The interpretations of Islam that I was taught had pretty straightforward answers to that question.
At the most basic, the answer was that God has provided detailed and authoritative guidance to all human beings (including me) in the Qur’an and the sunna.
Possible answers to the question of how to access that guidance and apply it to my life varied: Do you need to follow a scholar or scholars? If so, which one(s)? What about madhhabs? As a convert, how would you go about choosing which madhhab to follow?… and so on.
But whatever the answer, it was the sunna that in the end was central. Even the Qur’an was read and interpreted through the sunna. And out of the sunna came a template—a pattern that we were supposed to live our lives by.
What exactly following the life-example of the Prophet meant in reality depended on the interpretation and the community. There were those men who tried to follow it down to the last seventh century Arabian detail—peppering their everyday speech with Arabic words, carrying miswaks in their pockets, wearing short thobes or even turbans. (Mind you, their poly-cotton blend thobes had been made in China, but let’s not get overly technical here….) Then, there were other men who argued that this is taking things too far (especially in North America), but they had their own pet aspects of the Prophet’s example that they saw as non-negotiable, whether it was praying tarawih or wives being forever held hostage to the appearance of her husband’s guests (who would drop by without calling and who would of course have to be fed and served and might even elect to stay the night, regardless of whatever other plans she might have made).
In other words, the idea that we were to follow the sunna was yet another control mechanism. And it worked very well for the most part, because we internalized the idea that if something is sunna, we should do our best to follow it. No need to ask pesky questions about context or results or anything like that. I remember doing things like trying to remember to put on clothes and shoes beginning with the right hand/side/foot first, and to say the appropriate dua… and when taking off clothes or shoes, to start with the left hand/side/foot… because that’s the sunna.
We greeted one another with salaam, never “hi” or “hello.” We said “inshallah” and “al-hamdulillah” and “maa sh’Allah” when appropriate, rather than “God willing” or “thank God,” even when speaking to other converts whose first language was English. We took Muslim names, and gave Muslim names to our kids too. “Muslim names” meaning Arabic names, preferably from the Qur’an or of the Companions. Because these things were sunna too.
We were busy with such minutiae—so busy that we didn’t often ask about the bigger picture. As in: what’s it all for?
This sort of thing is the purpose of the sunna? Fussing about right and left feet, and duas, and Arabic words??
When the question of what’s it all for would come up, then we’d be told that there is baraka in following the sunna. That we wouldn’t necessarily understand what the benefit was, but that there was indeed benefit, which would include that it would foster love for the Prophet in our hearts and hopefully earn us ajr for good deeds. And, that following the sunna helps people to lead a more disciplined and god-conscious life.
And we’d stop there.
We wouldn’t admit, even to ourselves, that the process of following the sunna for us was rather too much like putting on Muslim drag.
Not that we were faking, or putting on a show for others primarily. Oh, we believed in what we were doing. We believed in it sincerely. We truly wanted practicing the sunna to transform us from “western” converts into “real Muslim women.” To transmute us. To turn us from lead into gold. To enable us to become “Ideal Muslimahs.” So that we could please God.
So that we could maybe, perhaps… accept ourselves.
After all, we lived in communities, and read Muslim literature in which “western woman” was a synonym for “worldly, selfish, immodest, probably sexually immoral woman.” It was difficult for us to imagine being Muslim in a way that didn’t involve undergoing a very major makeover of all aspects of our lives. And, it would have been difficult for most of those Muslims who surrounded us to imagine such a thing either, because in their minds, a ‘western woman” and a “Muslim woman” were polar opposites.
But we did not admit that this is what was going on, even to ourselves. I remember reading a convert’s story in which she mentioned the whole “right foot first” thing and said that learning of this and practicing it made her feel like she was getting in touch with her fitra. She was rediscovering her true nature, coming home to herself. And I was envious, because I wished I felt that way too. But I was determined to somehow manage to feel that way. Because I knew that I was “supposed to” feel the way she said she felt.
Now and again, I did happen across converts who felt that this kind of sunna-following was causing them to lose touch with themselves. I remember reading Jeffery Lang’s books… and being shocked that anyone would commit such thoughts to writing. After all, wasn’t the Prophet’s message universal—meaning, that it is for all times and places and peoples? So, that meant that his sunna must be universal too. So therefore, adopting an Arabic name and trying to follow the sunna as much as possible COULDN’T possibly be alienating or psychologically harmful to any true believer. Anyone who claimed that it had this effect on them must have a weakness in their iman.
Fast-forward some years… to me having to learn to live outside the hyper-conservative Muslim bubble that I had inhabited for so long. To me realizing that in part, following the sunna had been a badge of belonging, a way to draw lines between our community and outsiders. To me realizing that weak iman or not, I felt really disconnected from my heritage, my birth family and my history.
But the kicker for me was realizing how very little my relationship to what I understood is the sunna had any relation at all to the Prophet’s life—especially, to his early life in Mecca.
When he received his first revelation, he was terrified, and questioned for his sanity. When he received the call to preach, he was extremely apprehensive about how his message would be received. And what he had feared happened. The rich and the powerful, even within his own family, ridiculed him and called him names.
People asked him fake-serious questions and demanded miracles from him in public: Can you make a ladder extending from here to heaven? What, you can’t? Why can’t you make an actual book drop from heaven, so that we can see it? Oh, you can’t do that either?? What do you mean, we will be raised to life after death—that’s ridiculous, how can rotten bones come back to life again? The world is going to end soon?! Yeah, yeah, dude, bring it on, if it’s really true… oh, and now you say that you can’t do that either??
The Qur’an repeats the scornful words of the pagans, and provides the Prophet words to answer them. But their mockery just kept on coming. The Qur’an makes it evident that this whole experience was very difficult, painful, even traumatic for him. After all, he lived in a society in which a man’s reputation was everything. What sort of a life could anyone look forward to when most people were laughing at him and dismissing him as a guy who either had a screw loose or was just looking for attention? Who would want to do business with such a man, or have their children marry into his family, or even invite him to dinner?
Under circumstances like that, wouldn’t anyone simply give up? Say that it’s all just too much, that there’s no future in it, that there’s no point? Especially after years and years of that sort of treatment. But the Qur’an presents the Prophet’s preaching as something that he is internally compelled to do, regardless of how it was received or what sort of negative feedback he got. It was his calling. He couldn’t not do it….
When he was preaching, he was being real.
He wasn’t trying to fit into someone else’s template of how his life should be, how he should dress and move and speak and even emote. He was being truly himself. No matter what the cost.
Which is… pretty much opposite to my experience of practicing the sunna.
I’d say something is pretty mixed-up here.