What Sunnah means
The word sunnah means habit or a certain fixed way of doing things, done constantly and consistently and without any variation.
There is the sunnah of Allah, which is described in the Qur'an, in which you find that Allah does certain things with no change in His methodology, whether by increase or decrease. With the sunnah of Allah, things follow a consistent pattern, from the rotation of the earth around the sun to the rewards or retributions in this life and the hereafter for those who follow or deny the course of action commanded by Allah.
With reference to the Prophet SAW, the sunnah means his fixed customs or habits that he does regularly, ranging from the one that he does all the time without fail, to the ones that he does occasionally or only under certain circumstances. It is not to be confused with his teachings to us, which are mandatory for us to implement. This article deals with the sunnah of the Prophet SAW.
People mistakenly believe that the sunnah of the Prophet SAW merely refers to a set of regulations or commandments. Many of us today try to implement the sunnah on others by going directly to the rules and regulations of Islam. In fact, the sunnah is more encompassing than this. In order to implement it properly, there are a few things that we need to understand and appreciate first.
Who are we following?
It is human nature that if we love and admire someone, we would like to imitate him, or at least, do the things that please him. We would not simply follow the footsteps of a stranger or a person whose manner is despicable. To gain a deeper appreciation of why we implement the sunnah in our lives, we should understand the man who we are trying to imitate.
If we study the sequence of revelations, the first few years had little to do with commands and prohibitions on Islam. Instead, Allah introduced Himself to us, little by little. Most of the early revelations were to call people towards Allah by the descriptions of Allah's characteristics, might and attributes. Allah did not introduce himself to us through fiqh or regulations, but rather, He slowly acquainted us with tawhid, the Oneness of Allah. The deeper our understanding of who Allah is, the more we are inclined to love and obey Him.
Similarly when we try to implement the sunnah of the Prophet SAW, we should refrain from rushing into the do's and don'ts. Instead, we should first examine or understand and familiarise ourselves with his character. The more we get acquainted with his qualities and manner, the more we will cultivate our love and attachment to him. The more we understand what Allah says about Muhammad SAW and realise the esteem that Allah has for him, the more we will understand why he should be our role model, and why we are required to follow his sunnah.
What can we learn from Nabi Muhammad's SAW life?
A study of the lives of the previous Prophets and Messengers will show that Allah had chosen them to carry His Message for a certain time, place and nation. These were men of high calibre, as one cannot persuade others to the path of Allah if he himself has bad manners and lacks quality. Of these Prophets, five were selected as the greatest – the Ulul Azm. Each of them had different qualities and was granted different miracles to suit their communities. These great five Prophets and Messengers were Nuh AS, Ibrahim AS, Musa AS, Isa AS and finally Muhammad SAW, the seal of the prophets. Being the final Prophet and Messenger on earth, Allah had chosen him to be the best of mankind, in order for him to be able to transmit a message and a way of life that will apply to all of mankind and endure until the Day of Judgment.
While we are forbidden to worship Rasulullah SAW, we are taught to respect him. This respect is an extension of our respect for Allah, for if we were to obey Allah, we would respect whoever Allah elevates as part of our obedience to Him.
The Prophet SAW came from the best lineage amongst the Qurayshi tribe. Notwithstanding his noble ancestry tracing back to Ibrahim AS, his life was one of hardship. He was orphaned at a young age, illiterate, and lived under difficult circumstances. The significance of this is to demonstrate to the rest of us that one does not need to carry wealth and status to spread Islam. What is truly important is the sincerity of the heart, humbleness of the spirit and the purity of the soul, all of which were possessed by Prophet Muhammad SAW.
His good manners spoke volumes about his character. For example, it was his exemplary behaviour and honesty that caught the attention of Khadija RA, who offered herself in marriage to him.
When we profess to carry the sunnah, the first thing that will be scrutinised by others will be our manner and behaviour. If we claim that we are the followers of the sunnah, but our behaviour is harsh, unsympathetic and rude, how can we claim to be the messenger of the sunnah? We cannot assert this claim if we do not carry in us any mercy, manner or caring for mankind.
If we claim to be following the sunnah, it does not mean that simply preaching the rules and scolding those around us will discharge our duties. The imitation of the Prophet's SAW way of doing things goes to the foundation of his character, and essentially, it is important that we also reflect his beautiful manners and mercy to mankind in our actions.