The 41st Call: Prohibition of Asking about what does not Concern us
Almighty Allah says (what can be translated as): “O you who have believed, do not ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you. But if you ask about them while the Qur'an is being revealed, they will be shown to you. Allah has pardoned that which is past; and Allah is Forgiving and Forbearing. A people asked such [questions] before you; then they became thereby disbelievers.” (Al-Ma’idah: 101-102)
Almighty Allah disciplines His believing servants and He forbids them from asking about things of no benefit to them and from digging into the unknown because if they are to be revealed now, they might become distressed upon hearing them.
It was narrated that the reason for revealing this verse is that the Messenger, Peace Be upon Him, was asked about things which he did not like, but when the questioners insisted, the Prophet got angry and his face turned red and he sat on the pulpit. A man stood up and asked: where is my father? The Prophet, Peace Be upon Him, said: In the hellfire. Another stood up and asked: who is my father? The Prophet said: Your father is Hudhafah. This is why the verse was revealed (Narrated by al-Bukhari).
Almighty Allah says to the believers that if they ask about the matters they were prohibited from asking about earlier then they can ask about them while the Qur’an is being revealed about the rulings of these matters, and they will be shown to them, or they can ask about what is revealed to them to understand it. Almighty Allah will explain it to them through the Messenger (Peace Be upon Him).
It was mentioned in a hadith: “….Leave me with what I have left to you (i.e. adhere to the teachings I left to you). Those who came before you were destroyed because they asked too many questions and differed with their Prophets.” (Narrated by al-Awfi from Ibn Abbas
It is said that the meaning of the verse: “…do not ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you…” is do not ask about things you would not tolerate as a verse might be revealed due to your question to obligate you with a difficult or restraining ruling to fulfill.
It was mentioned in another a hadith: “….the Muslim who offends most against the Muslims is he who enquires about something which has not been forbidden to men, and it is declared forbidden because of his enquiry.”
Some people before you asked about these forbidden things and they were answered then they did not believe in them and they became disbelievers because of that, because they were explained and revealed to them due to their questions but they did not get the benefit of the revelation and they did not follow them.
Some people used to ask numerous questions to the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) asking him about matters on which no order or prohibition had been given. Some were always asking about the details of matters that the Qur’an gave in general terms, to make them easier for people. Some asked about matters which need not be exposed, because exposure would cause a problem either to the person putting the question or to others. It is reported, for example, that when the verse establishing the duty of pilgrimage was revealed, a man asked the Prophet whether pilgrimage was a duty every year. The Prophet disliked the question because the Qur’anic verse left the matter Unspecified: “And [due] to Allah from the people is a pilgrimage to the House - for whoever is able to find thereto a way.” (Al-Imran: 97) To offer the pilgrimage once is sufficient for this duty to be fulfilled. To ask whether it is a duty required every year is to give the text a much harder interpretation and one which Allah has not imposed.
