There are many proofs for the fact that the shari`a (Islamic law) is based on ease and facilitation and is against rigidity and unnecessary constriction. Any good book on Usūl al-Fiqh will usually provide all such proofs. One of the key proofs used is the Qur’ānic verse mentioned above, in which Allāh subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) says that He has not placed any difficulty in this religion. Yet if we look at the normative practices endorsed by the shari`a, we find aspects that seem difficult. For example, praying Fajr when one has been reviewing all night for an exam, or when one is ill, can seem difficult. Wearing hijab (modest clothing) may also seem difficult, perhaps even suffocating at times.
Thus, a brief look at what is being said in the two primary sources, namely the Qur’ān and Hadīth (record of the sayings and actions of the Prophet ﷺ) does not seem to correlate with what one actually experiences. However, the believer knows that the primary sources are divine, and hence cannot be providing false or inaccurate information. How then do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? The answer lies in an analysis of our actions and the demands placed upon us by Allāh (swt).
Actions are generally divided into two main categories:
1) The Impossible
There is a general consensus amongst ahl al-sunna wa al-jamā’a that a person is not obliged by Allāh (swt) to do something that is impossible. Though there are apparent differences between some of the scholars of usūl, this seems to be mostly theoretical, if not very much a difference in semantics.
2) The Possible
As stated, it is confirmed that Allāh (swt) does not oblige humans with something not within their capability. This then leaves the domain of all those actions which are possible. Yet all the possible actions are not of the same level―they are differentiated1 based upon how difficult they are.
(i) The Abnormally difficult (المشقة غير المعتاد)
There are actions a person isn’t able to do except without undergoing undue difficulty. These actions are annexed with the impossible, and Allāh (swt) does not oblige human beings with such actions, solely out of His Mercy. There are many textual and rational proofs for this.2 It is this type of difficulty which is referred to in all verses and ahādith that mention the negation of “all difficulty” within the religion. Thus this highlights how a lay reading of legal texts or legal aspects of texts can result in confusing conclusions. So actions such as waking up in the morning to pray fajr (the prayer before sunrise), or avoiding clear-cut agreed-upon prohibitions, are not considered to be from this category, and hence are not negated by all such verses and ahādith, since the fact that they are demanded
(1) in a clear-cut manner, whether requiring the omission or commission of an action,
(2) without it being restricted upon time and place,
assumes that it is within the capability of the average person. Instead they are considered to be from the next category.
(ii) The Regular Actions with some Added Difficulty (المشقة الزائدة عن المعتاد)
It is true that Allāh (swt) demands from us that which results in some difficulty; however, such difficulty is not given any legal weight. For example, finding a good means of living is difficult. The ability to perform such actions is not deterred by the difficulty that accompanies them, and upright people normally consider a person who refuses to perform such actions as lazy. Thus there is fear of continuously highlighting the fact that Allāh (swt) “has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty,” as it can lead to misunderstanding such statements and encouraging Muslims to be people of weak resolve. Indeed the very nature of responsibility is that it is difficult, hence as people mature, their responsibilities increase and life seems to become more difficult, yet all this is still within the norm.
Differentiating between the Regular and the Abnormal
What then distinguishes the regular action from an action demanding an unusual amount of difficulty? According to Imām al-Shātibi (r), if the continuous performance of an action leads to an unusual amount of difficulty or harm, such that the person is severely de-motivated from performing it, or it harms the health of the one who performs it or his wealth, then this is an indication that such an action is from “The Abnormal Actions.” If it does not lead to such a result, then even though one may endure some difficulty in performing such actions, nonetheless it is within one’s capability.
Our Attitude Towards Difficulty and Ease
So now that we have established that not all difficulty is removed in the shari`a, how do we understand this difficulty? It is important to understand that the entire shari`a is for the benefit of the creation. Some have said that it is also to avert harm, but in reality, the aversion of harm is securing a benefit. Thus, if our Lord (swt) has legislated for us something we find difficult, it is not for the sake of difficulty, but for the benefits, worldly or other-worldly, that will accrue from that action. However as the world has been created upon some basic ‘laws of nature’, acquiring such benefits results in some difficulty as a by-product. Nevertheless, the gain surpasses by far the difficulty. This means that the intention of the Most Merciful (swt) is not to cause us hardship, but to secure benefit for us. Therefore our attitude should reflect this, and we should not go seeking difficulty deliberately.
Intending Difficult Actions, not Difficulty Itself
One should not go searching for difficulty in order to increase one’s reward, even though difficulty endured in the process of fulfilling a good deed increases the reward. For example, jihād (struggle in the way of Allah) is better than nafl (optional) prayers, as jihād involves more difficulty; however, it would be incorrect to explicitly intend to undertake jihād just to endure difficulty, since the Creator legislated jihād for accruing benefits, not for the sake of placing hardship upon us, and any intention that contradicts the intention of the Almighty is null and void. For example, the Hadīth of the Prophet (saw): “A Muslim is not afflicted by hardship, sickness, sadness, worry, harm, or depression—even if pricked by a thorn—but Allah expiates his sins because of that.”3
Even though this is so, it does not imply that we actively seek to be pricked by a thorn. As Imām al-Shātibi eloquently said:
“It is not for the legally mature person (mukallaf) that he should seek difficulty per se in order to increase the reward of the action, but he should intend the action that is more rewarding on account of it being difficult.”4 It is on this basis that the Prophet (saw) ordered a person who vowed to fast standing under the sun5 to find shade and sit, but also complete his fast. Imām Mālik commented on this, saying the Prophet (saw) prohibited him from what was disobedience (ma’siya) and ordered him to complete what was obedience (ta’a). What this also means is that though difficulty is not to be sought, it is one of the criterion for making an action weightier.
A Good Indication of When to Seek a Legal License (Rukhsa)
The above should be a means of knowing when one should consult a mufti (a scholar qualified to issue legal rulings) regarding an action which one is finding difficult. If something is generally obligatory, yet one is experiencing nearly unbearable difficulty, so much so as to be discouraged from fulfilling the obligation, then perhaps the situation has entered the realm of “the Abnormal” and hence a good competent mufti should be consulted.
This world is a place of labour and of work, and striving and difficulty seem to be a vital part of it. To deny this completely is to display ignorance of the subtleties of the magnificent shari`a, and to over-emphasize this aspect and insist on it is to miss the whole point. We are, after all, “a balanced nation”6 and our behaviour and attitude should reflect this.