Thursday 20th of January 2022
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The 'Principles of Application'

Lesson Seven: The 'Principles of Application'

We have learned that the jurisprudents refers to four sources for his deducing of the laws of the Shari'ah. Sometimes in his referrals the jurisprudent is successful and sometimes he is not. That is, sometimes (of course predominately) he attains the actual law of the Shari'ah in the form of certitude or a reliable probability, which means a probability that has been divinely endorsed. In such cases, the duty becomes clear and he realises with certitude or with a strong and permissable probability what it is the Shari'ah of Islam demands. Occasionally, however, he is unable to discover the duty and the Divine Law from the four sources, and he remains without a defined duty and in doubt.

In these cases what must be done? Has the Legislator of Islam or reason or both specified a certain duty in the case of the actual duty being out of reach? And if so, what is it?

The answer is that yes, such a duty has been specified. A system of rules and regulations has been specified for these types of circumstances. Reason too, in certain circumstances, confirms the law of the Shari'ah, for the independent law of (aware) reasoning is the very same as the law of Shari'ah, and in certain other instances it is at least silent, meaning that it has no independent law of its own and accords to the Shari'ah.

In the part of Principles which contains the Principles of Deducing we learn the correct and valid method of deducing the Shari'ah, and, in the part concerning the Principles of Application, we learn the correct way of benefitting from the rules that have been introduced for the kind of situation mentioned above, and of putting them into practice.

The general principles of application that are used in all the sections of Jurisprudence are four:

  1. The Principles of Exemption (bara'at
  2. The Principle of Precaution (ihtiyat
  3. The Principle of Option (takhyyir
  4. The Principle of Mastery (istishab)

Each of these four types of principles have a special circumstance which it is necessary for us to acquaint ourselves with. Firstly we will define the four principles themselves.

The Principle of Exemption means that we are released from our obligation and we have no duty. The Principle of Precaution is the principle that we must act according to precaution, which means that we must act in such a way that if z duty actually exists as a law, we have performed that duty. The Principle of Option is that we have the option to choose one of two things, whichever we like, and the Principle of Mastery is the principle that that which existed remains in its original state - or masters the doubt that opposes it - while the doubt is ignored.

Now we will see in what circumstances the Principle of Exemption applies and in what circumstances the Principles of Precaution, Option and Mastery apply. Each of these has its particular instance and the study of Principles teaches us these instances.

Sometimes the jurisprudent remains unable to deduce the law of the Shari'ah and is unable to trace a particular necessity and remains in a state of doubt, and it might be that the doubt is linked to some general or broad knowledge like, for example, it is doubted whether, in this era of the physical absence of the Imam, the special congregational prayer is obligatory on Fridays or the normal noon prayer-here the obligation of both the Friday prayer and the noon prayer is in doubt, while we have the general information that one of the two is definitely obligatory - or it might be the doubt is not linked to some general knowledge, like a doubt as to whether, in the era of our Imam's absence, the prayer of id-i-fitr in congregation is obligatory. In this second case our doubt is a "primary doubt" (shak badwi) and not a doubt bordering on something that is known.

So the doubts of the jurisprudents about an obligation are either linked to some general knowledge or are primary doubts. If they are linked to some general knowledge, it is either possible to act in accordance to precaution, meaning that it is possible for both possible duties to be performed, or it is not possible to act in precaution. If precaution is possible, it must be acted in accordance with, and both of the possible duties must be performed, and such an instance calls for the Principle of Precaution. Sometimes, however, precaution is not possible, because the doubt is between obligatory and forbidden. We doubt, for example, in this period of the Imam's absence, whether the performance of certain duties are particular to the Imam and forbidden for us or whether they are not particular to the Imam and are obligatory for us. Here it is self-evident that in such instances the way of precaution is closed, so here is an instance that calls for the Principle of Option, and we must do which ever of them we choose.

Assuming, however, that our doubt is a primary doubt not linked to any general knowledge, the instance is either that we know the previous condition and the doubt is as to whether the previous law stands or is changed, or the instance is that the previous condition not been established either. If the previous condition is established the situation calls for the Principle of Mastery (mastery of the known previous condition over the doubt), and if the previous condition is not established the situation calls for the Principle of Exemption.

A mujtahid must, as the effect of frequent application, have great power of discernment in the execution of these four types of principles; discernment that sometimes is in need of hair-splitting exactitude, and if not he will encounter mistakes. [9]

Of these four principles, the Principle of Mastery has been uniquely established by the Shari'ah, to which reason accords having no independent rule of its own, but the other three principles of Principles of Reason that the Shari'ah has confirmed.