A hadith attributed to Ali, without quoting the Prophet, says: “When the verse stating that pilgrimage is a duty owed to Allah by all people who are able to undertake it, was revealed, some people asked the Prophet: `Is it every year?’ He did not answer. They repeated the question and he said: ‘No.’ Had I said, ‘yes,’ it would have become an obligation.” Then Allah revealed the verse stating: “O you who have believed, do not ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you.” (Verse 101) (Related by al-Tirmidhi and al-Daraqutni) Al-Daraqutni relates a similar hadith on the authority of Abu Hurayrah who says: “The Prophet said: ‘Mankind, Pilgrimage has been made a duty of yours.’ A man stood up and asked, ‘Is it every year, Messenger of Allah?’ The Prophet did not answer him, so the man repeated the question. The Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) asked who the man was putting the question. When he was told his name, he said: ‘By Him who holds my soul in His hand, had I said, “Yes”, it would have become binding. Had it been made binding, you would not be able to fulfill it, and if you were not able to fulfill it, you would be guilty of disbelief.” Then Allah revealed the verse stating: “O you who have believed, do not ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you.” (Verse 101)
According to al-Ţabari, on one occasion people asked the Prophet (PBUH) many questions. In reference to that occasion Imam Muslim relates in his Sahih on the authority of Anas that “the Prophet (PBUH) said: ‘By Allah I will answer any question you put to me, as long as I am in this position.’ A man stood up and asked: ‘Which will be my place of entry?’ The Prophet said, ‘The Fire.’ Abdullah ibn Hudhafah asked: ‘Who is my father, Messenger of Allah?’ The Prophet (PBUH) said to him, `Your father is Hudhafah.’ His mother said to him (Abdullah): ‘I have never heard of a more undutiful son. How could you be sure that your mother might not have done something which women prior to Islam did? You would have, then, exposed her in front of all people.’ He said: ‘Had he said that I belonged to a black slave, I would have affiliated myself to him.” Ibn Abdel Barr said that Abdullah ibn Hudhafah, was among the early Muslims in Makkah. He went to Abyssinia with the second group of emigrants and took part in the Battle of Badr. He was known for his sense of humor.
Another report by al-Ţabari on the authority of Abu Hurayrah states: “The Prophet came out angry, with his face red, and sat on the pulpit. A man rose and asked him: ‘Where will I be?’ He said, `In the Fire.’ Another man asked him: `Who is my father?’ The Prophet said: `Your father is Hudhafah.’ Umar ibn al-Khaţţab stood up and said: ‘We acknowledge Allah as our Lord, Islam as our faith, and Muhammad (Peace Be upon Him) as Allah’s Prophet, and the Qur’an as our constitution. Messenger of Allah, we only recently abandoned idolatry, and Allah knows best who our fathers were.’ The Prophet’s anger cooled down. Then the verse was revealed stating: “O you who have believed, do not ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you.” (Verse 101)
Mujahid quotes Ibn Abbas as saying that this verse was revealed in answer to people who asked about certain superstitious practices involving animals. He quotes another scholar, Sa’id ibn Jubayr, as citing in support the verse that follows, stating: “Allah has not appointed [such innovations as] bahirah or sa'ibah or wasilah or ham. But those who disbelieve invent falsehood about Allah, and most of them do not reason.” (Verse 103) All these reports and similar ones give us a clear picture of the type of questions which believers have been ordered not to ask.
The Qur’an was revealed from on high not merely to establish a faith or outline a legal code, but also to educate a community and establish a society. It also aims to reform the attitudes of individuals and to set for them a logical and moral system. Here the Qur’an is teaching Muslims how and when to put their questions, demarcating the boundaries of investigation and the system through which to acquire knowledge. Since Allah is the source of the Islamic code and the One who reveals what is unknown, it is only good manners that His servants should leave it to His wisdom whether to provide details of the legal provisions or to state them in general terms only, and whether to inform them of what is unknown to them or keep it hidden away from them. It behaves them well to stop at the limits determined by Allah whose knowledge encompasses all things. It is not in their interest to set for themselves stricter limits, through the pursuit of different possibilities. It is wrong that they should try to seek to know things that lie beyond the reach of their powers of perception when Allah has determined not to reveal these to them. Their attempts are bound to be fruitless, for Allah knows well the limits of human power and potential. He gives them the law that suits them, revealing only that measure of knowledge with which they are able to cope.
Allah has kept certain matters unknown to man, or He might have expressed certain matters in general terms. It does not harm people to leave such matters in the form Allah has left them. To question these at the time of the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) might have provided them with distressing answers, or might have overburdened both them and future generations.
