Mistake #3: “All rulings change according to circumstances and context.”
Another mistake people make when considering the rules of Shari’ah (Islamic law) is assuming that they are always subject to change, especially if they seem illogical or inappropriate for one’s personal circumstances or in modern-day settings. While some rulings are contextual and can change with time and place, others are firmly fixed, and remain constant even in varying circumstances. This unique structure of the Shari’ah – in which certain core principles and rulings are unchanging, and others have room for flexibility – is what has allowed Islam to be a viable, vibrant tradition, applied and practiced by people across the spectrum of time, culture, and society. This is also where the pivotal role of scholars can be seen, in terms of navigating the texts and helping people see where lines must be drawn in new and changing circumstances and environments.
While we find this beautiful balance evident in the Shari’ah, we often find laypeople moving to one extreme or the other, in seeking to make the religion overly restricted and rigid, or excessively indulgent in a manner that forsakes the texts and Islam’s foundational principles. In this article, we will focus on addressing the idea that “all rulings of Shari’ah are relative.” (The contentions of the first party, who say the opposite, will be addressed in our next article in this series, insha’Allah.)
There are two major misconceptions related to this idea that need to be clarified. The first is the contention that Islam is a logical religion; therefore, any ruling whose logic cannot be understood or perceived by us in a given circumstance can be altered or annulled. An example of this line of thinking can be found in some people’s belief about the hijab.1 Some people would argue that, from a logical standpoint, it would seem that hijab was ordained as a means of deflecting attention. However, in today’s world, especially in the West, we find that hijab actually draws the eye and attracts people’s attention most of the time. Consequently, they would argue, hijab should no longer be an obligation. Since the wisdom or logical motive that we have assigned to the ruling has changed, they would assert that the ruling itself should also change.
It is true that Islam is a logical religion, which calls on us to use our minds and to worship our Lord with intelligence and knowledge. The rules of Shari’ah we are asked to follow are not arbitrary, but form a comprehensive body of law that functions to bring benefit to human beings, as individuals and societies. There is an underlying rationale for everything Allah decrees, prescribes for us and prohibits us from doing. In fact, the vast majority of scholars agree that every single rule of Shari’ah either works to bring about some benefit or ward away harm.2 However, it is important to note that we may not always be cognizant of the wisdom, or hikmah, behind a given ruling. It may be that the hikmah has not been made clearly evident to us through the texts, that is beyond our comprehension or perception, or that it is something we fail to recognize in a given instance or case.
Since one’s perception of a ruling’s logic or wisdom in a given situation is, by its nature, something subjective, speculative, and in many ways limited, using it as the criterion by which rulings are accepted or rejected is clearly problematic. We must concede that we consider things from the lens of our own experiences, background, and social and cultural realities, and therefore may, in some cases, overlook the wisdom of a certain ruling, or be limited in our ability to see its far-reaching effects and consequences. This is what Allah Most High alludes to in the verse in the Qur’an that says, “It may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and that you like a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know.” (Quran, 2:216)
We also find, particularly in matters of worship, that the wisdom behind a ruling may be subtle or somewhat difficult to discern. Why do we pray four raka’at (units of prayer) for Isha and only two for Fajr? Why does sighting the moon of Ramadan compel us to fast? Why does rubbing our hands and faces with dust suffice to make us ritually pure in certain cases (in the act of tayammum3) and not other materials? In such matters there is a certain deference that is required of the believer, in realizing that there are things beyond one’s realm of understanding. This is what Imam al-Ghazali refers to when he says,
“We believe that there is a hidden wisdom which underlies the fact that the number of rak’ahs for the dawn prayer has been set at two, for the sundown prayer three, and for the late afternoon prayer four. That is to say, these set numbers of raka’ahs embody a form of kindness and blessing for human beings which is known to God alone. Hence, we do not seek to understand it, rather, we content ourselves with drinking from the wellsprings He has provided.”4
Even Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, who went to great lengths in his works to identify the wisdoms behind various rulings, stated that, “There are mysteries pertaining to the rulings on the acts of worship which are known to the Lawgiver alone, and which, although they may be grasped in a general sense, cannot be comprehended in detail.”5
From this we can understand that simply because a ruling does not seem logical to us, or does not seem to fulfill the wisdom for which it was established in a given scenario, does not mean that it can automatically be cancelled or changed. Taking the example that was mentioned earlier, we see that the obligation of hijab does not center around one’s perception of its wisdoms being fulfilled in a given case or not. In actuality, its obligatory nature is based on the more objective matter of its clear legislation in the Quran, for Muslim women who have reached the age of legal accountability. When the prerequisites are fulfilled, the obligation comes into effect, independent of whether one feels the wisdom behind it is realized in one’s present circumstances or not. While contextual factors may come into play in the realm of iftaa (personalized rulings that take into account specific circumstances in a person’s life), they do not alter matters that are well established by clear texts (al ma`lumu min ad-deeni bid-darura). Those rulings that can legitimately be changed by context must be assessed in an objective and impartial way by the scholars, who can make determinations with due respect to the intricacy involved in such an endeavor. We as individuals, on the other hand, cannot presume to conjecture in this way based on our personal opinions and feelings, especially in the face of clear textual evidences.
