What is the Sunnah? “Whatever I command you with, take it, and whatever I forbid you from, stay away from it.” Explanation of Kitābus-Sunnah from Sunan Ibn Mājah (Hadeeth 1).

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Explanation of the Book of Sunnah, Sunan Ibn Mājah

Based on the explanation of the noble Scholar, the Sheikh, ʿAbdul Muhsin al-ʿAbbād (may Allah preserve him).

Biography of Imām ibn Mājah

The Sunan of ibn Mājah is well known and the author is the Imām, the Scholar, the Muhaddith, Abu ʿAbdillāh Muhammad bin Yazeed ibn Mājah Ar-Rabʿee (an ascription to the tribe of Rabeeʿa) Al-Qazweeni (an ascription to the city of Qazween in modern-day Irān), his kunyah (appellation) Abu ʿAbdillah (born 209 AH and died 273 AH). He was therefore a non-Arab, and this shows how Allah raises people despite being Arab or non-Arab, due to their taqwa (piety), learning and scholarship.

He is the Imām, the mufassir (Quranic scholar), the muhaddith (hadeeth scholar) of Qazween, and he is an Imām from the Imāms of the Muslims. He was a major scholar of Hadeeth, he was precise and accepted by the consensus of the scholars, (as mentioned in ‘Tāreekh al-Islām’ of Imām adh-Dhahabi, and his ‘Tadhkirat Al-Hufādh’ and in ‘at-Tadween fee Tāreekh Qazween’). He was an Imām and a author, and he travelled extensively. He was an expert in the criticism of narrators (al-jarh wat-taʿdeel), and he had a vast amount of knowledge (as is mentioned in ‘Seer Aʿlām an-Nubalā’). He heard and travelled for narrations to Khurasān, Irāq, Egypt, Shām and other places and wrote astounding works in Tafseer, History and the Sunan.

Al-Khaleel bin ‘Abdillah al-Hāfidh said in ‘The History of Qazween:’

“He authored the Sunan (which he is famously known for), and also books in Tafseer, History, being well-versed in these fields. He travelled extensively to Irāq: Basrah and Koofah, Baghdād, Makkah, Shām and Egypt and ar-Ray (in Irān), in order to write down the Hadeeth of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam).

He was thiqah (trustworthy and reliable) and agreed upon in his scholarship, he is used as a proof, he had knowledge of Hadeeth and was known for being a memoriser, and he had written works in various fields.”

His ʿAqeedah

His ʿaqeedah was in accordance with the Sunnah, in the foundations of the religion and its branches. Ibn Kathir mentioned in his famous book ‘al-Bidāyah wan-Nihāya,’ that he (ibn Mājah) did not stray from the Sunnah in anything.

His Book ‘as-Sunan’

Ibn Mājah (Abu ‘Abdillah) himself said:

“I showed the manuscript of the Sunan to Abu Zur’ah ar-Rāzi (the Imām and great scholar of Hadeeth) who checked it and said, ‘I think that if people lay their hands on this book, then most or all of the other compilations will become unnecessary.’ (This was due to the comprehensive nature of Sunan ibn Mājah).

Sheikh ʿAbdul-Muhsin al-ʿAbbād said, ‘We will begin the study of this sixth book from the six famous books of Hadeeth: the Sunan of Imām Ibn Mājah.’

The six books of Hadeeth are:

  1. Bukhāri
  2. Muslim
  3. Abu Dāwud
  4. at-Tirmidhi
  5. an-Nasā’i
  6. Ibn Mājah

The two that are agreed upon as regards their authenticity, without any weakness (except one or two minor discrepancies) are Bukhāri and Muslim. Some of the ʿulemah considered the Muwatta of Imām Mālik to be the sixth book of Hadeeth and not the Sunan of Ibn Mājah, whereas some consider the Sunan of Imām ad-Dārimi to be the sixth book. However, that which is well known, and that which Imām Mizzi (the author of ‘Tahdheeb al-Kamāl’) said: that Sunan Ibn Mājah is the sixth book of Hadeeth.

The first book in the Sunan of Ibn Mājah is Kitāb as-Sunnah, and the first chapter in Kitāb as-Sunnah is ‘Following the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam).’

Chapter 1: ‘Following the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam).’

