Recently, I have been asked and approached to explain the concept of Sunnah, things the Prophet did, said could be done or gave tacit approval of. Not to be confused with this are things we can also call ‘amal al-Nabi, or actions of the Prophet. Conversely, not everything that the Prophet did is to be cataloged under Sunnah, per se. Now, hold on. Hold yer horses. I know right now some of you are gonna flip out! Okay, here ‘goes.
First, the notion that everything that the Prophet did, every single little act or action, is Sunnah (and by Sunnah, we mean in a fiqhi/jurisprudence kind of way) was upheld by very few. One of those few was Ibn Hazm, a famous Spanish scholar of the Zahirite school. Ibn Hazm considered just about everything the Prophet did to be Sunnah and therefore wajib (obligatory) to follow him in it. Again, this is not the norm.
Now along with this explanation it should be stated clearly that there’s a difference between not following the Prophet in his every action and refusing to follow the Prophet as a modus operandi. I hope you all follow me on that. The reason why I am stating all of this is because there is much confusion today amongst Muslims as to what is and what isn’t Sunnah. And it is that which ties us into bid’ah, or unsanctioned innovations in religion.
Bid’ah is not simply “adding something to the religion”. This is a common misconception and you have to follow closely what I’m talking about here. Using modern technology, cultural norms and so on are not bid’ah, per se. If I choose to put my shoes on right foot then left, this is not a bid’ah. It’s not even disobeying the Prophet. But, for instance, there are many Muslims who won’t kiss their wives during Ramadan or while they’re fasting because they believe that kissing you wife will break your fast (even though there’s indisputable evidence that the Prophet did kiss his wives during these times). They believe that by not kissing their wives they’re just “making sure” that they don’t break their fasts. Now, if you believe you can come up with a way or a system of doing something that is better than the Prophet’s, that’s bid’ah. That is what is meant by unsanctioned innovation in the religion. Saying that those who pray with their hands at their sides is a bid’ah is ridiculous and is the work of ignorant and mis-educated people.
I know this is brief but I wanted to just touch on this subject. I plan to come back to it in more detail later. And God knows best. For further reading, see Sherman Jackson’s piece on Prophet action.