Is it Better to Avoid the Mubah?


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Imam as Shatibi (r) discusses very elaborately and at length, in his famous work, al-Muwāfaqāt, the ḥukm (law) that is known as “mubāh” or that act which has a neutral status in Islamic Law. It is usually defined as “an act whose commission or omission is not required.”

Is this subject too abstract?

Though this subject may seem too theoretical, it has significant implications on our perceptions of others as well as on one’s own spirituality. For in many circles, amongst many students and scholars, there is this notion that to unconditionally avoid the mubāh is somehow beneficial for one’s spirituality or that such an act would aid one’s salvation on the Day of Judgment. Although this is not unconditionally true, persistence in mubāh acts whilst holding the notion that its omission is better may be detrimental to one’s spiritually. This is because the person will be engaging in something they believe to be at least disliked, and thus disregarding whether that action is actually disliked or not, it still has the same consequences of being such.

Understanding Mubāh

Imām Shātibī (r) is very clear in arguing that to avoid the mubāh is not something desirable per se, nor is its commission desirable. This is mainly because of the fact that there is agreement that the term mubāh refers to neutral acts. It is thus contradictory to then suggest its omission is somehow better. However, even though this may seem basic enough, Imām Shātibī (r) provides ample logical and textual justifications why such a view is problematic.

Firstly, mubāh is a neutral act, whose commission and omission is equal. Any act remains as such, unless there is a request (ṭalab) from Allāh. This request may entail the omission or commission of an act, either in a manner, which renders it obligatory (wājib) or preferred (Mustaḥab). After such a request is established, that act will no longer remain mubāh. However, the mubāh act in general does not have such a ṭalab, and thus remains neutral. The reason why a ṭalab is required from Allāh is because it is in obedience to his command; an act becomes Mustaḥab (preferred). Without a ṭalab, there is no obedience, and the act remains neutral. The question then arises, in the absence of such a ṭalab, if one insists an act is Mustaḥab then who is one being obedient to?

Secondly, there is a consensus, according to Imām Shātibī , that the one who makes a vow to omit a mubāh act is not obligated to carry it out since the vow to not perform that action is in the same legal status as if he had vowed to perform it. However, if it was preferred to leave out mubāh acts, then such a vow would become obligatory. There is a adīth1 that narrates how, when a man made a vow to fast standing without taking shade, the Prophet (s) ordered him to sit and take shade and complete his fast. Imām Mālik said regarding this, that “the Prophet (s) ordered him to complete that which was worship or obedience to God, and leave that which was sinful (ma’ṣiya) to Allah” so this is an instance where the Prophet (s) made it sinful to vow to leave a mubāh act.

Thirdly, whilst engaging in mubāh secures one from engaging in Ḥarām, leaving out mubāh does not necessitate engaging in Wājibat (Obligatory actions).

But doesn’t engaging in mubāh preoccupy oneself with optional worship?

So far we have discussed mubāh as a distinct category, different from the other categories. However, if one is looking from the perspective of what mubāh leads to, then leaving out mubāh is not necessarily a good thing. Instead, there can be three related situations:

  • When a mubāh act definitively leads towards something Ḥarām:

In this case, the mubāh act will not be permissible as what leads to Ḥarām will be Ḥarām. However, this is something one must decide for oneself. For example, playing football (soccer) is something that can be recommended because it helps keep one healthy. However, if it leads to someone one missing the obligatory prayers, it will become impermissible for that person only.

  • When a mubāh act is a means towards something Wājib:

For example, there is a Ḥadīth that How good is pure wealth for the righteous man?” 2 as well as “The people of abundant wealth have gone with an abundant reward, high status, and an everlasting bliss…” 3 These traditions praise those who had abundant wealth (something considered mubāh) as it served as a means towards salvation. There is also the Ḥadīth of being rewarded for sexual intercourse with ones spouse even though one is fulfilling his/her desire (something mubāh), as it stops one from fulfilling it in a unlawful way.

  • When a mubāh act does not lead to either good or bad:

These actions are those whose commission and omission are neutral.

