Keeping Priorities Straight: 24th Stop of Your Spiritual Journey to God

By Dr. Jasser Auda

Keeping Priorities Straight …

“A sign of following one’s whims is to be active with optional good deeds while being lazy with required obligations.”

The next step in our journey to God requires sound knowledge and deep understanding. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “If God wishes to benefit someone, He grants him knowledge of the faith.”

Fiqh is not only about the judicial rulings pertaining to the practical knowledge of the rituals, morals and social legislation. In principle, fiqh means the deep understanding and full comprehension of the Islamic law and its different rulings. This understanding of the Islamic law is very important in our journey to God.

For example, if you have a limited time and you have to offer a required obligation and at the same time you can offer an optional good deed, you have to perform the required obligation first. The Islamic ruling says that the obligation (fard) must be performed before the optional good deed (nafilah). This is because one of the signs of following one’s whims, as the Sheikh suggests, is to be active with optional good deeds while being lazy with required obligations. Islamic laws are not the same. If some argue that all laws are the same, their opinion lacks deep understanding and sound knowledge.

Laws of Islam

In Islam there is the principal source and the secondary source. There is the required obligation and the optional good deed. There is a major sin and a minor sin. Every Muslim should be aware of these differences. Otherwise, he will be following his whims and not following the Islamic law. He will be following the outward appearances not the essence. The action of the heart is more important than the action of other organs of the body. The sin committed in the heart is more dangerous than the sin committed by the other organs.

What are the required obligations? They are the rituals and the basic principles. For example, if you have some money by which you can either perform pilgrimage or help in improving the building of a mosque, you have to perform pilgrimage first. Pilgrimage is an obligation and thus it has to be performed first whereas improving or beautifying the building of a mosque is an optional good deed. If you perform the optional good deed first, you will be following your whims not the laws of Islam.

However, if you have to spend this money on your old mother or your young brother, then you should spend this money on them and you can delay the performance of pilgrimage. If you do the opposite, then there is a problem with understanding the philosophy of Islamic law and that there is disease in the heart.

Another example is that, if you have a limited time either to perform the obligatory prayer on time or perform the two rak`ahs (unit of prayer) of greeting the mosque, and if you perform the optional prayer, you will miss the obligatory one, then what should you perform first?

The answer is that, you have to perform the obligatory prayer first. If you perform the prayer of greeting the mosque and thus you miss the obligatory prayer, this is prohibited and it is a sign of misunderstanding and following the whim.

Unfortunately, some people are keen on performing the optional good deeds and formalities, but they do not perform the basic obligations. It is agreed that being kind to one’s parents is an obligation:

For your Sustainer has ordained that you shall worship none but Him. And do good unto (your) parents. Should one of them, or both, attain to old age in your care, never say “Ugh” to them or scold them, but (always) speak unto them with reverent speech.  (Al-Israa’ 17:23)

It is also obligatory to return the trusts to people: “… then let him who is trusted fulfill his trust, and let him be conscious of God…”  (Al-Baqarah 2:283)

A Muslim is also required not to curse people. The Prophet said: “It is not fitting for a believer to be a curser or a defamer.” (Al-Bukhari)

One’s Whims

In our present-day societies we find some people who claim that they follow the Prophet’s way of life; i.e. his way of dressing, his outward appearance, his way of sitting, the color of his clothes, etc. On the other hand, you find the same people cut their relations with their parents, steal, misuse the trusts or curse other people. In other words, they are missing the obligations.

Some other people may not perform the obligatory prayers, but they perform the `Eid Prayer even under difficult circumstances though the `Eid Prayer is an optional act of worship. Therefore, he is giving priority to the optional over the obligatory and this is a type of following one’s whims.

Some people commit grave sins openly and on TVs. The same people are in the habit of performing the `Umrah every year!`Umrah is an optional good deed. If you miss it, you are not to be punished in the Hereafter. However, if you do not stop committing grave sins and offer repentance to God before death, you are to be punished in the Hereafter.

Fiqh of Priorities

Therefore, one of the signs of following your whims is to lose your balance of thinking or you do not maintain what scholars call “Fiqh of priorities”. The obligatory is given priority over the optional. The principal source is given priority over the new case. Giving up committing major sins is given priority over giving up minor sins.

Based on this principle of priority, you have to perform the required obligations before the optional good deeds. You have to give up major sins before minor sins, etc. This commitment to the principle of priority reflects your good relation with God and your sincerity to apply the rules of Islamic law correctly.

We often hear some traditions in which God speaks about optional good deeds. “And My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks.” (Al-Bukhari)

But we forget that this is not the beginning of the hadith. The beginning of the hadith in its different narrations goes like that: “My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have enjoined upon him.” As the hadith suggests, religious duties are given priority over supererogatory works.

If you perform the obligations such as prayers, zakah, fasting and pilgrimage, giving up sins, being kind to parents, treating the young and the old gently, etc. you will enter Paradise. When the Prophet was asked about Islam, he did not begin with the formalities. A Bedouin with unkempt hair came to the Prophet and said, “O God’s messenger! Inform me what God has made compulsory for me as regards the prayers.” He replied: “You have to offer perfectly the five compulsory prayers in a day and night, unless you want to pray optional prayer”.

Here the Prophet did not detail the optional prayer, but he continued to mention the other obligations as we read in the rest of the tradition.

The Bedouin further asked, “Inform me what God has made compulsory for me as regards fasting.” He replied, ”You have to fast during the whole month of Ramadan, unless you want to fast more as optional fasting.” The Bedouin further asked, “Tell me how much Zakah God has enjoined on me.” Thus, the Prophet informed him about all the rules (i.e. fundamentals) of Islam. The Bedouin then said, “By Him Who has honored you, I will neither perform any optional deeds nor will I decrease what God has enjoined on me. The Prophet said, “If he is saying the truth, he will succeed (or he will be granted Paradise). (Al-Bukhari)

The Prophet’s last words in this hadith imply that if we are sincere with God in performing the obligations without performing the optional deeds, we will succeed and be granted Paradise.

We pray to God to guide us to the correct understanding and the sound knowledge so that we can journey to Him properly.


The article is excerpted from “Some of Al-Hikam Al-Ataiyyah” (The Path to God: A Journey with Ibn `Ata’illah’s Words of Wisdom In the Light of the Quran, the Prophetic Tradition, and Universal Laws of God- By Dr. Jasser Auda


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