This is a transcript of a lecture given on the role of ease in Islam and Prophetic practice by Shaykh Mahallāti. The original lecture can be listened to here.
The legal practice (sharī’a) that the Prophet (p) brought has numerous traits and distinctions. For example, one of these favourable distinctions is that this legal practice is in sync with the intellect, and that the intellect would affirm these practices. Or at the least, this legal practice isn’t in opposition to what the intellect dictates. Another trait of this legal practice is that it is comprehensive with respect to worldly affairs and the next life. With respect to this world, this comprehensiveness includes different elements of both the individual and society. It isn’t a one-dimensional system [that focuses on the individual at the expense of the society, or on this world, at the expense of the next and vice-versa]. On this basis, if one wanted to, they could make a list of these distinctions and present a holistic image of what kind of system Islam is.
One of these important distinctions is that this religion is a simple one, an easy-going religion. It isn’t a cumbersome or difficult religion. Whoever accepts this religion and wishes to abide by its dictates, won’t find his or her life becoming overwhelming or restrictive. One of the current concerns levelled against religion is precisely this, that all religion offers and does for us is it puts an intolerable heavy burden on our shoulders that brings nothing but suffering and misery, and in doing so, life becomes taxing and human progression stunted. If this is the case, then accepting religion is going to be a difficult thing to do, and those who don’t accept religion will experience a much easier and smoother life. However, is this really the case?
The claim that we can find in religion, and I attribute this claim to religion itself and not to my own opinion and understanding, is that God Himself says: “and [He] has placed no hardship for you in the religion”1. This is a statement that God has presented to us officially in the text of the Qur’ān; that no hardship has been placed on you. Difficulty and hardship cannot be found in religion. At times in the Qur’ān God makes affirmative statements, yet in this instance, a negative statement has been utilised. This claim has also been made in the affirmative, such as the verse in Sūra Baqara: “And whosoever is ill or on a journey, it is a number of other days.” 2. Here God is removing the obligation of fasting on a person who is ill. Although we could pose the question, what problem is there if a person is required to fast? What problem is there if God was to say because you are ill and fasting, your reward has now been increased? Tolerate it, and you will be rewarded extra. Similarly for a person who is travelling, (which definitely makes fasting harder than if he wasn’t), what if the traveller was told to keep fasting [and in lieu get extra rewards]? Here God categorically says no, and finishes the verse: “God desires ease for you, and He does not desire hardship for you”.3
This is the [core] principle of the religion, that where ever a ruling puts a person in difficulty and hardship, just like the instance of fasting for the person who is ill, God has removed the obligation from them, and in its place, has preferred ease and comfort. As the verse makes clear, God has done so in order that we do not end up in difficulty.
It should be mentioned that the ‘ease’ and ‘difficulty’ mentioned here have two distinct domains in which they can be looked at. The first being ontological matters (takwīn), such as the conditions of the individual, or societal conditions, or for example, an illness that is difficult to remedy. In such issues, God has not removed any difficulties and a person will most definitely face some sort of difficulty and lack of ease on account of it. The second jurisdiction is the legislative domain (tashrī’), and it is this domain which the verse is referring to when God says He desires ease and does not desire hardship. That in the legislation of law, things that are hard and difficult have not been prescribed. This [understanding] can be found in the Qur’ān and is free from any doubts.4
The Prophet (p) himself has a very well-known tradition in this regard, where he has been reported to have said: “I have been sent with a shari’ā that is forgiving and easy”, although this tradition can’t be found in any reliable primary sources. However, Shaykh Kulaynī has recorded a very similar tradition which has a slight difference in wording which says: “…I have been sent with a path (hanīfah) that is forgiving and easy”5 The two fundamental words “forgiving” and “easy” have been used here in this tradition, and it has been narrated in Sunnī books also.
