The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam

While Islam reprimands all those who, on their own authority, declare what is lawful and what is prohibited, it is more strict with respect to those who voice prohibitions; for the tendency to set up prohibitions results in hardship for human beings, unjustifiably narrowing what Allah has made spacious for His creatures.

Moreover, this tendency is prevalent among some of those who go to extremes in matters of religion and must be checked. The Prophet (peace be on him) fought against this pseudo-pietism and zealotry by every means, warning those who indulged in it with the words, “The zealots will perish,” repeated three times. (Reported by Muslim, Ahmad, and Abu Daoud.)

The Prophet (peace be on him) characterized his Message by saying, “I have been sent with what is straight and easy”. (Reported by Ahmad)

The straightness of his Message consists of belief in tawheed (the unity of Allah) and its ease in practice and legislation, in contrast to shirk (Ascribing partners, or associating others, with Allah. (Trans.)) and to the prohibiting of good things of this life. The Prophet (peace be on him) has mentioned all this in a hadith qudsi (A hadith in which the Prophet (peace be on him) refers a saying to Allah, the Prophet himself being merely the narrator. Unlike the Qur’an, one cannot say of a hadith quasi that “Allah said it.” In the case of a hadith quasi, the meaning is from Allah but the words are the Prophet’s, transmitted to him either through a vision or revelation. (Trans.)), reporting the saying of Allah Ta’ala: They prohibited to people what I had made lawful for I created people upright (hunafah). Then the evil ones came to them and led them astray from their religion them and commanded them to associate with Me that for which I had not sent down any authority. (Reported by Muslim.)

Prohibiting something which is halal is similar to committing shirk, and this is why the Qur’an censures the idolaters of Arabia for their polytheism, their idols, and for prohibiting to themselves, without any authority from Allah, the eating and the use of certain kinds of produce and cattle. Among these prohibited animals were those which were called bahirah, saibah, wasilah, and ham during the pre-Islamic period of jahiliyyah. (The state of mind and conditions of life prior to the advent of Islam, characterized by deviation from the guidance of Allah and the adoption of ungodly systems and ways of life. (Trans.)) Bahirah (the slit-eared) denoted a female camel which had given birth to five calves, the last of which was a male.

The ear of such a camel was slit and she was loosed to roam freely; she was not to be ridden, milked, or slaughtered, and was free to eat and drink from any place she liked without hindrance. Saibah referred to a male or female camel which was released to roam freely because of a vow, usually made following a safe return from a journey, the cure of an illness, or for some other reason. As for wasilah, if the firstborn of a female goat were a male, the polytheists would sacrifice him to their gods, while if it were a female they would keep her for themselves. In the case of twin offspring, one female and the other male, they would say, “He is her brother,” and instead of sacrificing the male they would release him to roam free; he was known as wasilah. And if a male camel’s second generation offspring was capable of carrying a rider, they would let the older camel go free, saying, “He saved his back,” and calling him al-ham.

While there are other interpretations of these four terms, they are all of a similar nature. The Qur’an rejected these prohibitions and left no excuse for those who practiced them to follow the errors of their forefathers: Allah did not institute bahirah or saibah or wasilah or ham; but those who disbelieve forge a lie against Allah, and most of them do not use their reason. When it is said to them, ‘Come to what Allah has revealed and to the Messenger,’ they say, ‘What we found our fathers doing is enough for us.’ What! And even though their fathers did not know anything and were not rightly guided? (5:103-104)

In Surah al-An’am, there is a detailed discussion of what such people claimed to be haram of camels, oxen, sheep, and goats. In this context the Qur’an uses an ironic style of rhetorical questioning to convince them of their error: Eight pairs (of cattle), two of sheep and two of goats. Say: Has He forbidden the two males or the two females or that which the wombs of the two hold? Inform me with knowledge if you are truthful. And two (pairs) of camels and two of oxen. Say: Has He forbidden the two males or the two females? (6:143-144)

In another discussion contained in Surah al-A’raf, Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala rejects the claims of all prohibitors, laying down the final criteria governing prohibitions: Say: Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has brought forth for His servants, and the good things of His providing?…Say: What my Lord has indeed prohibited are shameful deeds, whether open or secret, and sin and rebellion without just cause, and that you associate with Allah that for which He has sent down no authority, and that you say concerning Allah that about which you do not know. (7:32-33)

A significant aspect of these discussions is that they were revealed in Makkah. The Makkan revelations invariably dealt with matters of faith, the oneness of Allah Ta’ala, and the Hereafter. We may therefore deduce that, in the sight of Allah, this matter of declaring things to be prohibited without any authority from Him was not a minor matter but one which pertained to the fundamentals and general principles of the faith.

