Role of a Cause (‘Illah) in Altering the Apparent Meaning of an Obligatory Command & Prohibition

One of the most important disputes in contemporary legal theory discussions revolves around the nature of cause (‘illah) and wisdom (ḥikmah) behind a religious law legislated by Allah (swt). If one can determine the cause for a certain rule, it can have a series of repercussions as changes in time and place can lead to the non-existence of a cause, subsequently resulting in a change of rulings, while if only the wisdom behind a rule is known, then it has another series of repercussions in the application of deriving and application of religious law. One of the impacts of determining what the cause of a ruling is that a jurist can utilize it for generalizing (ta‘mīm) or restricting (takhṣīṣ) a rule.

A hypothetical example would be if we truly know that the cause behind Allah’s legislation of a woman’s waiting period (‘iddah) for a specific number of weeks is for us to attain certain knowledge regarding her pregnancy, then if are ever in a scenario where we can determine her pregnancy in a matter of days, then the waiting period would be shortened. This in itself is a very lengthy and complex discussion and perhaps can be addressed in another paper.

There is however another discussion regarding the role of a cause, and that is its role in altering the apparent and prima-facie of a statement as transmitted in a verse of the Quran or a narration. In other words, what changes does the presence of a cause in a statement make to its apparent meaning, that had the cause not been there, the statement would have had another prima-facie?

What follows are my transcriptions from the advanced classes on legal theory on Maqāṣid al-Sharī‘ah (Objectives of Divine Law), delivered by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah in Qom, between November 25th to 27th 2019. The lengthier exposition of this discussion can be read in the published book al-Ijtihād al-Maqāṣidī wa al-Manāṭī, vol. 2, pgs. 579-593.

There are two key areas where this discussion manifests:

1. Role of the Cause in Altering the Prima-Facie of Obligation (Wujūb) to Recommendation (Istiḥbāb)

Given the assumption that a command-tense verb signifies obligation (wujūb), but it is claimed by some that if there is a cause subsequently mentioned in that statement, it acts as a contextual-indicator (qarīnah) that the command-tense is being used in recommendation (istiḥbāb). To better understand our point, consider this example from al-Faqīh[1] of Shaykh Ṣadūq:

وَ قَالَ أَمِيرُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ ع‏ دَخَلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ص عَلَى‏ رَجُلٍ‏ مِنْ‏ وُلْدِ عَبْدِ الْمُطَّلِبِ‏ وَ هُوَ فِي السَّوقِ‏ وَ قَدْ وُجِّهَ لِغَيْرِ الْقِبْلَةِ فَقَالَ وَجِّهُوهُ إِلَى الْقِبْلَةِ فَإِنَّكُمْ إِذَا فَعَلْتُمْ ذَلِكَ أَقْبَلَتْ عَلَيْهِ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَ أَقْبَلَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَ جَلَّ عَلَيْهِ بِوَجْهِهِ فَلَمْ يَزَلْ كَذَلِكَ حَتَّى يُقْبَضَ

Amīr al-Mu’minīn (a) said: The Messenger of Allah (p) came across a man from the children of Bani al-Muṭṭalilb while he was in his final moments of life. He was faced towards a direction other than the Qiblah. So the Prophet (p) said: Face him towards the Qibla, because if you do so, the angels will look towards him and Allah (azwj) will look towards him, and they will not cease looking until his soul is taken away.

The command in this narration is “face him towards the Qiblah” and the reason for this ruling command is mentioned immediately after. Some scholars have said this command does not signify obligation due to the cause mentioned. The first person to argue in this manner as far as we know is Muḥaqqiq Ḥillī in al-Mu’tabar.[2] He says the cause is a contextual indicator that speaks about the merits of the act and that it is from the recommended actions to be done when a person is dying. This view is also held by Muḥaqqiq Sabzwārī, Fāḍil Hindī, Muḥsin al-Ḥakīm and many others.[3] Shaykh Anṣārī says that a person who does not understand recommendation from this sentence composition does not possess sound taste (dhawq salīm) of the religious texts.[4]

