I am regularly called upon to explain matters of Islam to bright young minds in college settings, and in doing so, I try to strike a balance between the critical perspective of my liberal arts education, and the well-trodden path leading to spirituality and righteousness that characterizes my normative Islamic education. One of the most common topics is Islamic ethics and law, or what is often referred to by the Arabic word fiqh.
Strangely, I do not know an adequate entry point into this subject that has demanded so much of my time and heart for over 15 years. This does not mean that it does not exist – it just means that I don’t know of it. Some texts are too academic, and thus not very relevant for people with explicitly existential concerns. Others are too authoritarian, providing no room for engagement with the ideas. Still others are written primarily as practical manuals, designed to efficiently train the seeker of knowledge in a particular perspective. Each of these approaches has positives and negatives, but I do not feel comfortable recommending any of them to the beginner trying to understand why fiqh matters and what it means for them.
Part of the reason I am not comfortable sharing any of the texts I have read to the beginner is because my previous chaplaincy work has exposed me to people’s raw feelings about religion in general. As one accomplished scholar of fiqh once mentioned in a lecture, questions about fiqh are often actually questions about faith. By this he meant that people often ask about an issue not because they want to know what to do, which is the purpose of fiqh, but because they want to figure out if that is really what God has taught. They surmise, somewhere deep in their hearts, that, “If this is really what Islam teaches, then maybe I am not so sure that Islam comes from God.” This is a common spiritual issue of our era, even amongst many people who are outwardly practicing Islam. If the teacher is not sensitive to these concerns, then they will miss the deeper point of why the student might be asking certain questions as opposed to others.
So I have resolved to fill the gap in the English literature. Due to the introductory nature of the discussion, an online article is best so as to make it widely accessible. It also most appropriate because the best next step that I can think of is an online article as well [see end of the article for the citation]. I am beginning from the ground up, and this is a text which is directly connected to the practical “pastoral” concerns of emerging Muslim leaders in the English-speaking world. It is an attempt to create a bridge between the complex discourses of Muslim intelligentsia on matters pertaining to fiqh and the everyday religious concerns of intelligent Muslims working in other fields. The primary concern of this text is an existential one, as it takes for granted a social world in which a person who is not convinced of the probity and relevance of fiqh for their lives will choose to live a life without reference to fiqh. This is clearly not the social reality for many Muslims, most notably in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where a certain vision of fiqh is enshrined in the legislative and judicial mechanisms of government. Whatever the case may be of one’s socio-legal reality, it is a spiritual reality that for Islam to thrive it must come from within the heart more than it comes from the decrees of governmental institutions.
I have not been concerned with references for this text, so as to make it accessible, hopefully without losing any necessary nuance in the ideas conveyed. Any competent student of fiqh will recognize much of what I am saying as familiar, but at the same time, I have my own take on how to think about it that will come through at times. I have tried to keep my perspective as broad as possible, knowing that it is much easier to narrow one’s focus and specialize as one gains greater facility in a subject. It is no different in fiqh, even though traditionally students have been trained in a narrow perspective and later introduced to a wider view. In my experience, people actually think in the opposite direction – from their broad vision of the way the world is, they fashion a personal ethic of how to live their life. It is my deepest hope that these words will be beneficial for those thinking about “the big picture,” and that it will impact their lives on the ground, where they are right now. If this be the case, then all praise is due to the Guide who has guided me to that which was beautiful and correct, and if not, then the blame lands squarely on my ignorance and lack of skill. May you, the reader, forgive me my inevitable shortcomings, and may God forgive me for any mistakes I make in conveying the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, may God send blessings and peace upon him and his family.
Fiqh: Utopia or Nightmare?
Many people today are confused about fiqh, which is often referred to in the media as “Islamic Law” or “Shari’ah.” Some think it is the panacea to all the world’s problems. Others see it as the main source of tyranny and injustice around the world. The truth obviously lies somewhere in between, which will become more clear as we proceed. Complex fiqh subjects such as criminal law (e.g. how should a government convict somebody of murder and punish them accordingly) are addressed in many thoughtful studies, for the benefit of readers who have a certain level of “Islamic literacy.” But before one can fully benefit from those studies, one needs to establish a proper foundation, for fiqh is primarily a lived tradition that addresses the individual conscience of the human being. Only once this has been adequately grasped can the student branch out to explore more complex topics that address major political, economic and social concerns.
