the embodiment of these verses, that he is the exemplar for those meanings. Also, we see that the Quran describes many vices. And the Prophet was the person who was furthest remove from all those vices.
So if we find anything that’s beautiful in the Quran, then we should know that the Prophet was the first to implement it. So if we want to understand who the Prophet was and what was his character, we should read the beautiful qualities that have been described in the Quran that virtuous people have and you would know that he was the first to implement those things.
One day a Jewish person came to the Prophet (SAW) and this person had read through the scriptures and he saw that the last Prophet had certain qualities which he could clearly discern in the Prophet (SAW). But the one quality he wanted to test was that his forbearance overcame his anger. He asked the Prophet (SAW) that he could loan him something. It was a time of hardship so the Prophet (SAW) loaned from him. But before the term of the loan was over, this person came to the Prophet (SAW) very angry and said, why haven’t you paid me back, you people of bani Hashim, you are people who don’t pay back your debts. So he slandered the Prophet. Now Umar (RA) was standing there and as this Jewish person would quote, Umar (RA)’s eyes began to roll in his head and he said to the Prophet “let me take care of this person” and he frightened the Jew because he got so upset. The Prophet (SAW) stopped Umar and said, it is more appropriate that you ask me to fulfill my obligation and to repay my debt and that you ask him to be more generous in his asking for his debt. Later the Prophet (SAW) arranged for the repayment of the debt and in fact gave the Jewish person more, saying that
So whoever wants to know the practical way of Islam should know it as elaborated and embodied in the Prophet’s Sunnah.
7. A Comprehensive Pattern
Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala says:
Wa nazzalna ‘alaykal kitaba tibyaanal likulli shayi
We sent down the book to you which makes everything clear
The Sunnah is a pattern which can be identified by its comprehensiveness and completeness in all dimensions of human life, length, breadth and depth. Now by length, we mean the temporal or vertical dimension, from birth to death. By breadth, we mean the horizontal dimension, which includes all spheres of life. The Prophet’s guidance extends to all of them, in the home, in the market place, in the mosque, on the road, at work, relations with God, relations with God’s creations, every aspect of our life. Finally by depth, we mean the deeper dimension of human life, which covers body and the spirit, the outward as well as the inward and it embraces speech and action as well as intention.
This is why Michael Hart in his book ‘The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History’ has said about the Prophet (SAW) that:
“He was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels”
8. A Balanced Method
The Sunnah of the Prophet can also be identified by balance between spirit and body, this world and the hereafter, theory and practice, freedom and responsibility, individualism and collectivism. And we see that Sunnah essentially is a moderate pattern for a moderate society with neither overdoing it nor doing too little.
And this is why when the Prophet caught sight of any of his companions who were inclining towards either extreme; he turned them back to moderation and cautioned them against the consequences of excess or insufficiency. So when three of his companions questioned about his worship as if their appetite for acts of devotion was not satisfied. One of them resolved that he would fast for life and not break his fast; another that he would stand in vigil for the night and not rest; the third that he would stay away from women and not marry. When their saying was reported to the Prophet, he said:
“Be aware! I am more fearful of God than you, more God-aware than you, yet I fast and I break fast. I stand in vigil and I rest, and I marry women. Then whoever prefers something else above my Sunnah is not one of mine.”
This balanced nature of the Prophet is also evident from the invocations and supplications of the Prophet. Among them was:
Allahumma aslih li diniyal-ladhi huwa ismatu amri, wa aslih li dunyaya-llati fiha ma’ashi, wa aslih li akhirati-llati fiha ma’adi, waj’alil-hayata ziyadatan li fi kulli khair, waj’alill mauta rahatal-li min kulli shar
O Allah, set right my religion, which is the protection of my affair; set right for me my world, wherin is my life and livelihood; and set right for me my hereafter, to which is my return; and make my life prosper for me by every good; and make my death a rest from every evil.
9. A Realistic Method
The Sunnah is a realistic method. It does not regard people as they were winged angels, but as human beings who eat food and manage their affairs in the markets, who have their dispositions and passions, their necessities and their needs – just as they also have elevated spiritual aspirations. So while we were created with earthly stuff such as clay and molded mud, we also have within us a breath from the spirit of God. This is why we see that a human being ascends and descends, that he makes progress and he stumbles, that he is guided and goes astray, that he disobeys Allah and he repents.
One of the companions assumed that he had become a hypocrite because his state when he was at home was different from the state when he was in the presence of the messenger. He rushed out till he reached the messenger and said: “Hanzalah has become a hypocrite.” He then explained to the Messenger that when He was with the Messenger, his heart was softened, and his eyes moist with tears, and he remembered his Lord, and the hereafter was with him as if he saw it in his eyes. Then when he returned to his house, he joked with his children and spent time with his wife and he would forget the state that he was in before. When the Prophet heard this, he said:
O Hanzalah! If you were able to endure in that state you are in when with me, angels would be shaking hands with you on the roads. But, O Hanzalah there is a time for this and a time for that.
