The Sunnah — the "Way" of the Prophet Muhammad

Sunday

The following is one chapter of Islam 101:



In Islam, Muhammad is considered al-insan al-kamil (the "ideal man"). Muhammad is in no way considered divine, nor is he worshipped (no image of Muhammad is permitted lest it encourage idolatry), but he is the model par excellence for all Muslims in how they should conduct themselves.



It is through Muhammad's personal teachings and actions — which make up the "way of the Prophet," the Sunnah — that Muslims discern what is a good and holy life. Details about the Prophet — how he lived, what he did, his non-Quranic utterances, his personal habits — are indispensable knowledge for any faithful Muslim.



Knowledge of the Sunnah comes primarily from the hadiths ("reports") about Muhammad's life, which were passed down orally until codified in the eighth century AD, some hundred years after Muhammad's death.



The hadiths comprise the most important body of Islamic texts after the Quran; they are basically a collection of anecdotes about Muhammad's life believed to have originated with those who knew him personally.



There are thousands upon thousands of hadiths, some running to multiple pages, some barely a few lines in length.



When the hadiths were first compiled in the eighth century AD, it became obvious that many were inauthentic. The early Muslim scholars of hadith spent tremendous labor trying to determine which hadiths were authoritative and which were suspect.



The hadiths here come exclusively from the most reliable and authoritative collection, Sahih Al-Bukhari, recognized as sound by all schools of Islamic scholarship, translated by a Muslim scholar and which may be found here.



Different translations of hadiths can vary in their breakdown of volume, book, and number, but the content is the same.



For each hadith, the classifying information is listed first, then the name of the originator of the hadith (generally someone who knew Muhammad personally), and then the content itself. While the absolute authenticity of even a sound hadith is hardly assured, they are nonetheless accepted as authoritative within an Islamic context.



Because Muhammad is himself the measuring stick of morality, his actions are not judged according to an independent moral standard but rather establish what the standard for Muslims properly is.



Volume 7, Book 62, Number 88; narrated Ursa: The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death).


Volume 8, Book 82, Number 795; narrated Anas: The Prophet cut off the hands and feet of the men belonging to the tribe of Uraina and did not cauterise (their bleeding limbs) till they died.



Volume 2, Book 23, Number 413; narrated Abdullah bin Umar: The Jews {of Medina} brought to the Prophet a man and a woman from amongst them who have committed (adultery) illegal sexual intercourse. He ordered both of them to be stoned (to death), near the place of offering the funeral prayers beside the mosque.



Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57; narrated Ikrima: Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to Ali {the fourth Caliph} and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn 'Abbas who said, "If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah's Apostle forbade it, saying, "Do not punish anybody with Allah's punishment (fire). "I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah's Apostle, "Whoever changes his Islamic religion, then kill him."



Volume 1, Book 2, Number 25; narrated Abu Huraira: Allah's Apostle was asked, "What is the best deed?" He replied, "To believe in Allah and His Apostle (Muhammad). The questioner then asked, "What is the next (in goodness)?" He replied, "To participate in Jihad (religious fighting) in Allah's Cause."



In Islam, there is no "natural" sense of morality or justice that transcends the specific examples and injunctions outlined in the Quran and the Sunnah. Because Muhammad is considered Allah's final prophet and the Quran the eternal, unalterable words of Allah himself, there is also no evolving morality that permits the modification or integration of Islamic morality with that from other sources. The entire Islamic moral universe derives solely from the life and teachings of Muhammad.



Along with the reliable hadiths, a further source of accepted knowledge about Muhammad comes from the Sira (life) of the Prophet, composed by one of Islam's great scholars, Muhammad bin Ishaq, in the eighth century AD.


Muhammad's prophetic career is meaningfully divided into two segments: the first in Mecca, where he labored for fourteen years to make converts to Islam; and later in the city of Medina (The City of the Apostle of God), where he became a powerful political and military leader.



In Mecca, we see a quasi-Biblical figure, preaching repentance and charity, harassed and rejected by those around him; later, in Medina, we see an able commander and strategist who systematically conquered and killed those who opposed him.



It is the later years of Muhammad's life, from 622 AD to his death in 632, that are rarely broached in polite company. In 622, when the Prophet was better than fifty years old, he and his followers made the Hijra (emigration or flight), from Mecca to the oasis of Yathrib — later renamed Medina — some 200 miles to the north. Muhammad's new monotheism had angered the pagan leaders of Mecca, and the flight to Medina was precipitated by a probable attempt on Muhammad's life.



Muhammad had sent emissaries to Medina to ensure his welcome. He was accepted by the Medinan tribes as the leader of the Muslims and as arbiter of inter-tribal disputes.



Shortly before Muhammad fled the hostility of Mecca, a new batch of Muslim converts pledged their loyalty to him on a hill outside Mecca called Aqaba. Ishaq here conveys in the Sira the significance of this event:



Sira, p208: When God gave permission to his Apostle to fight, the second {oath of allegiance at} Aqaba contained conditions involving war which were not in the first act of fealty. Now they {Muhammad's followers} bound themselves to war against all and sundry for God and his Apostle, while he promised them for faithful service thus the reward of paradise.

That Muhammad's nascent religion underwent a significant change at this point is plain. The scholarly Ishaq clearly intends to impress on his (Muslim) readers that, while in its early years, Islam was a relatively tolerant creed that would "endure insult and forgive the ignorant," Allah soon required Muslims "to war against all and sundry for God and his Apostle."



The Islamic calendar testifies to the paramouncy of the Hijra by setting year one from the date of its occurrence. The year of the Hijra, 622 AD, is considered more significant than the year of Muhammad's birth or death or that of the first Quranic revelation because Islam is first and foremost a political-military enterprise. It was only when Muhammad left Mecca with his paramilitary band that Islam achieved its proper political-military articulation.



The years of the Islamic calendar (which employs lunar months) are designated in English "AH" or "After Hijra."




See a Glossary Of Islamic Terms for definitions.

Islam 101 was written by Gregory M. Davis, author of Religion of Peace?: Islam's War Against the World, and the producer/director of Islam: What the West Needs to Know.

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