The Example of the Prophet
Muslims believe that all of God's prophets brought guidance to their people and set excellent examples for us to follow. As human beings, we need role models to show us how to implement certain things in our lives, and from whom to seek advice and ask questions.
When Muslims look to Muhammad as a role model, they consider the entirety of his life — the way he treated people and his family, the things he liked and disliked, the way he lived his life in general — as a legacy, which is known as the Sunnah. As the Qur'an revealed the basic principles of Islamic legislation, Muhammad played a key role in interpreting, explaining, and implementing these principles for the growing community.
A Beautiful Exemplar
The Qur'an describes Muhammad's role as follows: “Allah is the One who sent among the unlettered ones a messenger from among themselves, reciting to them Allah's verses, purifying them, and teaching them the Book and the wisdom. Truly they had been before in manifest error” (Qur'an 62:2). Muslims are ordered in the Qur'an to follow the words and acts of Muhammad (as presented in the Sunnah and verified by the hadith): “Whatever the Prophet ordered you to do, you should do, and whatever he forbids you, you should reject” (Qur'an 59:7).
Many of the criticisms of Islam come from teachings that are based on inauthentic or fabricated hadith. These sources are rejected by Muslims as Islamic law, but have been preserved as historical records. Each hadith record includes information about its narrators and a classification of its reliability so that the reader is informed.
Collections of Hadith
After the death of Muhammad, his companions gave direct attention to preserving his traditions. Muhammad's sayings and words were collected and written down by his companions, and then verified for authenticity with those who actually heard the Prophet with their own ears. Each written report of what Muhammad did or said is called a hadith.
An entire science of hadith was developed by scholars who investigated and verified the written transmissions on several levels. First, they examined the names of the people who reportedly heard or saw Muhammad themselves, and the reputations of those who relayed the message. The chain of narrators was examined for any breaks, or to determine if any of the narrators were considered untrustworthy or weak in memory. In addition, the text of the hadith itself was examined for contradictions against the Qur'an and other verified traditions.
Based on the results of the examination, hadith were classified into four different types: authentic, good, weak, or fabricated. Only the first two categories are used in establishing Islamic law.
Several early Islamic scholars dedicated their lives to investigating and verifying the hadith. Among the more notable were Imam Bukhari, from the city of Bukhara (modern-day Uzbekistan), and Imam Muslim of Persia. The hadith collections of these two scholars are widely considered to be the most authentic. They are published in print form and are widely available on the Internet.