Chaplain Chats – Wudu’ Refresher

So you know how to make wudu’, huh? Well here are the notes from our workshop we conducted on the subject of wudu’ [ablution] on March 20th, 2012. The source we used was the text commonly referred to by the Maliki’s as “al-Matn al-Akhdari” by Abu Zayd ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Muhammad al-Sagir al-Akhdari, known more succinctly as al-Akhdari. A copy of the text in PDF format can be downloaded here. What’s discussed here are bullet points from al-Akhdari’s text.

al-Taharah [ritual purity]/الطهارة.

al-Taharah can be broken down into two categories: taharah hadath/طهارة حدث and taharah khubth/طهارة خبث:

  1. Hadath: that which invalidates one’s wudu’ by relieving oneself, passing wind, deep sleep, etc.
  2. Khubth: that which disallows one from praying due to the presence of some time of filth or impurity such as blood, urine, etc.

The conditions for water: That it does not change its three main characteristics:

  1. Color.
  2. Taste.
  3. Smell/odor.

There are a few exceptions here that al-Akhdari points out. If water contains a material that does not change its natural state, such as sand, then one can still use this to make wudu’. Another is salt: even though salt does dissolve in water and can change its taste [#2 above], it’s still considered to be a natural state for water [i.e., sea water/salt water naturally occurs] and thus can still be used for wudu’.

Impurities: some notes and conditions:

  • If a garment has an impurity on it that can be seen with the naked eye, then one simply cleans the spot in question or removed the garment if it cannot be cleaned.
  • If a garment has an impurity that cannot be seen with the naked eye, then the entire garment must be cleaned.
  • If one knows there is the presence of some impurity but is doubtful if it has come into contact with your clothes [i.e., walking down the street and one sees excrement or urine from a dog but one’s not sure if one’s clothes have come into contact with that impurity] then one sprinkles some water on that area to remove the impurity instead of washing the garment/ومن شك في إصابة النجاسة نضح.
  • If one is certain that one’s clothing for instance, has definitely come in contact with something [say some type of liquid] but you are uncertain if that substance [here liquid] is pure or impure, then one is not required to take any action because the Shari’ah only deals with certainty.
  • If one remembers the presence of some impurity while s/he is praying and the prayer is still in the mukhtar time [i.e., the early part of the prayer] then one should cut his or her prayer, remove the impurity [or change garments if it cannot be cleaned] and repeat the prayer.
  • If one remembers after the prayer [] and again, the prayer is still its mukhtar/مختار time, then one should repeat the prayer so long as one will not enter into the dururi/ضروري time [i.e., the prayer would be getting late]. If it is the latter case [in the dururi period] then one does not repeat the prayer.

Obligatory acts of wudu’. They are seven [*note: the Maliki’s consider the basmallah/بسملة “saying bismillah” a pure act of worship and thus must be said outside of the lavatory]:

  1. Intention/النية. For the Maliki’s it’s preferred to be done silently, “in the heart.”
  2. Washing the face from the hairline to the chin [for brothers this includes the beard and the area it covers]/غسل الوجه.
  3. Washing the hands including the elbow joint/غسل اليدين إلى المرفقين. In Arabic the “yad” also includes the arm.
  4. Passing the hand over the head once [as we’ll see, the return wipe is part of the fadilah or “Sunnah” aspects of wudu’/مسح الرأس.
  5. Washing the feet including the ankle bone/غسل الرجلين إلى الحعبين.
  6. Application of the water must be done with the hand, including the feet [unlike the Hanafis]/الدلك.
  7. Continuity without the drying of the limbs: in other words, one may pause one’s wudu’ so long as none of the limbs dry/الفور. If they do before the final limb is washed, the wudu’ is broken and must be redone.

*Note: for the Maliki’s, it is not required to do the fara’id/الفرائض obligatory acts in order/الترتيب [tartib]. This is considered a fadilah/Sunnah.

Sunnah acts of wudu’:

  1. Washing the hands including the wrist bones [from the beginning of wudu’/غسل اليدين الكوعين.
  2. Swishing water in the mouth [one may use the index finger, miswak, or a dry tooth brush for an added fadilah]/المضمضة.
  3. Inhaling water [lightly]/الاستنشاق. For the one that’s fasting, this should be done carefully so as to not invalidate the fast. *Note: simply putting water in one’s nose does not count.
  4. Exhaling water from the nose/الاستنثار. This is done by placing the left hand on the bridge of the nose and gently blowing out. It is disliked/مكروه [makhruh] to do this loudly.
  5. The return wipe on the head [see step 4 above]/رد مسح الرأس. This is done only once and does not go past the hairline.
  6. Washing the ear plate/مسح الأذنين.
  7. Renewing water for washing the ear plate/تجديد الماء.
  8. Doing the obligatory acts and Sunnah acts in the order represented here/الترتيب.

Matters concerning forgetfulness: if one is performing a complete/Sunnah wudu’ and skips a Sunnah act by accident [i.e., step 3 from the Sunnah acts] then one may return to this step at the end of the wudu’ for one does not stop and go back for a Sunnah act in favor of continuing on to an obligatory one.

There are many other points which, God willing if we have the time, will revisit in greater detail.

Islam in a Global Perspective: What Makes Islam Work?

The following is a lecture I gave at the University of Pennsylvania for UPenn’s MSA. This talk kicked off the Chaplain Chats for the Spring 2012 term.

For more on Islam and culture see my lecture Lecture on the Accommodation of Local Customs in Islamic Law at the Ella Collins 2012 Winter Retreat.

Chaplain Chats – Nana Asma’u bint Uthman dan Fodio

The following are notes from the lecture that I gave on Nana Asma’u bint Uthman dan Fodiyo, as part of the Chaplain Chats at the University of Pennsylvania on November 17th, 2011. See below for the audio. Many thanks to my wife, without whom I could not have acquired so much great data in a short amount of time.

Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo, Arabic: نانا أسماء بنت عثمان فودي‎; [1793–1864] and was named after Asma bint Abi Bakr, Abu Bakr’s daughter.


  • Ruled by Hausa states.
  • Islam entered around 10th Century, with mainly just rulers embracing Islam. Islam was mixed with pagan rituals. Majority of populace was not Muslim at this time.
  • Muslims brought with them written language: facilitated state-building, prestige, etc.
  • Hausa rulers participated in Atlantic slave trade. Heavily taxed population creating discord.
  • Fulani Jihads: Hausa backed the Fulani jihads b/c of exploitation, etc.
    • Led by her father [founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in 1809]. Fulani scholar. Learned from Taureg. Gained mass popularity and attracted large number of students. Became a threat to Hausa rulers. Critiqued state power/excesses. Advocated a return to a Prophetic/religious/spiritual model.
    • Made hijrah because the ire he drew from the Hausa kings.
    • Father: taught Maliki law. A teacher in the Sufi order: Qadiriyyah.


  • Daughter of the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Usman dan Fodio.
  • Half-sister of Mohammed Bello, Usman’s son and inheritor.
  • Spoke four languages (Arabic, the Fula language, Hausa and Tamacheq Tuareg). Taught both men and women
  • Poet: Arabic, the Fula language and Hausa, all written in the Arabic script [‘Ajamiyyah].
  • She was active in politics, education and social reform; she was a prolific author, popular teacher and renowned scholar and intellectual. political as well as religious leader as her father was called Amir al-Mu’minin.
  • Responsible for women’s religious education.
    • She created a new class of women teachers (jajis) who traveled throughout the Caliphate educating women in the students’ homes.
    • Each jajis in turn used Nana Asma’u’s and other Sufi scholars writings (recited mnemonics and poetry, etc.) to train corps of learned women, called ”yan-taru”, or “those who congregate together, the sisterhood.”
    • Jajis became symbols of the new state, the new order, and of Islamic learning even outside women’s community. Like the muqaddimah system.
    • Enduring legacy: Today in Northern Nigeria, Islamic women’s organizations and schools commonly refer to her.
    • Significant example for men and women alike. Political, religious, spiritual.
    • Allowed women to be active outside the home. Rewrote the book on women’s roles in a “traditional” society.
    • Islamicized the Hausa, which beforehand, Islam was linked with lineage vs. the Ottoman tendency which was to conquer and rule over non-Muslim populations.


