The extent to which human ignorance can be regarded as excuse to exempt a person from sin and accountability in matters of Islamic Law is a matter that scholars have explored in depth. It is also matter about which they have expressed widely divergent opinions. Some people make ignorance a valid excuse for anything. Others never accept ignorance as an excuse, regardless of the circumstances. The true and balanced approach, of course, lies somewhere in between. This is what we will seek to uncover in this article.
Ignorance, as a term, can be defined as a person being devoid of knowledge. More precisely, it is to be lacking knowledge that one is supposed to be acquainted with. People, naturally, start out life in a state of ignorance. In fact, at the beginning of any pursuit, the person will be in a state of ignorance concerning it and will have to do what is necessary to dispel that ignorance.
Allah says: “And Allah brings you fourth from the wombs of your mothers knowing nothing.” [Surah al-Nahl: 78]
Once a man gave to the Prophet (peace be upon him) a flask of wine as a gift. The Prophet (peace be upon him) asked the man: “Do you know that Allah has prohibited this?” The man replied that he did not know of its prohibition." [Sahih Muslim (1579)]
The man had not yet come to know that wine had been prohibited, so he was not blamed or rebuked. This hadith shows us that a person who really does not know something is exempted from sin.
Allah says: “And we would not punish a people until after we had sent to them a Messenger.” [Surah al-Isra: 15]
However, this is the case for someone who has truly not received knowledge. Someone who is able to learn and simply neglects to do so is accountable for the ignorance that he has on account of his negligence. This is stated as a general axiom of Islamic Law: “A legally accountable person can not use ignorance as a defense if he had been able to overcome his ignorance.”
This is because Allah has sent his Messengers to us and has required all of us to learn the Message and then to act upon it. Allah obligates us to know what is required of us and to act accordingly.
On this basis, a new convert who has just embraced Islam will be excused for not knowing that prayer is enjoined upon him or for thinking that drinking wine is alright. He will not be considered an unbeliever on account of it. However, if that person is properly presented the evidence for these matters and still insists that prayer is not obligatory or that wine is lawful, then the consensus of the Muslims is that he becomes an unbeliever.
Ibn Taymiyah says:
There are some people who are ignorant of these rulings and have an excuse to be ignorant. Therefore, no one should be declared an unbeliever until the proof is established to him by way of conveying the message to Him, since Allah says: “…Messengers who gave glad tidings and warnings, sothat humanity will have an argument against Allah after the Messengers.” [Surah al-Nisa: 165]
Therefore, if a person accepts Islam and does not know that prayer is incumbent upon him or does not know that wine is prohibited, then he will not fall into unbelief on either account. Likewise, he ill not be punishable for it until after the scriptural evidence has reached him…
Possibly the clearest proof that ignorance can be a legal excuse is the following hadith where the Prophet (peace be upon him) said [Sahîh al-Bukhari (7506) and Sahih Muslim (2756):
A man who had never done any good deed before instructed his family to burn him when he dies and to scatter his ashes half on the land and half in the sea. He said: “If Allah gets hold of me, He will punish me as he has never punished anyone else before.”
When the man died (and his instructions were carried out), Allah ordered the land and sea to collect his remains together. Then Allah asked him: “Why did you do that?” The man said: “Out of your fear O Lord!” So Allah forgave him.
Ibn Taymiyah comments on this hadîth, saying:
This man was ignorant of Allah’s ability to bring him back together, He had hoped that Allah would not resurrect him because he was ignorant of what had been revealed regarding the resurrection. Nevertheless, since he believed in Allah, His commands and prohibitions, and His promises and warnings, and since he feared His punishment, and since his ignorance was in a matter about which the proof that would have made him an unbeliever had never reached him, Allah forgave him.
Today, we live in an age where the means to disseminate the message of Islam throughout the word are so varied and so advanced as to make the world as if it were a single country. Nevertheless, there are still many cases of ignorance where that ignorance is excusable. This is because there is a scarcity of knowledgeable people who put their knowledge into practice, while at the same time there are numerous people who are calling what is wrong, who are experts at making falsehood and unbelief appealing to the masses and are equally expert at disseminating misinformation.
Indeed, Ibn Taymiyah lamented a similar state of affairs centuries ago. In spite of the fact that many of the people were engaged in all sorts of heresies and false beliefs, he did not declare them to be unbelievers, but pardoned them on account of their ignorance:
Such people are plentiful today, and this is because of the scarcity of those who disseminate knowledge and call people to faith. There is an absence of the Islamic Message in most countries. Most of the people do not have with them enough of the Message – and of the Prophet’s legacy – to realize their guidance. It has not even reached many of them. In such times when the Message is absent, a man benefits from whatever little faith he has. Allah pardons for someone who has not had the proof established against him what he does not pardon for someone who has.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “A time will come when the people will not know prayer, fasting , or either pilgrimage, except for some old man or woman among them. They will say: ‘We had known our fathers to say ‘There is no God except Allah’.”
The narrator of the hadith, Hudhayfah, was asked: “What good will saying ‘There is no God except Allah’ be to them?” Hudhayfah replied: “It will save them from Hell.” [Sunan Ibn Majah and Mustadrak al-Hakim. It is authenticated by al-Albani in al-Silsilah al-Sahihah (78)]
Though we maintain that ignorance is an excuse in matters of faith and disbelief, this does not mean that it is accepted from everyone who cites ignorance as a defence The eminent jurist, al-Shafi`î said: “There are some things that no sane adult can possibly be ignorant of – like the five prayers, and that the fast of Ramadan is due to Allah, and that the Pilgrimage is obligatory upon one who is able to do so, and that the Zakah tax is due on their wealth, and that fornication, murder, theft, and wine are unlawful, and other such matters.”
There are various factor to consider when considering the excitability of someone’s ignorance. One of these is the nature of the matter that the person is ignorant about – is it something obscure or generally well known? The person’s state must also be taken into consideration. Is he new to Islam? Did he live his life in some remote area? The social circumstances must also be considered to determine whether or not someone in his environment would be likely to know the matter in question.
With respect to the essential tenets of faith, they are set forth in the Quran, so anyone who has access to the Quran and who can read and understand it would not be excused for ignorance in those matters.
May Allah give us success and bless us with beneficial knowledge.
Sheikh Abd Allah b. Muhammad al-Tayyar, professor at al-Qasim University