Time and Moral Choice in Islamic Jurisprudence

By Omar Farahat

A question that classical Muslim jurisprudents debated vigorously was: how do we undertake our duties when divine commands only give general guidelines in relation to time, or no time-specific determinations at all? At the heart of this question is how divine speech, mediated by the work of jurisprudents, should be seen to interfere and order human lives and moral choices, made up entirely of time. Time, in classical Islamic jurisprudence, was a moral concept. The understanding of time played a central role in articulating duty and responsibility, a central task of the discipline of Islamic jurisprudence as a whole.

Time in Islamic jurisprudence poses a particular set of puzzles since the discipline deals with a set of commands and prohibitions that, in some sense, have already been made at a distant point in time, or outside of time, depending on one’s theological views. Discussions on time offer a space for the jurists and believers to negotiate their moral choices vis-à-vis divine commands. Time is a fundamental moral aspect of the world and the humans’ place within it. It encompasses and makes up the dynamics of human moral existence in relation to divine law. In this post, I contrast the responses to the above question that were developed by two prominent jurisprudents: the Ḥanafī Abū Bakr al-Jaṣṣāṣ and the Shāfiʿī Abū l-Muẓaffar al-Samʿānī. We will see that, not only did their answers advance different views on moral responsibility in time, but they also reflected different understandings of time itself.

Abū Bakr al-Jaṣṣāṣ was a prominent proponent of the idea that a divine command, when it includes no time specification, must be obeyed as soon as possible. Obeying commands “in the first moment of possibility (awwali aḥwāl al-imkān)”[1] means at the first instant in which the obligation is due, and the legal subject is mentally and physically capable of performing it. The position that a command requires action immediately or as soon as possible was articulated with a dynamic conception of time in which normativity constantly renews itself. Granting norms emerging from divine speech extensive authority over human lives led Jaṣṣāṣ to conceive of such lives as a succession of instants in which norms and moral choices are constantly renewed. As was typical of classical uṣūl arguments, Jaṣṣāṣ developed his views in conversation with arguments he opposed.

The predominant argument that Jaṣṣāṣ wished to disprove was that a command without time indication is to be obeyed at any moment. This, he explains, was typically justified by the fact that “delayed performance of a command without time indication in the second or third instant all the way until the end of life would constitute compliance with the command, which means that postponement is permissible.”[2] We can see that, in this response, Jaṣṣāṣ formulates his position in language more appropriate to his ideas, wherein time is viewed as a sequence of successive instants. He concedes that, in most cases, someone who performs a required act later than “the first moment of possibility” could be considered to have performed their duties. However, for him, that does not necessarily mean that one has the freedom to perform an untimed obligation whenever they wish. To reach that conclusion, we would need to assume a conception of time in which obligation extends over a stretch of time within which the legal subject is free to choose the exact moment of performance. This is not an assumption that Jaṣṣāṣ accepts.

Time for Jaṣṣāṣ is a succession of instants in which each unit of time can be understood in moral terms. Each moment is an opportunity to make the correct choice and comply with divine revelation. If action is possible in instant n, but performance does not occur, then the command was breached and renewed in instant n+1, and so on indefinitely: “what [untimed command] really means is ‘do it in the first instant without delay, and if you miss the first instant then do it in the second without delay.’ This is not a license to postpone, but rather a command to perform immediately failing which one would be obligated to perform in the following moment, [and so on].”[3] Jaṣṣāṣ did not see the initial violation of a command in the first instant and later compliance as mutually exclusive. Failure to perform an action in its originally specified time, such as late payment of a debt, or oversleeping the time of a prayer, is an initial breach of a primary obligation (adāʾ), and yet results in a secondary obligation (qaḍāʾ) to perform in a later time.

Beyond this distinction between a timely primary obligation and a late secondary obligation, Jaṣṣāṣ’s idea of a succession of moments was designed to generalize this sense of urgency over all obligations: a timely performance of a divine command, regardless of time indication, only occurs at the first instance of possibility, any other time is a time of secondary performance. Jaṣṣāṣ’s concept of time allowed for a view in which divine commands are renewed with every instant of non-compliance, even when the command specifies a certain duration for performance. Compliance, in Jaṣṣāṣ’s account, is due in every instant in that duration, but not due after performance. Making the proper moral choice is the only way to extinguish obligation going into the future.