You should always be clean and wear clean clothes.

Look well to the details of your religion so that we may all

be united with Ahmada.

You should seek religious knowledge and stop straying from

The Path. Do not be one of the lost in the next world.


Such knowledge enables you to follow God and the


Insight into the Sunna will carry us to Ahmada.

Wishing for a Muslim everything that you

Wish for yourself is [in keeping with] the character of

Muhammada. (vv. 19-21, 28)

A.D. I856/A.H. 1273 

1 I give thanks to God the Merciful
Who created me; the Generous King.

2 He is One, to Him belongs everything,
He has no beginning because He began everything.

3 He hears, just as He sees:
He knows all mysteries, He is omniscient and patient.

4 But He does not hear with ears,
Nor does He see with eyes.

5 Trust in Him and His existence.
There is no King except God the Bountiful,

6 And trust in Muhammad His Messenger,
Then you will be an upright Muslim.

7 Do not innovate. Keep strictly to the Sunna
For the Sunna will suffice you till you reach Heaven.

8 Repent, for repentance purifies the worshiper
So he can escape from sin which leads to Hellfire.

9 Safeguard the proprieties of ritual ablution,
And on the Bridge over the Fire, you will feel no pain.

10 If you are ill, procedures can vary,
For God gives his servants concessions.

11 What God wants most
Is work that is willingly done.

12 From God we should all seek 
Forgiveness and His trust.

13 The Everlasting never dies
Forever and ever and ever He exists.

14 Listen to my warnings, brethren,
And heed them: admonition is good for you.

15 Let us repent because repentance
Is the gateway to God the Merciful.

16 Give the alms you must and those you wish, and pray
For the sake of the Prophet, our Leader.

17 Say your prayer beads in the mornings
And in the evenings and say extra prayers in the night.

18 To love the Qur’an is to love God:
For the Prophet’s sake, read it constantly.

19 This is the Path of the Almighty.
He who follows will never turn.

20 Women, a warning. Leave not your homes without good reason
You may go out to get food or to seek education.

21 In Islam, it is a religious duty to seek knowledge
Women may leave their homes freely for this.

22 Repent and behave like respectable married women
You must obey your husbands’ lawful demands.

23 You must dress modestly and be God-fearing.
Do not imperil yourselves and risk Hellfire.

24 Any woman who refuses, receives no benefit,
The merciful Lord will give her the reward of the

25 I have written this poem of admonition
For you to put to good use in the community.

26 I end with thanks to God. I invoke His peace On the Prophet and
his companions.

27 The year of the Hijra is 1273.


Adamu, A.U. (2004): Sunset at Dawn, Darkness at Noon: Reconstructing the Mechanisms of Literacy in Indigenous Communities; 7th Professorial Inaugural Lecture, Bayero University, Kano.

Al-Hageel, S.A. (2001): Human Rights in Islam and their Applications in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; First edition, King Fahd National Library, Riyadh, Saudi-Arabia.

Arebi, S (1991): “Gender Anthropology in the Middle East: The Politics of Muslim Women’s. Misrepresentation. The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. Volume 8 Number 1

Al-Mamoud, I. S. (2001): Winning the Heart of Your Husband: Deluxe Printers, London.

Boyd, J. (1989): The Caliph’s Sister, Nana Asma’u 1793-1865 Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader: Frank Cass, Britain.

Bullock, K (2002): “Toward the Full Inclusion of Muslim Women in the Umma: An Activist’s Perspective” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Volume 19 Number 4.

Boyd J and Mack, B.B. (1997): Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman ‘dan-Fodio (1793-1864) Michigan State University Press, U.S.A.

El-Tayeb, S.E. (1989): “The Ulama and Islamic Renaissance in Algeria” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences Volume 6 Number 2.

Heywood, A (1998): Political Ideologies: An Introduction; worth publishers, New York, U.S.A.

Johnston, H.A.S (1967): The Fulani Empire of Sokoto Oxford University Press, London

Mack, B.B. and Boyd, J. (2000): One Woman’s Jihad; Nana Asma’u Scholar and Scribe, Indiana University Press, U.S.A.

Maqsood, R.W. (2003): Teach Yourself Islam: Bookprint Limited, London.

Suleiman, I. (1997): “Scholars of the Sokoto Caliphate” New Nigerian Newspaper, April 21, SS VIII.

Usman, M.T. (2003):   “Literary Legacy of the Sokoto Caliphate: Commentary on some selected poems from Northern Nigeria” FAIS Journal of Humanities, Volume 2 Number 4, Bayero University, Kano.

Required Reading: Towards Empowering the Common Muslim

Towards Empowering the Common Muslim

The subject of religious literacy has been paramount on my mind for the past several years. Having stepped up on the minbar, I have had an opportunity to observe the Muslim community, if not from a bird’s eye view, at least from a few inches above the crowd. And one issue that seems to stand out clearly is the need for Muslims to have a foundation in religious literacy. Even just a few days ago, a young student approached me with a candidness I had to admire. He professed that on one hand, he wished to come to know and love the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم but that his main issue was that he was not clear on who the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم was and by proxy, what his Sunnah was. His courage to admit such a difficult quandary is as praiseworthy as it is insightful, for the young brother’s admission is far more common that we as a community might like to admit.

It is my hope in presenting Dr. Jackson’s short work here (I obtained Dr. Jackson’s permission) on the subject of af’al al-Nabi, or “actions of the Prophet” صلى الله عليه و سلم that it may help aid those who are looking for a foothold in the long ascent of coming to know and love the Best of Creation صلى الله عليه و سلم. I will also continue to update this article with as many of the direct sources as I can find and make them available so check back from time to time.

Philadelphia, 14th of Sha’ban, 1432AH.

Towards Empowering the Common Muslim

The Prophet’s Actions As a Source for Determining the Status of Things in Islam
By Dr. Sherman ‘Abd al-Hakim Jackson


Praise be to God, the Lord of all being and becoming. Almighty, Compassionate God, we beg of You Your aid, Your forgiveness and Your guidance. We seek refuge in You from the evil that attaches to our souls and from the wickedness that assails our deeds. We believe in You. And we believe that whomsoever You guide, none shall be able to lead them astray. And whomsoever you leave to wander, none shall be able to guide them. Guide us, therefore, our Lord. And hear our testimony: We bear witness that there is no god except God and that Muhammad, the 7th century Arabian, is His servant and His messenger. May God’s blessings and salutations be upon our beloved Prophet Muhammad, and upon his Companions, his family and his followers all.

To proceed: It has become a common occurrence among Muslims that in discussing whether a particular action is permissible (halal) or forbidden (haram), the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم are introduced as evidence. “The Prophet never did that!,” one often hears as proof that a particular action is forbidden. On the other hand, what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم did is just as often pointed to as proof of what a Muslim must do. To most Muslims, this approach represents little more than a firm commitment to “following the Sunna of the Prophet.” In reality, however, this is an oversimplification that may not only cause harm and difficulty but may also amount, in the final analysis, to the opposite of “following the Sunna of the Prophet.”

This small pamphlet is an effort to introduce the common Muslim to the manner in which the fuqaha’ فقهاء (scholars of Islamic law) dealt with the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم as a source of Islamic law. In so doing, it will not be our intention to present the view of anyone madhhab مذهب or school (classical or modem), nor to delve into the minor differences among them on questions of detail. The sole aim of this pamphlet is to empower the average Muslim to understand and implement the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in a manner that is intelligent and consistent with what the Prophet himself صلى الله عليه وسلم would have intended. To this end, we will look at the views of scholars from all four Sunni schools, as well as some who went beyond the traditional schools. This is in order to be able to present what was generally recognized by Muslim tradition as a whole, instead of privileging the view of one particular scholar from one particular school, time or place.


