Prophets informed and enlightened man through revelation on subjects that cannot be reached with the mind or sense organs like Allah, the spirit, creation and the afterlife (Al-Baqara 2/151). In addition to bringing man knowledge from Allah, they were chosen from within humans and do not carry super-human wonders because they are responsible for setting an example to others and for instructing them (Al-Isra 17/95).
If all of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) words, actions and attitudes are based on revelation, then it must be said that they are binding. On the contrary, if a part of his behavior comes from his human nature or is based on opinion and ijtihad (independent reasoning), then his behavior should be examined and categorized in regard to its being binding. There are statements supporting both views in related Quranic verses and hadiths.
There are texts stating that his behavior is based on revelation like: “Nor does he say ought of his own desire. It is no less than inspiration sent down to him” (Al-Najm 53/3-4); “...(pointing to his mouth) I swear to the One who has my life in His hand that the truth comes out from here…” (Abu Davud, Knowledge, 3). There are also texts putting forth his unique human qualities and showing that every one of his actions is not based on revelation: “I am only a human being; if I command something belonging to your religion, apply it. If I say something from my personal view, I am just a human,” and “You know your worldly work better” (Muslim, Fedail, 140-141).
According to this, while a prophet’s words, actions and attitudes related to religion are binding, those related to the world are not. When verses and hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) explaining the special qualities and authority of Prophet Muhammad are evaluated together with their application by his companions, it is necessary to separate into two the “words and behavior related to the world”:
a) Subjects in the field of the positive sciences, technique and technology
b) Subjects in the field of instructing, managing and directing man as an individual and as a community
The first of these is the area of “worldly work” pointed to in the hadith and narrations related to this area and are not binding. A part of the words and behavior in the second area are related to religion and are binding, because they either are based on revelation or, even if they are based on ijtihad, they have been verbally or tacitly approved by revelation. How these are distinguished from one another will be taken up below.
The Prophet’s words, actions and behavior began to be classified according to their being tied to revelation and their obligatoriness when he was still alive. The Companions separated his behavior according to this criterion and, when they were in doubt, they would ask, “revelation or opinion,” and act accordingly. This approach of the Companions continued in later generations. The first expounders of Islamic Law who collected the branches of Fiqh (Islamic law) and Usul (methodology) took up this subject and presented various views.
First, Shihauddin Ahmed b. Idris al-Qarafi (d.684/1285) collected with scientific method the actions of the Prophet in respect to their obligatoriness. In his works “al-Ihqam” and “al-Furuq” he separated the Prophet’s behavior that did not derive from his humanness into four categories: teblig (conveying religion), fatwa, kaza (divine decree), imamate and examined them in respect to their bindingness. Innovative scholar Muhammad at-Tahir b. Ashur of Tunis developed this classification further into twelve topics.
The Prophet’s Behavior Deriving from Various Attributes
1. Conveying and completing religion
His foremost duty is conveying the religion and most of his behavior is of this nature. In topics where there was no verbal revelation, still with Allah’s guidance he brings knowledge and judgments completing religion. Just as there are statements on the authority of the Prophet on this subject, there is also emphasis he used to separate actions and words tied to this attribute from the others.
2. Issuing a fatwa
Although fatwa (religious sanction) is in the nature of conveying and completing religion, the reason for separating it from the previous category is that the judgment is made to explain a question, and in this explanation the conditions of the person asking the question must be taken into consideration.
3. Tying cases to judgment
Lawsuit and the decision given at the end of a trial are, like fatwa, a conveyance and legislation, and they are binding. Aimed at establishing justice according to evidence, lawsuit depends on the success of the parties’ proof, so it can be correct or mistaken. The Prophet stated that parties could mislead him on this matter and indicated that the spiritual responsibility lay with the person who misleads.
4. Head of state
The behavior of Prophet Muhammad based on his prophethood and his authority to give fatwa was applicable to and obligatory upon the whole ummah (Islamic community). Its implementation and bindingness were not dependent on the permission from another office or judgment. What he did as a head of state, however, neither bound other heads of state nor gave similar rights to Muslim believers at their own initiative unless the head of state at their time gave permission. A head of state, taking into consideration the common interest, can change what a previous head of state has done.
There were differences among expounders in this area as to which of the Prophet’s actions had been done for purposes of conveying the religion and which had been done as head of state, and the different views of sects emerged from this disagreement.
5. Encouragement for the better good
Demands in verses and hadiths do not express fard (those rules incumbent upon all Muslims to obey), wajib and haram (forbidden acts in Islam) judgments as long as there is no deduction from an accompanying circumstance to establish their certainness. They are accepted as encouragement. Hadiths encouraging virtue, explaining the characteristics of heaven and pointing out the reward of supererogatory worship have been interpreted as such.
Mediating to establish peace does not resemble a judge making a decision by means of parties proving their claims. Mediators invite parties to mutual sacrifice and understanding, and this does not constitute an example for other disputes.
7. Guiding someone who asks
Here the Prophet acts as a counselor to someone who has consulted him about a problem; he does not give a judgment. This means that the behavior is not binding, but rather implies, “if you ask me, your doing this would be better.”
8. Giving advice
When our Prophet witnessed behavior or an initiative that he did not find appropriate, although it was not a sin or forbidden, he gave advice saying what was right and appropriate. This falls within the framework of behavior that is not definite and binding.
9. Teaching piety and maturity
In order to advance the education and piety of the Companions and his family, the Prophet forbade them some actions although they were legally permissible. Some of these are the sharing of the Ansar’s (residents of Mecca during the Hijrah) property with the Muhajirun (emigrants to Medina during the Hijrah) just after the Hijrah, not entering his daughter Fatima’s house because of a bracelet on her arm, and offering to divorce his wives who wanted worldly comforts from him. These judgments applied only to them.
10. Teaching fine and altruistic truths
All Companions were not equal in understanding and perception. They interpreted the Prophet’s life style which was his own personal choice according to their own understanding and some thought these personal choices were binding.
11. To make cautious by teaching
The expounder has to separate the words spoken by the Prophet for the purpose of encouragement and caution and those stating judgment by benefiting from induction from an accompanying circumstance.
12. Natural, human behavior unrelated to example
With the condition of not entering a framework of sin, behavior in religious and worldly life tied to need and habits found in every person are in this group. The way of eating, drinking, sleeping, walking and riding are matters of pleasure and choice; so is worldly work that is the subject of positive science, technique and technology. They are not binding for the community (1).
Undoubtedly, the Prophet’s essential duty and the reason he was instructed by Allah and sent to mankind is prophethood, conveying the religion and guiding; for this reason, most of his behavior derives from this characteristic. The clearest sign of this primary aim is his striving for everyone to hear the message, applying it in front of everyone, and using the appropriate methods. However, the given examples, which can be multiplied, clearly show that he also behaved according to other non-binding characteristics. One of the important signs through which this second type of behavior can be detected is his not trying to make everyone hear about it and not insisting on its application.
1.The original text can be consulted for further examples.