The Spirit of Sunnah

By Muhammad Asad (The Former Leopold Weiss)


      Almost as important as the formal, so to say, legal justification of the Sunnah through the establishment of the historical dependability of a Hadith is the question as to its inner, spiritual justification. Why should an observance of the Sunnah be regarded as indispensable for a life in the true sense of Islam? Is there no other way to the reality of Islam than through the large system of actions and customs, of orders and prohibitions, some of them of an obviously trivial nature, but all of them derived from the life-example of the Prophet? No doubt, he was the greatest of men; but is not the necessity to imitate his life in all its formal details an infringement on the individual freedom of human personality? It is an old objection which unfriendly critics of Islam usually put forward; that the necessity of strictly following the Sunnah was one of the main causes of the subsequent decay of the Islamic world, for such an attitude is supposed to encroach, in the long run, on the liberty of human action and the natural development of society. It is of the greatest importance for the future of Islam, whether we are able to meet this objection or not. Our attitude towards the problem of the Sunnah will determine our future attitude towards Islam.


      We are proud, and justly proud, of the fact that Islam, as a religion, is not based on mystic dogmatism but is always open to the critical inquiry of reason. We have, therefore, the right not only to know that the observance of the Sunnah has been imposed upon us, but also to understand the inherent reasons of its imposition.


      Islam leads man to a unification of all aspects of life. Being a means to that goal, this religion represents in itself a totality of conceptions to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be subtracted. There is no room for eclecticism in Islam. Wherever its teachings are recognized as really pronounced by the Qur’aan or the Prophet, we must accept them in their completeness; otherwise they lose their value. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam to think that being a religion of reason, it leaves its teachings open to individual selection – a claim made possible by a popular misconception of “rationalism”. There is a wide – and by the philosophy of all ages sufficiently recognized – gulf between reason and “rationalism” as it is commonly understood today. The function of reason in regard to religious teachings is of a controlling character; its duty is to watch that nothing is imposed on the human mind which it cannot bear easily, that is, without the aid of philosophical juggleries. So far as Islam is concerned, unprejudiced reason has, time and again, given it its unreserved vote of confidence. That does not mean that everyone who gets in touch with Islam will necessarily accept its teachings as obliging for himself; this is a matter of temperament and – last, but not least – of spiritual illumination. But surely and certainly no unbiased person would contend that there is anything in Islam contrary to reason. No doubt there are things in it beyond the limits of human understanding; but nothing which is contrary to it.


      The role of reason in religious matters is, as we have seen, in the nature of a control – a registration apparatus saying “yes” or “no”, as the case may be. But this is not the case with so-called “rationalism”.  It does not content itself with registration and control, but jumps into the field of speculation; it is not receptive and detached like pure reason; but extremely subjective and temperamental. Reasons know its own limits; but “rationalism” is preposterous in its claim to encompass the world and all mysteries within its own individual circle. In religious matters it hardly even concedes the possibility of certain things; being, temporarily or permanently, beyond human understanding; but it is, at the same time, illogical enough to concede this possibility to science – and so to itself.


      The over-estimation of this unimaginative rationalism is one of the causes why so many modern Muslims refuse to surrender themselves to the guidance of the Prophet. But it does not need a Kant today to prove that human understanding is strictly limited in its possibilities. Our mind is unable, by virtue of its nature, to understand the idea of totality; we can grasp, of all things, their details only. We do not know what infinity or eternity is; we do not even know what life is. In problems of a religion resting on transcendental foundations we, therefore, need a guide whose mind possesses something more than the normal reasoning qualities and the subjective rationalism common to all of us: we need someone who is inspired – in one word, a Prophet. If we believe that the Qur’aan is the Word of God, and that Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was God’s Apostle, we are not only morally but also intellectually bound to follow his guidance blindly. The expression “blindly” does not mean that we should exclude our powers of reasoning. On the contrary, we have to make use of those powers to the best of our ability and knowledge; we have to try to discover the inherent meaning and purpose of the commands transmitted to us by the Prophet. But in any case – whether we are able to understand its ultimate purpose or not – we must obey the order. I should like to illustrate this by the example of a soldier who has been ordered by his general to occupy a certain strategic position. The good soldier will follow and execute the order immediately. If, while doing so, he is able to explain to himself the ultimate strategic purpose which the general had in view, the better for him and for his career; but if the deeper aim which underlies the general’s command does not reveal itself to him at once, he is nevertheless not entitled to give up or even to postpone its execution. We Muslims rely upon our Prophet being the best commander mankind could ever get. We naturally believe that he knew the domain of religion both in its spiritual and its social aspect far better than we ever could. In ordering us to do this or to avoid that, he always had some “strategic” objective in view which he thought to be indispensable for the spiritual or social welfare of man. Sometimes this object is clearly visible, and sometimes it is more or less hidden before the untrained eyes of the average man; sometimes we can understand the deepest aim of the Prophet’s order, and sometimes only the superficial, immediate purpose. Whatever the case may be, we are bound to follow the Prophet’s commands, provided their authenticity is reasonably established. Nothing else matters. Of course, there are commands of the Prophet which are obviously of paramount importance and have precedence over the less important. But never have we the right to disregard any one of them because they appear to us “unessential” – for it is said in the Qur’aan of the Prophet:

"He does not speak of his own desire" (Surah 53:8).


