prescribe right and proscribe wrong -b
‘To Proscribe’ (al-nahy)
The Arabic noun al-nahy is derived from the regular verb nahy which basically means ‘to reach’, that is, to get to a stage where something has been completed or ‘has come to an end’. We say ‘I informed him’, meaning literally (in Arabic): ‘I “ended” the news with him’ (anhaitu ilayhi al-khabr). Nihaya means end and implies the limit or utmost degree of something; nuhan means intelligence because reason and intellect end foolish talk; al-nahy implies an interdiction to say or do something. Its many cognates occur fifty-six times in the Book, most of them carrying one of the meanings just explained.
Just like al-amr it is dialectically linked to obedience and disobedience which require free will in order to be meaningful. ‘(God) said: “What prevented you from bowing down when I commanded you?”…’ (A’raf:12), which unambiguously refers to the existence of a rational mind that can freely think about its decision to obey or disobey.
Proscriptions, just like prescriptions, consist of a dialectical process of communication between their sender and their receiver. The side that issues proscriptions can only do so because a receiver exists to whom proscriptions can be addressed. Proscriptions, just like prescriptions, are only meaningful if there is a possibility of obedience and disobedience on the part of the receivers, and the existence of choice between obedience and disobedience is only intelligible if no force is exercised by those who issue the order. We hear from the Book that the first thing addressed to humans is a command by God and that their response to this, that is, their first ever response to the Creator was an act of disobedience(!).
By Adam’s refusal to obey his Lord, he showed that he enjoyed freedom of choice. In his act of disobedience he appears as someone who has decided on his own accord and under no duress because he decided deliberately to act against God’s prohibition to go near the tree.
But freedom of choice is not absolute and does not apply equally to everyone.
Is there, then, a difference between God’s word (qaul ) and His command (amr)? God’s irrevocable, compulsory words turn into objective reality, that is, the truth, in which there is no room for choice between obedience and disobedience. God’s words cannot be disobeyed. In contrast to His words (qaul), God’s prescriptions (amr) can be disobeyed. This is why all verses of messengerhood were issued in the form of prescription or proscription, not as God’s words. Verses that contain God’s prescriptions to pray or fast never start with ‘God said:’ (qala Allah) because this would mean that prayer and fasting are parts of objective reality and that people are compelled to pray or fast whether they wanted to or not. Iblis, one of the jinns, chose to disobey God’s order and refused to bow down in front of Adam.
This is why when Iblis was told to bow down in front of Adam he did not receive God’s order as His word (qaul ) but as His prescription (amr), which left him with the choice to either follow or disobey it.
As we said earlier, nahy (proscription) has often been mixed up with haram (absolute taboo). A few explanations are now necessary to clarify our position on this matter:
First, conflation of the two terms must be avoided because the semantic (and legal!) differences are simply too important to ignore. It is evident that every haram rule contains a proscription (‘do not do it!’) but not every nahy rule expresses an absolute taboo (and is therefore different from a haram rule).
Second, unlike proscriptions, the Book’s haram rules are eternally valid. A new haram rule can only be introduced by a new revelation from God. For example, to introduce an absolute, eternally valid ban on smoking would require a new message from God.
Third, a haram rule is the sole prerogative of God and no human being can ever claim to do like Him. In contrast, a prescription can be issued by God, a prophet, and/or a human legislator (‘Have you seen the man who forbids [ yanha] * [Our] servant to pray?’ Alaq:9–10). And fourthly, the historical sequence of God’s commands and orders requires us to make a sharp distinction between nahy and haram: First, it began with God’s order to Adam and
- his wife to stay in the Garden (‘Dwell”!) and to stay clear from the tree (‘Do not go near!’).
- Next, during the era of Abraham we hear of God’s orders for a sacred space in Mecca (‘O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring to dwell in a valley without cultivation, by your sacred house [baytik al-muharram]’Ibrahim:37). While continuing the theme of human dwellings from the time of Adam, this introduces more complex notions of spatial sacrality (with the concept of a sacred house).
- This order was later complemented by orders that express temporal sacrality (‘The number of months in the sight of God is twelve (in a year)—so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth—of them four are sacred [hurumun]…’ Tawba:36).
- In legislation to the Israelites (Jacob), we come across a new concept: the notion of absolutely forbidden food (‘All food was lawful to the children of Israel, except what Israel made unlawful for itself, before the law (of Moses) was revealed…’ al Imran:93).
- During the time of Moses, God revealed the Ten Commandments
in the form of prohibitions (Do not!) which at the time of Muhammad, were upgraded to ten absolute taboos (‘Say: “Come, I will rehearse what God has (really) prohibited (harrama) you from”…’An’am:151). The same applies to the law of usury which used to be a simple proscription (nahy) to the Israelites and which the Book later issued as an absolute taboo (haram).
- Muhammad’s message concluded the epoch of messengerhoods and in this way Allah closed the gate of eternally valid legislation (in the form of absolute taboos) and opened the gate of human/ historical legislation (in the form of prescription and proscription,
permission and prohibition). This allows doctors to order their lung disease patients not to smoke, and it allows a government to pass a new law that prohibits smoking in public places and to order the police and the legal authorities to enforce it.
Once the new law has been accepted (by parliament), the individual citizen is obliged to observe it, but he is free, on a personal level, to dislike the law and to air his discontent, provided that he does not try to impose his opinions on others.
How are we then expected to read the phrase ‘if you avoid the grave sins you are proscribed to do’ (inn tajtanibu kabi”ir ma tunhauna ‘anhu)’ in verse 4:31?
To what extent does this verse reflect the choice of humans to obey or disobey God’s proscriptions? We notice inn and idha , The difference between inn and idha is, however, that while in states a condition whose fulfilment is uncertain, idha states a condition that is absolute and fulfillable. The use of the particle in for 4:31 tells us that the text wants to stress uncertainty because it is not clear whether human beings will commit or avoid such grave sins since this is subject to their free choice. If they choose to obey, they will avoid heinous crimes; if, however, they choose to disobey they will commit them.
Secondly, we notice the Arabic term kaba”ir for ‘grave sins’, literally meaning ‘great’ or ‘major’ in contrast to ‘small’ or ‘minor’ sins (saga”ir). The Book refers to major sins three times, and only once to minor sins—by using the term lamam :
If you (but) eschew the most heinous of the things [kaba”ir] which you are forbidden to do, We shall expel out of you all the evil in you, and admit you to a gate of great honour. (Nisa”:31)
Those who avoid great sins [kaba”ir] and shameful deeds [ al-ithm wa’l-fawahish], only (falling into) small faults [lamam]… (Najm:32) Those who avoid the greater crimes [kaba”ir] and shameful deeds [ al-ithm wa’l-fawahish], and, when they are angry even then forgive.(Shura:37)
These verses introduce a very relevant terminological clarification that is vital for our discussion on prescription versus proscription.
The implicit distinction between major and minor sins in 4:31 is supported by 53:32 where ‘great sins’ are explicitly distinguished from ‘shameful deeds’ (al-ithm wa’l-fawahish), as we also find in 42:37.
In order to establish their proper meaning against the meaning that these terms have acquired in Islamic fiqh, we need to distinguish between four different stages (of interpretation):
- the Quran, b) the Prophet, c) the companions, and d) the second and third generation after the companions, of which only the first two encapsulate the terms’ true meaning.
Major sins in the Quran is next