Q. Is it true that part of Islam’s legal culture is the idea that a normative religious ruling (‘azimah) can be temporarily replaced by a concessionary ruling (rukhsah), in order to lift hardship?
A. Yes it’s true, but with conditions and caveats. Let me explain:
The Holy Qur’an says: يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ بِكُمْ الْيُسْرَ وَلاَ يُرِيدُ بِكُمْ الْعُسْرَ – ‘Allah desires ease for you; He does not desire for you hardship.’ [2:185]
One celebrated hadith says: يَسِّروا وَلا تُعَسِّرُوا وَبَشِّروا وَلا تُنَفِّروا – ‘Make things easy for people and do not make things difficult; give them glad tidings, do not drive them away.’1
Thus while the principle of ease (taysir) is rooted in revealed texts, we must ensure it does not turn into one of adulteration; especially in today’s egotistical and desacralised world.
From the earliest days of Islam, a core aspect of a mufti’s remit was not only to inform the unqualified masses of the Islamic ruling on any given issue, so as to help them keep their feet firmly upon the path of piety and worship of God. It was also to extend a lifeline in extenuating circumstances; especially to those weak in faith cast adrift in the stormy seas of sin and disobedience. Sufyan al-Thawri said: ‘In our view, knowledge entails [issuing] legal concessions (rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’2
‘Azimah refers to a “strict” religious ruling – a ruling in its original form, without any attendant reason or circumstance that could soften its original force. By contrast, rukhsah is a “concession” in the law; an exception to the rule. It is a concessionary ruling brought about by mitigating circumstances, so as to bring about ease in difficult situations.3
The Prophet ﷺ said: إِنَّ اللهَ يُحِبُّ أَنْ تُؤْتَى رُخَصُهُ كَمَا يُحِبُّ أَنْ تُؤْتَى عَزَائِمُهُ – ‘Allah loves that His concessions are taken, just as He loves His stringent rulings are obeyed.’4
Thus ‘azimahs are norms: rukhsahs are exceptions when there are justifiable needs to warrant them. Moreover, a shari‘ah-legislated rukhsah, or relaxation of the law, is based on strictly following certain obligatory guidelines; which include:5
[i] The opinion that brings about the ease must be a valid fiqh opinion; not an anamolous (shadhdh) one.
[ii] The rukhsah should ward of a genuine hardship, be it to the individual or society.
[iii] Deciding if a rukhsah needs taking must be determined by one known to be juristically qualified as well as known for their religious piety, integrity and adherence to revealed truths.
[iv] Following rukhsahs must not become a habitual practice; a device to skirt around the usually legislated ‘azimah or more ‘stringent’ normative ruling.
[v] Such a rukhsah must never lead to the forbidden type of talfiq (lit. ‘piecing together’), where the picking and choosing; the mixing and matching, of madhhabs contravenes an established ijma‘, or leads to innovating a totally new ruling that is neither confirmed by any madhhab or mujtahid.
Legalistic aspects aside, there is also the spirit of the law to consider when dealing with rukhsahs. For a rukhsah is there to facilitate ease and allow obedience to flourish under exceptionally difficult circumstances. Its goal is to make things easier in order for faith to still thrive; not for piety to spiral downwards or slackness towards sins normalised. An individual must, therefore, balance between their spiritual growth, which arises as a result of battling against one’s ego or desires in order to obey Allah; and between being overwhelmed with hardship due to not taking a shari‘ah-sanctioned concession. As Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has contended: ‘The truly-taken rukhsa makes you grow a little; the falsely-taken rukhsa makes you shrink rapidly.’6
Let’s conclude with these words of sayyiduna ‘Ali, radia’Llahu ‘anhu: الْفَقِيهُ مَنْ لَمْ يُقَنِّطِ النَّاسَ مِنْ رَحْمَةِ اللهِ وَلَمْ يُرَخِّصْ لَهُمْ فِي مَعَاصِي اللهِ – ‘The faqih is not the one to cause people to despair of Allah’s mercy, nor the one to give them licence to sin.’7
1. Al-Bukhari, no.69; Muslim, no.1734.
2. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.
What follows are five cornerstones that lie at the heart of Islam’s bigger picture of life. They concern: (i) What is life’s higher purpose? (ii) Who has the right to our ultimate love and loyalty? (iii) The obligation of faithfully keeping covenants and contracts, (iv) Loving the sacred law and thanking the Lawgiver, (v) Fatwas: between ease, strictness and compromise. These cornerstones, if watered down; left; or misunderstood, could steer us on a course to confusion, chaos, or even kufr! That is to say, they are concerns we cannot afford to ever forget.
