Taysir means taking the easier path to manage a difficulty. As a term in Islamic scholarship, it means giving advice or a ruling in favour of the easier option, provided the matter is one in which preference between options is allowable.
Taysir is very much in harmony with the letter and spirit of the guidance of the Qur’an and Sunna. God has said He is not a tyrant to His slaves, that He desires for them ease, not hardship. He never asks of them what is impossible for them; rather, He says that no soul is charged beyond its capacity –– a form of words reiterated many times in the Qur’an.
A person’s capacity is constrained by both external and internal necessities. I will discuss these separately.
External necessities are evident in the many situations in which we are not free to do what we would do if we were free to choose. Some external necessities are related to aspects of physical or mental capacity that we do not choose or control. That is why we do not make the same demands of legal adults and legal minors, of men and women in certain matters, of those who are in good health and those who are not, those who are undergoing the stresses of travel and those at home with their familiar comforts. Such variations are explicitly the basis of the permitted relaxations in the obligations of prayer and fasting when sick or travelling. The essential thing to understand here is that easing the detail of how an obligation is carried out does not diminish the obligation, but only some hardship associated with carrying it out. The effect of this ease is to improve the sincerity and willingness with which the obligation is performed, and it intensifies gratitude to God for enabling it to be performed more easily. Also, the permitted relaxation of conditions diminishes the potential for unwillingness, in the face of hardship, to carry out the obligation.
It is essential to understand that the obligations in the din do not function as another sort of external necessity. Of course, a religious obligation is a command and we must obey it. But it is a command that we must give ourselves before we can obey it –– after a very short period of practice, we become willing freely to command ourselves because we realise and accept that what we are commanded to do is the right thing for us to be doing.
To visualise the difference between a command that functions as an external necessity and a command that has been personally and inwardly generated, call to mind military drills wherein groups of people are commanded to perform certain actions and execute them without thought, all together and all at the same instant. Sometimes, similar public displays of exactly identical bodily movements are performed as dances in grand political ceremonies. By contrast, the diverse postures and movements of the salah, when many Muslims are praying in congregation, are aligned with each other but never exactly synchronised. This is because at each ‘Allahu akbar’, each individual responds individually from within, each in his or her own time which varies, however slightly, from one person to the next.
Taysir is a distinguishing characteristic, a special merit, of this din. Muslims are rescued by the divinely authorised taysir from obsessing about exactitude in the external aspects of religious duties while being indifferent to personal intention and sincerity –– something of which the Banu Isra’il are often accused. And Muslims are rescued from the wanton indifference to religious regulation of any kind which has so often characterised the history of the religious life of the Nasranis, and which explains the much-elaborated variety in the rites of their innumerable competing churches.
That said, I must respectfully disagree with the eminent Islamic scholars who have described our din as ‘the happy mean between the extremes of the Jews and the Christians’. I do not think any virtue is simply a matter of mechanically locating a mid-point between extremes. For example, the virtue of ‘courage’ is said to lie between the extremes of ‘cowardice’ and ‘recklessness’. But there are many situations in which ‘recklessness’ (indifference to great personal risk) can be shown, after due reflection, to be the right thing to do. Similarly, in other situations, ‘cowardice’ (refusal to risk a fight) may be the wiser option because it preserves life: apparent ‘cowardice’ is sometimes the harder option because it requires strength of mind and will to persevere through a present failure while conserving a will to fight in the future.
Taysir is not a mechanical moderation, a mechanical avoidance of extremes. Rather, it is a practical measure in the present life of believers of how much they need God’s help to fulfil their obligations to Him. It is a way of being mindful that they do not, indeed cannot, fulfil their duty to Him independently of His help. It is a mark of the otherness of God, of His sufficiency in contrast to human neediness, and of His kindness and compassion toward the limitations of His creatures. In the wider perspective, it is a foretaste of the forgiveness of God that is offered to whoever asks it of Him. Affirming and accepting taysir in one’s behaviour prevents the sin of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. It enables sincere believers to sustain their awareness of their need for forgiveness, and the need to ask for that. There is no better way of practising that awareness than the ideal of taysir, namely to be as strict with oneself as one can sustain, and with others to be as forgiving as possible within the boundaries of what is permitted.
Before going on to discuss internal necessities, I want once more to emphasise that taysir, the lightening of obligations, is not a denial or cancellation of obligations. It is, instead, a means of affirming the obligations and enabling the will to carry them out. Consider what God says about the extreme or emergency situations in which what is impermissible becomes permissible, even obligatory. To avoid perishing from starvation it is allowed to consume normally haram food, provided there is no desire for that food. As soon as the emergency passes, the forbidden again becomes forbidden, and only if we find we have no craving for it, can we be sure that we did not sin.
By internal necessities I mean the infirmities of the will that prevent human beings from doing what they know to be right and, instead, because it seems too difficult for them, postponing it, and postponing it repeatedly. In the traditional literature such infirmities of the will are called ‘sicknesses of the heart’. I have used the word ‘will’ because ‘will’ implies a potential for change, a potential to will some behaviour other than the bad behaviour that has become a habit. It is easy, but wrong, to be impatient with such behaviour and insist that the individual is lying if he or she says ‘I can’t help it; I wish I could but I can’t’. Often the person is speaking truthfully and genuinely believes that he or she can’t make themselves to do what they know is the right thing.
