The Lawful and the Unlawful in Islam
Transcript of the Friday Sermon delivered by Dr. Munawar Haque on Feb 10, 2017
Brothers and sisters! In today’s khutba, the topic of discussion is: ‘the lawful and the unlawful in Islam.’ It is narrated that a companion of the Prophet (SAW) by the name of An-Nu'man bin Bashir said: "I heard the Messenger of Allah say: ‘That which is lawful is clear, and that which is unlawful is clear, and between them are matters which are not as clear. I will strike a parable for you about that: Indeed Allah, the Mighty and Sublime, has established a sanctuary, and the sanctuary of Allah is that which He has forbidden. Whoever approaches the sanctuary is bound to transgress upon it’, or he said, ‘whoever grazes around the sanctuary will soon transgress upon it, and whoever indulges in matters that are not clear, he will soon transgress beyond the limits.’”
This hadith reported in Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim is considered by Imam Al-Nawawi (Rahimahullah) and many other scholars to be one of the ahadith around which the entire deen of Islam is understood. It sets down an important principle of conduct for Muslims by dividing all matters with respect to their Islamic rulings into three categories: (1) matters that are clearly lawful (halal); (2) matters that are clearly unlawful (haram); and (3) matters wherein it is unclear whether or not they are permissible.
Under the overpowering influence of secularism all around the world, and more so in the West, there are even Muslims found to be acting in defiance of divine commandments by indulging in practices that are Islamically unlawful. Engaging in sex outside wedlock, consuming intoxicants, and dealing in usury (riba), are just a few of these unlawful practices. Ignorance of law is no excuse or justification for actions that are unlawful. To overcome this situation, Muslims, need to understand the basic and fundamental principles of the Islamic law or Shariah, which among other guidance, provides a simple and clear manifesto of the do’s and don’ts, and of the halal and the haram. Such rulings are based on Allah’s absolute wisdom, and His sole authority to legislate.
In his book The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi defines the lawful or al-halal as that which is permitted; with respect to which no restriction exists, and the doing of which the Law-Giver has allowed. The unlawful or al-haram is that which the Law-Giver has prohibited absolutely, and anyone who engages in it is liable to incur Allah’s punishment in the hereafter, as well as legal punishment in this world. The detested or al-makruh actions are those that are disapproved by Allah (SWT), but are lesser in degree than al-haram. However, one must refrain from them lest committing them leads one to committing the haram. Some of the preliminary points relevant to the topic of the lawful and the unlawful are as follows:
1. The general rule is that everything is lawful except what has been declared to be unlawful. This is in contrast to the trend of thinking that everything is unlawful except what has been declared to be lawful. Such distorted premise can only discourage, and depress a person rather than encourage and motivate him or her.
2. It is only Allah’s privilege to ordain what is halal and what is haram. The Prophet (SAW) was given the privilege to enact laws subject to Allah’s laws, and in this sense, he did exercise the right of legislation under divine supervision and approval. When it came to divine revelation, or a divinely revealed law, he never spoke of his own.
وَمَا يَنْطِقُ عَنِ الْهَوَى () إِنْ هُوَ إِلاَّ وَحْيٌ يُوحَى ()
“He (the Prophet) does not speak from his own desire. It (the Qur’an) is but a revelation revealed” (al-Najm, 53:3-4).
There were and there are issues not addressed directly in the Qur’an. Prophetic rulings forbidding men to wear silk or adorn themselves with gold and silver, for example are not to be found in the Qur’an. There is no choice for Muslims in matters which Allah (SWT) or His messenger has decreed.
Prohibiting the allowed and allowing the prohibited is transgressing the limits of Allah (SWT). The Qur’an severely chastises the Jews and the Christians for empowering their rabbis and monks to decree what is lawful and unlawful.
اتَّخَذُوا أَحْبَارَهُمْ وَرُهْبَانَهُمْ أَرْبَابًا مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ
“They have taken their learned men and their monks for their lords besides God...” (al-Taubah, 9:31). It is reported that when the Messenger of Allah (SAW) recited this ayah, Adi bin Hatim (RA), who had had reverted to Islam from Christianity commented, “They did not worship them.” The Prophet said, “Yes they did. They (i.e., the rabbis and monks) prohibited the allowed and allowed the prohibited for them, and they (the people of the Book) obeyed them. This is how they worshipped them.”
3. The divine injunction prohibiting anything is due to its impurity and harmfulness. It is Allah (SWT) alone who knows through His infinite wisdom what is ultimately good for us and what is not.
4. Whatever leads to haram is also haram. Islam employs the principle of Sadd az-Zarai’ (blocking the means to unlawful ends). For example, to prevent the unlawful practice of sex outside marriage, all doors that may lead to it have been closed. Obscene literature, vulgar songs, display of nudity, putting on sexually appealing or scanty clothing, private and casual mixing between men and women, and all actions that may lead to the evil of adultery or fornication have been prohibited. It is also important to note that the sin of the haram is not limited to the perpetrator of the sin, but extends to all those who have contributed to or have been a party to that sinful act.