A number of scholars have rejected the argument of Muḥaqqiq Ḥilli and have considered it weak, such as Shaykh Yūsuf Baḥrānī, Nārāqī, Ṣāhḥib al-Jawāhir.[5] Sayyid Gulpaygānī even goes on to say that there are numerous obligatory acts mentioned in narrations that are accompanied with a cause, so how is it possible to understand the presence of a cause as a contextual indicator for a recommendation?[6]

The aforementioned scholars have only addressed this point in passing and have not expanded extensively on the reasons for why the presence of a cause leads to altering the prima-facie of a sentence from obligation to recommendation. However, there are two scholars who have addressed this point in a little more length:

i) Muḥaqqiq Hamdānī in his Miṣbāḥ al-Faqīh says that if a cause is mentioned for a ruling then we need to differentiate between whether the benefit (maṣlaḥa) of the ruling goes back to the individual who is being addressed or if it goes back to others. This is because when the benefit goes back to the addressee themselves, then it alludes to the command being advisory (irshādī) rather than legislative (mawlawī).[7]

For example, if a narration says, “give the adhān and iqāmah before your prayers, because whoever does so, two rows of angels pray behind him,” then one understands recommendation from this. Sayyid Khūwānsārī agrees with Muḥaqqiq Hamdānī in principle but believes that any benefit of a rule that goes to close family members of a person is also, in essence, an instance of where benefit going back to the person himself.[8]

ii) A second scholar who has expanded on this discussion a little is Sayyid Ṣādiq Rūḥānī in his Fiqh al-Ṣādiq. He says that a cause for a ruling can be mentioned in two scenarios: a) either the cause is a result of an act in the hereafter, for example if a narration says, “Pray, because it will grant you a house in heaven”; or b) the cause is mentioning the reason for why the rule was legislated viz-a-viz consequences in this world. According to Sayyid Ṣādiq, the first case implies recommendation, because if the ruling was meant to be an obligation, then it would have been better to mention the cause as a punishment in the hereafter, not a benefit. On the other hand, the cause in the second scenario does not play any role in altering the prima-facie from obligation, because both obligatory and recommended rules in Islam have a cause for legislation which results in some worldly benefit.[9]

2. Role of the Cause in Altering the Prima-Facie of Prohibition (Ḥurmah) to Undesirability (Kirāha)

Continuing within the same context, considering that a prohibitive-tense signifies prohibition (ḥurmah), it is claimed by some that if a cause is subsequently mentioned, it changes the prima-facie to undesirability (kirāha). Consider this narration of Ibrāhīm b. ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd:

الْحَمِيدِ عَنْ أَبِي الْحَسَنِ ع قَالَ: دَخَلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ص عَلَى عَائِشَةَ وَ قَدْ وَضَعَتْ قُمْقُمَتَهَا فِي‏ الشَّمْسِ‏ فَقَالَ يَا حُمَيْرَاءُ مَا هَذَا قَالَتْ أَغْسِلُ رَأْسِي وَ جَسَدِي فَقَالَ لَا تَعُودِي فَإِنَّهُ يُورِثُ الْبَرَصَ.

Al-Ḥamīd narrates from Abī al-Hasan (a) who said: The Messenger of Allah (p) entered upon ‘Āisha and she had placed her water container under the sun. So he (p) said, “O Ḥumayrā’, what is this?” She replied, “(Water I use) for washing my head and body.” So he (p) said, “Do not repeat this act, because it will result in leprosy.”[10]

Scholars like ‘Allāmah Ḥillī believe the presence of a cause in such reports alters its praim-facie to undesirability from prohibition.[11] Ṣāḥib al-Riyāḍ[12] and Ṣāḥib al-Jawāhir have argued in a similar fashion and try to understand these reports as advisory commands.


1. One of the points mentioned by the aforementioned scholars is that the cause makes the prima-facie of the statement into an advisory command, just like a doctor who gives a command to a patient to take medicine. If this is the case, then how can we can speak about legal recommendation (istiḥbāb) to begin with, as that is a legislative command? In other words, the presence of a cause in such statements is not altering the command tense from legislating of an obligation to a recommendation, rather from legislating of a obligation to uttering an advisory command which is not legislation to begin with. In fact, it seems Muḥaqqiq Hamadānī briefly alludes to this matter and says if the benefit of the law concerns this world, then it is an advisory command which has nothing to do with religious legislation.

