May 13, 2007

In defense of the Sunnah

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.


  1. Assalamu 'alaykum wa rahmatullah.

    A good reminder, mashallah. I liked it so much, i posted it onto I J T E M A. :)

    I'm a little annoyed though... i was writing something along the same lines last night, but then i left it half done, as it was late & i was too tired to think straight. Now i find that you have beaten me to it! Oh well... the best man won. I may still post my entry, but it won't be as good. :)


  2. An excellant and highly relevant post. :)

    This ignorance of Sunnah is becoming prevalent in our generation and it sometimes seems to have a reverberatory effect by affecting some of our elders too.

    I somethimes feel like skipping on Sunnah prayers but then remind myself why Rasool-Allah (saw) offered them in the first place.

    There's a Hadith, the gist of which is that a person who prays twelve Sunnah Rakaa'a in a day, will have a house built for him in Jannah. A house in Jannah - each day! And think of the property prices today! :)

  3. Assalaamu'alaykum wa rahmatu Allah

    JazakAllah khayr for that. I didn't realize how much I needed to read it until I actually read it. SubhanAllah. I have since been thinking about it and wondering where it is that we [I] kind of 'mess up.' To love someone or something means to be attached to it. Love doesn't make commitment optional.. love assumes commitment. So I wonder how it is that we say we love our beloved Rasul Allah (sal Allahu 'alayhi wa salam), yet neglect his way. Perhaps its the strength of the backward nafs and thus the nafs needs to be disciplined.

    Another concern is engaging in the sunnah because of its face value or for the desire of the reward alone because eventually the appeal may wear off. How many houses do we all need in heaven? I'm lazy to get one today. I have enough for now anyway. Love isn't lazy. But how can we truly love one we don't really know? I think once we make sense of our relationship with Rasul Allah (sal Allahu 'alayhi wa salam), it'll begin to come together..sort of how it is with your friend and his love of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The intention preceding the action gives the action its real worth.

    As for other people's lessened regard for the sunnah... it helps to remember that where some have put energy into developing a relationship of love with Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) [something that is only 'achieved' if Allah blesses one with it], others haven't. So thank Allah for the blessing of being attached to the sunnah. May the Almighty bless us all with that love, ameen. know, perhaps saying "It's just a sunnah" indicates that the fard needs some work too.. Allahu'alim.

  4. This is a great post. On the flipside, I've seen people mechanically following the sunnah. For example, "I MUST pray sunnah, even if it only takes me a total of 12 seconds." So, they're technically following the sunnah in movement, but not in sincerity. And therefore, they're not being true to what the sunnah really is.

    I'm not saying doing sunnah actions is "only" secondary. But it is secondary, so to speak. Because we live in this capsule of time where the fara'idh aren't kept very well, so it's hard for people to grasp the idea of doing even more. We need to get back to teaching the essence of Islam and the Prophet's message, so that people will understand the reason behind the actions they do, and then do them out of love, respect and aspiration for the hereafter.

    Of course, the problem comes in when we have grasped the fara'idh but are lazy with the sunnah. Then that really becomes a major issue. I should know.

    But like you said, let's also keep in mind that the sunnah is more than just in the form of prayer. It is everything we do and say. I personally think that some of these 'character sunnahs' are much more important than praying 2 rak'ahs after maghrib. Because these things aren't something you can turn on and off, they don't end in 2 minutes. They stay with you for a lifetime.

    Without the characteristics of a Muslim according to the sunnah, what is the meaning, if any behind our motion?

  5. Nicely written, masha allah, but to be honest, several parts of this article struck me as somewhat strange, and I think it’s because you are conflating various issues in your argument about following the sunnah. Or maybe the examples you’ve provided just aren’t very convincing to me. For example, the issue you bring up about sunnah prayers may actually be more about accommodation than it is about following the sunnah, as the hanafi madhhab in particular views these prayers as close to obligatory and others don’t. In fact, the hanafi madhhab differentiates between types of sunnah, one of which is sunnah muakkadah which, if left off with regularity, renders the individual sinful. Regardless of whether or not one may think that the hanafi position on the sunnah prayers is stronger than the other madhhabs, the reality is that there is disagreement on whether or not they need to be performed, and in fact there is even disagreement about how many raka’ahs of sunnah are to be performed with each fard prayer.

