Fiqh of Choice: Mutually Exclusive Benefits & Evils

Fiqh al-muwāzanah (jurisprudence of comparison) enables the jurists to produce the finest potential scenarios from available options if they are mutually exclusive. The concept of muwāzanah is equally vital for individual, society, and nation to secure the best choice and to evade maximum evil during the process of decision making on various aspects including but not limited to social, economic, political, cultural, and educational. One of its major benefits is that it will make religion appear easier and merciful. [1]

The primary prerequisite for muwāzanah is the capability for classification and arrangement of priorities conforming to the Sharīʿah standards. Likewise, thorough awareness of maqāṣid al- sharīʿah (higher objectives of sharīʿah) and competent knowledge about the field he/she deals with are required for eligibility to conduct muwāzanah. For example, knowledge about the legal mandates and ethical codes of the medical profession is needed for muwāzanah in healthcare issues. If otherwise, he/she must consult with experts and/or seek relevant legal advice. In addition, if muwāzanah is on any social issue, it should be with consultation (shūrā) and collective independent interpretation of the legal sources (ijtihād jamāʿī).

Muwāzanah is related to the bases and standards which govern the activity of comparison between (1) conflicting benefits, (2) conflicting evils or (3) evil that conflicts with benefit. This process helps to find which benefit is greater that needs to be preferred, which evil is greater that needs to be eliminated. Muwāzanah’s role is unavoidable in three situations: (1) When a person has to choose one from two or more mutually exclusive benefits, (2) When a person has to prevent one from two or more mutually exclusive evils, (3) When a person is compelled to do a job in which achievement of benefit is not possible without tolerating evil or prevention of evil is not possible without sacrificing the benefit. [2]

The legality of Muwāzanah

The legality of muwāzanah is established by the Quran, Sunnah and ijmā, as well as recognized from a logical aspect; a few examples are given below.

  1. The Quran on first situation:

Have you made those who provide water to the pilgrims and maintain the Masjid al-Ḥarām equal to those who believe in Allah, the Last Day and make jihād (striving in the cause of Allah)? They are not equal in the sight of Allah, and Allah does not guide the wrongdoers. Those who believe (embrace Islam), leave their homes (migrate), and make jihād with their wealth and persons in the cause of Allah, have higher rank in the sight of Allah. It is they who will be truly successful. (al-Tawbah: 19-20).

This verse explains that faith and jihād are more meritorious than the construction of masjid and pilgrimage. It evidently proves that benefits are not equal in terms of reward and significance. [3]

  1. The Quran on second situation:

They ask you about war in the Sacred Month. Tell them: "fighting in this month is a heinous offence; but to prevent from the path of Allah, to deny Him, to prevent access and expel His worshipers from the Sacred Mosque is a more severe crime, since mischief is worse than killing in His sight (al-Baqarah: 217).

This verse says that preventing people from their religion and expelling them from Masjid al-Ḥarām is a more heinous and severe crime than murder. As per this, one can commit lesser harm to prevent greater harm if they come mutually exclusive.

  1. The Quran on third situation:

“O believers, do not insult those, whom these mushrikīn call upon besides Allah, lest in retaliation they call bad names to Allah out of their ignorance.” (al-Anʿām: 108).

This verse shows importance of preventing greater harm at the expense of smaller benefits. [4]

Soon after the demise of the Prophet (), the saḥābah applied muwāzanah between the duty of burial of Prophet’s body or appointment of khalīfah as his successor. Upon the comparison between the two duties, Ṣaḥābah preferred the appointment to burial because the harm of a state without khalīfah is greater than the harm of delaying the burial. [5]

Methodology of Muwāzanah

The jurists have identified certain rules for muwāzanah between conflicting benefits as well as conflicting harms. In other words, if a person has to choose one from two or more mutually exclusive benefit or harm, he/she has to follow some steps in order, which are as follows [6]:

  1. Prefer the benefit/evil for achievement/elimination, of which has dominant legal status among them. For example, in terms of achievement, obligatory ruling (wājib) should be preferred to the recommended ruling (mustaḥabb), for former’s legal status is dominant than the latter.
  2. If they are equal in legal status, then preference should be according to the order in maqāṣid, i.e. first ḍarūriyyāt (the essentials), then ḥājiyyāt (needs) and then taḥsīniyyāt (embellishments). For example, the benefit of fulfilling ḍarūriyyāt is preferred to that of fulfilling ḥājiyyā
  3. If conflicting benefits/evils are equal in the above two considerations, then the preference goes according to the various category of maqāṣid it fulfills. The hierarchical priority in maqāṣid is faith, life, intellect, family, and wealth respectively. Therefore, benefit related to the preservation of life is preferred to that of wealth, for example.
  4. If conflicting benefits/evils are equal in the above three considerations, then what is more common (ʿāmm) among them should be preferred in terms of achievement/elimination to others and specific (khāṣṣ).
  5. If conflicting benefits/evils are equal in the above four considerations, then what is higher in terms of amount or greater in making an impact is to be preferred to others. For example, a benefit that affects 1,000 people should be preferred in achievement to that affects 100 people.
  6. If conflicting benefits/evils are equal in the above five considerations, then what is long-lasting is given weight over other options. For example, the harm that lasts for two months is preferred in elimination to that lasts for two weeks.
  7. In all the above considerations, what is assured in terms of occurrence is preferred to what is assumed and doubted. In other words, if one is guaranteed of the beneficial or harmful result, it has to be preferred to what is lower in terms of the assurance.

