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Why do Muslims place so much emphasis on halal/haram?

Just perusing some of the questions on this site, people are wondering about food, trading, gambling, musical instruments, ...

Is it possible to be a Muslim and live one’s life without having to worry if everything is halal or haram? Can a Muslim make any decisions of their own?

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Good question for non-Muslims ... :) –  MYamanT Dec 6 '12 at 21:51
    
Ethics are important in all cultures. The Halal/Haram distinction is important in that regard. But I've noticed it often does become nit-picking. Rather than relating to the larger issues. This may have to do with poor quality Islamic education. –  Mozibur Ullah Dec 7 '12 at 8:57
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4 Answers

In the name of Allah, Most Beneficent, Most Merciful

It is not only muslims, people of every religion give emphasis to halaal and haraam.

  1. Halaal is just an Arabic word for what is lawful and encouraged.
  2. Haraam is just an Arabic word for what is sinful and prohibited.

As pointed out, these two are just the extremities. A lot of categories and subcategories come between these two (read this and this).

There is no religion on this world without these two key aspects. Not only religions, the law of every country/place is based on these.

But still, we muslims agree that we give more emphasis to the two aspects 'allowed' or 'prohibited' even for small things. The reason is the fear of getting astray through minor sins.

Beware of Shaitan, for the safety of your faith. He has lost all hope that he will ever be able to lead you astray in big things, so beware of following him in small things.
The Farewell Sermon.

If a person chooses to live without these two key ethical aspects, it is as if he has chosen to live without the knowledge of what is right or wrong. This kind of person can niether become a Muslim, nor a Christian, nor a Jew, nor a follower of any other religion. Not just limited to the religions, if a person refuses to know what is Halaal or Haraam (right or wrong), he will niether become a good citizen, nor a good father, nor a good mother, nor any other responsible person. He will become someone who has nothing to do with this world and with whom the world has nothing to do.


Can a Muslim make any decisions on their own?

By 'decisions', I assume that you are asking about the halaal-haraam decisions. A simple answer is YES, The human race is set free to decide whatever they want. But again, you are answerable for your decisions:

... And whatever the Messenger has given you - take; and what he has forbidden you - refrain from. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is severe in penalty.
Qur'an 59:7.


ۚ وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ حَكِيمٌ (And Allah is the All-Knower, the Wise)

اللَّهُمَّ انْفَعْنِي بِمَا عَلَّمْـتَنِي وَ عَلِّمْنِي مَا يَنْفَعُنِي

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I'll address the rest of your question shortly. –  Tabrez Ahmed Dec 7 '12 at 8:55
    
@Timwi, Hope that answers your question –  Tabrez Ahmed Dec 7 '12 at 13:59
    
+1 for good philosophical view –  Ali Dec 7 '12 at 14:26
    
Systems of law are not black and white like this. Not everything that is lawful is automatically encouraged. Not everything that is unlawful is persecuted with the same penalty (most jurisdictions distinguish misdemeanours, felonies and crimes and still have ranges of severity within those). As for the second part: if everyone were free to decide for themselves whether anything were halaal, they wouldn’t need to ask about it on an Islam Q&A site. Halaal specifically means “permitted according to Islam”, i.e. it is pre-decided for you. –  Timwi Dec 7 '12 at 19:21
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@Timwi, Islam too is not black and white, other colors like makrooh, mustahab, etc. too exist. Please have a look at this and this. People who don't have knowledge of these different colors generally ask whether a thing is allowed or not (halaal or haraam). Then they get an answer: mustahab, makrooh or haraam or any other category. –  Tabrez Ahmed Dec 8 '12 at 6:27
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Things have been codified in the Islamic Law by Allah in the Qur'an to last till the end of time. Whenever we perform an act, it is with the intention of qurbatan ila 'llah - gaining proximity of Allah. This is achieved through purification of the spirit. A human being is composed of body and spirit, and when God legislates something to be forbidden to us, it is because of His wisdom - that it is going to corrupt our spirit (either in addition to negative effects on our body or alone) and lead us away from the path of Allah and onto the path of the ShayTan. This expressly defeats the purpose of adhering to the religion of Islam, which in itself means 'submission' - submission to the One and Only God. Any rebellion in terms of not abiding by the rules means inviting the punishment of Hell fire and similarly abiding by the rules means being delivered the promise of Paradise. We are told this world is a test for us and the results are going to be declared in the Next; hence the necessity of living life by the Law.