Thus, to categorically state “to avoid Mubāh is better (afḍal)” is incorrect. Some might ask: how does this relate to the Ḥadīth about the dunya (world), which states, “Its Ḥalāl is (to be) accounted for, and its Ḥarām is a punishment?” 4 This Ḥadīth is used to claim that in actual fact, extending one’s accounting on the day of judgement is ultimately punishment and thus to leave mubāh is better. Although Imām Shātibī  (r) gives several answers to this question; a simple but quick answer is as follows:

If one considers performing a mubāh to extend ones accounting, since this is a positive action, then not to perform a mubāh will also extend one’s accounting. This is because deciding not to do something is also an action, albeit a negative one. Since all actions must be accounted for (according to the Ḥadīth cited), then not deciding to perform a mubāh will also have to be accounted for. Thus, we return to square one, where mubāh is neutral. However, it is also true that if one, due to personal choice, decides to reduce mubāh and engage in Mustaḥab (preferred) acts, then this is a wise choice; however, this does not then render the omission of mubāh in itself something desirable. Another point worthy of note is that a good intention behind mubāh can render it Mustaḥab.

Conclusion:

Mubāh refers to those acts that are generally considered optional. Let’s keep it that way.


  1. al-Bukhari, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasai, Ibn Majah.
  2. Ahmad.
  3. Bukhari.
  4. Tadhkira of al Qurtubi.
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28 Comments

  1. Suhaib Webb says:

    Asalamu alaykum,

    Haq:

    Many thanks for this interesting and thought provoking article. Some scholars have argued that “neutral” acts can be “disliked” or even “forbidden” if their harm becomes manifest. Dr. al-Qaradawi takes this principle noting that “Female Circumcision” leads to a number of physical and psychological problems that render it disliked. I know that Dr. ‘Ali Goma follows the same logic and some scholars have stated that it is a forbidden act based on the Mallat of the act. Dr. Ahmed Taha Rayyan differs with them holding that, since it is sunna, it cannot be forbidden. Are you aware of any contemporary examples where this discussion has occurred?

    SDW

    • Haq says:

      Wassalam Sh Suhaib,

      I actually was motivated to write on this since, a lot of our brothers and sisters, who wish to prove something is impermissible, when they run out of all means simply state “but brother it is better to avoid that and engage in Ibada”. On a very well known TV channel, many scholars answer questions, and I have seen a number of times many issues prop up where the scholar, to back his argument that x is forbidden says “and it busies oneself from the engaging in dhikr or ibadah”. To drive the point home, those who hold the opinion that Music is impermissible, and generally have an intolerant attitude towards recreation use this argument. So what they in actual fact were saying was that it is better to leave such an act, even if it is not haram, since it is distracting oneself from Ibadah. However, it is surprising that they choose to use this line “distract from Ibadah” in certain issues at the exclusion of others. It also occurred to me that the logical consequence of their premise was to annihilate mubah as a category, and categorise every act not ibadah into makruh. Again it is one thing for one to choose, out of his own will, or to encourage each other towards good, but it is another in using this as a premise in legal argumentation and Ahkam.

      As regarding contemporary applications, I think the issue of polygamy comes to mind, where Dr Qaradawi mentioned (in the Program “Fiqh al Haya”, in the Channel “Ana” titled “Fiqh of Minorities”) that some Muftis prohibited men in a certain area to marry Christians and Jews as it lead to the Muslimaat being left without husbands, as the law of the land only allowed one spouse. Thus, and Allah knows best, and please correct me if I am wrong, but the verb in the verse “Fankihoo” is not for obligation but its to show permissibility which means the original Hukm of Polygamy is that of Mubah, and not necessarily a preferred act in and of itself and as you and Sheikh Qaradawi as well as numerous other scholars of Usul have mentioned:
      “Harm is to be removed” and “there is no inflicting of harm nor any reciprocating of harm” and thus they prohibited polygamy in that vicinity. I think if we look at it in terms of Istislaah, where a Sofa (a quality) that the legislator has not given any I’tibar (explicit consideration) nor has done any Ilgha (invalidated its legal effect), is considered when it leads to something beneficial as being recommended, similarly such a sifah when it leads to harm, is to be accorded a status of being reprehensible.

      Btw, I translated some terms so that bros’s and sis’s that find it difficult to understand the terms can also take part, so I am not implying you are not familiar with such terms

      Peace :D

  2. Suhaib Webb says:

    Asalamu alaykum,

    It was a joy to read, learn and think. I recall the axiom that the mubahaat can be regulated by the ruler if he sees a benefit for the community. I know in classical law books there is the example a leader banning divorce. In recent times, jurists have used this axiom to respond to those who say that national vacations are an innovation.