The word suhūlat means ease and its opposite is su’ūbat, which means difficulty. The other word, samāhat means to forgive or to overlook. You could describe a person to have samāhat, which means he is a forgiving person, he is someone to let things go without making a fuss, he will forgo his own right. It’s clear in this example this is the meaning of the word when ascribed to the acts of an individual person. Yet, in the context of religion, how can religion be said to have this samāhat and what would that mean? It means that if a person is unable to act according to a religious ruling because doing so would entail an intolerable level of difficulty, religion would forgo such an obligation. Religion takes a step back and says it doesn’t want it anymore. Just like in the instance of fasting, when it becomes a burden, religion says I forgo this obligation from you. This is what is meant by samāhat, and this can be found in the text itself.6
The ease (suhūlat) takes place in the very legislation, whereas the samāhat occurs in relation to the individual himself, who in certain situations, experiences a type of hardship that renders him incapable of acting according to the ruling. It could very well be the case that the hardship being faced by person X might not be a hardship for person Y and so on. What about the exceptions and the anomalies? In general legal systems, laws are legislated on a generic basis and therefore is inclusive of everyone and make no exceptions to the rule. In such a system, even if people find difficulty, they have no option but are forced to adhere to the rules. However, religion isn’t like this. Religion says, that if you have 1,000 people, all of them capable to act on the law, yet there is 1 person who finds it difficult to do so, religion will come and remove the obligation from that 1 person [and keep it on the remaining people]. Religion has no expectation from such a person, and in such a system, the individual does not get neglected or ignored in favour of the society. In common legal systems, this isn’t possible, it is vital that laws are legislated for the entire society without any exceptions. It isn’t possible to give laws in accordance with each individual, otherwise, everyone would claim to be an exception [to get out from acting according to the law]. However religion has nothing to do with this, if you consider yourself an exception, that is between you and your Lord. You can’t fast? Fine, don’t. You can’t pray standing? Fine, sit. You can’t pray sitting? Fine, pray while laying down. Religious obligations are legislated with samāhat (forgiveness).
The problem now is that this religion, which in actuality is indistinguishable from ease and forgiveness, when it reached us we found it to be extremely restricting and cumbersome. Which of the two should we therefore accept? The claim made by religion itself of being predicated on ease, or the reality that we see around us that religion is coupled with difficulty? We can’t deny the reality around us that by adopting religion our life has become considerably more difficult. And I’m not referring to elements of politics or international relations, but I’m speaking about our own personal lives. If we accept that religion is meant to be easy, as Islam says, then we have to admit the way we are practising religion is incorrect. Where does this error [of making things difficult] come from? Did our scholars not introduce religion to be one of ease? Did this difficulty enter our religion through their explanations and legal edicts (fatwā)? It isn’t possible for us to gain access directly to Islam, but rather we have to resort to interpretations and the opinions of scholars to do so. Were they the ones who propagated a difficult religion? Or no, is this difficulty the product of our own making? Or was it the religious government that made it hard? Or a combination of all of these (combined with some other factors)?
Whatever it is, we are now facing a wave of people in our society who have no inclination to be religious. As for how many people are part of this wave, I’m not in a position to give any figures, this would be better done by the sociologists and psychologists, those who are experts in this field. Before the Islamic Revolution, a significant portion of society was heavily inclined towards Marxism, this was one type of running away from religion. Now we are witnessing another type, and instead of people flocking towards Marxism, people are now either running away from religion itself or at the least, verbally accept religion yet ignoring its laws. One of the factors that could help explain this phenomenon is that people sense religion to be something far too difficult to practice. We need to make it clear for ourselves firstly where this difficulty comes from.
