Islamic Studies

The Motivational Psychology of Shari`ah

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.

DSC_0640In 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

  1. Pleasure and their causes and
  2. Happiness and its causes.

He defines mafsada as

  1. Pain and its causes and
  2. 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.

In Conclusion

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.

About the author

Shafiur Rahman

Shafiur Rahman

Shafiur Rahman was raised in London, England. He earned a B.A. (Hons) degree in Accounting and Finance, a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration and a Masters degree (with distinction) in Addictive Behaviour. He has over 15 years of professional management and consultancy experience in the ‘not for profit’ sector. In 1999 he was appointed as the founding director of Nafas, a pioneering Muslim drug treatment and education centre based in London. In 2006, he was the lead author of ‘Voices from the Minarets,’ a groundbreaking research into the situation of Mosques and Imams throughout the UK. Apart from his work and studies, he has always had a keen interest in youth and community work which led to him and his peers setting up the Brick Lane Youth Development Association (BLYDA) in 1989. He has also served Islamic Forum Europe (IFE), a grassroots dawah organisation, in various senior capacities since 1995. His Arabic and Islamic studies began in 1994 with scholars in the UK. In 2006 he travelled to study shariah at Ma’had al-Fath al-Islami in Damascus. He later moved with his family to Cairo where he is currently studying for a shariah degree at al-Azhar University and pursuing private Arabic and Islamic studies. Shafiur Rahman is also a founding director of Angelwing Media and is currently working on translating several Arabic texts into English. Shafiur can be reached at


  • Assalaamualaykum Sheikh Shafi,

    JazakumAllahu Khair for this most enlightening perspective on Islamic Law. SubhanAllah, how Usool al Fiqh and Maqasid bring life to fiqh and give it a vision and light.

    It has become so common today for the sincere Muslim who is not firmly grounded in these complex fields to query Mufti Google for answers to various legal rulings. If we wanted to read and understood these overarching greater principles that would raise our literacy, what would you recommend (English and Arabic)

    We look forward to seeing you visit us in the US and giving us a few seminars on Usool al Fiqh.

  • Asalamu alaykum,

    Sh. Shaf’i:

    This was such an important article highlighting the need for community leaders to clasp hands and address issues form multiple platforms. I’ve realized that my religious training is not enough, but that I need other professionals in the community to deal with its problems.

    Echoing Osman’s thoughts, I really hope you come to the USA and offer a workshop; share your experiences as a drug councilor in the U.K. Such a program would be priceless.
    Can anyone say the Bay first?


  • Salam,
    Bay, but I am on the other end of the continent!
    That was very informative mashallah.
    Sh. Suhaib, I agree with you and I would actually highly recommend working with the people that give the Juma’ah khutbah and the one’s that are active in Halaqa’s at the masjids. These are the people that would reach the majority of the populace.
    I was turned off from Juma’ah because every khutbah I attended was about Haram, this is Haram, that is Haram and as a young man struggling to make sense of his new surroundings I got lost and the masjid was not friendly grounds.
    People that can make sense of their surrounding environemnt can show the way to those who struggle with it.
    My two cents.

  • Sh. Suhaib and Sh. Osman jazakallahu khair – tahta amrikum

    I think its important for people to have some fundamentals in fiqh and usul-al-fiqh to fully appreciate qawaaid fiqhhiya and maqasid asharia in a practical working fashion. I remember reading some of Imam Al-Shatibi’s Theory of the Higher Objectives in English a few years back prior to my shariah studies and I didn’t really fully grasp or appreciate the material.

    Further reading (English)

    1. Imam Al-Shatibi’s Theory of the Higher Objectives and Intents of Islamic Law. Ahmad Al-Raysuni

    2. Ibn Ashur: Treatise on Maqasid Al-Shariah. Muhammad Al-Tahir Ibn Ashour

    3. Maqasid Al-Shariah as Philosophy of Islamic Law: A Systems Approach. Dr Jasser Auda

    4. Towards Realization of the Higher Intents of Islamic Law: Maqasid Al-Shariah: A Functional Approach
    ~ Gamal Eldin Attia

    All available online at Amazon etc

    I’ll try to post something similar for books in Arabic soon inshallah.

