The Prophet Muhammad said: “There was no Prophet before me but that it was a duty for him to guide his nation to what he knew was best for them and warn them about what he knew was worst for them.” Aspiring for what is best and avoiding what is worst are the two primary goals of the Prophetic law. The eminent legal scholar al-ʿIzz ibn ʿAbd al-Salam summed up the entirety of Islam in one phrase: “To secure benefits and ward off detriments” (jalb al-aṣaliḥ wa dar’ al-mafasid).
Focusing on benefits and detriments is part of the universal Prophetic legacy and, therefore, constitutes a categorical Islamic obligation. Understanding the importance of setting priorities is a necessary operational principle in Islam, but, as obvious as the principle may seem, many Muslims are oblivious to it in practice.
To help secure society’s well-being, Islamic law sets three descending levels of priority, which rank benefits and harms according to their magnitude: necessities (daruriyyat), need (hajiyyat), and complements (takmiliyyat). Each of them will be discussed in fuller detail below after first discussing the five major objectives of the law, upon which they are based. The three levels of priority draw distinctions between the various aspects of Prophetic law; they give highest priority to what is essential to society’s well-being and lower priority to what is not. By setting priorities, Muslims are able to work toward their best interest in good times and bad by allocating time and resources to major needs without becoming preoccupied with minor concerns or with false priorities.
The Arabic words masali (benefits) and mafasid (detriments) have a slightly different emphasis than their English counterparts, “benefits” and “detriments.” In English, “benefits” may first bring to mind nonessential advantages and conveniences. Likewise, the word “detriments” often brings to mind disadvantages and inconveniences. The Arabic word “maṣaliḥ” literally refers to what brings about wholeness, healthiness, and well-being. It immediately brings essential and useful needs to mind, although it includes nonessential advantages and conveniences as well. “Mafasid” is the semantic pair of “maṣaliḥ.” Like “good” and “evil” in English, mention of the one brings the other to mind. Linguistically, mafasid refers to what causes corruption and decay. It immediately brings to mind fundamental harms and damages, including disadvantages and inconveniences.
Benefits and detriments are neither uniform nor abstract; they are inseparably tied to concrete circumstances and realities. Likewise, the imperatives of Islamic law are not equal regarding the importance of their purposes and rationales. Without setting priorities, the ultimate purposes of Islam become obscured and dis- connected from their social purpose. Determining priorities requires making difficult judgments about the magnitudes of diverse benefits and detriments in different contexts and the priority in rank of corresponding elements of the law. In Islamic law, the legal discipline living Islam with purpose that studies how to make such evaluations is called the Science of Counterbalance (ʿilm al-muwazana). Historically, the renowned jurists al-Shaṭibi and Ibn Taymiyya were foremost in this field.
Islamic law sets the three priorities according to a hierarchy of legal goals. The highest of them are the five major objectives (al-maqasid al-khamsa al-kubra). They are the preservation of: religion (din), self (nafs), reason (ʿaql), children (nasl/nasab), and wealth (mal). Some scholars add personal and family honor (ʿird) as a sixth objective, but all agree on the main five. These five major objectives constitute the grand, all-enveloping rationales of Islam. They are the pivot point around which the most binding individual and societal obligations revolve. The primary goal of Islamic jurisprudence is to secure these objectives first or as effectively as possible before turning to lesser priorities. In Islamic legal theory, the five major objectives are critical to the welfare of all human societies, regardless of religion, because the erosion of even a single one of them threatens the continued existence of the society as a whole.
• Preservation of the religion entails everything that is necessary for sound Islamic understanding and practice. Each of the five operational principles in this paper falls under the imperative of preserving the religion. This major objective includes, for example, the creation of a wide variety of research and writing pertaining to Islam such as excellent English translations, commentaries, and literature relevant to our time and place. In America today, the preservation of the Islamic religion clearly necessitates the foundation of outstanding indigenous Islamic educational institutions.
• Preservation of the self means to protect human life from violence, sickness, starvation, and anything else that threatens it. Adequate housing, security, and health services are among the many priorities associated with this objective.
• Preservation of reason requires protecting the human mind from such harms as ignorance, insanity, and alcohol and drug addiction. On the positive side, it entails the full development of the human mind, which requires exposure to positive stimulation and good education.
• Preservation of children focuses on children but entails everything essential to the welfare of the family. It takes in marriage, parenting, caring for the disabled, and so forth. It necessitates guarding against social evils like the abuse of children, spouses, and the elderly.
• Preservation of wealth requires the creation of lawful wealth, its growth, and protection. It places economic development at the center of Islam’s social project. It also necessitates protecting wealth from waste, destruction, and loss through theft, robbery, fraud, embezzlement, and other crimes.
Like societal obligations, the five major objectives extend to other concerns through the previously mentioned principle, “whatever is necessary to fulfill an obligation is an obligation itself.” As illustrated above, preservation of the religion requires that the religion be properly taught, which cannot be done without competent religious scholars. Competent scholars cannot be produced without superior educational facilities. Therefore, it is a major priority to create exceptional Islamic educational institutions.
 sahih Muslim (2005), 880: 4753; Sunan al-Nasa’i (Cairo: Thesaurus Islam- icus Foundation, 2000), 2/691: 4208; Sunan Ibn Majah, 571: 4091; and Musnad al-Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (1991), 2/191: 6793.
 Wolfhart Heinrichs, “Qawaʿid as a Genre of Legal Literature,” 372.
 I prefer to translate the Arabic word nasl as “children,” because of the palpable nature of the word and the centrality of children in Islam and in the wellbeing of families and societies. “Children” is a valid translation of the word nasl in its fundamental lexical sense of al-walad; nasl is often rendered as progeny, which is another valid translation of the word in the lexical sense of al-dhurriyya. In Arabic, the second meaning, “progeny,” essentially means “generations of children.” As a major objective of Islamic law, protection of children is closely tied to the institution of the family. Muslim scholars frequently use the word nasab (lineage) in its place.
Please write: COMMENT in this box to verify that you are human