It is generally agreed that we are in a time when clinging to our deen is difficult and often a source of severe challenge for those trying to do so. Yet we are informed already in our divine sources that this challenge will occur and is in fact a part of the test of remaining steadfast. This brief reminder explores the importance of adhering to the sunnah, and what doing so in these times might entail of social and other implications for the one attempting to do so.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
“Islam began as something strange and will revert to being something strange, so glad tidings to the strangers.” It was said: Who are they, O Messenger of Allah? He said: “Those who are righteous when the people are corrupt.” [i]
And he ﷺ said:
“Ahead of you there lie days of patience, during which being patient will be like grasping a hot coal. The one who does good deeds then will have a reward like that of fifty men who do such deeds. – And someone else added – They said: O Messenger of Allah, the reward of fifty of them? He said: “The reward of fifty of you.” [ii]
It was narrated on the authority of Abu Najih al-Irbad bin Sariyah (ra) who said:
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) delivered an admonition that made our hearts fearful and our eyes tearful. We said, “O Messenger of Allah, it is as if this were a farewell sermon, so advise us.” He said, “I enjoin you to have Taqwa of Allah and that you listen and obey, even if a slave is made a ruler over you. He among you who lives long enough will see many differences. So for you is to observe my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the rightly-principled and rightly-guided successors, holding on to them with your molar teeth. Beware of newly-introduced matters, for every innovation (bid’ah) is an error.
What does it really mean to adhere to the Sunnah? If you were to ask someone, they might mention prayer in the masjid, safeguarding one’s supererogatory prayers, giving sadaqah etc – partly because mustahabb (encouraged) acts are also commonly known as “sunnah” acts. Undoubtedly, these acts are all part of the Sunnah, but the Sunnah is far more than just this. It is to do all obligatory acts and avoid all haram.
Imam Maalik (may Allah have mercy on him) said:
The Sunnah is like the ship of Nooh: whoever boards it will be saved and whoever stays behind will be drowned.
Ultimately, as part of a longer hadith, Anas (RA) reported that the Prophet (ﷺ) said:
So whoever turns away from my Sunnah is not from me.
Priorities: Obligations before Sunan
It is incumbent upon us to give the obligatory acts their due right and to seek nearness to Allah through them first and foremost. They are the priority and there is no point in doing the mustahabb while neglecting the obligatory. In this regard, the scholar Imam Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyyah famously said (A’alaam al-Muwaqqi’een Vol. 2 Page 176):
The Shaytan has misled most people by beautifying for them the performance of certain voluntary acts of worship such as voluntary prayers and voluntary fasting while neglecting other obligatory acts of worship such as enjoining the good and eradicating the evil, to the extent that they do not even make the intention of performing them whenever they are able to.
But thereafter, closeness to Allah (swt) comes through the mustahabb spoken about above. Consider the hadith where the Prophet ﷺ said:
“Allah says: ‘Whoever takes a close friend of Mine as an enemy, I declare war on him. My slave does not draw closer to Me by anything more beloved to Me than that which I have made obligatory upon him, and My slave continues to draw closer to Me by doing naafil (supererogatory) deeds until I love him, and if I love him I will be his hearing with which he hears, his vision with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. If he were to ask of Me, I would surely give to him; if he were to seek refuge with Me, I would surely grant him refuge. I do not hesitate about anything that I want to do as I hesitate to take the soul of a believer, for he hates death and I hate to hurt him.”[iii]
Explaining the content of this hadith, Imam Ibn Rajab al Hanbali (may Allah have mercy on him) said in his famous book Jaami‘ al-‘Uloom wa’l-Hikam:
His close friends who are near to Him may be divided into two categories, the first of which is those who draw near to Him by doing that which is enjoined, which includes doing obligatory duties and avoiding things which are prohibited, because all of that comes under the heading of what Allah has enjoined upon His slaves. The second category is those who draw nearer to Him, after doing obligatory duties, by doing nawafil (supererogatory) deeds.
It is very clearly presented in this hadith that the best way to draw closer to Allah is through the obligatory deeds and thus we must act to establish the faraid firmly in our lives. The fard acts should be seen as a solid, unmovable object. Likewise, we should strive just as strongly to avoid the haram and all its doors. One should rigorously avoid environments where haram is prevalent and, if he slips, hasten towards repentance.
But sometimes we are fooled into prioritising mustahabb acts over obligatory acts, or we are distracted by the mubah so much that it distracts us from the fard. It is important to know our obligations and prioritise them correctly. One should not, for example, indulge in Islamic studies all afternoon and delay ‘asr prayer beyond the recommended time or commence two raka’at of nafl prayer while ignoring an order from his mother. This is one avenue that the Shaytan takes to deceive us.
To strive in performing the mustahabb/supererogatory deeds
What follows from firmly establishing the faraid in one’s life is to reinforce them with the sunan and nawafil.
“and My slave continues to draw closer to Me by performing nawafil”
The Prophet ﷺ came with a unique example – there is not an action of goodness except that he guided us towards it. From the smallest of deeds, such as which foot to enter the masjid or bathroom with, to matters of governance, the Prophet ﷺ left an example to be followed. The least a Muslim should do is seek out the correct method prescribed for the actions s/he undertakes in llife, such as the fiqh of transactions and marriage, the proper way to eat, to deal with neighbours etc.
However, one who truly seeks Allah’s Forgiveness and Mercy would strive beyond these matters and aim for more. Like the virtue of the obligatory over the supererogatory, there is virtue in certain supererogatory acts over others, and the texts clearly point towards the virtue of seeking knowledge, implementing it and spreading it over all other deeds. Allah ﷻ says:
It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear Allah [Faatir 35:28].
