Posted by: admin | February 2, 2008

MS04 – Foundations of Maqasid

As we mentioned in the last post, the Shari’ah can be reduced to what is essentially a set of “dos” and “don’ts.” Commands and prohibitions. Describing religion in such terms these days is not very popular, people generally don’t like to feel that they not free. Islam however, by its very definition is the religion of submission.

The name of this religion, “Islam” as chosen by Allah [Qur’an 5:3] comes from the verb “as-la-ma” which means ‘to surrender,‘ ‘to commit,‘ and ‘to forsake.‘ In line with this meaning, as Muslims, we submit our will to that of the Creator and try to live according to His laws, His “dos” and “don’ts.”

Motivating Forces
The question we are concerned with here is what are the mechanisms by which people are motivated to follow the Shari’ah and more broadly speaking, laws in general. What are the push and pull factors which enable people to live in society amicably and what systems are in place to take to account those who choose to breach these laws.

These questions are central to our understanding of the Shari’ah as rather than just being limited to pieces of advice, or words of encouragement, Islamic Law contains quite specific pieces of legislation and understanding how and why these are followed is foundational in our study of Maqasid and something we shall keep returning to.

Furthermore as Islam is comprehensive, we need to understand that these laws relate to all spheres of life. Put simply, they govern our duty to God, our duty to ourselves and our duty to others. In each of these areas we have motivating factors or deterrents encouraging us to adhere to the commands and preventing us from falling into the prohibitions.

We can look at these factors in the following way:

  1. Internal Deterrent (Waazi’ Fitri)
  2. Religious Deterrent (Waazi’ Deeni)
  3. Penal Deterrent (Waazi’ Sultani)

The Arabic word for one of these deterrents is waazi’, which linguistically means ‘an obstacle’ or ‘an impediment’ but in this context carries the meaning of “the power which prevents a human being from doing something harmful or damaging.” Of course, when we say harmful or damaging here, we mean it in the broadest possible sense, in this life and the hereafter.

1) Internal Deterrents
A fundamental belief in Islam is that all human beings are born in a pure state, free from sin and able to recognise the Oneness of their Lord. This state is called fitra in Arabic and it is that thing inside each and every one of us that allows us to differentiate between right and wrong. The Prophet Muhammad (s) said in a famous hadith: There is no child born except on the fitra (natural disposition)… [Agreed Upon]

This fitra is shared by all human beings and in many cases is enough of a preventative measure to enable us to observe the laws of God. Islam is described as the “natural religion” (deen al-fitra) and therefore none of the legislation contained within contradicts what occurs naturally to human beings as right and wrong. Some examples of laws where this internal deterrent suffices us are matters such as covering our private areas (‘awrah), not marrying someone in your family (mahaarim) and not committing suicide.

2) Religious Deterrents
In some cases just the internal deterrent is not enough and therefore an external force is required to encourage us to adhere to the Shari’ah. This mechanism is unique to religions as they contain other wordly promises of reward and warnings of punishment. The two go hand in hand, as obedience equals reward and disobedience equals punishment, one being the complement of the other. If one is obedient, they are not disobedient and vice versa. To the God conscious person (muttaqi) this reference to the afterlife and the Day of Judgement is enough to encourage them to adhere to the commands and stay away from the prohibitions.

This category of deterrent is needed for those laws which do not occur obviously to the human mind, in contrast to the first category. One could say however, that if Islam is deen al-fitra, should not all the laws contained within occur naturally to the fitra? This is a philisophical debate which is out of the scope of our discussion here but Insha Allah it is something we shall return to when we look at Aqeeda and Firaq. For now however it suffices us to say that while the intellect has a role in searching for the Truth, this role is limited and needs Divine revelation to guide one to the correct path.

Examples of laws where religious deterrents are used are in encouraging believers to adhere to ritual worship, to avoid prohibitions such as alcohol, fornication, monetary interest (riba) etc.

