Sometimes Taqwa and sometimes Fatwa ?
A person may, of his own accord, opt to eschew any work that is in the least bit questionable, to make certain that all of his income is lawful and that nothing is tainted with any unlawful enterprise. He may do so to make sure that he does not in any way whatsoever contributes to encouraging another person in sin. He may simply wish to be free to speak out against sinful behavior and help prevent people from falling into it.
All of these intentions for avoiding questionable work are certainly good. It is certainly an act of piety to refrain from lawful work when some questionable practices are involved in it. This level of piety is easy for those who crave it, but it is certainly difficult in and of itself.
Abstinence from work that is essentially lawful, because it exposes the person to some doubtful matters, means that person must restrain himself from what benefits him materially and from engaging with society in an easy and familiar manner. Therefore, it requires a high level of piety and faith.
This is why a scholar is not supposed to give a general verdict to people that requires them to exercise such a high level of pious aloofness from society. Such a ruling is only suitable for those individuals whom the scholar knows have the strength of faith to bear it.
We see this in the practice of the illustrious scholar Ahmad b. Hanbal. It was his habit to ascertain the circumstances, status, and piety of the people who asked a ruling of him before he would give them his reply.
Once a woman came to him and asked him if she could open her home while she was weaving at night and to avail herself of the sultan’s lamplight. Ahmad asked her who she was. She told him that she was the sister of Bishr al-Hâfî. When he heard that, he said: “Do not do your weaving in that lamplight.”
To understand why Ahmad gave her such a harsh ruling about something that is certainly lawful – she was certainly not stealing from the public light – we must know who Bishr al-Hâfî was. Bishr al-Hâfî was an eminent narrator of hadîth who was a student of such illustrious scholars as Imam Mâlik and `Abd Allah b. Mubârak. Al-Dhahabî tells us that “he was known for his excessive piety, reserve, and sincerity.” [Siyar A`lâm al-Nubalâ’ (10/470)]
Bishr al-Hâfî and his family were people who were careful never to partake of the public wealth, relying exclusively on their own industry for everything. Al-Dhahabî relates to us that when Bishr came to Baghdâd, he would not drink from the sultan’s reservoirs. He instead drank the river water until it injured his throat and he returned to his sister in pain. He made his livelihood through weaving, and that was his only source of income. [Siyar A`lâm al-Nubalâ’ (10/471)]
In this case, Ahmad b. Hanbal took the woman’s status and circumstances into account, and he answered her in a way that was commensurate with her level of piety.
As for people whose circumstances are less that ideal, giving them such legal verdicts will only contribute to their working menial jobs or remaining unemployed. They will simply be forced into hardships which they cannot bear and burdens which Islam does not require them to shoulder. It is feared that such people could grow despondent and displeased with Allah’s decree. It is not allowed for such people to remain aloof from certain things that are merely disliked in Islamic Law, if it might lead them to fall into what is certainly sinful.
Sheikh Qays b. Muhammad Âl Mubârak, professor at King Faisal University