      That is, he speaks only when an objective necessity arises; and he does it because God orders him to do so. And for this reason we are obliged to follow the Prophet’s Sunnah in spirit and in form, if we wish to be true to the spirit of Islam.


      Once the objective necessity, for a Muslim, to follow the Sunnah of his Prophet is established, he has the right, even the duty, to inquire into its role within the religious and social structure of Islam. What is the spiritual meaning of that great, detailed system of laws and rules of conduct which are supposed to pervade the life of a Muslim from his birth to the moment of death, and to regulate his behaviour in the most important as well as in the most insignificant phases of his existence? Or is there, perhaps, no meaning at all? Was there any good in the Prophet’s ordering his followers to do everything in the way he did it? What difference can it make whether I eat with the right or left hand – if both are equally clean? What difference, whether I keep my beard or shave it? Are such things not purely formal? Have they any bearing on the progress of man or on the welfare of society? And if not, why have they been imposed on us?


      It is high time for us, who believe that Islam stands and falls with the observance of the Sunnah, to answer the questions.


      There are, to my knowledge, at least three distinct reasons for the institution of Sunnah.


      The first reason is the training of man, in a methodical way, to live permanently in a state of consciousness, wakefulness and self-control. In the spiritual progress of man, haphazard actions and habits are like a minimum, because they destroy spiritual concentration. Everything is like stumbling blocks in the way of a racing horse; they must be reduced. So to, everything we do should be determined by our will and submitted to our moral control. But in order to be able to do so we must learn to observe ourselves. This necessity, for a Muslim, of permanent self-control has been beautifully expressed by ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab:

"Render to yourselves account about yourselves before you are called upon to render the account."


      And the Prophet said:

"Worship thy Lord as if thou saw Him" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abi Da'ud, Sunan an-Nasa'i).


      It has been pointed out before that the Islamic idea of worship embraces not only the strictly devotional duties but actually the whole of our life. Its goal is the unification of our spiritual and our material selves into one single entity. Our endeavours must be, therefore, clearly directed towards the elimination of the unconscious, uncontrolled factors in our life as much as this is humanly possible. Self-observation is the first step on this way; and the surest method to train oneself in self-observation is to get the habitual, seemingly unimportant, actions of our daily life under control. Those “small” things, those “unimportant” actions and habits are in the context of the mental training we are speaking of, in reality far more important than the “great” activities in our life. The great things are always, by virtue of their greatness, clearly visible; and therefore they mostly remain within the sphere of consciousness. But those other, those “small” things, easily escape our attention and cheat our control. Therefore they are by far the more valuable objects on which we can sharpen our powers of self-control.


      It might be perhaps, in itself, not important with which hand we eat or whether we shave or keep our beard: but it is psychologically of the highest importance to do things according to a systematic resolve: for by doing so we keep ourselves keyed up to a high pitch of self-observation and moral control. This is not an easy matter – for, laziness of the mind is no less real than laziness of the body. If you grow tired and be unable to proceed further. But not so a man ask a man who is accustomed to a sedentary mode of life to walk a long distance, he will soon who throughout the whole of his life has trained himself in walking. For him this kind of muscular exertion is no exertion at all; it is a pleasant bodily action to which he is accustomed. This is a further explanation why the Sunnah covers almost every aspect of human life. If we are constantly called upon to subject all our actions and omissions to conscious discrimination, our power of self-observation grows steadily and in time becomes our second nature. Every day, as long as this training proceeds, our moral laziness diminishes along with it.


      The use of the expression “training” naturally implies that its result is dependent on the consciousness of its performance. The moment the practice of the Sunnah degenerates into mechanical routine it entirely loses its educative value. Such has been the case with the Muslims during the last centuries. When the Companions of the Prophet and the generations which succeeded them made the attempt to conform every detail of their existence to the example of the Master, they did it in conscious surrender to a directive will that would shape their life in the spirit of the Qur’aan. Owing to this conscious resolve they could benefit by the training through Sunnah to the full extent. It is not the fault of the system if the Muslims of later times did not make the right use of the psychological avenues it opened. This omission was probably due, in a very large measure, to the influence of Sufism with its more or less pronounced contempt of the active and its emphasis on the purely receptive energies in man. As the practice of Sunnah had been already established as a component of Islamic religious life since the beginning of Islam, Sufism did not succeed in uprooting it in principle. But it succeeded in neutralising its active vigour and so, to a certain extent, its utility. The Sunnah remained, for the Sufis, an ideogram of only Platonic importance, with a mystical background; for the theologians and legists, a system of laws; and for the Muslim masses nothing but a hollow shell without any living meaning. But notwithstanding the failure of the Muslims to benefit from the teachings of the Holy Qur’aan and their interpretation through the Sunnah of the Prophet, the idea underlying the teachings as well as their interpretation has remained intact, and there is no reason why it could not be put into practice again. The real objective of the Sunnah is not, as our antagonistic critics presume, the breeding of Pharisees and dry formalists, but of conscious, determined, deep-hearted men of action. Men and women of such a style were the Companions of the Prophet. The permanent consciousness, inner wakefulness and sense of responsibility in all they did – there lies the secret of their miraculous efficiency and their startling historical success.