The justification of the Principle of Mastery consists of a number of reliable Traditions which are in this form: "Do not reverse a certitude by a doubt", i.e. we are not to reverse or reject our certitude for the sake of a doubt. From the content of these Traditions and what precedes and follows this sentence it becomes clearly discerned that what is meant is exactly that which the jurisprudent calls Mastery.

On the subject of the Principle of Exemption likewise there exist many Traditions of which the most famous is the hadith ur-raf'i.

The hadith ur-raf'i is from the Holy Prophet, who told us: "Nine things have been taken from my nation: what they do not know, what they have not tolerated, what they have been compelled to, what they have found themselves in need of, mistakes, forgetfulness, misfortune, envy (which they have not acted on) and whisperings of doubt in the thoughts of the creation."

The 'usulin have had numerous discussion about this Tradition and about each of its points, and of course the part that sanctions the Principle of Exemption is the first line wherein we are told that whatever we do not know and has not reached us has been taken from us, and thus the obligation is lifted from us.

These four principles are not particular to mujtahids for understanding the laws of the Shari'ah. They are also relevant to other subjects. People who are not mujtahids and who must therefore imitate (taqlid) a mujtahid can also benefit from them at the time of certain doubts.

For example, imagine that an unweaned baby boy takes milk from a woman other than his mother, and when that boy grows up, he wants to marry the daughter of that woman, and it is not known whether as a baby he drank so much milk from that woman's breast that he is to be counted as the "wet-nurse son" of that woman and her husband or not. That is, we doubt whether the boy drank milk from her breast fifteen consecutive times, or for a complete day and night, or so much that his bones grew from her milk (in which cases the boy becomes counted as her son and thus similar to the daughter's brother are forbidden for her). This instance calls for the Principle of Mastery, because before the boy drank the woman's milk he was not her "wet-nurse son", and now we doubt whether or not he is. By the Principle of Mastery, we conclude that there is no question of a wet-nurse relationship.

Similarly, if we had performed minor ablution obligatory for the ritual prayer or to touch the Quran or the holy names and for certain other things, and we doze and then we doubt whether or not we actually fell asleep (in which case the ablution becomes void), by the Principle of Mastery, we conclude the validity of the ablution. In the same way, if our hand was clean and we then doubt as to whether it is still clean or has become najas (unclean), by the Principle of Mastery, we conclude it to be clean. If, however, it was najas and we doubt whether we have cleaned it or not, by the Principle of Mastery, we conclude that it is still unclean.

Likewise, if a liquid is in front of us and we doubt whether or not it contains alcohol, like some medicines, the situation calls for the Principle of Exemption, and there is no obstacle to the use of that liquid. If, however, we have two glas'ses of medicine and we know that alcohol exists in one of them, meaning that we have some general knowledge about the existence of alcohol in one of them, here the Principle of Precaution is called for, and we must not drink either.

Imagine that we are at the side of a road in the middle of a desert and to stay there or to travel in one of the two directions of the road definitely involves the risk of our lives, while to travel in the other direction means we will find safety; but we do not know in which direction lies our safety and in which direction lies the risk of our lives. Here we are faced with two laws. The one is the obligation to save our lives and the other is the prohibition against risking it. In which direction must we travel? This situation calls for the Principle of Option, and we must travel in which ever direction we like, and, if we choose the wrong direction, we are blameless.


[1] These treatise (risalehah) works are wherein the mujtahid states his verdicts on all or almost all the things that can affect daily life.

[2] The weakness of this view is understood when it is realised that many of the Traditions recorded in the reliable books, i.e. books compiled by reliable men, are opposed to each other, which naturally indicates that the only logical way of discerning the actual holy words from the false is by examining the chain of narrators. It is also to be borne in mind that for a number of reasons, such as lack of time for research or of knowledge of Transmitters etc., it may not have been possible for the reliable compilers themselves to make the necessary distinctions. Translator's Note.

[3] Consensus is further discussed in the sixth lesson.

[4] His book is called Ta'sis ash-shi'ah ulum al-islam.

[5] This ayah and such "tacit meanings" (mafahim) are further discussed in the next lesson.

[6] taqiyah is the legitimate practice of concealing one's faith in times of danger-sometimes by means of adopting the practices of a different faith-which was often necessary during the times of the Imams.

[7] In the final lesson, the Principles of Jurisprudence, more light is thrown on this subject.

[8] Of course the Shi'ite view is that the time of the Imam will last as long as mankind itself; what is referred to here is the era of access to the Imams. Translator's Note.

[9] Of course if he was likely to make many mistakes he would not yet be regarded as a mujtahid at all. Translator's Note.

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