I remember meeting a young man in al-Masjid al-Harâm once during the month of Ramadan. He had come to Mecca to perform `umrah. He was wearing a white turban and had hair falling past his shoulders. He wore a short robe that may possibly have reached to halfway down his shins. Above that robe he wore a black shirt that bore some resemblance to a cloak. He stood out, even in Mecca during Ramadan, and his appearance caused people to stare at him in amazement.
He sat down with me, so I asked him about his appearance. He told me that he was following the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him)in his manner of dress and in the way he kept his hair.
I took this opportunity to explain to him that the correct ruling regarding the turban is that it is not Sunnah. It is merely an Arab custom that existed from pre-Islamic times. The only reason the prophet (peace be upon him) wore a turban was because it was the customary dress of his people. We cannot say that wearing the turban is something our faith enjoins upon us any more than we can suggest that it is prohibited. It is purely a matter of culture and custom. There is no authentic hadîth regarding the turban.
Then I explained to him that the strongest legal verdict regarding the hair is that it is also a matter that is governed by custom. The length of the prophet’s hair is not a Sunnah for us to follow. What is Sunnah is what the Prophet (peace be upon him) enjoined upon us, and that is simply for the person who has hair to keep it nice. The question of hairstyle is not something serious.
Then I said to him: “You are performing `umrah. The Sunnah about which there is no disagreement is that a man who performs `umrah should shave his head. The Prophet (peace be upon him) supplicated to Allah saying three times: ‘O Allah! Forgive those who have shaved their heads’ and then only after that said once ‘…and those who cut their hair.’ Why did you abandon such a clear and certain Sunnah?”
Finally, I advised him, saying: “Be wary of your true inner motives, especially when you find that you are setting your self apart and attracting the attention of others. Be careful not to adopt some outward behaviors, that are matters of disagreement among scholars, in to make people pay attention to you. That is one of Satan’s subtle tricks. Do not forget that the Prophet (peace be upon us) forbid us from wearing close that draw inordinate attention to ourselves.”
Indeed, that was a Sunnah that this young man had certainly forgotten.
This is an example of a misunderstanding of the Sunnah, where a person places such great attention on particulars of custom and habit that are themselves inconsequential, that he ends up violating major rulings that he most certainly should be following and neglecting the Prophet’s guidance.
The Sunnah is not there to test people about the smallest particulars and minute details. It is not there to impose upon people a host of regulations and theoretical assumptions that they cannot bear to uphold. People should not find themselves in a state of worry and anxiety about matters that would otherwise not even have crossed their minds or would have passed beneath their notice. It is worse when investing those matters with such a serious emotional commitment causes people to violate the limits of Islamic Law with respect to the sanctity of other people, their rights, and the good treatment that is due to them. It is wrong when attention to such matters causes people to neglect their duty to others and the need for unity and the nurturing of faith.
The Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is something great and profound. It is not limited to the particulars of our acts of worship, even though those particulars are certainly part of the Sunnah. Its is far broader in scope and far more general in its relevance. It encompasses all the noble ideas by which the purpose of the Prophetic Message is realized. The Sunnah provides the means to achieve the noble purpose for which Allah created the human being. Allahh says: “I only created the jinn and humanity so that they would worship me.” [Sûrah al-Dhâriyât: 56]
The Sunnah is there so people will uphold the meaning of their faith, go forth in carrying out good works, and conducting themselves in a good manner. The Sunnah also explains to us how to carry out the essential pillars of our religion –our testimony of faith, our prayers, our Zakâh, our fasting, and our pilgrimage.
This is why, when Allah tells us about the Prophets of old, He informs of the greatest Sunnah acts associated with them. He says: “And We made them leaders, guiding people by Our Command, and We sent them inspiration to do good deeds, to establish regular prayers, and to practice regular charity; and they constantly worshipped Us.” [Sûrah al-Anbiyâ’: 73]
These are the objectives that all the Prophets (peace be upon them) stove to bring to realization. This is the essence of their mission and their Message. This is the foundation of the Sunnah that Allah tells us about in the Qur’ân and that His Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him) elaborated to us in the hadîth.
We can see this in the hadith where he speaks to Gabriel about the pillars of Islam, of faith, and of excellence. We see this in all of the good works he carried out and in how he established the principles of Islam and put them into practice. We see it in how he fortified his faith with certainty and humility and with the worship of his heart, how he perfected his character and his manners, and in how he united the Muslims in the worship of Allah.
He never endeavored to bring about strife or division among them. He never did anything to compromise the establishment of mercy among them. The Prophet peace be upon him commanded his followers: “Give good tidings and do not drive people away.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (69)]
These are the most important aspects of the Sunnah. Do we ever see in the Sunnah of the prophet (peace be upon him) any violation of good morals or any abandonment of the meaning of mercy that Allah has made a primary purpose of His Message?
We do not find in the Sunnah any cause for inspiring intolerance and loathing; rather we find in it every opportunity for magnanimity and the conveying of glad tidings.