One of the many perks that come with the discovery by locals in Muslim territories that you are a Western Muslim is that they often desire to help you explore and appreciate their culture. On one particular occasion, as I sat enjoying the company of a number of my Moroccan brethren in the courtyard of the American Language Institute of Fez, a peer invited me to attend a session of prophetic invocation and mention of the divine name at one of the local Sufi lodges he frequented. Before I could accept the invitation another Moroccan interjected, “Abdullah! Ask him if he performs his daily prayers!” Somewhat embarrassed for the man, I responded to the questioner, “It’s not my place to probe his faith and practice.” To this, my gracious host retorted, “That’s right! All that matters is a person’s intention.” I, suddenly feeling obligated to offer my religious understanding on the matter, replied, “No! Acts and good works do matter to Allah!”
I would imagine that my experience is not unique. Many readers, likewise, may encounter from time to time a fellow Muslim defending his/her neglect of an essential Islamic practice or justifying a sin they were committing saying things like, “Allah knows my heart”, “He knows my intention”, or “I think I’m a good person.” This is all in spite of their intentional abandonment and neglect of some fundamental teachings of Islam. One of the hardest things for many to understand is why God would punish people who display enormous goodwill toward others but who reject faith in God. Perhaps, the reason idolatry (shirk) is characterized as the one unforgivable sin in the Qur’an is that both faith (iman) and unbelief (kufr) are acts of the heart of which only the person and his/her creator are truly cognizant of. In other words, why would a person risk his/her Hereafter on something that is so easy to rectify? The aim here, though, is not to focus specifically on unbelief and idolatry. My true interest is in the more general question of what it means to follow one’s conscience or take a fatwa from one’s heart.
On one occasion, the companion, Wabisa b. ‘Ubayd (known as Wabisa b. Ma’bad), came to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ apparently, to know what exactly it meant to be a good person. The Prophet ﷺ told him, “Take a fatwa from your heart. Moral goodness (birr) is whatever your heart feels ease at doing, and sin (ithm) is whatever brings discomfort to the heart even if people counsel you otherwise.” In one way it can be argued that this hadith offers two authorities for fatwa in this physical realm: the heart and human beings. While we know that fatwas from human beings are only legitimate when they issue from a person with scholarly qualifications, we are left to wonder whether or not the same applies to the human heart. Was the Prophet authorizing Wabisa, specifically, to consult his heart? Or was this answer to a specific question and specific person meant to be taken as a general rule for other Muslims and other people to follow?
Similar to this hadith is one where the Prophet Muhammad is reported as having said, “Verily, one of the things that people have obtained from the teachings of the ancient prophets is: “Whenever you are without shame, do as you please.” For some, this statement is taken as a veiled threat from the Creator, as if He is saying, “When shame is lost, people will do whatever they want, and I will punish them severely for it.” For others, though, this hadith expresses, once again, an authorization to act in accord with what their hearts dictate to them. To them, it’s like saying, “If you don’t feel ashamed when you do something, there is no harm in doing it.”
Islamic orthodoxy has had a very contentious relationship with the authority and limits of human reason historically. This is largely due to the fact that if people were left to determine good and evil on the basis of human reason and emotion, each person could claim that he/she is following the divine will. This, however, completely militates against the well-established and accepted understanding that a believer is expected to obey God and His revealed laws, which often go against our hearts’ desire.
Now, let us return to the question of whether or not a fatwa from one’s heart can be followed without qualification. It stands to reason that if muftis are required to undergo extensive training before issuing a fatwa that the heart likewise must be formed by some degree of wisdom and training before it is fit for fatwa giving. When commenting on this hadith, the famed Shafi’i scholar and commentator, Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, says of the people whose fatwa one resists when it conflicts with the heart’s fatwa are, “The most exemplary of them, not degenerates.” Imam al-Nawawi says, “If a gift comes to you from a person the majority of whose wealth is unlawful and your heart fluctuates about the lawfulness of it, the mufti’s judgment that it is lawful to consume does not remove the doubt.” In other words, a thing may be deemed completely lawful before the outward teachings and scholars of law, while it may be unlawful to a single individual due to the fact that his/her heart is not comfortable with the matter. Otherwise, the individual would be guilty of committing a sin for which he/she will need to answer for on the Judgment Day.
What is most important to understand is that although we are born upon the fitra (state of primordial innocence), we are corrupted by our environments which make it difficult for us to discern right from wrong independent of divine guidance. It is only through commitment to the law over a long period of time that one’s heart becomes formed in such a way that it can be trusted to guide us away from things which are harmful to our souls.Hearts must be informed by revelation and formed through constant practice. Otherwise, as we have seen on many occasions, the mind and soul will sanction itself through the perversion of scriptural teachings and ruses which are fundamentally tools to feed our own avarice. As highlighted in cognitive psychology in its theory of self-sanction, these souls are the ones who are more likely to justify violence, the murder of innocents, or indulging in acts which are harmful to themselves. We only enter Paradise by God’s mercy. God, however, does give enormous credit to those who strive in His way fighting against their basic desires, seeking His satisfaction through multiple avenues of good.
“As for those who fear standing before their Lord and restrains the self from passion, Paradise will be the refuge.” Qur'an, 79:40