  • Shayk Shafiur Rahman, Masha Allah, very good explanation of application of sharia (and maqasid al sharia) in real life context/circumstances dealing with real people/issues. Acutely relevant, thoughtful and engaging article. Muslim Ummah in the West/UK is long awaiting such an approach as opposed to the non-contextual, straitjacket Haram or Halal mentality.

    Monjur Ali
    From UK (East London)

  • A very interesting article, Masha Allah.

    Question: How do we weigh conflicting dunyawi and ukhrawi benefits and/or harms and when does what takes precedence? Specifically, I’m referring to issues that are religious obligations or prohibitions that may entail hardships and/or ‘harms’ in this life. Also, what’s your take on the trend to use legitimate Islamic sciences such as Maqasid ash Shari’ah to abrogate/nullify Quranic and Prophetic directives with apparent impunity?

  • Sorry to be a bit off topic but I had a question about Zakat. I was wondering till what time do I need to pay Zakat by? In other words, what is my deadline to pay zakaat on an amount accumulated from, say Muharram 1, 1427 to Muharram 1, 1428? I’ve searched various website but can’t find the answer to this specific question (the Imam of my mosque is hard to meet). Also, I wanted to donate zakat this year to some relief organizations but have been told that I shouldn’t because you never know where your money goes. Is the firm knowledge of exactly where your zakat money went a condition of fulfilling the zakat?


  • @Qas
    Apologies for the late response.

    According to the Hanafis – Zakat can be paid at any time – meaning the payment would be valid- but should not be unnecessarily delayed.

    Scholars have allowed the payment of zakat through relief organisations – but they advise that you check the organisations policies on how they handle zakat monies which need to meet specific shariah requirements. Whilst other scholars have not allowed this if the organisations take admin costs from the zakat funds.

  • @Abu Musa

    Jazakallahu khair for the question

    In general on issues that are shariah obligations or prohibitions we have not been given the autonomy to decide which is more beneficial or harmful – that is the sole dominion of the legislator. What the article was about is that those very obligations are more beneficial for us and those acts that have been prohibited are harmful for us.

    However there are specific circumstances where overt hardship may be encountered and therefore one of the following may occur.

    1) There already exists in the primary sources dispensations for those circumstances e.g praying while travelling, not having to fast when travelling, tayamum instead of wudu in the absence of water or when sick, allowing unlawful food/drink to prevent death etc

    2) The qualified jurists resort to secondary sources of Shariah such Maslahah or Istihsan to arrive at juridical rulings that are more beneficial or serve the needs of the people. E.g. lease contracts and made to order contracts which if we followed Qiyas they would not have been permitted but are permitted through Istihsan according to the Hanafis.

    3) Where a particular situation conflicts with the five necessities (daruraat) or some particular need (haja) that is construed as necessity (darura)– qualified jurists may permit something that would have been normally unlawful e.g European Fiqh Council fatwa on taking out a mortgage to purchase one residential home to alleviate the hardship of the community.

    As for those who take maqasid al-shariah to negate or abolish Quranic texts or hadith texts they are misguided and are one of two extremes, the other extreme being taking everything literally without any allowance of established usooli principles, qawaaid fiqhiyah or maqasid al-shariah to temper or formulate the legal implications of the primary texts.

    At the end of the day the balanced approach is to differentiate what is fixed in shariah and what is changeable and to fully respect the texts and the particulars of fiqh (juziyyat) whilst aligning their interpretations with the universals (kulliyaat) and purposes of shariah. This is of course the task of the highest level of Muslim jurists and not for mere speakers, masjid imams or duaat per se.

    Allah knows best

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