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In his farewell address during the Hajj, the Messenger of Allah informed the large gathering of Muslims and all future generations that they would not fall into error so long as they adhered to the Book of Allah (the Qur'an) and Sunnah of His Prophet. "Sunnah" in Islamic terminology means the divinely ordained way or method followed by Prophet Muhammad, and is derived from the body of saheeh (authentic) and hasan (acceptable) hadith literature. In turn, the Prophet's Sunnah is followed by Muslims as the best means to obtain Allah's approval and His reward in the life to come.

The Sunnah is known through study of the confirmed narrations and the explanation of their meanings and proper application by qualified and trustworthy Muslim scholars. The study of hadiths is aimed at correctly understanding the rulings and lessons they contain, for they deal with what is obligatory, permitted or prohibited and demonstrate correct methods of worship. They also reveal the core aspects of belief, mentality and behavior expected of human beings by their Creator. Unfortunately, much of the latter has been disregarded within Muslim populations of recent times. But the fact remains that all prophetic observations were spoken and recorded for the very reason that they are important elements of the religion, and as such cannot be ignored.

Several verses of the Qur'an order obedience to the Messenger as a manifestation of obedience to Allah. Muslim scholars all agree that obedience to the Prophet after his death is in adherence to his Sunnah. The final Messenger was sent not only to pass on the message as Allah revealed it to him, but to explain it and put it into practice as an appropriate pattern of conduct that is not beyond the capabilities of ordinary human beings.

Hadith narrations illustrate how he exemplified and elaborated on the principles laid down in the Qur'an, providing guidelines for their correct interpretation and application. For example, in the Qur'an, Allah orders prayer. But it is from the Sunnah that one learns the times and conditions for prayer and how to perform it. In fact, everything in the Sunnah was directly or indirectly addressed by Allah in the Qur'an. And the entire Sunnah is included in the verse which orders: Whatever the Messenger has given you - take; and what he has forbidden you - desist.[1]

The Prophet's Sunnah, when taken in entirety, offers a balanced view of the Islamic faith, worship, education and discipline he advocated, one that compliments and completes the basic religious obligations that every Muslim is required to observe and obey. Beyond statements of legal rulings and merits of worship, his sayings reflect particular objectives of Islam.

In the following sections, statements of Prophet Muhammad are given in italics. All of them have been confirmed as authentic by scholars of hadith, and their narrators and degree of acceptability are cited in footnotes.[2] People can benefit greatly by reflecting upon these words, relating them to their own situations and putting them into practice whenever possible. For the Sunnah relates to contemporary human existence, and indeed remains valid for all time to come as the foundation for a higher plane of civilization.

In the Realm of Belief

In addition to the basic pillars of faith,[3] the Islamic creed of required beliefs includes everything stated as fact in the Qur'an and in the verified hadiths of Prophet Muhammad. The Messenger of Allah passed on some interesting and vital information about God and His creation, about the nature of His religion and about experiences of man during his worldly life and the results he will find in the eternal life to come. Knowledge of these realities provides a healthy perspective of the world as well as a basis for dealing with an increasingly challenging and often stressful existence.

Prophet Muhammad was a human being, and as such, he had no knowledge outside of that granted to him by Allah. However, as a sign of his prophethood he was provided with particular information through divine inspiration that others did not possess. Describing the beginning of creation, he said:

There was Allah, and there was nothing other than Him. His Throne was over water, and He wrote everything in the register, and He created the heavens and the earth.[4] The first thing Allah created was the pen, and He said to it, "Write." It said, "O Lord, what shall I write?" He said, "Write the destiny - what has been and whatever will be forever."[5] When Allah created the creation, He wrote in the register that is with Him above the Throne, "My mercy overcomes My anger." [6]

Divine mercy will be fully manifested for believers in the life to come. But even in this world it is often evident in subtle ways. While everyone can expect to suffer a certain degree of physical and mental distress during his lifetime on earth, a Muslim believer benefits from the misfortunes and hardships of worldly life whenever he endures them patiently, anticipating full compensation with additional bounty in the greater, eternal life. Allah's Messenger declared:

Paradise is surrounded by difficulties and the Hellfire is surrounded by desires.[7] The world is a prison for the believer and a paradise for the unbeliever.[8] No person has been provided with anything better or more comprehensive than patience.[9]