Muslim scholars dealt with the actions of the Prophet (SAWS) under the heading of af’al al-Nabi, أفعال النبي literally, “the actions of the Prophet.” Part of what is being conveyed by this designation is the fact that the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم are fundamentally different from his statements. While both of these fall within the general realm of his Sunna, the Prophet’s words are recognized as being different from his actions in terms of the clarity and precision with which they convey meaning. This is because. while language is the shared property of the community that speaks it, actions are specific to individuals and may have no meaning beyond the individual who commits them. In other words, every utterance of a language has meaning that is determined and shared by that language’s community of speakers. As such, when speaking a language, an individual can only convey meanings that are recognized by the community as belonging to the words that he or she uses. For example, if I want someone to stand up, I issue the verbal command, “Stand up.” This use of the imperative is a standard, consistent and clearly identifiable way of issuing commands. As such, whenever I use this imperative, it will necessarily convey the wish that an act of standing take place. This is independent even of any intention on my part. If I say, “Stand up,” I cannot claim that what I really meant was “Cheddar cheese tastes good.” If I do, the community will judge me to be mad. This is because the community has already determined the meaning that goes along with these words. And until the community arrives at a new understanding of these words, no one will be able to use them without imparting this agreed-upon meaning or as a means of clearly conveying any other meaning.

Actions, on the other hand, are different. While the words. “Stand up,” take only one form (i.e., the imperative) and convey only one meaning, regardless of who is using them, an actual act of standing up may take many forms and convey many meanings, none of which the community necessarily recognizes or agrees upon and all of which may be unique to the individual actor. A young man, for example, will stand up in a manner that differs from the way an older man will; a shy person will stand up in a manner that differs from the manner in which a confident person will; a female may rise to her feet in a way that is slightly different from the way in which a male does. Most importantly, in all of these cases, the meaning attributed to any of these individuals’ acts of standing is not contained in the act itself but must be deduced from other considerations outside the act. If the doorbell rings, I assume a person stands up in order to answer the door. If another individual enters the room, I might assume that the person stands up in order to greet them; or maybe he or she stands up in preparation to flee, or as a simple gesture of respect. Where, however, there is no doorbell and no other person entering the room, I might not be able to attribute any meaning at all to a person’s act of standing. Maybe they stood up to stretch their legs; but maybe they needed to get a better look at the clock on the wall; maybe they were suddenly hit by a thought that excited them to the point of moving them to their feet.

Unlike words, then, actions are generally far less direct and far less precise in conveying meaning. This is why it is possible to compose dictionaries containing the direct and precise meanings of words, but it is not possible to compose dictionaries containing the direct and precise meanings of actions. In the case of words, silence is the norm while speech is the exception. Thus, we assume that a person only speaks in order to convey some specific meaning. In the case of action, however, movement is the norm, while non-movement is the exception. As such, an action (e.g., moving the chest in and out while breathing) may occur without there being any intention at all to convey any meaning. For this reason, it is often necessary to look beyond the action itself in order to determine what its actor meant by it, if, indeed, he or she meant anything at all. This is why Muslim scholars treated the Prophet’s actions صلى عليه وسلم in a manner that was different from the way they treated his statements.

The books on legal methodology (usul al-fiqh أصول الفقه) all include sections that give detailed instructions on how to decode the Prophet’s statements according to the formal structure of his words and sentences. For example, whenever the Prophet used an indefinite object (in English this would be a word that is preceded by the indefinite article “a” or “an”) in a direct command, e.g., “Feed a poor person,” it was automatically concluded that this command could be fulfilled by a single act of feeding any poor person, male, female, Muslim, non-Muslim. This held as long as there was no other evidence that restricted this feeding, e.g., to Muslim poor persons. On the other hand, no such mechanical decoding could be used in interpreting the Prophet’s actions. As we shall see, unless there was evidence indicating that the Prophet committed a particular act as a means of explaining how to carry out something already established in the Qur’an or Sunna, or as a means of drawing closer to God (qurbah قربة), a Prophetic act such as feeding a poor person might impart nothing more than the permissibility of doing so.


We may begin with the general statement of the great Spanish scholar of the Zahirite school, Ibn Hazm (d. 456/1063). Unlike the other scholars whose views we will survey, Ibn Hazm is concerned almost exclusively with the claim that it is obligatory (wajib, fard واجب, فرض) to emulate the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in everything he did. Ibn Hazm insists that this is a claim for which there is no proof from the Qur’an or Sunna. He is aware that a commonly cited would-be proof is the verse from suwrah al-Ahzab: “There is for you in the Messenger of God a beautiful example … (La qad kana lakum fi rasulullahi uswatun hasanah … لقد كان لكم في رسول الله أسوة حسنة”. This, however, argues Ibn Hazm, is actually proof against those who claim that it is obligatory to follow every action of the Prophet. For he points out that the verse contains the phrase “for you (lakum لكم).” And, according to him, anyone who has a basic knowledge of Arabic knows that if an Arab says to you “This is for you (hadha laka هذا لك),” this would not mean that you were under any obligation to take it. Rather, you would merely enjoy the right or privilege of taking it, at your own discretion. In the same way, Ibn Hazm argues that what the verse in question really establishes is that, outside of explaining how to carry out duties already established in the Qur’an or Sunna, the Prophet’s actions are simply made available for those who would like to avail themselves of them, at their own discretion.

Beyond this, Ibn Hazm insists that those who argue that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم in everything he did are both arbitrary and inconsistent in holding this position. For, he argues … such a position leads to nonsense and requires of those who hold it that they make it obligatory upon every Muslim to live exactly where the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم lived, to place their feet in exactly the same places he placed his feet, to pray in exactly the same places he prayed, to fast on exactly the same days he fasted, to sit exactly as he sat, and to move in exactly the way that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم made his every move … But no Muslim (scholar) has ever held any of these things to be obligatory1.

Despite his fiery, confrontational language, Ibn Hazm’s discussion is actually quite instructive. In fact, he provides an extremely important insight into the very meaning of what many scholars who held it to be obligatory to follow the Prophet’s actions may have actually meant by this, and how this may have been mistakenly expanded into a blanket obligation to follow the Prophet in his every action.

Ibn Hazm notes that there is a difference between simply not following the Prophet in his every action and refusing to follow him in his actions as a matter of principle. In the latter case, the implication is that by following the Prophet one may be jeopardizing one’s salvation and standing with God. Thus, in order to preserve and protect oneself, one avoids even the actions of the Prophet, “just to be safe.” Among his examples, Ibn Hazm points to those who refuse to kiss their wives during the fast of Ramadan, despite their knowledge that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم kissed his wives. The implication here is that the Prophet’s example is not reliable, and that even if one follows him perfectly, one might not attain salvation in the Hereafter. In other words, despite a man ‘s knowledge that the Prophet kissed his wives during the fast of Ramadan, he will intentionally refuse (tanazzaha ‘an تنزه عن) to kiss his wife because he wants to “make sure “ that he achieves the highest standing with God and that he does not engage in any actions that might earn God’s displeasure2. This implies, of course, that the Prophet either had imperfect knowledge of what would attain God’s pleasure or that he intentionally engaged in actions that would earn God’s displeasure. In either case, his example is unreliable, and one is forced, therefore, to devise his or her own foolproof way to salvation.