      This is the first and, so to say, individual aspect of the Sunnah. Its second aspect is its social importance and utility. There can be hardly any doubt that most of the social conflicts are due to men’s misunderstanding each other’s actions and intentions. The cause of such a misunderstanding is the extreme variety of temperaments and inclinations in the individual members of the society. Now different temperaments force different habits on men, and those different habits, hardened through the usage of long years, become barriers between individuals. If, on the contrary, several individuals happen to have identical habits throughout their life, there is every probability of their mutual relations being sympathetic and their minds ready to understand each other. Therefore Islam, which is equally concerned with social as well as with individual welfare, makes it an essential point that the individual members of the society should be systematically induced to make their habits and customs resemble each other, however different their social or economic status be in each case.


      But beyond this, the Sunnah in its so-called “rigidity” renders even a greater service to society; it makes it coherent and stable in form and precludes the development of antagonisms and conflicts such as we have, under the name of “social questions”, caused a considerable confusion in Western society. Such social questions arise when certain institutions or customs are felt to be imperfect or defective, and are therefore open to criticism and progressive changes. But for the Muslims – that is for those who consider themselves bound by the Law of the Qur’aan and, consequently, by the injunctions given by the Prophet – the conditions of the society must have a settled appearance, because they are supposed to be of transcendental origin. As long as there is no doubt as to this origin, no need and no desire will arise to question the social organisation in its fundamentals. It is only thus that we can conceive a practical possibility for the Qur’aanic postulate that the Muslims should be like a “solid building”. If we apply this principle to our communal life, there should be no necessity for the society to spend its energies on side-issues and partial “reforms” which, owing to their very nature, can have only passing value. Freed from dialectical confusion and built on the solid pedestal of the Divine Law and the life-example of our Prophet, Islamic society could use all its force on problems of real material and intellectual welfare, thus paving the way for the individual in his spiritual endeavours. This, and nothing else, is the real religious objective of the Islamic social organisation.


      And now we come to the third aspect of the Sunnah and the necessity of our strictly following it.


      In this system many details of our daily life we base on the example set by the Prophet. Whatever we do, we are permanently compelled to think of a corresponding doing or saying of the Prophet. Thus the personality of the Greatest Man becomes deeply embodied in the very routine of our daily life, and his spiritual influence is made a real, ever-recurring factor in our existence. Consciously and subconsciously we are led to study the Prophet’s attitude in this or that matter; we learn to regard him not only as the bearer of a moral revelation but also as the guide towards a perfect life. It is here that we must decide whether we wish to regard the Prophet as a mere wise man among many other wise men, or as the supreme Messenger of God always acting under Divine inspiration. The viewpoint of the Holy Qur’aan in this matter is clear beyond any possibility of misunderstanding. A man who is designed as the Last of the Prophets and a “Mercy to the Worlds” cannot be but permanently inspired. To reject his guidance, or certain elements of it, would mean nothing less than to reject or under-estimate God’s own guidance. It would mean further, in the logical continuation of this thought, that the entire message of Islam was not intended to be a final, but only an alternative solution of man’s problems, and that it is left to our discretion to choose this or some other, perhaps equally true and useful, solution. This easy – because morally and practically not in the least obliging – principle might lead us anywhere, but surely not to the spirit of Islam, of which it is said in the Qur’aan:


      “Today I have made perfect for you your religion, and fulfilled My favour unto you, and chosen Islam as your religion” (Surah 5:3).  


      We regard Islam as superior to all other religious systems because it embraces life in its totality. It takes World and Hereafter, soul and body, individual and society, equally into consideration. It takes into consideration not only the lofty possibilities of the human nature, but also its inherent limitations and weaknesses. It does not impose the impossible upon us, but directs us how to make the best use of our possibilities and to reach a higher plane of reality where there is no cleavage and no antagonism between Idea and Action. It is not a way among others, but the way; and the Man who gave us this teaching is not just one guide among others, but the Guide. To follow all he did and ordered is to follow Islam; to discard his Sunnah is to discard the reality of Islam.






Qur'aan: Meaning & Explanatory


Ethics in Islam

The Prophet's Sermons

Selected Khutbat

Sayings of The Prophet (S.A.W.)



Islamic Poems

Islamic Quizzes

Colour Me

Other Islamic Links

About Us

Contact Us