    Furthermore, while I would not question your friend’s noble intention to follow the Prophet’s way, I do think there needs to be a differentiation between what needs to be followed and what doesn’t. For example, most scholars in the West today recognize that one need not dress a certain way to follow the sunnah. Neither would one need to sit on the floor to eat. And it is even disputed that the washing of one’s hands before eating is a sunnah. So yes, we can commend an individual on the spirit behind his actions, but those who do not believe these aspects of the Prophet’s life a) were actually practiced by him or b) are required to be emulated would find very little that is commendable in the action itself. My point, I think, is that perhaps you’re right that people have begun neglecting the sunnah on a large-scale basis, but the examples you’ve provided just don’t strike me as all that convincing.

  6. iMuslim: Wa'alaykum assalam wa rahmatullah,

    Thanks for the Ijtema link.

    I may still post my entry, but it won't be as good. :)

    Please do! I'm sure it'll be fine. And don't worry, I won't write something cynical about you "copying" me.

    Ameera: I think all of us have this weakness in that we just feel lazy and are happy with the bare minimums. But more and more, I see this as something that is becoming normal, and this is what is being taught. As I said, I'm not the right person to write about this, but these thoughts were on my mind recently.

    Farzeen: Wa'alaykum assalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
    "Love isn't lazy". That sums it up, I think. It takes some effort to really express love and appreciation, and few of us are willing to go that extra mile for our love of Islam.

    Asmaa: Yeah, the 12-second prayer is probably not much better than skipping it altogether. But with respect to saying that "we can't keep the faraidh, so the sunnah is secondary".. well, there's a specific hadith about how on the Day of Qiyamah, the deficiencies in our fardh salaat will be compensated by the nawaafil. So it seems like we need to do both, because we all have some deficiencies.

    Also, I don't accept the reasoning that "well, so many people don't even do their fardh, so why should I worry about my sunnah?" I don't think we should be worrying too much about what everyone else is doing or not doing when evaluating our own condition. The truth is, I need it in my life, irrespective of what others have in theirs.

    Safiyyah: Okay, but you're still reducing everything to a series of obligations and non-obligations. I'm not talking about jurisprudence here at all, I'm talking about the spirit of the law. There's a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. I'm not trying to criticize other positions on the necessity of the sunnah prayers or any other sunnah, for that matter; I'm just saying that it's important to recognize what sunnah actually means. When we translate sunnah as "optional", we are not paying due respect to the Prophet; essentially, we're saying that it doesn't really matter what the Prophet did during his lifetime, because all that stuff is optional. When we translate it as "a tradition of the Prophet", we realize that it's something that we must respect and honour, whether we practice it ourselves or not, or whether we consider it obligatory or not.

  7. You didn't understand my point. All I meant to say was that people shouldn't emphasize doing sunnah prayers or actions if they are empty actions without sincerity behind them. We do need both sunnahs and fardh prayers, but saying that you should still do your sunnahs even though you don't do your fara'idh is a bit absurd. What's the point of praying witr if you haven't prayed isha?!

    Also, I didn't say that we should compare ourselves to others who aren't doing the fara'idh, and use that as an excuse for our own laziness. We're each going to be judged on our own without the intercession of others.

  8. Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you were saying that we should compare ourselves to others who are missing the faraidh; your comment just reminded me of people who do have that attitude.

    Yes, clearly, it's a deeper problem than just performing or not performing the actions; it's that we've lost the essence of what it all means, and just go through the motions.