3) Penal Deterrents
The third caliph of Islam, Uthman ibn ‘Affan (ra) said: “Verily Allah deters via the Sultan, what he does not deter with the Qur’an.” The state and goverment in Islam has a level of power which forms the final mechanism encouraging people to adhere to laws. It the ability to make people do something which maybe they would not do so themselves and is shared by all civilised societies. It’s role generally limited to those laws where the previous two deterrents do not prove effective.

The actual definition of Waazi’ Sultani is “The soverign power which has the ability to reclaim the rights of individuals by way of force” and is by and large for those laws which govern relations between people and where a breach involves infringing the rights of others. In such cases, an official, higher power i.e. government is needed to restore a sense of justice. This involves enforcing those laws legislated in Islam as well as any additional legislation which a government deems necessary to protect the interests and rights of its citizens.

The above three levels of deterrent are present in societies and religions the world over, but the Shari’ah of Islam is unique in combining all three in a harmonious, symbiotic relationship, the result of which is a body of law which aims to protect the individual and the collective from all forms of harm at the same time maintaining and safeguarding their rights and interests.

With this overview of the foundational principles of the Maqasid complete, the next post will Insha Allah look at the conditions and necessary characteristics which must be exhibited for something to be considered one of the Maqasid al-Shari’ah.


  1. Hello Admin

    I came across your blog recently and must say I find it quite enlightening. I look forward to the remainder of the series. One interesting point that struck me when I read this post:

    Put simply, they govern our duty to God, our duty to ourselves and our duty to others

    Did you know that these are also the three principles of the worldwide Scouting Movement, established by Lord (not of the divine variety of course!) Baden Powell over a century ago? See here for more details:

    Isn’t it truly remarkable how natural these principles are and how they are shared across so many value systems?

    Kind regards


  2. Good to hear you’re finding the series interesting! One of my main aims on this blog is to present Islam and the Shari’ah in a clear and coherent way to help dispel some of the misunderstandings that abound amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike…pls feel free to ask if there’s anything you find unclear and maybe need clarification of.

    Also, nice to see you spotted the Scouts reference 🙂 I am a scout myself and when I was first learning the scouting principles it struck me how similar they were to what we believe as Muslims, I just had to use them here!


  3. Once again – for my lay benefit:

    It sounds like you’re saying that the penal deterrants are those which have a punishment attached to them. But clearly so does the alcohol, fornication etc. So does that mean that the religious and penal carry punishments and the internal doesn’t?

    I guess I’m saying that I don’t see the demarkation between the three categories.

    Is there a personal sphere/public sphere demarkation?


    If Islam is deen al fitra, then we should know all the of laws inherently, and if there are things that we need to know, it is something that given infinite time and sincerity we’d be able to work out.

    e.g. in this society it is pretty clear to everyone that alcohol is a problem, but they do not see that the only solution is to ban it altogether, because they see the benefit in it too, and do not want to sacrifice that benifit for the overall good for others. But if they were given the sincerity and time, they would come out with the same conclusion as given to us in the Qur’an.

  4. Ok, in response to your two points:

    1) Levels of Deterrent
    The levels of deterrent are the different methods God has given us to avoid doing what is harmful to us. As in there are a number of lines of defence we have protecting us…

    An example where all three deterrents can come into play is theft. Of course it’s something prohibited and for most people the natural “fitri” opposition to stealing is probably enough to keep them on the right side of the law.

    For someone else however, the desire to steal might be too strong, so they need a stronger deterrent to keep them in line. There are verses in the Qur’an and ahadeeth talking about the sin of stealing and knowing that it is punishable in the hereafter could be what this person needs to convince them not to take what does not belong to them.

    For someone else however, these first two deterrents might not be enough and this is where the penal deterrent comes into play. What stops this person from stealing is a fear of getting caught by the police and being punished by the Courts. And this is what was meant by the quote by Uthman (ra), the role of applying a penal code is the sole reserve of a government and this way the government is “doing God’s work” for want of a better term.

