Sheikh Muhammad al-Hamad
In his commentary on the classical Islamic legal treatise al-Mumti`, Sheikh Muhammad b. Salih al-`Uthaymin, wrote: “It is wrong for a Muslim to carry out any Sunnah act that results in causing harm to others.”
This is an astute observation from one of our most eminent contemporary scholars, and it has far-reaching implications.
It is certainly commendable to put our Prophet’s Sunnah into practice as much as we can. We should most certainly strive to exemplify our Prophet’s noble character. It is the quality of a true believer to want to emulate Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and it is a way for us to earn Allah’s rewards. The more we succeed in exemplifying the Prophet’s example, the better we will be.
However, there are things to consider when seeking to put a particular Sunnah into practice. Chief among these is to ensure that we follow the general spirit of the Sunnah in the application of any particular practice, and that we never let our practice of the Sunnah become a justification for harming others.
Let’s start with a simple example: the tooth stick (siwāk). Brushing the teeth with a tooth stick is one of the Prophet’s practices, and it is something he encouraged. It is therefore a practice Muslims engage in seeking Allah’s blessings. However, this does not mean that it is good when we see some Muslims engage in this practice without any consideration for others in the mosque by making noises and spitting, and even bumping their fellow worshippers with their arms.
The same can be said for kissing the black stone during the Hajj and other acts of devotion where crowding is a problem. In such cases, a Muslim must consider the meaning of worship and the spirit in which acts of devotion are supposed to be carried out. A Muslim should also consider the rights that other people have to good, brotherly and sisterly treatment.
We should be eager to carry out a particular Sunnah practice in our worship, but we should be equally eager to respect the rights of our fellow worshippers. We are supposed to love for our brothers and sisters what we love for ourselves and we should hate to treat others in a way that we would dislike being treated. Therefore, though a Sunnah act might encouraged in and of itself, it is better to refrain from it when putting it into practice will cause people discomfort or harm.
Another simple example is that of lining up the ranks before congregational prayer. Some people take this too far by stretching and pushing, causing discomfort for their fellow worshippers. They justify their actions by saying they want to line up their ankles and shoulders. They might even frown at their immediate neighbors during prayer.
There is no doubt that straightening the ranks is part of the perfection of our prayers, but not at the cost of irritating people and distracting them from their prayers. The straightening of the ranks should be carried out as much as possible within the bounds of kindness, gentleness, decorum, and good taste. We are not supposed to overturn the primary purpose of congregational prayer – which is to bring the people’s hearts together in worship – by pursuing a finer point.
This applies to the imams who lead the prayer as well as to the people in the ranks. It is good for the imam to pay attention to the straightness of the ranks, but the circumstances of the worshippers must also be taken into consideration, especially the elderly, the infirm, and newcomers to the mosque.
The imam should give priority to strengthening the ties of goodwill between them and cultivating the love of the Sunnah in their hearts. He should do this by showing them kindness and by being easygoing with them. He should instruct them gently and correct them without being harsh. This will make them want to follow his example.
Likewise, when we follow the Sunnah of greeting each other with salām, the greeting of peace, we need to consider our manner of greeting. It is not enough to simply utter the word itself, when one’s expression is dark, one’s is frowning, and one’s tone is harsh. Such a “greeting” has no welcome in it. A smiling face and a pleasant tone should accompany the greeting of peace.
What we say about initiating the greeting is equally valid for the reply. It is not correct to reply to a greeting offered in affection with a tone of indifference or irritation. A greeting offered in a good manner should be responded to in a manner that is equal or better.
These considerations of decorum, good taste, and good manners apply to all the countless aspects of a Muslim’s good conduct, like giving advice, calling to righteousness, being hospitable to one’s guests, and honoring our parents.