  9. Faraz, you've missed the point. I’m not reducing it to a series of obligations and non-obligations. What I’m saying is that it’s obvious the issue isn’t the spirit of the law as you seem to be arguing. The vast majority of Muslims agree on the importance of following the sunnah. But while a Muslim might believe in following the sunnah, in practice this individual might appear (to the outside observer) to be ascribing little importance to the sunnah for various reasons: a) she may be following a different interpretation of whether or not a particular practice is the sunnah; b) she may not believe the hadith report(s) behind a specific practice to be authentic; and/or c) she may not think a particular practice of the Prophet is to be understood in a prescriptive sense. All of the examples you’ve provided in your piece could conceivably be attributed to the reasons I’ve just outlined. You might have examples that show more clearly that the sunnah is being disrespected, but what you’ve offered up thus far isn’t at all conclusive.

  10. Interesting post and one that I feel would be a beneficial reminder to myself as well. However, I do agree with Safiyyah that you've neglected the fact that there is much in the sunnah that is under dispute from different points of view and that these perspectives lead to different methods of emulation of the sunnah. To enforce people to follow a certain act of sunnah may not be appropriate if those people feel that it's not in line with what their interpretation of the sunnah is.

    On the flipside, you make a good point that the "just sunnah" mentality prevalant in many of us is something which should not be used since following the sunnah, or at least attempting to, is a big part of the Muslim identity. Then again, it may not work to travel by camel these days as an act of sunnah as the Prophet did in his time... so it might be important for people to distinguish how the sunnah should be applied for themselves and the importance of it to their own character.

  11. The message was clear.
    Do not be blinded by trees,
    lest wood disappear.

  12. As-salaamu 'alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaat,

    Masha'Allah, a great post... this is actually something that's been on my mind as well; because I have (sadly) been lax with the sunan/ nawaafil salaah in the past and am trying to improve in that respect.

    One thing I've found interesting, though, which I've observed at the masjid and the Madrasah, is that some people will be very keen on praying all the sunan - and while it is of course commendable, the unfortunate thing is that the way they're praying is sometimes incorrect (e.g. the "Speedy Gonzales" mode - going up and down so fast it looks more like a workout than a prayer).

    BTW, your mention of the two phases/ waves of 'revival' has intrigued me; d'you think you could write more about them, insha'Allah? I've never heard about it before... although, from what you've mentioned, a similar situation can be found in V. (old city); with my old Islamic centre seeming close to the 'first wave' you described.

    Anyway, once more, a good post... I think you make some great points, masha'Allah, especially w/ regards to what some people say about wearing the hijaab/ beard (that it's only something outward and no indication of what the person is really like).


  13. To enforce people to follow a certain act of sunnah may not be appropriate if those people feel that it's not in line with what their interpretation of the sunnah is.

    I never said anything about forcing people to follow certain sunnahs. I'm only saying that the sunnah should be shown respect, and not be considered unnecessary. I did say that there is leniency on whether a sunnah action is an obligation or not, but to dismiss an action as "just sunnah" and thus unnecessary is to disrespect the tradition of the Prophet.

    The camel argument doesn't apply, because there is no specific hadith in which it was specifically encouraged to ride on camels as a means of transportation.

    On matters like sunnah prayers, I think you're exaggerating the disparity in the classical opinions. The opinions only range from "recommended" to "required" (i.e. the mu'akkada already mentioned); there is no accepted opinion that says that there is no benefit in sunnah prayers, or that the practice of sunnah prayers is not authentically narrated in the hadith. Thus, even if a person chooses not to pray the sunnah himself, to consider it unimportant is to disregard a commendable action. We do this all the time.

    The beard is often the topic of much controversy. But again, all the classical opinions on it range only from it being mustahab to wajib; there is no traditional opinion which says it has no value at all. So irrespective of the interpretation, to disrespect it or to belittle others for growing a beard is to show a certain contempt for a tradition of the Prophet sallallaho'alayhi wa salam.