For the believer, patience to endure difficulties and the temporary restrictions of this world, deferring immediate satisfaction for a greater aim results in the attainment of complete gratification in the next life. He is aware that there is no benefit in anger or impatience, and that on the contrary, trials and afflictions are opportunities to earn unlimited rewards through forbearance and prudent behavior. The Prophet gave insight into such matters:

No Muslim is afflicted by worry, distress, fatigue or illness, even the prick of a thorn, but that Allah will remove through it some of his sins.[10] A man is given trials according to his religion. If there is firmness in his religion his trial is increased; but if there is weakness in his religion, then it is lightened. Tribulations remain with the servant until he walks upon the earth having no sin left upon him.[11]

Amazing is the affair of a believer; all of it is good, and that is for no one but the believer. When he is touched with benefit he is grateful and that is best for him. And when he is touched by misfortune he is patient and that is best for him.[12] Nothing afflicts a believer of weariness, grief, prolonged suffering or even a concern that worries him but that Allah removes thereby some of his misdeeds.[13]

The Messenger informed people of another important aspect of divine mercy. Because Allah is entirely familiar with each of His servants and completely aware of their aims and intentions, they will never be misunderstood by their Lord at the time of Judgement, and therefore can expect from Him absolute and perfect justice.

Allah, the Exalted, has overlooked for my people the error [they committed], what was forgotten [by them] and what they were compelled to do.[14]

The reference here is specifically to that which is done or neglected unintentionally, because obviously, deliberate premeditated transgressions are never overlooked by Allah. Justice demands that they be subject to account on the Day of Judgement unless the wrongdoer repents from the sin sincerely before his death.

The Prophet often reminded man of his Creator's perfect awareness of his every deed, word, thought and intent. Through such knowledge one can avoid inappropriate thoughts and actions and can mentally interact with his Lord in a positive way throughout his life.

Allah does not look at your bodies or faces, but He looks at your hearts and deeds.[15] Get to know Allah in times of ease and He will know you in times of difficulty"[16]

Whoever would like to meet Allah - Allah will like to meet him. And whoever would not like to meet Allah - Allah will not like to meet him.[17] Allah, the Exalted has said, "I am with My servant when he thinks of Me; so let him think of Me whatever he will."[18]

The non-believer thinks negatively of his Lord, assuming that He does not exist or that He created man unjustly for no purpose. Hence, he has no desire to meet Him. And at the time of death he will dislike that meeting intensely and fear it, for then he will have become fully aware that all he had previously denied is an inescapable reality. In contrast, the righteous believer cannot but think most highly of Allah. He is eager to meet Him and to experience His justice, mercy and approval. Another narration gives him encouragement and reassurance:

Allah, the Exalted has said, "I am with my [righteous] servant when he thinks of Me, and I am with him when he remembers Me. So if he remembers Me to himself I remember him to Myself, and if he remembers Me in a company I remember him in a company better than them. If he approaches Me a hand span I approach him an arm's length. And if he approaches Me an arm's length I approach him the expanse of open arms. If he comes to Me walking I come to him running."[19]

The Prophet added, "The comparison of one who remembers Allah and one who does not is like that of the living and the dead"[20] And he himself used to supplicate, "O Allah, help me to remember You, to be grateful to You and to worship You well."[21]

He also encouraged study, contemplation and reflection upon life and the occurrences which affect individuals, communities and nations.

For everything there is a reality, and a servant does not attain the reality of faith until he knows that whatever struck him could not have missed him and whatever missed him could not have struck him.[22] For whomever Allah wishes good, He gives him understanding of the religion.[23]

The Messenger was aware that Allah, the Mighty and Majestic, has subjected His creation to certain natural laws. There are physical laws governing the operation of the entire universe from the huge galaxies to the tiniest atoms. There are laws governing life and death. And there laws governing occurrences in the present existence and others created for the Hereafter.

The present universe and everything that happens within it is due to the Creator's law of cause and effect. It began when Allah, the primary cause of all things, willed to bring it into existence, and thus it was created. And when He willed to give man the freedom to choose and follow his own course in life, He informed him that naturally, according to this same law, there would be consequences for his actions in both this life and the next. And He warned in the Qur'an:

Whatever strikes you of disaster - it is for what your hands have earned; and He pardons much.[24] And beware of a trial that will not strike those who have wronged among you exclusively, and know that Allah is severe in penalty.[25]

The Messenger explained:

When Allah sends down punishment on a people, it afflicts whoever is among them; but then they will be resurrected [individually] according to their deeds.[26]

Thus, during the period of worldly existence, the condition of any people or nation is determined by its majority. The Muslim nation is no exception. Whenever most Muslims were conscious of Allah, obedient to Him, honest and productive, their society reflected these values, and consequently justice and prosperity prevailed. The few who deviated and departed from the right path did not have a noticeable effect on community wellbeing. On the other hand, when great numbers of people forgot Allah, became self-serving, irresponsible and corrupt, Allah allowed their societies to decline accordingly. The righteous but weak minority could neither prevent the outcome nor escape its overall effect.

