A Review of the Prophetic Usage of Tasbih
This post is a summary of Sh Khalid As-Sabt's explanation of how the phrase "Subhan Allah" was used Prophetically.
Tasbih and Takbir - Prophetic Usage
I wrote a summary of Sh. Khalid As-Sabt's explanation of the relevant chapter of Hisn Al Muslim (https://sunnah.com/hisn#C122.00): What is said at times of Astonishment and at times of Delight.
This chapter has only two phrases in it: Subhan Allah and Allahu Akbar.
Usually, the Prophet would do Tasbih (Subhan Allah) when he encountered something that was astonishing or surprising (ta'ajjub) - specifically something that was displeasing to him (ﷺ). When something pleased him, he would proclaim Takbir (Allahu Akbar). This was the norm in the majority of narrations, however there are also exceptions.
Sh. Khalid As-Sabt (May Allah preserve him) discussed the following examples of the Prophetic use of Subhan Allah to illustrate that generally, the phrase was exclaimed in reply to something astonishing/displeasing. Of course, this is separate from the times it is said in prayer and adhkar (remembrance), as all of the phrases of dhikr can be said at any time when doing so to remember and exalt the mention of Allah. The discussion here is regarding the best remembrance of Allah in response to something that happens:
Abu Waqid Al-Laithi narrated that when the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) went out to Hunain he passed a tree that the idolaters called Dhat Anwat upon which they hung their weapons. They (the Companions) said:
"O Messenger of Allah! Make a Dhat Anwat for us as they have a Dhat Anwat.' The Prophet (s.a.w) said: "Subhan Allah! This is like what Musa's people said: Make for us a god like their gods. By the One in Whose is my soul! You shall follow the way of those who were before you." (https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi:2180)
Note that the Prophet (ﷺ) was displeased with the thought of imitating the polytheists by copying the Dhat Anwat, a tree that the polytheists used to hang their weapons on in order to obtain special blessings from their gods. The companions were new to Islam at the time. However, In one narration he did say "Allahu Akbar", which demonstrates a use case outside the norm.
Umm Salamah narrated:
"One night the Prophet (ﷺ) awoke and said, 'Subhan Allah! How many Fitan (trials and afflictions) have descended tonight. And how many treasures have been disclosed? Who will awaken the women sleeping in these dwellings? O! How many are clothed in this world, yet naked in the Hereafter.'" (https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi:2196)
Saying Subhan Allah here was based on the astonishment/startling nature what the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) described and his concern for his family to get up and pray to protect themselves in the hereafter.
The Prophet (ﷺ) came across me in one of the streets of Medina and at that time I was Junub (ritually impure). So I slipped away from him and went to take a bath. On my return the Prophet (ﷺ) said, "O Abu Hurairah! Where have you been?" I replied, "I was Junub, so I disliked to sit in your company." The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Subhan Allah! A believer never becomes impure." (Buhkari and Muslim)
The Prophet was saying Subhan Allah as a negation of Abu Hurairah's understanding that he could not be around the Prophet (ﷺ) due to being in a state of ritual impurity.
A woman asked the Prophet (ﷺ) about the bath which is taken after finishing from the menses. The Prophet (ﷺ) told her what to do and said, "Purify yourself with a piece of cloth scented with musk." The woman asked, "How shall I purify myself with it" He said, "Subhan Allah! Purify yourself (with it)." I pulled her to myself and said, "Rub the place soiled with blood with it." (https://sunnah.com/bukhari:283)
The Prophet was shy to go into details as the general explanation was sufficient, and exclaimed Subhan Allah in this situation. 'Aisha understood and took the woman aside to go into more detail.
Narrated Abu Hurairah:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "The saying 'Subhan Allah' is for men and clapping is for women." (If something happens in the prayer, the men can invite the attention of the Imam by saying "Subhan Allah". And women, by clapping their hands).
This is another example of Tasbih (declaring Allah's perfection) in response to something that falls short of expectations, in this case a mistake in Salah.
So the norm is Tasbeeh, however in some instances Allahu Akbar or even La ilaha illa Allah was used in these cases, as mentioned by Imam An-Nawawi.
People tend to enjoy living in elevated places and to have a view of what is below. Even in language we say that someone "ascends the corporate ladder" or has "reached new heights". In all of these sorts of cases, Takbir is the default. Consider that this was literally a Prophetic practice:
Ibn 'Umar (May Allah be pleased with them) reported:
Whenever the Prophet (ﷺ) and his army ascended a height, they would proclaim: "Allahu Akbar (Allah is Greatest)," and when they climbed down, they would proclaim: "Subhan Allah (Allah is free from imperfection)." (Abu Dawood)
Examples of Prophetic Use of Allahu Akbar for expressing pleasure and joy:
1) From the companions:
Narrated Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "On the day of Resurrection Allah will say, 'O Adam!' Adam will reply, 'Labbaik our Lord, and Sa`daik ' Then there will be a loud call (saying), Allah orders you to take from among your offspring a mission for the (Hell) Fire.' Adam will say, 'O Lord! Who are the mission for the (Hell) Fire?' Allah will say, 'Out of each thousand, take out 999.' At that time every pregnant female shall drop her load (have a miscarriage) and a child will have grey hair. And you shall see mankind as in a drunken state, yet not drunk, but severe will be the torment of Allah." (22.2) (When the Prophet (ﷺ) mentioned this), the people were so distressed (and afraid) that their faces got changed (in color) whereupon the Prophet (ﷺ) said, "From Gog and Magog nine-hundred ninety-nine will be taken out and one from you. You Muslims (compared to the large number of other people) will be like a black hair on the side of a white ox, or a white hair on the side of a black ox, and I hope that you will be one-fourth of the people of Paradise." On that, we said, "Allahu-Akbar!" Then he said, "I hope that you will be) one-third of the people of Paradise." We again said, "Allahu-Akbar!" Then he said, "(I hope that you will be) one-half of the people of Paradise." So we said, Allahu Akbar." (Bukhari)
Also consider the days of Eid are defined primarily by Takbir. Insha Allah the more we reflect on the Prophetic usage of these phrases the more clarity we will have. Allah knows best!