We receive Islamic legal rulings from the Prophet (peace be upon him) in three ways: his words, his deeds, and his tacit approvals. Ibn Rushd asserts in Bidâyah al-Mujtahid that this is one of the undisputed principles of Islamic jurisprudence. As for the Prophet abstaining from something, that is not one of the three ways.
So what are the legal implications of the Prophet (peace be upon him) not performing an act?
A faulty assumption some people have is that if the Prophet did not do something, then it should not be done by his followers. This can create great hardships for people in their practice of Islam. For one thing, such people reject the approach of making concessions for the purpose of facilitation. They argue that if the Prophet did not apply a certain concession in a certain way, though the need for doing so would have been present, this is proof it is unlawful to do so. However, this is contradicted by a considerable body of evidence.
1. The unlawfulness of something must be established by a specific prohibition or by what encompasses evidence of a prohibition in its general import. The Prophet said: “Whatever I prohibit you, you must avoid it.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (2788) and Sahîh Muslim (1337)]
The Prophet’s abstaining from something is not a prohibition nor is it something that encompasses evidence of a prohibition in its general import. Quite the contrary, the general evidence in Islamic Law indicates that hardships are to be avoided.
2. There are many authentic hadîth that show the Companions initiating actions and
saying things that the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not himself do or say. They were never criticized for this. The talbiyah is a case in point. The people followed the Companions in the wording of the talbiyah, as indicated by the hadîth of Jâbir, and no one objected to their doing so. [Musnad Ahmad (14440) and Sunan Abî Dâwûd (1813)]
Their wording of the talbiyah was different than the Prophet’s wording, which shows that the Prophet’s abstaining from something does not prevent anyone else from doing so. Indeed, The Prophet at times praised the Companions’ for their actions and at times remained silent without criticizing them. This shows there is flexibility in such things.
Another example is where a desert dweller beseeched Allah saying: “O You who no eyes can see, and no speculation can encompass, and no one can describe, and who is not altered by the course of events…” The Prophet (peace be upon him) heard this and asked someone to summon the man to him after prayer. The Prophet (peace be upon him) had with him some gold which had been given to his as a gift.
The desert dweller came to him after prayer. The Prophet gave him the gold and asked him: “Which clan do you come from?”
He replied: “I am from the clan of Banî Âmir b. Sa`sa`ah, O Messenger of Allah.”
The Prophet then asked him: “Do you know why I gave you this gift of gold?”
He said: “Because if the kinship that we share, O Messenger of Allah.”
The Prophet said: “Indeed, kinship has its rights, but that is not why I gave you the gold. I gave it to you for how eloquently you praised Allah.” [Mu`jam al-Tabarânî al-Awsat (9448)]
The same can be seen with the Companion who used to always recite Sûrah al-Ikhlâs in every prayer. He was one of the people of Madinah and he used to lead prayer at the Qubâ Mosque, and in each unit of every prayer he led would recite Sûrah al-Ikhlâs first before reciting another chapter of the Qur’an, The people who were with him said: “You always recite this chapter, but it seems that is not enough for you and you go on to recite another. Either recite that chapter on its own, or recite something else instead.”
He replied: “I will not stop reciting it. If you are happy to have me continue leading you in prayer like this, I will do so. If you are displeased with it, I will stop leading you in prayer.”
They considered him to be the best person among them, so they did not wish for someone else to lead them. When the Prophet (peace be upon him) visited them, they told him about it.
The Prophet turned to the man and asked him: “What prevents you from complying with your people’s wishes? Why do you insist on reciting this chapter in every unit of prayer?”
The man replied: “I love it.”
Then the Prophet said: “Your love for it will bring you Paradise.” [Musnad Ahmad (11982) and Sahîh al-Bukhârî as a hung narration in the Book of the Call to Prayer]
There is also the hadîth where `Abd Allah b. `Umar narrates: “We were with Allah’s Messenger on Hajj going from Minâ to `Arafât, some of us saying the talbiyah while others were saying the takbîr. No one was criticized anyone for what they did.” [Sahîh Muslim (1284)] The same thing is related from Anas b. Mâlik. [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (1659) and Sahîh Muslim (1285)]
3. The Companions compiled the Qur’an into one volume only after the Prophet’s time. The same can be said for their congregating for tarâwîh prayer and increasing the number of prayer units they offered which took place during `Umar’s reign. Likewise, `Uthmân added an additional early call for the Jumu`ah prayer when the city’s population increased. He also standardized the Qur’an which was compiled during his predecessor’s time and abandoned the practice of shortening his prayers during the Hajj.
4. A number of legal scholars have addressed the legal implications of the Prophet refraining from an activity. For instance, Ibn Qudâmah writes that it is permissible to offer multiple sets of voluntary tawâf in succession without offering a prayer in between them. He adds: “The fact that the Prophet did not do so is not an indication that it is disliked.” [al-Mughnî (3/404]
Ibn Hazm makes this clear on a number of occasions in his legal encyclopedia al-Muhallâ. For instance, he writes: “It is only evidence that there is no harm in doing likewise. For instance, he never fasted for an entire month (outside of Ramadan), but it is agreed that it is permissible to do so.” [al-Muhallâ (1/78)]
He also writes regarding leaving off two units of voluntary prayer before the Maghrib prayer: “Proof of prohibition cannot be deduced from their not doing so, since they did not prohibit it.” [al-Muhallâ (2/252, 271)]
Likewise, Abû Sa`îd b. Lubb al-Shaykh al-Shâtibî writes: “His abstaining from something merely indicates there is no problem for someone to abstain from it.” [Taqrîb al-Amal (200-201)]
5. There is no implication that what took place at the Prophet’s time indicates abandoning everything else and that nothing is open to increase or decrease. Such a notion is very imprecise and suspect. Its logic is faulty. The circumstances at the Prophet’s time called for certain things, but circumstances differ at other times, sometimes becoming more intense, which requires Muslim jurists to exercise juristic reasoning (ijtihâd) in accordance with the general precepts of Islamic Law.
A good example of this is the compilation of the Qur’an into a single volume. The Prophet (peace be upon him) never commanded his followers to do so. There was no need to do so during his lifetime. However circumstances changed after his time when many of the people who had committed the Qur’an to memory began to die off. This is why Abu Bakr ordered that the Qur’an be compiled in one volume. The Companions unanimously agreed to it.
The general principle in operation here is that whenever new developments arrive, the qualified Muslim jurists of that era must exercise ijtihâd and adopt the appropriate measures. Can it be disputed that the need to make accommodations and concessions with respect to the Hajj is more acute today than at any time in the past?
Ibn Taymiyah pointed this out when he said regarding the tawâf of a menstruating woman: “This is based on the diligent exercise of ijtihâd, because the problem in this age is more severe than it was at the Prophet’s time.
Those who have insight into Islamic Law make a distinction between the Prophet’s tacit approval of someone else’s action, which can be used to deduce a ruling that must be upheld, and the Prophet abstaining from an action, which only indicates that there is no objection to someone abstaining from it. There can be no further binding ruling, since circumstances govern such matters.