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Why is following the Sunnah is the key to happiness? Al Ghazali’s 3 secrets (part 1)

Why is following the Sunnah is the key to happiness? Al Ghazali's 3 secrets (part 1)

In Imam Ghazali’s Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din, The Forty Principles of the Religion, the summary of his great work, Ihya Ulum ad-Din, he examines the concept of Following the Sunnah, in chapter 10.

The key to happiness is following the Sunnah

Itiba as-sunnah as-mifahu as-sa’ada

We can write reams and reams on this topic and indeed there is a 5th century book called the ‘Key to Happiness’, Miftahu as-Sa’ada. It is a beautiful concept and great motto that the key to happiness is to follow the Prophet (peace be on him). Allah Almighty said:

قُلۡ اِنۡ كُنۡتُمۡ تُحِبُّوۡنَ اللّٰهَ فَاتَّبِعُوۡنِىۡ يُحۡبِبۡكُمُ اللّٰهُ وَيَغۡفِرۡ لَـكُمۡ ذُنُوۡبَكُمۡؕ​ وَاللّٰهُ غَفُوۡرٌ رَّحِيۡمٌ‏

Say, ˹O Prophet,˺ “If you ˹sincerely˺ love Allah, then follow me; Allah will love you and forgive your sins. For Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (3:31)

In this life and the afterlife, if we follow the Prophet (peace be on him) it brings us happiness and success, as he is our role model in everything. Whether it is how he entered and left, his movements and stillness, or the way he ate and drank, walked and slept, spoke, we have the blueprint of how to conduct every aspect of our lives.

The words key to happiness instantly appeal to our hearts. In Arabic we say this is a very encouraging beginning. Ghazali is essentially saying that if you are searching for happiness, he will tell you how to achieve it. Indeed, he will even divulge some secrets, known as asrar in Arabic, the plural of sirr (secret). Though he states that he did not design this book to reveal his secrets, as that would take too long, he goes on to share 3 secrets which is very exciting! I will explain the first one.

If you are feeling low – tired, anxious and sad, and searching for relief, Ghazali says that the path to happiness is to follow the Prophet (peace be on him). Why is this the case? Because the Muhammad (peace be on him) was Rasul Allah – the Messenger. Therefore the key to happiness and success (falah) is to follow him. Allah Almighty summarised what he wants from us in His message and He sent it through him and his example.  

Real success is not about acquiring money, status and success, although these are desirable when used in the right way. Unless you follow the Sunnah, you will not have sa’ada (happiness) which is an internal status, in your life.

The Messenger (peace be on him) delivered the message from Allah Almighty to us, which is the only route to the safest destination, Jannah, the home of peace (Dar us Salam). Following him is the shortcut. Instead of getting lost in the wilderness, we must simply follow the straight path, that he trod, as he was sent by the Creator of the whole universe. Allah Almighty sent him to us to show us how to navigate this life to arrive safely to our destination. We are shown how to get sa’ada by avoiding the dangers, blockages, hiccups and pitfalls, by reading manual, which is the Quran and Sunnah.

Fard vs Sunnah

When we follow the Sunnah we should not limit ourselves to copying how the Prophet (peace be on him) prayed and fasted. It is beyond the emulating how he performed the obligations, it is much broader than that.  You need to embrace his whole way of life.

This means that you should not make a distinction between the actions that are fard and the actions which are sunnah – you should do them both. Though the fard is undeniably the obligation, if you only perform the fard, and ignore or disdain the sunnah because you think its insignificant and unimportant you will develop a habit of missing it out.

Moreover, this is akin to the physician who says you can remove your eyes from your body, because they are not vital. You can live without them. Ghazali is talking directly from his personal experience. Although he did not live very long, his book The Forty Principles of the Religion, was composed towards the end of his life and thus contains the cream of cream of his rich experience. We should benefit from his discoveries, and excel using his advice, rather than trying to figure it out for ourselves from scratch.

Though there is distinction between the Fard and Sunnah, if you keep neglecting the Sunnah, it is an entry point for shaytan.

The Sunnah is in place for a certain reason. For instance, al Itiba al Mutlaq.

Itiba means to follow the Sunnah, and the terminology is used in the Shariah, in contrast to ibtida which is to create something not in line with the Sunnah, which is punishable.

The believer should not distinguish between Sunnah and Farida, as we are only here in the dunya once, so how will we spend our time? If you have plenty of hours for Facebook and Snapchat but not for the sunnah, you are making the wrong investment.

