Contemplating Imam Nawawi’s 40-Hadith: Recollections of a Former ‘Salafi Jihadi’

By Jesse Morton

For centuries, Muslims across the globe have read and referred to Imam Nawawi’s 40 Hadith (Al-Arbain al-Nawawiyyah). This collection of 40 narrations of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) – 42 actually (but the Arabs tend to round down in numbers), has inspired and encouraged countless Muslims to cultivate a core character based on the actual message of Islam. Indeed, almost every Muslim on the planet is familiar with it.

In the introduction to his explanation of the 40 hadith, Imam Nawawi described his objective as an effort to compile the most prominent narrations of the Prophet (saws), narrations the scholars of Islam had described with attributions such as “The entire religion revolves around it.” These descriptions suggest that the message and meaning of these hadith is so crucial to the universe of Islam that their understanding and implementation is an imperative component of crafting an Islamic personality.

Unfortunately, for many today, there is too much miscomprehension and not enough implementation of what one learns. Our present age is marked , simultaneously, by severe disregard for spirituality and religion and an ugly fundamentalist extremism that chases others away from the religion and fails miserably in its ostensible objective of removing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and so-called “Western” influence from so-called “Muslim” lands.’ I should know. I’ve experienced both sides of extremism.

As Younus Abdullah Muhammad, I ran an American-jihadist organization. I know it sounds like an oxymoron. I radicalized and recruited on behalf of Osama bin Laden’s Global Jihad. I helped Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki design and develop the first version of the glossy jihadi English-language magazines we see continue to cause mayhem unto today. Held side-by-side, those four issues of what we called Jihad Recollections look identical to an issue of Al-Qaeda and ISIS’ own Inspire, Dabiq or Rumiyya. I worked hand-in-hand with extremist preachers, such as Anjem Choudary, Abdullah Faisal and Musa Cerantonio, to spread an interpretation of Islam that was built on my own desires, one preconceived and a result of my quest for meaning and significance, to locate something through which I could project my personal frustration with self a society I felt betrayed and oppressed me. In return, I only oppressed myself. I only oppressed others.

When I finally went to prison, the FBI explained how I operated my organization, “to radicalize those who saw and heard his materials online and to incite them to engage in violence against those they believed to be enemies of Islam.” And it was true. In prison, however, I altered my beliefs and renounced extremism, but then, for a multitude of reasons, I fell backwards. I reverted to behaviors that I hadn’t gone back to since my conversion to Islam, and I forgot how beautiful the way of truly ‘being’ a Muslim was. Today, I am establishing a balance, between these two extremes. I am attempting to return to the true path of the Prophet Muhammad. As Imam Malik explained it, “The only thing that will rectify the affairs of the ummah is that which rectified the first of it.” And what rectified the first of it, was the comprehension and understanding of the personality that was the Prophet Muhammad (saws). As Aisha (raa) explained, Muhammad’s “character was the Quran.”

Imam Nawawi’s 42 hadith are beautiful and mostly simplistic, deep in their meaning, but incredibly difficult in their implementation. I now realize that proper study (preferably with a true scholar) and fulfillment of the principles embodied in the collection represents a pathway to physical, mental, spiritual, and even material well-being, a path to the balance each soul naturally requires and seeks. Taken holistically and incorporated, these hadith may lead individuals (and whole societies) down a path of peace and prosperity (in a true sense of the word). Indeed they led to the establishment of an entire civilization.

Still, the contemporary climate is riddled with confusion. Things seems representative of the time the Prophet (saws) mentioned when he prophesied that, “Knowledge will be raised, ignorance will descend, and there will be much senseless killing (Ibn Maajah).” We are all connected by the World Wide Web but polarized in our own little clusters of the like-minded.  He (saws) also stated that, “Islam began as something strange and will end as something strange. So give good tidings to the strangers (ghuruba).” Contrary to the interpretations of Islamic terrorists, these ghuruba are far from those strapped with explosives and projecting bullets and bombs. They are rather those that can suppress the allure of instant gratification and surpass the bestial state. Imam Nawawi’s collection represents a comprehensive guidance to do just that. As Ibn al-Qayyim put it, “Guidance to the path is one thing, but Guidance upon the path is something altogether different.”

In relation to the time of the strangers, the prophet actually recommended to refrain from moving fast and to adopt a nonviolent position. It is recorded that the Messenger of Allah (saws) said, “Indeed there will be tribulation – the one lying down during it is better than the one seated; the one seated is better than the one standing; the one standing better than the one walking; and the one walking better than the one who is seeking it out.” A companion Bakrah (raa) then asked him (saws) what he should do [then]. So the Prophet (saws) told him to stay away from the situation, to avoid the arena of conflict and tribulation and for the one without a refuge to, “betake himself to his sword, crush its blade with a rock, and then save himself as much as he is able (Abu Dawood).” So, I hope that this endeavor will permit me to save myself and to make amends for running headlong into tribulation and in the process, destroying my own path, and the path of others. I pray the youth benefit from my advice and learn from my mistakes.

I intend to pen (in’shaAllah) a commentary for each of Imam Nawawi’s 42 hadith. In doing so, I will juxtapose the way I used to think and behave, with the way I am currently. I will refer both to experience, scholarship and, where appropriate, put these interpretations into a (post)modern context. As we will see in the first hadith, ‘every act in Islam is by intention.’ I set my own intentions as projecting a guidance for me, an effort to make amends, and an attempt to steer others away from a path I chose that has made my life incredibly difficult, a path that took me away from my family, ultimately destroyed me spiritually, and that will go on to affect my well-being for the rest of my existence. It may affect my afterlife as well. The Prophet (saws) stated that the khawarij (extremists) eventually exit the religion like the arrow exits game.” The arrow flies through an animal at an incredibly high speed, it penetrates it deeply, until it kills or wounds the target, and then pulling it back out is tough as the arrow must come out in reverse.

It is a perfect analogy. I flew into Islam, I ran and did not walk. I went deep, too deep, and I massacred the target, I did more harm than good when one considers the objective. Finally, I nearly lost the religion and the path was tough on the way out. Only Allah knows what will become of our efforts, but to be accepted they should conform to the Quran and Sunnah of our beloved Messenger of Allah (saws), and I pray that in so doing they help me draw closer to Allah. I pray in particular that He (swt) make them reach those radicalizing and trekking down similar stairways and that He (swt) allow it to serve as a means of prevention.