The Prophet’s Judgement on Worldly Matters: A Commentary on the Hadith on Pollination and Affairs of This World
The Hadith in Question
The incident you refer to is found in Sahih Muslim, Sunan Ibn Maja, Sahih Ibn Hibban, Musnad Ahmed and other sources.
The narration in Sahih Muslim is as follows:
After arriving in Medina, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) passed by some people who were fecundating some date palms, so he asked them what they were doing. When they told him, he said, “I don’t think that will provide any benefit,” or in another narration, “It would be better if you didn’t do that.”
So they refrained from doing it, and that year the crop was not as good. They mentioned it to him (peace and blessings be upon him), and he replied:
“I am only a human: if I command you to do something in your religion, then take it; but if I tell you to do something based on personal opinion, then [realize] that I am only human,” and in another narration, “Yet if I inform you of something from Allah, then do it, for indeed I will never convey an untruth on behalf of Allah Mighty and Majestic,” and in yet another narration, “You know better of your worldly affairs.”
Worldly Affairs versus the Sacred Law
Imam Nawawi comments: “Scholars mention that his opinion (peace and blessings be upon him) in worldly/livelihood affairs is like the opinion of others, so the like of this [incident] is not impossible, and there is no deficiency entailed in this. The reason is the fact that their [the Companions’] central concern was the afterlife and its affairs.” [Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim]
Mufti Taqi Usmani mentions that the Prophet’s statement, “I don’t think that will provide any benefit,” was only based on his personal opinion and estimation, as before that, he had never himself engaged in farming and agriculture (peace and blessings be upon him). Mufti Taqi also mentions that matters such as this incident can only occur with respect to worldly affairs that are permissible (mubah), yet not with anything entailing a legal ruling of the Sacred Law, like commands, prohibitions, adjudication or legal verdicts. [Usmani, Takmila Fath al-Mulhim]
Shah Wali Allah al-Dehlawi explains that narrations from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) are of two types:
(1) That which pertains to conveying the message (risala), regarding which the Qur’an explicitly states, “That which the Messenger brings forth, take it; and that which he forbids, refrain from it” (59:7).
It includes knowledge of Judgement Day and the wonders of the unseen realm, all of which is based upon revelation (wahy).
It also includes legal rulings of the Sacred Law; some of this is based upon revelation, and some is based upon his ijtihad. Yet his ijtihad (peace and blessings be upon him) is akin to revelation, since Allah Most High protected him from his opinion affirming an error.
(2) That which does not pertain to conveying the message, which includes his statement in the incident of fecundating date palms, “I am only a human: if I command you to do something in your religion, then take it; but if I tell you to do something based on personal opinion, then [realize] that I am only human.”
…This category is based upon personal experience and trial-and-error (tajriba). It also includes things he did based on custom rather than worship, or what he did coincidentally rather than intentionally. It also includes things he mentioned similar to what his people would mention, such as the hadith of Umm Zur`. [Dehlawi, Hujjat Allah al-Baligha]
This dichotomy is summarized well by the chapter title under which Imam Muslim placed the narrations of fecundating date-palms, namely, “The Chapter of the Obligation to Obey His Sayings Related to the Sacred Law, as opposed to Worldly Matters Expressed by Way of Personal Opinion.”
His Humanity and Ultimate Concern
Imam Munawi also states that the prophetic statement, “I am only a human” is confirmed in the Qur’an and indicates that he (peace and blessings be upon him) is like other people in his humanness, yet surpasses all others and is distinguished from them by his being the chosen one of the Divine, selected to convey the Sacred Law and matters of the religion.
Moreover, the hadith indicates that his focus was not on worldly matters, but that instead his entire concern was solely directed to matters of ultimate and absolute significance: the afterlife and his Creator, Mighty and Majestic.
For indeed, prophets and messengers were sent only to save humankind and jinnkind from eternal misery, and to ensure their success through everlasting felicity.
While they are the most intelligent of humans, their role is only to convey revelation and call people to Allah Most High. Their pure hearts are not concerned with worldly matters, and so all that they legislate is based on revelation alone, while thoughts have no authority over them.
As the poet once said:
Verily messengers are the tongue of the Abidingly Real to humanity,
by commands, prohibitions, and informing them of the unseen;
They are the truly intelligent, yet they do not expend
their surpassing intellects for that which is deceptive [i.e., this world];
Haven’t you seen them regarding the fecundation of date palms
and what was entailed therein, on the harm that came;
Yet they are safe from thoughts when they legislate
a legal ruling of halal or haram, for human beings.
[Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir Sharh Jami al-Saghir]
May Allah Most High shower our blessed and beloved Messenger with abundant salutations, peace, safety, blessings and mercy; for as long as the people of remembrance make remembrance of Allah, and for as long as the people of heedlessness are heedless of Him. Amin.
And Allah knows best.
Answered By: Shaykh Faraz Rabbani