From the greater objectives of the shariah is to increase good, to establish it, and reduce evil in order to remove it. However, life does not always bring to us pure good and pure evil such that we can abandon the evil and act upon the good. Sometimes in our lives we are faced with situations where we have to choose between two goods or two evils. Sometimes, situations may have some good and some bad in them, but we have to choose between them. So what does a Muslim do in such circumstances? In some cases, a Muslim will find himself in a situation where whatever good he chooses, evil will result! Common sense will tell him to choose the lesser of the two evils because, if his objective is to do good, then choosing the lesser of the evils is the closest to the good.
If a person says: ‘I will never act on any evil, period’ then he is forgetting that there may be times when he does something that is generally good but the circumstances around that good dictate it to have an evil outcome. This person would have been actually doing evil but without realising, or he could be doing that which is further away from good and closer to evil.
The existence of this principle – ‘choosing the lesser of the two harms’ – is proof of the perfection of this religion and proof that it is suitable for every time and place.
So where did this principle come from?
1. In Surah Hud, verse 77 – Allah most high told us about a situation where the Prophet Lot had to choose between two evils, and he chose the lesser of the two.
“…and his people came rushing towards him, and they had been long in the habit of practising abominations. He said: “O my people! Here are my daughters: they are purer for you (if ye marry)! Now fear Allah, and cover me not with shame about my guests! Is there not among you a single right-minded man?”
So he offered his daughter to protect his guests whilst he knew it was evil. The tribe was evil, him marrying his daughter to them was evil but he chose that rather than them raping his guests (as he thought would happen), so he took the lesser of the two evils in his view. (Abdul Hameed al Balaali in his book fiq of dawah fi inkar al munkar p143-144)
2. In surah Nisaa verse 25, Allah most high instructed the believers to marry their believing slave girls if they feared zina. This was not allowed before this verse was revealed.
“…If any of you have not the means wherewith to wed free believing women, they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands possess. And Allah hath full knowledge about your faith. Ye are one from another. Wed them with the leave of their owners, and give them their dowers according to what is reasonable. They should be chaste, not lustful, nor taking paramours. When they are taken in wedlock, if they fall into shame, their punishment is half that for free women. This (permission) is for those among you who fear sin; but it is better for you that ye practise self-restraint. And Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
So marrying a believing slave girl is better than zina.Here, Allah teaches us to take the lesser of the two evils. Marring a slave was considered bad, and zina is considered bad. However, zina was the worse of the two evils.
3. In Surah Nahal verse 106, Allah most high allowed us to utter words of disbelief when faced with life threatening situations.
“…Anyone who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters Unbelief, except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in Faith..
So it is also clear here that Allah allowed the believers to utter words of kufr in circumstances where his life is threatened or even in situations less than that but that would cause him great difficulty. So the Muslim here would choose the lesser of the evils. The first evil is the threat of death, torture, or extreme hardship and the second evil is uttering kufr whilst your heart is full of faith.
4. Salautil Khowf (the prayer of fear): dhohr prayer is generally four rakat; when the Muslims are in the situation of war, they do not have to pray in one jamat – they can make two jamats, whereby one guards the other whilst they pray and then the two groups swap. In addition to that, the four rakats are reduced to two. So here you can see when the circumstances change, the hokum (ruling) changes also.
The enemy attacking is one evil and the second is shortening the prayer from four to two. Allah allowed us to take the second of shortening the prayer, which would not be allowed otherwise.
5. In Surah al Baqara verse 73 – Allah most high explains we are allowed to eat dead meat if we are forced by necessity:
“He hath only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that on which any other name hath been invoked besides that of Allah. But if one is forced by necessity, without wilful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits, then he is guiltless. For Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”
And in Surah al Anaam verse 119:
“Why should ye not eat of (meats) on which Allah’s name hath been pronounced when He hath explained to you in detail what is forbidden to you – except under compulsion of necessity?”
So one evil is eating dead meat and the second is the compulsion. So the lesser of the to evils is eating the dead meat.
Allah says in Surah al Hajj verse 78,
“…He has chosen you, and has imposed no difficulties on you in religion…”
6. Ibn Nuaas mentioned in page 100 of his book ‘Tanbee al Gaafileen..’
“If you saw a man waiting to rape a women but he found some wine and became busy drinking it and you knew if you were to prevent him from the wine he would stop drinking but would then catch the woman and you knew you would be unable to stop that, then you would not stop him from drinking wine in order to prevent a greater harm.”
Here you can see the great scholar Ibn Nuaas putting the principle in practice.
7. Ibn Taymiah mentioned in his fatwa
…that once he and his students went out to forbid the evil as they conducted this regularly. When they were out one day, they came across some tatar (enemies of Muslims who would rampage, pillage and kill Muslims). They were all sleeping and drunk. Ibn Taymiah’s students said let us take them now, kill them all; they are all asleep, we could take them by surprise. Ibn Taymiah said no, let us head back to our city quickly without them awakening. When they got back, they asked him why he had ordered that and he said because fighting and killing them was an obligation but what they would do to the nearby village afterwards would be far worse than what we would have done to them.
So this principle of taking the lesser of the two evils is an important principle to be used in all fields especially in regards to politics, jihad and society. However, the benefits and harms must be weighed up in the light of the shariah
Taking the lesser of the two evils is an established principle from the principles of usool of fiqh, and there are conditions which must be fulfilled before it is exercised from them:
- One should not deliberately place oneself in such a situation where one has to use such a principle, as it is disliked for one to embark upon any prohibited matter.
- The principle is only to be used when there is no way of avoiding one of two prohibitions.
- Then the least evil one is chosen as the one which is least harmful and least in opposition to the shariah.
- When the circumstances which dictate this principle to be used disappears, then the acting upon it must be stopped immediately according to another principle: “what is permitted in necessity is rendered nullified with the disappearance of the neccessity”
- The benefit from acting upon the lesser of the two evils must be greater than the evil which is trying to be avoided.
- There must be no other way to prevent the evil before acting upon the lesser of it.
- One must use the minimum of the evil in order to fulfill the necessity
Indeed, I could cite many more evidences to prove the validity of this principle, however, time does not allow me to, but this should suffice any intelligent person.
And Allah knows best.