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Last Updated: 2012/07/28
Summary of question
What is the criterion for an action to be recommended and desirable?
question
What is the criterion for an action to be recommended and desirable? Does seeing it in a hadith book become a license for performing it as a recommended action?
Concise answer
Every action that a person performs has a specific ruling in Islam. The various actions that we perform and which are related to our duty (to Allah) are divided into five categories: Wajib, Haram, Mustahab, Makruh, and Mubah. This classification is based on certain criteria existing in every Islamic rule. That is to say the intensity or weakness of the expediency or evil which exists in either doing an act or avoiding it has led to the categorization.  Obviously, there is a need for a credible and corroborating evidence for any of the five categories of Islamic laws but there is a principle known among jurisprudents and other Muslim scholars as "tasamuh fi adillah al-Sunan" (compromise in the arguments regarding prophetic traditions). This principle is derived from authentic and well-known reports existing in our textual sources and known as "akhbar man balagh" or reports acted upon with the intention of gaining reward. Based on these reports, if a narration implies that a certain act incurs reward and there is nothing to indicate that it is forbidden and one performs such an act with the intention of attaining its reward, he will get it.
It is pertinent to mention that some scholars have also stated that such an act is recommended to do. They have said, "If the 'man-balagh' reports prove desirability of a certain act, the desirability of that act will be proved." This opinion has been criticized by some other jurisprudents. They argue that the individual performs the act at God's behest in the hope of gaining some reward.  He will achieve the reward owing to divine grace, not because the act itself incurs reward. And if the act itself does not have any reward, then there will be no reward proved for it.
 
Detailed Answer
The various actions that we perform and which are related to our duty (to Allah) are divided into five categories: wajib, haram, mustahab, makruh, and mubah. This classification is based on certain criteria existing in every Islamic rule. The criterion for an obligatory rule (wajib) is a strong expediency that has reached its pinnacle point and which cannot be skipped. The criterion for the rule of prohibition (haram) is an extreme evil which the Legislator (God or His Prophet (S)) does not allow us to do. The criterion for a recommended rule (mustahab) is an expediency which has not reached the pinnacle point and it is therefore such that it can be skipped, although it is better to do it. The criterion for the rule of abominableness or undesirability (makruh) is an evil which has not reached a high degree of obscenity and it is, therefore, permissible to do it but it is better not to do it. As for mubah, it is a rule which is neither preferred to do nor preferred to abandon. According to the Legislator, there is no preference in doing or skipping it.
Obviously, if there is a reliable and authentic narration which explicitly state that something is desirable[1] or makes reference to the degree of something being good,[2] it would then be recommended to perform that act but it is necessary to note that if a narration with a poor chain of transmission indicates that something incurs reward, it can be said with the help of "man-balag" reports that God shall give the doer of that act the reward promised in the narration, even though the desirability of that act may not be proved due to the report being poor.
To make a long story short, there is a principle known among jurisprudents and other Muslim scholars as "tasamuh fi adillah al-Sunan"[3] (compromise in the arguments regarding prophetic traditions). This principle is derived from authentic and well-known reports existing in our textual sources and known as "akhbar man balagh"[4] or reports acted upon with the intention of gaining reward. When it comes to the purport of the narration, the jurisprudents have different views. The technical discussion concerning the narration should take place in its respective place but we would say briefly that some scholars are of the view that if the 'man-balagh' reports are added to these poor reports, the desirability of this action is proved albeit with the argument that 'man-balagh' reports prove the reward for the deeds which weak reports claim to have reward. Such an alleged reward is also a sign of being desirable and recommended.[5] Some others accept the significations of these narrations about having reward only. They say: "The purport of these reports is that God gives the doer of this act the reward out of His Grace not because that act actually becomes recommended.[6]
Therefore, the narrations which have been mentioned in du'a and ziarat books and which encourage us to do certain acts, for example, it has been said that if a person recites a certain du'a (supplication) during wudhu, or recites a certain zikr (recital) before going to bed, or recites a certain du'a on the night of Qadr or say such and such words while visiting the graves of the Imams (AS), he will get so and so reward; In such cases, there is no problem in acting upon such narrations. In fact, based on the judgment of sound reason and authentic narrations, the doer will be treated with benevolence and grace.  Of course, two conditions should be met in order for him to act according to narrations and receive the reward. One, there should be no reason or evidence showing that the action is haram or abominable. Second, one should perform that act with the intention of attaining its reward.[7]
 

[1] It is understood through this method that because of expediency existing in this action it is preferable to do it. (In fact, the intensity of the expediency is revealed through discovering the hukm.)
[2] Sometimes learning about the degree of the criterion can also help us understand whether something is recommended or obligatory or abominable and so forth. In fact, the rule is discovered through discovering the intensity of expediency. However, in this case, there is a need for a reliable proof since traditions which are not reliable and authentic cannot lead us to the Legislator's view.
[3] It is necessary to note that some scholars consider this principle to be jurisprudential and some others are of the view that it is a principle discussed within Ilm al-Usul (i.e. the science of the Principles of Jurisprudence).
[4] Such as the following tradition reported in Al-Kafi, vol.2, p. 87 where it says:
"عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ مَرْوَانَ قَالَ سَمِعْتُ أَبَا جَعْفَرٍ عليه السلام يَقُولُ مَنْ بَلَغَهُ ثَوَابٌ مِنَ اللَّهِ عَلَى عَمَلٍ فَعَمِلَ ذَلِكَ الْعَمَلَ الْتِمَاسَ ذَلِكَ الثَّوَابِ أُوتِيَهُ وَ إِنْ لَمْ يَكُنِ الْحَدِيثُ كَمَا بَلَغَه."
Imam Baqir, peace be upon him, said: Whoever gets a reward from Allah for performing an act and he performs it in the hope of attaining the reward, God will give him that reward, although that tradition may not be as he has received it."
[5] See: Musavi, Sayyid Hasan, Muntaha al-Usul, vol.2, p. 213, Basirati Book Store:
"و لا شك أن ترتب الثواب على عمل دليل على استحبابه و المثبت لهذا الاستحباب هو عنوان البلوغ سواء كان بالخبر الموثق أو الضعيف فيكون خبر الضعيف حجة على الاستحباب كالخبر الصحيح و الموثق... ".
Rasail wa Masail (by late Naraqi), vol.1, p. 107; Ibid, vol.3, p. 104.  However, because of compromise (tasamu) in the arguments concerning traditions which are well-known Shiite scholars, and which can also be deciphered from authentic traditions, the desirability of this prayer can be proved with these reports.
[6] See: Khoei, Sayyid Abul Qasim, Mesbah al-Usul, vol.2, p. 320, Dawar Bookstore, fifth edition, 1417 A.H.
"فان مفادها مجرد الاخبار عن فضل (اللَّه تعالى) و أنه سبحانه بفضله و رحمته يعطي الثواب الّذي بلغ العامل، و إن كان غير مطابق للواقع، فهي - كما ترى - غير ناظرة إلى العمل، و أنه يصير مستحبا لأجل طرو عنوان البلوغ، و لا إلى إسقاط شرائط...".
[7] See index:  "The Validity of Du'a Books, question, 1364 (site: 1389).
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