A friend recounts an experience he had on the train in Austria. The man sitting in front of him was asking him about how Muslims learned how to perform religious rituals like prayers, zakat, fasting, Hajj, and behavior in general, as well as about other religious issues. The answer of my friend (a Ph.D. holder) to each one of these questions was: “Islam taught us Muslims how to perform this Cibâdah or ritual.”
After a number of exchanges, the Austrian man started laughing very loudly, to the extent that my friend felt enraged, but managed to maintain his composure. He then asked the Austrian man what was so funny about the answers. The Austrian man replied that we Muslims always say that it was Islam which taught us how to pray, how to calculate zakat, how to fast, how to perform Hajj, how to treat people with respect, etc…, but that we are wrong about it. For him (and this is not untrue), Islam is a system, a model of behavior, a way of life, a school, but not a teacher. He said that the correct answer to his questions was: “It was Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) who taught us how to perform all these acts of worship.” In fact, he was correct:
Narrated by CAbdullah bin CAmr that the Prophet said:
“… I have been sent as a teacher…” (Sunan Ibn Mâjah 1.1.229) 
The Plan to Undermine
This was eye-opening for me! When it was realized that Islam was a source of power (spiritual, intellectual, political, etc…), it was feared that if all those who claim to be ‘Muslims’ were to live as true Muslims, then they could conquer the world once again. Even if a new Muslim rule were to mean spreading a vibrant culture of knowledge, understanding, and peace, it would mean that it would be Muslims who would have gained the upper hand, something many parties in the world were not willing to accept.
This led the ‘enemies of Islam’ —a label I use to refer to all those who hate Islam and Muslims, whether they be Muslims themselves or non-Muslims— to implement a novel (self-destruction) strategy to make the new generations of Muslims gradually abandon the spirit of Islam. Of course, the enemies could not succeed in telling us to abandon the five Pillars of Islam or the six Pillars of Faith. This is because it would then be obvious that they were ‘the enemies’ who wanted to drive us away from Islam, the way of life that we cherish, though many of us occasionally even intentionally violate its rules. But they could think of a smarter plan!
The plan has been to drive us away from ‘the Teacher,’ Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). And the success of this project can be clearly witnessed nowadays. Some Muslim scholars discuss religious issues and teachings of Islam without referring to the Teacher (ﷺ), and some of them avoid mentioning him as an exceptional figure, treating him as ‘a character of the past,’ an attitude that has percolated down to the recent and current generations of Muslims.
Some of the younger generations would even shun any discussion that involves the Prophet and his Companions, considering this viewpoint archaic and impractical. Other scholars —so-called ‘scholars of authority’— even appeal to some misinterpreted aspects of the Prophet’s Sunnah, and misattributed accounts of his teachings, as well as some deliberately misunderstood writings of Islam’s major figures to justify some of the tensions and bloodshed that the world has witnessed.
And this has provided sufficient justification to some of the ‘enemies of Islam’ to drive the Ummah away from the teachings of the Prophet (ﷺ), treating those misrepresented teachings as the main cause for the radical and extreme ideologies that have brought about hostilities and bloodshed.
To declare the plan successful, the ‘enemies of Islam’ decided that the best way to avoid hatred and bloodshed —but to spread understanding and peace— was to promote abandonment of the Prophet’s Sunnah, as well as the religious heritage elucidated through the contributions of the Caliphs and major scholars of Islam.
Thus, the solution they provided is basically to treat the Prophet as a character of the past and his Sunnah as an outdated method valid only for the Prophet’s generation, something to be preserved only for historical purposes.
In other words, the new plan has been to empty this religion of its Teacher, the man who embodied the Qur’an.
How is the Teacher Essential to His Teaching?
When asked about the Prophet’s character, Sayyidah CAishah (RA) said:
“His character was the Qur’an.” (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Al-Bukhârî 308) 
And to a considerable extent, the ‘enemies of Islam’ have succeeded in their endeavor. We now see generations of Muslims who do not know the Prophet’s life and traditions; they do not know that what we are required to do, in our religious practice, are acts of worship that he taught us how to perform. They do not know his main attribute and mission, namely the fact that he was divinely intended as a mercy to mankind. Allah says:
“We did not send you except as a mercy to mankind.” [Sûrah Al-Anbiyâ’, 21:107] 
And those of us who do know about him and his life may consider it old-fashioned and find it hard to follow his example in a technology-decorated world. Differently put, the ‘enemies of Islam’ have succeeded in driving us away from the Teacher, though allowing us to attend his school!
