Article – When Doing Good Causes Harm: The Islamic Perspective

This article was originally published by Muslim.SG which can be accessed here. The Malay version of the article can be read here.

by Muhammad Haniff Hassan

Some time after the opening of Makkah, the Prophet s.a.w. walked around the Masjid Al-Haram with his wife, Aisyah r.a. He then stood in front of the Kaabah and spoke to Aisyah about his plan to demolish the Kaabah and rebuild it in accordance with its original size built by Prophet Ibrahim a.s.

 The Kaabah, then, was smaller because it was once brought down by a flood and the people of Makkah did not have enough materials and wealth to restore it to its original size which includes the area between Kaabah and Hijr Ismail.

However, the Prophet purposefully postponed the plan. In fact, the size of the Kaabah remains the same till today. For this reason, Muslims are commanded to perform the tawaf outside of Hijr Ismail.

People performing tawaf around the kaabah in Makkah, Saudi Arabia

Demolishing the Kaabah for the purpose of rebuilding it to its original size must be a commendable act in Islam because it is impossible for the Prophet to wish for something that is forbidden by God. If the Prophet did not know that such an act was forbidden, God would have corrected him. However, there were no reports of such corrections.

What was the reason behind the Prophet holding back his plan to rebuild the Kaabah – a building that has tremendous significance and is an important part of ibadah (worship) in Islam?

Kaabah in the past

Photo credit: Pinterest

This story occurred after the Prophet’s victory over his enemy. This story was reported in a hadith narrated in Sahih Al-Bukhari

ولولا أن قومك حديث عهدهم بالجاهلية فأخاف أن تنكر قلوبهم أن أدخل الحجر في البيت وأن ألصق بابه الأرض

If it is not for the Quraysh tribe leaving their Jahiliyah life recently, I am concerned that it might detest their hearts if I were to include the wall (of Ismail) in the reconstruction of the Kaabah, and to relocate the elevated door back to the ground.

(Sahih Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

The Prophet s.a.w. reportedly said that he held back his plan in view of the fact that people of Makkah were new converts to Islam after the defeat. He was worried that the execution of his plan would cause negative reactions such as the perception that the Prophet had committed a sacrilegious act against the Kaabah which was regarded as a holy place by pagan Arabs too, and that he (Muhammad) was an arrogant leader, who would not hesitate to do anything when in power.

1)    Islam teaches us to think and prioritise our actions

This might risk antagonising Arabs and, thus, turning them away from embracing Islam which contradicted the Prophet’s mission and his own teachings to the Companions – that they should not do anything that would chase people away from the religion. 

In this regard, the Prophet prioritised winning the people’s hearts and minds over the restoration of the Kaabah to its accurate size. After all, Islam can only be victorious through the hearts of the people and not the actual size of the Kaabah. It would not be wise to alter the size of the Kaabah at the expense of one’s acceptance of the truth.

This story contains important lessons for Muslims when practising the religion and performing good deeds commanded by God, regardless of whether they benefit an individual or a group of individuals – family, community and organization.

2)    Avoiding a deed that could possibly bring more harm than benefit is encouraged

One important lesson is that Muslims should not perform an act simply on the basis that it is a virtue and is commanded by God. They should also consider negative consequences or harm that can be resulted from the act within a specific context. If an act could potentially generate more harm than benefits, holding it back or delaying it is encouraged and in some occasions, it could be obligatory.

It must be noted that the Prophet decided to hold back his plan based on potential harms or risks, not on its actuality. The harms and risks were deduced based on logical reasoning. This leads to the second lesson of the story – potential harms that are deduced through proper analysis and reasonings are sufficient for legitimate consideration. They do not need to be manifested into reality.

3)    Holding back from doing good because of the risk of harm is not a sign of weak faith

The third lesson is mitigating and managing risks is commanded by Islam. To avoid potential harms, even if it means to hold back certain religious injunctions, is permissible. It cannot be regarded, in principle, as a sign of weak faith, or a compromise of religious duty, or a lack of tawakkal, or lack of courage when facing challenges in practising one’s faith, because the Prophet s.a.w could not be having these when he delayed his plan.

Every single of God’s command, in theory and principle, is beneficial for His servants. However, Muslims should not ignore that a devotional act might bring with it certain negative consequences or harms and they might be larger than the benefits that were sought when it is applied upon a more specific context.