    [Note there are detailed conditions for the application of hudood punishments which we’ll explore in subsequent posts.]

    So in conclusion, all three in their own way prevent us from committing sins and harmful acts. As mentioned in the post, Islam is unique in combining all three deterrents.

    About the public/private demarcation, this is another point but Insha Allah one we will come back to when we look at some of the laws in our discussion of the Darooriyaat, the first post of which should be up tomorrow.

    2) Deen al-Fitra
    As mentioned in the post, we will come back to this point when we discuss Aqeeda and look at how different sects in Islamic History understood this.

    In short we can say that while the intellect does have a role in knowing God, this role is limited and cannot (regardless of how much time is spent trying to find the answers) work out all of the details in Islamic Law. Revelation is needed for this. You mention having infinite time and sincerity…why would God leave us on our own?! He has revealed His religion due to this very point, to make things easy for us!

    For example, it’s true that our fitra tells us that fornication and adultery are wrong but the details of how many witnesses etc are needed to prove the occurence of the crime cannot be worked out by the intellect alone.

    When we say Islam is “Deen al-Fitra”, we mean that the laws are in accordance with our inherent nature, not that we can work them all out by ourselves. But you’re right that given a completely Utopian society, just living based on our fitra would probably be enough to give us a general idea of what is right and wrong…of course this is not a reality as we don’t live in such a world! Even so however, to reiterate the point to know all the details, we need revelation.

    Hope that makes sense.


  5. I think that’s what fitra means, is that if given enough time and sincerity, we can work out all these laws eventually – I agree totally that the rules given to us by Allah are a shortcut that we make use of. But the rules are totally in accordance with our inherent natures, whether to curb desires or to encourage action.

    Let’s take your example of 4 witnesses. I think that given enough time, people would realise that that is the ‘magic’ number.

    I guess all I’m saying is that I’m taking a position on the debate you mentioned when you concluded “For now however it suffices us to say that while the intellect has a role in searching for the Truth, this role is limited and needs Divine revelation to guide one to the correct path.” I agree with you here, assuming that the limits are ‘time’ and ‘sincerity’.

    In conclusion on the first point then, we’re saying that the third category is the only one that contains any specific punishment – although the same subject for deterrent may exist in the other two categories? e.g. alcohol – naturally people may find a deterrent in it, and this may be stated in the Quran, without even punishments being discussed. Others may heed the religious deterrent, with punishments only being stated for the hereafter. Lastly there are the penal deterrents of this world. But they all pertain to alcohol.

    Is that the demarkation: 1) punishment not stated – more encouragement, 2) punishment not in this world 3) punishment in this world?

  6. I’m saying that the limits are not just time and sincerity but that the intellect itself is inherently limited, period.

    First off, revelation is a lot more than just a set of laws, so even if we accept your premise that one could given an infinite amount of time and sincerity work out the laws, then what about other stuff like details of the Unseen? (I know you’re not saying this, but thought I’d state it for the record).

    That said, I disagree with your premise. When we say Islam is Deen al-Fitra we mean it complements perfectly the inherent nature we have been created on. It complements our Fitra, i.e. completes it, it’s not the same thing.

    Your example about people being able to work out the “magic number” of the number of witnesses, do you really think that? I’m pretty sure that given an infinite amount of time and sincerity, no-one would be able to come up with that, or for example the details of wudhu, prayer, fasting, hajj, inheritence etc.

    Revelation is key to this…as the dwellers of Paradise will say: “All Praises and Thanks to Allah, Who has guided us to this, and never would we have found guidance, were it not that God had guided us. Indeed the Messengers of God did come with the Truth.” [al-A’raaf v43]

    This debate was actually one of the main points of issue between mainstream scholars and the Philosophers who elevated the role of the intellect to a position higher than revelation. The position of Ahl al-Sunnah is Naql then ‘Aql…we’ll come back to it in Usool, Firaq and Aqeeda. Seems like these subjects are more closely linked than I thought! Hope you stick around till then!