Hadeeth Number 1

The author, Ibn Mājah (rahimahullah) said:

Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shaybah narrated to us, saying that Shareek narrated to us, from al-Aʿmash from Abu Sālih from Abu Hurairah (radiyallāhu ʿanhu) who said that Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) said:

ما أمرتكم به فخذوه, وما نهيتكم عنه فانتهوا

“Whatever I command you with, take it, and whatever I forbid you from, stay away from it.” [1]


The Imām Ibn Mājah began this introduction with the chapter heading, ‘Following the Sunnah.’ This chapter is at the forefront of the book, and it being related to the ʿAqeedah is a good choice and it shows precision and comprehensiveness of thought. It is the title, and that which follows on from this chapter branches off from it, and that is because it involves following the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) and holding fast to that which he came with, and obeying Allah and His Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam). This is in everything that he (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) brought, whether it be in ʿaqeedah, worship, dealings with the people, manners, and other than that; all of this enters under the heading of ‘following,’ and it is not restricted to the ʿaqeedah alone.

So, his commands are acted upon, his prohibitions are avoided, and his sayings are affirmed as being true―and Allah is worshipped in accordance with what he came with (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). All of these are included under the heading of ‘Following the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam)’.

From that which is known is that following the Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) is from the necessities of the part of the shahādah, ‘أن محمدا رسول الله,’  i.e., that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam). For this reason, a deed is not considered as being accepted by Allah the (Most High) until it fulfils two conditions:

  1. Ikhlās: Sincerity for Allah alone
  2. Mutābaʿah: Which is following the Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam). So, the deed must be in accordance with the Sunnah such that the Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) is followed in that action, and there are many ayāt and ahādeeth commanding this.

Ikhlās is a necessity of the first part of the shahādah, ‘أشهد أن لا اله الا الله’ , i.e., none has the right to be worshipped except Allah, just as mutābaʿah is a necessity of وأشهد أن محمدا رسول الله ‘Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,’ as Allah the Most High mentions:

قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي يُحْبِبْكُمُ اللَّهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ

“Say, if you (really) love Allah then follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Surah Aal-’Imrān 3:31). 

Following the Messenger of Allah (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) in that which he came with of revelation from Allah, is a command, and it is a must. Truth and guidance are not known except by the path of the Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam), and what he came with of the two revelations (i.e., the Quran and Sunnah). Therefore ittibāʿ (following the Messenger) is one of the two foundational conditions for a deed to be accepted.

Sheikh ul-Islām Muhammad ibn ʿAbdul Wahhāb stated in his book ‘Thalāthatul-Usool,’ (page 7), in explanation of the statement ‘Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,’

“The meaning of the testimony of faith that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah (the second part of the shahādah) is to obey him in that which he has commanded, to believe in that which he has informed us of, to keep away from that which has forbidden and not to worship Allah except with that which he (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) has legislated.” (End).

So, this Hadeeth is the first Hadeeth reported by Ibn Mājah from Abu Hurairah (radiyallāhu ʿanhu) and it is built upon two sentences:

  1. ‘Whatever I have commanded you with, take it,’
  2. ‘Whatever I have forbidden you, keep away from it.’

The first sentence contains actions upon all of the commandments of the Messenger of Allah (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) and the second sentence contains within it a forbiddance from falling into the prohibitions and all that which he (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) has made unlawful.

This Hadeeth is taken from the saying of Allah the Most High in Surah al-Hashr:

وَمَا آتَاكُمُ الرَّسُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَاكُمْ عَنْهُ فَانتَهُوا ۚ

“And whatsoever the Messenger gives you, take it; and whatsoever he forbids you, abstain from it…” (Surah al-Hashr 59:7).

So, the Hadeeth is the same as the ayah in meaning, and both the Hadeeth and the ayah encompass two general principles:

  1. To obey the Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) in everything that he has commanded with
  2. To stay away from that which he has forbidden

The Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) was the one who conveyed the message from Allah, so whatever he brought from commandments and prohibitions, were not from himself, rather they were from Allah, just as He the Most High said in the Qur’ān:

وَمَا يَنطِقُ عَنِ الْهَوَىٰ إِنْ هُوَ إِلَّا وَحْيٌ يُوحَىٰ

“He (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) does not speak of his own desire. It is only revelation (that is) revealed.” (Surah an-Najm 53: 3-4).