    Again, I'm not trying to get into jurisprudence; those are matters best left to better people than me. All I mean to say is that for a Muslim to disrespect the established practices of the Prophet simply because they are not obligatory is to neglect how important the Prophet is to us. Honestly, I don't really mind if someone has a different interpretation of what constitutes sunnah, so long as they don't disrespect what others believe to be the sunnah. What I find though is that people are not dismissing them for any of the three reasons mentioned above, but only because they don't feel they're important.

    If their argument was that they didn't believe it to be an authentic sunnah, they would not say "it's just sunnah" to explain why they don't do it. They would say "it's not an established sunnah due to the following reasons." To acknowledge that something is a sunnah, and that's the reason you don't practice it ... that's what bothers me.

  14. I was surprised to find the comment count suddenly jump from two to thirteen overnight and after actually reading the comments, I discovered the real reason behind that. It's unfortunate that, we as Muslims, find it easier to write long paragraphs detailing our viewpoint in matters that are so beautiful in their simplicity.

    With all due respect, I don't see what the issue is here. What Faraz bh wrote about in the most could be summed up by a verse that recurs in the Qur'an:

    "Obey Allah and obey the Messenger."

    That's it.

    The post wasn't about jurisprudence, as Faraz bh rightly pointed out in his comment replies. It was about appreciating the position of Rasool-Allah (saw), who, according to the Quran, had an "exalted character".

    In one thing or another, you are all right in your opinions, like Asmaa insisting that good character takes precedence over simply dowing your Sunnah Raka'ah in rapid speed. Or Safiyyah highlighting some of the technical aspects of following the Sunnah.

    But what everyone forgot was that this post should have made us ponder, reflect and understand the importance of Sunnah. Instead, from the way the discussion was going it would appear as if we were actually trying to find ways to abstain from the Sunnah!

    I hope no one takes personal offense to what I said - there was none intended!

  15. As salaamu alaikum wa rahmat Allah,

    MashaAllah this is an excellent post. I myself often find myself getting lax with Sunnah prayers sometimes, but then I wonder...what if this is the good deed that Allah will like on the Day of Judgment that earns me His mercy on that day? Or when thinking of a bad deed, I wonder, what if this is a deed that Allah hates on the day of Judgment so much that He decides to put me into Hell-fire?

    May Allah help us ALL to improve ourselves, please Him and stay firm on the Sunnah. On many occassions, the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wassalam) said that (paraphrase): 'Whoever holds on to the Book and the Sunnah will not go astray' and inshaAllah we need to go back to this methodology.

    Yes, in Usool Al-Fiqh there are some legal sunnahs (sunnahs that are meant for us to do) and non-legal sunnahs (things the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wassalam) did but we are not obliged to do, such as loving pumpkin). But just because one wants to do the non-legal sunnahs too doesn't mean it's bad, rather, their Actions are judged by intention, and loving the Prophet of Allah (salAllahu alayhi wassalam) is a wonderful intention.


  16. AnonyMouse: Wa'alaykum assalam wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh,

    Regarding the two phases, I can potentially write about that.. though I'm not sure I'm the right person to talk about the "second phase" I wrote about, because my own experiences were not good, and were probably not reflective of the "movement" as a whole. So anything I write would have some bias.

    Ameera: Thanks for the great summary! I'm sure no one took offense, and I think you explained your point very well.

    illuminatingfaith: Wa'alaykum assalam wa rahmatullah,
    Thanks, and welcome! You're right about what the requirements of Usool-al-fiqh, and how we must distinguish between legal and non-legal sunnahs. But often, we just complicate matters and lose the spirit of what it all really means.

  17. Assalamualaikum.

    Did you find anything irrelevant to write about at your blog? We're waiting, you know. :P

  18. I don't think I read this when it was posted. Good post. I've always thought that sunnah isn't optional, that it's mandatory unless something very important prevents you from doing it. One level below fardh (which is mandatory, you must try to pray fradh). But then, I don't think I have really applied that thinking.