    SDW

  3. Abu Adam says:

    Sorry to change the topic. I think the issue of female circumcision is pretty important. Amongst many Shafi’is (and certainly in Malaysia) it is practised and considered wajib. I have chosen not to follow this practice for my daughters because it is viewed in such a negative light and may yield very negative consequences for Muslims living in the West (like parents losing custody of their children) and simply because some of other madhahib do not require or even encourage it. It is also important to make a distinction between the endorsed (or not condemned) form of female circumcision with the universially condemned and forbidden form of female circumcision where the female’s genitals are removed.

  4. Ahmed says:

    salams, Mash Allah. Great point brother Haq. You mentioned three categories of mubah, well how about an act the does not lead to haram, nor does it lead to something wajab nor is it in between. Some actions just give you this dull feeling inside your heart for there mere fact that they have nothing to do with worship. For example vain speech, you can speak for long periods of time without mentioning Allah swt, then when its time for prayer you may not have the strongest feeling in your heart and your concentration is not as good. But you still have some sort of feeling and some sort of concentration. I think this is what they refer to when they say “its better to stay away from the mubah”. Because you have not fallen into haram, nor did this speech help you indulge in any mandatory act, nor can we say it is in between. This vain speech simply gave you a dull feeling in your heart that could have been avoided by simply remembering Allah swt a few times while talking.

    Wallahu A3lam

    • Haq says:

      wassalams Br Ahmed, baarakAllah feek,
      The example you gave is not actually mubah, as there are ahadith that rebuke excessive talk without mentioning the name of Allah, thus it doesnt really qualify for a “fourth” catagory and is Makruh in and of itself which is established through text.
      An Example:
      Ibn `Umar (May Allah be pleased with them) reported: The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said, “Do not indulge in excessive talk except when remembering Allah. Excessive talking without the Remembrance of Allah hardens the heart; and those who are the farthest from Allah are those whose hearts are hard.”[At-Tirmidhi]

      • ahmed says:

        Jazzakallahu Khairan, I still think there should be a fourth category, because a person may speak with very slight remembrance, and still get a dull feeling, because the vain talk simply outdoes the remembrance by such a large margin. It also depends on what this vain talk compromises of. Different topics may have more effects than others. Again I think this is what they mean when they say” it is better to stay from mubah”. Instead of detailing the different kinds of mubah, and which kinds are worse than others, they just say ” stay away” because of the win win situation. And i am sure you would degree that there different degrees of mubah . Although I don’t agree with staying away from mubah completely, but still think there should be a fourth category. Maybe in the future I will write a book in Usool and include this forth category for mubah. Wallahu A3lam
        By the way, what was your full name? I would love to get to know you brother Haq.
        Salams

  5. talwar says:

    Br.Haq, assalamualikum.

    I don’t mean to go on a tangent (and I know the intention of the article wasn’t to delve into this topic) but you say that “To drive the point home, those who hold the opinion that Music is impermissible.” That statement seems to imply that there were notable scholars who held it permissible?

    Since this is an issue of fiqh, are there any madhabs that allow Music? I don’t mean contemporary pop-music with nasty lyrics but even say Mozzart et al?

    wassalam.

    • Suhaib Webb says:

      Asalamu alaykum,

      Imam al-Ghazzali held that position as well as a number of scholars. It is well known that there were companions who played the ‘Ud and Ibn Hazim is famous for allowing it. I would encourage you to read Dr. Qaradawi’s book on music as well as the recent work of Dr. ‘Abdullah Jud’a for more sources. Sh. bin Bayyah noted that there is no ‘Ijm’a on this issue as did Sh. Dido.

      SDW

      • Andrew Booso says:

        As-salam alaykum

        I haven’t read the primary sources for Imam Ghazzali’s position, but Tariq Ramadan mentions in To Be A European Muslim – on the question of music’s permissibility – that Ghazzali’s position ‘restrained singing to the voice only, that is without instruments’ (op. cit. 203).