  7. On your point about the deterrents, it’s a bit misleading to call them categories. They are more like levels. Think about yourself personally and what stops you doing something you know to be wrong. It could be any one of those levels, and for different things for different people, they are deterred by something different.

    About where punishment fits into this: The third level is the actual application of a criminal law system of trial and punishment and it’s this outward and visible fear that stops some people committing the crime. But the mention of this punishment in the Qur’an for example would also be a deterrent, but a religious deterrent as it’s not the fear of getting caught that stopped you, rather that God is saying that if someone does X, they deserve punishment. Do you see the difference?

    The internal deterrant, is one that works with no text and no legal system, i.e. our Fitra, the natural repulsion we have for something that is wrong, e.g. marrying your sister…you don’t need any text or judge to tell you that’s wrong.


  8. i agree with your point about not figuring out wudu prayer etc even if one had infinite amounts of time and sincerity. However, that wasn’t my angle. I was focusing on the rules of interaction between humans, not our duty to Allah.

    For the former I think these things can be worked out if given enough time and sincerity – note I am NOT saying intellect, for I don’t think that that is necessary to a high degree.

    The reason why people would never be guided were it not for the prophets is a) religious guidance – i.e. HOW to worship Allah and b) the fact that we do not have enough time or sincerity to work out the day to day rules ourselves.

    (p.s. I think inheritance comes under the day to day rules – I see the beauty of Allah’s commands to us wrt how we interact with eachother is that it is the best way for us. We could try lots of other ways, but eventually we’d end up with choosing His way as the best)

  9. “The internal deterrant, is one that works with no text and no legal system, i.e. our Fitra, the natural repulsion we have for something that is wrong, e.g. marrying your sister…you don’t need any text or judge to tell you that’s wrong.”

    Not sure about this – it’s only wrong because that is what we’ve been brought up with. Aadam (as)’s children married – so we can’t say it is human nature – it is something that has changed over time. I might be wrong – usually am 🙂

  10. About the verse mentioned, I haven’t checked the tafsir of it in any great detail, but I’m not sure we can say with surety that the guidance mentioned only pertains to the realm of worship. As Prophets didn’t just come with revelation about worship but brought guidance on principles and laws governing our interactions with each other also.

    If you see inheritance as something which comes under day to day dealings (which it does, it’s classified under mu’amalaat) you accept that the fine points about who gets how much and when could not have been worked out without revelation?

    We could continue mentioning examples, but as this is turning into a hypothetical discussion, I’m not sure there’s much to be gained by continuing! I can see where you’re coming from though, but still don’t agree with your conclusion…

    Perhaps we’ll have to agree to disagree? That said, I hope you appreciate the potential slippery slope that this can lead to (and did lead to for some in our history). For example, some Philosophers went to far as to say they held a more honourable position than the Prophets who were merely conveyers of a message, whereas they were engaging in thought which is more noble endeavour!

    May Allah guide us all and keep us sincere in our quest for the Truth.


  11. About your point on the Children of Adam marrying their siblings, true that is an exception, but then they were in a state of necessity!

    And who knows what their original thoughts on the matter were when it was first proposed? Were they averse to the idea or was it natural for them?

    Though of course we do know from the story that once the selection was made by God, this proved to be one of the factors which led Cain to become jealous of brother Abel and eventually kill him…and God knows best.

  12. […] punishment. As any civilised society understands crime cannot go unpunished. And as we discussed in MS04, the presence of a penal system is a deterrent, the last line of defence in a society for […]

  13. […] or wealth of others in any society is considered a crime; following on from our discussion in an earlier post, there are several “motivating forces” keeping us from committing wrong actions, such […]

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