Unfortunately, this topic isn’t taken very seriously, and sometimes we think the opposite, that if people are put into hardship and are compelled to obey the law, religiosity will be increased and strengthened. However, such actions are counter-productive, and feelings of religiosity amongst people only get weaker [through the use of force and compulsion]. This is from Imam Bāqir himself, who, in a remarkable tradition recorded in al-Kāfi, says: “This religion is strong (matīn), so enter it with leniency…7
In the famous tradition of Imam Sādiq, where he enumerates the armies of the intellect and the armies of ignorance, leniency and toleration are mentioned to be soldiers of the intellect. Imam Khomeinī in his commentary upon this tradition says that religious guidance should be done so through leniency, and if anyone tries to spread religion through strict and harsh methods it will be counterproductive.8 Elsewhere he mentions that sometimes a person wishes to condemn a wrong action but does so with harshness, and this only leads to that person becoming obstinate and repeating the action again. At times, the person attempting to forbid the evil does so in such a harsh way that the person who he is reprimanding ends up becoming a disbeliever! Had this not been done, the person would have remained as he was, someone who at times experienced remorse and used to do the action in private rather than public. But because of the harsh manner of reprimanding and censuring that took place, the person decided to wash his hands of everything.9
Going back to the tradition of Imam Bāqir, he makes it very clear, enter religion with leniency and compassion. He then gives an example: imagine you want to go on a journey with an animal and you place on this animal an extremely heavy load. This animal has a specific capacity of what it can hold, if a load is put on the animal greater than its capacity it’s only a matter of time before it collapses and you won’t get to your destination. You don’t think that the heavier the load is the better it would be for the animal and the more it can take, or that it would travel quicker, doing so wouldn’t be of your benefit and it would be counter-intuitive. It would be a loss for you. Only an ignorant person would behave this way and put a load too heavy for the animal to carry, neither will the load reach its destination nor the person! Similarly, just like the animal has its own capacity and limits, the capacity of people should be kept in mind [when dealing with them]. Are the capacities of humans different or not? Do all humans have one level of capacity in terms of ethics, perfection and spirituality? Or have humans all been created with different levels of capacity? To continue the tradition, the Imam says: “do not compel people in the worship of Allah, [for if you do so] they shall end up like the spoiled mount [which on account of being overburdened with load] will not take the rider anywhere nor will anything of the mount itself remain”.10
The importance of leniency, compassion, keeping attention to the particular natures and capacities of people [are all of the utmost importance], especially in our time. In previous generations, these differences and varieties amongst people were not as vast as they are in ours. This is a result of our increased access to information, in previous times it wasn’t like this, their knowledge was limited, and so too was their local environments. The type of upbringing people went through in the past was uniform, they were nurtured in one rigid fashion, their wishes, ideas, relationships, etc, were very simple, it was possible in that era to prescribe a single prescription for everyone [in a one size fits all fashion]. Now imagine, even in that type of environment, Imam Bāqir is saying that ignoring the capacities and varieties in people isn’t possible! Now that we are at a time where these differences and variations are thousand times greater is it possible to treat people as if they are all the same?11 Information, inclinations, interests, personalities, all vary, and in this generation, if you give a person a load he can’t carry, he’ll throw off the load and run away.
We’ve experienced this and seen this, for example in cartoons they show a person pulling a huge load by a rope, and as the person starts moving the load the strain begins to take hold and before long the rope itself tears. Sometimes we think, that because there are a few people who aren’t able to carry the load, rather than decrease the load we’ll tighten the rope, or help him pull it a bit, without realising that this very act of pulling will result in the opposite unintended effect. Not only will the person not pull the load, but even that amount which he could have pulled will be left and the person will walk away. This is what the Imam is trying to tell us. One of the mistakes we make is that we are constantly trying to increase things in religion and increase the load of religion. In addition to this, some mistakenly think that this hardship is the product of religion itself, [it’s what religion wants from us]. When in reality this hardship has no connection with religion.
The original tradition we mentioned of the Prophet, where he says, “I have been sent with a path (hanīfah) that is forgiving and easy”12 has a story behind it, it is to do with a person by the name of Uthmān ibn Madh’ūn. During the life of the Prophet in Medina a trend of extreme asceticism developed, people devoting themselves entirely to worship, fasting during the day, then praying at night, and they would even refrain from their wives. The wife of Uthmān, who had become an extreme ascetic, approached the Prophet and complained about her situation. Neither in the day did Uthmān see the family, neither at night. What kind of a life is this [she complained]?
This is an astonishing tradition, and what is interesting, is that when the wife complains to the Prophet (p) that her husband simply fasts during the day and prays at night, you would imagine the Prophet would get happy, wouldn’t you? At the end of the day, he’s just praying, which is what we would all understand to be a praiseworthy thing. The Prophet should have taken Uthmān to the mosque and introduced him to everyone, what a good person he is, everyone should follow his example in such devout and pious worship. Uthmān should have been presented as a perfect illustration of what ‘being religious’ means. Not at all, the tradition says that as soon as the Prophet heard what the wife said, he marched off to find Uthmān in a state that he was “furious”. How extraordinary! The Prophet is angry. Did oppression happen? Did someone’s money get taken? Property usurped? Nope. The tradition says the Prophet left so quickly and in such a hurry that he didn’t even have time to put his sandals on! The Prophet left in such a hurry it was like the fire alarm had gone off!