If muwāzanah is between conflicting evils, some additional conditions have to be fulfilled in advance. In other words, choosing one evil from many evils is allowed if the situation has met the following conditions:

  1. The situation is of necessity and extreme need.
  2. Unavailability of any legal valid act that can tackle the situation.
  3. That particular harm in a specific situation is not binding on him by the sharīʿ For example, a culprit has to incur the legal punishment imposed on him and he is not allowed to run away.
  4. It should not cause another similar or greater harm to others.
  5. If the conflicting evils are equal, so he is free to choose among them.

​The jurists placed certain conditions for muwāzanah at the face of conflict between the achievement of benefit and elimination of harm. The conditions are as follows [7]:

  1. Preference is according to the legal status of achievement of benefit and elimination of harm. Therefore, obligatory achievement (wājib) of benefit is preferred to what recommended (mustaḥabb) elimination of harm.
  2. If their legal statuses are equal, the preference is according to their category from maqāṣid. Therefore, harm elimination in the category of ḍarūriyyāt is preferred to the achievement of benefit in the category of ḥājiyyāt.
  3. If they are equal in above two considerations, then hierarchical priority in maqāṣid which is faith, life, intellect, family and wealth respectively should be applied in terms of preference. As a result, achievement of benefit related to the preservation of life is preferred to the elimination of harm related to the preservation of family. [8]
  4. If they are equal in the above three considerations, then commonness becomes the decisive factor. Therefore, harm elimination with a common impact is preferred to the achievement of benefit with specific impact and vice versa.
  5. If they are equal in the above four considerations, what affect most in terms of the number is preferred to less number. Thus, the achievement of benefit which affects a thousand people is preferred to harm elimination which affects two hundred people, for example.
  6. If they are equal in the above five considerations, then what is long-lasting is preferred to what is less in its effect in time duration. As a result, harm elimination which affects the duration of five years is preferred to the achievement of a benefit that affects one year, for example.
  7. Above all, the primary element to prioritize among all abovementioned consideration is what is more potential for occurrence is preferred to what is less potential for occurrence.

To sum up, in the decision-making process, fiqh al-muwāzanah, a vital branch of Islamic jurisprudence, has particular relevance in conflict-resolution and the rulings and duties that apply. Within it, there are steps to guide people in preferring one decision over another, thus allowing them to reach appropriate decisions in particular situations. Muwāzanah is only applied in exceptional cases, as it differs from the normative process within Islamic legal interpretation, where the objective is to achieve maximum benefits while avoiding all forms of harm. Conversely, Muwāzanah looks to meet a higher objective, where at times certain benefits are sacrificed while certain harms are tolerated.

Sayyed Mohamed Muhsin obtained his PhD from International Islamic University Malaysia.

[1] Yūsuf al-Qarḍāwī, Awlawiyyāt al-Ḥarkat al-Islāmiyyah fī al-Marḥalat al-Qādimah (Cairo: Maktabat Wahbah, 1996), 32.

[2] ʿIzz bin ʿAbd al-Salām, al-Qawāʿid al-Aḥkām fī Maṣāliḥ al-Anām (Cairo: Dār al-Sharq li al-Ṭabāʿah), 88-93.

[3] Taqiyy al-Dīn Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmūʿ al-Fatāwā (Makkah: Maktabat al-Nahḍah al-Islāmiyyah, 1404 AH), 28: 3-6.

[4] Ḥusayn Ḥāmid Hassān, Naẓariyyat al-Maṣlaḥah fī al-Fiqh al-Islāmī (Cairo: Dār al-Nahḍah, 1981) 221.

[5] ʿAbd al-Malik Ibn Hishām, al-Sīrah al-Nabawiyyah (Cairo: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī, 1990), 4: 492;

[6] ʿAbd al-Majīd Muḥammad al-Sawsawah, Fiqh al-Muwāzanāt fī al-Sharīʿah al-Islāmiyyah (UAE: Dār al-Qalam, 2004).

[7] al-Sawsawah, Fiqh al-Muwāzanāt fī al-Sharīʿah al-Islāmiyyah, 105-137.

[8] Saʿid Ramaḍān Al-Būṭī, Ḍawābit al-Maṣlaḥah fīal-Sharīʿah al-Islāmiyyah (Mu’assasat al-Risālah, 1973), 224.

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