A dynamic conception of time meant that each moment presents opportunities to make moral choices that align with divine will, or to forego such course of action. An action performed at a given moment is unlike an act performed at any other moment. Just as divine injunctions renew at every instant, the opportunity to make a correct choice is also presented at each successive moment. If a commander of overwhelming authority communicates their will that an act be performed, there is a sense of urgency in such an occurrence that would make it necessary to justify a conscious choice to comply in instant t+1 rather than t. This postponement would require an omission in the first instant, which, in the end, is to be considered an omission regardless of later performance. If one is to say that performance can be made at any time, Jaṣṣāṣ explains, “they would be positing a choice (takhyīr) that is not explicitly mentioned in the command, and it is impermissible to assume the existence of a choice without proof.”[4] Jaṣṣāṣ constructs this argument by contrasting it with the Shāfiʿī position, which was fundamentally opposed to his. This juxtaposition of opposing views helps us see that they share a concern with the regulation of moral choices in time in response to divine authority. Specifically, the argument for delayed performance, as accurately but disapprovingly related by Jaṣṣāṣ, extends the time of valid performance until the legal subject fears (yakhshā) omission due to the impending end of life or other form of incapacity. If a command is made that does not include a time determination (ghayri muʾaqqat), some scholars held that “it can be delayed, and [a person] may postpone performance up until such time as they fear that further postponement in the end of life would result in omission.”[5] The reliance of the subjective sense of impending incapacity is common among scholars who grant that humans have a broad leeway to determine the exact time of performance when divine commands are silent on the matter.

Abū l-Muẓaffar al-Samʿānī, for example, takes a subjective approach to moral choice in the context of commands that include no time specification:

It is possible for an action to be obligatory and yet have a choice between immediate and delayed performance, in which case postponement is permissible unless the person thinks it most likely (ghalaba ʿalā ẓannihi) that they would fail to perform it if they left it for later. In that case, postponement becomes prohibited (ḥurrima l-taʾkhīr). In that instance, command would impose an obligation in a time other than [the time where breach is feared], so it is still imposed within a time period rather than a specific moment.[6]

Samʿānī acknowledges that moral prudence requires one not to postpone an obligatory action if they fear they might not be able to perform it later. The prohibition of postponement does not follow from the command itself, but from common sense and a general sense of responsibility. In that way, Samʿānī attempts to stay clear of imposing meanings not intended by divine speech, but rather attributes this limitation to what is reasonably implied (fāʾida).[7] In addition, the limitation, even in that case, does not entail immediate performance, but only performance outside (i.e., prior to) the time where inability is feared to arise. The limitation is exceptional and aligns entirely with the reason for it: the moment in time in which inability is subjectively feared marks the end of the stretch of time in which the action must be performed. Outside this subjective sense of impending failure, legal subjects are morally justified to choose the time of performance at will as long as divine commands are silent on the matter.

Samʿānī sees no difference in making such moral choices in response to commands indicating an extended period of time or those devoid of time indication altogether. In all cases, what is required is to follow divine speech as closely as possible until one subjectively fears they might fail to comply. He explained that “if someone said to a subordinate to do an act tomorrow, or in a particular month or year, meaning that they can choose any moment within that time period to perform the act, this would not be odd or unreasonable.”[8] This, he argues, is similar to prayers and other rituals, which may be performed at any moment within the designated period without this making any difference in the nature of the act performed. The choice of time is entirely up to each individual. The same applies to self-imposed obligations, such as those arising from covenants and oaths, where there is no disagreement that performance need not be immediate. Moral responsibility, in those situations, attaches to the performance of a specific action, not to the time in which performance takes place. Samʿānī’s position is best understood, as mentioned in the previous section, if we take into account his choice of moral risk. Since the command of a superior in itself does not justify the conclusion that immediate action is necessary, such as in cases of a specified window of time, then this should be assumed in cases with no time specification. Choosing the legal subject’s freedom to determine the exact time of performance is preferable to imposing an unwarranted interpretation of the language of revelation.

The two scholars we examined presented two contrasting views on commands that do not involve a time indication. On the one hand, the idea that divine commands must, by default, entail immediate compliance rested on a dynamic view of time and a sense of urgency in responding to the demands of divine speech. The idea that a command devoid of time indication imposed a relaxed sense of duty saw time as one among many possible attributes of action, which could, in some cases, be neutral. In this view, divine commands did not impose persistent obligations that renew in each instant, but duties that extend over segments of time and give rise to options with regards to the exact specifics of performance.


[1] Aḥmad b ʿAlī al-Rāzī al-Jaṣṣāṣ, Uṣūl al-fiqh al-musammā al-Fuṣūl fī l-uṣūl, 2nd ed., ed.ʿUjayl Jāsim Nashamī, (Kuwait: Wazarat al-awqāf wa l-shuʾūn al-Islāmiyya, 1994), 107.

[2] Ibid. (Emphasis added.)

[3] Ibid., 107–08. (Emphasis added.)

[4] Ibid., 108.

[5] Ibid., 105.

[6]  Manṣūr Ibn Muḥammad Samʿānī, Qawāṭiʿ al-adilla fī l-uṣūl, 1st ed., ed. Muḥammad Ḥasan Muḥammad Ḥasan Ismāʻīl aš-Shāfiʿī (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1997), 82.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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