So, the Qur’ān is the revelation from Allah, and the Sunnah likewise is the revelation from Allah, and the Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) is the conveyer of the Book and the Sunnah.

For this reason, there appears in the Qur’ān and the Sunnah that which proves that the Sunnah of the Prophet (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) is revelation, just as the Qur’ān is revelation, as can be seen from the above verse.

This is also proved in the Sunnah from the lengthy Hadeeth of Anas bin Mālik (radiyallāhu ʿanhu) connected to the obligations of zakāh that, ‘Abu Bakr wrote to him regarding the obligatory sadaqah (zakah) that was commanded by Allah and His Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam)…’ showing that the command came from Allah and His Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam). [2]

Another proof from the Sunnah (that the Sunnah is also revelation) is that a man came to the Prophet (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) and said:

“What is for me if I am killed in the path of Allah?” He (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) said, “Jannah.” When the man turned away, the Prophet (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) said to him, “Except for a debt (that you have), indeed Jibreel confided that to me a short while ago.” [3]

The exception mentioned in the Hadeeth did not come from himself, rather it was brought to him from Jibreel, who came to him with revelation, just as he (Jibreel) brought to him the report that came before it. So, this clearly shows that the Sunnah is from Allah (the Most High), and it is revelation from Allah (brought by Jibreel) just as the Qur’ān is revelation from Allah, except that the recitation of the Qur’ān, as well as acting upon it, is worship, whereas with the Sunnah, acting upon it is worship (and not reciting it as you would with the Qur’ān).

Obedience to Allah in that which is reported from the Sunnah is obligatory, just as obedience to him is obligatory in that which is in the Mighty Book (the Qur’ān). One does not distinguish between the Book and the Sunnah such that you act upon what is in the Qur’ān, but you leave that which is in the Sunnah, because to abandon the Sunnah is deviation and heresy. Whoever says that he will act upon the Qur’ān but not upon the Sunnah, then he is a denier of the Book and the Sunnah. This is because the Qur’ān states: “And whatsoever the Messenger gives you, take it. And whatsoever he forbids you, abstain from it…” (Surah al-Hashr 59:7), and other than this from the various ayāt from the Book of Allah.

So, if a person does not believe in the Sunnah, then he is a disbeliever in the Qur’ān and in the above Ayah (verse), and whoever disbelieves in the Sunnah, even if he claims to be a believer in the Qur’ān, then he is a disbeliever in both.

What is known is that the Sunnah is a clarification and an explanation of the Qur’ān. There are numerous verses in the Qur’ān that are general in meaning but the Sunnah comes to clarify and explain them and to make them clear. This is also true for the pillars of Islām such as salāh, zakah, and fasting; they are all clarified in the Sunnah, and details regarding them are provided by the Sunnah. The one who says that he will act upon the Qur’ān but not the Sunnah, then he will not know even how to pray or how many rakaʿahs to pray! He will not know the nisāb (threshold) for zakah or how to pay it―this is only known from the Sunnah.

Categories of the Instruction (‘Amr) of Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam)

The instructions from the Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) are of two types:

  1. An obligation (wājib)
  2. A recommended act (mustahab)

Both of these come under the Hadeeth of this chapter, ‘That which I command/instruct you with, take it…’ and they are required to be acted upon. However, the abandonment of an instruction that is wājib is punishable but the abandonment of a mustahab instruction is not, except if a person leaves that which is recommended by the Prophet (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) in order to turn away from the Sunnah (in rejection).

Different meanings/uses of the term ‘Sunnah’.

The term ‘Sunnah’ has different meanings and can be used in different ways:

  1. A general usage: this is when the term ‘Sunnah’ refers to everything that the Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) came with, and this is the type that is referred to in his (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) saying, ‘Whoever turns away from my Sunnah, he is not from me.’ This is the most expansive of the meanings of the term ‘Sunnah.’
  2. The Hadeeth of the Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam), which is revelation that is additional to the Book of Allah, as occurs in his (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) saying, ‘I have left you upon an affair, and if were you to hold on to it, you never go astray after me: the Book of Allah and my Sunnah.’ In this case, the term ‘Sunnah’ is referring to the Hadeeth of the Prophet (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam). And this be can be Sunnah Qawliyyah (referring to his speech) or Sunnah fiʿliyyah (his actions) or Sunnah Taqreeriyyah (what was done in his presence that he did not disapprove of).

