The teaching of the religion or Allah’s Deen is through revelation of the Book to the Messengers of God or the prophets. The revelations are connected with the different phases in the prophetic mission and incidents. It was also therefore experiential learning for the prophet and the people of his times. The teaching is also by way of the stories of the previous prophets and their people. The prophet is also cited as the best model to follow since he epitomizes the Book in his words and deeds in the matter of following the religion as detailed in the Scriptures or revelations. However, when we talk about the religious requirement to follow the Sunnat of the prophets, which includes besides their example in religious matters, their personal preferences, way of dressing, dietary habits etc., is such a requirement demanded by the scriptures? Do any of the Scriptures ask us to follow the Sunnat of the prophets? Let us examine the evidence from the Quran.
Sunnat which has the trilateral root Sīnnūnnūn occurs 16 times in the Quran and only once does it refer to the practices of people as under.
“….and guide you to the [good] practices (Sunana) of those before you” 4:26
We are to follow the Quran which guides us to the good practices (Sunana) of previous people. We are not asked to follow the Sunana of good people directly, but take the guidance from the Quran. Taking guidance directly has the problem that besides good practices, people may also have a few bad practices. The prophets were also not above practices that were looked upon with disapproval by Allah as we shall see.
The remaining 15 occurrences of the word in 11 different verses, describe the Sunnat or the practice of Allah. There is no verse in the Quran that refers to the Sunnat of the prophets. The prophets follow Allah and are an example to follow in the worship of Allah and in all matters of religion but there is no command to follow their Sunnat which would include their personal ways, preferences and practices.
“Similar situations (Sunanum) [as yours] have passed on before you, so proceed throughout the earth and observe how was the end of those who denied” (3:137)
The verse above speaks about repeating patterns. History repeats itself because Allah does not change His Sunnat or ways.
Say to those Kafaru (those warring against the Prophet and hindering him) [that] if they cease (from hostilities), what has previously occurred will be forgiven for them (all their past acts of hostility and persecution). But if they return [to hostility] – then the precedent (Sunnatu) of the former [rebellious] peoples has already taken place (they have already been punished on the battle field. This verse was after the battle of Badr). 8:38
[That is Our] established way (Sunnata) for those We had sent before you of Our messengers; and you will not find in Our way (liSunnatina) any alteration. 17:77
Also 4:26, 15:13, 18:55, 33:38, 33:62, 35:43, 40:85, 48:23,
The Command to Follow the Prophets
We are asked to follow the prophets and the prophets instruct us in the religion of Allah. The Quran asks us to follow them in their religion and not in their Sunnat.
Without doubt, among men, the nearest of kin to Abraham, are those who follow him, as are also this Prophet and those who believe: And Allah is the Protector of those who have faith. (3:68)
Say, “Allah has told the truth. So follow the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth; and he was not of the polytheists.” (3:95)
And who is better in religion than one who submits himself to Allah while being a doer of good and follows the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth? And Allah took Abraham as an intimate friend. 4:125
Also 16:123 in which we are asked to follow the Millat-e-Ibrahim or his religion.
We are to follow the religion of Abraham and not his Sunnat.
Follow Jesus (pbuh) 3:53, 3:55,
Follow the Messenger Muhammad (pbuh)
Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered prophet, whom they find written in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel, who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them. So they who have believed in him, honored him, supported him and followed the light which was sent down with him – it is those who will be the successful. (7:157)
Also 2:143, 3:20, 3:31
The scope of what we are asked to follow the Messenger Muhammad (pbuh) is detailed in the cited verse 7:157. It does not include the Sunnat of the prophet but the religion of Allah only.
Further Evidence That the Command to Follow the Prophets Excludes Their Sunnat
Take the example of Jesus (pbuh) who never married. If we are to follow his Sunnat, then we should also not marry. Conversely, do we marry because it is the Sunnat of our Prophet? There is no command or religious duty to marry. If we marry, it is not because it is the Sunnat of our prophet, but because there is a permission to marry and we have a need or desire to get married and a religious requirement to remain sexually restricted to only our spouse. So, follow the messenger does not mean follow the messenger in non-religious matters also. You may, if you choose to, but that is not part of your religion.
Excellent Examples to Follow
The root is Hamza Sīnwāw (Uswatun)
The Quran asks us to follow a specific example of Abraham and his followers and the example of Muhammad (pbuh).
There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent example (Uswatun Hasana) for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and [who] remembers Allah often. (33:21)
The verse draws attention to the prophet’s example as far as belief and hope in Allah and the Last Day and Allah’s remembrance is concerned. It is in these matters particularly; the example must be followed. There is not even a hint that his Sunnat in matters outside the religion must be followed.