But, would the school suffice, on its own, without a teacher as a model? Some might say that the school still has a laboratory and a library. Yes, but can all people learn on their own from the lab or the library? Thinkers, like the late Dr. Mostafa Mahmoud, can learn at the lab, by formulating hypotheses and testing them. Adult (and educated) Muslims can learn at the library, by reading the right books, since they know what is good to read and be influenced by, and they can detect what is not so good. Fortunately, Dr. Mostafa Mahmoud has left us inspiring and educational video presentations. But, what about the young generations? They, undoubtedly, need a teacher, a model; and who is better than Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), the first teacher of this school, the one whose teachings are described by Allah as ‘the revelation’? Allah Almighty says:
“Nor does he [Prophet Muhammad] speak out of [his own] desire. It is but a revelation revealed [to him].” [Sûrah Al-Najm, 53:3-4] 
Accordingly, having a school without the Teacher means that the mission is diluted, emptied of the element that, at the least, gives the impression that the required duties —the hardest of which is passing the test of life— are possible to fulfill.
In other words, without the Teacher present we have left behind the ‘mercy’ that was sent upon us. We have neglected half of the source of power that was sent to us. And this has resulted in a weaker, easily led-astray Ummah. If the Holy Qur’an makes up most of the spiritual aspect of Islam, the Prophet’s Sunnah makes up at least much of the practical aspect of it. Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) says:
Yahya related from Malik that he heard the Messenger of Allah say:
“I have left two matters with you. As long as you hold to them, you will not go the wrong way. They are the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Prophet.” (Muwaṭṭa‘ Mâlik 1628) 
Returning the Teacher to the Rightful Place in His School
Some of us know the Book, but the majority of us have abandoned the Sunnah. Therefore, we must accept the grim reality that we have to face the challenges of life in this highly competitive world on our own, that is, with our own limited means, without the ‘mercy’ of Allah, without the blessings of the Prophet (ﷺ), without help from reliable guidance —which is why we find ourselves behind the other civilizations.
This now reminds me of a quote by Professor Emeritus William T. Liu (Director of the Pacific/Asian American Mental Health Research Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago) who maintains that Asians’ belief in hard work and quest for excellence springs from Confucianism:
“Confucius [so-called ‘the prophet of China’] is not just some character of the past — he is an everyday reality to these people.” 
By contrast, many Muslims today do not recognize Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) —whose behavior embodied the Qur’anic principles of excellence and values of competence— as a source of knowledge and inspiration to the new generations; and this has resulted in a weakened version of Islam, one that takes care of the rituals but not the values and principles. The inevitable result, therefore, has been that the recent and current generations of Arabs and Muslims do not hold Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as dear as the Asians hold Confucius’s teachings. Asians treasure Confucius’s traditions and apply them in their daily lives while Muslims generally fail to do so. So the natural result is that the Asian nations are more advanced than the Muslim ones.
Now, the fact that ‘new’ Muslims do not recognize the immensely positive influence of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in the history of the world is a result of their ignorance of his life and traditions —with the educational system planners at fault; similarly, younger Muslims tend to neglect the need to follow the person of the Prophet and his teachings —with the religious scholars at fault for not recognizing the reason for this drift away from the life example of Prophet Muhammad.
Our Prophet’s enormous influence has been recognized by many western scholars, such as Michael Hart, in his book “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History.” Hart ranks Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in first place —before sir Isaac Newton and Jesus in second and third place, with Confucius in fifth. If we follow Hart’s logic (his criteria and reasons), which seems to be correct —given that many even non-Muslim scholars write positive testimonials of Prophet Muhammad— then the expected conclusion would be that Muslims can create a more advanced civilization if they would again follow the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), which, like the Holy Qur’an, is designed to fit all times and places.
Unfortunately, the ‘new’ Muslim generations do not appreciate their Teacher, nor do they know enough about his Sunnah to learn from it —though many of us still paradoxically name our sons ‘Muhammad’ after him! While the Asians have been able to create a superior civilization because they are following their teacher, many Muslims are no longer following the Prophet’s Sunnah. This may be for various reasons, among which is that they judge the collection of ḥadîth, our record of the Sunnah, as archaic and thus obsolete, or non-fashionable. This assumption is in keeping with the modern tendency to see cultural practices as belonging to their own historical era.
Is the Sunnah Still the Divine Standard for Us in Modern Times?