If you love Allah, follow the Prophet (peace be on him)

(O Prophet!) Tell people: ‘If you indeed love Allah, follow me, and Allah will love you and will forgive you your sins. Allah is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate. (3:31)

Fatabi’uni (follow me) is used the command form in this ayah. Therefore if you want to be saved, or to please Allah or want to achieve perfection or excel in dunya and akhirah follow the Prophet (peace be on him).

Life is a bumpy ride, but you can enjoy it

It is not an easy ride; it is a bumpy ride. Some people enjoy bumpy rides, such as those who like funfairs. I went to the funfair recently with my daughter, but I regretted it! She enjoyed the ride, but it was so fast I felt dizzy and closed my eyes. My daughter said I looked like I had passed away! It was a joy for her but a pain for me. I decided not to join her the next time and just watch.

Life is certainly a bumpy ride. But you have the joy of it because you know where you are going. You will experience pleasure even when it is bitter, when you bear it with acceptance.

For instance, if you miss your flight, instead of bursting with anger and blaming the taxi driver or your spouse, and anyone but yourself or realise that it is a message for you from Allah Almighty. You can think about how you can pass that test without failing. Often you fail the test because you can’t see the bigger picture as you can’t see beyond your nose.

Allah’s love is conditional on following the Prophet (peace be on him)

If you follow the Prophet (peace be on him), Allah Almighty will love you. It is conditional love. If you do not follow him, you do not get Allah’s love. If you are not following him, you are wasting your time.

Whatever the Messenger gives you, take it and whatever he forbids you from, desist. (59:7)

If you want to express your love to Allah, convey it through actions, not poems. I came across many people who say they love Allah and His Messenger (peace be on him) yet they do not pray. When asked why, they say they are a bit lazy. Real love is not just expressed through emotions, it is demonstrated through actions.

Activate your imaan

Get beyond knowing what you have to do, and actually implement it in your life. You prove your love through your actions, when you follow the sunnah. Imam Qushayri commented beautifully on the ayah that hubb (love) is giving your heart and soul to Allah Almighty.

قُلۡ اِنۡ كُنۡتُمۡ تُحِبُّوۡنَ اللّٰهَ فَاتَّبِعُوۡنِىۡ يُحۡبِبۡكُمُ اللّٰهُ وَيَغۡفِرۡ لَـكُمۡ ذُنُوۡبَكُمۡؕ وَاللّٰهُ غَفُوۡرٌ رَّحِيۡمٌ‏

Say, ˹O Prophet,˺ “If you ˹sincerely˺ love Allah, then follow me; Allah will love you and forgive your sins. For Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (3:31)

In Arabic, the word hubb (love) is composed of two letters ha and double ba. The ha has a spiritual meaning which is al ruh (the soul). And ba is for badan, the body. Qushayri, who lived close to Imam Ghazali’s era, said fal muhibu la yadakhiru badan:

The lover will not spare from his beloved neither his heart nor his soul nor his body.

This means if you love Allah Almighty you are willing to give Him your heart and body. That is why those who show the highest level of love for Him are martyrs, as they give their body and heart to Allah. Qushayri is a master when it comes to expressing this.

Trimming nails

Ghazali mentioned that the Prophet (peace be on him) trimmed his nails by starting with his right hand index finger, fingers and finished with the thumb, and then repeated this with the left hand.  Imam Nawawi commented that there is no such sunnah. The sunnah is cut the nails of the right hand before the left. You can start with the index finger and then the fingers and finish with the thumb, but there is no authentic sunnah on which order of trim the fingernails.

Do not treat the sunnah lightly

Following the movements and stillness of the Prophet (peace be on him) is a sign of real itiba. Don’t say the sunnah is not a big deal. Don’t take it lightly. Otherwise it shuts the door of goodness and locks the gate of happiness for you. You might want to know why you should follow the Prophet (peace be on him) in all his actions.

Ghazali goes on to say that the motivating factor for following the Sunnah is three secrets.

First Secret – The inward and outward connection

There is a connection between the inward and outward realm, the limbs and the spiritual heart. We already covered the connection between the salah and wudu as the relationship between the outward and inward. As the outer washing has the impact of inner washing. It purifies the heart.

We know that we don’t understand why the Prophet (peace be on him) used to carry out certain actions in a certain way.  However we know that he was given the revelation by Allah and he had knowledge of the Unseen, which we do not have access to. Therefore though we do not have the reason, we know that he knew something we did not, so by following him, we benefit in ways we do not know. Of course we might wonder why, but there are somethings we can understand and some we cannot but simply follow to capture the goodness.