The Prophet (p) reached Uthmān and found him to be praying. When Uthmān realised the Prophet had come, he finished his prayers, upon which the Prophet said: “O’ Uthmān, I was not sent by Allah to propagate extreme asceticism (ruhbāniyya), rather I have been sent with a path that is forgiving and easy”.13 Pray and fast, but alongside that, frequent your women, live your life, go to work. The Prophet then said to Uthmān to follow his (p) practice. The Prophet gave his own practice as the yardstick, and he was vigilant and observant that God forbid, not even one person in the society violates this, and by doing so, throw religion into disarray and chaos. God forbid such a person, through their actions, trample on the fundamental features of ease and forgiveness. The Prophet had no choice but to correct this deviation and hence he was so angry. Someone on seeing Uthmān might have thought that’s a good thing he’s doing, lets do it also. And after a few people would have done that, a wave and movement would have started in society that would have been impossible to correct. This is the responsibility of the scholar of religion, to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet and stamp out deviations. Scholars are inheritors of the Prophets, if there is small deviance in society, the scholars are required to speak out and tell the people that such a practice has nothing to do with religion.
Unfortunately, our approach in this area has been far from satisfactory. Every day we are looking for ways to increase religion with things that have no basis or relevance. The load of religiosity is being added to non-stop. Religion has areas that are forbidden, other areas that are obligatory, and between that the other three categories. Each of these imperatives should be put in their rightful place, if something is obligatory it should be announced as such, if something is permissible, then people should be told they have leeway in performing it or not. Once someone asked the late Agha Rafsanjāni, that these ideas you have for society, where did you come up with them? He replied that while attending the classes of Imam Khomeinī, in one lesson he mentioned a tradition that affected me for the rest of my life, and changed my life forever. Interestingly I found a similar description in the work of Shahīd Mutahhari, who expresses similar thoughts of how this tradition affected him. The tradition is, “God loves that people act according to what He has permitted, the way He loves them to act according to what He has made obligatory”.14 God wishes that people be left free in things which are halāl just the way God wishes people to be obedient and obey his command. In areas in which God has left free and open to people, leave people to act as they wish, do not prevent people from this freedom. That very thing that they are doing is beloved by God! That’s why you’ll find in his [Rafsanjānis] memoirs that he would write “on such and such a day I went swimming”, “on such and such a day I went travelling for leisure”, there are others who do this too but they do it secretly, worried about what people might say.
Take the example of Hijab, do we think our type of Hijab is “Islamic”? Not at all. The way Hijab has been described in the Qur’ān, it comes with a number of conditions and caveats. So in the instance of the ladies who have reached menopause, the verse says “As for elderly women who no longer anticipate marriage, there is no blame upon them to doff their garments without displaying any ornament”.15 In our society it’s the opposite, when they are young, Hijab can barely be seen, but when they get older the level of Hijab increases. Or in the instance of non-Muslim women. Is it required for them by religion to wear Hijab? Not at all. If they want to they can, otherwise, there is no requirement. Obviously they shouldn’t be dressed provocatively, but other than that there is no specific requirement of “hijab” for them as per se. Yet when they enter the airport they are required to observe Hijab [even when such a requirement hasn’t been made in religion for non-Muslims].
The Prophet (p) in Medina never acted with the Jews and Christians in this way. If you were to take this issue to a jurist none of them would pass the edict that it is obligatory for them. These are the caveats that are given. Similarly, we have that Hijab is obligatory for the free women and not for the slave-girl, as the Qur’ān mentions [except for the 3 times specified] they would walk freely in the house without any requirements of Hijab16. Shahīd Mutahharī mentions that there is room here for someone to do research and see if such a ruling could be extended to similar instances, where a labourer in the house wouldn’t need to observe Hijab, similar to those slave-girls who at the time of revelation were not required to observe it. Not only do we not respect these boundaries, we continually add to them. No jurist has ever said that wearing short-sleeves for a man is wrong, we came and created this culture and made him feel bad for doing it.
We mistakenly increase the boundaries of God’s religion and make the load of religion overwhelming. The result of this burdening of religion, as Imam Bāqir (a) mentions, is that the destination won’t be reached. Everything will be abandoned. Furthermore, one of the things that turn things more complicated and difficult for us is asking unnecessary questions. Many of these questions we ask are against the law [as they take us to hardship]. Someone might interject and say they want to take precaution, well, have a look at this tradition from Imām Musā al-Kādhim (a), where he says to a person who asked him whether or not it was allowed to pray in some animal skin that he had bought from the market that “yes [you can pray in it], there is no ma’sala on you [i.e. nothing to ask about]”17.
