Made by Students, Regular Muslim Folks & Many in Between: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
Mistake #5: “Lack of knowledge is always a valid excuse.”
Just as Allah the Exalted is generous, tolerant, and compassionate, we find His Law marked by the qualities of generosity, tolerance and compassion. An example of this can be seen in the exemption to legal accountability given in Shari`ah (Islamic law) for one who forgets, lacks competence, or, as is relevant to our discussion, one who is ignorant about a matter in certain instances.1
We find many examples of this in the time of the Prophet ﷺ. He ﷺ excused the ‘man who prayed badly’ for not knowing how to pray with proper composure, and Muawiyah ibn al-Hakam for speaking deliberately during prayer because he did not know that it was prohibited. He excused the people of Qubaa’ for praying in the direction of Jerusalem because they were unaware of its abrogation, and excused a companion for not praying when no water was available because he was unaware of the legislation of tayammum.2 Another man came to the Prophet ﷺ with a gift of wine, to which the Prophet ﷺ responded, “Did you know that Allah has prohibited wine?” When the man said no, he ﷺ did not rebuke or punish him.3 This principle is also underscored by the verse in the Qur’an in which Allah says, “…And never would We punish until We sent a messenger.” (17:15)
Some people take these texts to mean that there is a blanket exemption from accountability for anyone who happens to be unaware of Islamic rulings on a matter. In believing this, we may fall into the trap of being ‘willfully ignorant,’ and step back from learning more about Islamic issues in an attempt to escape from responsibility. We may feel that in learning more, we are somehow making ourselves more accountable, and that by knowing less, we can carry on just as we were before, unhindered by duties that we believe are hinged on knowledge. Consciously or unconsciously, from Shaytan or our own selves, we may seek to use this as a loophole in Shari`ah to excuse or justify our behavior. It is for this reason that it is important to clarify who is actually excused for not knowing their legal obligations, and for whom this excuse is not acceptable.
If someone is uninformed about a matter due to legitimate reasons, such as being new to Islam, or honestly being unable to access the information needed to understand it properly, then they are considered excused, and their mistake is overlooked. However, if someone has the opportunity to learn about a matter and chooses not to, then their ‘willful ignorance’ is not considered an acceptable excuse, and they are therefore accountable for their actions. This includes engaging in haram (forbidden) behavior out of ignorance, as well as performing acts of worship incorrectly or improperly. From the perspective of Shari`ah, if a person has the capacity and opportunity to learn the law, he or she is presumed to know their legal obligations, and is judged the same as the one who actually learned them.4
As is well established from the famous hadith,5 seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim. This refers to knowledge about Allah Most High and the foundational principles of faith, rulings related to one’s personal worship – such as ritual purification, prayer, and fasting – as well as those related to mundane matters, such as food, clothing, and one’s behavior with others. When one chooses to engage in an action, it is also a requirement to learn the Islamic rulings related to it – for example, learning the rulings on marriage and family for one intending to marry; the rules for buying and selling, business contracts and so forth, for one seeking to start a business; and the rulings of zakah for one who earns or acquires money. Knowledge about these issues and others which are a regular part of a person’s life are considered fard `ayn, or a personal and individual obligation – meaning every Muslim, male or female, layperson or scholar, must take it upon themselves to know them.
If one is able to learn about these matters and chooses not to, or if one has people of whom to ask, but prefers to keep one’s own counsel, or if the doors to knowledge are opened, and yet one turns away – such a person is responsible for their deeds, and ignorance is in no way an acceptable excuse.
On a related point, if a person commits an action knowing it is haram but without knowing its legal consequences, the consequences of their action still come into effect.6 For example, if a married couple engages in intimacy in the daylight hours of Ramadan, knowing that it is haram but without knowing that it would break the fast, their fasts are still invalidated, and must be made up accordingly. Also, if one commits an action that violates the rights of other people, whether done knowingly or unknowingly, one is responsible for restoring their rights. So if a person steals from someone’s property, they are responsible for returning that wealth, whether they were aware of the prohibition of stealing at the time of the theft or not. These points further emphasize the idea that a claim of ignorance does not automatically absolve one from one’s actions, and has specified rules and conditions.
