Following vs. Obeying
Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) says in the Qur’an:
قُلْ أَطِيعُواْ اللّهَ وَالرَّسُولَ فإِن تَوَلَّوْاْ فَإِنَّ اللّهَ لاَ يُحِبُّ الْكَافِرِينَ
Translation: Say: If you should love Allah, then follow me (so) Allah will love you and forgive your sins. And Allah is Al-Ghafoor (the All-Forgiving), Ar-Raheem (the All-Mericful). Say, Obey Allah and His Messenger. But if you turn away then indeed, Allah does not love the disbelievers. [Surah Al-e-Imran, verses 31-32]
فَاتَّبِعُونِي,Ittabi’ooni, “follow me”, is from the root letters taa ba ayn. It means to follow one very closely, such that you follow their very footsteps. It also means to follow without being commanded. What does following the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم) then entail? It means to follow his sunnah, his teachings and to follow the way he lived his life.
Following the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم) is the condition to gain Allah’s Love. If one does not love and follow the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم), yet claims to love Allah, his love for Allah will not be accepted from him. Thus, we learn that the only way to gain Allah’s Love is to follow the footsteps of His messenger (صلي الله عليه وسلم).
Then Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) says in the following ayah, أَطِيعُواْ “Attee’oo” “Obey”, and that is from the letters taw (ط) wow ayn. From this root, comes the meaning of obeying willingly, out of happiness and full acceptance of the command. What is the difference between obeying and following in these verses? Let’s analyze the difference:
- Attee’oo (obeying) refers to the commands of the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم), and as the ayah mentions, if one does not obey his commands, he will be among the Kaafireen (disbelievers).
- Ittabi’ooni (following) refers to emulating the deeds of the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم). Following surpasses obeying, because one is doing the obligatory actions as well as the recommended ones. Furthermore, following the sunnah is done sincerely out of love for the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم) and this gains the Love of Allah.
To reiterate, obeying is mandatory while following is adhering to the sunnah, and completing those acts that the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم) did.
Here are two examples:
- Rasul Allah (صلي الله عليه وسلم) commanded the men of this Ummah, “do not wear silk, for those who wear it in this life will not wear it in the hereafter.” [Bukhari and Muslim] This falls under obeying, as from this hadith, we find that silk is prohibited for men, although it was not mentioned in the Qur’an.
- ‘Aisha (رضي الله عنها) reported that when the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم) had performed the two rakah before Fajr prayer, he would lie on his right side. [Bukhari]. This is “Ittibaa as-Sunnah” (following the Sunnah), one does not have to lie on their right side—they can pray the fardh salaah right away; however, out of sheer love and sincerely wanting to follow the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم), some lie on their right side. By doing these types of acts, we may gain the love of Allah (سبحانه وتعالى).
May Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) make us among those whom He loves, and among those who follow the footsteps of His messenger. Ameen.