Perhaps there is only one way to solve this issue and that is by arguing that the presence of a cause in such reports informs us about God’s Will and what He wishes the servants do, and therefore, even if there is no legal statement in front of us, we are now aware of what He expects from us, that He would love for us to act on the rule, and that is enough for us to argue for the legislative nature of a rule.

Though this reconciliation is possible, but it opens up a series of other challenges, such as, how do we know if the legislation in this case is going to be an obligation or recommendation, or prohibition or undesired? Why would we assume it to be a recommendation or undesired?

As for our own view, in our discussions on the comprehensiveness of the Sharī‘ah, we have argued that there is no relationship between assuming the existence of a legislation and being aware of God’s Will or what is recorded on the Preserved Tablet (al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfuẓ), as long as that Will or contents of the Tablet are not legislated conventionally and presented to us. In fact, we argued that there is absolutely no law to begin with in this case.[13]

2) Some scholars argued if the cause points to a worldly matter then it the prima-facie is undesirability or recommendation and if it is a non-worldly matter then its prima-facie is prohibition or obligation. We believe this division is completely wrong and cannot be used as a principle of interpretation. Consider these two examples:

i) What if we have a statement that says: “Do not wash your hands with warm water, because it will cause liver failure.” This example is an instance of worldly harm, but the nature of the cause is so severe that people will not generally understand undesirability from this law – given there are no other contextual indicators. In fact, the presence of a cause in this statement further intensifies the prima-facie of prohibition.

ii) If we say, “Help your friends, because one who helps their friends will see the Prophet (p) in paradise,” the presence of a cause in this statement, which is a reference to the next world, perhaps does not indicate obligation, and is merely a recommended act. In fact, it already assumes the person will be in paradise, but is simply mentioning an additional benefit one can receive in paradise if they were to help their friends.

In this case, what is the difference between the benefit or harm being from this world or the hereafter, and how can this be an absolute criterion to determine the prima-facie of a statement?

3) There are many obligatory laws and prohibitions in Islam that are mentioned in narrations accompanied with their cause. In most cases where is no linguistic way to differentiate whether the rule mentioned in a narration is obligatory or a recommendation – what exactly is the difference between: “Pray Ṣalāt al-Ẓuhr, because it will increase your sustenance,” with “Pray the night prayers, because it will keep poverty away from you.”? There is no linguistic difference in these two statements and hence no way to make the presence of a cause as a principle for interpreting one as an obligation and the other as a recommendation.

4) Sayyid Ṣādiq Rūḥānī says the cause which speaks of a reward in the hereafter signifies recommendation, but if the cause is related to this world then it signifies obligation.

This is not a precise criterion at all, because mentioning punishments in the hereafter for abandoning obligations is not the only way to motivate people to fulfil their obligations. Rather, you can motivate people to fulfil obligatory acts by speaking about the positive consequences of an act – in fact, this is a very common and widespread phenomenon in religious texts, and in the way humans speak. Therefore, saying that a cause that speaks of a reward in the hereafter is a contextual indicator for the rule being recommendation is not very clear.

5) Sayyid Rūḥānī further says that the cause which speaks of a worldly consequence cannot be used to determine recommendation. Our response to this is that what matters in the case of a cause is the type of cause, and not whether it is related to this world or the hereafter. For example, if the cause of legislation for a rule is something beneficial for people, but it is something very simplistic, such as if it says do not do wuḍū’ with hot water, because it will make you sleep an extra hour, the simplistic nature of this cause makes us understand the recommended or undesirability nature of this act, not obligation or prohibition.

In other words, the presence of a cause in a statement and its prima-facie signifying obligation or recommendation, or prohibition or undesirability has less to do with it being related to this world or the hereafter, and more to do with a person’s previous experiences and affinities with the nature of that cause in their lives. So although it is possible for points #4 and #5 to be true in some instances, but it cannot be turned into an absolute principle which is what we are seeking in discussions on legal theory.

