In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Prior to Ibrahim, peace be upon him, the prophets were sent with a message that conveyed a set of ethical and moral teachings based upon monotheism. Faith in the oneness of the Creator is the perquisite to their implementation, as it is the foundation upon which their timeless values are established. Without monotheism, moral teachings become subjective and thus humanity would descend into loss and anarchy.
Miracles were the means though which Allah enabled the prophets to attract attention to their message. Nevertheless, the true importance of the message was their moral content rooted in monotheism. People were amazed by different miracles like the parting of the red sea by Moses and the raising of the dead by Jesus, but they very often failed to make the next step of understanding the message and its values.
In this regard, Ibrahim made a fundamental contribution by linking moral and ethical principles to natural law, thereby demonstrating the unity of the Creator and His consistent signatures in the creation. Allah preserved this fundamental contribution in the Quranic dialog in which Ibrahim arrives, by rational means, at the logical conclusion of monotheism, making him the ultimate human intellectual and establishing the primacy of reason in Islam.
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, confirmed this distinct and exalted status for his forefather Ibrahim. A man once came to the Prophet and called to him, “O best of creation!” The Prophet said:
ذَاكَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ عَلَيْهِ السَّلَام
That is Ibrahim, upon him be peace.
Distinction between prophets and divine messengers are meant to communicate deeper meanings that can help us understand our priorities. This distinction is not in terms of belief, since faith in all of the messengers is a requirement of monotheism, but rather that some prophets and messengers were given honors not bestowed upon others:
تِلْكَ الرُّسُلُ فَضَّلْنَا بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ ۘ مِّنْهُم مَّن كَلَّمَ اللَّهُ ۖ وَرَفَعَ بَعْضَهُمْ دَرَجَاتٍ ۚ وَآتَيْنَا عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ الْبَيِّنَاتِ وَأَيَّدْنَاهُ بِرُوحِ الْقُدُسِ
We favored some of the messengers over others. Among them were those to whom Allah spoke, and He raised some of them in degree. We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear proofs and We supported him with the Holy Spirit.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:253
Prophet Muhammad is distinguished among all other prophets and messengers by virtue of him leading the great intercession on the Day of Resurrection. In light of Ibrahim’s use of logic and reason, as well as the fact that Muhammad was ordered to follow that path of Ibrahim, what is it about Muhammad in particular that commands such an honored distinction in the afterlife?
It is important to remember Ibrahim’s contribution as a movement toward spreading the message of monotheism globally for all people who want to follow it. This includes Ibrahim’s application of the deeper meaning of monotheism, his combination of rationality and faith, and his status as a role model capable of bringing true prosperity and justice to humanity.
To be sure, Prophet Muhammad was distinguished in his ability to bring the monotheistic nation into fruition, whose foundation was laid at the time of Ibrahim. If Ibrahim was the ultimate human intellect who established the working theory of monotheism, Muhammad was the ultimate human leader able to turn the theory into reality. Only through the combination of sharp reason and wise action can the authentic monotheistic community be realized.
The Quran testifies to the great moral character of Prophet Muhammad and his adherence to divine principles and values:
وَإِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍ
Verily, you have great moral character.
Surat Al-Qalam 68:4
Another verse highlights the Prophet’s ability to lead the believers:
لَقَدْ جَاءَكُمْ رَسُولٌ مِّنْ أَنفُسِكُمْ عَزِيزٌ عَلَيْهِ مَا عَنِتُّمْ حَرِيصٌ عَلَيْكُم بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ رَءُوفٌ رَّحِيمٌ
There has certainly come to you a messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer, and he is concerned for you and he is kind and merciful to the believers.
Surat At-Tawba 9:128
And yet another verse praises the Prophet’s good manners and his wisdom in drawing benefitting the intellectual resources of his companions, the hallmark of true leadership:
فَبِمَا رَحْمَةٍ مِّنَ اللَّهِ لِنتَ لَهُمْ ۖ وَلَوْ كُنتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لَانفَضُّوا مِنْ حَوْلِكَ ۖ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الْأَمْرِ
By the mercy of Allah you were lenient with them. Had you been rough and hard hearted, they would have disbanded from around you. So pardon them and seek forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter.
Surat Ali Imran 3:159
The Prophet earned his leadership role among his companions and the Muslims who followed by virtue of his character, fulfilling the meaning of his name “the highly praised.” He likened himself to the capstone of a house, accomplishing the prophetic mission whose foundation was laid by the previous prophets:
مَثَلِي وَمَثَلُ الْأَنْبِيَاءِ كَرَجُلٍ بَنَى دَارًا فَأَكْمَلَهَا وَأَحْسَنَهَا إِلَّا مَوْضِعَ لَبِنَةٍ فَجَعَلَ النَّاسُ يَدْخُلُونَهَا وَيَتَعَجَّبُونَ وَيَقُولُونَ لَوْلَا مَوْضِعُ اللَّبِنَةِ
The example of myself and the prophets is that of a man who has built a house, completed it, and beautified it except for a place left for one brick. When the people enter the house, they admire its beauty and they say: If only for the place of this brick!