I will list here a few verses from the Qur'an for the things you have referred to in your question, to show why Halal and Haram should matter to a Muslim:

FOOD:

[Surat al-An`aam 6:145] Say: I do not find in that which has been revealed to me anything forbidden for an eater to eat of except that it be what has died of itself, or blood poured forth, or flesh of swine-- for that surely is unclean-- or that which is a transgression, other than (the name of) Allah having been invoked on it; but whoever is driven to necessity, not desiring nor exceeding the limit, then surely your Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.

[Surat al-Ma'idah 5:3,4] Forbidden to you is that which dies of itself, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that on which any other name than that of Allah has been invoked, and the strangled (animal) and that beaten to death, and that killed by a fall and that killed by being smitten with the horn, and that which wild beasts have eaten, except what you slaughter, and what is sacrificed on stones set up (for idols) and that you divide by the arrows; that is a transgression. This day have those who disbelieve despaired of your religion, so fear them not, and fear Me. This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed My favor on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion; but whoever is compelled by hunger, not inclining willfully to sin, then surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

They ask you as to what is allowed to them. Say: The good things are allowed to you, and what you have taught the beasts and birds of prey, training them to hunt-- you teach them of what Allah has taught you-- so eat of that which they catch for you and mention the name of Allah over it; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah; surely Allah is swift in reckoning.

GAMBLING (here it is clarified that the success of a person is tied with their abiding by the rule):

[Surat al-Ma'idah 5:90] O you who believe! Intoxicants and games of chance and (sacrificing to) stones set up and (dividing by) arrows are only an uncleanness, the Shaitan's work; shun it therefore that you may be successful.

TRADING (difference made between usury and trading, and how to conduct trade):

[Surat al-Baqarah 2:275] Those who swallow down usury cannot arise except as one whom the Shaytan has prostrated by (his) touch does rise. That is because they say, trading is only like usury, while Allah has allowed trading and forbidden usury. To whomsoever then the admonition has come from his Lord, then he desists, he shall have what has already passed, and his affair is in the hands of Allah; and whoever returns (to it)-- these are the inmates of the fire; they shall abide in it.

[Surat al-Shu`ara' 26:181-83] Give a full measure and be not of those who diminish; And weigh (things) with a right balance, And do not wrong men of their things, and do not act corruptly in the earth, making mischief.

The issue of musical instruments is not laid out clearly in the Qur'an. However verses alluding to either idle talk or fooling people through the voice, have been explained in traditions to mean singing and using musical instruments to capture the attention of the people.

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Imam Sadiq --peace be upon him-- was asked about a verse in which Allah talks about those with sick hearts. He answered that the heart is sick when someone tends to wrong and dislikes committing the good deeds. And this can also be seen from here:

وَلَوِ اتَّبَعَ الْحَقُّ أَهْوَاءَهُمْ لَفَسَدَتِ السَّمَاوَاتُ وَالْأَرْضُ وَمَن فِيهِنَّ بَلْ أَتَيْنَاهُم بِذِكْرِهِمْ فَهُمْ عَن ذِكْرِهِم مُّعْرِضُونَ

If the Truth had been in accord with their desires, truly the heavens and the earth, and all beings therein would have been in confusion and corruption! Nay, We have sent them their admonition, but they turn away from their admonition. [23:71]

And heart in Islam is very much close to the concept of intellect, rather than a limb in the breast. Indeed heart is the base for intellectual power like brain is the base for mind and thinking:

أَفَلَمْ يَسِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَتَكُونَ لَهُمْ قُلُوبٌ يَعْقِلُونَ بِهَا أَوْ آذَانٌ يَسْمَعُونَ بِهَا فَإِنَّهَا لَا تَعْمَى الْأَبْصَارُ وَلَٰكِن تَعْمَى الْقُلُوبُ الَّتِي فِي الصُّدُورِ

So have they not traveled through the earth and have hearts by which to reason and ears by which to hear? For indeed, it is not eyes that are blinded, but blinded are the hearts which are within the breasts. [22:46]

That heart is called to be within breast also shows that the breast here is not the breast as a part of body, like Moses --peace be upon him-- asked Allah in [20:25] that "... رَبِّ اشْرَحْ لِي صَدْرِي" which implies "... My Lord, expand for me my breast". Although the similarity of names and relations show a relation between the heart in Quran and the limb within the breast, but that needs another discussion, here we only aim to say if Allah talks about people with sick hearts what He means, that this disease will affect their reasoning, e.g. they would not be able to recognize reason from justification and the fallacy, or that their reasoning will always have a preferred direction, inclination toward wrongness.