In Madinah certain Muslims showed a tendency toward asceticism, denying themselves some permissible pleasures. Then, in order to keep them within the limits set by Himself and bring them back to the straight path of Islam, Allah revealed the following strongly-worded verses: You who believe! Do not make haram the good things which Allah has made halal for you, and do not transgress; indeed, Allah does not like the transgressors. And eat of what Allah has provided for you, lawful and good, and fear Allah, in Whom you are believers. (5:87-88)

4. The Prohibition of Things Is Due to Their Impurity and Harmfulness

It is the right of Allah, the One Who created human beings and bestowed innumerable gifts on them, to legalize or prohibit as He deems proper, and to place obligations and responsibilities upon them as He sees fit. As His creatures, they have neither the right to question nor to disobey Him. But Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala is not arbitrary in what He commands. Because He is merciful to His servants, He makes things halal and haram for a reason, with peoples’ well-being in view. Accordingly, He has neither permitted anything except what is pure nor has He prohibited anything except what is impure.

It is true that Allah Ta’ala had prohibited certain good things to the Jews, but this was only as a punishment for their rebelliousness and transgression of the limits set by Allah. Thus He says: And to the Jews We forbade every animal with claws, and of cattle and sheep We have forbidden them their fat, except what is carried on their backs or entrails, or what is connected to the bone; thus did We recompense them for their rebelliousness, and indeed, We speak the truth. (6:146)

Elsewhere in the Qur’an Allah has described other manifestations of this rebellious attitude: Because of the wrongdoing of the Jews, We prohibited to them some of the good things which had been permitted to them, and because of their hindering many from the path of Allah, and their taking usury although they had been forbidden to do it, and their wrongfully devouring peoples wealth… (4:160-161)

When Allah sent His final Messenger (peace be on him) with the eternal complete religion to humanity after it had developed to a state of maturity, He demonstrated His mercy by removing these prohibitions, which had been a temporary penalty for a rebellious, stiff-necked people. (See, for example, Exodus 32:9. (Trans.)) And the coming of the Prophet (peace be on him) who would relieve them of this burden was foretold to the Jews and Christians, who, as the Qur’an states: …they find described in their own scriptures, in the Taurat and the Injeel. He commands them what is right and forbids them what is evil; He makes lawful to them what is good and makes unlawful what is foul; He releases them from their burdens and from the yokes which were upon them… (7:157) (Taurat refers to the original scripture revealed to the Prophet Moses by God, and Injeel to what He revealed to the Prophet Jesus. These are not to be confused either with the existing Torah or Old Testament, or the four Gospels of the New Testament. (Trans.))

In Islam, ways other than prohibiting the good things were prescribed by Allah Ta’ala for the eradication of sins: sincere repentance’ which cleanses sins as water cleanses dirt; good deeds, which compensate for evil ones; spending in charity, which extinguishes fire; and trials and sufferings, which disperse sins as the winter wind disperses dry leaves. Accordingly, we know that in Islam things are prohibited only because they are impure or harmful. If something is entirely harmful it is haram, and if it is entirely beneficial it is halal; if the harm of it outweighs its benefit it is haram, while if its benefit outweighs its harm it is halal. This principle is explained in the Qur’an in relation to wine and gambling: They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say (O Prophet): In them is great sin and some benefit for human beings, but the sin is greater than the benefit…. (2:219)

By the same logic, if it is asked, what is halal in Islam, the answer is, the good things. Good things are those which moderate people acknowledge to be wholesome and which are approved by human beings in general without relation to the habits of a particular group. Allah Ta’ala says: They ask thee what is lawful to them (as food). Say: Whatever is good is lawful to you…. (5:4)

He also says: Today whatever is good is made lawful to you….(5:5)

The Muslim is not required to know exactly what is unclean or harmful in what Allah has prohibited; it may be hidden from him but be apparent to someone else, or its harm may not have been discovered during his lifetime but may be understood at a later period. What is required of a Muslim is simply to say, “We have heard and we shall obey.” Do we not observe that Allah prohibited the eating of pork without the Muslims being aware of the reason for its prohibition apart from the fact that the pig is a filthy animal? Centuries passed, and then scientific research discovered the presence of parasites and deadly bacteria in its flesh. Yet even if scientific research had discovered nothing in pork, or if it had discovered much more than this, the Muslim would still continue to believe it to be unclean.

Another example of this is in the Prophet’s saying: “Avoid three abominable acts (that is, the one who does them is cursed by Allah and by the people): defecating in streams, defecating on roadways, and defecating in shaded places.” (Reported by Abu Daoud, Ibn Majah and al-Hakim, and classified as sahih by Baihaqi.)

People of earlier times merely knew that these were filthy acts, abhorrent to civilized taste and public manners. With the advancement of science, we now know that these “three abominable acts” are hazards to public health, as they are the root cause of the spread of such dangerous diseases as hookworm (ankylostoma) and bilharzia (schistosomiasis).

Thus, as the light of knowledge penetrates more deeply and new discoveries are made, the beneficial aspects of the Islamic legislation relating to the lawful and the prohibited—in fact, the benefits of all its legal injunctions—become apparent to us. How could it be otherwise when they come from the Wise, All-Knowing, and Merciful God? …and Allah knows the mischief-monger from the one who puts things aright. And if Allah had willed, He could have put you into difficulties; indeed, Allah is Mighty, Wise…and Allah knows the mischief-monger from the one who puts things aright. And if Allah had willed, He could have put you into difficulties; indeed, Allah is Mighty, Wise. (2:220)

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