Well, you would think this person should find out what type of animal it was, was it slaughtered according to shari’a or not, was it bought from a Muslim or not. Sometimes you might think, well, it’s not wājib for me to ask, but I want to get a type of assurance (itmi’nān) if it is fine for me to use. This type of reasoning is dangerous and we should put these feelings aside, why? Because it will become a headache and a nuisance to your life. The Imām continues and gives a stern and eye-opening warning to the person asking the question, saying “the Khawārij put themselves in extreme difficulty on account of their ignorance [of religion], religion is more expansive than this!”18. How did the Khawārij end up the way they did? It was because of their habit to make things unbearably difficult, religion is far more expansive and easy-going than this! Religion has made it clear which areas we should ask questions in and which areas we should avoid.19 At the end of this, you’ll either end up someone who interferes with other peoples lives or end up full of doubts (waswās). The father of Shaykh Bahā’ī, one of the great scholars, wrote a book called al-Aqd al-Husaynī for the Safavid ruler Shāh Tahmāsb, on the topic of waswās. In this book, he mentions this tradition and comments on just how dangerous unnecessary questions can be20.
This religion which is expansive and easy-going, on account of different factors and causes, becomes a religion of difficulty. At times it’s due to unnecessary questions, at other times due to precaution that isn’t required. How much precaution can a person do? It might be the individual taking precaution or the jurist himself. Those areas where the religion itself prescribes precaution, such as wealth that is mixed with both legitimate and illegitimate money, a person has to do precaution. However many cases of precaution, in reality, do nothing but increase problems for people. God did not want this precaution in the first place.
There is a saying in Nahj al-Balagha where the Imām, touching on the idea of precaution that isn’t required, says: “Allah has placed on you some obligations which you should not ignore, laid down for you limits which you should not transgress and prohibited you from certain things which you should not violate. He has kept silent about certain things but has not left them out through forgetfulness, so do not burden yourself with them”21. God didn’t forget to give these rulings! God wished in some areas to give us clear cut definitive rulings and in other areas, He kept silent and left man free. The Imām is saying clearly do not put yourself in difficulty and burden in the area in which God left you free. Be at ease and do as you wish in this area as was intended by God. How unfortunate is the scholar who changes these areas where God has remained silent, these areas where man has been given a type of Divinely sanctioned freedom and restricts it for the people?
In our fiqh we have things which are considered to be instruments of harām, such as drugs, idols, alcohol, let’s put that aside [as it is not what I want to talk about]. There are other things, which are the majority of things which we use and deal with, which are instruments of both harām and halāl, and the ruling on its use is dependent upon the intention of the person using it. They can be used in ways which are good and they can be used in ways which are bad. This microphone, for example, no one’s stipulated what can be said via this microphone, I could use it to say good words or bad. TV, cinema, internet, etc. So many different things which are now common, when they first entered our society, you find many of the religious people took issue with this and protested against it. Every single time. The situation got so bad that when we wanted to build a railway in the country, one of the top scholars of the time Mulla Alī Kunī refused on the grounds that it was a plot to spread Western culture. And this was the situation up until he died.22
What is the consequence of all of this? Of precaution? Of expanding the number of things that are forbidden? Unfortunately, our scholars give us permission to use new technological equipment only after the rest of the world has moved on ahead and left us behind to stagnate. [The intentions they have are sincere,] we have a concern for the religious and ethical safety of the people, we do precaution, forbid new technology – but all of this increases load on people. What happens then? People feel religion has nothing to offer except hardship.