There is no harm in that if his life is apportioned between what is good for him and the right of his Lord or between this world and the hereafter.
In recognition of that, the Sunnah also makes allowance for human weakness. It widens the circle of the permitted and narrows that of the forbidden, as in the hadith:
“What Allah has made lawful in His book, that is lawful; and what He has forbidden, that is forbidden; and what He is silent about, that is exempt from ruling. So accept from Allah His latitude. For surely Allah never is forgetful of anything.”
The Sunnah makes allowance for the reality of the human being and it relents for him when he lapses into disobedience. It does not close the door in the face of repentance. As it is said in a hadith:
“Allah spreads out His hands through the night so that He may accept repentance for the offences of the day; and He spreads out His hands through the day so He may accept repentance for the offences of the night”
10. An Integrative Way
The Sunnah of the Prophet is a harmonizing or integrative way. It integrates legislation with moral instruction. The Sunnah is involved in the forming, foundation and direction of instruction. In legislation, it is involved in defence, the application of force, discipline and punishment. Moral instruction is of little avail without the support of legislation; and legislation is of little avail without the support of moral guidance. The Prophet was responsible for both together.
The Sunnah also integrates within itself the authority of the state with the Quran. So if good conscience of the right does not prevent some people from wrongdoing, then might and force may prevent them as Allah has said:
Laqad arsalna rusulana bilbayyinaati wa anzalna ma’ahumul kitaba wal-meezana li yaqumannasu bilqist. Wa anzalnal hadida fihi b’asun shadidun wa manafi’u linnaas.
Indeed We sent Our messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance that people may uphold justice. And We sent down iron wherein there is mighty strength and benefits for people.
We also see that the leadership and the masses are brought together. It is not desirable for the leader to live in seclusion from the people. Rather, it is incumbent upon him to be with and among them, sharing in their sorrows and joys. And that is how the Prophet was. So we see that in times of scarcity, he was the first to go hungry and the last to satisfy his appetite. Or during the construction of the mosque in Medinah, he was among his companions participating in the construction. Or during the digging of the trench, he was with them participating in the digging of the trench.
The Prophet also established a new community and the community that was introduced by the Prophet was to elevate humans beyond kinship and tribal loyalties, to a higher level. Many of us Muslims we fail to appreciate this. Those who attack the Prophet were not very pleased. Those makkans who opposed the Prophet opposed him because he introduced an anti-tribal theology, a theology that emphasized monogenesis, a theology that emphasized that human beings are one and they all came from Adam (AS). This was a very revolutionary concept among humans. Today in this age of civil rights and human rights, human beings take this concept for granted but at that time it was a major revolution in human thought to elevate human beings from the level of tribal consciousness to a higher level of human consciousness. So for that reason at a time when some of these principles were very strong in Western societies, Islam posed a threat to the West.
11. A Way Made Easy
Another of the special distinguishing characteristics of the Sunnah is its facility, its convenience and its tolerance. Among the virtues of the Muhammad mentioned in the earliest scriptures are that he
“will enjoin on them what is right and forbid them that which wrong; he will make lawful for them the good things and make prohibited for them the foul things; and he will release them from their burdens and from the fetters that were upon them.”
So nothing exists in the Sunnah of the Prophet that hinders the people in their religious life or oppresses them in their worldly life. So we see that when the he dispatched Abu Musa and Mu’adh to Yemen he advised them:
“Urge ease and do not urge hardship, offer good hope and do not provoke aversion listen to one another and do not provoke differences”.
We know of the incident of the Bedouin who urinated in the mosque of the Prophet. When his companions became agitated, he told them “You are commissioned as people who make things easy not as those who make things hard.”
We have to recognize as Muslims in the United States the fact that there are historical developments with respect to portrayal of the Prophet. If we look at the earliest manifestation of the reaction to the message of the Prophet, we have to go back to Syria when the Muslims encountered the Byzantines. The greatest opposition to the prophetic message came from the Byzantines and some of the Arab Christians because the first diatribe that was written at a very sophisticated level of scholarship came from an Arab Christian, John of Damascus. And it was John of Damascus who looked at Islam from a Christian perspective and came to an understanding in his opinion that Islam was really the 101 heresy of Christianity.
These distortions that we still see in our societies should be corrected by the fact that now we have Muslims living in the West. And the responsibility of Muslims in the West is not only to have command of knowledge about the Seerah but some of us should be well grounded in Western thought so when we engage in any serious dialogue we are able to speak with some authority about our own tradition and with some authority about the Western tradition. It is only in this way that we can correct the errors and distortions about the Prophet (SAW) as they have historically developed in the West, both ancient and modern; misperceptions and distortions.