Likewise, Prophet Muhammad spoke about how he built upon the intellection foundation laid by Ibrahim:
نَحْنُ أَحَقُّ بِالشَّكِّ مِنْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ إِذْ قَالَ رَبِّ أَرِنِي كَيْفَ تُحْيِي الْمَوْتَى قَالَ أَوْ لَمْ تُؤْمِنْ قَالَ بَلَى وَلَكِنْ لِيَطْمَئِنَّ قَلْبِي
We are more liable to doubt than Ibrahim when he said, “My Lord, show me how you raise the dead.” Allah said, “Do you not have faith?” Ibrahim said, “Of course I do, but only to put my heart at rest.” (2:260)
Sahih Bukhari 3192
Here, the Prophet is amazed by Ibrahim’s thinking regarding the creation. Ibrahim doubted his understanding of the natural phenomena of life and death, but he did not doubt the Creator as the consistent and unitary source of what occurs in nature. In this regard, we are even more in need of critically examining our understanding of science, nature, and the world.
The meaning of Sunnah (the prophetic methodology)
Monotheism incorporates the idea that Allah is the only absolute singularity and everything else comes in pairs that tend to complement or oppose each other. This also applies to the values that Allah has commanded us to embrace. An example would be justice and compassion, two virtues beloved to Allah. Yet one can imagine many scenarios in which they apparently conflict with each other, and mitigating this tension is precisely a component of Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah: It is the methodology of balancing conflicting values in the same way that Ibrahim reconciled the truth of creation with the truth of revelation.
As both scripture and nature are coming from the same source, and Allah is consistent in his creation according to the understanding of Ibrahim, harmonizing both in a clear methodology of implementation is what characterizes the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad. As the message of monotheism spread globally through Islam, the Sunnah of the Prophet provided the teachings with which to apply it on a large scale. The divine messenger with the best character and leadership skills was tasked with ending of the era of prophecy and, therefore, Prophet Mohammad is the last of all prophets and messengers.
Ignorance of the Sunnah can lead to catastrophic results in which people believe God is one, yet they do not apply their faith correctly according to scripture and natural law. Some of the companions of the Prophet once made a religious vow, saying, “I will not marry women.” Others said, “I will not eat meat.” And still others said, “I will never sleep in a bed.” The Prophet heard about this and he said:
مَا بَالُ أَقْوَامٍ قَالُوا كَذَا وَكَذَا لَكِنِّي أُصَلِّي وَأَنَامُ وَأَصُومُ وَأُفْطِرُ وَأَتَزَوَّجُ النِّسَاءَ فَمَنْ رَغِبَ عَنْ سُنَّتِي فَلَيْسَ مِنِّي
What is the matter with these people who say this? I pray and I sleep, I fast and I break fasting, and I marry women. He who turns away from my practice is not related to me.
People who adopt faith, especially when they are young, have natural zeal that needs to be directed in the right manner. These companions made vows to abandon worldly pleasures such as marrying, eating meat, or sleeping, thinking by doing so they would become closer to Allah. However, the reality of the Sunnah is moderation in all things, between celibacy and promiscuity, between gluttony and austerity, between restlessness and lethargy.
Understanding the Sunnah
Taking the values and principles of the Sunnah as axioms, expressed by Muslim scholars as the objectives (maqasid) and principles (qawa’id), will remove the confusion people experience when reading different and apparently contradictory verses of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet. We should keep in mind three important facts:
- The Prophet was concerned first and foremost with realizing the values of Allah,
- The Prophet was always principled and consistent in his sayings and deeds,
- The Prophet responded differently in certain situations due to different circumstances.
The practical application of the Sunnah sometimes changed in time and place, but the values the Prophet was balancing were always the same.
To properly understand the Sunnah, one has to know the circumstances in which the Prophet said what he said or did what he did. Scholarly commentaries on the Prophet’s traditions will help shed light on the context. Then one has to identify the values that were at stake in the given circumstances to finally see how the Prophet ultimately resolved the tension existing between two or more values.
It is a common practice among many Muslims to read the Sunnah literally, without appreciating the context or addressing the values behind the Prophet’s actions. By reading the Sunnah in the correct way, we will be better able to derive insight for solving many modern challenges that occur as a result of conflicting value judgments. We will be able to more accurately answer the question, what would the Prophet do in our situation today? Faithfulness to the enduring foundation of monotheism, whose values are consistent and unchanging, will provide the answers we need.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.