The reason that we must begin with the individual is because we are living in the most individualistic time in human history. Many of the most pressing and deep questions of fiqh are centered around the concern, “If fiqh says one thing, and I believe another, how do I reconcile that?” Those proponents of an idealized fiqh that solves everyone’s problems would most likely respond, “It doesn’t matter what you think. God has spoken, and you just need to submit!” Demagogues who preach about the abominable nature of “Creeping Shari’ah” might say, “Reject it all, for it is theocratic madness!” Again, the truth is found somewhere between these hyperbolic extremes.
Fiqh has a very nuanced and sophisticated discourse on the relationship between God and humanity, between elites and masses, between scholars and politicians, between humans and nature, and so on. In addition, fiqh addresses deep questions about the human conscience, how we know what we know, and even the ultimate nature of good and evil. As one Muslim scholar mentioned in regards to Islam being the middle way between two extremes, Islam is not so above history and culture as to be unaffected by it (the Idealist extreme) nor is it so overwhelmed by history and culture as to be incapable of altering social reality (the Historicist extreme). At times, fiqh has acted as it was supposed to, and brought great benefit to individuals and societies. At other times, the purpose of fiqh has been obscured by ignorance and/or selfishness, and brought about great harm in the name of Islam. A deep study of fiqh involves making judgements about when and where any particular articulation of fiqh has succeeded or failed on the social level.
But when addressing the individual, the question becomes focused on whether or not that unique individual believes fiqh will bring them harm or benefit. People want to know why they should care about fiqh, and what it will do for them in their own personal lives.
At the heart of Islam is an idea. It has permeated Islamic thought since the beginning, and remains as relevant today as it was during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, may God send blessings and peace upon him and his family. It is the idea that God knows every single action that every human being has ever done, and that every action has an ethical value attached to it. For example, I am writing an article. As my fingers hit the keyboard, I am acting. What is the ethical value of this action? What is the ethical value of you, the reader, reading what I have written? Pious Muslim scholars have exerted enormous effort in trying to answer these and similar questions. They do so because they believe that doing good actions will help the journey of our souls after we die, and avoiding bad actions will help keep us safe from suffering in the next life. Thus, knowing the ethical value of our actions is one of the most important forms of knowledge in this world.
Only God knows all of our good and bad actions, and God alone will judge us with infinite Mercy and perfect Justice. What is up to us is to make an effort to determine what is right and wrong, and then act on that knowledge with sincerity (ikhlaas). This is because we are morally responsible for our lives. In Arabic, this moral responsibility is called takleef. God expects human beings to strive to do that which is good, and to make an effort to avoid that which is evil. In every moment of our lives, we are bound by takleef to try to do the best actions that are possible for us. We are not asked to do more than we are capable of doing, for the Qur’an states, “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear.” (2:286) However, we are expected to make a serious effort, for the Qur’an states, “a human will only attain that for which it strives.” (53:39)
Striving to know the ethical value of every human action is the domain of scholars of fiqh. Fiqh is an Arabic word which literally means “understanding,” but in technical usage refers to the understanding of the ethical value of human actions. Fiqh is so important precisely because takleef is real. If God did not hold us morally responsible for our actions, or always forgave us no matter what we do, then there would be no need for fiqh. But God does hold us responsible, and informs us, “surely, the ear, the eye, and the heart – each of them will be questioned.” (17:36) Every human being has to act – even inaction is a form of action. Looking and hearing are actions, even though we do not normally think of them that way. Therefore, knowing the ethical value of our actions is a primary concern for all human beings.
Scholars of fiqh studied these questions in order to know how they should live their own lives. In addition, once they had mastered fiqh, they were empowered to assist other human beings who had ethical questions. Great scholars of fiqh are some of the most well-known Muslims in history, such as Abu Hanifa and Ja’far al-Sadiq, and the answers that they gave to many questions are still studied today. Sometimes they even had different answers to the same question, but those differences were a special mercy from God that helped Muslims to deal with the complexity of the social world and the intellectual life. The world is more complex now than it has ever been; therefore, it is even more important now that Muslims understand fiqh, so that they can be sure that they are living the best lives possible.
