How prohibitions due to preservation of life can be a cliché

Earlier today I wrote that

“It is unlawful to do X due to preservation of life (ḥifz al-nafs)” has become a cliché.

Temper it by asking what happens if we don’t do X.

People sometimes comment that I should explain some of the shorter things I write, so I thought I would take the opportunity to do that here.

The gist of what I wrote is that it is my opinion that preservation of life is a justification that is often abused.

When people ask legal scholars about something involving risk to life or limb, it often prompts an immediate response that it is unlawful since preservation of life (ḥifẓ al-nafs) is obligatory. Preservation of life is the second of the five universals that the Sharīʿah considers obligatory to safeguard. Anything that puts one of these universals at risk is prohibited.

While the underlying reasoning is sound insofar as the Sharīʿah considers it obligatory to safeguard religion, life, the mind, progeny and property (and in that order), it fails to take into account some of the nuances involved when applying this sort of reasoning. It treats all risks as legally significant, even though risky consequences that are imaginary or unlikely are typically of no legal consideration. It also focuses on the risks related to performing an act while ignoring the risks of its omission. Ignoring these nuances can lead to claims that actions are unlawful without having proper justification to do so.

Imagine the following scenario:

Aḥmed plans a trip to the hospital. To get there he must travel through a shady neighborhood. There is no alternative path to the hospital. A storm is coming in, so there is an ever-so-slight possibility of being struck by lightning. Aḥmed suffers from arcotophobia. Although there are no bears in his vicinity, he is always worried about being attacked. Aḥmed wants to know the legal ruling of his trip to the hospital.

If we treat all risks as significant, then the risks of being struck by lightning or attacked by bears would be enough to prohibit his trip. But this is incorrect, since the risks in this scenario are very unlikely or imaginary.

Take the same scenario, but with the addition that Aḥmed may get beaten up and injured while walking through the shady neighborhood. Now we have a risk that is likely enough to be legally significant and render his trip prohibited.

Now, for a third scenario, add that Aḥmed is already late for a vital treatment at the hospital. If we look only at the risks related to Aḥmed walking through the neighborhood, they would be enough to render his trip prohibited. But if we also look at the [longer-term] risks related to him not walking through the neighborhood, the prohibition no longer seems justified.

What’s the point? Asking about actions involving risk to life or limb tends to prompt an immediate prohibition due to the obligation to preserve of life (ḥifẓ al-nafs). This prohibition may be unjustified when there is a failure to take into account the nuances involved in this sort of reasoning. Examples include failing to take into account (1) which risks are considered legally significant and which are not; and (2) the risks of not performing the action.

This puts some flesh on what I wrote earlier today. There’s more to it.