According to Motivational Interviewing – a short term counselling technique used in the treatment of addictive behaviours – the two most powerful yet basic causes for motivation to the human psyche are reward and punishment. Of course there are many complex theories of motivation which essentially further break these two basic motivators into various categories and orders, but they can be broadly summed in those two encompassing categories.
In general, all behaviours (studying, working, sleeping, and fighting) can be summed in: wanting to minimize, escape, or avoid that which harms (i.e. punishment) and wanting to maximize that which benefits us (i.e. reward).
To motivate individuals who seek help for addictions, this fact is used in a technique requiring the client to list all the benefits and harms of his addictive behaviour. Usually the harms list would be longer and therefore trigger the inherent motivation to avoid harm, pain, and loss. This is supposed to expose the ‘cognitive dissonance’ that occurs in one’s mind in which one’s understanding of the consequences of drug use or any long term harmful behaviour is in contradiction to one’s actual current behaviour. In other words you know it’s bad for you but you continue to do it.
At this point the client will usually either acknowledge and start exploring ways of changing his behavioural patterns or, on the contrary, will try to look for other factors with which to justify his ‘inability’ to change. The third option will be to try and ignore the facts and not to ‘believe’ in the severity or immediacy of the harms listed. In all three situations the client is trying to minimize the dissonance (i.e. the contradiction of belief and behaviour) because that is how the human was created; namely, actions must make some rational sense however crazy it may seem to others.
What does that have to do with Islamic shar`iah? Most scholars agree that Islamic shar`iah (the Islamic legal system based on the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet) is based on a rationale which we can understand; there is a wisdom (hikmah) and reason (illa) behind most legal rulings (ahkam). They also agree that every single ruling of shar`iah either brings some kind of benefit (maslaha) or wards off some kind of harm (mafsada). This is beautifully illustrated by the saying of Ibn Abbas, who advised Muslims to listen intently whenever they hear Allah calling “O You who believe,” as He is either directing them to a benefit or warning them of a harm. (Madkhal ila Maqasid al-Shar`iah, Dr. A. Raysuni).
To many this may come as a surprise – it is, of course, in total contradiction to the popular belief that all religion is irrational, illogical, and unscientific, and inspires fanatical blind following stemming from ‘infantile’ psychological needs. Paradoxically, it is also very different to the religious education many young Muslims experience from their parents or teachers who simply tell them, military style, “This is halal (permissible) and this is haram (forbidden).” They are instructed to listen and obey without question. On the contrary Muslim scholars recognised the underlying rationale and logic and thus summed up the goal of Islamic shar`iah in one condensed sentence: ‘the attainment of benefit and prevention of harm.’ Some of them reduced it even further to simply ‘the attainment of benefit.’
Ibn al-Qayyim points to this fact: “The Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) are full of rationale for legal rulings including wisdom, benefits [masalih]…” he further affirms “these rationale are to be found in over a thousand places (in the texts) expressed through various means…” (quoted in Madkhal ila Maqasid al-Shar`iah, Dr. A. Raysuni).
Even a cursory glance at Qur’anic verses related to worship will clearly illustrate this concept. We perform Salah (prayer) so that we remember Allah and that prevents us from indecency and evil; paying zakat purifies the wealth, feeds the poor, and keeps wealth circulating between rich and poor; fasting purifies the mind body and soul and teaches self restraint and consciousness of Allah; remembrance of Allah brings sakina (stillness and tranquility) to the hearts.
But what exactly is meant by maslaha and mafsada? Imam al-Razi (ra) in al-Mahsul succinctly defined maslaha as nothing but pleasure or that which leads to it; and mafsada as pain or that which leads to it.
Imam `Izz ad-Deen b. Abd al-Salam in al-Qawaid al-Kubra further defines maslaha as
- Pleasure and their causes and
- Happiness and its causes.
He defines mafsada as
- Pain and its causes and
- Sadness and its causes.
Pleasure and pain allude to physical realities whilst happiness and sadness allude to emotional or psychological realities. He further divided each of the above categories into earthly and those related to the hereafter
An analysis of what Islam and living by shar`iah ultimately offers boils down to attainment of both temporary and eternal benefit and avoidance of temporary and eternal pain on both the psychological and physical levels in this world and the next.
Allah, most High, says regarding the benefit and pleasure in this life and the next.
“Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer – We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do.” (Qur’an, 16:97)
Allah, most High, says regarding the harm and pain in this life and the next:
“And whoever turns away from My remembrance – indeed, he will have a depressed life, and We will gather him on the Day of Resurrection blind.” (Qur’an, 20:124)
The Qur’an repeatedly reminds to do that which will benefit and that any rebellion against Allah only leads to harm. It is part of our inherent disposition to love that which benefits us and hate that which harms us.
Allah, most High, describes this disposition:
“Beautified for people is the love of that which they desire – of women and sons, heaped-up sums of gold and silver, fine branded horses, and cattle and tilled land. That is the enjoyment of worldly life, but Allah has with Him the best return [i.e. Paradise].” (Qur’an, 3:14)
“And indeed he is, in love of wealth, intense.” (Qur’an, 100:8)
But how can one explain the ‘pleasures’ that exists in many forbidden acts and the deceivingly desirable lives that many non-Muslims or corrupt Muslims lead? How can one explain the ‘hardships’ involved in many types of worship and in constantly refraining from forbidden acts?
To answer this there must be an understanding that Islam recognises that absolute benefit and pleasure, as well as absolute harm and pain, are rare in this life, but what Islam gives precedence to is either that which has more benefit than harm or that which is a means to ultimately bring about a greater benefit. According to Imam `Izz al-Deen, benefit (maslaha) is of two types; true (haqiqi) benefit and apparent (majazi) benefit. Harm is also of two types; true (haqiqi) harm and apparent (majazi) harm. The means to attain a true benefit may be through an apparent harm and the means to ward off harm maybe by foregoing an apparent benefit. For example any hardship experienced in fulfilling Islamic obligations such salah, fasting, Hajj or any other worship is only an apparent harm that actually leads to a true benefit. Conversely any pleasure forgone by abstaining from forbidden acts such consuming alcohol and drugs, unlawful earnings or engaging in illegal sexual relationships is only a loss of an apparent benefit that actually leads to a true harm.
Imam `Izz ad-Deen further comments on this: “The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) hadith [says] ‘Paradise is surrounded by difficulties, and the fire is surrounded by pleasures.’” The ‘difficulties’ here are harmful (mafaasid) in the sense that they incur hardship and pain. The ‘pleasures’ are beneficial (masaalih) in the sense that they are enjoyable and desired. Human beings by nature prefer that in which the benefit is greater than the harm and detest that in which the harm is greater than the benefit. Therefore when a person looks at the pleasure of committing sins and then looks at the consequences in terms of punishments in this world and the next, he instinctively turns away from it due to the preponderance of harm over the benefit – except the wretched ones…Likewise when a person sees the hardships and pain in things that are beneficial (masalih) initially he is put off, but when he recalls the (longer term) beneficial consequences in this life and the next he is able to bear the hardships and difficulties with patience.”
Indulging in haram in this life will ultimately bring harm and pain on the individual, family or societal level. This is crystal clear when observing the horrendous consequences of crime, murder, illegitimate relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and usury on individuals and societies today. Of course the harm and pain in the next life is greater. On the contrary, one will be hard-pressed to find a single shari`ah ruling that brings real harm to individuals, families or societies.
Allah has created human beings with a motivational nature that is psychologically and physically predisposed to the higher objectives of shari`ah and Islam; that is, to truly benefit and prevent true harm in this life and the next. Natural motivations fit hand in glove with what shari`ah calls to.
Furthermore this is the psychological motivational methodology that runs throughout the Qur’an which is termed at-targhib wa al-tarhib (enticing and warning) to affect the maximum psychological impact on the natural disposition (fitra) in order to motivate and elevate all conditions. Motivation is further strengthened by the promise of far greater reward for obedience than that of punishment for disobedience.
“Whoever comes [on the Day of Judgement] with a good deed will have ten times the like thereof [to his credit]
and whoever comes with an evil deed will not be recompensed except the like thereof;
and they will not be wronged.” (Qur’an, 6:160)
The Messenger (peace be upon him) is described as both a warner and bringer of glad tidings, again appealing to the human’s two most powerful natural motivations. Allahu Akbar! It is an immense blessing and truly humbling to be worshipping Allah based on commands and prohibitions that make sense, and which ultimately benefit and bring true pleasure and tranquillity to souls, bodies and minds in this world and the next.
Can there be a greater mercy and blessing than that? Seen from this perspective is there any reason left for the servant not to surrender completely? In da’wah this is a perspective that needs to be highlighted more and explained in the context of ‘instant pleasure’ filled societies. All praise belongs to the Lord of the worlds who has blessed humanity with a shar`iah that is conducive and motivating to all peoples regardless of time and place.