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. ↩