As indicated above, Islamic law has three levels of priority: necessities, needs, and complements. Necessities, the highest priority, are inseparably linked to the five major objectives. They are directly tied to the acquisition of indispensable benefits and the removal of critical harms. Necessities are matters without which individuals and societies cannot continue to exist, the most important of these being the five ultimate objectives. It is a necessity in cold climates, for example, to have basic shelter with heat and hot water. As mentioned, the arena of necessities expands to include everything required to meet the five major objectives. Clarifying what a community’s necessities are makes it possible to determine the most urgent societal obligations.
Needs constitute the next level of priorities. They pertain to the acquisition of lesser benefits and the prevention of lesser detriments. Needs are closely related to necessities because they buttress them and make it easier to meet them and keep them intact. Unlike necessities, needs have secondary importance and are dispensable; a society that fails to meet its secondary needs can survive, but the quality of life it provides will be less than satisfactory. It is a necessity to have basic shelter with heat and hot water in cold climates; it is a need to provide the shelter with important nonessential appliances like dishwashers.
Complements are also referred to as “beautifications” (tahsiniyyat) and “ornamentations” (tazyiniyyat). They pertain to minor benefits and detriments. Complements are closely related to needs in a manner similar to the relation of needs to necessities; complements make it easier to secure needs. Complements affect the quality of life by adorning it with elegance and sophistication; they also involve the removal of minor detriments like impoliteness. Complements are the refinements of a civilized society; they manifest private, family, and social life in their most excellent forms. Basic shelter is a necessity; important nonessential appliances such as dishwashers are a need; attractive interior decoration and a pleasant view constitute a complement.
Because necessities are absolutely essential, they must always take top priority, and the best resources and greatest efforts must be expended to secure them. As we have seen, necessities are the main- stay of society; needs support necessities; and complements support needs. Therefore, the attempt to meet needs must not be allowed to stand in the way of meeting necessities, and complements must not be emphasized to the exclusion of needs. Setting priorities in Islamic law means ordering necessities, needs, and complements so that the lower priorities support and do not work against the higher ones.
In ideal situations, necessities, needs, and complements exist side by side, but the realities of life and the nature of community development often make it impossible to secure all three together. In such cases, lower priorities must be traded off for higher ones. It is always imperative that the hierarchy of priorities be observed; needs and complements must be sacrificed for necessities when it is impossible to secure them all simultaneously. Likewise, complements must be sacrificed for needs when realities on the ground do not allow for them both. For example, it is a necessity to have Islamic seminaries, a need to provide scholarships, and a complement to find the best locations and provide aesthetically pleasing facilities. Yet the basic seminary project comes first; it must not be held back because of difficulty in securing scholarships or finding an attractive campus.
Human activities rarely occur without the potential for bringing about simultaneous benefits and harms. When benefits and harms occur together, the hierarchy of priorities in Islamic law prohibits an act if its potential benefits are less than or equal to its potential harms. The relevant legal maxim states: “Warding off detriments takes priority over the acquisition of benefits” (dar’ al-mafasid awla min jalb al-masalih). Driving somewhere quickly may be beneficial, but it is forbidden in Islamic law if it involves speeding and risking a car accident; the supposed benefits of speeding do not outweigh the potential harms of an accident. But when potential benefits are greater than possible harms, the act is permissible and, in some cases, recommended or obligatory. When an ambulance speeds to the hospital to save the life of someone in critical condition, it runs the risk of an accident, but the benefit of saving the patient’s life greatly outweighs the detriment of a possible accident.
Sometimes, there is no way to avoid a greater harm except by incurring a lesser one, and there may be no way to avoid a greater prohibition except by doing a lesser one. When this is the case, it becomes allowable and sometimes obligatory to choose the course of action that requires doing the lesser harm or the lesser prohibition despite the fact that neither is allowed. Eating carrion is detrimental to the health and strictly forbidden in Islamic law, but starvation is a greater harm and a greater prohibition. Therefore, the Qur’an directs the starving person to eat carrion or similar unclean substances to stay alive if there is nothing clean and permissible to eat.
The phenomenon of Muslim conferences and conventions in the United States and Canada offers an example of various benefits and detriments and how they may be ranked by priority. Organizing such gatherings constitutes a priority because they serve necessities such as helping to preserve the religion and develop the community. They fulfill many other individual and community needs such as providing access to scholars and new ideas. They provide for numerous complements such as meeting friends. Like most large gatherings, however, the conferences also fall short of expectations in certain regards. They may not be well organized; they may fail to give fair representation to all ethnic groups; and their programs may be superficial and repetitive. As a rule, however, the benefits of the conferences outweigh their detriments, and they remain a community priority and an important societal obligation.
Misplaced priorities are a common stumbling block in the American Muslim community. Often, they grow out of simple unawareness that priorities are a part of the Islamic religion. In some cases, they result from the transferal of old world ways to the West without evaluating their utility in a new context. The allegation that speaking frankly about the community’s problems is shameful or constitutes an attack upon Islam is deeply rooted in old world notions of shame and honor. Another cultural transferal is the emphasis that some communities place on training children in the virtuous act of memorizing the Qur’an yet with little or no concern for teaching them Arabic and basic commentary so that they can benefit fully from what they memorize. Some imams do address the previously mentioned issue of Muslim-owned liquor franchises in the inner cities. Others may rail against false priorities like the supposed evils of Halloween and women wearing fingernail polish but avoid mentioning the Muslim-owned liquor businesses despite the fact that some of their biggest proprietors may be sitting before them in the congregation.
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