Imam as Shatibi (r) discusses very elaborately and at length, in his famous work, al-Muwāfaqāt, the ḥukm (law) that is known as “mubāh” or that act which has a neutral status in Islamic Law. It is usually defined as “an act whose commission or omission is not required.”
Is this subject too abstract?
Though this subject may seem too theoretical, it has significant implications on our perceptions of others as well as on one’s own spirituality. For in many circles, amongst many students and scholars, there is this notion that to unconditionally avoid the mubāh is somehow beneficial for one’s spirituality or that such an act would aid one’s salvation on the Day of Judgment. Although this is not unconditionally true, persistence in mubāh acts whilst holding the notion that its omission is better may be detrimental to one’s spiritually. This is because the person will be engaging in something they believe to be at least disliked, and thus disregarding whether that action is actually disliked or not, it still has the same consequences of being such.
Imām Shātibī (r) is very clear in arguing that to avoid the mubāh is not something desirable per se, nor is its commission desirable. This is mainly because of the fact that there is agreement that the term mubāh refers to neutral acts. It is thus contradictory to then suggest its omission is somehow better. However, even though this may seem basic enough, Imām Shātibī (r) provides ample logical and textual justifications why such a view is problematic.
Firstly, mubāh is a neutral act, whose commission and omission is equal. Any act remains as such, unless there is a request (ṭalab) from Allāh. This request may entail the omission or commission of an act, either in a manner, which renders it obligatory (wājib) or preferred (Mustaḥab). After such a request is established, that act will no longer remain mubāh. However, the mubāh act in general does not have such a ṭalab, and thus remains neutral. The reason why a ṭalab is required from Allāh is because it is in obedience to his command; an act becomes Mustaḥab (preferred). Without a ṭalab, there is no obedience, and the act remains neutral. The question then arises, in the absence of such a ṭalab, if one insists an act is Mustaḥab then who is one being obedient to?
Secondly, there is a consensus, according to Imām Shātibī , that the one who makes a vow to omit a mubāh act is not obligated to carry it out since the vow to not perform that action is in the same legal status as if he had vowed to perform it. However, if it was preferred to leave out mubāh acts, then such a vow would become obligatory. There is a Ḥadīth1 that narrates how, when a man made a vow to fast standing without taking shade, the Prophet (s) ordered him to sit and take shade and complete his fast. Imām Mālik said regarding this, that “the Prophet (s) ordered him to complete that which was worship or obedience to God, and leave that which was sinful (ma’ṣiya) to Allah” so this is an instance where the Prophet (s) made it sinful to vow to leave a mubāh act.
Thirdly, whilst engaging in mubāh secures one from engaging in Ḥarām, leaving out mubāh does not necessitate engaging in Wājibat (Obligatory actions).
But doesn’t engaging in mubāh preoccupy oneself with optional worship?
So far we have discussed mubāh as a distinct category, different from the other categories. However, if one is looking from the perspective of what mubāh leads to, then leaving out mubāh is not necessarily a good thing. Instead, there can be three related situations:
- When a mubāh act definitively leads towards something Ḥarām:
In this case, the mubāh act will not be permissible as what leads to Ḥarām will be Ḥarām. However, this is something one must decide for oneself. For example, playing football (soccer) is something that can be recommended because it helps keep one healthy. However, if it leads to someone one missing the obligatory prayers, it will become impermissible for that person only.
- When a mubāh act is a means towards something Wājib:
For example, there is a Ḥadīth that “How good is pure wealth for the righteous man?” 2 as well as “The people of abundant wealth have gone with an abundant reward, high status, and an everlasting bliss…” 3 These traditions praise those who had abundant wealth (something considered mubāh) as it served as a means towards salvation. There is also the Ḥadīth of being rewarded for sexual intercourse with ones spouse even though one is fulfilling his/her desire (something mubāh), as it stops one from fulfilling it in a unlawful way.
- When a mubāh act does not lead to either good or bad:
These actions are those whose commission and omission are neutral.
Thus, to categorically state “to avoid Mubāh is better (afḍal)” is incorrect. Some might ask: how does this relate to the Ḥadīth about the dunya (world), which states, “Its Ḥalāl is (to be) accounted for, and its Ḥarām is a punishment?” 4 This Ḥadīth is used to claim that in actual fact, extending one’s accounting on the day of judgement is ultimately punishment and thus to leave mubāh is better. Although Imām Shātibī (r) gives several answers to this question; a simple but quick answer is as follows:
If one considers performing a mubāh to extend ones accounting, since this is a positive action, then not to perform a mubāh will also extend one’s accounting. This is because deciding not to do something is also an action, albeit a negative one. Since all actions must be accounted for (according to the Ḥadīth cited), then not deciding to perform a mubāh will also have to be accounted for. Thus, we return to square one, where mubāh is neutral. However, it is also true that if one, due to personal choice, decides to reduce mubāh and engage in Mustaḥab (preferred) acts, then this is a wise choice; however, this does not then render the omission of mubāh in itself something desirable. Another point worthy of note is that a good intention behind mubāh can render it Mustaḥab.
Mubāh refers to those acts that are generally considered optional. Let’s keep it that way.