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There is a very well known shar’ī maxim that goes: The default in matters is permissibility based on the verse, “It is He who created all that is on the earth for you.” (2:29) The basic understanding is that things are to be taken as halal (permitted) unless there is something that compellingly informs us that it is haram (impermissible). The practical points that come out of this:
1. Subservience to God isn’t built on restrictions; this is not a godly attitude. Yes, we should be diligent in abstaining from those things that God deems harmful, but that’s after we’ve strongly established God doesn’t want those things for us. A godly mentality doesn’t view the shariah as a restrictive framework but a constitutive one – it’s more about what we do than what we don’t do.
2. Seeking to be restrictive (rather than engendering diligence) contradicts what God wants. To prevent an austere outlook God warns, “Believers, do not ask about matters which, if made known to you, might make things difficult for you…” (5:101) The Qur’an offers many examples of how such an attitude leads to misguidance, most notably in the example of the Children of Israel. In fact, one of the reasons Jesus was sent to them was to temper their austerity! “I have come to confirm the truth of the Torah which preceded me, and to make some things lawful to you which used to be forbidden.” (3:50)
3. God does not encourage austerity/restrictiveness anywhere in revelation, and in fact the opposite is true. We are told:
- “Strive hard for God as is His due: He has chosen you and placed no hardship in your deen.” (22:78)
- “God wants ease for you, not hardship.” (2:185)
- “God wants to lighten your burden; man was created weak.” (4:28)
- “Say: ‘Who has forbidden the adornment and the nourishment God has provided for His servants?’ Say, ‘They are permitted for those who believe during the life of this world: they will be theirs alone on the Day of Resurrection.’ This is how We make Our revelation clear for those who understand.” (7:32)
4. We must acknowledge our subjective interpretations and biases and be very careful not to impute these on God. This is why we find that earlier believers were particularly careful in making pronounced judgements of “halal” and “haram” and would instead say things like “I don’t like it” or “that doesn’t work for me” instead of saying emphatically “this is haram.” Such behaviour was in following what God said, “Do not say falsely, ‘This is permitted and that is forbidden’ inventing a lie about God: those who invent lies about God will not prosper.” (16:116)
Now I sympathise that this way of thinking can be challenging for some who have socialised into viewing ‘religiosity’ as a list of don’ts, or with those who fear that it opens the floodgates to lewd permissiveness and iniquity. I don’t believe such fears are well founded since God clearly didn’t when informing people of the optimum attitude.
To conclude, what I seek (here and beyond) is:
1. To address this misconstruction so that we rightly focus on the ‘dos’ which is far more inspiring, stands as actual weight on the scales of final judgement, and brings about actual productive outcomes. Not doing doesn’t build much, it simply averts things. Where there is a focus on doing righteous productive things, harms are averted and benefits are produced simultaneously. It’s an efficient attitude, and one God seems to promote. Furthermore, a prohibitory attitude causes us to obsess on material things rather than talk about, and celebrate, God.
2. To erode the idea that the moment we undermine a restrictive attitude or speak about the permissibility of particular matters that somehow it’s a licence to legitimise immorality or what God has clearly sanctioned, or that we identify with the bizarre and paradoxical interests of “progressives/reformists”, who we must acknowledge have capitalised on the cognitive dissonance induced by illegitimate restrictiveness (such as the abuse of “sadd dhari’ah” – the slippery slope argument). Without indulging “progressives/reformists” delusions, we need to speak to the suffocating mentality so that believers are unshackled by faith to experience the delights (halawah) of īmān and ‘ubūdiyyah and witness its uplifting results.
3. To clarify that God wants us to celebrate all He has made available to us and constantly show our appreciation (hamd/shukr). We do not have to ‘arrive at the conclusion’ that something is permitted since that’s a default position that doesn’t change unless there’s a strong argument to restrict the freedom to indulge. To be clear, I have no right to make subservience to God ‘easier’ for people, it is a right reserved solely for God. But God has articulated His expectations and in His own words He has made subservience easy, often effortless, since man was created weak, and suffocating or dissonance-inducing conceptualisations severely undermine the ability of humans to enjoin in consistent and persistent subservience. God says, “Believers, be mindful of God, as is His due, and make sure you devote yourselves to Him, to your dying moment.” (3:102) And in speaking to consistency, Aishah relates that the Prophet would teach that the most valued actions to God are “those that are consistent, even if they are minimal.” (al-Bukhari)