The Importance of Emulating the Prophet
As this verse makes perfectly clear, the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is the one that we as Muslims must emulate. The principle of emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) is a very important one in Islam, and the way in which the Muslims have put this principle into practice since the time of the Companions is a topic worthy of the most serious research, study and reflection. This is because sometimes people go to excesses whereby the very purpose behind emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) is lost. Others take a lackadaisical attitude about it, to the point of showing disrespect for the one who brought Allah’s Message to us. Of course, both of these tendencies only developed after the era of the Companions.
We also find that, ever since the codification of Islamic Law, there developed a narrow understanding of what it means to emulate the Prophet (peace be upon him) restricted entirely to legal matters. Such an outlook focuses heavily on acts of worship and religious rites and, in other matters, rarely ever extends beyond considerations of what is lawful and what is prohibited.
It escapes me why, whenever Muslims think about following their Prophet’s example, they immediately start thinking along juristic terms. This is in spite of the fact that the Qur’ân comes with numerous verses calling towards emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the most general of terms.
Besides the verse mentioned above, Allah says: “And whatever the Messenger gives you, take it, and whatever he forbids you, abstain from it.” [Sûrah al-Hashr: 7]
Allah says: “Let those beware who go against his order lest a trial afflict them or there befall them a painful chastisement.” [Sûrah al-Nûr: 63]
He says: “Now has come unto you a Messenger from amongst yourselves: it grieves him that you should fall into distress: ardently anxious is he over you. To the Believers is he most kind and merciful.” [Sûrah al-Tawbah: 128]
He also says: “It is He who has sent amongst the unlettered a messenger from among themselves, to rehearse to them His signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom – although they had been, before, in manifest error.” [Sûrah al-Jumu`ah: 2]
It is an accepted fact that the Prophet (peace be upon him) came with Islam, and Islam is more than a body of legislation, though the Law is a central part of it. Islam is guidance for the human being in every aspect of his existence.
Therefore, it is imperative that we establish and develop our knowledge of how to emulate the Prophet (peace be upon him) as a field of study in its own right. We need to study and investigate the various spheres of activity in which the emulation of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is to be carried out as well as how we are to do so. In this way, the Prophet's example will truly become the ideal model for every Muslim in every aspect of his or her life. It should encompass the Muslim’s very outlook on life and on Creation. It should shape the Muslim’s activities and direct his methods in every role that the Muslim assumes – whether it be the role of leader, parent, teacher, Islamic worker, or something else.
The Role of the Companions in Developing our Concept of Emulation
No doubt, in order to base our concept of emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him) on a firm foundation, we will have to live alongside the Companions. We will have to put ourselves in their place while they endeavored to understand the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) living in their midst, as well as while they endeavored to apply that example to their lives after his death.
The understanding of the Companions is of central importance to our formulating a proper methodological framework. We must consider that the Companions were the ones who actually witnessed the revelation while it was being revealed. They lived with the Prophet (peace be upon him) who was there to correct their behavior and their misunderstandings, and to direct their vision to proper guidance and to how to follow him. They were able to realize the distinction of being the best – by the testimony of Allah and His messenger – in their understanding of the Message, in their deeds, in their obedience, and in their emulation of the Prophet’s example.
At the same time, we see that each of the Companions still retained his unique personality and identity. The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not make them all into carbon copies of himself. Nor did the Companions aspire to being copies of him, in spite of how highly they held him in esteem and how much they were willing to sacrifice for his sake. This was also in spite of the fact that their obedience to the Prophet (peace be upon him) was absolute, and that he unquestionably remade their personalities. As one of the Companions described it: “Allah’s Messenger used to empty out our constituents and then fill us up again.”
The Companions provide us collectively with a comprehensive model of emulation of the Prophet’s example. Each Companion provides an example of emulation tied to his or her own unique character. Through direct contact with the Prophet (peace be upon him), they each provide an informed practical example. Taken together, we get a very complete picture of the manner of emulation adopted by the Companions, each through his personal experiencing contributing a brick to the edifice of our understanding,
If we focus on any single Companion, we find that he would present to us a facet of the general manner of emulation that we see when we observe the Companions as an entire generation.
We wish, in the second part of this article, to focus on `Umar b. al-Khattâb and learn from his example how the Companions understood the concept of emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him).