Hence, Allah tells the believers not to ask about certain matters which if revealed might be harmful. He also warns them that should they ask about these during the Prophet’s lifetime, when the Qur’an was being revealed, for then they would have their answers, but these would impose on them obligations that Allah did not originally make binding: “O you who have believed, do not ask about things which, if they are shown to you, will distress you. But if you ask about them while the Qur'an is being revealed, they will be shown to you. Allah has pardoned that which is past; and Allah is Forgiving and Forbearing.” (Verse 101) The verse carries a clear instruction not to inquire about matters which Allah has left out or stated without details in order to keep duties lighter, as in the case of pilgrimage. Allah then gives the example of former communities that were given revelations. Some of them made things harder for themselves by numerous questions about rulings and duties. When, as a result, Allah made new obligations binding on them, they failed to perform these, thus rejecting them. Had they left matters as Allah stated them originally, they would have been able to benefit by the easier tasks Allah wanted to assign to them. They would not have had to cope with their failure to fulfill their responsibilities.
We have seen how the Jews asked too many questions when they were ordered to slaughter a cow. They were not given any conditions initially, and as such, slaughtering any cow would have been good enough. However, they asked for a description, and then details of that description. With every question, the choice before them was narrowed down and the task became harder. Had they refrained from putting these questions, the matter would have remained much easier. The same was the case when they asked for the Sabbath. When it was granted to them, at their request, they could not cope with its obligations. They followed the same pattern time and time again, until Allah forbade them many things either for educational purposes or as a punishment. An authentic hadith quotes the Prophet as saying: “….Leave me with what I have left to you (i.e. adhere to the teachings I left to you). Those who came before you were destroyed because they asked too many questions and differed with their Prophets.” (Narrated by al-Awfi from Ibn Abbas
In another authentic hadīth the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) states: “Allah has imposed certain obligations; so do not neglect them. He set certain boundaries; so do not transgress them. Furthermore, He has forbidden certain things; so do not violate these. And He has left out certain matters as an act of grace, forgetting none of them; so do not ask about these.” In his authentic collection of ahadith Imam Muslim relates that the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) said: “….the Muslim who offends most against the Muslims is he who enquires about something which has not been forbidden to men, and it is declared forbidden because of his enquiry.”
Perhaps these ahadith we have quoted, together with statements in the Qur’an, delineate the Islamic system of pursuing knowledge. The first point to make clear is that, from the Islamic point of view, knowledge is sought to face a real need and to satisfy that need. Human powers and faculties are too precious to expend in pursuing detailed matters of what Islam calls ‘ghayb,’ a term which refers to what lies beyond the reach of human perception. That is because such knowledge is not sought to meet any real or practical need in human life. It is sufficient for the human mind to believe in that ghayb as described by the One who has described it. When the human mind goes beyond that belief in order to investigate its nature and details, it will not attain any true results, because it is simply not equipped with the necessary faculties to achieve that knowledge. Allah has given us all that we need to know about it. Any further pursuit is a waste of effort; it is no more than trying to walk in the desert without a guide. It is bound to end in total loss.
As for Islamic rulings, these are sought when needed, to face practical situations as and when these take place. This is the proper Islamic approach.
Throughout the Makkan period of Islamic revelations, not a single administrative ruling was outlined, although orders were given to do certain things and to refrain from others. Detailed rulings, such as mandatory and discretionary punishments, atonements and the like were only revealed after the establishment of the Islamic state in Madinah, because that state was able to carry out these details and put them into practice.
The first generation of Muslims was fully abreast of this approach. Hence, they would not give a judgment on any question unless it had taken place. Even then, they would only give a judgment within the context of the question, and without trying to apply texts to assumed events that had not taken place. They wanted to maintain seriousness in both questions and rulings. Al-Darimi, a leading scholar of Hadīth, reports that Omar ibn al-Khaţţab used to rebuke anyone who asked about things that had not taken place. He also mentions that Zaid ibn Thabit, a learned scholar among the Prophet’s Companions, used to say when a question was put to him: “Has this taken place yet?” If he was told that it had, he would give an answer on the basis of his knowledge. If he was told that it had not taken place, he would say: “Leave it, then, until it takes place.” Another report by al-Darimi mentions that Ammar ibn Yasir, a Companion of the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him), was asked about a particular matter. He said: “Has it taken place?” They answered, “No.” He said: “Do not trouble us with it, then. Should it take place, we will look into it for you.”
