Ethical Observations on Hadith of Istishab

Istiṣḥāb is one of the most important practical principles of legal theory used in deriving law. For an introduction on the principle, read: Principle of Istishab and Its Types

This brief post is a summary of some ethical observations made by Ayatullah Ali-Doost on the tradition used to derive the principle itself.

“…He does not destroy his certainty with doubt and doubt does not enter into certainty. No one of them mixes with the other but doubt is destroyed by certainty and he completes with certainty, based on certainty and does not depend on doubt in no condition whatsoever.”1

The aforementioned tradition has been extensively discussed in legal theory, however, there are some ethical observations that can be made on it as well.

1) Certainty in Making Judgements

Many of our judgements and conclusions are not based on certainty, and many times after further research we realize the contrary of what we initially thought to be true.

A man was brought to Amīr al-Mu’minīn (a) who was found in some ruins, with a blood-covered knife in his hand while there was a bloodied murdered person beside him. Amīr al-Mu’minīn (a) said to him, ‘What do you have to say?’ He replied, ‘I killed him.’ He (a) said, ‘Take him away and execute him.’ When they took him away, a man hurriedly came and said, ‘I killed him.’ Amīr al-Mu’minīn said to the first person, ‘What led you to confess against yourself?’ He replied, ‘I was unable to say otherwise, given that a group of men had seen me, then arrested me while I had a knife in my hand covered in blood and I was standing beside a man murdered and drenched in his blood. I feared being hit, so I confessed. Otherwise, I was just slaughtering a sheep near the ruins, when I felt the need to urinate. So, I entered these ruins, saw the man covered in his blood and stood up to escape all shocked, when those men saw me and captured me.

Amīr al-Mu’minīn (a) said, ‘Take both of them to Ḥasan (a) and say to him (a), what is the ruling concerning them?’ So, they went to Ḥasan (a) and narrated their story to him. Ḥasan (a) said, ‘Say to Amīr al-Mu’minīn (a), if this (second) man has indeed killed a person, then this (first) man has saved him. Allah (azwj) has said: [5:32] And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. Both are to be released, and the blood-money of the murdered person is to be given from the Bayt al-Māl.2

In this story, we see how contextual indicators sometimes present themselves in a way that an innocent person falls into difficulty because of how it is perceived in the eyes of others. Throughout the course of history, many innocent people have been executed and killed, while many guilty criminals ended up walking free from any sort of punishment. One of the causes of why our judgements end up being mistaken and uncertain is because we begin entering into areas which are outside of our expertise. This characteristic of believing we know and can understand everything pushes us to make incorrect judgements about matters that do not concern us and are in fact outside the scope of our expertise.

Making speculative judgements, not rooted in certainty attained after exhausting one’s self, is considered an infringement upon people’s rights (ḥaqq al-nās) and brings people’s religion into jeopardy.

2) Certainty in Individual Life

Your daily schedule, planning and the decisions you make for your life should be rooted in certainty. Your life schedule should not be mixed with assumptions and speculative decisions. A while back, a young student who was in his introductory stage of the seminary consulted me on a program to work on Arabic poetry from the period of Jāhilīyyah. I told him that if you are not sure about a certain project and endeavour, do not move forward with it and stick to the bare minimum with what you are sure of. Regrets are only a result of planning which was rooted in decisions where one was double minded to begin with.

3) Certainty in the Socio-Political Arena

If people’s relationship with the government is based on certainty, friendship and good-will, things happen to work out much better and are much more dynamic in nature. The biggest threat to the potential and capacities of a nation is from the inside, and as per our own experience, foreign enemies and threats were never really able to destroy our potential and capacities from the very root. We see how when the Mongols – who were known to be violent and harsh – attacked the Muslim world, they eventually converted to Islam and became part of the Islamic civilization, many of them even became Shi’a and changed their names. Or when Greek philosophy entered the Islamic world, there were various motives behind it, but this philosophy grew from mere 200 issues to 700 to eventually more than 1000 issues of discussion.

History of all parts of the world shows us that the damage done to civilizations from the inside far exceeds the damage done from the outside – in fact foreign threats only feed off internal disputes and cease them as an opportunity. Hence, internal threats need to be dealt with and the element of certainty, avoiding two-mindedness and doubts on issues brings about sustenance and perseverance to a nation that has no alternative


  1. Al-Kāfī, v. 3, pg. 352.
  2. Al-Kāfī, v. 7, pg. 289.

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