Why do we go round the Kaaba 7 times not 10 or 3? Why do go round it anticlockwise? Why is Maghrib 3 rakahs, not 2 or 4? Is there any reason? Yes – it is not an arbitrary or trivial point, but we submit ourselves and trust that there is hikmah in it, which we cannot fathom.

I am reminded of an occasion during my Hajj when some of our group appointed a man to lead the salah assuming that his turban and long beard meant he was knowledgeable. As we were travelling, we had to combine and shorten our salah. The man proceeded to lead the prayer and prayed 3 and a half rakahs. Everyone was surprised and when he finished they asked him why he had done that. He replied that Isha is usually shortened from 4 rakahs to 2, so he shortened Maghrib as well to 1 and a half and combined with the Isha. This was of course completely wrong and completely ignorant! You cannot invent your own forms of worship. The Prophet (peace be on him) taught us to emulate him.

Malik ibn al-Huwayrith reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

 “Pray as you have seen me praying.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

Regarding Hajj he also said, as reported by Jabir (may Allah be pleased with him):

Learn your rituals (by seeing me performing them) (Muslim)

This is why we perform 7 tawaf and 7 sa’ee between Safa and Marwa. Our knowledge and intellect are limited. Though we have access to plenty of information there is a big difference between information and knowledge. And the Seen and the Unseen. There is much we don’t know. So be humble.

The first secret is that there is a connection between the outer dominion (al mulk) and the spiritual realm (al malakut) – the Seen and the Unseen. We see this in the hadith where the Prophet (peace be on him) revealed the effects of salah five times a day was like washing the heart/soul. Abu Hurayrah reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:

“If there was a river at your door and he took a bath in it five times a day, would you notice any dirt on him?” They said, “Not a trace of dirt would be left.” The Prophet said, “That is the parable of the five prayers by which Allah removes sins.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

Truly the heart is like a mirror. If you do not want to be deceived by appearances, know that the reality of things (haqa’iq al ashya) does not show in the mirror unless it is polished, illuminated  and straightened.

The heart is the receptor of light

The more we work on our hearts the more the heart is prepared to receive the light and truth from Allah Almighty. The more sound the heart, the more we are on the straight path.

Ghazali is taking us on a journey into the heart, as if he is a surgeon showing you what is usually concealed to the eye. Otherwise we learn lessons through trial and error. Ghazali is sparing us the pain of learning through trial and error by sharing his experience with us.

Some of things which affect that body can be understood by us, but not all. Just as we may not understand all the reasons behind a doctor’s advice on what to do or not to do. But we trust his knowledge and experience.

Can you follow the Sunnah blindly?

There is nothing wrong with following the Sunnah blindly if you are following authentic narrations. However blindly following any other than the Prophet (peace be on him) is blameworthy. Therefore embrace the Sunnah and emulate the Prophet (peace be on him) as much as possible in as many ways as possible, whether it is how he ate, or slept, or walked, or worshipped.

Adjust your limbs and faculties by performing your actions in accordance with the Sunnah. For instance, by preferring the right hand over the left hand for good actions such as carrying a Quranic text, or eating, and using the left hand for cleaning oneself, touching dirty things or taking off shoes. Keeping nails trimmed honours the hand. The right hand has superiority over the left because of its strength and because the Prophet (peace be on him) preferred it.

There are some instances where you understand the reasons for doing them but there are others where you don’t, regardless whether you understand or not, follow the example of the Prophet (peace be on him) which is called itiba.

The dunya is the farm for the akhirah. You plant your seeds in dunya and reap them in akhirah.

When someone dies, the heart becomes disconnected from their body, and then it is too late to straighten the limbs. When your limbs and even your thoughts are weighed by the scale of justice, you become evened out and you can receive the truth as it truly is.

Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class

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Shaykh Haytham Tamim is the founder and main teacher of the Utrujj Foundation. He has provided a leading vision for Islamic learning in the UK, which has influenced the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated. He has orchestrated the design and delivery of over 200 unique courses since Utrujj started in 2001. His extensive expertise spans over 30 years across the main Islamic jurisprudence schools of thought. He has studied with some of the foremost scholars in their expertise; he holds some of the highest Ijazahs (certificates) in Quran, Hadith (the Prophetic traditions) and Fiqh (Islamic rulings). His own gift for teaching was evident when he gave his first sermon to a large audience at the age of 17 and went on to serve as a senior lecturer of Islamic transactions and comparative jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Beirut (Shariah College). He has continued to teach; travelling around the UK, Europe and wider afield, and won the 2015 BISCA award (British Imams & Scholars Contributions & Achievements Awards) for Outstanding Contribution to Education and Teaching.