6) Our sixth observation relies on recapping the popular theories regarding the prima-facie of a command tense and what it means when we say that a contextual indicator, which is the cause in our discussion, changes the prima-facie of the command from obligation to recommendation. We have three popular views on the nature of the prima-facie of a command tense:

i) Coinage (waḍ‘): For proponents of coinage, a presence of a cause in the sentence will not change the prima-facie of the command tense from obligation, because the tense has been literally coined for it. Proponents of this camp will have to argue that the contextual indicator has altered the meaning of the command tense from its literal use to a metaphorical use (majāz).

ii) Absoluteness (iṭlāq): Though proponents of absoluteness themselves have different explanations, the crux of their position is that when a command tense is not restricted with any contextual indicator, then it is considered an absolute tense and signifies obligation. In our discussion, proponents of this theory can argue that the presence of a cause is an instance of that contextual indicator.

iii) Intellect (‘aql): This is the view of Mīrzā Nā’īnī, and according to this view, the prima-facie of the command tense will also not change merely by the presence of a cause. What proponents of this camp will have to say is that the contextual indicator – that is the cause – is essentially telling us that we have permission (tarkhīṣ) to not act on the law as an obligation.

Proponents of the second camp have the simplest and most straightforward way of explaining this change, whereas the first and third camp have to exert a little more effort in explaining how the presence of a cause is exactly altering a literal meaning of a verb tense into figurative use, or being used as permission to not having to act on the rule, respectively.

7) The view of Muḥāqqiq Hamadāni’s which says that if the benefit of the rule goes back to the person himself, then that signifies recommendation, but if it goes to others, then that signifies obligation, then the question is, what does Hamadānī mean by “I” (i.e. the person to whom the statement is addressed, as opposed to others)?

Is this “I” limited to just the single person who is being addressed or can this “I” be expanded. Can a statement or command be addressed to an “I”, but who is being addressed it “I” as a member of a certain family, or member of a certain community, or a certain ethnicity, or a certain city? This is perhaps what Sayyid Aḥmad Khūwānsārī was alluding to as well. As for Hamadānī, since he is speaking about a particular single person only, then this can lead to some inconsistencies.

Consider this example: imagine a doctor gives a command to a father, asking him to give his son medicine, because it will cure him. As per the view of Hamadānī, the command of the doctor is a legislative (mawlawī) command, because the benefit of it is going to the son, not to the addressee (the father). However, people in society will still understand this command as advisory (irshādī), because the benefit that the son gets from this medicine is also an instance of expediency for the father. The well-being of the child also results in the well-being of the father.

So, although Muḥaqqiq Hamadānī’s general idea is great and he has a point, but we believe it cannot be limited to when the benefit is specifically going to just a single person who is the addressee, rather this “I” can be expanded, and other instances can also be included in it at times.


1. Establishing a Procedural Principle Regarding Legislative and Advisory Commands

Before we even discuss whether a cause acts as a contextual indicator or not, we need to establish our fall-back procedural principle in case we are unable to determine the role of a cause in statements that have commands or prohibitions. There are three opinions on this matter:

i) Those who believe the statements recorded in religious texts are all to be assumed legislative, and one needs evidence to prove them as advisory commands. If this is the case, then we need to establish whether a cause can act as that evidence that takes the command tense out from its legislative nature towards an advisory nature. Even if the presence of this cause creates doubt in our mind as to whether this is legislative or advisory, we resort back to this procedural principle and assume it to be legislative.

ii) Some reformist intellectuals such as Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari believe the entire religious textual corpus is fundamentally advisory and if someone wants to prove a certain religious text is legislative then we need evidence for it. In this scenario, the presence of a cause will only further emphasize the advisory nature of the rule.

iii) As we have argued elsewhere, we believe there is no fall-back principle in case of doubt. We have to genuinely investigate the statements and try to establish their meaning based on the customary understanding of people, based on the context and by taking into consideration as many contextual indicators as possible. On its own, the causal statement itself is not very clear in being legislative, and in fact, its prima-facie in being advisory is justified, but regardless, each statement can differ. If we genuinely cannot determine the prima-facie of the statement, then it will remain ambiguous, and we cannot use it to derive a law.

