Abu Hurairah ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Sakhr, radiyallahu ‘anhu, reported: I heard the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, say:
“Avoid that which I forbid you to do and do that which I command you to do to the best of your capacity. Verily the people before you were destroyed only because of their excessive questioning and their disagreement with their Prophets.”
[Al-Bukhari & Muslim]
Sabab al-wurud (reasons and background of a hadith) is very important to enable us to understand its meaning. This hadith can be understood by knowing its background. It was related during an incident where the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said: “Allah has commanded you to perform Hajj. So perform Hajj, O servants of Allah.” Then a man stood up and said: “O Prophet of Allah, do we have to do it every year?” Then the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said: “That whatever I forbid you to do, avoid it and whatever I command you to do, do it as much as you can.”
The incident above was at the time of revelation. Asking too many questions about an obligation may lead to complications and confusions. The Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, was not happy with the question raised by the man for it could have caused the Hajj to be performed every year by each Muslim if the answer was yes to that question.
However, asking questions in the right way is encouraged as understood from the first hadith in this Forty Hadith collection. In fact, the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, used questions and answers to educate his Companions. Questions that lead to knowledge and goodness are encouraged. What is prohibited and discouraged are questions that will lead to confusion, doubt and chaos in the community, like asking questions about unnecessary details.
One significant characteristic of Shariah, i.e. Islamic Law, is its flexibility and practicality. One’s capacity is regarded and considered in fulfilling obligations.
A Muslim is encouraged to do good actions based on his/her ability and capacity.
Hence Hajj is performed when one has the ability and facility to do it. However if one is tied-up with loans or with other clashing obligations, then there is room for delaying it for another time. This is supported by the Qur’anic verse: “…And Hajj to the House (Kaabah) is a duty that mankind owes to Allah, those can afford the expenses…” [Surah Al-Imran (3): ayat 97].
In other actions like prayers, the Prophet’s, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, statement “perform as much as you can” can also mean to perform it at the preferred time and mode (in congregation). However due to unavoidable circumstances, they can be performed later within the specified time. Similarly, a person who is not able to stand in prayer may pray while sitting.
Flexibility is also attributed to other obligations like fasting. For example, one may break the fast while traveling or if he is sick and make it up on other days.
The forbidden must be totally avoided by the Muslim to the extent that whatever leads to haram (prohibited act) must be avoided as well, even without intention of indulging in it. By refraining from acts that lead to a prohibited act, we are actually safeguarding ourselves from falling into the forbidden.
Another application of the statement “perform as much as you can” is what Imam al-Shatibi said about a Muslim should not attach hardship to any good deed or act even if it is an obligation. If there is an easier option, one should not use the harder option. For example, during cold weather we should use warm water for wudu’ (ablution), if we have the option. Hardship is not intended by the shari’ah and should be avoided. However when there is no other choice, then the reward for the person will be higher.
The same principle applies to mandubat (good actions that are not compulsory but encouraged). We should do as much as we can. According to Imam al-Shatibi one shouldn’t make any commitment that he/she must do a certain mandubat following strictly to a certain schedule but instead he/she should do it with ease at his/her own capacity. For example, don’t make it a wajib (compulsory) that you will fast every Monday and Thursday but do it as much as you are able to comfortably and break it from time to time. If you try to commit yourself in these matters, they may burden you and you may finally get fed up and abandon them.
On this issue, the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said: “O people, perform such acts as you are capable of doing, for Allah does not grow weary but you will get tired.”
In another hadith the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, said: “The acts most pleasing to Allah are those which are done continuously, even if they are small.” [Recorded by Imam Muslim]
There are some exceptions to the hadith which can be understood from the Qur’an and Sunnah. When the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, forbade the haram, the general rule is to avoid them. However there are exceptions like during necessity or when there is a clash between a minor and a major harm. For example, in a situation where it is necessary to eat something which is forbidden or face the risk of losing one’s life. In this case, a greater harm is avoided by tolerating a minor harm. This principle is called by the scholars as weighing between benefits and harm.
Understanding and practicing these principles may lead us to live a better and practical life, and help us fulfill our obligations in the right way. Applying them will lead us to love, appreciate and continuously practice Ibadah (good deeds).
Dr. Jamal Ahmed Badi