Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “A strong believer is better than a weak believer, though there is good in all. Take care about what benefits you, seeking Allah’s help, and do not give up in frustration. If some misfortune befalls you, do not say: ‘If I had only done such-and-such…’ but rather say: ‘Allah has decided, and what he wished to happen has come to pass.’ Saying ‘If only…’ opens the door to Satan’s intrigues.” [Sahīh Muslim
On this basis, Islamic scholars teach us that it is disliked to say: “If only…” when speaking about what happened in the past, because this opens up opportunities for Satan to play with our thoughts and emotions, so we become regretful, frustrated, and exasperated.
By contrast, using the same phrase to speak about the present or the future is not disliked at all. In this case, it is not an expression of regret, but an expression of planning and considering possibilities.
Likewise, it is not disliked to say “if only…” when explaining what would be a better course of action in a similar situation to the one that has passed. In this case, it is instructional, and also forward-thinking.
In fact, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would use this phrase in this way. For instance, he said: “If I encounter the same situation in the future, I will not bring an animal offering, but rather change my intention to that of the lesser pilgrimage. So whoever among you does not have an animal offering should come out of the ritual state and make their intention for the lesser pilgrimage.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī
and Sahīh Muslim
Likewise, he said: “May Allah bestow His mercy on Ishmael’s mother. If she had let it go, the well of Zamzam would have been a full spring.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī
and Sahīh Muslim
In the example of the phrase “If only…”, we see how the Islamic ruling depends on the consequences. In this case, when it can be understood as an expression of regret over what has happened in the past, it is disliked to use the phrase because it can take a person down the path of emotional harm. However, when the phrase is used for a positive reason, it is not disliked at all.
We can also see in this example that the potential consequences of an action are taken into consideration, even those the person who performs the action might at the time be heedless of. Therefore, we have here an example of the Islamic legal axiom of preventing the means to harm (sadd al-dharā’i`
) which is discussed in detail in the works of legal theory.
At the same time, this example also shows the flexibility of Islamic Law in that it responds in different ways to different conditions to bring benefit to people and facilitate matters for them.
This is how the great legal scholars approached the law. The famed legal theorist al-Shātibī said: “The legal sources and the patterns in the laws themselves indicate that consequences are always a consideration in determining the rulings.”
We see this in the many recorded decisions of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs. We also see it in the legal axioms of considering the general welfare (al-maslahah al-mursalah
), and opting for the most amenable analogous ruling (al-istihsān
). We see it as well in the recognition and accommodation of local customs (`urf
) and in safeguarding the universal needs of faith, life, reason, family, and property.
How scholars of law applied these principles under differing circumstances is one of the reasons for the diversity and plurality that we see in the law, even in matters where the jurists were interpreting rulings grounded in the sacred texts. This is even more the case when the questions were matters which were not addressed by the sacred texts and where the determination of the legal ruling was wholly a question of juristic discretion.
Consideration for consequences also explains why a single jurist would issue various rulings at different times. We see this clearly with al-Shāfi`ī who issued different ruling s in Iraq than he issued in Egypt. We can also see the same pattern within a single school of law, particularly in the Hanafī school.
We should also consider how, during the time or Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) the revelation of various rulings came down gradually in stages, and not all at once. A clear example of this is the gradual prohibition of alcoholic beverages. We also see it in the different rulings that governed Muslim life in the early years in Mecca, then in Madinah, and even between the early and later years in Madinah. I am not talking about rulings that were abrogated, but rather those that applied to various situations and circumstances.
For example, when prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent Mu`ādh b. Jabal to Yemen, he advised him as follows:
You are going to a nation from the People of the Scripture, so the first thing you should call them towards is to the worship of God alone. If they accept this, then inform them that it is incumbent on them to offer five prayers every day. If they accept this, then inform them that it is incumbent on them to pay a charity tax that is levied on the affluent among them and distributed to the poor among them. If they obey you in this, then take this tax from them, but do not take from the best of their wealth.” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī and Sahīh Muslim]
Changing circumstances, like those that took place over the twenty-three years of the Prophet’s mission, occur in every era of human history. Likewise, the gradual approach is useful to the preacher or Islamic legal scholar whenever the circumstances call for it. This is enshrined in the way the Qur’an itself was gradually revealed . Allah says: “And (it is) a Qur’an that We have divided, that you may recite it unto humanity at intervals, and We have revealed it by (successive) revelation.” [Sūrah al-Isrā’
These “intervals” were not just to give the people enough time to learn the verses of the Qur’an and commit them to memory. The verses of the Qur’an were revealed as needed, in the context of practical situations and in response to the community’s changing needs and circumstances. They were reveled in times of weakness and strength, in times of wealth and scarcity, in times of cohesion and disunity, in times of security and fear.
The principle that Islamic teachings take consequences into account can be seen in the fact that most direct Islamic injunctions are general and open to numerous specific applications. They are open-ended and their particulars are left to the judgment of those who need to implement them. Consider, for instance, the principle of consultation. This principle is set forth in the Qur’an as the means of governing society’s affairs.
Allah praises: “those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular Prayer; who (conduct) their affairs by mutual consultation among themselves; who spend out of what We bestow on them for Sustenance” [Sūrah al-Shūrā
Allah also says: “It is from Allah’s mercy that you deal with them gently, and had you been rough and hard-hearted, they would certainly have dispersed from around you; so pardon them and ask pardon for them, and consult with them in their affairs. So when you have decided, then place your trust in Allah; for surely Allah loves those who put their trust in Him.” [Sūrah al-Shūrā
The Qur’an does not go into detail about how this principle of consultation is to be implemented in society. That matter is left open. It is up to the people, their experience, their society’s requirements, and their administrative sophistication to develop the system of consultation that will best help their nation to prosper.
Numerous rulings that pertain to interpersonal dealings and general social welfare have different implications depending on the circumstances. The same action can be obligatory in some case, preferable in others, and even disliked or forbidden in certain other instances. The jurists refer to this phenomenon when they say: “The five legal rulings all apply to this matter.”
Al-Shātibī says: “I have found that the Law-giver has intended the welfare of His creatures, and the general rulings are all contingent on that welfare, so that we see a single thing can be prohibited when it does not secure their welfare and permitted when it does.”
This allows Islamic Law to respond to contingencies and circumstances. Likewise, the disagreements between legal jurists in matters of law provide a degree of choice to later scholars. All of their opinions were the results of their exercising their best legal judgment in the context of Islamic Law. They all referred back to the authority of the Qur’an and Sunnah. One legal opinion might appear stronger in one age or under certain circumstances, whereas a another will appear stronger in another age or under a different set of circumstances. This might be because of the different level of knowledge in the society, or due to prevailing conditions, or due to difficulties that the people are facing, or due to the weighing of different pros and cons. There are numerous examples in Islamic Law for all of these concerns.