The Prophet (SAW) said:
That which is lawful is clear and that which is unlawful is clear, and between the two of them are doubtful matters about which many people do not know. Thus he who avoids doubtful matters clears himself in regard to his religion and his honor, but he who falls into doubtful matters [eventually] falls into that which is unlawful.
[The one who delves into doubtful matters is] like the shepherd who pastures (grazes his herd) around a sanctuary, almost grazing inside it. Truly every king has a sanctuary, and Allah’s sanctuary is His prohibitions.
Truly in the body there is a morsel of flesh, which, if it be whole, all the body is whole, and which, if it is diseased, all of [the body] is diseased. Truly, it is the heart.Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim
There are some things that are clearly and obviously haram. Other things are clearly and obviously halal. Then, there are things in the middle that are doubtful or difficult to judge.
Reason of Doubt
The doubt or difficulty in judging them could be due to two reasons: text or situation.
The first reason is the unclear nature of the texts regarding them. This is not a concern for most people today since they don’t derive laws directly from the texts and have scholarly works and schools of law to refer to. Perhaps what falls into this today would be modern issues about which there are no clear agreements among the scholars or no defined positions in the mazahib.
The second reason is uncertainty about whether a given situation falls into what is known to be haram. In this case, it is not the ruling that is unclear. Whether a specific situation falls into the known ruling is unclear. An example of this is when someone said something and is not sure whether it is backbiting or not. Backbiting is haram without doubt, but it is unclear or uncertain whether the statement the person said falls into backbiting.
Danger of Falling into Doubtful Matters
The danger in falling into doubtful matters is of two types.
The first danger is that someone delving into doubtful issues will have more possibility of delving into actual clear haram because of his carelessness.
When a person who usually prays all his Sunnah prayers is feeling lazy, he will leave out some Sunnah prayers. When a person who only ever prays the obligatory prayers is feeling lazy, he might leave out some of the obligatory prayers. The first would not fall into any sin, and the second falls into sin. Hence, the one who leaves out all the recommended prayers has more chance of falling into sin even though the actual action he is doing is not sinful.
The second danger is the risk that the doubtful issue he fell into is actually considered a sin in the sight of Allah.
Many people fall into either of two extremes regarding doubtful matters. Both are spiritually harmful, lead to legalism, and should be avoided. The best path is the moderate path mentioned at the end.
The first extreme is those people who belittle doubtful issues and do not fear delving into them without restriction.
If we take the parable of the Prophet (SAW), the prohibitions are a specific marked off piece of land which is considered a sanctuary by the king. It is illegal for anyone to graze his sheep there. You are a shepherd who is grazing your flock of sheep in the meadows.
The doubtful matters would be the land right near the edge of the sanctuary. If you let your sheep continuously go in that area to graze, it is inevitable that eventually one of the sheep will eat from the sanctuary.
So, a smart shepherd would keep his sheep some safe distance away from the sanctuary. But, the first extreme is those who delve all the way up to the near boundary without hesitation even if they attempt to keep the sheep from entering the boundary itself.
About these people, the Prophet (SAW) said: The one who delves into doubtful issues, [eventually] delves into the prohibitions.
The reason for that is obvious as mentioned in the section about the dangers.
This extreme leads to legalism or literalism without the spirit of the law. An example of this are the Jews. In their attempt to find the exact boundary of every law, they forgot the spirit of the laws they were given. When they were forbidden from fishing on Saturday, a group of them laid their nets on Friday because that wouldn’t “technically” be fishing on Saturday.
Quintessential of this extreme is always being concerned about what is “technically” allowed or only being concerned about what is explicitly forbidden.
The second extreme is those people who become so concerned with staying away from the doubtful issues that they treat the doubtful issues as if they were clearly haram themselves.
It is like the shepherd who creates a 50 meter distance between himself and the sanctuary and becomes extremely careful about not letting the sheep cross the 50 meter mark. Whenever a sheep crosses the 50 meter distance, he becomes extremely stressed and fears for his life as if the king will punish him for that. This causes him to have little ground to feed his sheep in and makes him waste too much stress on useless tasks.
It is feared that those who adopt this extreme will burn themselves out trying to fulfill it. The Prophet (SAW) said:
Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.Sahih Bukhari
If someone makes the religion harder than it actually is, he sets himself up to fail. The shepherd should not act as if the actual boundary of the sanctuary is 50 meters outside. That is simply unnecessary stress and extremism that he will get tired of.
