“You criticize me for my faults and choices, saying, “You should stay away from doubtful!” But what you label as “doubtful” in my life just might be my best efforts in holding on to my faith at all. Yes, I know my imperfections can be cringe-worthy at times. Trust me, I cringe more from them than you. But if you only knew just how much effort it takes for me to be this flawed person that you see. If you only knew…”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
One of the most distressing things about Ramadan for the “imperfect Muslim” trained in religious zealousness is the conflicting feelings surrounding the “requirement” to abandon all worldly matters that we usually enjoy throughout the year. Whether it is reading a fiction book, watching a favored television show, playing video games, going to the movies, exercising to music, or even just relaxing at the pool or park, we often feel obligated to give up all of this in Ramadan if we are going to earn Allah’s mercy and forgiveness.
Naturally, if you know (or genuinely believe) something is definitely haraam, then no matter what month it is, you should strive to stay away from it (and repent whenever you slip up or indulge in it). However, when it comes to things typically labeled “doubtful” in Islam, the best course of action is often more confusing than clear when it comes to planning our approach to the holy month.
What Are “Doubtful Matters” in Islam?
When we make plans to stay away from “doubtful matters” during Ramadan, are we exaggerating what “doubtful” means?
Unfortunately, those of us trained to be overly zealous in our spiritual practice tend to label nearly everything of this world as “doubtful.” If something doesn’t have an overtly religious purpose, we automatically assume it to be haraam, doubtful, or a waste of time.
Furthermore, many religious classes teach us that anything that has legitimate disagreement amongst the scholars is automatically “doubtful” in Islam, particularly if you favor the more lenient view over the stricter one. Thus, we often feel forced to treat as haraam an ever-growing list of worldly matters, even if we ourselves are not convinced that they’re wrong or sinful.
Focus on What’s Clear
As I discuss in my book I Almost Left Islam: How I Reclaimed My Faith, it is well known that religion is defined by core beliefs and specific acts of worship. Hence, our greatest concern for religious safety must be in protecting our beliefs and worship. Worldly affairs, as a general rule, are not religious matters. Thus, humans are free to enjoy and benefit from anything of this world that they wish—unless Allah has expressly forbidden it (i.e. eating pork, drinking alcohol, or engaging in any sexual intimacy outside the God-sanctioned union between a man and a woman).
In other words, all matters of belief and worship have the general principle of prohibition unless there is clear proof for them in the Qur’an and Sunnah; and all matters related to our worldly life have the general principle of permissibility unless there is clear proof against them in the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Therefore, if you hear of a religious belief or mode of worship that incites doubt because you don’t know if it’s sanctioned in the Qur’an or the Sunnah, then you should stay away from it so as to “leave that which makes you doubt.” However, if there is a worldly matter that you have no justifiable reason to doubt the permissibility of, then you should assume it is allowed until you have proof otherwise from the Qur’an or Sunnah.
Let’s Be Real
You cannot live your entire life throwing every worldly issue into the category of “doubtful matters” just because you aren’t personally aware of its specific “ruling” in Islam. If you do, you’ll likely overburden yourself in the religion until you are paralyzed into inactivity, anxiety, and stress—and until you give up practicing Islam altogether.
Do What Works Best for You
Once there was a man who repeatedly asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) if Hajj was obligatory every year and the Prophet responded, “If I had said yes, then it would have become obligatory upon you [to perform Hajj every year], and you would not have been able to do so. Do not ask me about that which I have left [unspecified], for verily the nations before you were destroyed by their excessive questioning and their disagreeing with their Prophets. So if I order you with something, then do as much of it as you are able, and if I forbid you from something then keep away from it” (Muslim).
As I learned during my Islamic studies, the lesson we should gain from this hadith is profound, especially for those heavily influenced by the “super Muslim” and religious-OCD culture that is prevalent in many spiritual circles today.