1. Don’t forget that the primary reason and higher purpose for why Allah created us is: li na’lam wa li na’bud – “to know Him and to worship Him.” Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali says: ‘Allah, exalted is He, created creation and brought them into existence that they may worship Him with reverent fear, hope and love of Him. Allah, exalted is He, declares: I created jinn and men only that they may worship Me. [51:56] However, Allah can only be worshiped after knowing Him and becoming familiar with Him. For this He created the heavens, the earth and whatever lies in between, so that by them His oneness and glory can be inferred. Allah said: Allah it is who created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends amidst them, that you may know Allah has power over all things and that He encompasses everything in knowledge. [65:12]’1
So amidst the dramas of life; amidst the ever-growing temptations which defile souls, the Qur’an asks us to know our Maker and live out our lives in mindfulness of Him. Those who worship Allah with such an awareness, according to His revealed ways, are led by it to an even deeper awareness and to endless bliss. Those who don’t, choosing instead to ignore Allah’s signs; follow their whim and inner pathologies; and be led by their ego-driven intellects, then: Those who are too arrogant to worship Me shall enter Hell, disgraced. [40:60]
2. Let us not forget that whenever the love, longing, loyalty and submission which are due to Allah, are focused upon other than Him, or others along with Him, then this is shirk – idolatry; setting-up partners with Allah. For as Islam sees things, whoever loves something, desires it, values it, and centres their hopes; fears; love and loyalty around it, submitting to it independently of Allah, then this, for them, becomes a deity, a god, an object of sacrilegious worship. Some there are who make a god of wealth. Others make gods of celebrities. Still others make a god of their own egos or desires. Asks the Qur’an: Have you seen him who takes his whims for his god? [25:43] We have indeed! On this very note, Ibn Rajab explains: ‘Whoever loves something and obeys it, loving and hating for its sake, then that is his god (ilah) … Whoever’s loving or loathing revolves around his whims, forming allegiance or enmity upon its basis, then these desires are his god that he worships.’2
Today’s Monoculture, for all its talk of tolerance, demands that we bow to its beliefs, values and worldview – even if it has to drag us there kicking and screaming. Wisdom enjoins that we engage with it; even partake in its political processes (for the Muslim collective benefit or a national interest). But let’s not forget the Monoculture exists, not for God, but in spite of Him; and even in brazen defiance of Him. That being the case, one engages with it from a position of dislike, not admiration.3 Belief in Allah’s all-embracing knowledge, wisdom and care for creation, and loyalty to His lordship, require nothing less: Who is better in judgement than Allah for those who have certainty of belief? [5:50] In a world that insists we render our ultimate loyalty to liberal ideals, let’s recall that shirk isn’t only bowing to idols of wood or stone. Egos, desires, people and even political systems can be deified too!
3. Lest it be misconstrued, we should never forget that being faithful to our promises, contracts and covenants is a cardinal Islamic virtue and moral obligation. This is the case be it to Muslims or non-Muslims, government or the governed. The Qur’an says: Keep your covenants, for you will be held to account for your covenants. [17:34] O you who believe, fulfil your undertakings! [5:1] Indeed, every pact, promise or contract made is a pact before Allah, to be faithfully kept: And fulfil the pact of Allah after you have entered into it. [16:91]
Although Muslims should be prepared to swim against the current of an increasingly profane Monoculture and assert their conviction in revealed truths, that’s not to say they can play fast and loose with pacts and promises made with others: whether that be with employers, businesses, the state, or domestically. Instead, Muslim faithfulness to his or her promises must be beyond question. The Sunnah, the prophetic guidance, expects nothing less. To do otherwise would be to act treacherously; and Islam abhors treachery. One hadith informs: ‘The signs of a hypocrite are three: when he speaks, he lies; when he makes a promise, he breaks it; and when he is trusted [with something], he betrays that trust.’4 Another states: ‘Every treacherous person will have a flag at his backside on the Day of Resurrection, which will be raised according to the level of his treachery.’5 To be clear, dissenting against secular profanities is one thing; treachery is another matter altogether.
Our voice of dissent against the idolatries or inequities permeating the Monoculture must be conditioned by recognising the good to be found in it. Our voices of protest cannot be as outside observers of society, but as sincere participants in it. Moreover, our language of protest must be employed carefully: for it mustn’t involve incitement to violence, betraying pacts, endangering public security, or causing further injury to the call totawhid and the image of Islam.
