Dealing with Matters of Doubt in Islam


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Posted By Ml Usaamah Ahmed

In life, it is true that there exists both black and white. However, it is equally true that there exists twixt the two an area of grey, or a fine line, so to say. When pondering over Masā'il (religious queries), I often contemplate over the Shar'ī (Divine law derived) rulings for various scenarios. However, just as often the verdict is not clear cut. In moments such as these we turn to the laconic canon set forth by our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in an authentic narration of Tirmidhī:

دع ما يُريبك إلى ما لا يُريبك

'Leave what gives you doubt for that which does not give you doubt'.

In another authentic narration of Bukhārī, the Prophet ﷺ elaborates:

الْحَلاَلُ بَيِّنٌ وَالْحَرَامُ بَيِّنٌ، وَبَيْنَهُمَا مُشَبَّهَاتٌ لاَ يَعْلَمُهَا كَثِيرٌ مِنَ النَّاسِ‏

‘Permissible and impermissible things are both evident, but in between them there are doubtful things and most of the people have no knowledge of them’.

The Prophet ﷺ then further goes on to explain that he who saves himself from such things of doubt has saved his religion and honour, and on the contrary one who indulges in those is akin to a shepherd who grazes his flock near the pasture of another. This signifies he is close to straying from the correct path. It is from teachings such as this that the Hanafī school of jurisprudence derives its principle of Ittihāt (caution). We can see numerous examples of this in the scholars' verdicts.

It is unavoidable then, that on a day to day basis, one will encounter many circumstances for which the Shar'ī stance is clear yet the person themselves would be subject to their own volition. Take the example of a man who, out of desire or need, decides to eat out. Thus, as it is for all Muslims, the issue of Halāl (lawful) food arises. So, this person happens to see two restaurants. The first has a sign clearly inscribed with the familiar حلال albeit with the absence of the certification of any reputable Halāl monitoring organisation. Alongside this, the person is in an unfamiliar locality, so he knows not of the reputation of the business or of its owners. Adjacent to it, there is another restaurant, which is certified by a trusted body. Let the ruling be brought forth: the Sharī'ah (Divine law) clearly permits the consumption of any Halāl food, so on an objective level (in a black and white sense) both places are viable sources of sustenance. However, in light of the mentioned narrations it is apparent that both eateries are not equivalent; the one that is certified should be deemed of higher status that the former. Thus, it would be more correct for the person to eat at the latter as so to protect the integrity of his Imān (faith).

The status of actions is clear from Shar’ī proof, for it is reported from Ibn ‘Umar in the Sunan of Ibn Mājah that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘In the sight of Allāh, the worst of all Halāl acts is divorce’. It can then be argued that there exists a scale, formal or informal, where actions can be perceived as having rank, and a person must act as to what befits his rank for if they act below they may warrant rebuke.
My esteemed teachers often talk about the status of actions with respect to students of knowledge. They shed light on this matter by stating that initially one must recognize the status of such a student: a student whom Allāh has endowed with the blessing of the knowledge of His Book, the narrations of the Prophet ﷺ and a plethora of adjunct Islamic texts. One then can begin to understand that despite the verdict on many religious queries being Mubāh (permissible), the advice given by scholars is that they ought to be avoided by a student of knowledge; since the status of the student is so lofty it would be beneath him to indulge in such actions. An example of this is Sunnah clothing. It is apparent that wear clothes that are not found in the Sunnah is permissible such as suits. However, it would not be proper for a student of knowledge without necessity, to wear such clothing. Rather, it is much more befitting of him to don the blessed apparel of the Prophet ﷺ such as the Qamīs (long shirt until above the ankle) and Amāmah (turban). By doing this, as well as getting reward, he ascends to the rank Allāh has furnished him with.

To elucidate further, one should regard the stories of the prophets mentioned in the Holy Qur’ān. We know that the prophets have not the ability to sin – they are Ma’sūm ¬(sinless). The question that naturally arises is as to why Allāh chooses to reproach the prophets at certain instances, for surely only sins are worthy of admonition? However, there is no contradiction here as this can be easily explained by the former notion of actions having status. The status of the prophets is the highest amongst humankind and therefore amongst creation, so any action that can be perceived as a shortcoming by their part can be deemed unworthy of their calibre. Take the example of the behaviour of the hypocrites prior to the Battle of Tabūk. Whilst the Muslims were making preparations and readying for battle, the hypocrites would present the Prophet ﷺ with false excuses in order to be absolved of having to partake in the battle. The Prophet ﷺ, despite being aware of their deception, excused them from participating. In response to this incident Allāh revealed verse 43 of Sūrah at-Tawbah:

عَفَا اللَّهُ عَنْكَ لِمَ أَذِنْتَ لَهُمْ حَتَّىٰ يَتَبَيَّنَ لَكَ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا وَتَعْلَمَ الْكَاذِبِين

‘Allāh has pardoned you, [O Muhammad ﷺ]; why did you give you permit them [to remain behind] before the truthful ones could become distinct to you, and you could be sure of the liars?’

It is evident that Allāh is moderately criticising the excusing of the hypocrites by the Prophet ﷺ, and it also equally apparent that no sin has occurred. However, the error in judgement made by the Prophet ﷺ is below his high status, thus Allāh chooses to advise our Prophet ﷺ so to prevent such a shortcoming in the future. Ibn Abī Hātim records that ‘Awn said: ‘Have you heard criticism softer than this, starting with forgiveness before criticism’. It is therefore apparent that the severity (in the eyes of Allāh) of a shortfall by a person is proportional to their status; if someone other that a prophet had made that mistake it is probable that it would not warrant criticism by the Divine.

A plethora of principles can be derived, and many a lesson found in the exegesis of the aforementioned narration of Tirmidhī. We must therefore implement this valuable teaching in our lives especially in this modern age as progress soars; know, it is just as applicable today as is was 1400 years ago. Whether scholar, student or layman, the Hadīth does not differentiate just as it is timeless, but provides an extremely comprehensive principle for one to live his life by.