Clarifying the Sunnah (Actions, Sayings and Tacit Approval) of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
This article was prompted by a visit one day by two groups of dedicated, young, practicing Muslims. There had been a heated debate on two issues. One was about whether or not our Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had ever spoken or acted from his own desire, or had he always spoke by revelation. The second issue was regarding whether or not Muslims must follow the Prophet (pbuh) in everything: emulate all of his actions and follow all of his orders.
I told the young men that this was not the first time these questions have been raised. Indeed, throughout the life of the ummah, many Muslims have been perplexed about these issues and have sought answers. Sometimes these matters provoke arguments even to the extent that people accuse one another of being deviant and going astray. For over a thousand years, Muslims have been discussing these issues under titles such as “Af’al al-Rasul” (actions of the Messenger) and “Ijtihadat al-Rasul” (self-decisions of the Messenger). May Allah continue blessing our legal theorists (usuliyyun).
The roots of this discourse can be traced back to the understanding of certain verses in the Qur’an as well as texts within the Sunnah/hadith and sirah. There are verses commanding Muslims to imitate, obey and emulate the Prophet as he is the Muslim’s best example. Verses have told us that the Prophet does not speak of his own desire and that he follows only that which was revealed to him. On the other hand, there are other Qur’anic verses, hadith, and historical incidents that clearly indicate that the Prophet did use his own opinion and judgment at times. Furthermore, there is evidence that the Prophet did things whereof Allah corrected or softly reprimanded him.
Oft cited verses concerning lack of choice: “[the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)] He does not speak of his own desire ● It is but a revelation which is sent down [to him]● One mighty in power has taught him”; Al-Najm, 53:2-5; and “Say (O Prophet) I am not a novel Messenger. I do not know what shall befall you nor shall befall me. I only follow that which is revealed to me…” Al-Ahqaf, 46:9.
Some of the verses frequently mentioned concerning obeying and imitating the Prophet (pbuh): “O you who believe, obey Allah and obey His Messenger and do not turn away from him after hearing it”; Al-Anfal, 8:20. “Say (O Muhammad to Muslims) if you love Allah, then follow me; Allah will love you and forgive your sins”; Ali Imran, 3:31. “There is indeed the best model for you in the Messenger of Allah, for every person who looks forward to Allah and the last Day”; Al-Ahzab, 33:21.
Verses which indicate that the Prophet spoke and acted upon his own opinion: “O Prophet why do you make unlawful that which has made lawful for you? Is it because you seek to please your wives?“; Al-Tahrim, 66:1. “And never say about any matter, I will do this tomorrow ● except [with the saying] if Allah wills”; Al-Kahf, 18:23-24. “May Allah forgive you (Muhammad, pbuh). Why did you give them permission to remain behind?” Al-Tawbah, 9:43. Included in this category are the verses wherein Allah gently reprimanded His Prophet as in surah ‘Abasa: “He (the Prophet) frowned and turned [his face] away ● because there came up to him the blind man ● And what would make you know that he might reform ● or receive the admonition and benefit”; ‘Abasa, 80:1-4.
Connecting the Dots and Clarifying the Apparent Contradictions
The verses from Al-Najm above refer to “tabligh,” the promulgation and proclamation of the Qur’anic message, and to the Prophet (pbuh) concerning his fatawa or religious decisions. In these situations the Prophet is dealing with the revelation. This is also the case when he explains the meaning of the Qur’an by demonstrating how to pray, make wudu, fast, etc. Similarly, the verses quoted from Al-Anfal which include the command “obey His Messenger” fall into this category – actions pertaining directly with revelation. Hence, clearly there is no wavering or choice either for our dear Prophet (pbuh) or for those who follow him.
The verses mentioned above from Ali Imran “… if you love Allah, then follow me…” and Al-Ahzab, “…the best model for you [is] in the Messenger of Allah…” refer to Qur’anic injunctions and physical ibadat such as how to perform prayer, hajj and the required amounts for zakah. Formal Islamic terms for this are mutaba’ah, al-tassi and uswah meaning taking the behavior of the Prophet as a strict example and not deviating from it.