This, incidentally, is the real meaning of bid’a بدعة (unsanctioned innovation),as explained by one of the most important writers on that subject, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Musa al-Shatibi (d. 790). Al-Shatibi was the author of a two-volume book entitled al-I’tisam الاعتصام (Holding Fast), hailed by many as the best book ever written on the subject of bid’a. In this work, al-Shatibi gives the following definition for bid’a:

 البدعة طريقة مخترعة في الدين تضاهي الشرعية يقصد بالسلوك عليها ما يقصد بالطريقة الشرعية

“A concocted manner of proceeding in religion that mimics the scripturally mandated way, with the aim of achieving through this concocted way that which should only be sought through the scripturally mandated way (al-bid’atu tariqatun mukhtara’atun fi al-din tudahi al-tariqata al-shar’iyah yuqsadu bi al-suluki ‘alayha ma yuqsadu bi al-tariqah al-shar’iyah).”3

In other words, bid’a is not simply committing an act that the Prophet did not commit or failing to commit an act that the Prophet actually did. Bid’a is, rather, committing or avoiding such actions as a means of making up one’s own way to God. In other words, the real issue is not whether an act is committed or not; the real issue is the religious value that one attributes to the commission or non-commission of an act. In this context, even Ibn Hazm would insist that it was obligatory to follow the actions of the Prophet4. What he meant, however, was that if one wants to attain God’s pleasure, one cannot imagine and seek to make up a more perfect way of achieving this than following the example of the Prophet5. This did not mean, as we shall further see, that it was obligatory to do or not do everything the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم did and did not do.

The Basic Approach to Assessing the Prophet’s Actions

The overwhelming majority of scholars agreed with the basic outlook of Ibn Hazm, i.e ., that it was not obligatory to follow the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in everything he did. They also agreed, however, that it was obligatory to follow him in some things. Regarding many, if not the bulk, of the Prophet’s actions, however, they held that it was simply recommended (mandub مندوب, mustahabb مستحب) or permissible (mubah مباح) to follow him6. On a minority of issues, such as where the Prophet’s actions were deemed to be specific to him, e.g., the number of wives allowed to him, they agreed that following him was forbidden (haram حرام).

Generally speaking, scholars divided the actions of the Prophet (SAWS) into two distinct categories:

  1. Clarifying actions“: These were Prophetic actions whose purpose it was to clarify some duty already addressed in only general terms in the Qur’an or Sunna (bayanan li mujmalin fi al-qur’an wa al-sunna بيانا لمجمل في القرآن و السنة). Regarding these actions, the general rule was that they acquired the same ruling, i.e., obligatory, recommended or neutral, as the thing they clarified. Thus, for example, where the Prophet (SAWS) performs an action as a means of clarifying the obligation to perform prayer, pilgrimage or the punishment for theft, such an action would generally – but not always- be deemed obligatory, like prayer, pilgrimage or the punishment for theft themselves.
  2. Spontaneous actions“:These were Prophetic actions that were not performed for the purpose of clarifying any pre-existing dictate of the Qur’an or Sunna. Rather, the Prophet performed these actions out of personal preference, recognition of a particular community or neighborly need, in response to some unanticipated situation, as a spontaneous gesture of gratitude to God, or for some other reason. Such spontaneous actions were further divided into two basic subcategories.
    1. Those that were performed with the explicit intention of “drawing near to God (qurbah قربة).”
    2. Those that were not performed with the explicit intention of “drawing near to God.”

Again, there was a general consensus (ijma’ اجماع)that it was obligatory to follow the Prophet’s clarifying actions whenever these were performed for the purpose of clarifying an act established by the Qur’an or Sunna. There was also general agreement, however, that where the action to be clarified was only recommended, it was likewise only recommended to follow the Prophet’s act regarding it. In other words, the general rule was that clarifying actions took on the same status as the thing they clarified — obligatory, recommended or neutral. In pre-modem limes, this was a very simple and straightforward rule. In modem times, however, it has become somewhat problematic, given a certain confusion that has developed around the term “sunna.”

As is well known, there are five legal categories or rulings (ahkam أحكام/s. hukm حكم) recognized by Islamic law. These are: 1) obligatory (واجب wajib, فرض fard), 2) discouraged (مكروه makruh), 3) neutral (مباح mubah), 4) recommended (مندوب mandub, مستحب mustahabb), and 5) forbidden (حرام haram). When God or the Prophet issue a command and it is understood that failure to perform this act incurs punishment in the Hereafter, while performing it incurs reward, that act is said to be obligatory. An example of this would be the five daily prayers. When failure to avoid an act is deemed to incur punishment in the Hereafter while avoiding it incurs reward, that act is said to be forbidden. Adultery would be an example here. When failure to perform an act is not deemed to incur punishment but performing it is deemed to incur reward, that act is said to be recommended. Paying severance gift to one’s divorced wife is said to be recommended in the Maliki school. When failure to avoid an act is not deemed to incur punishment but avoiding it is deemed to incur reward, that act is said to be discouraged. According to the Hanafi school, it is discouraged for women to lead other women in congregational prayers. Acts that incur neither reward nor punishment in the Hereafter are said to be neutral and are often simply referred to as “permissible.7

Now, one of the alternative terms for the recommended (mandub, mustahabb) category is the term “sunna.” In pre-modem times, this was clearly understood. But in modem times, especially in America, many are unable to distinguish between “sunna” as a recommended act — for whose non-performance there is no punishment — and “sunna” as “the sunna of the Prophet” — whose complete abandonment is likely to result bid’a. On this confusion, one who chooses not to perform an act that is merely recommended — which, according to Islamic law, he or she has every right to do — often ends up being accused of having engaged in bid’a or of having abandoned the “sunna of the Prophet.” By right, the charge of having abandoned the sunna of the Prophet should be reserved for those who fail or refuse to follow the Prophet in something regarding which it is obligatory to follow him, or those who abandon his sunna altogether. As for one who chooses, for example, not to pray two rak’ahs before the morning prayer, he or she should not be charged with having totally abandoned the Prophet’s sunna. For there may be many other aspects of the Prophet’s sunna, e.g., witr, that this person practices assiduously. Moreover, if a person has no choice but to offer two rak’ahs before the morning prayer, this would mean that these two rak’ahs were not recommended but rather obligatory.

Turning to the Prophet’s spontaneous actions, here is where the bulk of scholarly discussion occurred. According to the Spanish Malik, scholar, Abu al-Walid al-Baji, there was disagreement in the Maliki school regarding spontaneous actions of the Prophet that he performed for the purpose of drawing near to God. According to al-Baji, the majority held that following the Prophet in these actions was obligatory. Others held, however, that it was only recommended. Al-Baji himself supports the view of those who say that such actions are obligatory, unless there is additional proof that they are only recommended or permissible. As proof, he cites the verse from surah al-A’raf, … and follow him, perhaps you might be guided,” the verse from surah al-Nur, let those who go against his affair beware …,” and the verse from surah al-Ahzab, There is indeed a beautiful example for you in the Messenger of God.” He also points to the fact that the Companions immediately implemented the Prophet’s practice of performing a full ghusl in cases where there was no ejaculation. During the course of his treatment, however, al-Baji points to an important distinction that is taken up by several other scholars, as we shall see.

According to al-Baji, only if there are no indications that a Prophetic act of qurbah was performed as a recommended or permissible act must we accept any obligation to follow it. If we do take as obligatory an action that the Prophet only intended to be recommended or permissible, we are not following but going against the Prophet’s sunna. All of this is another way of saying that not every outward appearance of following the Prophet amounts to a proper act of “following the Prophet’s sunna.8” In fact, depending on the religious value attributed to such an outward act of following the Prophet, it might actually amount to an act of bid’a9.