An Arabic expression states, “An ignorant person does to himself and others what an enemy would do to his enemy.”
May Allah protect us from the harms of our own ignorance, and take us from its darkness into the light of understanding and knowledge. May He make us people who worship Him with knowledge, in the best of ways, and may He grant us tafaqquh (deep understanding and comprehension) of His religion. Ameen.
*Read about the next four mistakes in the rest of this series, to be published soon, insha’Allah.
- For example, see Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence by Mohammad Hashim Kamali, p .450, or the section on Ahliyyah in most books of Usul. ↩
- From I’laam al-Muwaqi’een by Sh. Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, as quoted in an article by Sh. Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid. ↩
- Sahih Muslim. ↩
- Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence by Mohammad Hashim Kamali, p .446. ↩
- Related by Ibn Majah, graded hassan by al-Hafidh al-Mizzi. ↩
- Al-Ashbah wa al-Nadha’ir fi Qawa’id wa Furu’ ash-Shafi’iyya by Imam Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti, Vol. 1, p. 413, Darusalaam Publishers. ↩
Assalamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullah…JazakAllahhu Khayran sister Shazia. I fear my question might tread a fine line but for the sake of understanding only, could you please briefly touch upon this:
Could an athiest or non-Muslim, who has not heard of Islam OR Islam did not appeal to him when it was presented to him, be excused by Allah (SWT) for all his actions since he may not have had knowledge about what the Truth is?
Eagerly awaiting the remaining part of the series…
JazakAllahu Khayran..Assalamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullah..
wa alaykum as salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh Br. Ali,
Jazak Allahu khayran for your excellent questions. The issue of the accountability of a person who has not had the opportunity to hear the message of Islam – such as someone who lives in a remote and isolated place, or who, for some reason, only has access to learning a distorted version of what the faith teaches – is a matter on which there is a well established difference of opinion among scholars historically. This is because some scholars contend that Allah ‘does not punish until He sends a messenger’ (as the verse in the Quran states), and likewise He would not hold to account people who have not had proper access to the message of Islam. On the other hand, other scholars hold that the human intellect/soul, while unable to know the details of religious practice independent of revelation, does have the capacity and innate fitrah to realize tawheed, the existence and oneness of God, and supports this position by the hadith which states that all souls testified to the reality of God in a state before their creation as human beings. So they would argue that it is something that is innate to the human being and therefore, something they will be held accountable for.
In the end, we have confidence that Allah Most High is Just and Fair to all of His creatures, that He will not mistreat them in any way, and will judge them in a way that reflects His justice, kindness, compassion. Allahu a’lam.
Dear brother Suhaib,
First of all let me congratulate you , your staff and the entire Muslim ummah for having this splendid work. “Mubarak” insha’Allah.
Me and khaled really really miss your knowledge and advice. Wish you all the best brother. Go ahead, May Allah grant you success.
Many congratulations for the new site and the awesome articles may Allah reward you abundantly for your efforts…
[…] Just as Allah the Exalted is generous, tolerant, and compassionate, we find His Law marked by the qualities of generosity, tolerance and compassion. An example of this can be seen in the exemption to legal accountability given in Shari`ah (Islamic law) for one who forgets, lacks competence, or, as is relevant to our discussion, one who is ignorant about a matter in certain instances.1 […]
Salaam alaykum shaykha shazia,
Jzk for this enlightening series, I greatly appreciate it. I have a few questions, based on personal experience more than anything else, and hope you could clear up a few ideas I have in mind as it relates to this post.
Taking myself as an example, my identity throughout life has always been one of being a Muslim, and I had seen members of my family praying, but I was completely unaware that praying was an obligation. While it’s true that I had the capability and resources to search out the answers, had I wanted to, I was not aware of its importance and priority until age 14, and that being more by chance than someone’s conscious effort to teach me.