The Value of an Action
A famous hadith from the Prophet Muhammad, may God send blessings and peace upon him and his family, states, “Truly, God recorded the good deeds and the bad deeds. Then God clarified how whoever decided to do a good deed but did not do it, God records it as a complete good deed. And if he decided to do it and actually did it, God records it as ten good deeds up to seven hundred times up to many times over. If he decided to do an evil deed but did not do it, God records it as one complete good deed. If he decided to do it and actually did it, God records it as one evil deed.” First and foremost, this text is one of many proofs that God’s Mercy is essential to how God deals with human beings. The ways in which God rewards the good that human beings try to do are far vaster than the ways in which God punishes the evil that human beings actually do. Secondly, this text raises a question: what are good and bad deeds?
Scholars of fiqh do not divide actions into simply good and bad. Usually, they divide actions into 5 different ethical values:
- Forbidden (haraam in Arabic)
- Disliked (makruh)
- Neutral (mubaah)
- Encouraged (sunnah, mandub or mustahabb)
- Obligatory (fard or wajib)
This system of classifying the ethical value of human actions is derived from the language of the Qur’an, where God commands and prohibits, but not always with the same intensity. For example, the Qur’an states, “when you give or take a loan for a fixed period, write it down,” (2:282) but the command to “write it down” does not mean that one has to write it down, but rather that writing it down is better. Scholars who are very knowledgeable of the Arabic language deeply study each of these verses, and are able to determine which commands indicate encouragement and which encourage obligation. Similarly, they study God’s prohibitions, such as when God said, “take not the life that God has made sacred,” (6.151) and determine whether or not they indicate a forbidden or disliked action. In this verse, “take not the life” is indicative of God forbidding the taking of human life, except in the case of well-known exceptions to this general prohibition.
Forbidden actions are actions that we believe God will reward us for not doing and punish us if we do. Disliked actions, however, are actions that God will reward us for not doing, but will not punish us for doing. Similarly, we are rewarded for doing obligatory actions and punished for abandoning them, whereas we are rewarded for recommended actions but not punished for skipping them. Again, the ways to Divine reward are more extensive than the ways to Divine punishment. Many human actions are categorized as neutral, which means that we can choose to do them or not do them based on our own inclinations. God does not determine for us, in explicit terms, what we have to be doing at every single second of every single day. For example, God requires us to wake up in the early morning for the dawn prayer, which is obligatory. However, we can choose what we do between the dawn prayer and the noon prayer, which is usually about 7 or so hours.
Imagining all the different choices that are available to us over the course of these 7 hours helps us to understand fiqh as a living force in our lives. For example, if I am a student that has a class, it would be recommended for me to go to the class. It is not obligatory, because a student can miss one class and still fulfill their responsibilities as student, but it is not neutral, because I have made a commitment to the teacher to be in class as regularly as possible. If I choose to sleep in because I am feeling sick and want to preserve my health for the overall benefit of my studies, then skipping the class would actually become the recommended action. If I had a job, then going to work in the morning would most likely be obligatory, because I might lose my job for skipping one day without a valid excuse. However, if the job I have is considered forbidden, then it would actually be considered forbidden for me to go to work! If it is the weekend, and I have no other responsibilities, then I could go back to sleep, wake up and eat breakfast, or go for a walk, each of which would be considered neutral. However, the neutral action can become something we are rewarded for if we do it with the right intention. For example, if we are really tired after the dawn prayer, and we go back to sleep with the intention of being awake and alert during the noon prayer, then going back to sleep would change from a neutral action to a recommended action. Similarly, if we chose to eat a light and healthy breakfast because the Prophet Muhammad, may God send blessings and peace on him and his family, encouraged his followers to have healthy diets, then choosing to eat breakfast would also change from neutral to recommended.
