It was narrated on the authority of Abu ‘Abdullah An-Nu‘uman bin Bashir (may Allah be pleased with them) who said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) saying,
“That which is lawful is clear, and that which is unlawful is clear and between the two of them are doubtful (or ambiguous) matters about which not many people are knowledgeable. Thus, he who avoids these doubtful matters certainly clears himself in regard to his religion and his honor. But he who falls into the doubtful matters falls into that which is unlawful, like the shepherd who pastures around a sanctuary, all but grazing therein. Verily, every king has a sanctuary, and Allah’s sanctuary is His prohibitions. In the body there is a piece of flesh which, if it is sound, all of the body is sound, and which, if it is diseased, all of the body is diseased. This part of the body is the heart.”
[Bukhari – Kitab al Iman (Book on Faith), hadith 52; Muslim – Kitab al Musaqah (Book on Share Cropping); 1599/107.]
Explanation of the Hadith
“That which is lawful is clear, and that which is unlawful is clear and between the two of them are doubtful (or ambiguous) matters”
The meaning of this is that the completely permissible is clear. There is no confusion in it. Similarly, the completely prohibited is clear. However, between these two matters are matters about which it is difficult for many people to distinguish between the permissible and the prohibited. As for those who are firmly grounded in knowledge, there is no confusion for them and they can easily distinguish between the two.
Examples of the completely permissible are eating wholesome crops, fruits and meat, drinking wholesome drinks, and wearing what one needs from cotton, linen, wool, or fur. Also included is marriage, and taking slaves, and other things obtained by a valid contract such as a sale, inheritance, gift or booty.
Examples of the completely prohibited are eating animals, which were dead before being slaughtered, their blood, or pork. Also prohibited is drinking alcohol, marriage between prohibited relations, wearing silk for men, earning what is unlawful such as interest, gambling, and the price of what is not permissible to be sold, as well as taking wealth which was stolen, or taken unjustly, etc.
Ambiguous matters, however, include eating some things about which scholars differed with regard to their permissibility or prohibition. Examples are eating things such as horses, mules, and donkeys, or lizards; drinking the juice of pressed grapes which causes intoxication in large quantities, and wearing lion skins, etc. Also, eating from earnings about which the scholars differed, such as Al- ‘Aynah and Tawwrruq (a type of sales transaction which resembles interest), are considered ambiguous matters. Ahmad, Ishaq and other great scholars explained the meaning of the ambiguous matters with this meaning and similar examples,
Allah, the Exalted sent down upon His Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) the Book, and clarified in it for the Muslim nation all that was required for them to know regarding the permissible and the prohibited, such as is mentioned in Allah’s words which says,
“And We have sent down to you the Book (The Qur’an) as an exposition of everything, a guidance, a mercy, and glad tidings for those who have submitted themselves (to Allah as Muslims).” (Surah an-Nahl, 16 : 89)
Mujahid and others said that this refers to everything ordered or prohibited. Also, Allah the Exalted said in the end of the Chapter of An- Nisa (Women) in which Allah clarified many of the rulings related to finances and women with saying,
“(Thus) does Allah make clear to you (His Law) lest you go astray. And Allah is the All-Knower of everything.” (Surah an-Nisa, 4 : 176)
And Allah says,
“And why should you not eat of that (meat) on which Allah’s Name has been pronounced (at the time of slaughtering the animal)” (Surah al-An‘am, 6 : 119)
And He said,
“And Allah will never lead a people astray after He has guided them until He makes clear to them as to what they should avoid …” (Surah at-Tawbah, 9 : 115)
He charged the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) with clarifying the difficult aspects of the revelation by saying,
“And We have also sent down unto you the dhikr [reminder and the (i.e. the Qur’an)], that you may explain clearly to men what is sent down to them, and that they may give thought.” (An-Nahl; 16:44)
The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) was not allowed to die until the religion was completed, and for this reason it was revealed to him on Mount ‘Arafat a short time before his death by saying,
“…This day, I have perfected your religion for you, completed My Favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion …” (Surah al-Ma’idah, 5 : 3)
And the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said, “Certainly, I have left you upon a matter that is very clear, such that its night is (as clear) as its day. No one strays from it after me except the one who is destroyed.” [Musnad Ahmad – hadith 4/126, its narration is authentic (sahih)]
Overall, Allah and his Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) did not leave any permissible matter except after clarifying it, nor any prohibited matter except after clarifying it. However, some matters are clearer in their clarification than others. Thus, there remains no doubt in the matters which were clarified and well known, or known in the religion by necessity, leaving no excuse for anyone to be ignorant of them in any land where Islam is prevalent.
Reasons for differing in permissibility and prohibition
Differing among the scholars occurred on issues which were clarified on a smaller scale, such as what was well known among one particular group of scholars who arrived at a consensus regarding their permissibility or prohibition, but might be unknown to others, as well as what did not become known among the scholars of Shari‘ah who differed in their permissibility and prohibition.
