Customs and acts of worship in Islamic Law
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Acts of worship and worldly customs are governed by different rules in Islamic law. Acts of worship must be strictly derived from the texts of the Quran and Sunnah, thus all acts of worship are forbidden except what is explicitly prescribed.
In contrast, worldly customs are permissible as long as they do not contradict the texts of the Quran and Sunnah, thus all customs are permissible except what is explicitly forbidden.
Ibn Taymiyyah writes:
وَأَمَّا الْعَادَاتُ فَهِيَ مَا اعْتَادَهُ النَّاسُ فِي دُنْيَاهُمْ مِمَّا يَحْتَاجُونَ إلَيْه وَالْأَصْلُ فِيهِ عَدَمُ الْحَظْرِ فَلَا يَحْظُرُ مِنْهُ إلَّا مَا حَظَرَهُ اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ ، وَذَلِكَ لِأَنَّ الْأَمْرَ وَالنَّهْيَ هُما شَرَع اللَّهُ تَعَالَى وَالْعِبَادَةُ لَا بُدَّ أَنْ تَكُونَ مَأْمُورًا بِهَا فَمَا لَمْ يَثْبُتْ أَنَّهُ مَأْمُورٌ كَيْفَ يُحْكَمُ عَلَيْهِ بِأَنَّهُ عِبَادَةٌ وَمَا لَمْ يَثْبُتْ مِنْ الْعَادَاتِ أَنَّهُ مَنْهِيٌّ عَنْهُ كَيْفَ يُحْكَمُ عَلَيْهِ أَنَّهُ مَحْظُورٌ
With regard to customs, they are things that people are used to doing in their worldly affairs. The basic principle concerning them is that they are not forbidden. Nothing of that is forbidden except what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden.
That is because commands and prohibitions have to do with the religion of Allah, and acts of worship must necessarily be enjoined. If something is not proven to have been enjoined, then how can it be deemed an act of worship?
With regard to customs, if there is no text to prove that a custom is forbidden, how can it be deemed to be forbidden?
Source: Majmu‘ al-Fatawa 29/16-17
The basic principle for acts of worship is that any act of worship must be based upon a command or recommendation from the Quran or an authentic report in the Sunnah. This is because only Allah can tell us how He should be worshiped.
Allah has blamed those who invent acts of worship for themselves without any authority.
أَمْ لَهُمْ شُرَكَاءُ شَرَعُوا لَهُم مِّنَ الدِّينِ مَا لَمْ يَأْذَن بِهِ اللَّهُ
Do they have other gods who have ordained for them a religion to which Allah has not consented?
Surah Ash-Shura 42:21
In this regard, anyone who invents an act of worship not prescribed in Islam will have their deed rejected by Allah.
Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَنْ عَمِلَ عَمَلًا لَيْسَ عَلَيْهِ أَمْرُنَا فَهُوَ رَدٌّ
Whoever performs a deed that is not in accordance with our matter will have it rejected.
Source: Sahih Muslim 1718, Grade: Sahih
The basic principle for worldly customs is that any custom is permissible unless it contains something sinful mentioned in the Quran and Sunnah. This is because Allah has allowed us to retain our customs as long as they are not explicitly forbidden.
Allah has blamed those who introduce prohibitions into His religion without any authority.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تُحَرِّمُوا طَيِّبَاتِ مَا أَحَلَّ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ وَلَا تَعْتَدُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الْمُعْتَدِينَ
O you who believe, do not prohibit the good things which Allah has made lawful to you and do not transgress. Verily, Allah does not like transgressors.
Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:87
And Allah said:
قُلْ أَرَأَيْتُم مَّا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ لَكُم مِّن رِّزْقٍ فَجَعَلْتُم مِّنْهُ حَرَامًا وَحَلَالًا قُلْ آللَّهُ أَذِنَ لَكُمْ أَمْ عَلَى اللَّهِ تَفْتَرُونَ
Say: Have you seen what Allah has sent down to you of provision of which you have made lawful and unlawful? Say: Has Allah permitted you to do so, or do you invent something about Allah?
Surah Yunus 10:59
Muslims have been given permission to adapt worldly customs to Islamic law if they are not sinful. This makes Islam flexible enough to adapt to many different societies and cultural contexts. In this regard, the Prophet informed us that we are more aware of our worldly situation and thus in a better position to rule upon these issues.
Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, passed by people grafting trees. The Prophet said:
لَوْ لَمْ تَفْعَلُوا لَصَلُحَ
It would be better if you did not do that.
So they abandoned the practice and there was a decline in the yield. He passed by again and said, “What is wrong with your trees?” They said, “You said such-and-such.” So the Prophet said:
أَنْتُمْ أَعْلَمُ بِأَمْرِ دُنْيَاكُمْ
You have better knowledge of the affairs of your world.
Source: Sahih Muslim 2363, Grade: Sahih
The Prophet was sent to teach us acts of religion and he did not intend to rule for us on every worldly issue we might encounter, but rather he has given us general principles in Islamic law to help us judge new situations.
Rafi ibn Khadij reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ إِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشَيْءٍ مِنْ دِينِكُمْ فَخُذُوا بِهِ وَإِذَا أَمَرْتُكُمْ بِشَيْءٍ مِنْ رَأْيٍ فَإِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشَرٌ
Verily, I am only a human being. If I command you to do something in religion then adhere to it, but if I command you to do something from my opinion then, verily, I am only a human being.
Source: Sahih Muslim 2362, Grade: Sahih
For this reason, customs are a basis of judgment in Islamic law and should be considered when issuing a religious opinion on a new situation.
As-Suyuti reported: A foundational principle of the school of Imam Ash-Shafi’ee states:
Habits are a basis of judgment.
Source: Al-Ashbah wa Natha’ir 7-8
Therefore, whatever customs are deemed appropriate according to the Muslims are accepted by Allah.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
فَمَا رَأَى الْمُسْلِمُونَ حَسَنًا فَهُوَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ حَسَنٌ وَمَا رَأَوْا سَيِّئًا فَهُوَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ سَيِّئٌ
Whatever the Muslims view as good is good in the sight of Allah, and whatever they view as evil is evil in the sight of Allah.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 3589, Grade: Hasan
These are the basic principles in Islam regarding acts of worship and worldly customs. They serve as important guidelines for behavior, such that we do not innovate acts of worship into Islam nor prohibit something in the world Allah has made lawful.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.