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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Nancy Khalek

The question of emulation is common also to Christianity, where the concept of Christ-imitation, imitatio Christi, was foremost on the minds of early Christian martyrs and ascetics who saw their earthly suffering as an imitation of Christ's suffering on the cross, and their daily monastic practice as an imitation of Christ's itinerant and simple life. In the Christian model, however, devotees understood that their own suffering was of a different sort: Christ was divine and they were not. Since Muhammad, however, was always considered fully human, Muslims believe his behavior is more accessible and applicable to their lives.  All adherents of the faith take Muhammad as a role model for everyday behavior, though as noted below, there were limits and parameters for that emulation.

Eventually, more "perfected" views of Muhammad emerged, and a doctrine of the sinlessness of all prophets became popular in some theological schools. There was no consensus about these issues, however, and different views emerged regarding whether prophets could commit minor sins, major sins, or even human error. The final consensus among Sunnis, in general, is that a prophet could err, but not commit a major sin, like adultery or blasphemy.

Contained within the idea of emulating the Prophet is a concept of devotion, of pious observance. Throughout the Middle Ages and up to the modern period, the idea of cultivating love for the Prophet has been an important aspect of Sunni identity. Sufis devote great attention to poems and prayers praising Muhammad and blessing him.  Sunni practice speaks to a broader perspective concerning beliefs about how one ought to live one's life, what kind of life is the best to imitate, and how to incorporate a certain consciousness or deliberative process into even the most mundane aspects of everyday behavior.

For Sunnis, Taqwa, the Arabic word for "piety" or "God-consciousness," rests on the incorporation of the Sunna into mundane action: waking from sleep, performing ritual ablution, starting a meal, signing a marriage contract, visiting a friend, sitting a certain way, and the like. During the lifetime of Muhammad, certain of his Companions were seen as being particularly pious for wishing to copy the Prophet in even the most idiosyncratic and minor details. One of them, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, thought he had to refrain from eating onions, because he saw that Muhammad didn't eat them. When he inquired about this, the Prophet laughed and told him he didn't like the taste himself, but that there was nothing prohibited about them. This anecdote is a good example of the point medieval writers wanted to make about piety: the truly pious person suspends their own judgment about all matters, no matter how small, and defers to the example of Muhammad, who was singled out by God to instruct humankind as to how to live.

Study Questions:
     1.    What is the Sunna? How does it relate to the prophet Muhammad?
     2.    Does emulation of Muhammad require actual replication? Why or why not?
     3.    Why is emulation of Muhammad perceived to be more attainable than Christianity’s imitatio Christi?
     4.    What is Taqwa? How is it incorporated into daily life?


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