Among those reasons for differences is that there might be unknown facts, which were related by only a few people, and thus did not reach all the people of knowledge. Also, there could be two texts that are related to one subject, one of which states its permissibility and the other its prohibition. Thus, one of the two texts reaches one group and not the other, so they hold fast to that which reached them. Or when both texts reach one who does not know their history, he might refrain from giving a ruling due to his lack of knowledge as to which one is being abrogated. Similarly, there may be differences on that in which there is no clear text, drawn from generalities, the inferred meaning, or analogy, causing considerable differences in the understanding of scholars.
Differing also occurs in that in which there is an order or prohibition. This is because the understanding of scholars differs with regard to whether the order carries the weight of obligation or recommendation; or in the case of prohibitions, whether it is to be considered an absolute prohibition or abhorrence.
There are other causes of differing than those we have mentioned. Despite that, it is necessary there be a scholar that in the Muslim nation whose speech is in accordance with the Truth, to be the one knowledgeable on that ruling though it is ambiguous to others. (The scholars of) the Muslims will not agree/reach consensus on falsehood, and the people of falsehood will not overcome the people of truth, and the truth will never be restrained and unimplemented in all cities and times.
For this reason, the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said that ambiguous matters are, “matters about which not many people are knowledgeable.” This indicates that while some people know them, it will be ambiguous to those who don’t know the ruling, but not ambiguous in itself. And this is the reason which leads to the ambiguity of certain matters for many scholars.
Meaning of doubtful matters
Imam Ahmad explained doubtful matters as being in a position between permissible and prohibited, meaning the completely permissible and completely prohibited. He said, “Thus, he who avoids these doubtful matters certainly clears himself in regard to his religion,” and he explained it as sometimes a mixing between the permissible and the prohibited.
Thus ambiguous matters, which are not clear as to whether they are permissible or prohibited for many people, are as the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) related. It could be clear to some people that it is permissible or prohibited due to his greater knowledge.The words of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) indicate that there are some people who know the rulings of these ambiguous matters, while many do not.
“Thus, he who avoids these doubtful matters certainly clears himself in regard to his religion and his honor. But he who falls into the doubtful matters falls into that which is unlawful”
These words of the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) with regard to ambiguous matters divide mankind into two categories. This is either with regard to he for whom it is ambiguous and does not know the ruling, or to the one who knows the ruling and followed what his knowledge indicated to him, for this is a third category which was not mentioned because its ruling is clear. This category is the best of the three categories, because he knew the ruling of Allah in those matters which were ambiguous to people and followed his knowledge in that. Those who didn’t know Allah’s ruling on a matter form two categories:
First Category: one who avoided these ambiguities because they were unknown to him and thus he clears himself for his religion and his honor. The meaning of “he clears himself’ here is that he seeks to be free from deficiency and dishonor in his religion and honor.
The wording of the hadith is either a commendation or rebuke for man, and what happens to him by mentioning the good is a commendation and by mentioning the bad is a rebuke. This could sometimes be in man’s self, his ancestors, or his family. So he who avoids ambiguous matters has protected his honor from rebuke and dishonor, which falls upon the one who does not avoid it. In this is evidence against whoever committed one of the ambiguous matters and exposed himself to blame and defamation. This meaning was mentioned by some of the Pious Predecessors who said, “Whoever exposed himself to suspicion should not blame whoever thought badly about him.” The hadith also indicates the praiseworthiness of seeking to clear one’s honor and religion.
Second Category: For whomever falls into ambiguous matters that are unknown to him as such, and did something which people think ambiguous with his knowledge that it is permissible in itself, then there is no sin upon him from Allah in that. However, if he fears that people will defame him because of it, in this case, to clear one’s honor, by leaving it would be better. This is as the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said to one who saw him standing with a woman unknown to the viewer, “She is (my wife) Safiyyah bint Huyay.” [Bukhari – Kitab Al I’tikaf (Book on I’tikaf), hadith 2038, 2039; Muslim – hadith 2175]
“But he who falls into the doubtful matters falls into that which is unlawful”
Concerning the one who commits a doubtful matter, while it is ambiguous to him, the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) stated that he has fallen into that which is unlawful. This explanation has two meanings:
(1) That his committing a doubtful matter while it is ambiguous to him is a step towards committing what is unlawful and what he knows as unlawful in steps and indulgence.
In the hadith, “And whoever bravely indulges in these [unclear] doubtful things, is likely to commit what is clearly illegal.” [Bukhari – Kitab Al-Buyut (Book on Transactions), hadith 2051]
The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) said, “He who mixes with doubt is likely to commit tyranny,” meaning that he comes close to committing the completely prohibited. Tyranny is to advance without fear of anything or anyone.
(2) The second meaning is that whoever advance towards something which is ambiguous to him does not see whether it is permissible or prohibited, thus, and cannot be sure that the matter itself is permissible, and may fall into the prohibited without knowing that it is unlawful.
“Like the shepherd who pastures around a sanctuary, all but grazing therein. Verily, every king has a sanctuary, and Allah’s sanctuary is His prohibitions.”