    So, for example, it can be said, ‘Such and such an issue has its proof in the Book, the Sunnah and Ijmāʿ (consensus). Again here, the word ‘Sunnah’ is referring to the Hadeeth, i.e., Whatever came from him (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) from his sayings, his actions and his tacit approvals (that which he did not criticise or disapprove of). The outward description of the Prophet (salalāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) and his character and manners are also referred to as the Sunnah (e.g., the broadness of his chest, the thickness of his beard and so on). Therefore, there are four types of Sunnah here: (i) Sunnah Qawliyyah (referring to his speech), (ii) Sunnah fiʿliyyah (his actions), (iii) Sunnah Taqreeriyyah (his tacit approvals) and (iv) a description of his internal manners and outward physical characteristics.
  1. In opposition to bidʿah: so, it can be said, ‘This action is upon the Sunnah, whereas that action is upon bidʿah.’ Whatever is in opposition to what the Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) came with, and it is not from his Sunnah, then it is from the innovated affairs.
  2. In the terminology of the fuqahā (jurists): in this case, it refers to that which is mustahabb, mandoob and masnoon (recommended, rewardable and not obligatory).

Acting upon the Prophet’s (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) commands is restricted to one’s ability, whereas one must avoid the prohibitions absolutely

Allah’s Messenger (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) commanded the ummah with obligations in accordance with a person’s strength and ability, but he forbade the prohibitions absolutely without restricting it to one’s ability to do so. In his (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) statement, ‘Whatever I command you with, take it (i.e., do it), and whatever I forbid you from, avoid it,’ both the commands and prohibitions are absolute, i.e., do everything that is commanded and avoid everything that is prohibited. However, in some narrations, the command to act is restricted to ability, such as in his (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) statement, ‘Whatever I have commanded you with, do it as much as you are able.’ So, here a restriction has been added, but the command to avoid the prohibitions remains the same and is not restricted. That is because prohibition necessitates avoidance, and avoidance of something is possible simply by not indulging in it, therefore no restriction is required. A person is able to avoid whatever he is commanded to avoid―it does not require action, it requires inaction. So, the rulings on the prohibitions are absolute because no action is required. A person must fear Allah and strive against his own soul that inclines towards evil, and he must do his best not to submit to his desires.

As for the commands to act (on good deeds), then it is possible that some of the commandments may involve some difficulty and hardship as is evident in his (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) statement,

“Paradise is surrounded by hardships and the hellfire is surrounded by desires.” [4]

Some commands may be beyond a person’s capability, in which case he must perform them according to his capability and strength. For example, the Prophet (salallāhu ʿalaihi wasallam) has commanded us to pray standing but if a person cannot stand (due to illness or an accident etc.), then he prays sitting. Allah the Most High has stated in the Qur’ān:

لَا يُكَلِّفُ اللَّهُ نَفْسًا إِلَّا وُسْعَهَا ۚ

“Allah does not burden a soul beyond what it can bear,” (Surah al-Baqarah 2:286).

Also in the Hadeeth, the Prophet (salallāhu ‘alaihi wasallam) said: “Pray standing, and if you are not able to, then pray sitting down, and if you cannot, then pray lying down on your side.” [5]

والحمد لله رب العالمين وصلى الله على نبينا محمد وعلى آله وصحبه أجمعين

سبحانك اللهم وبحمدك أشهد أن لا إله إلا أنت، أستغفرك وأتوب إليك.

Abu Khadeejah Abdul-Wāhid.
Copyright 2023.

This article was transcribed by Umm Maryam (may Allah reward her) from the classes of Abu Khadeejah (SalafiSounds.com). Please share it with others.

[1] (Reported by Muslim and Imām Ahmad).

[2] (Hadeeth number 1453 reported in Bukhāri).

[3] (Authentic due to supporting narrations, reported by Imām Ahmad, ibn Abi Shaybah and at-Tabarāni from Muhammad bin ‘Abdillah bin Jahsh).

[4] (Bukhāri and Muslim).

[5] (Reported by Bukhāri from ‘Imrān bin Hussein (radiyallāhu ʿanhu)).

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