I was absolutely an unconscious incompetent – I didn’t know what I didn’t know. However, once I did find out, I immediately set out to learn with the resources I had. This poses two problems for me as I read this article:
1. At what point can we REALLY say someone doesn’t know, or understand the duties of the religion, even for matters that everyone, in theory, should know?
2. Even if we properly understand the boundaries of this theoretical framework, what is the practical application of this knowledge? Meaning, if I see someone not practicing, or not practicing correctly, or not practicing correctly according to my understanding, how should I deal with this person in terms of advising them, and how should I deal with this person in terms of my internal perception with them, particularly if they reject my advice?
jzk again for your time and writing.
Sorry, 3rd question comes to mind:
3. At what point can i say, I’ve made my best effort to learn something, and I am now no longer accountable? For example, in fiqh there are many differences of opinion, in ‘aqeedah there are many differences of opinion that are well beyond the scope and understanding of most people, so at what point does the individual say, I tried my best, I’m no longer accountable for my actions? Although this question can cover many issues, there are also issues where one school says something is haraam or deviant, while another school takes the opposite and says something is halaal or traditional or orthodox.
wa alaykum as salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh Br. Siraj,
Jazak Allahu khayran for the thought provoking questions!
In response to your first question, I think making this type of assessment is challenging due to the number of factors that would have to be looked into, including the availability and accessibility of the knowledge to the person at that point in their life, and if they were quite young at the time whether they would actually fall under the category of a mukallaf or not (having reached physical/intellectual maturity at which point a person becomes responsible for religious obligations). It seems like you are asking for dawabit (precise formulas/determinants), whereas I think that would be something difficult to generally outline, since each person’s circumstance is different and would have to be understood and studied carefully. For proper clarification about a specific case one would have to inquire about it to a knowledgeable, qualified person who can answer appropriately once they know all of the circumstances and details of the situation.
Speaking in more general terms, for ourselves, my advice would be to err on the side of caution, and if there was a time in our life when we were not practicing when we feel we should have and could have been, we should assume responsibility and seek to amend for that time, first by turning back to Allah and seeking His forgiveness, and then by making up things that may be required such as prayers and fasts (in the manner instructed by one’s madhhab/trustworthy scholarly opinion, as there is some difference of opinion about the method in which this is to be done).
As for other people (as you asked about in your second q.) we should assume the opposite – that it is most likely a result of their personal circumstances that they may not have been properly informed about the wrong action they are committing, and may then be excused until they are informed, advised, etc. This should always be our attitude towards others – hussn al-dhann – having the best opinion of others, instead of assuming/suspecting negative. So our general attitude should be one of compassion towards others we are trying to educate and advise. Wisdom, deliberation and care were the hallmarks of the da’wah of Rasulullah (salAllahu alayhi wa salam), and should be in ours too. One should also be well aware of the general principles of correcting others, which includes approaching matters with an eye towards the probable consequences of the manner of approach; prioritizing things in terms of what is more serious or more harmful to the person’s iman over other matters which may also be sinful but less serious; and the idea that we do not condemn others for following a different opinion on matters in which there are legitimate scholarly differences.
As to your third question, the average Muslim, who is not a student of the Islamic sciences, is not expected to study or analyze the details of the differences of opinion you have mentioned. They are required to know the matters mentioned in the article which are fard ‘ayn – basically the information necessary to make sure one’s prayer, fast, and other acts of ‘ibadah are valid and acceptable, and other matters related to one’s daily life and faith. It is permissible for the layperson to follow the fatwa of any qualified scholar – so if one is following that, then one need not worry about other opinions that exist that may differ with it or seem contradictory. This is an important topic that needs to be discussed in more detail, but I hope that you get the main idea.
I hope that this has answered your questions, at least on some level.
May Allah accept from you and all of us,
Allah knows best,
PS (Apologies for the typo in your name Br. Siraaj)
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