This is a parable which the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) used for whomever falls into ambiguous maters, for it brings him closer to falling into what is absolutely unlawful. Thus, the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) compared the prohibitions to a sanctuary which is guarded by the king, who prevents others from coming close to it.
The Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) created a protected sanctuary twelve miles around his city. No trees from it were to be cut, nor game hunted. ‘Umar and ‘Uthman protected places for the fodder of camels given in charity. Similarly, Allah the Exalted forbid transgressing His prohibitions and prevented His slaves from coming close to them, and called them Allah’s boundaries, saying,
“These are the limits (set) by Allah, so approach them not. Thus does Allah make clear His ayat (proofs, evidences, lessons, signs, revelations, verses, laws, legal and illegal things, Allah’s set limits, orders, etc.) to mankind that they may become the pious.” (Surah al-Baqarah, 2 : 187)
This clarification defined what he made permissible for them and what he prohibited to them, so that they wouldn’t come close to the prohibited or go beyond the permissible. This is what He said in another verse that reads,
“These are the limits ordained by Allah, so do not transgress them. And whoever transgresses the limits ordained by Allah, then such are the wrong-doers.” (Surah al-Baqarah, 2 : 229)
Allah made he who pastures around the sanctuary or close to it capable of entering it and grazing therein. For this reason, whoever goes beyond the lawful and falls into doubtful matters has come as close as possible to the unlawful. What is more natural than mixing with the absolutely unlawful and falling into it? This is a warning that one should stay far away from prohibited deeds and keep a barrier between them and himself.
Abud-Darda’ said, “Complete piety is that the worshipper should fear Allah until he fears Him in even the most minute of matters, even to the extent that he leaves some of those things which he views to be lawful, fearing that they might be unlawful. In doing so, he makes a veil between himself and what is unlawful.”
This hadith is used as evidence by those who take the view of prohibition of what leads to the unlawful, and the prohibition of all means to the unlawful. This is also indicated by the principles of Shari’ah, which prohibit even small amounts of substances which require large amounts to intoxicate. It is also demonstrated by the prohibition against unrelated men and women being alone together, and prayer after the dawn and after ‘Asr in order to stop what could lead to praying at the time of sunrise and sunset, and preventing the one who is fasting from sexual foreplay, if it would stir his passions.
Soundness of the heart
“In the body there is a piece of flesh which, if it is sound, all of the body is sound, and which, if it is diseased, all of the body is diseased. This part of the body is the heart.”
This indicates that soundness of the actions of the worshipper s limbs and his staying far from the unlawful, and avoiding what is doubtful, is according to the soundness of his heart. For if his heart is sound, empty of all except love for Allah, and fear of falling into what He hates, then all of the actions of the body will be sound. This will cause one to stay far from all unlawful deeds, and avoid what is ambiguous in order to avoid falling into the unlawful. If the heart is corrupt, controlled by following its desires and what it loves, regardless of Allah’s hate for that, all of the actions of the body will also be corrupt, and it will be spurred on toward all sins and ambiguities according to following the desires of the heart. For this reason, the only heart which is accepted by Allah is that which is sound. As Allah says,
“Except him who brings to Allah a clean heart [clean from Shirk (polytheism) and nifaq (hypocrisy)” (Surah ash- Shu’ara, 26 : 89)
The sound heart is free of all vice and hated deeds. It is empty of all except love of Allah and what Allah loves, and fear of Allah and fear of all which takes him far from Him.
Al-Hasan said to a man, “Remedy your heart. For Allah’s desire for man is the soundness of his heart.”
The meaning of this is the soundness of their hearts; and there is no soundness of heart until there rests in it the knowledge of Allah, and His greatness, and love for Him, and fear of Him, and hope in Him, and the dependency upon Him, and with these things it is filled.
Soundness of the Limbs
Soundness of the actions of the heart causes soundness of the actions of the limbs. If the heart is sound, and desires nothing except Allah and what He desires, the limbs will do nothing except what Allah desires. They will hurry to what pleases Him, and halt from what He hates, and what one fears that He might hate, even if he is not sure of it.
Al-Hassan (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “I have not looked with my eyes, nor pronounced with my tongue, nor beaten with my hand, nor risen to my feet until I see whether it is for obedience or disobedience. If it is out of obedience, then I proceed, and if for disobedience, I hold back.”
Muhammad bin Al-Fadl Al-Balkhy said, “I have not taken a step during the last forty years for other than (the sake of) Allah, the Exalted and Glorified.”
Further, it was said to Dawud At-ta’iy when he went from the shade into the sun, “This is a mistake for which I am not sure how it will be recorded.”
Those are a people that when their hearts were sound and for whom no desire for other than Allah remained, the actions of their limbs also became sound, and they did not move except for the sake of Allah, the Exalted and Glorified, and for what pleased Him. And Allah knows best.
By: Imam Ibn Rajab Al-Hanbali , From the book: Jami’ al Ulum wal Hikam.