Imam Husain --peace be upon him-- on the other hand has advised us to follow and obey the rules of religion for the health recovery of our sick hearts. Also note that the holy Quran introduces the guidances of Quran as healing for our hearts:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ قَدْ جَاءَتْكُم مَّوْعِظَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَشِفَاءٌ لِّمَا فِي الصُّدُورِ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةٌ لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ

O mankind! there hath come to you a direction from your Lord and a healing for the (diseases) in your hearts,- and for those who believe, a guidance and a Mercy. [10:57]

وَنُنَزِّلُ مِنَ الْقُرْآنِ مَا هُوَ شِفَاءٌ وَرَحْمَةٌ لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ ۙ وَلَا يَزِيدُ الظَّالِمِينَ إِلَّا خَسَارًا

We send down (stage by stage) in the Qur'an that which is a healing and a mercy to those who believe: to the unjust it causes nothing but loss after loss. [since the believers would obey and the unjust people would disobey and withstand the rules and guidance of Allah] [17:82]

When someone has a healthy heart he will recognize the good and bad based on Fitrah (فطرة), the very intrinsic nature of human being, or according to its definition from Quran:

... فِطْرَتَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ ذَٰلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

... Allah's handiwork according to the pattern on which He has made mankind: no change (let there be) in the work (wrought) by Allah: that is the standard Religion: but most among mankind understand not. [30:30]

That is, the whole list of "goods and bads" is carved in our Fitrah, and this Fitrah will never change through the course of time, from one generation to another, as long as someone is born as human his Fitrah would be the same, although be covered and not visible when our heart get sick. However, most among the mankind don't know this very clear fact, they have always discrepancies of ideas and understandings because we have lost our Fitrah deep in our insides. We just cannot see it. We cannot feel our deep hate of any wrong deed and our pure and deep like of the good deeds since we are sick. A sick person may smell a very good smelling flower and yet be teased of the smell, but that's because he is sick, and if he recovers his health he will again find that smelling one of a very good kind. Therefore, intrinsically there is no need to many rules and remarks at all. In another Hadeeth it is stated that once a man came from the desert to the holy prophet --peace be upon him-- and asked to teach him making Vozu' (cleaning required before prayer, which implies acquiring illumination before to visit Allah in the prayer). The holy prophet only told him to wash his face and then his hands, and then wipe over his head and feet. The man left and the prophet's companion gathered around the holy prophet to ask why he didn't tell the man any among many details of making Vozu'? The holy prophet --peace be upon him-- asked his companions to go after the man and see how he cleans himself for prayer. They went and saw he made Vozu' exactly correct with all its details. This shows the man's heart was not sick so that he could easily do this base on his Fitrah and intellectual power. Also let me bring you another example from Quran. The Israelite were ordered to sacrifice a cow. They didn't want to do so on their own will unless they have no other choice to do so, so that if it is not quite necessary then maybe they will be let free not to kill the cow; so they were all the times making excuses by asking about many details, its color and blow blow, until Allah gave them all the details and they had no other excuse to withstand the order of Allah, so that they sacrificed the cow but then Allah, the narrator who knows all the apparent and hidden facts, adds that they were going not to kill the cow if they could!

وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِقَوْمِهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَأْمُرُكُمْ أَن تَذْبَحُوا بَقَرَةً ۖ قَالُوا أَتَتَّخِذُنَا هُزُوًا ۖ قَالَ أَعُوذُ بِاللَّهِ أَنْ أَكُونَ مِنَ الْجَاهِلِينَ / قَالُوا ادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّن لَّنَا مَا هِيَ ۚ قَالَ إِنَّهُ يَقُولُ إِنَّهَا بَقَرَةٌ لَّا فَارِضٌ وَلَا بِكْرٌ عَوَانٌ بَيْنَ ذَٰلِكَ ۖ فَافْعَلُوا مَا تُؤْمَرُونَ / قَالُوا ادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّن لَّنَا مَا لَوْنُهَا ۚ قَالَ إِنَّهُ يَقُولُ إِنَّهَا بَقَرَةٌ صَفْرَاءُ فَاقِعٌ لَّوْنُهَا تَسُرُّ النَّاظِرِينَ / قَالُوا ادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّن لَّنَا مَا هِيَ إِنَّ الْبَقَرَ تَشَابَهَ عَلَيْنَا وَإِنَّا إِن شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَمُهْتَدُونَ / قَالَ إِنَّهُ يَقُولُ إِنَّهَا بَقَرَةٌ لَّا ذَلُولٌ تُثِيرُ الْأَرْضَ وَلَا تَسْقِي الْحَرْثَ مُسَلَّمَةٌ لَّا شِيَةَ فِيهَا ۚ قَالُوا الْآنَ جِئْتَ بِالْحَقِّ ۚ فَذَبَحُوهَا وَمَا كَادُوا يَفْعَلُونَ

