Sirah/Sunnah: history/pattern; convention/tradition

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwī

There is an obligation to love and obey the Prophet. We know this because it is expressed as an imperative in the Qur’an. Obedience is compliance with a command that comes from outside oneself. Love cannot be like that; it must come from within. Between obedience and love, there is consent — being ready and willing to obey, being prompt, graceful, when doing what we are commanded or obliged to do. Obedience with full consent is natural, spontaneous, from the heart. Obedience from the heart is a big part (though it is not all) of the love that we are commanded to cultivate in our attitude to the Prophet and our relationship with his teaching.

Obeying the Prophet with consent is not difficult, because we know, as God Himself has told us, that the Prophet is showing us the way out of darkness to light, that he is bidding us to what is good for us, and he is forbidding us from what is unclean and harmful for us. Since we can be sure, with him, that whether he commands or forbids he is not interested in any sort of exercise of power over our will, but only in what is to our advantage in both worlds, we are disposed to obey, to accept his authority. Moreover – there are many examples — he made a point of encouraging moderation, he wanted ease for us, not hardship, in our religious duties and devotions, and also in our everyday worldly affairs. Another side to this ease in obeying God’s Messenger is that his teaching is so comprehensive – and, again, there are many examples — that we never find ourselves saying “I cannot follow his teaching because it does not apply in my situation.” Most of his teaching is applicable by all of us all the time.

Really, there is no good excuse for not obeying the Prophet and doing so with full consent. But even that is not quite enough, we have also to love him, and while obeying whole-heartedly carries us toward love, it is not the same. It is an extra something, different from obedience. In the Sahīh of al-Bukhārī in the book Aymān it is reported of `Umar b. al-Khattāb that on one occasion he said: ‘ “By God, O Messenger of God, you are more loved by me than everything except myself!” – “No, O `Umar,” [the Prophet] said, “let me be more loved by you than yourself!” And `Umar said: “By God, you are more loved by me than myself!” – “Now, O `Umar!…,” he said.’ (AL-BUKHĀRĪ, Sahīh, Aymān, viii. 129).

Was `Umar just being shy or modest, when he said he loved the Prophet more than everything except himself? Why did he make that reservation? Then, as soon as the Prophet told him he should love him more than he loved himself, `Umar affirmed that he did so. Since `Umar, as we know, went on to do great things, it is worthwhile trying to understand what this conversation can teach us.

Obeying a command with full consent is not difficult if we accept the authority and legitimacy of the command. For example, we obey traffic regulations very readily because it is more convenient to do so than not to do so. In every place in every community we find a settled, established way of doing things and if we stay in a place long enough, we learn that way and go along with it. This is called following convention. Indeed, most of the time, we do what we do because other people are doing the same thing in similar ways, and we follow along. In theory following a tradition is not like that. Whether in art or religion, following a tradition is  following the example of a particular work or a particular individual because of the greatness and nobility we recognize in that work or that person. But tradition too can become institutionalized, settled, established, and unless we make a personal effort to affirm the greatness and nobility of the individual who started it, we end up simply following a convention, doing what others around us are doing because that is convenient for us. The tradition becomes a convention, a patterned way of living, established and ready-made, outside ourselves, which just happens to be convenient for us. We go along with it without making any deliberate, determined effort from within to understand what the greatness and nobility consisted in, which first established the tradition before it settled into a convention.

`Umar was there at the beginning. He was a convert to Islam. He had made that deliberate, determined effort from within. And still he said to God’s Messenger, “you are more loved by me than everything except myself.” Why? Why this reservation: “except myself”? Was he thinking that he might, within himself, prefer his own judgement to that of the Prophet — of course he would never himself disobey the Prophet, or command or encourage others to follow any judgement in preference to that of the Prophet —  but, still, in his own mind and heart, he might feel that another judgement was more right. And he was too truthful to deny the existence of that feeling. In this respect, Abu Bakr was always ahead of `Umar.  Hudaybiyah …. `Umar argued about that as if  the Prophet were a tribal leader who had made a policy decision, the implications of which he, `Umar, considered to be against the political interests and dignity of the Muslims, and to the advantage of the idolaters. Abu Bakr corrected him. Abu Bakr never forgot that the Prophet was God’s Messenger, all of whose actions and judgements were fitted to that role and made in its service. The wisdom of the Prophet’s judgement in Hudaybiyah lay in the unseen, known to God, and when God willed to do so, He would make the unseen seen. In the meantime, full acceptance with full contentment. Another example of such acceptance with contentment is when the Madinans, after Hunayn, denied and deprived in their worldly interests in favour of the Makkan Quraysh, felt happy and privileged because the Prophet would stay with them, in Madina, not in Makkah.

