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The Motives for the Establishment of the Sunna


The Qur’an urges Muslims to follow the Sunna

God commands in the Qur’an:

Whatever the Messenger brings you, adopt it and whatever he forbids you, refrain from it; fear God and seek His protection, surely God is He Whose punishment is severe. (al-Hashr, 59.7)

Besides communicating the Qur’an to people, God’s Messenger, as explained earlier, expanded on it through his words and conduct, applied it in practical life, and made new rulings to establish the perfect Islamic life. The word whatever in the verse above covers all permissions and prohibitions and explanations whether relating to the Qur’an, which is called the Revelation Recited, or to the Hadith, the Revelation Unrecited. The Messenger never spoke on his own, whatever he spoke was a Revelation revealed, or an inspiration inspired. The verse above sternly warns the Muslims to obey the Messenger and proclaims that a Muslim can deserve God’s protection only by carrying out the Prophet’s orders and refraining from what he prohibited. Aware of this fact, the Companions were very attentive to his speeches and very careful in carrying out his commands.

A Muslim can obtain God’s good pleasure and attain true bliss in both worlds only by following the example of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. The way the Prophet established leads man, bewildered in tumults of life and lost through the zigzags of deviation, to safety and eternal happiness. The Qur’an declares:

Surely, there is for you a most excellent example in the Messenger of God, for him who aspires to God and the Last Day, and mentions God oft. (al-Ahzab, 33.21)


God’s Messenger himself encourages the Muslims to learn his Sunna.

The Companions, may God be pleased with them all, knew very well what they needed to do in order to be saved from eternal punishment and to receive God’s blessing, so they showed great zeal in memorizing and recording the Prophet’s sayings. They heard him pray:

[On the day when some faces will be radiant and some mournful], may God make radiant [with joy and happiness] the face of the one who has heard a word from me and, preserving (memorizing) it, conveys it to others.26

According to another version, he prayed:

May God make radiant the face of the servant who has heard my speech and, committing it to memory and observing it in his practical life, conveys it to others.27

The Companions also knew very well that only by following the Sunna, could they deserve the intercession of the Prophet, who said:

On the Day of Judgment, I will put my head on the ground and pray to God for the forgiveness of my nation. I will be told: ‘O Muhammad, raise your head and ask, you will be given whatever you ask; intercede, your intercession will be accepted.’28

God’s Messenger used to speak distinctly and sometimes repeat his words so that his audience might be able to commit them to memory.29 He taught them the supplications or recitation other than the Qur’an with the same care and emphasis as he taught the Qur’an.30 As explained above, he urged his Companions to communicate to others what they heard from him and teach others whatever they knew. He threatened those who conceal their knowledge with the punishment of Hell:

If a man is asked about something he knows and he conceals it, a bridle of fire will be put on him on the Day of Judgement.31

We read the same threat in the Qur’an:

Those who conceal what God has sent down of the Book and sell it for a little price, they do not eat in their bellies but the fire; God shall not speak to them on the Day of Resurrection, nor shall He purify them; for them is a painful torment. (al-Baqara, 2.174)

Urged to learn the Qur’an and the Sunna and to teach both to others, and fearful of the threat against those who concealed anything of what they knew, particularly of the Qur’an and the Sunna, the Companions did their utmost to commit to memory and record the Prophet’s sayings and actions in order both to practice them and convey them to others. They also came together and studied and discussed what they had already learned of the Book and the Sunna. The Messenger himself encouraged them to do this:

If a group of people come together in a house among the houses of God and recite from the Book of God and study it, surely peace and tranquility descend upon them, (God’s) Compassion envelops them and the angels surround them and God mentions them to those who are in His presence.32


Other motives for the zeal of the Companions to learn the Sunna and convey it to others

The Companions lived in an ethos that never lost its freshness. Like the growing of an embryo in the womb, the Muslim Community continued to grow and flourish so as to include all aspects or domains of life and was continuously ‘fed’ with Revelations coming one after the other. All these factors, besides the importance of the Sunna, and the heart-felt attachment of the Companions to the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, motivated the Companions to record or commit to memory all the words and actions of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings.

For example, when ‘Uthman ibn Mad‘un died, God’s Messenger grieved very much. He shed as many tears as he had shed for the martyrdom of Hamza. He kissed his forehead and attended the funeral. Witnessing this, a woman said at the funeral: ‘How happy you are, O ‘Uthman! You have become a bird to fly in Paradise’. The Messenger suddenly changed, turned to the woman and said: How do you know that, while I, a Prophet, do not know? – Unless God informs, no one can know whether a man is really so purified as to deserve Paradise and whether he will go to Paradise or Hell. – The woman collected herself and said: ‘By God, I will no longer declare someone guiltless.’33

Now, is it conceivable that that woman and the Companions present at the funeral should have forgotten that event? They did not forget it, as well as others that they witnessed during the lifetime of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings.

As another example: a man called Quzman fought heroically in the Battle of Uhud. Finally, he was killed and the Companions concluded that he had died a martyr. However, the Prophet warned them: No, he is in Hell. A man came and informed them that Quzman had committed suicide because of the wounds he had received, and before his death, he had said: ‘I fought not for Islam, but out of tribal solidarity.’ The Messenger concluded: God strengthens this religion even through a sinful man.34

Like others, that event and the final comment of God’s Messenger upon it, could never have been forgotten by the Companions, nor could they have failed to mention it whenever they talked about the Battle of Uhud or about martyrdom.