So what should you do during Ramadan? Do what you’re obligated to do, and beyond that, do what works best for your own personal needs, emotional well-being, and spiritual health, irrespective of what someone else deems as “doubtful” or a “time waster” during the month. Also, don’t obsess over what you should or should not do regarding matters that have no clear (or unilateral) instruction about them in the Qur’an or Sunnah.
If you still find yourself distressed and confused, consult someone with a balanced understanding of spiritual, emotional, and personal needs; then pray Istikhaarah before moving forward with any decision (even if you imagine it to be “safest” for your soul).
Prioritize Self-Care Over Self-Denial
Here’s what works best for me year round: For my beliefs and worship, I stay away from doubtful by sticking to what is clear in the Qur’an and Sunnah. In Ramadan in particular, I do what is reasonable and realistic for me regarding extra worship and Qur’anic reading. I also engage in healthy self-denial by spending significantly more time in these spiritual activities at the expense of some worldly activities I might partake in.
However, when it comes to worldly matters that are part of my daily routine (and emotional well-being) throughout the year, I prioritize self-care over self-denial. In other words, to benefit most from Ramadan, I continue to do what I normally do, except what I leave off so that I can spend more time reading Qur’an and praying. Though many Muslims would label these non-religious activities “wasting time,” their perspective is neither truthful nor Islamic.
As we know from the prophetic teachings, actions are based on intentions. Furthermore, each person’s emotional and psychological needs are different. This is a fact confirmed in the most basic principles of fiqh. Furthermore, there is no universal category of “wasting time” that can be applied to every human being and every “non-religious” activity. What is wasting time for one person can be emotionally healing for another person, and what is emotionally healing for one person can be spiritually damaging to another person.
Therefore, what is upon us is to become acquainted with what is healthiest for our own emotional and spiritual health. Relying on blanket fatwas and religious advice that do not take into account the nuances and individuality of each person’s emotional and psychological needs causes more damage than good. Moreover, when they are relied on so religiously that they become standards in how all Muslims are obliged to participate in Ramadan, they run the risk of changing the teachings of Islam itself.
In trying to navigate and understand what is best for you in particular, I suggest engaging in honest self-reflection and praying Istikhaarah when you are uncertain.
Worldly Enjoyments Can Enhance Spiritual Health
As the personal story I share in I Almost Left Islam makes clear, I already know what unhealthy self-denial does to my mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, and I’m not interested in putting myself through that torment again. Thus, if it’s Ramadan and I’ve already read my extra Qur’an and prayed my extra prayers for the day (according to my own personal improvement list), I go on with my life and enjoy the worldly activities that I normally do.
After weathering the spiritual crisis that nearly took me out of Islam, I know on a deeply personal level the spiritual benefits I gain from allowing myself time for permissible worldly enjoyments. So if I want to read a book, exercise to more than the sound of my own feet, or play a game I enjoy, I will, bi’idhnillaah. And I don’t give a second’s thought to what zealous Muslims label as “doubtful” or “wasting time” in my life or faith.
Yes, there are definitely controversial worldly matters that I still consider “doubtful” and thus stay away from for the safety of my soul. But this self-denial is based on my own emotional and spiritual needs, not anyone else’s. Thus, I believe it is unfair to suggest these personal boundaries to other believers under the unfair assumption that my limits have to be someone else’s limits too. Allah has already made clear the universal limits of our faith and the basic requirements of participating in Ramadan, and I have no right to add to this divine list, no matter how convinced I am that it’s best to stay away from something, and no matter how much it makes me or my favored sheikh uncomfortable.
So if you want to gain the most from this blessed month—while having emaan in your heart for the long term—I suggest you stick to Allah’s limits and guidelines for Ramadan, not those of human beings, no matter how sincere and knowledgeable. And beyond these divine universal guidelines, anything extra you do should be based on what’s best for your personal circumstance, not on the ever-growing list of what Muslims label as “doubtful” or “time wasters” in Islam.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com
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