In the Hereafter, however, the results of good and evil are manifested for every person individually, as stated in the hadith. Each one will be precisely judged and justly compensated according to Allah's perfect knowledge of his general attitude and unique situation during his period of existence on the earth.

Thus, Islam is not based on magic formulas or wishful thinking. Benefit and advantage are accomplished through planning and persistent effort while neglect allows dissolution and decline. This is true for everyone, believers and non-believers alike. The Prophet disclosed:

Allah does not punish ordinary people for the deeds of leaders until the leaders do that which the people are able to correct but they do not correct it. That is when Allah will permit the destruction of both the people and the leaders.[27] When people see wrongdoing and do not correct it or see an oppressor and do not prevent him, Allah will be ready to include them all in His penalty.[28]

Nonetheless, he supplicated to his Lord for the just remuneration of rulers, administrators and others in responsible positions according to their conduct: "O Allah, whoever has been given authority over my people and makes difficulty for them, then make difficulty for him, and whoever has been given authority over my people and is considerate of them, then be considerate of him.[29] This is general for all time to come, and the Messenger's supplications have never gone unanswered.

Allah, the Exalted, revealed to Prophet Muhammad that He has given man a position of responsibility upon the earth, to improve and develop it and to enhance the quality of human life. The early Muslims trained and educated by the Messenger were fully conscious that there is a cause for every occurrence; therefore, they utilized the natural laws established by Allah to achieve success. They dedicated themselves to the cause of Allah and employed only lawful methods to build their society and accomplish their objectives. They planned ahead, prepared well, anticipated dangers, practiced caution, applied statistics and strategies, and made maximum use of their minds and of available material means. Then they trusted and relied upon Allah, never forgetting that the result of every affair is in His hands and achieved by His permission.

Prophet Muhammad was much concerned with the welfare of all people, yet he had to inform them that Allah guides only those who are willing to be guided:

The example of that with which Allah has sent me of guidance and knowledge is like a rain that falls on the ground, part of which is good, absorbing the water and producing much pasture and grassland. And within it [i.e., this area] are basins retaining water whereby Allah gives benefit to the people - they drink from them and irrigate and cultivate. Yet, it falls also on another [area] which is but barren valleys that do not retain water nor do they produce pasture. This is the example of one who is knowledgeable in the religion of Allah and benefits from that with which Allah has sent me, so he learns and teaches, and of one who pays no attention to it and does not accept the guidance of Allah with which I have been sent.[30]

Even for the believer, adherence to the straight path is not always easy. Throughout the worldly life, people commonly have to struggle with negative thoughts and suggestions. But Allah's Messenger directed his followers how to deal with such matters:

Strive for that which benefits you, seek help from Allah and do not give up. If something should afflict you, do not say, "If only I had done that, [the result] would have been such and such." But say, "What Allah decreed and willed He has done", for "if" opens the way for Satan.[31]

Allah, the Exalted, has overlooked for my people that which occurs to one's mind as long as he does not speak of it or act upon it.[32]

A faction of my community shall remain clearly [standing] on the truth. They will not be harmed by those who forsake them until the decree of Allah comes.[33]

Remember often the destroyer of pleasures - death. For no one will remember it during a difficult time but that it will make it easier for him, and no one will remember it during a good time but that it will narrow it for him.[34]

And the Messenger of Allah cautioned that although the Hereafter is often seen by people as very distant in time, place or possibility, it is in reality as near as one's own departure from the present existence, beginning with his death, and that moreover, his final destination is being determined right now by that which he believes, intends and does in the present life.