There has already been for you an excellent example in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their people, “Indeed, we are disassociated from you and from whatever you worship other than Allah. We have denied you, and there has appeared between us and you animosity and hatred forever until you believe in Allah alone” except for the saying of Abraham to his father, “I will surely ask forgiveness for you, but I have not [power to do] for you anything against Allah. Our Lord, upon You we have relied, and to You we have returned, and to You is the destination. (60:4)
There has certainly been for you in them (Abraham and his followers) an excellent example for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day. And whoever turns away – then indeed, Allah is the Free of need, the Praiseworthy.(60:6)
There is an example of Abraham and his followers which is recommended to be followed and another example of Abraham when he prayed for his father that is mentioned with disapproval which is not to be followed.
Clearly, the cited verses of the Quran draw attention to the example of the prophets in certain matters approvingly for emulation and, with disapproval in a matter that must be avoided. These cannot be taken as a command to follow their Sunnat in matters that are not connected with the religion as enunciated in the Quran.
Following the Prophet’s Sunnat in our Salat
The Quran speaks of the requirement to offer regular Salat at prescribed times of the day, preferably in congregation. This is a religious requirement and we follow the example of our prophet because we are asked to follow his example in all religious matters. There is an unbroken tradition of offering Salat 5 times a day and we learn the same from our elders and pass on the tradition to our children. Where is the problem or scope for any dispute about it? The Quran mentions the positions also – standing, bowing, prostrating and since this is prescribed as a religious duty in which we are to follow the example of our Prophet, we do so.
The question of tradition can be disputed when the practice varies since the Shia follow a different ritual in their congregational prayer from the Sunni. Ritual is important in what we perform in congregation, else ritual has less importance. Ritual binds people and therefore important but serves no other purpose. So, if you are praying alongside the Shia, follow their ritual to bind with them and if you are praying alongside the Sunni, follow theirs. Binding with fellow Muslims is good and you will be rewarded for it, and most certainly not punished if you follow the rituals of people other than your own sect. You can also pray occasionally with the Jews and the Christians, the only caveat being, you do not do anything that is prohibited in the Quran which is become like them leaving your own religion.
The Quran Guides, the Ahadith Misguide
The Quran is the complete and only reliable guide to following the religion of Allah and since we are to follow our Prophet in all religious matters, there cannot be any better guide than the Book. If you follow any other book, the onus is on you that you do not go against the letter and spirit of the Quran in any manner. Beyond any doubt, the Quran does not ask us to follow the Sunnat of the Prophet or the Sunnat of any of the prophets, unless their Sunnat pertains to the religion and the commands and prohibitions of Allah. Even in these matters, you are asked to follow their personal example from personal experience or from what the Quran reports was their practice with approval.
Since the Prophet is not in our midst, the only reliable guide to his Sunnat in religious matters is the Quran and not the alleged sayings and practices of the Prophet based on hearsay which is what the Ahadith are. We need to be even more circumspect when the Ahadith contradict the Quran which is often the case.
The Ahadith were compiled in the 9th century by At-Tirmidhi (Uzbek died 892), Imam Bukhari – (Uzbek died 870), Abu-Dawud (Persian died 889), Ibn Majah (Persian died 887), Al-Nasai (Persian died 915), Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (Persian died 875), Ibn Hanbal (Arab died 855) and several others. The books of the first six compilers form part of the Kutub Al-Sittah or the six books. The fact that all the six major compilers were contemporaries in the era of Islam’s Golden period under the Abbasid dynasty could be because the compilation may have been a political project to bend Islam to the political compulsions of the Caliph and the Mullahs. The Ahadith contradict the Quran on every subject and if these alleged sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) are authentic, then we should wonder whether the Prophet spent all his life preaching against the message of the Quran! Clearly this is unthinkable, and therefore we must reject the Ahadith as the work of Satan and the alleged sayings which contradict the Quran as blaspheming the Prophet and the Quran.
The over emphasis in our theology on following the Sunnat of the Prophet is only to make the Ahadith central to a Muslim’s faith since there is no other source for knowing the Sunnat of the prophet. Deifying the prophets is a common human failing and this human weakness has been cleverly exploited. The Muslims are made to think that they are loving and honoring the Prophet by following his Sunnat, when, they are being misled on his real Sunnat in religious matters, for which the only authentic source is the Quran and not the unreliable Ahadith.
*Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to New Age Islam where this article was published