As for spontaneous actions that are not performed with the specific intention of drawing near to God, e.g., eating, drinking, walking, putting on clothes, here al-Baji reports that most Maliki scholars held that following such actions was neutral. He notes, however, that some Maliki held such actions to be recommended. Included among such actions, according to them, were such things as eating with one’s right hand or putting on one’s left shoe before putting on’ one’s right one. Al-Baji himself comes out in favor of the view of the majority. He argues that inasmuch as there can be no doubt that there was no obligation to eat10 or wear shoes in the first place, the most that could be recommended would be the manner in which one ate or put on one’s shoes. In other words, al-Baji’s position was essentially that the Prophet’s having eaten or worn shoes do not render it obligatory or even recommended for us to eat or wear shoes. What the Prophet’s action implies, rather, is that whenever a Muslim does eat or put on shoes, it is recommended that he or she eat with their right hand and to put on their right shoe before putting on their left.

This basic “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach to Prophetic actions is repeated in almost all the major works of legal methodology. The Shafi’i, Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d. 631), for example, repeals this basic layout. Like al-Baji, he concludes that it is not obligatory but merely permissible to follow the Prophet’s spontaneous actions that he did not commit in an attempt to draw near to God. Unlike al-Baji, however, al-Amidi insists that where the Prophet does commit actions in an attempt to draw near to God, such actions occupy a position between obligatory and recommended, i.e., a little stronger than just recommended but not quite to the point of being obligatory11.

The Shafi ‘i, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606) and his Maliki commentator Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi (d.684/ 1285)12 also repeat the “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” distinctions, though they add a few minor details13. In contradistinction to al-Baji, however, al-Razi holds — and al-Qarafi approves of this — that actions of the Prophet performed with the aim of drawing near to God are only recommended — not obligatory — until proven otherwise.

As for the Hanbalis, according to the famous al-Musawwadah fi usul al-Fiqh (Manuscript on Legal Methodology) of the three great Hanbalis, Ibn Taymiyah (d.728/1328), his father and his grandfather, the dominant tendency in the Hanbali school was to follow the “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach. According to them, clarifying actions took on the same status as the act they clarified. Spontaneous actions performed for the purpose of drawing near to God were simply permissible. As for spontaneous actions not performed for the purpose of drawing near to God, there was a difference of opinion among Hanbalis. Some held these to recommended, while others insisted that they were simply permissible14. Particularly interesting in the case of the Hanbalis, however, is the fact that they are explicit on a point that many others only allude to, namely that Muslims are not required to avoid actions simply because the Prophet never practiced them. In their words, “His having abandoned a particular action imposes no obligation upon us to abandon it.15

Outside the four schools, there is the view of the famous al-Shawkani. He also follows the “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach16. According to him, it is obligatory upon Muslims to follow the Prophet in his clarifying actions and to give them the same status as the thing they clarified. He holds spontaneous actions performed by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم for the purpose of drawing near to God to be at least recommended. As for spontaneous actions that do not appear to have been for the purpose of qurbah, al-Shawkani professes that he cannot imagine the Prophet performing such actions. As such, he holds that since there must be at least some element of qurbah in these actions, it is recommended for Muslims to follow them17. Like other jurists, al-Shawkani notes that if we know that the Prophet did something voluntarily and we follow his action as an obligatory duty, we are not following his example18. In fact, he insists, if we attribute obligatory status to an action of the Prophet without actually knowing that he treated it as an obligatory act, we are not following his example19.

In sum, the “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach to Prophetic actions was the rule rather than the exception among the major scholars of Islamic legal methodology. There were, of course, exceptions to this — as one might expect in any healthy intellectual culture. Yet, upon close examination, even those who diverged from this approach show themselves in the end to be in agreement with its conclusions.

To take one example, the Hanafi jurist, Abu Bake al-Sarakhsi (d.490) does not subscribe to the standard “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach. Rather, he simply divides the Prophet’s actions into 1) those that are shared by all humans as a simple function of human nature, e.g., sleeping, bowel movements, etc.; and 2) those that are not a simple function of human nature but relate more specifically to the Prophet’s mission as prophet. Those actions that are merely a function of the Prophet’s humanity are immediately disqualified as a basis for any action by a Muslim20. As for those that were undertaken in his capacity as Prophet, al-Sarakhsi invokes a very simple rule: The basic status of all Prophetic actions is that it is permissible to follow them until some other proof (dalil) is found that would place them in some other category, such as recommended or obligatory21. In other words, while it might be obligatory to follow the Prophet on a certain non-clarifying action, such actions will be presumed to be permissible until proven otherwise.


Muslim scholars’ approaches to Prophetic actions were both judicious and straightforward. According to the general consensus, only those actions deemed to have been carried out as a means of clarifying a previously revealed injunction were assumed to be obligatory. Beyond that, depending on circumstances, an action could assume anyone of the five legal statuses recognized under Islamic law. The bulk of the scholars’ time was consumed not in explicating this simple rule but rather in responding to would-be objections by those who might argue, as many do today, that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet in everything he did and did not do. This took the form of responding to certain Qur’anic verses or Prophetic hadith. As many of these arguments may still be heard today, I shall briefly review the most oft-repeated and important of these.

Among the most commonly cited Qur’anic proofs are the following:

  1. “… and follow him and fear God … ” [6: 155]
  2. “… let those who go against his affair beware … ” [24: 63]
  3. “… and whatever the Prophet gives you, take it . .. ” [59: 8]
  4. “There is indeed for you in the Messenger of God a beautiful example for whomever desires God and the last day … ” [32: 21]
  5. “Say, If you love God. then follow me …. ” [3: 31]
  6. “Say, Obey God and obey the Messenger.” [4: 59]
  7. “So when Zayd consummated his marriage to her. We married her to you so that there would be no shame on the believers regarding the wives of their adopted sons after the latter have consummated their marriage to them. ” [32: 37]

The majority of scholars insist that these verses do not prove that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in everything he did and that those who rely on such verses have either misconstrued them or seek to force out of them that which they do not contain. They give several responses to these verses, some of them quite complex. For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I will limit myself to the most straightforward of these.

As for the verse, “…. and follow him …,” al-Amidi intimates that even if it could be used to argue that one must follow the Prophet, this would not translate into a blanket- obligation to follow all of his actions as obligatory acts. That is to say, while it might be obligatory to follow the Prophet, this obligation might only be met in some instances by treating certain actions of his as recommended or permissible22. This is the same response that al-Shawkani gives for the verse, Say. if you love God, then follow me.23 Al-Razi also appears to give a similar response24. This is also essentially the argument given by al-Sarakhsi, though al-Sarakhsi adds an interesting twist. He points out that it is important to know how the Prophet himself صلى الله عليه وسلم understood his actions in order to be able to follow him properly. For it is certain, he points out, that the Prophet never drank wine even before it was forbidden by revelation. Yet, no one would be justified in arguing that it was forbidden for Muslims to drink wine before revelation outlawed it25.

As for the verse, let those who go against his affair beware … “ al-Shawkani points out that the Arabic word “amr أمر” (translated here as “affair”) normally refers to the Prophet’s statements, i.e., his orders, not his actions. In this particular case, however, this is of limited relevance, since, according to the widely accepted rule of Arabic syntax, the “his” in “his affair” should be understood to refer to God, not the Prophet, since God is the most recently mentioned entity..26 Al-Razi also argues that “amr” applies more readily to words and commands than it does to actions27. And al-Amidi gives a similar (though slightly more complex) argument28.

As for the verse, “… whatever the Prophet gives you, take it,” al-Amidi gives an argument similar to the one he gave in response to the verse, “and follow him.” That is to say, only if the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم understood his own action to be obligatory would “take what he gives you” translate into an obligation to follow him in these things29. Al-Amidi says that this also applies to the verse, There is indeed for you a beautiful example in the Messenger of God,” and the verse If you love God, then follow me.” As for al-Shawkani, he argues that “what (ma ما)” in what he gives you applies to his statements, i.e., his verbal commands, not his actions. This is supported by the fact that the second half of the verse reads, And what he forbids you, desist from it.” Al-Shawkani notes that just as “what” in this part of the verse can only apply to verbal commands, so too must it apply to only verbal commands in the first part of the verse. Beyond this, al-Shawkani insists that one can only “take” commands and prohibitions, not actions30.