Paradise is nearer to one of you than the strap of his shoe, and so is the Hellfire.[35] Allah, the Exalted has said, "By My might and My majesty, I will not combine for My servant two securities nor two fears. If he feels secure from Me in this world I will make him fearful on the Day I gather My servants, and if he fears Me in this world I will make him secure on the Day I gather My servants."[36]

When someone dies he is shown his destination by morning and evening. If he is among the people of Paradise, then [he will see himself] among the people of Paradise, and if he is among the people of Hell, then [he will see himself] among the people of Hell.[37] A person will be [in the Hereafter] with those he loves.[38]

The last statement, which was a cause for rejoicing among the Prophet's companions, assures those who love Allah, His Messenger and righteous believers of enjoying their company in Paradise. But it also holds a warning to those who prefer sinful, malicious or unworthy associates that they will join them in the Hellfire. Hence, one should consider carefully whom he chooses to love.

Among the basic tenets of Islam is individual accountability with knowledge that Allah is aware of all things. The natural consequence of one's intent and behavior, both positive and negative, is none but full compensation in the life to come. Restoration of the balance of justice in a more advanced stage of creation completes the story of human existence and is but another manifestation of the Creator's perfect scheme. In the next existence, new kinds of laws will be in operation. Among them is that punishment is in precise proportion to sin while reward is multiplied many times over. And among them is that in contrast to the temporary nature of this world, the afterlife is eternal. It is the genuine existence which will prove the present life to be essentially insignificant, except for its being a period of trial and examination.

Knowledge of such matters contributes greatly to a person's success during the tests and trials of this world. It also keeps him in a healthy balance between fear and hope, both of which constantly motivate him toward seeking his Lord's forgiveness and approval. It was for this very purpose that the Prophet described some realities of the life to come:

Allah, the Exalted said, "I have prepared for My righteous servant [in the Hereafter] what no eye has seen, no ear has heard and has never occurred to a human heart."[39]

Allah, the Exalted extends the time of an oppressor, but when He seizes him, He will not let him escape. And thus is the seizure of your Lord when He seizes the cities while they are transgressing. Verily His seizure is painful and severe.[40] Allah will grip the earth on the Day of Resurrection and fold up the heavens in His right hand. Then He will say, "I am the Sovereign. Where are the kings of the earth?" [41]

No one will enter Paradise except that he will be shown his place in the Hellfire if he had done evil - to increase his gratitude. And no one will enter the Hellfire except that he will be shown his place in Paradise if he had done good - to increase his regret.[42]


[1] Qur'an - 59:7.

[2] Hadiths narrated by al-Bukhari or by Muslim are almost always graded as saheeh (authentic).

[3] Which are: belief in God, His angels, His books, His messengers, the Last Day and predestination.

[4] Narrated by al-Bukhari.

[5] Narrated by at-Tirmidhi - saheeh.

[6] Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[7] Narrated by Ahmad and Muslim.

[8] Narrated by Ahmad and Muslim. Believers restrict themselves from unlawful pleasures during the worldly life out of fear and love of Allah, while criminals and sinners might enjoy their present temporary existence to the full, but in the next life they will pay the price of transgressions.

[9] Narrated by Al-Hakim - saheeh.

[10] Narrated by al-Bukhari.

[11] Narrated by at-Tirmidhi - hasan-saheeh.

[12] Narrated by Muslim.

[13] Narrated by at-Tirmidhi - saheeh.

[14] Narrated by Ahmad - saheeh. This assumes that the overall mind-set of believers is one of righteousness, so that what is done without their conscious intent is overlooked.

[15] Narrated by Muslim.

[16] i.e., His help will be near. Narrated by Ahmad - saheeh.

[17] Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[18] Narrated by Ahmad, at-Tabarani and al-Hakim - saheeh.

[19] Obviously, since the Creator bears no resemblance to His creation, the meaning is not to be taken in a physical sense. Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[20] Narrated by al-Bukhari.

[21] Narrated by Ahmad - saheeh

[22] Narrated by Ahmad - saheeh.

[23] Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[24] Qur'an - 42:30.

[25] Qur'an - 8:25.

[26] Narrated by Ahmad and al-Bukhari.

[27] Narrated by at-Tabarani.

[28] Narrated by Ahmad, Abu Dawud and at-Tirmidhi - saheeh.

[29] Narrated by Ahmad - saheeh.

[30] Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[31] Narrated by Muslim.

[32] Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[33] Narrated by Muslim.

[34] Narrated by al-Bayhaqi - hasan.

[35] Narrated by al-Bukhari.

[36] Narrated by al-Bazzar - hasan.

[37] Narrated by al-Bukhari.

[38] Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[39] Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[40] Narrated by Muslim. The Qur'anic reference is 11:102.

[41] Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.

[42] Narrated by al-Bukhari.