The Path of God’s Messengers (Sunnah)

By Dr. Eren Tatari[1]

If religion is communication between human beings and their Creator, why do we need to follow the example of messengers, who are human beings like us? From one aspect, messengers are like mail carriers who bring the letter/message from some other source. In the Qur’an, believers are reminded to follow and obey God as well as the messengers. If we obey the messengers, we will be obeying God. Human beings do not mind obeying God and imitating Him (manifesting God’s Attributes). This concept is expressed in a saying of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “assume the way of God (Tahallaqu bi ahklaq-ullah).” But we might ask. “Why should we follow the practices of an Arab who lived in the seventh century?” We may think that we are asked to follow a person who is the product of the Arabic culture. However, this is not so. The defining characteristics of the prophets are not the clothes they wear or the language they speak. We follow the message they teach and embody in their life. It is highly likely that this issue is framed this way by Western racial prejudices and the Orientalists. Even though Prophet Jesus and Moses were also from the Arab peninsula, nobody ever claims “why should we follow Jesus’ example, since he lived two thousand years ago and in the Middle East?” God says in the Qur’an:

“Say (to them, o Messenger): “If you indeed love God, then follow me, so that God will love you and forgive you your sins.” God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate” (Qur’an, 3:31).

The Qur’anic command is rather general: “Obey the Prophet” (Qur’an, 24:56). How do we obey the Prophet (pbuh)? Human ego is given to us in order to worship God alone. We feel degraded when we start worshiping creatures. We need to guard this sacred sense, not corrupt or misuse it by claiming “I am not going to worship any created being” while deifying some objects or concepts, such as fame, money, lust, etc. Unfortunately, some people have also deified prophets by misusing this God-given sacred sense of worshiping God alone.

When we are following Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s practices, we have to take the utmost care not to attribute any divinity to him or to his practices. When we declare faith, we say “I witness that there is no deity but God, Muhammad is His servant (abd) and messenger.” Servant comes first, because we are fallible and prone to attributing divinity to the messengers. Hence, we need to continuously reinforce the fact that we are following the message that was revealed to him and that he exemplified perfectly in his life. In many publications introducing Islam, this declaration of faith is stated as “there is no deity but God, Muhammad is His last messenger.” It is incorrect and omits His servanthood and adds the word last.

“There has come to you (O people) a Messenger from among yourselves; extremely grievous to him is your suffering, full of concern for you is he, and for the believers full of pity and compassion. Still, if they turn away from you (O Messenger), say: “God is sufficient for me; there is no deity but He. In Him have I put my trust, and He is the Lord of the Supreme Throne (as the absolute Ruler and Sustainer of the universe and all creation, Who maintains and protects it)” (Qur’an, 9:128-29)

So he is one of us, and he is there to protect us from harming ourselves. He is very anxious out of love for the believers. If we are a believer, we will find him most kind and merciful to us, because he is bringing the message/glad-tidings (bushrah). If we follow the message, we will not harm ourselves. This verse outlines the main characteristics of messengers. Jesus (pbuh) was the prophet of his time. Moses (pbuh) was the prophet of his time. So this verse is applicable to all prophets. The messengers can be compared to mail carriers in that they are not the source of the message (neither are they philosophers interpreting creation and deducing conclusions on their own).However, we understand from this verse that messengers do not merely deliver the message. If we suffer, the mail carrier is rarely upset. If you receive from the mail carrier a letter from the IRS stating you have to pay a certain amount of fines and you panic, the mail carrier surely would not care. But messengers are not like this; they are anxiously trying to help us.

“…and for the believers full of pity and compassion…” does not mean being kind and merciful to only Muslims. Muslim is the one who submits her will to God’s will. If we overcome our ego and admit that we are being created, and that we must follow the will of our Creator, then we are muslims (submitters). Nursi writes that “The practices of the Messengers are like the ropes descending from the heaven. Whoever holds onto them reaches eternal happiness.”[2]  God speaks to those who submit to God’s guidelines in a different category in the Qur’an, particularly in verses that have to do with practice. However, believers refer to all those who believe in God’s existence. We may come and join God’s religion, but we cannot appropriate it to our self.

Nursi says that “The manifestations of the Most Beautiful Attributes of God are diffused within the practices of the Messengers.”[3]  When we follow the practices of the Messengers (sunnah), we transform all our acts into worship. Following the practices of the Messengers recalls the Messenger; this in turn, is transformed into recollection of the Divine Presence. In this way, while we follow their practices, our ordinary acts become meritorious acts of worship. For through such ordinary actions we think of following God’s Messenger and conceive them as following God’s guidance. From that our heart turns to the Almighty God, the True Guide/Lawgiver. We gain awareness of the Divine Presence and a sense of worship as we realize the manifestations of the Attributes of God in our actions.

One who believes in God will certainly obey Him. And the most acceptable way of obeying Him is the way God’s beloved messengers illustrated through their actions. The One who makes the universe reflect the innumerable manifestations of His beauty and perfections will give the most perfect worshipful state to His messengers who are the most comprehensive and perfect measure and means of displaying His beauty and perfection. As servants of our Creator, we will then struggle to make our conduct a fine example to others and encourage them to follow the example of the messengers so that their fine conduct may appear in others too.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “My Sustainer taught me good conduct and how well He taught me.” Following the practices of the Messengers is to assume a conduct within the bounds of the Glorious Maker’s Attributes. Man is created with infinite innate love for the Creator of the universe. Since we claim to love God, we will try to act in the manner He is pleased with. If I claim to love my spouse yet do everything that I know displeases him, is this love? Love is equivalent with the desire to please the beloved.

The most exalted goal for human beings is to receive Almighty God’s love. To do that, we must resemble the ones whom God loves the most, i.e. the messengers. Aisha is narrated to have said: “His character is the Qur’an’s.” As is the case with all prophets, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is the example of the fine moral qualities described in the Qur’an.


[1] Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age  (Tughra Publications, December 2012).  She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.

[2] Nursi 2002, Mathnawi-i Nuriye, Vol. 2, p. 1307.

[3] Nursi 2005, The Words, p. 372.

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