Some might think that it is unnecessary to think about our actions in this way. On one level, they are right, because many of us are so busy that it is hard to sit down and think about each of our actions and their ethical value. However, what fiqh teaches us is that we need to value each day that we are given by striving to fill our time with actions that will bring us closer to God. This does not have to be a mechanical process of discipline, but should be motivated by the ends that one seeks. All of us are seeking God, and in this respect a famous hadith from the Prophet Muhammad, may God send blessings and peace upon him and his family, states, “[God said:] My servant does not draw closer to me with anything more beloved to me than the obligatory actions. And My servant does not cease to draw closer to me with the recommended actions until I love him.” All human beings want to experience God’s love, and it is through learning and practicing fiqh that we are given access to a Divine love that never fades, ever. Someone who is in love is happy to do what the beloved wants, when the beloved wants. God does not ask us to do this because God needs us to do it, but because God wants to grant us the best of this life and the next. We bring to God a few righteous deeds, and in so doing, we hope that God will bring to us, by the Mercy that envelops all that exists (7.156), every dream and hope we have ever had.
Listening and Choosing
In our day and age, the most common question about fiqh is whether or not we have to listen to what others say about fiqh. The answer, in short, is yes. None of us can learn what we need to learn about fiqh without consulting others, whether it a righteous person we trust, a book that makes sense, a class on fiqh, or something else. But coercion will only make us run away from fiqh, and so it must make sense to us.
There are 4 basic criteria for determining who to consult on these important matters:
- Intelligence - The person should be intelligent, or else you will doubt what they have to say. A good person who lacks intelligence cannot be a scholar of fiqh, even if they have studied it – rather, they usually just know a list of rules. While their limited understanding might work for them as an individual, it often can cause great harm to others when they try to tell others what they should do.
- Knowledge – Intelligence is like being athletic: it means nothing unless you refine it through serious exercise. Many brilliant people have written about fiqh, and so we look to those who have reached the deepest possible levels of knowledge about fiqh, not those who readily offer forth their opinions while avoiding serious study.
- Piety – Because fiqh is about striving for the pleasure of God and following the teachings of the Prophet, may God send blessings and peace upon him and his family, there is little use in the views of someone that you do not think loves God and God’s Messenger. While we can never really know where someone stands with God, when you ask someone to answer a question or to teach you fiqh, that person is representing an aspect of Prophetic authority for all intents and purposes. All of us would much rather consult the Messenger of God, upon him peace, than any of our most beloved teachers of fiqh, and so one should be impressed with the teacher’s character and spirituality. The more skepticism you have in your heart about your teacher (even if it is unjustified), the more skepticism you will have about their perspectives on fiqh.
- Contextual Understanding – This is an absolute prerequisite, but many people do not realize it. If you live in the inner city, be critical in digesting the views of those in the suburbs, and vice versa. If you are American, be critical in digesting the views of scholars from Egypt, and vice versa. Fiqh is not one-size-fits-all. If you have a unique life situation that you think is relevant in order for someone to understand how best to deal with your issues, don’t go asking any person that you hardly know, even if they fulfill the previous 3 conditions. Ideally, they should know you and your struggles to some extent. If that is not possible, at least look to people who understand “people like you,” however you define that to be.
The purpose of this is to minimize the harm that is caused by people who speak as if they know what God wants for everyone. None of the great scholars of fiqh in the past behaved like that. Once a man was asked by his community to travel long distances so that he could ask a scholar named Malik some questions. When he arrived in the city of Madinah, Malik said that he didn’t know the answers. Even though the man was deeply disappointed and frustrated, Malik felt a responsibility to only speak about that which he knew. Today, however, people on one side of the world go out of there way to state what they think is best for those on the other side of the world without any demonstration of familiarity with their local conditions. This is very far from the ideals of fiqh.
At the end of the day, you must follow your heart, for your heart must be at peace with someone who claims to know that which God loves and dislikes. Ideally, there should be love between the teacher and the student. If you do not find anyone, then do your best with whatever resources you have. Most Muslims intuitively know much of what is good and bad, and it is reported that the Prophet, may God send blessings and peace upon him and his family, taught his followers to “seek a fiqh ruling [fatwa] from your heart.” We don’t need a scholar to tell us to keep up with our our worship, stay away from the forbidden, and spend quality time with good, trustworthy, and spiritual people.