So, even if someone does set up a 50 meter buffer zone between himself and the boundary, he should never treat it as if it is the actual boundary. He shouldn’t stress himself or lament when the sheep sometimes cross into the buffer zone as if they crossed into the actual sanctuary.
This extreme also leads to a type of legalism. It leads to a legalism to make everything in the law black and white without vagueness or it leads to making the law harder than it actually is.
An example Allah mentions of this legalism is the Christians who made many perfectly permissible things forbidden on themselves thinking it was out of piety. Allah says:
As for monasticism, they made it up—We never ordained it for them—only seeking to please Allah, yet they did not ˹even˺ observe it strictly.Quran 57:27
Allah never prescribed monasticism (staying in a monastery for religious work and swearing off marriage), but they did it to themselves seeking to create a large buffer zone between themselves and haram. But, they were not able to fulfill it because they made it too hard on themselves.
Another example is the Jews in Surah Baqarah who were commanded to slaughter a cow. Allah did not specify anything about the cow. He left the rule vague. But, they wanted more details to the point of asking the age and color. They made a vague and easy rule harder on themselves trying to get more details.
This extreme is characterized in people who follow waswasah and take the most difficult option at every point of doubt.
The middle path is not to go to either extreme and not to fall into any type of legalism. One should not be happy delving into doubtful issues and likewise should not treat doubtful issues as if they were clearly haram.
It is to be like a shepherd who creates a reasonable buffer zone between himself and the sanctuary, but he does not act extremely stressed about the sheep entering the buffer zone sometimes nor does he act as if it is equivalent to entering the actual sanctuary.
Recognize that the doubtful matters, whether they are due to the text or the situation, are not the same as the clearly haram matters. Allah made the clearly haram clearly haram because they are meant for you to be truly and actually afraid of them. Allah did not make the religion unclear.
It is not up to you to act as if the doubtful issues are equivalent to the clearly haram. If Allah had wished them to be, He would have made it clear.
At the same time, Allah did not make these issues completely and clearly halal such that you should act very comfortable with them.
Allah made them unclear, neither clearly haram nor clearly halal, so act accordingly. Treat the doubtful with appropriate respect and avoidance without stressing yourself over them the same way you must stress over haram.
Abide by what is clear without compromise: fulfill the five pillars of Islam and stay away from the clearly haram things. Then, do your best to avoid what is doubtful without emphasizing them to the point of extremism.
Level of Doubt
Doubtful matters themselves have different levels.
There are some thing that are only doubtful in a very stretched way. There are other things that are doubtful with a very real possibility. The amount of reverence you show to doubtful issues should depend on the level of doubt and how close they are to being haram.
It is not a good idea to take a significant amount of difficulty to avoid a every slightly doubtful issue fearing it. It is also not a good idea to delve into a significantly doubtful issue when avoiding it is very easy. Treat doubtful issues according to their level.
Wisdom in Vagueness
Many things are vague because that is the reality of life. The situations you encounter in life are extremely diverse.
If Allah had revealed a book explaining the exact legal status of every incident that can occur, that book would be as large as earth.
So, Allah gave us a mind to judge and gave us some explicit rules for clear haram and halal. The rest is up to our judgement, and we should hope in Allah’s mercy, guidance, and forgiveness in those issues.
It is not for us to pretend that the doubtful things are similar to haram nor for us to pretend the doubtful things are equivalent to halal.
Someone might object: How can you say we shouldn’t treat doubtful matters like they were haram when we know that the Prophets and pious people avoided even the doubtful matters and stayed away from even the minor mistakes?
I respond: You are correct that the pious people stay away from even the doubtful matters with great care, but I do not accept your assumption that they treated them like they were haram.
The Prophets and pious people (and we hope to be among them) have an extreme love and respect for Allah which causes them to stay away from doubtful matters and avoid even minor mistakes. That does not mean they treated them like they were haram.
When someone commits haram, he needs to fear and stress about the punishment of Allah. When a pious person goes into something doubtful, he stresses because He loves Allah and wants Allah to always be proud of him. He is not under an illusion that it is as if he committed haram or that he is at risk of being punished to the same extent as actual haram.
So, it is without doubt better to be like the pious and avoid the doubtful. But, that is not the same as the second extreme of people treating the doubtful like haram in essence.