And remember Moses said to his people: "Allah commands that ye sacrifice a heifer." They said: "Makest thou a laughing-stock of us?" He said: "Allah save me from being an ignorant (fool)!" / They said: "Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us what (heifer) it is!" He said; "He says: The heifer should be neither too old nor too young, but of middling age. Now do what ye are commanded!" / They said: "Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us Her colour." He said: "He says: A fawn-coloured heifer, pure and rich in tone, the admiration of beholders!" / They said: "Beseech on our behalf Thy Lord to make plain to us what she is: To us are all heifers alike: We wish indeed for guidance, if Allah wills." / He said: "He says: A heifer not trained to till the soil or water the fields; sound and without blemish." They said: "Now hast thou brought the truth." Then they offered her in sacrifice, but not with good-will [and it was close to refuse doing so for another excuse]. [2:67-71]

So you see, many of us are strayed and need such details of rules to remain on line! The holy prophet --peace be upon him and his family-- and his household --peace be upon them-- needed not such details. You can find witnesses for that e.g. in the Mi'raaj Hadeeth (حدیث المعراج) which states how the holy prophet learned to do the prayer (and now prayer is the mi'raaj of any believer: الصلوٰة معراج المؤمن); also you can read about the first Surah of Quran (Al-Hamd) how the holy prophet learned it (note the name Al-Hamd and the holy prophet's name Ahmad to better understand the situation); also you can read about how Imam Ali --peace be upon him-- learned a thousand of things in one night from the holy prophet --peace be upon him and his family-- from each of them he then learned a thousand of things further; also you can read about any previous prophet --peace be upon him-- how they were obeying Allah based on a very small amount of information (not a very detailed command) and particularly I grab your attention to the story of two sons of Adam --peace be upon him-- when they were each to present a sacrifice for Allah:

وَاتْلُ عَلَيْهِمْ نَبَأَ ابْنَيْ آدَمَ بِالْحَقِّ إِذْ قَرَّبَا قُرْبَانًا فَتُقُبِّلَ مِنْ أَحَدِهِمَا وَلَمْ يُتَقَبَّلْ مِنَ الْآخَرِ قَالَ لَأَقْتُلَنَّكَ قَالَ إِنَّمَا يَتَقَبَّلُ اللَّهُ مِنَ الْمُتَّقِينَ

Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to Allah): It was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter: "Be sure I will slay thee." "Surely," said the former, "Allah doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous. [5:27]

and read about the story how different were their sacrifices. Qabeel used his astray heart and embellished his desire for it to be admittable with a simple justification that "Allah needs not my sacrifice but I need my best stuff for myself" while Habeel used his healthy heart and did what was asked from him by God in the best way that he could, so his sacrifice was accepted and the rest of story. This is almost the same how all the men of God obey Allah through healthy hearts with good will and the best that they could without any justification and giving a chance for any wrong desire to affect their behavior. But anyway, they are they and we are we. We could be like them if our hearts were not sick. If Allah and obeying Him was our first concern, if the Hereafter was great to us and Dunya was less important to us. In another Hadeeth from the holy prophet --peace be upon him and his family-- "... دائکم الذنوب و دوائکم الإستغفار" which implies your disease is your wrong deeds and your cure is asking for forgiveness.

Conclusion

To conclude this answer, our hearts are sick due to our wrong deeds and intentions, but if we recover by asking for forgiveness and obeying Allah and His prophet --peace be upon him and his family--, detail by detail (so that we need the details now), then we would not need such details after the health recovery of our hearts, as the details would themselves be quite clear to us through our Fitrah. There is a very famous statement (at least to Shia Muslims) that clarifies this conclusion best: "کلما امر به الشرع امر به العقل و کلما امر به العقل امر به الشرع" which implies anything that Islam orders to also intellectual power will prescribe and anything that intellectual power orders to also Islam prescribes. And of course now you know that the intellectual power is based in heart and the statements to be true needs the heart to be healthy!

Hope you have gotten your answer. Godspeed.

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A bit late but:

  • Halal and Haram is just as important as Legal and Illegal...
  • Before doing anything you want to make it sure that it doesn't harm yourself or others ;)
  • Muslims believe in God and therefore do what he asked them to do and restrain from what he prohibited with a full confidence on his choice, because he is the Omniscient

:) Cheers~

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Welcome, nice answer! Having references and examples or listing your points are recommended! So I took the liberty to do it! you may add any references you have. –  Bludream Apr 5 at 11:31
    
“make it sure that it doesn't harm yourself or others” — Do you have any idea how this sounds to someone who freshly remembers the Danish cartoons episode? –  Timwi Apr 6 at 14:33
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