        The ‘traditional’ 4 madhhabs – i.e. agreed-upon, mu’tamad, opinions – are strictly against musical instruments. See Reliance of the Traveller (p. 775 for the Shafi’i school from Imam Nawawi), http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=1&ID=686&CATE=115, (http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=1&ID=1786&CATE=142),
        and http://www.islamqa.com/en/ref/5000/music

        The ‘minority’ opinion is acknowledged here by ustadh Faraz Rabbani: http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?HD=1&ID=1793&CATE=142

        Ibn Hazm of the Zahiri school is the chief person used to make musical instruments halal. His reasoning has been translated by Aisha Bewley from a book by Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazzali, and is available from the files section of her yahoo! group.

        Ibn Hazm’s main point is that ‘all’ the hadith on the question are inauthentic, and if they were authentic he would have followed them. His hadith reasoning on this matter in regards to a narration from Sahih al-Bukhari has been attacked – from my limited view – by Ibn al-Salah in his Muqaddimah and Shah Wali-Allah in his Hujjat Allah al-baligha.

        Yet it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility that a scholar could arrive at Ibn Hazm’s position without following his reasoning. Although I’ve only seen people rely on him – but I haven’t reviewed the books of Shaykh Qaradawi or Shaykh Juday’.

        Of course, all of this discussion seems to be between ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, and not about ‘al-ijma al-qat’i’ (decisive consensus) – the latter being extremely hard to prove, and not established by mere ‘majorities’.

        Also, I’ve simply taken a ‘schools’ approach here, without getting into specific evidences and the possible plethora of opinions found within schools themselves and the narratives (aathaar) of the early Muslims. That would be a bigger research, but most people would have enough here as a starting point, insha’Allah.

        fi amanillah

        Andrew

      • talwar says:

        JazakAllah khair to all those who replied and enriched the discussion.

        I was aware of Imam Ghazali’s opinion but heard that he restricted the usage of music to calling people to Allah?

        I didn’t know what the Úd was, google seems to suggest it is a string instrument that looks like a guitar. It would be interesting to know which of the sahaba played that..

        I can understand that there is no ijma’ on this issue, but then the issues where there is ijma would be extremely few anyway and difficult to prove – so that in of itself may not add a lot of weight to the view that music is permissible?

        From a fiqh learning perspective, it surprises me is that there are issues – such as that of Music – where the 4 madhabs are united on it’s prohibition but some may view the other minority opinion as a valid one? Shouldn’t the unity of the madhabs on any given issue send warning bells and a big arrow that this, perhaps, is the most correct opinion?

        Are there many issues like this?

  6. realist says:

    Salam

    “It is well known that there were companions who played the ‘Ud ”

    Shiekh, I have no doubt that what you say is true, but do you have a reference for this?

    • Suhaib Webb says:

      Asalamu alaykum,

      Realist:

      You are more than welcome to doubt me and quesiton me at anytime. I’m not Qat’i Thubut and feel great honor in your questions and points. You can find many of those quotes in the took texts I mentioned above.

      Andrew:

      As for Ibn Hazim, then al-Iraqi answered his concerns in his alfiyah. Another scholar of note who took Ibn Hazim’s position, while maintaining that the hadiths were sound, was Qadi Abu Bakir ibn ‘Arabi. He held that the hadith was sound, but from the point of ihtiyaj it was weak in prohibiting music.

      Allah knows best
      Suhaib

      • Andrew Booso says:

        Wa alaykum as-salam

        Thank you, ustadh Suhaib, that is very interesting.

        fi amanillah

        Andrew

      • realist says:

        Salam

        I am the one who feels honored that you are answering my questions! What is the actual book of Sheikh Qaradawi you are referring to? And what is ‘ihtiyaj’?

  7. realist says:

    Salam

    One more question. It would be very useful for us to know if those scholars who consider music to be halal actually listen to it actively. For example, I have read that Sheikh Qaradawi does listen. Is this true?

  8. Omar says:

    “issues prop up where the scholar, to back his argument that x is forbidden says “and it busies oneself from the engaging in dhikr or ibadah””

    I find that many religious people do that when they get stuck and on very serious issues and sadly if they are speaking to someone who is just starting out to improve or learn they confuse them alot. Sadly I also find this trend of thought doesn’t suggest alternatives. Ok so you talk to a kid to minimize video games, now what? I personally find the first row people in the masjid in my community the MOST ones who engage in chatter after salah and never does any of them read or even know what are the common best sellers, or even what ilm circles are found (if they are serious about time) but will get huffing and puffing if they see youth “wasting their time”

    A friend of mine I knew, his sheikh would be very selective on advice he gives people. He was easiy on the public he doesnt know, stricter on his students to empower them to be tme conscious, and very strict on himself so he can dedicate his life to teaching and studying while always warning against burn out.

