Examine which [deed] most benefits your heart, and do it.
—Imām Aḥmed bin Ḥanbal
There are times when we are faced with having to choose between two mutually exclusive meritorious actions. The general principle is that the action with the highest benefit is given precedence. So:
- When one of the actions is obligatory [wājibah] and the other recommended [sunnah], precedence is given to the obligatory. An example of this is when an obligatory prayer begins it is not permissible to initiate a prayer that is voluntary.
- When both actions are obligatory, the most obligatory one is given precedence. So, one of the five daily prayers is given precedence over a prayer one that has been made obligatory through an oath.
- When both actions are recommended [masnūnah], precedence is given to the most meritorious. So, the sunnah prayers associated with specific times [al-sunan al-rātibah] are given precedence over general voluntary prayers; and something that also benefits others is given precedence over things that benefit only oneself.
There are factors that sometimes change the order of precedence, including:
- The act with lower precedence specific for a given time or place, such as dhikr – instead of reciting Qurʾan – while bowing, prostrating, and moving during prayer.
- The act with lower precedence including a benefit not included in the act of higher precedence, such as spreading harmony between people, and being beneficial to others.
- The act with higher precedence resulting in something negative that the act of lower precedence is free of.
- The act with lower precedence being more beneficial to the heart. When Imam Ahmad was asked about some performing deeds he replied, “Examine which one most benefits your heart, and do it.”
And Allah knows best.
[n.b. This is an old post from the defunct
hanbali.org. The source for the material is ʿAbd al-Raḥmān bin Naṣir bin ʿAbd Allāh al-Saʿdī, Al-Qawāʿid al-fiqhiyyah, (Dār Ibn al-Jawzī, 1423AH): pp22-23.]