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim [iv]
And he ﷺ said:
Knowledge is gained by striving for it
“Whoever follows a path in the pursuit of knowledge, Allaah will make a path to Paradise easy for him [v]
Ibn ‘Abbas, the companion who was one of the most knowledgeable, said:
Be faithful slaves to your Lord, patient and learned.’ And it is said that the good instructor is the one who starts teaching people simple matters of knowledge before more difficult ones.
The virtues of seeking knowledge and it’s evidences are far too numerous to present here, a sure indicator of it’s loftiness. One should strive to the best of their ability to attain what they are able to of knowledge, in order that they may walk the path of adhering to the sunnah through erudite learning.
The essence of the Sunnah: enjoining good & forbidding evil
One of the most overlooked actions from the sunnah today, and among the most “risky” in some people’s eyes, is the enjoining of good and forbiddance of evil. There is a notion that has become widespread in our time that one should practice Islam to the best of their ability and not “judge”. These attitudes unfortunately often lead people to abandon hisbah which is contrary to the commands of the shari’ah. Allah ﷻ says:
You are the best nation produced for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah (Aal ‘Imran 3:110).
We must strive to implement this deed in our daily lives at every opportunity. When we are with our friends and family we need to remind them of Islam and advise them if we see them erring, when there is injustice we must hasten to speak out against it, when there is corruption being spread in the name of Islam we must not allow it to go unanswered. If we abandon this obligation then we risk a great danger. Allah says in the Quran:
Those among the Children of Israel who disbelieved were cursed by the tongue of Dawud (David) and ‘Eesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary). That was because they disobeyed (Allah and the Messengers) and were ever transgressing beyond bounds. They used not to forbid one another from Al-Munkar (wrong, evildoing, sins, polytheism, disbelief) which they committed. Vile indeed was what they used to do [al-Maidah 5:78-79]
Trying to adhere to the sunnah: some practical tips
It can sometimes seem – rather dauntingly – that society is geared solely towards keeping one from being able to practice their deen given the sheer amount of obstacles one faces in that regard. This should not, however, be of particular surprise to the believer who ponders that it is Shaytan’s very mission to see us fail. Allah says:
(Iblees) said: ‘Because You have sent me astray, surely, I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your straight path. Then I will come to them from before them and behind them, from their right and from their left, and You will not find most of them as thankful ones (i.e. they will not be dutiful to You)’ [al-A’raaf 7:16-17].
Considering all the above, here are some practical tips to help us on our path to adhering to the sunnah – in every sense of the word (both as a source of total obligations/prohibitions and as an ideal model of supererogatory acts):
- We will undoubtedly face major trials or hardship throughout life, so it is important to establish some core values, principles and habits that you will not compromise. This can only be done by gaining some core Islamic knowledge, knowing the elements of the deen that never change, and connecting these with our lives practically by pondering on life’s difficulties, their inevitability and how we would react to these. How would we face hardships and how would we – in spite of them – maintain our bond with Allah’s deen?
- We must not underestimate the importance of brotherhood/sisterhood and the jama’ah – maintaining a presence in our local local masajid, communities and more generally keeping in contact with good brothers or sisters who aid us in goodness is of the critical priorities today. It is they who help remind us of the sunnah at a practical, everyday level by living it themselves and striving for better.
- Do not burn yourself out – Set achievable goals and move forward. E.g with prayer, seek first to be consistent in the obligatory prayers, and thereafter in the 12 raka’at of rawatib sunnah prayer, and thereafter to extra prayers such as the Duha prayer, then 2 raka’at of night prayer, then 4, 6 and so on. Build up your deeds, and do not take on too much and then abandon it when overloaded, which is inevitable if the onset is sudden.
- Try to have variety in your ‘ibadah. Don’t fill all your time with completely self-focused works (study or ‘ibadah) or only community volunteer work. It is important for the mind and our nafs to try to have some semblance of balance so that we can serve others as well as improving ourselves in order then to further help others.
- Finding ways to optimise time while doing supererogatory acts of worship is a great way to increase in one’s adherence to elements of the sunnah. For example, reciting daily adhkar and making tasbeeh as one drives.
- Simply starting our actions with “Bismillah” can help bring immense barakah to our actions.
- If you are not able to do a deed for whatever reason, call people towards it so you can reap the rewards regardless. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
The one who guides to something good has a reward similar to that of its doer [Muslim]
- If you commit a sin, do not wallow in regret. It is inevitable that we sin, for every human being is a sinner. The sunnah in this regard teaches us to repent and do a good deed, whether by giving sadaqah, praying 2 raka’at, or going out of our way to help others. The Prophet ﷺ said:
Be conscious of Allah wherever you are. Follow the bad deed with a good one to erase it, and engage others with beautiful character [Related by Tirmidhi].
Through some of these actions, we have the chance to both prepare ourselves in the big moments as well as the small to live lives more directly guided by the sunnah. We ask Allah (swt) hasten us towards the sunnah and make it easy for us to adhere to it.
[i] Narrated by Abu ‘Amr al-Daani in al-Sunan al-Waaridah fi’l-Fitan (1/25) from the hadith of Ibn Mas’ud; classed as sahih by al-Albani in al-Silsilah al-Sahihah (1273); the hadith is also narrated in Sahih Muslim (145).
[ii] Narrated by Abu Dawud (4341); al-Tirmidhi (3085) and he said: it is a hasan hadith. It was classed as sahih by al-Albani in al-Silsilah al-Sahihah (494). In some reports of the hadith it says: “They are the ones who will revive my Sunnah and teach it to the people.”
[iii] Narrated by Al-Bukhari (6502)
[iv] Sunan Ibn Majah 224, Sahih according to Al-Albani
[v] Narrated by al-Bukhari, Kitaab al-‘Ilm, 10