How Shall We Understand What Is Known as ‘The Sunna of the Prophet”?
You have indeed in the apostle [rasul, not prophet or nabi] apostle of God a beautiful pattern (of conduct) [uswatun hasanatun] for any one whose hope is in God and the Final Day, and who engages much in the praise of God. ( Al-Ahzab 33:21). It is generally agreed that Verse 21 of Surat Al-Ahzab declares God’s Messenger to be our ultimate role model. We do not deny this. But the question is for what exactly is Muhammad our role model?
What are the areas of belief and practice concerning which God requires us to emulate Muhammad’s example? We know that belief in the oneness of God ( al-tauhid ) is the indisputable essence of Islamic doctrine. It is also, as we said, the backbone of Islam, next to belief in the existence of God and the Afterlife. And it is, as we saw, the first and principal commandment of al-furqan.
Following from this we suggest that the answer to the above questions can be found in the following verses of the Book: There is for you an excellent example [uswatun hasanatun] (to follow) in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their people: “We are clear of you and of whatever you worship besides God: we have rejected you, and there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred for ever, unless you believe in God and Him alone”… ( Al-Mumtahana 60:4) “Our Lord! Make us not a (test and) trial for the unbelievers, but forgive us, our Lord! For you are the exalted in might, the wise.” There was indeed in them an excellent example [uswat un hasanatun] for you to follow, for those whose hope is in God and in the Last Day. But if any turn away, truly God is free of all wants, worthy of all praise. (Al-Mumtahana 60:5–6)
You have indeed in the apostle of God a beautiful pattern (of conduct) [uswatun hasanatun] for any one whose hope is in God and the Final Day, and who engages much in the praise of God.. (Al-Ahzab 33:21).
The two verses from Surat al-Mumtahana tell us that, in His quest to implant tauhid in us, Allah has made Abraham a role model. It says ‘there is for you an excellent example (to follow) in Abraham and those with him’. In verse 33:22 we hear that Allah has made Muhammad a role model for exactly the same reasons: to implant tauhid in us. In both cases the text addresses the same people for whom Muhammad and Abraham are role models: ‘for any one whose hope is in God and the Final Day’; it confirms the same identity of those who should emulate Abraham and Muhammad.
It is undeniable that the Book stresses a similarity between the two prophets and between those who follow them. We hear that the reason why Abraham turns away from his peoples is their shirk of Allah because they worship idols. And we learn that the root cause of conflict between Muhammad and his peoples is exactly the same. Allah wants us to take Muhammad and Abraham as role models in our fight against idolatry and in our efforts to plant tauhid in our souls. The similarity of Muhammad and Abraham as role models, as given by the Book, does not allow us to define the exemplary behavior of Muhammad exclusively through the hadiths, because they give Muhammad a separate identity (from Abraham) and do not contain anything about Abraham that we could emulate.
The call for tauhid, following the examples of Abraham and Muhammad, is the only reason why we should confront our fellow brothers and sisters. They should never be challenged because they do not wear the hijab or because their beards are too short. We distance ourselves from any attempt to define Muhammad’s role model in terms of how we should dress, eat, drink, sleep and talk. It is unacceptable that people form groups and sects because of such trivial issues, sow enmity and hatred, and even go as far as to kill people because they dress and behave differently. This is certainly the case with the so-called Islamic revival. The so-called revivalists have completely forgotten the tauhid principle, the basic moral commandments of God and Allah’s dictum that ‘there shall be no coercion in religion’ ( Al-Baqara 2:156).
Instead, they focus exclusively on matters of ritual purity and what could go wrong while praying or fasting: how our ablutions might be polluted, how our prayers can become corrupted, how our fast is invalidated, and so on. We can buy hundreds and hundreds of books that deal with our mortal sins, the punishments of the grave, and stories that sow fear and aggression. Such gloomy stuff will certainly not heal our societies. By any leap of the imagination, this is neither a revival nor is it Islamic. It is truly regrettable that the Islamic doctrine of tauhid has been distorted to such an extreme degree.
The noble example of Allah’s Messenger has been unbelievably vulgarized. It has been detached from its true intention as stated by God, to the extent that we now emulate Muhammad as Prophet and human being and not—as demanded by God—as Allah’s Messenger. As a result, the hadiths of the Sunna have become eternally valid legislation. The words and deeds of Muhammad’s companions, because of their noble reputation, have turned into the eternal basis of analogical jurisdiction, and the scholarly discipline of usul al-fiqh, while forgetting the rationale for its contingent existence, has become the yardstick for legal debate for all times.
We do not dispute the possibility that ablutions for prayer, a fast, or a supplication might become invalid, and do not deny the existence of mortal sins and vicious acts of obstinacy. What we do dispute, however, is that these things are perceived as the totality of our religion and that our minds are completely occupied by these topics. We criticize the fact that people, intentionally or not, are forced to deal constantly with these secondary issues, while being increasingly drawn away from the truly significant issues of their existence. The Book repeatedly mentions the truly important things of life, as for example: O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (Al-hujurat 49:13).
Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things, who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best—He is the mighty, the forgiving. (Al-Mulk 67:1–2).
Here we hear that togetherness, piety and good work are the fundamental aims of Allah’s creation. Togetherness is achieved through cooperation, mutual help, and assistance in order to achieve cohesion in whatever social unit we live, be it the unit of the family, a team at work, or the state at large. Piety is achieved through knowledge and fear of Allah, by doing what He has ordered and avoiding what He has forbidden.
Good work consists of the deeds and righteous acts that are beneficial to our fellow brothers and sisters. One may, for example, strive for perfection at work or abstain from fraud in trade transactions; one may build a school, a mosque or a church or a hospital; or one may simply pray, fast and perform all the other rituals. The only thing one should not do is only to pray or fast or only to build mosques and nothing else. Surely, these actions alone do not really qualify as the righteous deeds that Allah wants us to do.