Recall what God has said many times in His Book: that no soul is charged beyond its capacity. The interior landscape of another person’s life is perhaps not fully understood even by that person; it is certainly not fully understood by anyone else. Seeing a plant, we see the leaves at first glance as alike, but looking more closely we see that every leaf is different from every other in size, colour and other characteristics. We can offer reasons for this: one leaf gets more or stronger sunlight, one blocks the light to another, one is more efficient in absorbing nutrients from the roots, one is more resistant to pests, and so on. But there is no doubt also the factor of individual effort that each leaf is able to make, within the general conditions of light, air, nutrients from the soil, which contributes to the visible variations in size, colour, and other characteristics. With individual human beings similarly, we can offer reasons like family background and local influences to explain in part why some acquire the infirmities of will that they acquire. In the end, however, we must accept that we cannot explain why, despite the sameness of family, education and local influences, siblings behave quite differently when it comes to willingness to do the right thing. Only God knows the detail of a person’s interior landscape; only He knows how difficult a terrain, how arduous a climb, the person has struggled to overcome before he or she declares, ‘I just can’t help it’.
The discipline of taysir is the wisest approach to helping such an individual. We know it is the wisest because it is the practice of God’s Messenger, and among our obligations to God is the obligation to strive to be like His Messenger. Everyone is familiar with the hadith which tells of a man who committed a sin and came to the Messenger to ask him what he should do to expiate it. Note first and foremost that this man –– and despite his sin he must be remembered with the honorific of ‘Companion of God’s Messenger’ –– this man is aware of his wrongdoing; he is not claiming that it was not wrongdoing. The Prophet told the man to do something by way of expiation, but he said he could not because it was beyond his means. The Prophet suggested something lighter, but received the same answer. In another hadith, the Prophet advised a man to do something good for his Muslim brother. But once more, the man said he just could not do that. The Prophet did not then abandon the man to his infirmity of will. He chose instead to interpret it as a willed determination on the man’s part to do as expiation only what he could do sincerely. So the Prophet told him to do no harm to his neighbour for the sake of God. And this the man accepted. The non-action of not-harming sufficed as expiation for this man if and only if it was undertaken and sustained for the sake of God.
That, ultimately, is the material benefit of taysir. It allows believers, from within an infirmity of will, to orient an action (even a not-doing of some bad action) for the sake of God. This means doing something just because it is the right thing to do, and excluding from one’s motivation any private pleasure, gain or advantage. The educative effect of doing even one right thing, knowing that it is right and only because it is right, is of immeasurable benefit. This is not because of any virtue in the action itself. Self-evidently a non-action cannot be a positive virtue; it is at best an absence or avoidance of wrongdoing. The immeasurable benefit comes from the fact that the doer has consciously taken a step towards God, and God turns to him or her and enables the infirmity of will to be overcome, perhaps all at once, perhaps gradually. The same is the case when a person accepts Islam: for some, it happens all at once; for others, it takes a long time to adjust themselves internally and reform long-established habits and relationships.
Believers are most in need of taysir when their speech and behaviours are disoriented by motives of personal advantage or misdirected passion, of which anger is the commonest expression. Anger has often led believers into uttering solemn oaths (i.e. oaths by God) which bind them to a course of action. Though they intended only to issue a threat in forceful style, once the conditions stated in the oath are met, they are bound to carry out the action to which the oath binds them.
Some Muslims mistakenly think that the scholars’ tendency to be lenient whenever possible encourages people to prefer desire to duty, encourages them to indulge their infirmities of will, instead of striving to cure those infirmities. The scholars typically do not practise taysir when it would lead to such grave harm. Rather, their aim is to prevent or diminish harm. Consider, for example, the case of an oath addressed by a husband to his wife to the effect that, if such and such happens, he has divorced his wife. Now, if that such and such does happen, no scholar would wish to argue that the oath is invalid because uttered without really intending the divorce. Yes, there is harm to the family if the divorce is considered to have been pronounced once the condition specified in the oath is met. But there is also harm –– for the Muslim community as a whole, a much greater harm –– in trivialising an oath by God. If the oath is not fulfilled, it amounts to sanctioning the practice of using the name of God as a rhetorical device, as mere emphasis.
In a case like that, scholars would, within the bounds of the permissible, exercise their ingenuity to find a way that would lessen the harm to the husband’s family. They did this sometimes by insisting that the oath be carried out exactly as worded because the precise wording left some room for a course of action other than a pronouncement of divorce, or it left room for justifiably claiming that the conditions in the oath had not been precisely met. By way of lightening the topic, perhaps I may end by recounting an amusing case which illustrates the wit and ingenuity of Imam at-Tabari. He was asked by a husband who had apparently obliged himself by his oath to divorce a woman whom he ardently did not want to divorce:
عن غلام لابن المرزوق البغدادي قال: كان مولاي مكرماً لي، فاشترى جارية وزوجنيها، فأحببتها حباً شديداً، وأبغضتني بغضاً شديداً عظيماً، وكانت تنافرني دائماً واحتملها إلى أن أضجرتني يوماً فقلت لها: أنت طالق ثلاثاً أن خاطبتيني بشيء إلا خاطبتك بمثله فقد أفسدك احتمالي لك، فقالت لي في الحال: أنت طالق ثلاثاً بتاتاً، قال: فأبلست ولم أدر ما أجيبها به خوفاً أن أقول لها مثل ما قالت فتصير بذلك طالقاً مني، فأرشدت إلى أبي جعفر الطبري فأخبرته بما جرى، فقال: أقم معها بعد أن تقول لها أنت طالق ثلاثاً إن أنا طلقتك، فتكون قد خاطبتها به فوفيت بيمينك ولم تطلقها، ولا تعاود الإيمان.