Al-Darimi also mentions a report by Ibn Abbas, stating: “I have never seen a community better than the Prophet’s Companions. They asked him only about 13 matters, the answers for them all are given in the Qur’an. Among these are, ‘They ask you about the sacred month - about fighting therein…’ (Al-Baqarah: 217), and, ‘And they ask you about menstruation....’ (Al-Bqarah: 222), and the like. They only asked about what would benefit them.” Imām Malik says: “I have lived in this city, [meaning Madinah], and the only knowledge available to its people is the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Should something unusual take place, the Governor would call in all scholars available. Whatever view they approved, he would implement. But you ask too many questions, a habit the Prophet (PBUH) disapproved of.”
Al-Qurtubi, a commentator on the Qur’an, says in his explanation of this verse [i.e. Verse 101] that the Prophet (Peace Be upon Him) says: “Allah has forbidden you to be undutiful to your mothers, burying your daughters alive, stinginess and greed. He also dislikes three qualities: idle speech, asking too many questions and wasting money.” Many scholars are of the view that “asking too many questions” refers to asking many hypothetical questions about Islamic rulings on theoretical and imaginary matters and trying to deduce unnecessary rulings for them. The early Muslims disliked this exercise, considering it to be a pursuit leading to nothing beneficial. They would say that should something take place, a scholar would be guided to its ruling.
This shows the Islamic system to be serious and practical. It provides practical rulings deduced from the principles of Divine law for practical problems in life. In its approach to these problems, it studies each one according to its circumstances and conditions in order to give for it a ruling that covers all its aspects and applies to it fully. To ask for rulings on hypothetical questions is neither useful nor necessary. Since a matter has not taken place, it is impossible to measure it properly. To issue a ruling for it is not suitable, because it cannot cover its aspects which remain unknown. In fact, both question and answer in this case imply a loose attitude to Islamic law and are in breach of the proper Islamic approach.
The same applies to questions asking for Islamic rulings in countries which do not implement Islamic law, and to the answers given to such questions. Divine law is asked for rulings only when these are meant for implementation. Therefore, when both the one who asks the question and the one who answers it are aware that they live in a country where Allah’s authority over human life is denied, then what is the purpose of the whole process of seeking an Islamic ruling? Such a country does not recognize submission to Allah, His law and authority in this life. So, in such a situation, the two parties to the process of deducing an Islamic ruling on a particular question are involved in degrading Islamic law, whether they are aware of the fact or not.
We may say the same concerning purely theoretical studies of details of Islamic law concerning aspects that remain unimplemented. Such studies are no more than an idle pursuit, aiming to give a false impression that Islamic law occupies a place in the land where it is studied in academic institutes, although it remains unimplemented in the courts. Anyone who is party to giving such a false impression may be guilty of sinful action.
This religion of Islam is serious indeed. It has been revealed so that it governs human life. Its aim is to help people so that they submit to Allah alone and to deprive those who usurp Allah’s authority of what they claim to be theirs so that all authority is given to the law of Allah. It must be remembered that Islamic law is devised to govern all aspects of human life. It issues its rulings to deal with practical questions and real needs. Hence, it gives a ruling only for questions that actually take place and only when they do take place. Its rulings take into account all the aspects and circumstances of every problem.
This religion of Islam has not been revealed so that it becomes a mere slogan, or that its law becomes a subject for academic, theoretical study that has no bearing on practical life. It does not indulge in solving hypotheses and providing hypothetical answers to them. That is the practical meaning of the seriousness of Islam. Any Islamic scholar, who wishes to follow its system, with such seriousness, should work hard for the implementation of Islamic law in practical life. Otherwise, he should at least refrain from issuing theoretical rulings that have no place in reality.