“Difficulty Causes Ease” and the case of the Coronavirus

One of the five major maxims of Fiqh is “المشقة تجلب التيسير” which is usually translated as “Difficulty causes ease”. I prefer to translate it as “Extreme difficulty causes relaxation of the law” as that is more clear and precise. This maxim means that the laws of Islam are flexible enough to cater for difficult situations. The maxim is extracted from several rulings found in the Quran and Sunnah.

These include the permission to make Tayammum when water is not available or useable, the permission to consume Haram when there is a risk of life, and the permissibility to shorten and combine prayers when traveling. All of these rulings share one common theme; they are all examples of the law beings relaxed because of difficulty. This maxim is agreed upon by all four madhhabs, although they may differ in how to implement it.

Types of difficulty that cause the law to change

The scholars of Fiqh list seven types of difficulty (المشقة) that can cause the law to change. These causes are coercion, sickness, travel, forgetfulness, ignorance, lack of legal competence, and public affliction. There are examples of each of these in the Shariah. An example of coercion is that it is permissible to say words of Kufr to save one’s life. The examples of sickness are plenty which includes the allowance of Tayammum when using water is harmful and the permissibility to delay fasting when ill in Ramadan. Likewise, the examples of travel are clear i.e. delaying fasting or shortening prayers while traveling.

Ignorance and forgetfulness are a bit different. This simply means that Allah forgives anything that is done out of forgetfulness or genuine ignorance. Similarly, we should go easy on people who are genuinely ignorant or made a mistake. Lack of legal competence falls into the same category. For example, children are not responsible to obey the laws of the Shariah until they hit puberty, so we should go easy on them and be gentle with their mistakes.

It is the final type of difficulty, public/common affliction that concerns us here. The Shariah allows for the relaxation of several laws when the health, lives, wealth or general well-being of the community is at risk. There are two examples of this from the reign of Umar bin al-Khattab. During the plague that afflicted al-Shaam, the Muslims isolated themselves in the mountains to prevent it from spreading. Then when a drought hit Arabia, Umar suspended the law of amputating the hands of thieves due to mass starvation. In both cases, the well-being of the community was given preference over individual laws of the Shariah.

The types of Ease

As the scholars divided difficulty into seven categories, they did the same for the types of changes that can occur to the laws. The first type of change is that the laws can be omitted, like when Umar suspended the amputation of the hands of thieves. A change could also mean a decrease is what is expected like the reduction of the number of Rakah to pray when traveling. Or it could refer to delaying an act of worship or doing it earlier than usually allowed, like combining Dhuhr with Asr in one time when traveling.

Laws can also be replaced or substituted with others, like replacing Wudhu with Tayammum when water is not available, or replacing fasting in Ramadan with Fidya for the chronically ill. Laws can also be changed to accommodate the hardship like praying Salah al-Khawf during times of civil unrest or war. Finally, the haram can become permissible at times of necessity, depending on the level of prohibition and the level of necessity. Each of these seven types of changes can be found in the Shariah and in practice throughout our history.

The Coronavirus and the application of this maxim

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the globe, we are entering perhaps for the first time in decades, a situation of public affliction on a global scale. This means that scholars around the world need to consider what kind of Taysir (Relaxation) can be done to the laws of Islam in order to stop the spread of this virus and to save the lives of the believers.

It is my opinion that the following changes take place in the law during this time of crisis. Note that these changes apply only to countries that are afflicted, and the changes will be rolled back when the crisis is over.

The changes are:
1. The suspension of congregational prayer until it is over, with the exception of small congregations in the home.
2. The obligation to pray Jum’ah falls away, and it becomes permissible to pray Dhuhr at home.
3. Masjids and other places of mass gatherings should be closed if possible. If not possible, then measures should be taken to prevent the spread of the virus in our places of gathering.
4. Weddings should be delayed, a small nikah will suffice to avoid large gatherings.
5. If someone passes away from the virus, then Ghusl may not be possible, Janazahs may be limited to ten people, the family will not get to attend the funeral and people will not be allowed to visit the family.
6. Taraweh should be prayed at home with one’s family. Likewise, Iftar should take place at home with the family.
7. If necessary, Eid prayer should be canceled completely.
8. Avoid leaving the home except for necessities. The best usage of our time now is to be at home worshipping Allah and asking for His Divine Assistance.

None of these changes should be a source of happiness for the believer. It should hurt our hearts that we are unable to pray in congregation, attend Islamic gatherings, or enjoy the atmosphere of the Masjid. This is a test from Allah, and these changes to the law are for the protection of human life, which is one of the fundamental goals of the Shariah.

Remember; to stay home is Fiqh and to feel bad about it is Imaan.

May Allah protect us all and help us through this difficult trial.

Posted by Ismail Kamdar

Ismail Kamdar is the Founder of Islamic Self Help, author of over a dozen books, faculty manager of IOU, and a freelance writer.

Leave a Reply