Out of all the Islamic subjects I’ve had the opportunity to explore in my time studying abroad, one of my favorites has been Usul al-Fiqh - the study of the methodology scholars employ to derive and extract rulings from Divine sources. Instead of looking at the details of specific rulings, Usul al-Fiqh “zooms out” to study the entire process, and to note the underlying principles used by scholars to make judgments about religious issues.
I’ve often found that at times, people misinterpret, misunderstand, and draw incorrect conclusions about Islamic law and Islamic legal rulings, due to their lack of refined understanding about these important principles and concepts. For this reason, I’d like to discuss six common mistakes people make related to the science of Usul al-Fiqh, and why understanding them correctly is important.
Mistake #6: “If I do something that is considered valid Islamically, it means that Allah accepts and loves that action.”
An act that is legally valid in Islam means that it fulfills all the external and internal requisites outlined by Shari`ah for it to have a legal ‘existence’. It is therefore effectual, binding and has legal consequences. This legal validity, however, does not guarantee that Allah will reward an individual for commission of that action, that He will accept it from them, or that He is pleased with them for performing it. Attaining Allah’s acceptance and pleasure is based on many more factors, including the person’s intention, his or her internal state when performing the action, and what means the individual used to accomplish it.
For example, a person may perform a prayer that is legally valid – fulfilling all of its prerequisites and external and internal components – yet, their intention while performing it is one of ostentation, their prayer is done in a completely absent-minded state, and they pray on land that had been illegally usurped and in clothes acquired in an impermissible way. While such a prayer may be technically valid, 1 we cannot say that it is something Allah will accept and love. In truth, it may be that such an individual has actually accrued sin, and further distanced themself from Allah, all while performing a technically valid action.
Another example would be a man who marries a second wife in a manner that includes deception, dishonesty, and that greatly grieves the first wife and breaks the ties of love and loyalty between them. While he may staunchly defend his second marriage as one that is valid in Islamic law, its validity does not negate the improper conduct by which it was accomplished and the consequences of it, for which he will be held accountable. The marital contract may have been in line with the letter of the law, but the real meaning and spirit of the law – the objectives and goals of marriage as a place of mutuality, love, tranquility, and support for one another, as described in the Quran and in the manner of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ – has been left by the wayside.
Making sure our actions are correct and valid from a legal perspective is certainly very important, and is the first critical and essential step towards drawing close to Allah and attaining His pleasure. However, one must not stop there. We should also make sure that the act is done with sincerity and in a principled and ethical manner, which we learn from studying the Qur’an and the Sunnah in a holistic and thematic way.
We often find fatwas2 couched in the language of ‘validity’ and ‘invalidity’, and not necessarily delving into the morality of the act in question. This is because the fuqaha3 have historically been very focused on the legal ramifications and the worldly consequences of their rulings, which they were responsible for establishing and enacting. For example, does this act deserve the hadd4 punishment? Was this marriage conducted correctly, so that it has legal existence and the children from it rightfully inherit? Etc. This was and is the focus of the fuqaha, more so than on heavenly consequences, which is beyond their responsibility, and has to do with whether an action is moral, ethical, and pleasing to Allah.
As individual Muslims, who are striving to be believers, enter Paradise, and to make all of our actions from among those that Allah loves and accepts, we must think beyond the language of the legal jurists and remember the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the law, along with its letter. We should hold ourselves to a high and principled standard, in line with the Prophetic example, instead of seeking out loopholes in the law to excuse or justify immoral behavior by saying, “Well, my action is still valid!” Along with that, we must be cautious of falling into the mistake of overconfidence in our deeds, believing that Allah will automatically accept them because of the correctness of their outward form. It is only when that outward form is linked with the proper inner state that it moves from the realm of legal consequence to the meadows of Divine reception.
May Allah the Most High make us people who perform our deeds with sincerity, uprightness, and in line with the letter and the spirit of Divine teachings. Ameen.
*Read about the next five mistakes in the rest of this series, to be published soon, insha’Allah.
- Such a prayer would be considered technically valid by the Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanafi schools. ↩
- A fatwa is a religious ruling or verdict given by a qualified scholar. ↩
- Plural of faqih. A faqih is a scholar who specializes in legal matters related to everyday practice of religion, and the details of acts of worship, family issues, marriage and business contracts, etc. This is in contrast to other scholars who may specialize in theology, exegesis of the Quran, authentication of Prophetic narrations, and so on. ↩
- A category of crimes that has specified punishments outlined in the Quran. ↩