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  • Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

The Path of the Prophet


The word “sunnah” in Arabic means a path. In the religious context it has come to refer to the manner of life pleasing to God, which has been revealed to man through His Prophets. The word is used in the Quran for all the forms which divine law has taken throughout the ages.

When God created the world, He also ordained a path that it should follow. He enforced this divine course so strictly on the world of nature that there cannot be the slightest deviation from it. But God did not impose His will on humanity. He gave us freedom of thought and action: those who followed His path of their own free will were to be rewarded with paradise, while those who deviated from it would be punished in hell-fire.

God wishes to make this known to you and to guide you along the path of those who have gone before you, and to turn to you in mercy. He is Wise, Knowing.

God’s prophets came to the world to make this chosen path plain to us. In their words and deeds, they showed us how to live in accordance with the will of God. It is this way of life, which is known in Islam as the sunnah, or path, of the prophets. It covers every aspect of life, from personal matters to social reform and nation-building. Those who earnestly seek to be included amongst God’s chosen servants must follow the path of the Prophet in all respects. In no walk of life should they consider themselves free to tread another course .

The most important practice of the Prophet’s personal life was preaching the word of God. A study of his life shows that his greatest concern was to bring people to the path of the Lord. That his concern had turned to anguish is clear from this verse of the Quran.

You will perhaps fret yourself to death on account of their unbelief.

The Prophet said that one who disregarded his sunnah was not one of his community. Just as this remark applies to the marriage contract and other such social obligations, so does it equally apply to the duty of calling people to the path of God. Only those have the right to be called true followers of the Prophet, who, along with other obligations enjoined by him, adopt this all-important practice of the Prophet as well.

One aspect of the Prophet’s public mission was a realistic, step-by-step approach to everything he did. In the application of theoretical standards, he always made allowances for practical realities. He was always careful to introduce social reforms gradually. In modern jargon, his approach can be called evolutionary rather than revolutionary. ‘A’ishah, the Prophet’s wife, has explained this principle very clearly:

The first chapters of the Quran to be revealed were short ones making mention of heaven and hell. Then, when people became conditioned to accept Islamic teachings, verses dealing with what is lawful and unlawful were revealed. And if injunctions like: “Do not drink wine,” and “Do not commit adultery,” had been revealed first of all, people would have refused to abandon these practices.

With the conquest of Makkah in the year A.H. 8, the Prophet assumed full control over the Arabian capital. Yet he did not seek immediate implementation of Islamic laws in the House of God in Makkah; whatever was to be done, he did gradually. Islamic rule had been established in the holy city when the pilgrimage of A.H. 8 took place, but it was performed according to ancient, pre-Islamic custom. Next year, the second pilgrimage of the Islamic era was performed with the idolaters following their own customs, and the Muslims theirs. It was only in the third year that the Prophet announced that the pilgrimage would be performed entirely according to Islamic tenets. This pilgrimage is known as Hajjat al-Wida’ in Islamic history—the farewell pilgrimage of the Prophet.

It was instinctively abhorrent to the Prophet that the idolaters should come to the Sacred Mosque and perform the rites of pilgrimage according to their idolatrous customs. Yet, despite the power that he wielded, he did not hurry to implement the Islamic system. Rather, he himself refrained from going to Makkah on a pilgrimage for two years after the conquest. “I would not like to go on a pilgrimage while the idolaters are coming there and performing the rites of pilgrimage naked,” he would say when the Hajj season arrived.

Some Muslims went on Hajj in the year after the conquest of Makkah (A.H. 8), but the Prophet was not among them. The next year in A.H. 9, the Muslim party of pilgrims was led by Abu Bakr. It was after this that the idolaters were banned from making the pilgrimage. The prohibition came in this verse of the Quran:

Believers, know that the idolaters are unclean. Let them not approach the Sacred Mosque after this year is ended.

The Prophet then sent his cousin ‘Ali to Makkah, with orders that he should mingle amongst the gathering of pilgrims, and proclaim that after this year no idolator would be allowed to come on Hajj, and tawaf (circumambulation of the House of God) in a naked state would not be permitted. Then, in the third year, following the gradual elimination of polytheism, the Prophet undertook what was to be his final pilgrimage to the Sacred Mosque.

This shows how the Prophet was careful to introduce reforms gradually. Even when he wielded power, he did not attempt to hurry Islamic legislation; he allowed matters to take their natural course, proceeding stage by stage until the desired conclusion was reached; he would hold himself back from introducing the desired measures, but he would not seek to hold the polytheists back from their activities until the time came when they themselves were ready to refrain from them.

There are many sides of the Prophet which have not generally been acknowledged as being important: for one thing, his realistic and gradual approach to everything he did has never been hailed as being of special significance. For instance, the Prophet lived in Makkah for thirteen years after the commencement of his prophetic mission, but not once during this time did he remonstrate against the continual desecration of the Kab’ah. Even after conquering the city, he was in no hurry to abolish vain and frivolous customs. He waited for two years, despite the fact that he had the power to take immediate action. Only in the third year did he introduce the reforms that he had in mind.

A gradual approach reaps several advantages, which cannot be accrued from any other method. It guarantees success in attaining one’s objectives. One who adopts this approach does not advance further until he is quite sure that he has consolidated his previous position. He does not let himself be carried away by his own zeal, rather, taking external factors into account, he proceeds in step with the times. There can be no doubt that one, who is so cautious in his progress, will ultimately reach his goal.

Moreover, there is less risk of incurring unnecessary losses or liabilities. Those who seek to achieve too much too soon, find, inevitably, that they have to surmount enormous obstacles before they are really in a position to do so. Such attempts can result in incalculable loss of life and widespread damage to property. Making amends for such imprudence could take centuries.

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