As for the verse, There is indeed for you in the Messenger of God beautiful example,” we have seen the argument of Ibn Hazm above. This argument is repeated by al-Shawkani, al-Amidi, al-Razi, al-Qarafi and al-Sarakhsi. Indeed, it appears to be the standard argument against using this verse as proof that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet’s actions. However, al-Shawkani adds to this that taking the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم as one’s example (al-ta’assi bihi التأسي به) entails attributing to his actions the same status that he himself attributed to them. Thus, one must hold those actions of his that he committed as obligatory to be obligatory, those he held to be recommended to be recommended, and so forth31. This is also the argument applied by a number of scholars to the verses If you love God, then follow me,” and Obey God and obey the Messenger.” In other words, obedience and following can only be achieved by attributing to the Prophet’s actions the same weight and status he attributed to them.

As for the verse involving Zayd, al-Amidi points out that the most they indicate is that the Community is equal to the Prophet in terms of the rulings that apply to both. In other words, whenever the Prophet is allowed or forbidden to do something, it is assumed that the Community is allowed or forbidden that thing also, unless there is proof that this command or prohibition that was specific to the Prophet32. Al-Qarafi poses a similar argument and adds that technically the verse speaks only of God’s act of marrying the Prophet to Zaynab, not of the Prophet’s act of marrying her33. In sum, the general consensus is that all Zayd’s marriage to Zaynab proves is that it is permissible to follow the Prophet, not obligatory. Otherwise, all of the Companions who had adopted sons would have been obligated to marry the former wives of their adopted sons.

Besides these verses, those who argue that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet’s every action also point to the practice of the Companions. Several cases of the Companions following the Prophet’s actions are referred to as proof that they understood it to be obligatory to follow him. Examples include the hadith in which the Prophet removed his shoes during prayer and the Companions promptly followed him by removing theirs, the incident at al-Hudaybiyah where the Prophet ordered the Companions to shave their heads but none of them did so, but when he shaved his own head (at the suggestion of his wife, Umm Salamah) they promptly followed suit. Another oft-cited example is the Companions resolving their dispute over the requirement to take a full ritual bath (ghusl) after intercourse with no ejaculation, based on ‘A’ishah’s report that the Prophet took a full bath in such cases. In fact, this particular incident is claimed to constitute a unanimous consensus (ijma’) among the Companions, which Islamic legal theory holds to be a permanently binding sourced of law.

Scholars of Islamic legal methodology also deal with these arguments. As for the Companions taking off their shoes, it is pointed out that the hadith itself indicates that it was not obligatory for them to follow the Prophet in all he did. After the prayer was over, the Prophet himself asked the Companions, “Why did you take of your shoes?” As al-Sarakhsi points out, had the Prophet made it obligatory upon theCompanions to follow him in everything he did, this question would have made no sense34. As for the incident at al-Hudaybiyah, this was clearly a clarifying action of the Prophet, one that followed a verbal command by him. Moreover, rather than proving that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet in all his actions, what this incident really proves is that the Companions didn’t even understand all of the Prophet’s verbal commands to imply obligation. In other words, even when he verbally commanded them to do certain things, they sometimes took his commands to be recommendations rather than obligations.

Perhaps most interesting of all is an argument put forth by al-Sarakhsi. He notes that if the Companions had understood that it was obligatory to do everything the Prophet did, they would also have held it to be obligatory to avoid everything he did not do. For us, this would mean refusing to speak English or to marry non-Arab women, since the Prophet did neither of these. In the case of the Companions, it would have meant holding all kinds of things to be forbidden that everyone knows were not forbidden. For example, it is known that even before wine was made forbidden the Prophet never drank wine. If the Companions bad held everything the Prophet did not do to be forbidden, they would also have held wine to be forbidden even before revelation forbade it. But this we know not to be the case, as is made clear by the Qur’an itself: O you who believe, do not approach prayer while you are in a state of drunkenness ….. [surah al-Nisa’, 43] Second, al-Sarakhsi notes, if the Companions had held that it was obligatory to follow the Prophet in everything he did, they would have remained at his side at all times, in order to know what he was doing at all times in order to be able to follow him. But this too we know not to have been the case35.

As for the claim of consensus based on the hadith of ‘ A’ishah, it has been pointed out that the Companions who resolved their dispute over this issue were not all of the Companions. As such, their decision did not constitute a unanimous consensus36. Moreover, as al-Shawkani points out, they followed the Prophet in this case by attributing to his action the same status they assumed him to have attributed to it. They could have just as easily concluded that it was merely recommended to take a full bath in such instances37.


There can be no doubt that the Sunna of the Prophet is a binding source of Islamic law and doctrine, second only to the Qur’an. In fact, in terms of its actual authority, the Sunna is actually equal to the Qur’an, as is clearly established by the Qur’an itself: Whoever obeys the Prophet has obeyed God (—-).” As Muslims, we are thus bound to submit to both the Qur’an and the Sunna. And there can be no question about the status or the Sunna of the Prophet among Muslims.

The question, however, is, “What is the proper way to follow the Prophet’s Sunna?” It is unfortunate that in our times this Question is routinely treated in the most sloppy and cavalier fashion. In fact, many have fallen into the habit of exploiting and abusing the Sunna of the Prophet for purely selfish or ideological reasons. They indiscriminately proclaim that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet in everything he did. And they insist that anything he did not do, we are forbidden to do.

This small pamphlet has outlined the manner in which the great scholars of Islam addressed the issue of how to follow the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. We may summarize their general conclusions as follows:

Whenever the Prophet’s action is understood to clarify something already established in the Qur’an or his Sunna, that action takes on the same status as the thing it clarifies. It may be obligatory, recommended or permissible.

Whenever the Prophet’s action is understood to be spontaneous (i.e., it is not clarifying something already established), if the Prophet committed this action as I means of drawing near to God, most scholars hold it to be between recommended and permissible, though some hold it be between obligatory and recommended.

If the spontaneous action is not understood to be for the sake of drawing near to God, the general consensus it that such actions are between recommended and neutral.

Given this perspective of the great scholars of Islam, it is interesting and, indeed, lamentable, that many Muslims today readily acknowledge that one does not have to pray two or four rak’ahs before and after Zuhr, but they will insist that one must wear a turban or eat with one’s bare hands. They allow for the divergence from actions that the Prophet did in an obvious attempt to draw near to God, but they allow for no divergence from actions that he clearly did not do for this purpose. Clearly, this is the result of a desire and attempt to impose upon the actions of the Prophet symbolic and ideological significance that he himself never attributed to them. And it is precisely this tendency that we must dedicate ourselves to eliminating from our personal and collective lives. For only when we commit ourselves to following the Prophet in the manner in which he intended for us to follow him are we likely to earn the pleasure of our Lord and reinvest the Prophet’s Sunna with the sweetness and nectar that it had for the early generations of Muslims.

Islam is a marathon, not a fifty-yard dash. Given the average lifespan of a human being, a Muslim in his or her twenties will have to practice Islam for another fifty years. It is important to understand that different individuals need and are able to make use of different things at different times in their lives. A young man in his teens has little use for a Medicare plan; a woman in her seventies has little use for a four-year scholarship to college. The Prophet, however, was a model for all people for all time. As such, his example might be likened to a medicine cabinet that has the cure for every disease but whose entire contents no individual need consume. A stingy person will not be cured of stinginess by imitating the Prophet’s courage in battle. A lazy person will not overcome slothfulness by focusing on the Prophet’s kindness and civility. A husband who suffers from an inflated male ego will not find an alternative modality of Muslim manhood in the manner in which the Prophet trimmed his nails. We ask God Almighty to direct our minds and our hearts, individually and collectively, to the proper way to follow the guidance sent through His Prophet Muhammad. And we ask Him to protect us from the pettiness of our fragile egos, the treacherous whisperings of our anxiety-ridden souls and the relentless machinations of Satan the accursed. Praise be to God. And may God’s blessings and salutations be upon His servant and His messenger, our beloved Prophet Muhammad, after whom there shall be no prophet, and upon his Companions, his family and his followers all.

