Abû Hurayrah relates that he heard Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) say: “Whatever I prohibit you from doing, refrain from it, and whatever I command you to do, do of it what you are able. Those who came before you only perished on account of their excessive questioning and their disagreeing with their Prophets.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim]
The importance of this hadîth:
This hadîth outlines some essential principles of Islamic Law. The most important of these is the fact that obedience to the Prophet (peace be upon him) in his commands and prohibitions is obligatory, regardless of whether or not those commands and prohibitions appear in the Qur’ân. This means that the Prophet’s Sunnah is an independent source of Islamic Law.
This principle is clearly established by many verses of the Qur’ân. Allah says: “Whoever obeys the Messenger has indeed obeyed Allah.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 80]
Allah says: “Whatever the Messenger gives you take it, and whatever he forbids you abstain from it.” [Sûrah al-Hashr: 7]
This hadîth also outlines the principle that when something is prohibited by the Qur’ân and Sunnah, this indicates that it is unlawful according to Islamic Law and when something is commanded of us, it means that it is obligatory according to Islamic Law.
“Do of it what you are able”
When the Prophet (peace be upon him) spoke about what he prohibited, he told us to avoid it outright. He did not qualify it in any way. By contrast, when he spoke about what he commanded us to do, he qualified it by saying: “do of it what you are able”.
The difference is that when we are prohibited from doing something, we are being asked to refrain from acting, which is something that in most instances everyone is capable of. On the other hand, a command is soliciting from us to act, to bring something about. Depending on what it is, it may be something that not everyone will be able to do.
This distinction is significant. For one thing, if we are prohibited from doing something, that prohibition is total unless there is specific textual evidence to the contrary. We must refrain from doing it. It does not matter if we want to do a little of it or a lot. We are prohibited from eating pork. This means that we cannot eat any pork, no matter how small the portion. As for eating pork out of necessity of starvation, there is other evidence permitting that.
By contrast, when it comes to what we are commanded to do, we are only required to do so to the extent that we are able.
It is interesting to note that the statement “do of it what you are able” conveys a meaning of both ease and difficulty. It implies ease in that it is telling us: “There is no obligation except when there is ability.”
This meaning reflects the verse on the Qur’ân: “On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 286]
It implies difficulty in that it also means: “You are obligated to do what is commanded of you to the fullest extent of your abilities.”
This principle is embodied in the Qur’ân in the verse: “Fear Allah as much as you are able.” [Sûrah al-Taghâbun: 16]
The Prophet (peace be upon him) warned us that excessive questioning is one of the reasons why those who came before us met with destruction. The questions that are being referred to here are those pertaining to matters of religion. This is especially relevant to questions of the Unseen that cannot be answered except by direct textual evidence. It is wrong to delve into matters of faith that are not clearly and specifically addressed by the Qur’ân and Sunnah and that have no practical value whatsoever. Such questioning can only lead to misguidance, error and a loss of faith. It can cause a person to fall into the sin of speaking about Allah without knowledge. Allah says: “And pursue not that of which you have no knowledge. Lo! the hearing and the sight and the heart – of each of these it will be asked.” [Sûrah al-Isrâ’: 36]
We should not speculate on matters pertaining to Allah’s nature and His attributes. We should not ask needless questions about the nature and the qualities of Paradise and Hell. We should have faith that Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) have informed us about all that we need to know about these things.
As for practical matters of Islamic Law, these are things about which we are commanded to seek knowledge. Every Muslim must learn what he needs to know in order to carry out his religious duties and to avoid falling into what is unlawful.
A student of Islamic knowledge has a greater burden in that he must learn about matters that he may not have experienced in his own life but that he will need to know so he can provide guidance for others who will later come to him with their problems. A scholar will have to ponder over the issues and problems facing the Muslims in their ever-changing world and seek out solutions that will protect their faith and their welfare.
In this way, each person asks to the extent of his needs and responsibilities. Even about matters of Islamic Law, it is not right to merely pose difficult and implausible questions just to test one’s own or someone else’s intellectual prowess. Such conduct leads to doubts, arguments, and confusion.
Allah says: “O you who believe! Ask not questions about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble. But if ye ask about things when the Qur’ân is being revealed, they will be made plain to you, Allah will forgive those: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Forbearing.” [Sûrah al-Mâ’idah: 101]
During the lifetime of the Prophet (peace be upon him), there was another reason why questions were discouraged, though this reason does not exist today. There was the fear that due to excessive questioning, a particular act would be made obligatory or forbidden when it had not been so before.
This idea is illustrated most clearly when we consider one of the circumstances in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) made the statement that we are discussing.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) had addressed the people and said: “O people, the Pilgrimage has been made obligatory upon you, so perform the Pilgrimage.”
A man then asked: “Should we do so every year, O Messenger of Allah?”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) remained silent until the man repeated his question three times. Finally, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “If I had said ‘yes’, then it would have become obligatory upon you to do so and you would not have been able to handle it.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) then said: “Leave me with what I have left you with. Those who came before you only perished on account of their excessive questioning and their disagreeing with their Prophets. So whatever I command you to do, do of it what you are able, and whatever I prohibit you from doing, refrain from it.” [Sahîh Muslim]
The Prophet (peace be upon him) also said : “The Muslim who does the greatest wrong to his fellow Muslims is the one who asks about something that was not forbidden but it becomes forbidden for the Muslims on account of his asking about it.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Musim]
Of course, the fear of something being forbidden on account of someone’s question ceased to be a concern after the death of the Prophet (peace be upon him), since with his death revelation had come to an end.
Everything that we need to know to determine what is lawful and unlawful can be drawn from the Qur’ân and Sunnah.
Disagreeing with the Prophets (peace be upon them)
The Prophet (peace be upon him) warns us that the people of before met with destruction on account of their disputing with their Prophets.
It is obligatory for a believer to accept what his tells him. Allah says: “The only thing the believers say when they are called to Allah and His Messenger to judge between is: ‘We hear and we obey.” [Sûrah al-Nûr: 51]
The Prophets of before, like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (peace be upon them) were sent to their own people who disputed with them. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has been sent to all humanity. He is the final Prophet and the Law that he came with is binding upon us all until the Day of Judgment.