Significance of the Sunnah

a number of Islamic books

No devout Muslim would ever dare to go against the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah, but it is regrettable to note that some of the liberal elite tend to raise the slogan that the Book of God (the Qur’an) is enough and that there is no need at all for the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Slogans like this are raised mainly by people who want to get rid of the Islamic Law completely. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) himself was well aware that such ill-natured opinions would arise and hence gave a clear warning of this as reported by Al-Miqdam ibn Ma`di Karib, one of his Companions:

I have indeed been given the Qur’an and something similar to it besides it. Yet, the time will come when a man leaning on his couch will say, “Follow the Qur’an only; what you find in it as halal, take it as halal; and what you find in it as haram, take it as haram.” But truly, what the Messenger of God has forbidden is like what God has forbidden. (Abu Dawud and Darimi)

In fact, anyone who rejects the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) does not believe in the Qur’an, for Almighty God Himself has emphasized the importance of the Sunnah in many verses, of which a few are given below.

[O you who believe! Obey God and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you; and if you differ in anything among yourselves, then refer it to God and the Messenger if you do believe in God and the Last Day. That is best and most suitable for final determination.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:59)

[The answer of the believers, when summoned to God and His Messenger in order that he may judge between them, is no other than this: they say, “We hear and we obey.” It is such as these who will attain success.](An-Nur 24:51)

[But no, by your Lord! (O Muhammad) They cannot be believers until they make you judge in all disputes between them, and find in their souls no resistance against your decisions, but accept them with the fullest submission.] (An-Nisaa’ 4:65)

Anas (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of God said, “I have left among you two things; you will never go astray as long as you hold fast to them: the Book of God and my Sunnah” (Al-Hakim).

The Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to hold the commandments given by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in a very high esteem, making no distinctions between them and those given by God.

  • Once ‘Abdullah ibn Mas`ud quoted this saying of the Prophet while he was delivering a sermon: “May God curse the women who tattoo their bodies and those who pluck their eyebrows; those who separate their teeth to make them look more pretty and those who try to change the creation of God.” A woman named Umm Ya`qub from the tribe of Banu Asad came to know of these words. She approached Ibn Mas`ud and said, “O Abu ‘Abdur-Rahman! It was reported to me that you have cursed such and such women.” He said, “Why should I not curse those whom the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) cursed and who are cursed in the Book of God as well?” She said, “I have read whatever is contained between the two covers (i.e., the whole Qur’an).” He replied, “Had you been a good reader, you would have discovered it. Did you not read the following verse? [So take whatever the Messenger gives you and keep away from what he forbids you] (Al-Hashr 59:7).”

There are numerous examples set by the Companions which show how emphatically they abided by the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to the extent of severing their relations with their kith and kin once they discovered someone going against the Sunnah. Let us have some examples from the lives of the great caliphs of Islam followed by many other Companions:

