Reflections on the Religious Culture of Precaution

By Shaykh Haydar Hobollah [Source].

Question: The idea of precaution that is found within the religion is based on a number of traditions such as “precaution is the path to salvation” and “take precaution in your religion”. However, this type of thinking has dominated over many religious people and has made them excessive in adopting precaution even in things that are permissible. Is this not what Imām Alī spoke of when he said about the Khawarij “they [unnecessarily] put pressure on themselves so Allah put pressure on them”. And does this not contradict the apparent verses of the Qur’ān that speak of religion being easy and not hard?

Answer:  Muslim scholars begin this discussion from a principle which they consider to be correct. This principle is that precaution is good and beneficial in all cases, and that precaution is the path of salvation. Muslim scholars consider this principle to be derived from the intellect; they do not say that precaution is obligatory except for in a few matters where it is required to exonerate an individual from his religious obligations.

Scholars of legal theory (usūl al-fiqh) have placed two fundamental conditions in the matter of precaution in order for it to be considered to be good and beneficial:

First condition: that the precaution should not be counterproductive. In that it should not be to the level that it leads someone to commit a sin or to commit what the intellect would judge to be detestable. Take the example of a person who does not know whether the food is available to him is halāl or not and therefore acts with precaution and does not eat it and as a result of this he dies from hunger. This type of action is contrary to what is meant by precaution.

Second condition: that the precaution does not lead to chaos, confusion and hardship, or to chaos in the public order of society. If businessmen were to act with precaution [and avoid] every single transaction they engaged in due to doubts they might have in relation to the legitimacy of the transaction, irrespective of how small that doubt was, this type of precaution would result in societal life coming to a standstill [and therefore this type of precaution is not allowed].

What often happens when people think about precaution is that they focus only on this matter from a personal perspective and fail to consider the communal and societal element involved. This requires us to approach this subject from a more comprehensive and inclusive perspective. If we were to imagine for a moment that an individual acts with precaution when it comes to the quantity of water in performing the ablution and ritual baths, and uses excessive amounts of water to be satisfied that water has reached every part of his body, [while this may be fine and problem free on an individual level], however imagine the consequences if now every single Muslim acted this way and started to use excessive amounts of water. The consequences of this will be the depletion of a significant amount of water and it would become particular problematic for future generations, (especially at a time where many communities are already suffering from acute water shortages). This is just an example, and while it may not be entirely accurate, it serves a purpose to give us a more tangible understanding of how this type of culture of precaution can have negative consequences on a societal level. Both Shaḥīd Mutahharī and Shahīd Sadr have expressed in numerous places that it is not possible for precaution to be made an obligation upon everyone in society. Those who want to see more of what Shahīd Sadr has said on this can refer to his discussions on insidād in his works of usūl al-fiqh.

It is the right and freedom of all individuals to make the decision to act with precaution, however, it is vital to keep in mind the negative repercussions this could bring when a person tries to impose this precaution on the society and make it dominate over local custom and culture. Deliberating over the various consequences of such an imposition can force us to calculate and determine, on the balance of harms and benefits, whether universally imposing a culture of precaution across society is a good thing or not.

To give a clear example, imagine the head of the family wishes to impose a strict culture of precaution on absolutely everything that his children do. He takes precaution on everything that comes on the TV, the internet, the food that is eaten, the friends and company that’s kept (and I want to re-emphasise I am strictly referring to the type of precaution which is not obligatory). It’s important that he keeps in mind that this heavy-handed imposition of precaution does not turn the children away from religion and leave them with nothing but negativity towards their faith. This is something we have seen happen with many people, and we have seen the ruptures and separation that has befallen families because of this extreme approach, whereby the newer generation rebels against the older generation [unhappy at how they have been so restricted and pressured]. And this is what we mean by calculating every instance in respect to its contextual factors [and considering the suitability of applying precaution or not]. It isn’t the case that precaution should be applied absolutely across every matter and every instance, this is something the intellect cannot demonstrate evidence for and neither can support for it be found in the religious text!