5. Good intentions do not make the haram acceptable. Any ill-gotten wealth, for example cannot be used toward investing in a cause, however noble it may be. Islam does not consent to employing haram means to achieve praise-worthy ends. It does not subscribe to the maxim, “End justifies the means.” The intention, the means employed, and the end should all be honorable. The Prophet (SAW) said,
إِنَّ اللَّهَ طَيِّبٌ لَا يَقْبَلُ إِلَّا طَيِّبًا
“Allah is pure and accepts nothing but what is pure.”
6. Allah (SWT) has made it explicitly clear what is halal and what is haram. However, there is a gray area between the clearly halal and the clearly haram. This is the area of what is doubtful. Some people may not be able to decide whether a particular matter is permissible or forbidden. In relation to such matters, Islam considers it an act of piety for the Muslim to avoid doing what is doubtful in order to stay clear of doing something haram.
7. ‘Necessity dictates exception’ is one of the legal maxims formulated by the fuqaha (Muslim jurists). Islam takes cognizance of the demands of life and to human weakness and capacity to face them. For example, it permits the Muslim, under the compulsion of necessity to eat a prohibited food in quantities sufficient to remove the necessity and save himself from death.
May Allah bless us with a proper understanding of His deen.
أَقُولُ قَوْلِي هَذَا وَأَسْتَغْفِرُ اللَّهَ لِي وَلَكُمْ وَلِسَائِرِ المُسْلِمينَ وَالمُسْلِمَاتْ فَاسْتَغْفِرُوهْ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ
الحمد لله رب العالمين والصلاة والسلام على سيد المرسلين وعلى آله وأصحابه أجمعين.
Brothers and sisters! As discussed, the lawful and the unlawful are clear without any shadow of doubt. However, between these two positions, there are matters which are ambiguous and which most people don’t know about; whether they are permissible or impermissible. These are matters about which there are differences of opinion among the scholars of Islam.
In this regard, the Prophet (SAW) gave some practical solutions that are known through the prophetic traditions. When having to encounter a doubtful matter, the teachings of ahadith guide us to follow the instincts of our heart rather than blindly rely on the fatwas of muftis. There is a beautiful advice given through a hadith reported by Hassan ibn Ali ibn Abu Talib (RA), the grandson of the Prophet (SAW) who said, “I memorized from the Messenger of Allah (SAW),” “Leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt.” A muttaqi –God-fearing and God-conscious person follows such recommendations without any hesitation. It becomes difficult for a person who engages in doubtful matters to prevent himself from falling into sin. On the other hand, by staying away from doubtful matters, he protects himself from falling into sin. Therefore, staying at the center of sphere of the permissible is the safest way to remain happy and content.
Many people, who are not conversant with the spirit of the Shari'ah, insist on using these boundaries to the limits, and a point is reached where only a hair's breadth separates obedience from disobedience. Consequently many people fall prey to disobedience, even to downright error and wrong-doing. For once a man arrives at this point he is seldom capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and maintaining the absolute self-control needed to keep within the lawful limits. Well-known authentic scholars may be asked for clarifications and rulings when confronted with matters that are doubtful. After all, they carry the trust (amanah) of guiding the believers to the straight path. A person should never regret for having to abandon the doubtful in order to please Allah (SWT). Allah (SWT) will bless such a person in ways he cannot imagine.
وَمَنْ يَتَّقِ اللَّهَ يَجْعَلْ لَهُ مَخْرَجًا وَيَرْزُقْهُ مِنْ حَيْثُ لَا يَحْتَسِبُ
“Whoever has taqwa of Allah — He will find a way out for him, and provide for him from where he does not expect” (At-Talaq, 65:2-3). Despite the issuance of any fatwa, it is basically the heart that should be engaged in the decision making process. The heart is the seat of intellect, logic, and reasoning. Moreover, it is also the abode of taqwa. After making one’s heart the last resort for arriving at a decision, if one is still fumbling to choose between options, then one should exercise the use of the Istikhara prayer. Istikhara means to ask Allah to guide one to the right thing concerning any affair in one’s life, especially when one has to choose between two or more alternatives.
This is the attitude toward decision making that a God-fearing and God-conscious person possessing a sound heart has. One who follows Allah’s instructions given in the Qur’an and follows the Prophet’s teachings through his ahadith is the one who has a spiritually healthy heart. And the one who does not do so has a spiritually sick heart. The former is the one who holds on to the lawful and the latter is the one who gets stuck to the unlawful.
Indeed, Allah (SWT) chose Islam as the complete and perfect deen for us, showered His favors upon us, and blessed us with the best of humanity—our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAW), who taught us our deen. May Allah make us live with what is lawful and keep us far away from what is unlawful; ameen.