  • Just after the death of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) three major issues confronted the Muslim community. They could have left it apart and disunited, had it not been for the wise guidance of Abu Bakr who settled them amicably in the light of the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). The first issue was related to the appointment of the khalifah (leader of the Muslims, caliph). Assembled in Saqifat Bani Sa`idah, a great number of Muhajirun (those who emigrated from Makkah to Madinah) and Ansar (those who helped the emigrants from Makkah) originally had been busy arguing this issue. The Ansar proposed that the leader should be appointed from both of the above communities. The noble companion Abu Bakr cited the saying of the Prophet “Leaders (imams) should be from Quraysh (the tribe of Prophet Muhammad) as long as they have the understanding (of the religion).” The Ansar conceded to this quietly. The great companion `Umar proposed the name of Abu Bakr as the khalifah, which was accepted unanimously by those present there and later followed by all the inhabitants of Madinah through the oath of allegiance.
  • The second issue was related to the place where the Prophet should be buried. Again the companion Abu Bakr cited the saying of the Prophet “A Prophet is to be buried where he breathes his last.” Accordingly, his burial took place in the apartment of his wife, the Mother of the Faithful `A’ishah, where he died.
  • The third issue was related to the inheritance of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as raised by his daughter Fatimah who came to the Caliph Abu Bakr asking for her share. Abu Bakr replied by reminding her of the saying of the Prophet: “We, the community of the prophets, are not inherited from; whatever we leave behind us is a charity.” Fatimah did not argue further, but retired quietly.
  • Once the great Companion `Umar saw Khalid ibn Al-Walid wearing a silk shirt. He asked him to take it off (since it is forbidden for Muslim men to wear silk). Khalid replied that `Abdur-Rahman ibn `Auf used to have one as well. `Umar said, “The Prophet allowed him because he suffered badly from itching.” Khalid then had no alternative but to take if off.
  • Following the news of the Muslim’s victory in the conquest of Syria, `Umar advanced to Damascus with a number of Companions. On reaching the outskirts of Amwas, a town in Syria, the news of a widespread plague in the town reached him. `Umar consulted his men whether or not he should venture into the town. The heated discussion that followed came to an end when `Abdur-Rahman ibn `Auf cited this saying of the Prophet: “If you are inside a place where an epidemic breaks out, don’t come out of it. And don’t go in if you happen to be away from such a place.” `Umar eventually commanded his people to retreat. Someone still remarked, “`Umar, do you run away from a destiny decreed by God?” To this `Umar replied, “Yes, we run away from one destiny to the other decreed by God as well.” Such was the wisdom of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and centuries ago it foreshadowed today’s quarantine regulations.
  • Caliph `Uthman once agreed to buy a piece of land from a person. On the completion of the verbal agreement, he asked the man to collect the money the following day. But the man turned up after a few days, only to renounce the agreement. He had changed his mind because his friends had blamed him for selling the land at a low price. `Uthman could have been adamant about the sale, particularly when it had been agreed upon completely. But he remembered the saying of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) which admired a person who treated the people easily and wholeheartedly in his sales. So, `Uthman preferred to concede to the man’s wish without raising any objection.
  • Once `Ali was approached by a person who wanted his counsel concerning the engagement of his daughter, whose hand was sought by three persons: Hasan, Husayn, and ‘Abdullah ibn Ja`far. `Ali found himself involved personally, as his two sons were among the candidates. But he recalled the saying of the Prophet “The one whose counsel is sought should be honest.” So after giving some thought, he told the man, “Don’t go for Hasan because he is known to have divorced his women many times. And don’t go for Husayn, as well, as he loves to be admired. Rather go for `Abdullah ibn Ja`far.”
  • In one of his journeys, `Ali found a merchant hoarding a stock of grain in the hope of a good price. `Ali reminded him of the saying of the Prophet “The hoarder is cursed,” and instructed his people to set the stock on fire as a punishment.

This is how the four caliphs reacted to the Sunnah of the Prophet. Let us have some more examples from the lives of the Companions.