I’m unable to offer a direct solution to this. As a student of religion, I can only come and present my thoughts and encourage discussion that what we are doing in the name of religion in actuality has nothing to do with religion. The absolute most we can do is say that religion provides us with a framework of principle and we should try to live our lives according to it. This is exactly what God tells us in the Qur’ān, where He says there is no difficulty in religion. And all that we are experiencing of difficulty and hardship, (and this is a reality we are facing, not just something I am assuming,) should be removed similar to what the Prophet did: “and relieves them of their burden and the shackles that were upon them”.23 The Prophet came to remove the shackles on the hands and feet of people. God has even instructed to supplicate in this way: “Our Lord, lay not upon us a burden like Thou laid upon those before us. Our Lord, impose not upon us that which we have not the strength to bear!”.24
So to conclude, there is one idea [of ease] which can be found in the very text of Islam, and there is another idea [of difficulty] which we can see in the condition of the Muslims today, and there is a gap between these two. God has made it clear in the text of religion that religion is easy, and if we want to introduce religion to the world in a way that will be successful, we have to re-focus and demonstrate its ease. When the Prophet sent his companion Ma’ādh to Yemen he gave him a very simple piece of instruction: “Make [the religion] easy, and do not [make it] hard”.25 The Prophet was telling him that when you go there, attract people with compassion and mercy, God forbid you behave harshly and people separate from you. On this basis, it’s possible for someone to live a respectable life and still taste religiosity without going through difficulty. This is the message we should bring to the world, that it is possible to be religious while still enjoying this world – and if we’re able to do this then it would be a big achievement for Islam and our society.
Sadiq Meghjee is a frequent contributor to Iqra Online and has been studying in the seminary of Qom for 6 years. Prior to entering the seminary he pursued an accounting qualification and worked in London. His field of interest is intellectual history.
- Qur’ān, 22:78
- Qur’ān, 2:185
- Qur’ān, 2:185
- Interestingly when the Qur’an does speak about hardship, it always refers to hardship occurring within the ontological domain, such as 2:155 where the Muslims are told of difficulty in relation to hunger, security and economy.
- Al-Kāfī, v.5, p. 494
- It is on this basis that scholars of jurisprudence have established the maxim of no hardship (nafi al-haraj), mentioning that where ever an obligation causes intolerable difficulty, the obligation is forfeited and is no longer required from the individual. The maxim was first formulated by Ahmad Narāqi in his treatise on jurisprudential principles called Awā’id al-Ayyām and it has since become customary for jurisconsults to produce their own formulations and particularities of it within their works of legal theory and jurisprudence.
- Al-Kāfī, v.2, p. 86
- Imam Khomeinī, Sharh hadīth junūd aql wa jahl, p. 322-323
- Imam Khomeinī, Sharh hadīth junūd aql wa jahl, p. 317
- Al-Kāfī, v.2, p. 86
- A number of notable scholars have championed this view that religious law isn’t homogeneous and uniformed in nature, but rather it varies according to the particulars of the individual. For example, Moqadas Ardabilī says: “It is not possible to say such rulings are homogeneous, rather it is apparent that rulings differ and vary according to the particulars, conditions, situation, time, and person (Majma’ al-Fāi’da, v. 3, p. 436). Similarly, Imam Khomeini has spoken at length on how different contemporary factors can lead to a change in traditional rulings due to the change in subject-matter (Sahīfeh yeh Nūr, v. 21, p. 98)
- Al-Kāfī, v.5, p. 494
- Tabarsī, Majma’ al-Bayān, v.2, p. 23
- Qur’ān, 24:60
- Qur’an, 24:58
- Shaykh Sadūq, Faqīh, v. 1, p. 258
- Allāmah Tabatabā’ī mentions that the prohibition of asking questions in 5:101 refers to asking unnecessary questions of jurisprudential matters, and how such questions led to the ruin of previous Prophetic communities (al-Mizan, v. 6, p. 150)
- Shaykh Hussāyn, al-Aqd al-Hussaynī, p. 22
- Nahj al-Balāgha, saying 105
- Examples of this are too many to enumerate. For example, the criticism of Shaykh Ja’far Kashif al-Ghita for using a car to travel in Najaf when others were still using donkeys, or Shaykh Shams al-Din who mentions his father would read newspapers and listen to the radio secretly out of fear of censure from the scholarly community (refer to Hassan Abbas, Kashif al-Ghita’, The Reformist Marja’ of Najaf, p. 147 to 148). Another example is the treatment of Hassan Roshdieh who set up the first school in Iran early in the late 19th century. He was accused of importing western culture and had to flee for his life at one point.
- Qur’ān, 7:157
- Qur’ān, 2:286
- Syed Ja’far Amulī, al-Sahīh min sīra al-Nabī, v. 26, p. 306