Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

One of the most salient features of Sunni Islam is its emphasis on following and adhering to the custom and traditions of the Prophet (the Sunna). An essential aspect of this adherence is the emulation of Muhammad in everyday life. This, in part, is based on the general Islamic view that Muhammad represented the epitome of good character, that he was, in fact, sent as a prophet in order to teach people how to perfect their character.

Six core beliefs of Islam
  1. Reality of one God
  2. Existence of angels of God
  3. Authority of the books of God
  4. Following the prophets of God
  5. Preparation for the Day of Judgment
  6. Supremacy of God’s will

The idea of the Prophet as a model for behavior, ritual and otherwise, is an important part of Sunni devotion. Aside from the basic tenets to which all Muslim denominations subscribe, Sunnis prioritize cultivating a relationship with Muhammad as a guide for certain aspects of behavior based on the Sunna.  

Although worshipful Muslims often express their "relationship" with the Prophet as one based on affection or even love, this is not meant to imply that he is still alive or accessible to human beings.  Nevertheless, trying to be like Muhammad, following his moral example, is seen as the highest expression of reverence possible for any human being. In the Quran, Muslims are also instructed to imitate the Prophet since he was an example of the best character.

In the classical period of Islam, the codification of Sunni law included a categorization of different types of Sunna. After all, it was natural for Muslims to wonder how much they ought to try to be like the Prophet, how much their daily lives and existence had to mirror his, and what they were obligated to observe. It seemed unlikely that anyone would try to actually replicate Muhammad's life in toto, for he was always singled out and considered the "best of God's creation."

Sunni jurists' considerations regarding the extent to which the Sunna should or had to be imitated in the daily lives of Muslims created three general categories of Sunna. The first was the Sunna that had to be followed, namely that which pertained to acts of worship: how to pray, the rules for fasting in Ramadan, and the like. Then there was the category of Sunna that it was meritorious to follow, but was not obligatory: imitating the Prophet's manner of dressing, using his extra supplications (duaa) as a model for one's own, etc. Finally, there was the Sunna of the Prophet that the ordinary believer could not follow, such as receiving revelation (something Muhammad did with regularity for twenty-three years), or marrying more than four wives at once. This last category pertained to aspects of Muhammad's mission, and was not considered exemplary in the sense of establishing precedent for all Muslims to follow.

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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