A similar incident took place during the conquest of Khaybar. ‘Umar reports:

On the day Khaybar was conquered, some of the Companions enumerated the martyrs. When they also mentioned so-and-so as a martyr, God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, interrupted them and warned: No! I have seen him in Hell. He stole a robe out of the spoils of war before their distribution. Then he ordered me: Stand up and announce among the people: “No one except the believers (who are true representatives or embodiments of absolute faith and trustworthiness) can enter Paradise.”35

Each word and action of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, provided the Companions with a new criterion for understanding Islam and designing their life according to it. This motivated them to absorb, to imbibe, every word and action of God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings. When they settled in newly conquered lands, they conveyed what they knew to recent converts and in this way all the words and deeds of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, were transmitted by one generation to the other. The Companions were extremely well-behaved towards God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings. They preferred to keep silent in his presence because of their absolute respect for him. They would let a Bedouin come forward and ask him about something.

One day a Bedouin named Dimam ibn Tha‘laba came in and asked rudely: ‘Who is Muhammad among you?’ They answered: ‘That one with white complexion, sitting there against the well.’ The Bedouin turned to God’s Messenger and addressed him loudly: ‘O son of ‘Abd al-Muttalib! I will ask you some questions. However they may be injurious to you, do not be annoyed at me!’ Ask whatever comes to your mind, God’s Messenger responded.

– Tell me, for God’s sake, your Lord and the Lord of those who came before you, is it God who sent you to these people as a Prophet?

– Yes, it is.

– Tell me, for God’s sake, is it God who ordered you to pray five times a day?

– Yes, it is.

The Bedouin continued to ask in the some manner about fasting and alms-giving. After he received the same answer each time, he concluded: ‘I am Dimam ibn Tha‘laba, from the tribe of Sa‘d bin Bakr. They sent me to you as an envoy. Now, I have believed in whatever message you have brought from God.’36

Like many others, this event too was not allowed to fall into oblivion; rather, the memory of it was handed down to succeeding generations until it was recorded in the books of Tradition.

Ubayy ibn Ka‘b was one of the foremost in the recitation of the Qur’an. One day God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, sent for him and said: God ordered me to recite to you sura al-Bayyina. Ubayy was thrilled with joy and asked: ‘Did God mention my name?’ The answer of God’s Messenger moved him to tears.37

This was so great an honour for the family of Ubayy that his grandson used to introduce himself in this way: ‘I am the grandson of the man to whom God ordered His Messenger to recite sura al-Bayyina.’

This was the ethos in which the Companions lived. Every day a new ‘fruit of Paradise’, a new ‘gift’ of God, was presented to them and every day came to them with novelties. Previously unaware of faith, of a Divine Scripture and of Prophethood, those men of the Arabian deserts, gifted with keen memory and talent for poetry, were brought up by God’s Messenger as the educators of future Muslim generations. God chose them as the Companions of His Messenger and willed them to convey His Message to the whole world. After the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, they conquered in the name of Islam all the lands from Spain to China and from Caucasia to India with an unprecedented speed and conveyed the Qur’an and the Sunna everywhere they went. Many from among the conquered peoples joined their households and converted to Islam at their hands. They instructed those peoples in the Qur’an and the Sunna and prepared the ground for all the leading figures in Islamic sciences of the next generation to appear among them.

In the view of the Companions, to learn the Qur’an and the Sunna and then instruct others in them was an act of worship. They had heard from God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings:

Whoever comes to this mosque of mine should come but to learn the good or to teach it. Whoever does so is the same in rank as the one who fights in the way of God.38

So, as Anas reports, they frequently came together to discuss what they heard from the Messenger.39 The women, too, learned their religion from the Messenger, who assigned them one of the days of the week. Especially the wives of the Prophet conveyed to Muslim women whatever they learned from the Messenger, who established family ties with the people of Khaybar through Safiyya, with Banu Amir ibn Sa‘sa‘a through Maymuna, with Banu Mahzum through Umm Salama, with the Umayyads through Umm Habiba, and with Banu Mustaliq through Juwayriya. The women of each tribe came to their ‘representative’ in the house of the Prophet and asked her about religious matters.

In the last year of his Messengership, God’s Messenger, upon him peace and blessings, went to Makka for pilgrimage, called the Farewell Pilgrimage. He gave a sermon, the Farewell Sermon, at ‘Arafat and more than a hundred thousand people listened to him. He summarized his mission and warned them: Those who are present here should convey my speech to those who are not present.40 The last verse of the Qur’an revealed some time later contained another warning to practice and support the religion:

Fear a day when you will be returned unto God and every soul shall be paid what it earned, and they will not be wronged. (al-Baqara, 2.281)


26. Tirmidhi, “‘Ilm,” 7.

27. I. Ma’ja, “Muqaddima,” 18.

28. Bukhari, “Tafsir,” 2/1; Muslim, “Iman,” 322.

29. Bukhari, “Manaqib,” 23; Muslim, “Fada’il al-Sahaba,” 160.

30. Muslim, “Salat,” 61; Abu Dawud, “Salat,” 178.

31. Tirmidhi, “‘Ilm,” 3; I. Ma’ja, “Muqaddima,” 24.

32. Muslim, “Dhikr,” 38; I. Ma’ja, “Muqaddima,” 17.

33. I. Athir, “Usd al-Ghaba,” 3.600.

34. Muslim, “Iman,” 178; Bukhari, “Iman,” 178.

35. Muslim, “Iman,” 182.

36. Muslim, “Fada’il al-Sahaba,” 161.

37. Bukhari, “Tafsir,” 98/1,2,3; Muslim, “Fada’il al-Sahaba,” 122.

38. I. Ma’ja, “Muqaddima,” 17.

39. Muhammad ‘Ajjaj al-Khatib, “al-Sunna Qabl al-Tadwin,” 160.

40. Bukhari, “‘Ilm,” 9; I. Hanbal, 5.41.


This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection.