Understanding Imam Ibn al Qayyim's Statement

Understanding Imam Ibn al Qayyim's Statement: "Islamic rulings change with changing customs"

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Understanding Imam Ibn al Qayyim's Statement: “Islamic rulings change with changing customs…”

Ibn al-Qayyim writes: “Islamic rulings change with changing customs, circumstances, and with time and location, and in consideration of the intention of the one engaged in the matter.”
What he says, however, is illustrated by examples. A muftî may give one ruling in one country and a different ruling in another on the basis of the different customary practices in the two countries. How is that? For example, take the currencies known as the dinâr (a minted gold coin) and the dirham (a minted silver coin). In one country a dinâr is equal to eight dirhams, in another it is equal to ten dirhams, while in a third it is equal to twelve dirhams. If a man was under obligation to pay twenty dinârs but only dirhams were available, then how would the muftî have to rule? If he was in the country where one dinâr was equal to ten dirhams, he would obviously have to rule that the man must pay out 200 dirhams. However, if the same case were brought to him in the country where one dinâr equals twelve dirhams, the muftî would rule that the man must pay out 240 dirhams.
The ruling had to change in consideration of the varying currency standards in the different countries. Take another example: In Islamic Law, divorce occurs with a declaration from the husband. In the custom of some countries, if a husband wants to divorce his wife, he says to her: “You are excused.” In the land of Najd, however, such a practice is unknown. In Najd in the olden days, if a man intended to divorce his wife, he would say to her: “I release you.” Keeping this in mind, imagine if a woman in Najd one day bumps into her husband accidentally and begs his pardon, so he turns to her, smiles, and says: “You are excused.” Would anybody in his right mind declare the two divorced? Of course not. It would be just as ludicrous if, outside of Najd, a man playfully grabs his wife by the hand and refuses to let go, so she said to him: “Release me” and he obliges, and someone declares it a divorce!
This is the type of ruling that has to change in consideration of the customs of the land. Also, this is a case where the person’s intention has a decisive effect on the ruling. There are many such examples when it comes to issues of divorce, manumission, and other similar matters. Let us consider a final example.
In some Arab countries, the word “halîb” is used for both milk and sour milk. If someone in that country declares: “I swear by Allah, I will not drink halîb”, then he will have to abstain from both milk and sour milk in order to keep his oath. In other countries where milk is called “halîb” and sour milk is called “laban”, then a person making the same oath would still be able to drink sour milk. Such rulings vary in consideration of both the customs of people, their manner of speaking, and their intentions.
The great jurist Abû Hanîfah gave the ruling that a person could purchase a house even if he saw only one room of that house. Why? Because back then in Iraq, houses were built with identical rooms, so seeing one room was enough. His students did not concur with this ruling and said that seeing one room was not sufficient. Why? Because the customs had changed and people started building houses in a different style with rooms of varying sizes and shapes. In actuality, did the laws of Islam change? No. The ruling, however, changed due to changing circumstances. This is what Ibn al-Qayyim means when he writes: “Islamic rulings change with changing customs…”
There is another topic that often causes confusion for novices in Islamic Law. The issue is what happens when a scholar changes his opinion based on ijtihâd. A scholar could offer a ruling today that something is –say- forbidden. Then, after engaging in further research and study, he changes his opinion and retract his first ruling after it becomes clear to him that what he thought was forbidden is actually permissible in Islamic Law.
Some people think that this is a case of a ruling changing with changing circumstances. This is wrong, though some people who are not scholars have written about this as if the two were the same. When a scholar changes his opinion based on ijtihâd, we merely have a case of a person changing his mind after engaging in ijtihâd on a matter on more than one occasion. Something may become clear to a scholar on one occasion that he had not been aware of on another. He may see something as permissible today that he considered impermissible before and vice versa. It is his responsibility, whenever he comes to a new conclusion on a matter, to present his ruling to the people with the evidence that he relied upon to reach that ruling.
The earliest of scholars, and even the Companions for that matter, often changed the rulings that they gave on a question and retracted their older views. On some occasions, a scholar would not only change his view on a matter, but would send criers to the marketplaces to make an announcement of the change. This shows that when a scholar changes his mind, it is quite different than when a ruling changes on account of changing circumstances. It is quite startling that some people get these two matters confused with each other, so much so that we find one of them saying: “An example of an Islamic ruling changing is that in the past some people thought that a wristwatch was a form of magic and today nobody thinks that.”
This is more like a joke than the serious academic discourse that it purports to be. First of all, has there ever been a scholar who passed a ruling that a wristwatch was magic? The possibility that some members of the general public thought wristwatches were magic when they first encountered them and that a person of knowledge responded to them with the fact that such devices are the result of craftsmanship, not magic, is quite something else. A person who claims that Islamic scholars ever declared wristwatches to be a form of magic is just poking fun at the scholars and deriding them.
We find someone else saying: “An example of an Islamic ruling changing is the issue of slavery. People used to have slaves in the past, and then the scholars declared slavery unlawful.” Now this is utter nonsense. None of the scholars ever declared slavery unlawful. The matter of enslaving someone is an Islamic ruling that can be found in the Qur’ân and Sunnah. It is not a historical phenomenon. It is, however, a matter that has specific causes and conditions.
In Islam, a person cannot just be captured and enslaved. Slavery comes as a result of war and is one way that Muslims can deal with war captives. This is how the issue of slavery appears in Islamic Law. The lawfulness of slavery in this framework has never been -and can never be- disputed or revoked. The fact that it does not exist today for various reasons, often because the slave owners freed their slaves or the state secured their freedom, does not mean that the ruling on the matter has changed. The verses of the Qur’ân on the matter are clear and binding and have never been abrogated. No one is capable of expunging them from the text of the Qur’ân.
From all of this we can conclude that the pressure of circumstances is the most compelling reason why people try to distort the laws of Islam and make them conform to public taste. The fact is that the religion is intrinsically easy. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) came with the true and lenient religion. He came to make things easy and not to make things difficult. Allah has placed no difficulty in the religion. The jurists have working principles like: “If matters become constricted, the laws become more flexible” and “Difficult circumstances require leniency.” It would take a lengthy discussion to deal with these principles in full. What it is important to emphasize here, however, is that these principles do not imply that we can use circumstances and contingencies to free ourselves from the laws of Islam.
The only rulings that change with the customs of the people are those rulings that are contingent on their customs. As for the rulings brought to us by Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) they cannot be changed under any circumstances.
Shaykh Salman al Awdah