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Absolute Taboo & Prohibition

May 27, 2020

What about this murderous tendency among so-called revivalists to categorize every little transgression as a mortal sin?

Those who avoid the greater crimes [kab”ir al-ithm] and shameful deeds [ al-fawhish], and, when they are angry even then forgive. ( Al-Shara 42:37) If you (but) eschew the most heinous of the things [kaba”ir] which you are forbidden to do [mantuhauna], we shall expel out of you all the evil in you, and admit you to a gate of great honour. ( Al-Nisa” 4:31)  Those who avoid great sins [kaba”ir al-ithm] and shameful deeds [ al-fawahish], only (falling into) small faults; verily your Lord is ample in forgiveness… ( Al-Najm 53:32) O you who believe! Avoid suspicion as much (as possible), for suspicion in some cases, is a sin; and spy not on each other behind their backs… (Al-hujurat 49:12).

In these verses Allah tells us that there is a clear difference between an absolute taboo (haram) and a prohibition that is not absolute (nahy). We hear in verses that He prohibits us from spying on each other. We shall not defame or be sarcastic to each other, nor shall we insult others by offensive name-calling. We also notice that the text calls suspicion a sin (al-ithm) and that in the first three verses the terms ‘greater sins’ (kaba”ir al-ithm) and ‘shameful deeds’ ( al-fawhiish) are used—sins that ‘shall be avoided’. These are prohibited (nahy)—see 4:31 .

but are not absolute taboos (haram). We infer from this that there are greater and smaller sins (53:32: ‘only small faults’), but in terms of those acts that violate absolute taboos, ‘capital crimes’ ( al-muharramat), no qualitative distinction is made between great and small. A small ‘capital crime’ is a contradiction in terms and does not exist. Al-muharramat are ‘capital crimes’ that are to be equated with ‘major sins. They are absolutely forbidden and must be avoided.

Let us examine the two acts that Allah prohibited in these verses: spying on each other and slander. We deduce from this that spying on your neighbor and your friends and identifying their weak points for public slander is unacceptable. These things do, indeed, lead to serious friction in society and an acute deterioration in social relationships. That is the reason why He ordered us to abstain from them and why He categorized spying and slander as unjustifiable sins.

However, if one has to spy on the enemy of a country by collecting intelligence from abroad, this constitutes, in contrast, a necessary and useful activity or is, as we call it, a justifiable sin that is not included in Allah’s sanction. The same applies to slander. If we gather information about someone’s shortcomings and imperfect character traits in order to defame this person, it is, even if true, an abdominal act or an unjustified sin that Allah has prohibited.

But if a person enquires about someone’s life and character because of an intention to marry into the family or a desire to start a business with someone, speaking openly about moral or social deficiencies might be necessary in order to prevent great harm. In this case, calumny is a justifiable sin since it has at least some merit. We learn from Allah’s differing treatment of sins that prohibition can be either absolute or conditional, depending on the intention or purpose behind the sinful act.

The same applies to the problem of drinking alcohol. Some jurists have said that alcohol inevitably implies a state of intoxication, even though the drinking of alcohol does not necessarily always lead to drunkenness. These jurists have completely forbidden alcohol under the pretext that an absolute taboo helps to prevent further harm. In their eyes, the conditioned prohibition (nahy) of alcohol in the Book justifies their absolute prohibition (tahrim) of it. Our position, however, is that a conditioned prohibition does not justify an absolute taboo since a taboo implies, as we have explained earlier, a different quality of scope, validity, and authority.

No one can possibly deny the fact that alcohol can be potentially beneficial, for example if it is used as an anesthetic in surgical operations. In these circumstances the use of alcohol is a justified sin. If it is used, however, in order to induce drunkenness, it is clearly an unjustified sin. We must stress that only Allah, who can order temporary or conditioned orders, can issue absolute taboos or permission, while His Messenger, who may also give temporary or conditioned orders, cannot issue absolute taboos or permission.

He can only pass on the taboos and permissions contained in Allah’s Book. As for ‘those of authority’, that is, the parliament of the country, it may also legislate temporary or conditioned orders, but it cannot issue absolute taboos or permission. This distribution of legal authority is based on the fundamental distinction between human and divine interdiction.

Divine interdiction enjoys universal validity while its implementation is historically conditioned (intention, purpose). Human interdiction is always historically conditioned and never enjoys universal validity. Divine interdiction contains a universal moral ideal, whereas human interdiction does not possess such a moral core.

If we ignore these differences and place Muhammad’s all too human interdiction on the same level as absolute taboos, we risk attributing to them universal, eternal, and indisputable validity. If we added to his rulings the interdictions of his companions and the interdictions of the Imams of the Sunni and Shi’i legal schools, we would suddenly be faced with a huge number of absolute taboos that would make our lives a misery.

The irony is that this is exactly what is about to happen in our societies: the most trivial acts of daily life are interpreted as capital crimes against the religion of Islam: to play a game of backgammon is now tantamount to shirk against Allah, to wear a silk tie is now as serious a crime as killing one’s soul, and to compose eloquent poetry is now considered as reprehensible as stealing the property of orphans.

It is not enough that such thinking displays a condemnable frivolity of the human mind, but such punitive rulings in fact compete with Allah’s authority since they forbid things that Allah has not forbidden. The ridiculous outcome of linking the major sins with our private lives is that we are almost inevitably bound to commit a major sin every day of our life. And once we realize that the way we eat, drink, sleep, and dress is judged by the parameters of major, mortal sins, as traditional tafsir suggests, we may legitimately ask, when did we lose the kindness and generosity of Islam and where has its sincerity and authenticity gone?

Is the essence of Muhammad’s message not lost when we turn every little misdeed of ordinary life into capital crimes? Have we not completely missed the point of Muhammad’s mission when we enslave humankind with such onerous bonds and shackles in their daily life? I say: ‘there is no power save in Allah’.

With this in mind we propose to follow an alternative route. We propose to regard the Sunna as nothing but the Prophet’s ijtihad in applying the rulings of the Book according to the social reality of seventh-century Arabia. Muhammad placed his ijtihads between the boundaries of God, while at other times he created new boundaries if they had not been provided by God. As Muhammad’s exemplary model, valid until the Last Day, we propose this: his exegetical moves between Allah’s limits and his pragmatic creation of new limits

if no divine order is given. About this Allah said: ‘I have brought to you the book and with him [Muhammad] is something similar.” And Muhammad said: ‘The disagreement of my community is a blessing” which, in our interpretation, means that it is a blessing that we differ in our ijtihads and move like the Prophet between Allah’s limits. If we take this to heart, we will eventually be able to return to the authentic hermeneutical principle which says that the hadiths need to be interpreted in the light of the Book and not the other way around.