Of course, if we know from other external sources that the law being mentioned in a statement is obligatory or a prohibition, then the presence of the cause will merely be understood as mentioning the criterion and reason for legislation of the rule.

2. If the Fall-Back Principle is Legislative

In the first point above we spoke about three different camps in terms of what the procedural principle is, but in this second point we will assume the legitimacy of the first camp. The question we want to ask is whether the presence of the cause in a statement qua cause enough or us to take the command tense out from its legislative nature towards an advisory nature.

The fact is that a cause qua cause does not act as a barrier for altering the prima-facie of the legislative statement into an advisory statement, not according to the intellect and neither in customary speech. This is because just like advisory commands have causes, legislative commands also have causes behind them, and hence the relationship of a cause with both types of commands is equal. This also means that some jurists who took the presence of a cause in a statement to understand the rule as an advisory command most likely did so because they did not find the context (siyāq) of legislation in the report, because they perceive the Imams (a) to be a mufti – one who teaches religious edicts, and there is no reason for one who issues edicts to explain the cause and reason behind the rule. So the presence of a cause leads them to think this may not be a legislative command.

However, if we see that the Imams (a) as more than a mere muftī, then the presence of a cause in them teachings the rulings will not be enough to argue that the statement is no longer legislative.

3. Types of Causes in the Context of Legislative Statements

If we assume that the general statements in religious texts are legislative, and we know that a cause qua cause does not change the prima-facie of a legislative statement into an advisory command, we then want to focus our attention on the cause itself from the perspective of our own previous knowledge and experiences regarding it in the religion of Islam. There are three scenarios we can think of here:

i) A piece of evidence – whether the evidence is connected with the statement we are dealing with or disconnected, verbal or non-verbal – that this type of cause as mentioned in a narration is used to indicate necessity and obligation in the Sharī‘ah. In other words, the ruling mentioned in a narration is essentially an instance of the cause, and the cause is a general necessary principle established in the religion.

ii) The second case is the complete opposite of the first. It is when we know that the type of cause mentioned in a narration does not signify obligation or prohibition, rather it signifies recommendation or undesirability. In other words, the cause being mentioned in the narration informs us that this ruling is also not obligatory just like in other cases where this cause is mentioned.

iii) The third scenario is when we do not know anything about the cause in context of the Sharī‘ah. For example, if a narration says, do not eat fish, because it will result in a certain disease, and we have no previous knowledge as to whether this type of cause which speaks of a certain disease indicates prohibition or just undesirability. In this case, the cause will not alter the prima-facie of the command or prohibition, and it will remain in its original meaning. In fact, the prima-facie of the ruling being obligatory or prohibitive will lead us to categorize the cause as a type which is mentioned for obligations or prohibitions.


[1] Vol. 1, pg. 133.

[2] Vol. 1, pg. 258.

[3] Dhakhīra al-Ma‘ād, vol. 1, pg. 80; Kashf al-Lithām, vol. 2, pg. 201; Mustamsak al-‘Urwah al-Wuthqa, vol. 4, pg. 19.

[4] Kitāb al-Ṭahārah, vol. 4, pg. 187.

[5] Al-Ḥadā’iq al-Nāḍīrah, vol. 3, pg. 355-356; Mustanad al-Shī‘a, vol. 3, pg. 71; Jawāhir al-Kalām, vol. 4, pg. 7-8.

[6] Kitāb al-Ṭahārah, vol. 1, pg. 184.

[7] Vol. 5, pg. 16-17.

[8] Jāmi‘ al-Madārik, vol. 1, pg. 123.

[9] Vol. 2, pg. 302.

[10] Tahdhīb al-Aḥkām, vol. 1, pg. 366; al-Istibṣār, vol. 1, pg. 30; ‘Ilal al-Sharā‘i, vol. 1 , pg. 281; ‘Uyūn al-Akhbār al-Riḍā, vol. 2, pg. 88.

[11] Muntaha al-Maṭlab, vol. 1, pg. 25.

[12] Riyāḍ al-Masā’il, vol. 1, pg. 185; Jawāhir al-Kalām, vol. 1, pg. 331.

[13] Shumūl al-Sharī‘ah, pg. 58-78.