The second misconception people often have in relation to this issue is assuming that they are somehow personally exempt from clear prohibitions or commands. A person may concede that there is wisdom or benefit in certain guidelines of Shari’ah, but somehow find ways to excuse him or herself from actually applying them in one’s life. One may, for example, recognize the wisdom in the prohibition of an unrelated man and woman sitting together in a private and intimate setting, but when considering one’s own personal circumstances, may find many objections to complying with these rules. “It’s just my brother-in-law,” one may say, or “It’s too extreme to implement in my office.” Similarly, we may hear people say, “I can be modest without wearing hijab,” or, “I remember God throughout the day, I don’t really see the need for ritualized worship.” In a sense, one is stating that the rulings of Shari’ah are so inappropriate or unsuitable for one’s life that one cannot actually apply them. From another perspective, one is asserting by these statements that they are somehow above the rules needed to keep the common people in line. In either case, such statements can often be traced back to a lack of proper understanding about these matters from the Islamic perspective, and at times, may also be symptomatic of an underlying spiritual issue with arrogance. We must remember the verse in the Qur’an in which Allah calls on us to “enter into Islam wholeheartedly” (2:208). Faith is not a mere expression of the tongue, feeling in the heart, or conceptualization in the mind, but a reality that should manifest itself in our lives and by our limbs. The rulings of Shari’ah were sent as a means for us to purify and better ourselves, and not merely to be dissected, intellectualized, or hypothesized over. The most noble and spiritual of people, our beloved Prophet Muhammad, ﷺ (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him), was subject to the Shari’ah and sought to implement it to its letter in his own life, though one could argue that his spiritual rank or intellectual station could have excused him from this.
The great scholar Ibn Qudama al Maqdisi describes people who fall into the mistake of feeling personally exempt from Shari’ah in the following way:
“(Such people) roll up and put away the carpet of the Sacred Law, rejecting its rulings and considering the unlawful and lawful to be equal, saying, ‘Allah does not need my works, so why should I bother?’ One of them may say, ‘Outward devotions have no value, only hearts mean anything.’ … They claim to have surpassed the rank of the common people, beyond the need to school the lower self with physical devotions, and that gratifying bodily lusts does not divert them from the path of Allah Most High because of their firmness therein. They exalt themselves above the level of the prophets, upon whom be peace, who used to weep for years over a single mistake.”6
We all have weaknesses, and may be grappling with certain Islamic concepts or some elements of our religious practice. However, we should not let these struggles cause us to lose a sense of humbleness and submission before Allah Most High. In fact, Allah loves the humble, sinful servant of His more than an arrogant worshipper. It is far better to admit that one is personally struggling with a sin, than to try to reconstruct Shari’ah in an attempt to justify one’s behavior to oneself or others.
In conclusion, we must recognize that part of the beauty of the Shari’ah is the constancy of its values, principles, and rulings that provide a framework for how believers should live their lives. In an age in which most everything is considered morally relative, and ethics can be intellectualized into non-existence, these constants can be seen as an anchor that keep us from floating adrift in theory and abstractions, and from interpretations of religion that are more in line with personal desires and inclinations than with sacred truths.
“None of you will be a true believer,” The Prophet ﷺ taught, “until his inclinations and preferences [hawa] are in accordance to what I have brought.”7 May Allah Most High help us reach that station, and live our lives in loving obedience to His law. Ameen.
- The guidelines for modest dress prescribed in the Quran for Muslim women. ↩
- Sa’adatul Wusul ila ‘Ilm al-Usul, by Ustadh Nadheer Adas, p.41. Mahad at-Ta’heeli curriculum at Abu Nour Institute, Damascus, Syria. ↩
- Tayammum (تيمم) refers to a dry ablution using sand or dust, which may be performed in place of ablution with water if no clean water is readily available or if using it would be detrimental to one’s health. ↩
- Imam al-Shatibi’s Theory of the Higher Objectives and Intents of Islamic Law, by Ahmad al-Raysuni, pp. 180-181. IIIT Publications. ↩
- Ibid, p. 183. ↩
- Reliance of the Traveler, ‘Book of Delusions’, translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller, p. 789 (s4.3). Amana Publications. ↩
- This hadith can be found in Imam an-Nawawi’s Book of 40 Hadith and Sharh as-Sunnah by Baghawi. ↩