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 candiness 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 quandry 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 (SA WS) 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, un less 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 theCompanions, 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. AI-Musawwadah fi usul al-fiqh, ed. M. “Abd ai-Hamid (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi. Nd), 186-88.
  15. AI-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.