The Prophet is reported to have said: 'Both the lawful (Halal) and the unlawful (Haram) things are obvious, and in between them are doubtful [Mushtabihat] matters. Whoever forsakes those doubtful things lest he may commit a sin, will definitely avoid what is clearly unlawful; and whoever indulges in these (suspicious) doubtful things carelessly, is likely to stumble into what is clearly unlawful. Sins are Allah's Hima (ie private pasture) and whoever pastures [his sheep] near it, is likely to get in it at any moment.'1
The above Hadith mentions an important principle for the religiously pious individuals: They should not just be content with staying away from what is obviously prohibited; they are expected to stay away from the gray areas of the Shari'ah as well. That is what constitutes, according to the Hadith, the religiously careful attitude. However, there is another Hadith which mentions a seemingly conflicting message. It is reported that a Bedouin urinated in the mosque, and people rushed to beat him up. The Prophet ordered them to leave him and pour a bucket or a tumbler [full] of water over the place where he had passed urine. The Prophet then said: 'You have been sent to make things easy [for people] and you have not been sent to make things difficult for them.'2 Another Hadith says: 'Make things easier for the people, and do not make things difficult for them. Give them good tidings and not drive them away from religion.'3 The apparent conflict in the two Ahadith is because of the two different contexts within which their respective messages are sought to be applied.
Whereas the Hadith requiring strictness of approach from the believer is addressing the already convinced believers who after they have surmounted the obstacles in the way of acquiring true faith are now being required to scale higher levels of it. For them, remaining content with merely the apparent requirements of the Shari'ah would amount to stepping backwards instead of moving ahead. As for the Hadith requiring ease and comfort to be the principle in following religion, it is essentially addressed to the religiously pious people for them to observe as a principle while communicating the message to the newcomers. A Muslim society is normally comprised of both groups. While the first group consists of those people who strive for excellence in religious matters (Sabiqun), the second group comprises of those who are essentially the followers. People belonging to the former group provide people of the latter group with ideals to emulate voluntarily. It would be unfortunate if the former group begins to confuse the distinction between the religious expectations from the Sabiqun and the concessions available to those who are the followers and proceed to follow the Shari'ah only to the extent the latter are expected to follow.
It is therefore not quite appropriate to claim that Islam presents just a set of rules called the Shari'ah which are to be followed by all Muslims and that anything beyond this narrow domain of the Shari'ah is either an unnecessary burden or a matter of an individual's tastes. The truth of the matter is that the Shari'ah itself has an apparent form which if followed constitutes the minimum requirement from a believer. For the newcomers and the weak believers, there is sometimes a case for even carefully easing these minimum requirements as well to bring them closer to Islam. However, for those who have assumed the role of Muslim leadership, whether political or religious, even the corollaries emerging from the Shari'ah principles are important to be followed in order to maintain the healthy balance of the leaders-followers equation in a Muslim society.