To live or be born in Britain (or any other country, for that matter) is to be born into, or reside under, a ‘social contract’: a covenant between citizens of a society to behave with reciprocal responsibility in their mutual relationships, under state authority. Ibn Qudamah wrote about Muslims entering non-Muslim lands with a pledge of security, saying: ‘As for behaving treacherously towards them, this is expressly forbidden. For they only granted him security on condition that he not betray them and that they be safe from his harm: if this is not stipulated explicitly, it is implicitly set forth … This being so, it is unlawful for us to be treacherous to them: for this is betrayal and our religion has no place for betrayal. The Prophet ﷺ said: “Muslims fulfil their contracts (al-muslimun ‘inda shrutihim).”6‘7 If this is the case for those entering the country, it’s even more so the case for those who are born or reside here. As for those who twist the texts to justify their political treachery and terrorism, putting the lives of others and the integrity of Islam in harms way, then we ask that Allah guide them aright and rectify their affairs, or else break their backs.
4. Let’s not forget that the Sacred Law (shari‘ah), in terms of the halal and haram, is a necessary measure in order to guide people, regulate their affairs, prevent them from straying, and dissuade them from harming themselves or others. By recognising the shari‘ah boundaries exist to protect us, to safeguard us from dangerous and unhealthy pastures, we can attain to a reasonable balance in this life, and joy in the next. Those Muslims who choose to remain ignorant and insensitive to Allah’s care for us all often see the shari‘ah as an irritant, an impediment, an imposition of sorts. For such people, very little is clearly halal or haram. Their preferred lifestyle choice is to sweep as many things as possible under the “grey area” carpet, allowing freer rein to the ego’s caprice. However, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘The lawful (halal) is clear and the unlawful (haram) is clear and between the two are doubtful matters about which not many people know. Thus he who avoids doubtful matters clears himself in terms of his religion and his honour. But he who falls into doubtful matters falls into that which is unlawful, like a shepherd who pastures around a sanctuary all but grazing therein. Truly, every king has a sanctuary, and truly Allah’s sanctuary is His prohibitions.’8
Those gifted with knowledge of Allah’s law view the shari‘ah with joy and gratitude: a gratitude which turns into loving praise of Allah as the journey to Him deepens. For such believers bathed in the lights of divine obedience, knowledge of the Sacred Law reveals the love and solicitous care Allah has for His servants; it ‘reveals the generosity of the Lawgiver, Who has placed us in broad pastures, and established boundaries to protect us from the wolves.’9 Yet their firm commitment to the outward dimension of the religion in no way equals an obsession with it. As for their inward lives, they hover around the prophetic supplication and yearning: Allahumma inni as’aluka hubbaka wa hubba man yuhubbuka wa hubba ‘amalin yuqarribuni ila hubbik – ‘O Allah, grant me Your love and the love of those whom You love, and the love of those deeds which will draw me closer to Your love.’10 It is this love for Him, and this love in Him, that forms the basis for loving goodness for others, loving to bring ease to them, and loving what they each have the God-given potential to become.
In his advice to those seeking to live the devotional life, the venerable Hanbali scholar and spiritual master, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Wasiti wrote:
‘If, O my brother, you desire to be saved from the terrors of that Day, then prepare for it with piety (taqwa). This is done by avoiding what Allah has forbidden and fulfilling whatever He has enjoined in terms of those duties that have been codified in the fiqh manuals where the lawful and prohibited, prescribed punishments, and other rulings are stipulated. This, so that nothing the Sacred Law demands from you remains due from you. For there should be no obligation that remains unfulfilled by you: neither a missed prayer, fast, zakat, or backbiting a Muslim without a valid reason, or any feud, grudge or enmity without lawful justification. Discharge the responsibilities that fall within your sphere concerning those rights (huquq) between you and Allah, as well as between you and others. In doing so, you will be joined, Allah willing, to the company of the righteous.’11
5. Don’t forget that while the principle of ease (taysir) is rooted in revealed texts – the Qur’an informs us: Allah desires for you ease; He does not desire for you hardship. [2:185] and we read in one hadith: ‘Make things easy for the people and do not make things difficult. Give them glad tidings, do not drive them away.’12 And: ‘Indeed this religion is [one of] ease.’13 – we must ensure that the principle of ease does not become one of adulteration; especially in today’s desacralised world.
From the earliest days of Islam, a core aspect of a mufti’s remit was not only to inform the unqualified masses of the Islamic ruling on any given issue, helping them to keep their feet firmly upon the path of piety and mindfulness of God. It was also to extend a lifeline in extenuating circumstances; especially to those weak in faith cast adrift in the stormy seas of divine disobedience. Imam Sufyan al-Thawri stated: ‘In our view, knowledge entails [granting] legal concessions (al-rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’ 14 Indeed, part of the mufti’s arsenal are legal tools like rukhsah, ‘azimah and hiylah. Each must be deployed wisely so as to steer people away from heedlessness and towards the Divine Presence. ‘Azimah refers to a “strict” ruling – a ruling as it is in its original form, without any attendant circumstances that could soften its original force. By contrast, rukhsah is a “concession” in the law; an exception to the rule. It is a concessionary ruling brought about by mitigating circumstances so as to bring about ease in difficult situations.15 The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Allah loves that His rukhsahs are taken, just as He loves His ‘azimahs are obeyed.’16‘Azimahs, then, are norms. Rukhsahs are exceptions whenever there are justified needs to warrant them.