Part of God’s not burdening us with that which we cannot bear is not taking us to account for that which is out of our control. If we do not have a scholar of fiqh who can teach us what we do not know, then we should just keep trying to do the right thing to the best of our ability. Sometimes, scholars do not even have answers to certain questions, or are not certain that it is the right one, but we still have to act in this world based on our best judgement. There is no doubt that we will be called to account for our lives, but there is no guarantee that we will get everything right. What matters most of all is that we sincerely try to do our best, seek assistance from God in the process, and hope in God’s Mercy. Ultimately, God is in control, and if God wants us to be in the company of teachers who fulfill the previous conditions, then nothing in the world can prevent us from experiencing that, and if God withholds it, then we are not held accountable for that which we were unable to access. What matters most is making a sincere effort to be on the path of those whom God has favored, as Surah al-Fatiha teaches us. All Muslims, including righteous scholars, must recite Fatiha repeatedly, which is an act of turning to God for guidance through the complexities of life. And all of us must repeatedly ask forgiveness for our inevitable mistakes and errors in judgement. We are human, after all.
Back to Basics
The basics of fiqh are clear to most Muslims. As stated before, the idea that all actions can be classified is at the heart of fiqh. We want to know what is obligatory and recommended so that we can do it, and we want to know what is forbidden and disliked so that we can stay away from it. Some things all Muslims know to be obligatory, for example:
- Praying the obligatory prayers during their designated times of the day, except for those who are excused, such as women during their menstrual cycle
- Fasting during the days of the month of Ramadan, except for those who are excused
Other things all Muslims know are forbidden, such as drinking alcoholic beverages, or saying something behind someone’s back that they would not like said. At the heart of this struggle to live according to the teachings of Islam is a saying which is often repeated by scholars of fiqh: “whoever acts on that which they know, God will give them knowledge of that which they do not know.” This applies to the beginning student of fiqh as well as to the advanced scholar. If you are not praying or drinking alcohol, then you should first act on what you know. Make an effort to actually embody the fiqh you already know, and then you will be preparing yourself to deal with more complicated and subtle concerns. For a Muslim to start reading about the fiqh of biomedical issues or finance while they are knowingly committing forbidden actions or leaving obligatory ones completely misses the point of studying fiqh in the first place.
Also, some Muslims get so lost in studying the details of the fiqh that they don’t realize that the basics are so clear. For example, everyone knows that Muslims pray in different ways. But what people don’t usually recognize is that Muslims actually pray in the same way. Everyone stands, bows, stands, and makes two prostrations. If you go to the Mosque of the Prophet in Madinah, you will see hundreds of thousands of people praying next to each other in virtually the same way. There is nothing like this in the history of any other religion, and it is one of the unique historical blessings of Islam. Worrying about how you hold your hands during the standing, and other details, completely misses the big picture. First and foremost, we all need to pray the best way we know how, recognizing that there a valid differences. Then when we have a chance to study more, we can work towards improving the details of our prayers according to the best teachings of fiqh that we discover.
Conclusion: Next Steps on the Path
If you have read to this point, you have been given a basic understanding of fiqh. The most important thing is that you live it with sincerity, seeking God’s love. If you have a desire to learn more, I recommend the following article, which gives a practical example of how fiqh scholars look at a single issue (playing chess) amongst the many issues in our lives. In terms of serious study and answering sensitive questions, however, nothing can replace a teacher (or teachers) that fulfills the criteria that I have mentioned above. This is the best that I can offer you, the reader, without knowing you one-on-one, and the unique circumstances and personality that make you the person you are. Wherever you are, and wherever you may be, may God bless you always, and open up the doors for you to sincerity, beneficial knowledge, and righteous action, which lead to Divine love and the fulfillment of our deepest hopes and dreams, by the mercy of the Most Merciful, ameen!
Yusuf, Hamza; “Chess in the Light of the Jurist” Seasons, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 2006) pp. 3-15