Those who recognize the true value of following the Prophet’s Sunnah are given extra motivation to learn it and apply it in their lives; in the Sunnah, we seek to lead an honorable life as well as to receive a great reward on the Day of Judgment. Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) says:
“[Anyone] who holds fast to my Sunnah when my Ummah becomes corrupt receives the reward of a hundred martyrs.” (Al-Zuhd Al-Kabîr, Al-Bayhaqî 207) 
And because his Sunnah, like the Holy Qur’an, is considered a revelation from Allah, he was able to anticipate abandonment of it in a later age; he knew that this would occur at the time when the colors and lights of other civilizations would seduce Muslims away from his Sunnah. Accordingly, he could foresee that many Muslims would be driven away from the spirit of Islam, which would make Islam no longer the norm, but the exception; the Sunnah would not seem to be the right way of life to many Muslims, but rather an old-fashioned method. This prompted him to promise a great reward to the few who would undertake the great mission of bringing the misled masses back to his Sunnah and showing them that success is in following it. Prophet Muhammad says:
“Indeed the religion began as something strange and it will return to being strange. So ṭuba [‘great reward’] is for the strangers who correct what the people have corrupted from my Sunnah after me.” (Sunan Al-Tirmidhî 2630) 
In another account of the same ḥadîth, the Prophet says:
“Indeed the religion began as something strange and it will return to being strange. So ṭuba is for the strangers.” Then he was asked: Oh Messenger of Allah, who are the strangers? He said: “those who revive my Sunnah and teach it to people.” (Al-Zuhd Al-Kabîr, Al-Bayhaqî 205) 
To urge us to hold fast to his Sunnah and apply it in our lives, the Prophet (ﷺ) informs us about the present time and the fact that many Muslims will be led astray by the attraction of other methods. He accordingly warns us and advises us to be patient, to stick to his Sunnah and not allow ourselves to be seduced by the other methods. He says, addressing his Companions:
It was narrated by Abû Umayyah ShaCbâni that the Prophet (ﷺ) said to Abû Tha’labah al-Khushanî:
“…After you will come days of patience [requiring steadfastness], during which patience will be like grasping a burning ember, and one who does good deeds will have a reward like that of fifty men doing the same deed.” (Sunan Ibn Mâjah 4014) 
The great reward reserved for people who show faith and practice (steadfastness) in this life is promised in the following verse:
“The steadfast will be paid their wages in full, without reckoning.” [Sûrah Al-Zumar, 39:10] 
That is, the steadfast Muslims will not have to go through a detailed reckoning (accountability), which is a great hardship in itself. Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) describes a comprehensive reckoning as ‘ruining’:
Narrated Sayyidah CAishah (RA),
“Everyone who is reckoned thoroughly is ‘undone’ [brought to ruin].” I nsaid: Allah’s Messenger, has Allah not called [the reckoning of him who is given his record in his right hand (Q 84:7-8)] as an easy reckoning? Thereupon he said: “[An easy reckoning] implies only the presentation of [one’s deeds to Him], but if one is thoroughly examined in reckoning, he in fact is ‘undone.’” (Ṣaḥîḥ Muslim 2876a, c). 
Another ḥadîth of the Prophet states clearly that we must follow his Sunnah and not try to invent new teachings and methods, like those that the ‘enemies of Islam’ are promoting so as to present Islam as the ‘cruel way.’ He says:
Narrated Al-CIrbâḍ bin Sâriyah,
“…I enjoin you to fear Allah, and to hear and obey even if it be an Abyssinian slave [as your leader], for those of you who live after me will see great disagreement. You must then follow my sunnah and that of the rightly-guided caliphs. Hold to it and stick fast to it. Avoid novelties, for every novelty is an innovation, and every innovation is an error.” (Sunan Abû Dâwûd 4607) 
This ḥadîth indicates that the reason we, the Muslim nation, are not a developing civilization is that we are not approaching the Muhammadi school through its Teacher, but rather through the books that were written after the Teacher, including the ones meant to damage the true picture of Islam that the Prophet and his rightly-guided caliphs established 14 centuries ago.
How to Change Our Condition?
The above discussion and its ḥadîths reveal that the reason for the deteriorating situation of the Muslim nation is that we are not doing justice to our Teacher’s Sunnah. We Muslims pray, pay zakat, fast during Ramaḍân, perform Hajj, and do all the religious acts of worship that we are required to do; yet we are still behind in terms of our contribution to human civilization. What is the solution to this weak position?
We, I believe, would know the solution if we understood the causes behind our backward situation in the world. The ultimate cause is that we are not following the Prophet’s Sunnah, his traditions and teachings, not following his personal example. The evidence for this comes from the Confucian-Asian situation: Asians are following the traditions and teachings of Confucius and holding fast to his method, and this has proved to give good results. Asian countries (Japan, China, South Korea, and others) are now among the booming economies in the world, economies that are based on knowledge and discovery rather than on wealth derived from consumption of exhaustible natural resources. The Asians are closely attached to their roots, whereas we seek every opportunity to get detached from our roots.
Today’s Muslims are seeking the economic development and modernization that the others have achieved, but this endeavor has happened after we have lost the main assets which could have enabled us to have our own version of modernization. We must again take seriously our own Tradition, not be pulled away by the ‘enemies of Islam’ —Muslim or other— when they tell us that the Sunnah of our Prophet was for his time alone, not for ours.
If we are serious about becoming the greatest Ummah once again, we must be certain about its basic prerequisite: to make the greatest Teacher (ﷺ) our guide and mentor.
 Cited in Fox Butterfield’s “Why They Excel,” Parade magazine.