As for hiylah, it is a “legal stratagem” used to circumvent a divine order or divine aim, or for ta‘lim al-makhraj – providing an exit for one in difficulty, while keeping Allah’s order and intent uppermost in mind. For most legalists, the first is the forbidden type of hiylah; the second, the lawful type. Ibn al-Qayyim explains: ‘If the aim is good then the hiylah is also good, if it is bad then the hiylah is also bad. If the aim is obedience and worship then the hiylah is likewise, while if the aim is disobedience and iniquity so is the hiylah.‘17 In other words, the legality of hiylahs, both as a genre and as a legal technique, are tied to the individual purposes they serve. Of course, there’s often been a very fine line between the two types of hiylahs, with accusations and clear instances of abuse abounding throughout the legal history of Islam.
I’ve purposely omitted to give examples of these legal devices, so as to not prolong the discussion more than needed. For I merely wished to highlight the legal tools a mufti has at his or her disposal in order to facilitate ease and alleviate hardship. That muftis have such legal devices at their disposal begs for the mufti to be a person of integrity and piety, scrupulously avoiding ambiguities. Dubious rukhsas or over-lenient fatwas must be avoided at all costs. For a mufti is, as it were, a spokesperson; a signatory, on behalf of Allah. Having discussed rukhsahs, and the lawful and unlawful hiylahs, Ibn Hamdan, a highly-acclaimed Hanbali jurist, writes that a mufti must not give a fatwa if ‘his heart is occupied or deflected from a state of balance.’18 ‘Fatwa,’ he says: ‘is not to be given in a state where the heart is preoccupied or inhibited from examination or careful deliberation; because of anger, hunger, thirst, sadness, grief, fear, melancholy, overwhelming joy, sleepiness, fatigue, illness, irritating heat, intense cold, or needing to answer the call of nature.’19
If, as can be seen from above, pretty much any debilitating emotional or physical state renders giving a fatwa a no no, what about the state where a mufti is under relentless socio-political and psychological pressures to get Islam to conform to the essentially atheistic, liberal landscape? Or the case where a mufti’s mind and moods of the heart have already been significantly colonised by the attitudes of the dominant [Western] monoculture? How will that affect the quality, integrity and correctness of the fatwa? To think this does not already happen is to live in a cocooned or naive state. How else can one explain why proposed maqasid-based reforms to the shari‘ah so often seem to be of Western inspiration. ‘The public interest (maslahah, maqsad),’ says Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, ‘always turns out to take the form of what is intelligible and desirable to those outside Islam.’20
Undeniably, muftis must be well acquainted with the conventions, customs and needs of the society in which they live and operate. Undoubtedly, they must have an overall awareness of society’s levels of faith and its struggles with piety. Unquestionably, they must be qualified and schooled in the sacred art of ifta – of giving fatwas. Along with this, we ask that today’s muftis be spiritually rooted too, not just legally well-versed. For the ego’s tricks are never as damaging as they are in matters of sacred knowledge and fatwas.21
As for whether stricter fatwas are a truer reflection of religiousness, or whether such a distinction belongs to fatwas of a more lenient and flexible nature, it’s an unhelpful bone of contention; a red herring. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again regardless: Does the fatwa (be it strict or lenient) deepen one’s connection to the Divine Reality, or diminish it? Does it clarify halal from haram, or blur the line between them? Does it promote piety, or weaken it? That’s probably how the appropriateness of any fatwa should be assessed. After all, piety and seeking the Divine Presence is what ultimately counts. All other considerations must take a lower priority.
Wrapping-up then. The desire to bring religion to people and make it easy for them is truly noble. But the means cannot justify the ends. It cannot justify diluting the truth for the sake of meeting sin or misguidance halfway. If people have drifted away from the shores of safety, into the raging seas of heedlessness, then charity requires they be extended a helping hand and be pulled back to shore. To expect people to swim out to them, however, while they stay exactly where they are, is foolhardy and more than a little destructive. This much we’d do well not to forget.
1. ‘Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns min Nafahat Riyad al-Quds,’ in Majmu‘ Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2003), 3:292.
16. Ahmad, Musnad, no.5866; Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.354; Tabarani, al-Kabir, no.10030. It was graded sahih, due to its collective chains, by al-Albani, in Irwa al-Ghalil fi Takhrij Ahadith Manar al-Sabil (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), 3:13, no.564.
17. Ighathat al-Lahfan (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1999), 659.
18. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 195.