This reality becomes even more clear when we take a birds-eye view of the consequences and negative effects that a jurist’s individualistic and precautious methodology can take on a society. If we were to take a societal look at the sheer number of rulings of precaution given by the jurist, especially within the Code of Practice, (particularly in places where the scholar himself isn’t convinced that there is a law, rather at times he is convinced of the opposite, that there is in fact no obligatory law required), it will become clear for all to see just how many problems and difficulties this precaution creates. For example, when I (as a jurist) give the ruling that out of precaution shaving the beard is forbidden, or that out of precaution the people of the book are impure (despite me believing personally in my own jurisprudential discussion that shaving the beard has no problem and neither are the people of the book impure), these rulings are well and good when considered from an individual perspective, and even perhaps they may also be beneficial from certain specific societal perspectives, but there exist other areas where they may actually be detrimental and problematic. The ruling on the beard may prevent a person from being able to get certain jobs that could lead to greater influence and a better position for the Muslims.  Similarly with the ruling of the people of the book [which could lead to hardships in living amongst them]. Reducing the number of precautionary rulings that exist would make it easier and better for the religious people [in dealing with and navigating the challenges they face]. Prior to releasing a Code of Practice scholars vested with authority need to investigate the societies in which Muslims live and determine the appropriate level of precaution they need [that takes into consideration the challenges they face]. Simply having theoretical and abstract discussions within the seminary are not sufficient.

Here I would like to bring to your attention the letter from Shahīd Bāqir al-Sadr that he sent to Syed Kamal Murtadhawī on this matter:

I hope this letter reaches you in the best of faith…I am writing this letter in response to your message that was conveyed to me by Shaykh Abdullāḥ Khunaizī. He mentioned that you had asked him to speak to me about the ruling on the purity of the people of the book and that you requested that I observe precaution in this matter [and do not rule that they are pure]. It would have been nicer had you written this to me yourself for I would have welcomed your views with open arms. Nevertheless, I truly cherish your views as they spring from the religious source which has taken over your pure heart. Your comments on this demonstrate that you give it importance, and I am deeply grateful for your advice and guidance. I pray that I am never deprived of the sound counsel and prayers from people like you.

That being said I wanted to take this opportunity to share the religious perspective and jurisprudential reasoning which I adopt in this matter and others similar to it. I acknowledge that simply concluding the ruling via sound scientific reasoning and jurisprudential evidence does not necessitate declaring it. I also acknowledge that at times it is possible that a scholar may forego declaring a ruling on something when his rulings contradict what is popularly held by the religious community out of respect of the sentiments of a few respected scholars from them and to avoid any possible backlash. I accept that. However, that being said, it is also vital that we look at this matter from another perspective. The situation of the Shi’ī community that has spread out to all parts of the world has been made clear to me, and [I have realised] this ruling could be beneficial in lifting the difficulty faced by some of them in different parts of the world, or where this ruling would make it easier for social cohesion and lift the harassment they face.

To give an example, I am acutely aware of the situation of the Shi’ī in Oman who live in a society surrounded by khawārij and face extreme difficulty in dealing with the ruling of their impurity. In many instances this ruling has repercussions against them, making it even harder for them to live a normal life there. In this scenario, if a scholar abides by the necessary legal requirements and concludes that the khawārij are pure, would this not motivate and encourage the jurist to help alleviate the difficulty of the Shi’ī in Oman and help preserve their dignity? And this is the situation in many different areas. Take the ghulāt for example, they are a group who we could indeed build a bond with through acknowledging them to be pure. Would this not be [justified] motivation for a jurist to announce the ruling of the purity of the ghulāt when this is the conclusion that has been reached between him and God?

I want to bring to your attention that a dear and beloved scholar from Tabrīz had written to me requesting that I change my ruling [on the purity of the people of the book] to that of precaution after I had passed my ruling in my gloss on Minhāj al-Sālihīn. He mentioned in his letter that many people from the religious community [in Tabriz] have become habituated to belittling the people of the book and that they do not take kindly to those [scholars] who rule they are pure. I responded to him that I was aware [of their attitude], however I also have to consider the situation of the thousands of believers who have migrated to their lands [in the West], and the ruling of their impurity gives them serious challenges and problems. To the extent that a number of reliable people have informed me that many of these believers who migrated have abandoned the daily prayers and gradually left the religion altogether as they found the ruling of impurity challenging, ending up abandoning the fundamental pillars of religion.

If God was to hold me accountable and say to me: it was because of your silence [in this matter] that the believers became misguided, they engaged in disobedience and were pushed into hardship, what will I say? My dear Syed, I get quite troubled both personally and psychologically when I hear of these issues, and I am forever fearful that I might prioritise my own interests over that of the religion. I know that there are going to be some believers who are going to be upset with my ruling and the fact that it goes against what they are used to and have commonly heard. They will probably cut ties with me and leave me. However if they do indeed decide to leave me [and switch to another jurist], they won’t leave religion, nor will they leave prayers, neither will their dignity be threatened. They will not be troubled by religion rather they will just be annoyed with me.