End Notes

  1. See Ibn Hazm, al-Ihkam fi usul al-Ahkam 8 vols. Ed. A.M. Shakir (Beirut: Dar al-Afaq al-Jadidah, 1403/1983, 2: 8. But see his entire discussion at 2: 6-11.
  2. Ibn Hazm, al-Ihkam, 2: 7-8.
  3. Abu lshaq Ibrahim b. Musa al-Shatibi, al-I’tisam 2 vols. Ed. A. A. al-Shafi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 1408/ 1988). 1: 28.
  4. al-Ihkam. 2: 8.
  5. This is also probably the context in which other noted scholars, such as Imam Malik, are reported to have insisted that it was obligatory to follow the actions of the Prophet.
  6. On these legal categories. i.e., mandub, mustahabb, mubah, see below, p. 10-11.
  7. This too, however, is actually an oversimplification, as all acts that fall outside the forbidden (haram) category are technically permissible.
  8. On this point, see also Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, al-Mahsul in Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi’s Nafa’is al-usul fi sharh al-mahsul 4 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah, 1421/2000), 3: 165, 3: 167,3: 177.
  9. See above, on al-Shatibi’s definition of bid’a.
  10. This might sound somewhat contradictory, given the well-known ban on suicide in Islam. But one does not have to “eat” in the literal sense in order to survive. One could just as easily survive by drinking liquids or on nutrients supplied intravenously.
  11. Sayf al-Din al-Amidi, al-Ihkam fi usul al-ahkam 4 vols. (Cairo, Nd), 1: 160, but see his entire discussion from 1: 159-73.
  12. See al-Qarafi’s Nafa’is usul fi ‘ilm al-usul and al-Razi’s al-Mahsul, which is included in Nafa’is.
  13. See, e.g., Nafa’is, 3: 157-84, esp. 181 ff.
  14. al-Musawwadah fi usul al-fiqh, ed. M. “Abd ai-Hamid (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi. Nd), 186-88.
  15. al-Musawwadah. 193.
  16. See Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Shawkani, Irshad al-fuhul ila tahqiq al-haqq fi ‘ilm al-usul (Cairo: Mustafa Babi al-Halabi, 1356/1937), 35-38.
  17. See Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Shawkani, Irshad al-fuhul ila tahqiq al-haqq fi ‘ilm al-usul (Cairo: Mustafa Babi al-Halabi, 1356/1937), 35-38.
  18. Irshad, 37.
  19. Irshad, 37.
  20. We must be careful to remember that even in instances where the Prophet’s action alone would not oblige us to commit any action, this same action may serve as a clarifier of some verbal command of his. In this case, it would be obligatory to give this action of the Prophet the same status as the verbal command it clarifies.
  21. See Usul al-sarakhsi, 2 vols. Ed. R. al-‘Ajam (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1418/1997), 2: 87-90.
  22. Ihkam, 1: 165.
  23. Irshad, 36.
  24. Nafa’is, 3: 165.
  25. Usul al-Sarakhsi, 2: 89.
  26. Irshad, 36. The entire verse reads: “God certainly knows those who slip away in an attempt to escape danger. So let those who go against his affair beware, lest they be visited by a trial or a grievous punishment.”
  27. Nafa’is, 3: 165.
  28. Al-Ihkam, 1: 165-66.
  29. Al-Ihkam, 1: 166.
  30. Irshad, 36.
  31. Irshad, 36-37.
  32. Al-Ihkam, 1: 167.
  33. Nafa’is, 3: 170-71.
  34. Usul al-Sarakhsi, 2: 88.
  35. Usul al-Sarakhsi, 2: 89.
  36. See, e.g., al-Qarafi, Nafa’is, 3: 171.
  37. al-Shawkani, Irshad, 37.

Tackling Religious Literacy: Lexical Empiricism

In a recent khutbah, I addressed a major issue that Muslims in general, and American Muslims in specific, face: Religious literacy. There have been a few scholars coming out now to draw attention to this deficit in the community and I pray their efforts are doubly successful. While having a conversation today with a brother regarding fiqh, I came across a passage in the Mālikī text, al-Mudawwanah, a foundational treatise on Mālikī jurisprudence that reminded me again of the subtle and elusive nature of language. I hope these thoughts will be a small voice in the growing chorus calling for religious literacy by Muslims everywhere.

Religious literacy is not simply a new buzz word, a phrase to kick around to either feel good about or to feel intellectually superior, but it is a real need that embraces both the fard al-‘Ayn/فرض الكفاية as well as the fard al-Kifāyah/فرض العين: Individual as well as communal obligations. Religious literacy, like its secular counterpart, allows for functionality. It is also the engine that drives the plurality in Islam. At the moment, the engine block feels like it might seize at any moment. However, with some attention, care, and maintenance, we might set out to fix this debilitating condition. I would like to use wudū’/وضوء, or ablution, as the model to open the conversation on religious literacy.

I am sure many of us have experienced the following: One enters into the mosque to offer prayers, and before doing so, one goes to perform wudū’. Whilst performing wudu’, one is interrupted by an individual who objects to the manner and method one is making wudū’. “The water needs to be running,” the person says. “The water must be like this, or like that, you must apply the water this way, or that way.” You get the gist of what I am saying. The problem does not lay solely with this interrogation, but with the excessive demand that if one does not perform wudū’ in the way this particular person deems to be correct, then one’s wudū’—and by extension, prayer—is invalid. The typical response one might have is to offer this person one’s own proofs, from the Sunnah of course, and demonstrate that despite the difference of opinion you both share, rest assured, you are performing wudū’ correctly. Much to one’s chagrin, this is met with further condemnation, bordering on hostility.

So what is at play and at stake here? What stands out plainly here is that difference of opinion or practice, in our current time, is equivalent to innovation. Yet, as we will see below, differences in practice are a staple of our religious tradition. To begin, let us look at the difference of opinion that has cropped up regarding the wiping of socks/foot versus the washing the foot. As we will see, much of the basis for this difference is rooted in language—the very means by which we come to understand and know our religion, which highly complicates the notion of literalism being the equivalent of one single interpretation:

The first entry in Imām Mālik’s al-Mudawwanah al-Kubrā looks at wudū’ and how the act of wudū’ is approached, whether one is to wipe, wash, or touch the extremities once, twice, or three times, and some of the variance which surrounds it. Mālik’s student, ‘Abd al-Rahmān Bin al-Qāsim, provides us some background information on how Imām Mālik looked at the process of wudū’:

قال بن القاسم لم يكن مالك يوقت في الوضوء مرة ولا مرتين ولا ثلاثا وقال إنما قال الله تبارك وتعالى

“[Imām] Mālik did not arbitrarily wash once, twice, or three times, but instead also looked at what God Almighty had said concerning it [wudū’]:

يا أيها الذين آمنوا إذا قمتم إلى الصلاة فاغسلوا وجوهكم وأيديكم إلى المرافق وامسحوا برؤوسكم وأرجلَكم إلى الكعبين وإن كنتم جنبا فاطهروا وإن كنتم مرضى أو على سفر أو جاء أحد منكم من الغائط أو لامستم النساء فلم تجدوا ماء فتيمموا صعيدا طيبا فامسحوا بوجوهكم وأيديكم منه ما يريد الله ليجعل عليكم من حرج ولكن يريد ليطهركم وليتم نعمته عليكم لعلكم تشكرون

“O’ you who profess faith! When you stand to perform prayer, wash your faces and your hands and your arms to the elbows, and wipe over your heads, and your feet to the ankles. If you are in a state of major impurity, then purify yourselves. But if you are sick, on a journey, have come from the lavatory or have touched women and cannot find any water, then perform tayammum with pure earth and wipe your faces and your hands. God does not want to make things difficult for you, but God does want to purify you and to perfect God’s blessing upon you so that hopefully you will be thankful.” [Qur’ān al-Mā’idah (5):6]

I have marked some of the text with some colorations to key in on some of the inflections of the language here to highlight how, from the same lexical source, differing opinions on language, nuance, grammar, etc., can extract different opinions.