  • `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud heard a man saying after a sneeze, “Al-hamdu lillah wa as-salatu wa as-salamu `ala Rasuli Allah.” Ibn Mas`ud said to him, “Whatever you have said is true, but that is not the way that the Prophet has taught us. He instructed us to say simply ‘al-hamdu lillah’ after sneezing.” It would be appropriate to remind all Muslims about this Sunnah, which is commonly abandoned by a great number of them. Say “al-hamdu lillah” whenever you sneeze. If you hear someone saying this after sneezing, say to him “yarhamukumu Allah” (may God have mercy upon you). The one that sneezed should pray for you as well by saying “Yahdikum Allah wa yuslihu balakum” (may God guide you and set your affairs right). There are plenty of occasions when you should say “as-salatu wa as-salamu ‘ala Rasuli Allah.” You should say it, for example, whenever you hear the name of our beloved Prophet or whenever you enter a mosque or step out of it, adding these words respectively: “Allahumma iftah li abwaba rahmatik” (O God, open for me the doors of Your mercy) and “Allahumma inni as’aluka min fadlika” (O God, I ask You for Your bounty).
  • Once `Abdullah ibn `Abbas was sitting beside the Ka`bah when Emir Mu`awiah entered the Grand Mosque and began circumambulation of the Ka`bah. He kissed the Black Stone in the beginning, but he rubbed his hand on the other three corners of Ka`bah as well. Ibn `Abbas knew that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)—apart from kissing the Black Stone and rubbing the Yemeni corner—had never touched the other two corners during Tawaf. So he objected to Mu`awiah, to which the latter replied, “To me none of the four corners of the Ka`bah is deserted.” “But that was not the practice of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him),” Ibn `Abbas emphasized. Mu`awiyyah could only say, “You have said the truth.”
  • Once Ibn `Abbas saw a man drawing a picture of a living being. He advised him not to do that because the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade such a practice.
  • `Abdullah ibn `Umar was well-known for his adherence to the Sunnah. He once saw his son Bilal stopping his wife from going to the mosque. `Abdullah said, “Don’t do that because the Messenger of God said, ‘Don’t stop the female servants of God from entering the houses of God.’” Bilal was adamant that he would not allow her to go, even after listening to this saying. Ibn `Umar was so upset that he swore never to speak to him again until his dying day.
  • `Abdullah ibn `Amr ibn Al-`Aas had a very large garden with a great number of palm trees. Water in this area was so abundant that his assistant planned to sell the extra amount of it, after irrigating the whole garden, to a neighbour at an exorbitant price of 30,000 dirhams. That offer could have attracted anyone except a Companion like `Abdullah ibn `Amr, who refused to approve of this sale because the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade the selling of any extra water.
  • Abu Hurayrah used to address a gathering of Muslims on Friday eve. Once, before beginning his sermon, he said to the people, “Whoever has cut off from any of his relations should leave this place.” No one stood up. On repeating these words thrice, a young man left the place and went to his aunt whom he had deserted a long time before, and reconciled with her. Abu Hurayrah said this because he knew that all actions are presented to God on each Friday eve. He didn’t like his assembly of the devout to be smeared by a person who had committed the sin of deserting his relatives. By doing so, he saved a person from a major sin.
  • Anas ibn Malik was known to be a faithful servant of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Once he was invited to a party where a Magian offered him some faluda (a well-known drink) in a silver cup. Anas refused to accept it. He preferred to drink in an earthen pot than to use the silver one because the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade the Muslims from eating or drinking from gold or silver utensils.

This is how the Companions behaved throughout their lives—setting sublime examples of adherence to the Sunnah.

The numerous examples given above are from the Companions. Let us see what the four great imams have said about the authority of the Sunnah.

  • Imam Abu Hanifah was asked, “What do we do if we find a saying of yours opposing the Book of God?” He replied, “Leave my saying and stick to the Book of God.” The questioner asked, “What if it contradicts a saying of the Prophet?” Abu Hanifah said, “Leave my saying in the face of the Prophet’s saying.” Again he was asked, “What if it goes against the saying of a Companion?” Again he said, “Leave my saying in the face of the Companion’s saying” (Shawkani in Al-Qawl Al-Mufid). Imam Abu Hanifah also declared, “My way (madhhab) is whatever hadith that is proved to be authentic” (Shami 1:50; Al-Fulani in Iqaz, p. 62).
  • The saying of Imam Malik ibn Anas is well-known: “The saying of any person can be accepted or rejected, except for the Prophet of God (peace and blessings be upon him)” (Ibn `Abd Al-Barr and Ibn Hazm; also in Al-Yawaqeet wa Al-Jawahir 2:96). He also said, “I am just a mortal; sometimes I am wrong, sometimes I am right—so check my opinions. Whatever agrees with the Book (the Qu’ran) and the Sunnah, accept it; whatever disagrees with them, reject it” (Al-Fulani in Iqaz, p. 72).
  • Once Imam As-Shafi`i narrated a hadith of the Prophet. Someone from the audience said, “Do you say so as well?” On hearing this, the imam was enraged. His face turned pale and he said, “Woe to you! Which earth would carry me, which sky would shelter me, if I narrate a saying of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and do not hold the same view! Do you see a zunnar (belt worn by non-Muslims) on me? Or have you noticed me coming out of a church? How can I report something from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and not agree with it!”
  • Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal said, “Do not follow me or Malik or Shafi`i or Awza`i or Thawri, but take from where they took (from the Qur’an and authentic Sunnah)” (Al-Fulani and Ibn Al-Qayyim). He also said, “He who rejects a saying of the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) is on the verge of destruction” (Ibn Al-Jawzi).

Read more in this series: "An Introduction to the Sunnah"

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