Nonetheless, there were some circumstances where Sahabah were perplexed about carrying out a command or wanted to know if they had a choice in following it. Frequently, the end result was that the Prophet had made a choice that the Sahaba were not forced to follow. An example of this is the famous hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari and other texts wherein the Prophet (pbuh) said to those with him “la yusalliyanna ahad al-Asr illa fi bani Qurayzah.” “None of you should pray ‘Asr prayer until we reach the place of Bani Qurayzah.” Some Sahabah feared that the time for ‘Asr was ending so they prayed before reaching Bani Qurayzah while others did not. When the Prophet asked those who prayed (before reaching Bani Qurayzah) why they prayed, their answer was that they believed the sun was going to set so they prayed (before the time of ‘Asr elapsed). The Prophet did not blame or fault them at all. Indeed, this hadith helped to establish the principle and plant the seed of ijtihad.
Another example of his (pbuh) consulting the Sahabah concerned the case of Barirah, the Abyssinian friend of the Prophet’s wife Aisha. Barirah had become freed from slavery and decided to leave her husband. He followed her in the streets begging her to reconsider. The Prophet felt sympathy with his situation and asked Barirah to consider his request. She asked, “Are you commanding me or advising?” The Prophet replied “I am just advising,” and then she said, “No, I am not going back to him.”
Another incident was when the Prophet ordered his companions – except those who had brought along their hadi, sacrifice – to assume the ihram for umrah instead of Hajj. Some Sahabah hesitated to do so until the Prophet said, “If I had known before what I came to know now, I would not have brought the hadi; had there been no hadi with me, I would have finished my Ihram.”.
In the beginning of the battle of Badr, the Prophet camped with his army at a particular place. Al-Habab ibn Mundhir asked the Prophet, “Did you camp here based on revelation or is this your own opinion and war strategy?” The Prophet replied, “No, it is a matter of opinion and war strategy.” Ibn Mundhir, thereupon, suggested a strategically better place to camp and the Prophet promptly accepted.
Another compelling case wherein the Prophet expressed his own opinion is in the hadith popularly known as the hadith of ta’bir al-Nakhl, “pollination of the date palms.” In this incident, the Prophet was passing by some gardens and found some people of Medinah artificially pollinating their palm trees. He advised them not to. Consequently, the harvest was not as substantial as it had been in past years. When they complained to him, he said, “I am only a human being. When I give directions in matters of your deen (religion), you should follow them and when I tell you something on my own, I am but a human being” (Muslim, Kitaab al-Fadhaail, Narrative No. 4357). In another narration he said, “You know your worldly affairs better.”
The behavior of the Prophet attributed to his nature or natural disposition such as how he ate, drank, walked and sat are excluded from strict adherence and imitation except where there is a specific command; and even so, there is some disagreement in that regard. Otherwise, Muslims are not required to imitate him in these “natural” areas for they do not have anything to do with ibadat. If one emulates him out of love, however, he or she will be, hopefully, rewarded.
Thus, except for those verses of ibadat – which there is no choice for the Prophet or his ummah – Allah has encouraged or commanded the Prophet to act upon his own judgment or opinion, and to consult with the Sahabah. Consultation means exchanging and soliciting ideas as when He, the Great and the Glorious, said “wa sha wirhum fi al-amr” (Ali Imran, 3:159) “And consult them in the affairs [concerning you and them].”
One last closing example is when the Prophet told the leaders of the Sahabah at the Battle of the Trench that he wanted to give half of the date trees of Medinah to Bani Ghatafan so they would break away from the enemies of the Muslims in that battle. Sa’d ibn Mu’adh and Sa’d ibn ‘Ubadah advised him not to give the enemy anything. The Prophet accepted their view.
May Allah bless the Sahabah for their ability to perceive and understand when the Prophet used his own opinion and judgment; they knew when to ask ‘is this wahy or your opinion?’
May this clarify things for us and give us lessons for reflection.
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