However those people who are stuck in problems thanks to the ruling of impurity and are constantly encountering challenges thanks to this religious shortcoming [of jurists acting with precaution], they will slowly drift away from their obligations and over time have nothing to do with religion. Allah knows that I have spent much time torn between these two detrimental options [of supporting the culture of the believers or helping the believers in non-Muslim lands]. Sometimes I would tell myself to adhere to the status quo [and do not challenge the orthodoxy], however from another angle I found myself in need of an answer in front of Allah [for not helping the believers in the non-Muslim lands].

That is why you will find that the ruling I have given is not merely me wishing to announce everything I have proven, rather I did so as a response to the problems faced. I did so to balance the situation of the Shi’i communities and the needs and challenges that come about from their various locations and contexts. I have attempted to observe the interests of the religion even though it may come at the expense of the sentiments of a few individuals [who are not happy with what I have done]. It is my fear of influencing religion [according to the sentiments of a few people] that has led me to stand firm in support of my ruling. I take hope in the grace of God and His knowledge of my good intention that He protects me from the negativity and problems that this ruling of mine will create [amongst the few people who are not happy with me]…peace and blessings be upon you. Mohammad Bāqir al-Sadr, 8 Sha’bān, 1397. 1

In addition to this, we have a Prophetic tradition which says 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”. 2. From this we can say it’s not true that God only wishes for His servants to perform the obligations and avoid the prohibitions, but rather God also loves it for His servants to exercise their freedom of choice in areas that are neither prohibited nor obligated. This is because the freedom given creates the resolve in an individual for acting according to the obligations and avoiding the prohibitions. Some of the scholars of usul al-fiqh have mentioned that there are certain areas where the ruling is that of permissibility (ibaha al-iqtidhā’iyya), meaning that the ruling is that God has purposefully made it permissible. It isn’t the case that the permissibility [in these cases] is due to there being no proof of it being obligatory or prohibited, but rather the evidence is that God desires permissibility. At times God has left certain areas open for the servant to do as he wishes so that the servant can balance his life within the two poles of permissibility and impermissibility, a concept upon which the shari’a itself is predicated.

In my opinion, I am unsure that the numerous rulings of precaution found in the Code of Practice are actually in accordance with what we mentioned of the meaning [and conditions] of precaution given by the scholars of usul al-fiqh. In certain instances you find the jurist has taken precaution in areas where we can find numerous religious principles that would make the instance perfectly permissible, such as: qā’idat sūq al-muslimīn, asālat al-sihha, qā’idat al-firāq wa al-tajāwuz, qā’idat al-ilzām, qā’idat nafī al-haraj, qā’idat nafi al-dharar, qā’idat lā tu’ād, qā’idat lā shakk li kathīr al-shakk, qā’idat ma’dhūriyat al-jāhil, qā’idat ‘adam al-fahs fī shubuhāt al-mowdhū’iyya, asalat al-barā’a, qā’idat al-‘itimān, qā’idat al-ihsān, qā’idat al-jubb, qā’idat al-taqiyya, qā’idat al-idhtirār, etc. and many other jurisprudential and legal principles, very few of them actually call towards taking precaution. Moreover, the Muslim individual should balance his view between precaution and leniency by keeping in mind that scholars of usūl al-fiqh have discussed the traditions of precaution and concluded that most of them have weak chains of transmission, and that the notion of precaution in religious practice infiltrated Shi’ī thought during the 11th and 12th century Akhbāri movement. The Akhbaris were of the opinion that is obligatory to observe precautions in matters where the option was between prohibition and non-obligation (shubuhāt al-tahrīmiyya), and this is what lead to the entrenchment of the concept of precaution in the minds of many.

Finally I will conclude by saying we should observe the sanctity of the free areas that God has prescribed, being cautious to its jurisdiction and extent. In addition, I strongly reject any practice of manipulating these free areas to escape religious obligations. This is a practice that some have lately tried to popularize whereby they compile various different rulings of scholars where they have ruled an action to be permissible in the attempt to avoid performing any religious obligations!


  1. Mowsū’a al-Imām al-Shahīd al-Syed Mohammad al-Bāqir al-Sadr, v. 17, p. 485-489
  2. Tabarsī, Majma’ al-Bayān, v.2, p. 23