I remember the deeply offended look on my friend's face. He was, by nature, a very emotional person, but that one moment he appeared to be even more distraught than usual.
It was during Ramadhan, and I had just finished setting up the classroom for iftar. This meant stacking up all the desks and tables, pushing aside the chairs, and setting up the curtains that closed off the sister's section. Typically, there would be two hundred students breaking fast together during my university years, and it was always an honour to be part of it.
I asked my friend what had disturbed him so; I shouldn't have been surprised by his response.
"A lot of brothers are complaining," he said. "They want to start the food right after the Maghrib jama'ah is over, they don't want us to wait for people to finish their sunnah. They say they're just sunnah." Those were the words that infuriated him. Just sunnah. I hadn't known this friend for many years at the time, but we had gone through quite a bit together in those years; we had travelled together to some of the most outlandish places I've ever been, and he always came across as someone who truly loved the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. In his actions, in his speech, and in his dress, this friend always inspired me by his dedication to the Prophet.
"Don't they realize what they're saying?", he continued. "They're basically saying 'it's just Rasulullah, it doesn't matter. It's just the last and final Messenger, upon whom the way of life for all of humanity until the Day of Judgement had been conferred.'"
It's true. Often, I hear this same remark about something being "just sunnah", implying that it doesn't hold importance or that it can be ignored. Certainly, there are varying levels of leniency with respect to the obligation of certain actions, but that does not obviate the spirit of the sunnah.
There seemed to be two distinct waves of revitalization amongst the youth in the Muslim community where I grew up. The first wave, approximately between 1994 and 1996, was smaller and less dramatic, and included just a handful of people under the guidance of some very dedicated elders in the community. I am a product of this first wave. For our small group, there was a considerable amount of guidance from community leaders and imams who always imparted in us the value of the sunnah.
The second wave was almost exclusively a youth movement, and it touched the entire city. It brought together hundreds of like minded Muslims through sports and social activites, and brought a new energy to the masaajid. Instead of the traditional lectures from imams that us in the first phase participated in, the second phase was characterized by youth circles and discussion groups. Many young Muslims who may have felt uncomfortable with the imams and community leaders were at ease in these youth circles. Thus, the effects were far more dramatic, and brought together a positive change within the community. But in distancing themselves from traditional scholarship amd guidance from elders, there was some unfortunate fallout with this new energy. Many were deprived of the emphasis placed upon the sunnah, and often it was ignored altogether. I do not mean to criticize their efforts, for certainly they did outstanding work that they will insha-Allah be rewarded for. However, it was a common trend that acts from the sunnah were dismissed as unnecessary.
Now a decade later, the community has matured considerably, and the pioneers of those youth movements have taken their roles as community leaders in their own right. But the distinction still remains in that the sunnah is often neglected with the newer crowd; I've been to Islamic events where it was of great inconvenience to the organizers that people would choose to pray their sunnah prayers after the completion of the jama'ah. Sure, the events may have been calling towards the revival of the sunnah, but do those extra prayers on your own time. These same people were the most vocal during the cartoon fiasco, but would prefer to speak and dress like hip hop artists than the Prophet.
It should be understood that sunnah does not mean "optional". Something that is sunnah is something that was practiced and encouraged by the Prophet salallaho'alayhi wa salam. There are sunnah that the Prophet never left during his lifetime. Some Companions sought to emulate each and every single little sunnah to the minutest details. And anyone that loves the Prophet should also love his sunnah, as has been emphasized in numerous hadith.
Certainly, sunnah is not just those two extra units of prayer, nor is it just the simple clothing or beards or whatever else we often dismiss. It's also the character, the conduct, and the interactions, and to have one without the other is superficial. But this does not mean that we can ignore the more outward forms of sunnah; they're all part of who we are, and shouldn't be belittled or deemed unimportant.
I felt the need to write this in order to give due credit to people who do their best to maintain both an inward and outward appearance of being Muslim. Often, I hear comments by people who insist that donning a hijab or keeping a beard or any other outward act of faith has nothing to do with being a Muslim, and it's only what is in the heart that matters. Yes, it's what is in the heart that matters, but if the feelings in our heart do not extend even so far as our bodies, then there is likely something missing from that heart. Of course, only Allah knows what the heart truly contains, but the outward disposition and behaviour usually offers at least some hints.
I should be the last person writing about this, as my own life is riddled with inconsistencies, not just in the matter of sunnah, but even with the fundamentals. But too often, we dismiss these aspects of our faith; this is a reminder to myself, first, in that I have knowingly neglected so many opportunities to strengthen my connection to the sunnah. We reduce the religion to a set obligations and non-obligations, losing the spirit of what it truly means to be following in the footsteps of the Messenger of Allah. And we fail to pay due respect to those who really do struggle for the sake of maintaining the sunnah; often, we would go as far as belittling them.
In the end, my friend did succeed in maintaining the status quo, accommodating all those people who chose to pray their sunnah prayers. He also succeeded in teaching everyone to wash their hands before eating, and to sit on the floor in a respectful manner while eating. Sure, they may have been relatively small acts of worship, seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But perhaps those little acts will be the little bit that can tip the scale the right way.