  9. Dawud Israel says:

    Excellent piece and really interesting discussion.

    I know this isn’t exactly related but can I get some information on the image in the post? Its really beautiful to say the least…

    Jazaka Allahu khayran

  10. Abu Muawiyah says:

    Imam Shawkhani wrote an important book on this issue entitled “Ibtaal Dawatul Ijma Alaa Tahrim Mutlaqis Simaa” which means “refuting the claim of consensus on the general prohibition of music” in which he lists the various views and proofs that scholars have on this issue. Bear in mind that Imam Shawkhani wrote this book despite being of the opinion that musical instruments are prohibited so that people do not go to extremes in dealing with those who hold to the view of permissibility.

    Imam Shawkhani said at the end of this book, “There is no doubt after all the views and proofs that we have mentioned that music is from amongst the doubtful issues and believers should be wary regarding the doubtful issues as is narrated in Saheeh Bukhari, “Whoever leaves the doubtful issues has protected his honour and his religion,” (Ibtaal Dawatul Ijma Alaa Tahrim Mutlaqis Simaa p:59)

    Imam Shawkhani also states, “Allah knows that we do not sit at the gatherings of music…but we mentioned this from the point of view of evidence…so that it becomes clear that this is not an issue in which one can claim that the followers of a certain opinion are misguided, rather how can those who claim that there is no difference of opinion regarding the issue of music be guided to the path of justice?” (Ibtaal Dawatul Ijma Alaa Tahrim Mutlaqis Simaa p: 52)

  11. Haq says:

    SubhanAllah, look at the balance and Justice of Imam Shawkhani, May Allah bless him and grant him the highest of stations in Jannah.

  12. Dawud Israel says:

    Dear Sh. Suhaib and WebbStaff,

    As a blogger, I strongly suggest another piece based on the fruits of this discussion (music, circumcision) and tying it in with this post on Mubah. This is very relevant and quite overlooked. One of the best methods of blogging (and teaching!) is to build off of previous work, so reader understanding can grow organically rather than being forced to suddenly shift because of an online debate…gradual teaching, not forceful, rigid and stuttering/disconnected pieces hold the most promise for expanding our outlook on the deen.

    Just my humble 2 cents.

    -Dawud

  13. Abu Adam says:

    “Another scholar of note who took Ibn Hazim’s position, while maintaining that the hadiths were sound, was Qadi Abu Bakir ibn ‘Arabi. He held that the hadith was sound, but from the point of ihtiyaj it was weak in prohibiting music.”

    Please explain more particularly the meaning of ihtiyaj.

    • Suhaib Webb says:

      Asalamu alaykum,

      When looking at any hadith scholars of usol divided it into:

      Sihah- The strength of the hadith- is it sahih, hassan or da’if.

      Ihtiyaj- Using it as proof in religious matters

      So, for example, a hadith might be sound, but cannot be used as proof. A good example is the sound narrations of Anas regarding the Basmallah. The Maliks contend that while the narrations are sound in sanad, they are inconsistent in their wording. This means that their sihah is accepted, but, they are not acceptable for ihtiyaj (proof). Now, of course the Shafi’s differ, but I was only using that for the sake of an example.

      What one can garner from this is that the often quoted statement, “If you find a sound hadith, it is my madhab” does not apply to non-scholars but needs to be understood under the wider lens of academic rigor..

      Ibn ‘Arabis contention surrounds the language of the hadith, thus while he contends that it is sound, he states that its ihtiyaj in prohibiting music is not.

      SDW

  14. Mark H. says:

    Assalamu alaikum Sh. Suhaib,

    I know this post is very old, and I am not that interested in reviving this topic of music (forgive me if it seems so). But I was particularly interested in your statement on lack Ijmaa’ and the scholars statements (Dr. Qaradawi (ha), Sh.Abdullah, (ha), and etc). Since you were a student of Sheikh Dido, (ha) I wanted to ask, it is indeed his position that instruments are prohibited, correct? Thank you

  15. Mark H. says:

    (although he acknowledges no ijmaa’)

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