The first is the highlighted command, “wash your faces”. Most importantly here is the verb, “wash”, in the imperative mood. As we’ll see, this command here will be the root of one of the differences of opinion regarding washing one’s feet instead of simply wiping over them. Of key interest here is Ibn al-Qāsim’s observation:

فلم يوقت تبارك وتعالى واحدة من ثلاث

“The Almighty did not differentiate the number of times, one from three.”

Ibn al-Qāsim does note, however, [Imām] Mālik’s approach to wudū’ in a more comprehensive manner:

و ما رأيت عند مالك في الغسل و الوضوء توقيتا لا واحدة و لا اثنتين و لا ثلاثا و لكنه كان يقول يتوضأ و يغتسل و يسبغهما جميعا

“I did not see [Imām] Mālik, concerning ghusul/غسل[washing], wudu’, where it was done solely a number of times, once, twice, or three times, but instead he used to say one does wudū’ and ghusul a number of times asbagha/يسبغ أسبغ“excellently”, where these two components are considered part of an excellent wudū’ altogether [lit. jamī’an/جميعا].”

Mālik’s method as we can see here is a conglomerate of Qur’ānic sources as well as those compiled from the Sunnah, which we will note below for reference, though for time’s sake, we’ll skip in detail. But let us return to the above phrase, “wash your faces”, فاغلسوا وجوهكم. As I mentioned, this extended passage here is one of the source points for differences on washing versus wiping. This stems not from the “fā’”, but from the “waw” and the “bā’” in the phrase:

و امسحوا برؤوسكم و أرجلكم

For the ease of argument sake, I will note the two opinions: One stronger, the other weaker. The stronger opinion links the washing of one’s feet back to the washing of one’s face. This is a matter of rhetoric, or what is also known as balāghah/بلاغة . The weaker opinion, as is favored in some Shiite as well as “Sunni” schools [as minor opinions to be sure] is that the washing of the feet is linked not to the washing of one’s face, but to the wiping of one’s head. From this understanding, those that take this weaker or should I say minority opinion, root their stance not in wanton allegory, but in the language of the Verse itself. To be clear, this is not intended to be a lesson in wudū’, but to demonstrate the fluidity and nuance of language. In this case, the interpretations are literal: They proceed directly from the source text [the Qur’ān], yet, due to the duality of language, both parties are able to extract two very different meanings from the same source. To be sure, Imām Mālik, as supported by Ibn al-Qāsim’s statement, relies not solely on this Verse, but also includes states from other Companions, who themselves provide their own accounts of how the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] performed or reacted to [actively or tacitly] their respective performance of wudū’.

To see this play out in a different manner, let us examine some of the various English translations of the Qur’ān. We will see how each of these translators interpreted this verse, taking into account the aforementioned nuances of language:

“O ye who believe! When ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; Rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles” [Abdullah Yusuf Ali].

“You who have iman! when you get up to do salat, wash your faces and your hands and your arms to the elbows, and wipe over your heads, and wash your feet to the ankles” [Aisha Bewley].

“O YOU who have attained to faith! When you are about to pray, wash your face, and your hands and arms up to the elbows, and pass your [wet] hands lightly over your head, and [wash] your feet up to the ankles” [Muhammad Asad].

As we can see here, all three of these translators had to tackle this issue regarding the interpretive methods of language. Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s method was to use parenthetical inserts to flush out the meanings that were not explicitly mentioned in the text. Inserts such as “(and arms)”, “(with water)”, and especially in relation to the argument here, “(wash)”, show how Ali had to tackle this issue of literal interpretation coupled with implicit meanings. Muhammad Asad’s translation follows a similar path, making use of brackets to highlight implied meanings. Aisha Bewely’s translation however, skips parenthetical usage and quotes, “and wash your feet to the ankles” as if the meaning were explicit. This is done in part because Bewely, a Mālikī scholar in her own right, is assuming Mālik’s position [the above “jamī’an”] which is in favor of washing the feet, and is no doubt familiar with this very same text. Again, the message here is not who is right or wrong, but rather to demonstrate how these three translators, who recognize the ambiguity that is latent in the text [the Qur’ān]—not unlike ‘Abd al-Rahmān Bin al-Qāsim, Ibn Wahab, and Imām Mālik himself—and are all able to make “literal translations” that differ in practice, though not in meaning, as they all recognize the closing portion of the Verse:

ما يريد الله ليجعل عليكم من حرج و لكن يريد ليطهركم وليتم نعمته عليكم لعلكم تشكرون

God does not want to make things difficult for you, but God does want to purify you and to perfect God’s blessing upon you so that hopefully you will be thankful. [Qur’ān al-Mā’idah (5):6]

I will mention one last hadith here from Mālik’s al-Mudawwanah to highlight the existence of ambiguity, particularly as it relates to language. Mālik sites a hadith from ‘Uthmān Bin ‘Affān, a noted Companion of the Prophet [may God be pleased with him and peace and blessings upon the Prophet], where by ‘Uthmān uses the preposition “nawha”/نحو :

أن عثمان بن عفان دعا يوما بوضوء فتوضأ فغسل كفيه ثلاث مرات ثم تمضمض واستنثر ثلاث مرات ثم غسل وجهه ثلاث مرات ثم غسل يده اليُمنى إلى المرفق ثلاث مرات ثم غسل يده اليسرى أيضا إلى المرفق ثلاث مرات ثم مسح رأسه وأذنيه ثم غسل رجله اليمنى إلى الكعب ثلاث مرات ثم غسل رجله اليسرى إلى الكعب ثلاث مرات وأخبرنا أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم توضأ نحو وضوئي

“‘Uthmān Bin ‘Affān called to make wudū’ one day and so he performed wudū’: He washed his palms three times, then rinsed his nose and mouth three times, washed his face three times, washed his right hand to his elbows three times as well as the left, then he wiped his head and ears and washed his feet, right then left, up to his ankle bone, three times, whereupon he informed us that the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, performed wudū’ similar to my wudū’.

‘Uthmān’s use of “similar”/نحو is of key importance [as is Mālik’s mentioning of it], as it highlights a proximity, not an exactness, of ‘Uthmān’s wudū’ and that of the Prophet. Mālik quotes the Prophet again:

من توضأ نحو وضوئي هذا ثم قام فركع ركعتين لا يحدث فيهما نفسه غفر له ما تقدم من ذنبه

“Whoever performs wudū’ like me and then stands for prayer, praying two units, does  not talk idly to himself, he will be forgiven for what sins proceeded him.”

I hope the short example here will be of some use to demonstrate not only the pluralism that exists in Islam, but to show that literalism is not the same as uniformity. Language is a multifaceted enterprise and cannot be reduce to single interpretations. It is my hope as well to also illustrate that literal interpretations are also not problematic [as is often the opinion of certain voices who feel ‘literal interpretations’ are always locked in stasis of a time gone by]. Above all, I hope this case helps to impart the awe, humility, and respect we should all be taking when approaching this gift we call Islam. We may differ from one another, but before we cast aspersions at one another, I hope we will think twice, and take more time to grasp the enormity, if not the entirety, of these topics which are both broad and expansive.

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