Too Strictly Sunnah? by
Following in Footsteps in Modern Times
he incorporation of the behaviour, practices and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) into a Muslim’s life is an important aspect of the practice of Islam. Since the world has changed dramatically in 1400 years, scholars have the difficult challenge of reviewing the historical source material and determining how Muslims can best incorporate the ‘sunnah’ in the modern world.
But there seem to be many non-scholars in leadership positions who take a less nuanced view. I was at a dinner recently where a local Imam proclaimed that Muslims had to follow all aspects of the sunnah including engaging in child marriages!
That is just one example of the type of practice that had a place long ago (with shorter life expectancies) but not today. In my work as a Muslim Chaplin, I was often approached by Muslims facing a crisis of conscience trying to reconcile the gulf created by this kind of interpretation of sunnah with broader Islamic principles found in the Quran, like egalitarianism, peace, justice and protection of the weak.
There are a few reasons for this disconnect. Sometimes the specific sunnah cited is considered weak or false by modern scholars. Other times the source cited was improperly translated from the original. Frequently literal interpretations are selectively used for political purposes or to reinforce cultural practices like patriarchy or tribalism. It often seems like those who adhere to a ‘literal interpretation’ find lots reasons to impose restrictions on others but conveniently never find the need to lead camel expeditions or live in desert dwellings…
Muslims should not abandon the sunnah because of poor interpretative modes. To do so would be to ignore the wealth of knowledge passed on by the Prophet. Science is continuing revealing the benefits of certain teachings of the sunnah. For example, famed American Cardiologist Mehmet Oz found that people who slept on the right side, as the Prophet advised, had significant fewer heart attacks. The miswak stick has been shown to have antiseptic benefits. Restricting food intake to 1/3 of our stomach’s capacity is good advice for societies plagued by diabetes and obesity.
The sunnah does not require you to copy the Prophet’s Muhmmad’s life but to take guidance on how to live your life in a better way. Following the spirit of the sunnah will frequently lead to good practices - like cleaning your teeth before sleep and prayer, for example. So rather than getting caught up in whether you use a toothbrush or miswak or on marrying a girl named Ayesha of a certain age, Muslims are better served by a more thoughtful approach. Muslim men could strive to act like the Prophet did in marriage – treating his spouses with respect and kindness, soliciting their advice and sharing humour and intimacy.
The sunnah continues to be a relevant guide if we implement these beautiful and beneficial practices in the spirit of how the Messenger performed them, even if we do not perform them using the same tools as he did. But more than just following the sunnah in a more thoughtful way, Muslims also need to speak out against unjust acts which are carried out in the name of sunnah. Leaders must be held accountable to the highest standards of the Quran and scholars must be supported in their examination of the original sources to find the wisdom and logic behind the Prophet’s teachings.
Without increasing the accountability of our leaders and ourselves, more Muslims may be inclined to question the authenticity and relevance of the sunnah. But if we focus on the timeless aspects of the sunnah with careful thought and reflection, Muslims can prevent the footprints of the Prophet from being washed away in the sands of time.
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