In his seminal and pioneering work, al-Risala, al-Shafi’i, the founder of juridical usul al-fiqh, laid down the following maxim:
“God has obliged us to follow everything the Prophet instituted (sunna). And He has rendered adherence to this obedience to Him and turning away from it disobedience [to Him] for which He excuses no one.”
Al-Shafi’i’s discourse in al-Risala suggests that the ultimate aim of these words was to confirm the Prophet’s authority as an independent source of law whose legislation was binding even on matters about which the Qur’an was silent. Because, however, his aim was merely to establish rather than define the Prophet’s authority, al-Shafi’i’s formulations remained broad and imprecise. This imprecision raised in turn a number of perduring questions: Was indeed everything the Prophet said and did binding upon the Community? Or was there a distinction to be made between what he said and what he did, or between “binding” (wujub) and some other legal category, for example, “recommended” (nadb) or “licit” (ibaha)? Did this sunna, which al-Shafi’i identified as binding, consist only of the Prophet’s statements and actions concerning public matters, or were his statements and actions in his private life equally authoritative? What about purpose and intent; were those statements and actions in which a clear purpose was discernible equal to those that yielded no such inferences? And what would become of those actions from which no clear purpose could be inferred? If purpose and intent were material, was the Prophet to be second-guessed where he made no explicit declarations about purpose?
I have often wondered about the way Muslims use the word “ummah.” In a technical sense, it clearly refers to the entire Community, the unqualified collective of all who espouse, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.” And yet, it commonly manages to connote certain parts of the world to the marginalization if not mild exclusion of others. The Middle East, South Asia and South East Asia clearly make it in, while America, Canada and Jamaica are barely brought to mind. Ultimately, of course, numbers play a role here. Where Muslims are a majority or even a ‘significant minority’ (as, e.g., in India or parts of Africa), it is simply easier to see their sufferings, obsessions, preferences and even sensibilities as reflecting the pulse and interests of the “ummah.” Where they are a small, marginal minority, on the other hand, (as, e.g., in America or Canada) this is far less likely to be the case.
لا يدخل عليك الإهمال إلا باهمالك عن متابعة النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم, ولا تحصل لك الرفعة عند الله تعالى إلا بمتابعة النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم
Neglect will find no way to you except through your own negligence in following the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. And you will not be elevated in the sight of God except by following the example of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم.
— Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah, The Bride-Groom’s Crown, from Sherman Jackson’s Sufism for Non-Sufis?