In telling `Umar that he should love him more than he loved himself, the Prophet is telling `Umar to close any distance between them. That distance perhaps represents a sort of deficiency in `Umar’s understanding of the comprehensiveness and finality of the role of the Prophet. And when that distance is closed, `Umar is fit to be the Prophet’s khalifah, and indeed he proved to be the greatest leader the Muslims have ever had. He was able to lead the Muslims because he was able, with an unreserved love, to follow the Prophet as God’s Messenger, the communicator of God’s will and guidance.

It is of the utmost importance therefore, when we obey the Prophet and strive to follow his teaching and imitate his example, that we understand that in doing so we accept fully his being God’s Messenger. It is not sufficient to say, as people too often say, specially in our time, that we should follow the Prophet’s sunnah for reasons that are supposed to appeal just as much to non-Muslims. We do not say we pray five times a day because it makes us disciplined and regular in our habits, or pay zakah because it alleviates poverty, or do hajj because it defeats nationalism and tribalism. We do not say so because non-Muslims will argue that school and factory schedules also encourage discipline, that globalization also combats tribalism, that state taxation for  welfare also alleviates poverty, and they will certainly claim more efficiency in achieving these objectives. So also we should not make arguments like “the Prophet and Islam made great improvements in women’s rights”, because non-Muslims will only pretend to agree that that is true so as to argue that Islam needs to go much further.

Arguments of that sort in favour of the sunnah, and of the shari`ah constructed around it, are only secondary arguments. They serve to demonstrate that the rules and norms of Islam are reasonable, i.e. capable of being reasoned. The primary argument is always and only this: that God commanded us to love and obey His Messenger, and when we are able to do so we travel a safe road with a sound heart, with a conscience liberated from the desire to advantage or assert ourselves at the expense of others. Then, we can safely learn what the world has to teach, and safely invent or adapt ideas, actions and policies, for which there is no direct precedent in the sunnah of God’s Messenger. If love of God’s Messenger is strong in  our hearts and our obedience is evident in our settled practice, we will be guided, not misguided, and we will be guided even in the most momentous of decisions. Consider again the example of `Umar, when he persuaded his closest friend and senior in Islam, Abu Bakr, that it was necessary and proper to collect the Qur’an in the form of a book, even though the Prophet himself had left no instruction to do that. That was accepted by the Ummah as a whole; its goodness is proven in the fact that the Book has never been disputed, though Muslims have differed somewhat in understanding and interpretation of it.

The reason that the rules and norms of Islam are capable of being reasoned is that reason is an indispensable element of human nature, and God Himself appeals to it in His Book. If it were enough just to follow earlier precedent, or to do what those next to you are doing, there would be no need for so many individual human lives, each with its own experiences, its own needs and prayers, its own story-line, its own history. In each life the sunnah must be learned and willed and applied in the particular setting and circumstances of that life. If that is not done, individual and collective life builds into random, shifting patterns, according to the random shifts in localized conventions. You can see this in the way certain brands or gadgets become wildly popular and then fade away, replaced by some other brands or gadgets: they are called “must have” items although, a few months or weeks later, they are considered worthless. From far enough away, movements like this do make startling patterns, but they are random, without settled purpose or direction. We see flocks of birds and shoals of fish generate patterns like this: the fish do not have a leader, but when a fish on the edge of the shoal senses some danger it will dart off in one direction, and those nearest to it will follow, and this group will cause another group within the shoal to dart upwards to avoid a collision, and so on it goes, with large numbers within the shoal weaving in and out making wonderful patterns, until they settle for a time in a single direction, then the whole show re-starts, prompted by some new danger, real or imagined. It is a marvellous spectacle. But the fish, or the birds, that do this, have no patterns in mind that they are following. Rather, pattern emerges, as it were, accidentally, from their movements, and varies and re-emerges later with some alteration. Among humans only fashion “crazes”, as they are rightly called, exhibit this sort of spectacle. Unlike fish and birds, humans are privileged with hearts and minds and so each individually, and communities collectively, have a potential to elect the pattern their lives should strive to build and hold. Muslims are especially privileged in that they have the sunnah of God’s Messenger, a dynamic tradition, that can save them from being controlled by local customs and conventions.

When the Prophet asked his Companions a question, they would often respond, even if they had an answer already in mind, “God and His Messenger know best”. This was, of course, a courtesy to their teacher, but it expressed also their desire to be taught, and their recognition of the source of the greatness and nobility of the Prophet, namely his being God’s Messenger and His slave. It is a matter of such importance that it is an element of the Muslim affirmation of faith: having testified that there is no god but God, we testify that Muhammad is His slave and His Messenger. Only from that affirmation does a correct appreciation and application of the sunnah follow, and it is of the mercy of God, that it follows in a way pleasing to our reason, and conducive to our happiness in this world and the next.