All the above lessons could be supported by many other dalils (evidence). A hadith about Mu`az r.a and the Prophet travelling on a ride contains the same lessons;

Once Mu`az was along with the Prophet s.a.w as a companion rider. The Prophet s.a.w said: O Mu`az bin Jabal. Mu`az replied: Labbaik and Sa`daik (Here I am responding to you and at your pleasure) O Rasulullah. Again the Prophet said: O Mu`az! Mu`az said thrice: Labbaik and Sa`daik, O Rasulullah. The Prophet said: There is none who testifies sincerely that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger, except that Allah, will save him from the Hell-fire. Mu`az said: O Rasulullah! Should I not inform the people about it so that they may have glad tidings? He replied: When the people hear about it, they will solely depend on it. Then Mu`az narrated the above-mentioned hadith just before his death, being afraid of committing sin (by not telling the knowledge).”

(Sahih Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

 The Prophet prohibited Mu`az r.a from telling others the lesson he conveyed to him for fear of its negative effect – some Muslims may become lazy and complacent in performing ibadah in life.

4)    Considering the outcomes of our actions and deeds is encouraged

Another dalil is about the Prophet’s refusal to punish Abdullah bin Ubay, the leader of the hypocrites in Madinah, when he insulted and threatened him in his absence. The Prophet s.a.w even refused to punish him although the despicable acts were exposed by Allah through the revelation of verses 7 and 8 of Surah Al-Munafiqun.

هُمُ الَّذينَ يَقولونَ لا تُنفِقوا عَلىٰ مَن عِندَ رَسولِ اللَّهِ حَتّىٰ يَنفَضّوا ۗ وَلِلَّهِ خَزائِنُ السَّماواتِ وَالأَرضِ وَلٰكِنَّ المُنافِقينَ لا يَفقَهونَ. يَقولونَ لَئِن رَجَعنا إِلَى المَدينَةِ لَيُخرِجَنَّ الأَعَزُّ مِنهَا الأَذَلَّ ۚ وَلِلَّهِ العِزَّةُ وَلِرَسولِهِ وَلِلمُؤمِنينَ وَلٰكِنَّ المُنافِقينَ لا يَعلَمونَ

They are the ones who say, ‘Give nothing to those who follow Allah’s Messenger, until they abandon him’, but to God belong the treasures of the heavens and earth, though the hypocrites do not understand this. They say, ‘Once we return to Madinah, the powerful will drive out the weak,’ but power belongs to God, to His Messenger, and to the believers, though the hypocrites do not know this.

(Surah Al-Munafiqun, 63:7-8)

When the Prophet was asked the reason for his refusal, he told the companions, 

“[so] the people may not say that Muhammad kills his companions.” 

(Narrated by Muslim)

He wanted to avoid negative perceptions in the mind of the hostile pagan Arabs that he is an authoritarian leader who had no qualms about killing those who disagree or criticise him. This story was reported in Sahih Al-BukhariSahih Muslim and books of Tafsir.

 This story contains an additional lesson which is to consider the outcomes when performing good deeds or if our da`wah could lead to negative perceptions of people towards Islam and Muslims. In other words, avoiding such perception is not necessarily wrong or regarded as compromising religion for the pleasure of people.

5)    Avoiding harm is prioritised over gaining benefits

What has been elaborated above is not new. Muslim scholars since the classical period have formulated various fiqh maxims (established legal principles) that are based on the abovementioned lessons and used them in their fatwas. Some of the relevant maxims are:

·     Every devotional act (ibadah) that may generate greater harm than benefit should be prohibited

·     Harmful acts should be eliminated and they can be eliminated by committing less harmful ones

·     Priority is given to avoiding harm than attaining benefits

The sunnah of the Prophet s.a.w. informs us that devotional acts and da`wah should not be performed if their potential negative consequences or harms could be greater than their intrinsic benefits or values.

Thus, it is permissible to delay, or postpone, or cancel a commendable act in Islam when there are risks of harm and this should fall under “doing da`wah with hikmah” (wisdom) as enjoined in the Qur’an.

It is obligatory for Muslims to refrain from being quick to judge others negatively in the issue discussed here. Also, a Muslim is also reminded to be conscious of Allah (taqwa) in making decisions when facing situations discussed here.