On the authority of Abu Saees Saad ibn Maalik ibn Sinaan al-Khudri, RadhiAllahu Anhu: The Messenger of Allah, SallAllahu Alayhi Wa Sallam, said:
“There is not to be any causing of harm nor is there to be any reciprocating of harm.”[Recorded in ibn Maajah]
“There is not to be any causing of harm nor is there to be any reciprocating of harm.”
This unequivocal statement of the Prophet, SallAllahu Alayhi Wa Sallam, tells us that all forms of harming others and all forms of wrongly reciprocating harm are illegal and prohibited in Islam.
The scholars have broken down ‘harm’ into two categories. The first category includes acts that only harm others. The second category includes acts that bring some benefit, but may also cause harm to others. These two categories will be discussed separately in detail.
Acts That Are Only Meant to Bring About Harm to Others
An act that only brings about harm is an evil act that is prohibited in Islam. Indeed one cannot imagine a true believer carrying out such an act. The Qur’an has specifically forbidden acts of this nature. Allah says in regards to a couple deciding whether to divorce:
“Either take them back on a reasonable basis or let them go free on a reasonable basis. But do not take them back just to hurt them. And whoever does that had wronged his own soul.”
Any deeds that are done just to bring about harm to others are therefore clearly unacceptable to Allah.
Acts That Are Beneficial to One and Harmful to Another
The issue becomes more complex when a person performs and act that is permissible and beneficial for themselves, but unfortunately causes harm to others. An example of this would be when a person does something permissible to enhance their property, but in so doing, they damage their neighbour’s property. What is the Islamic position on this in the light of this hadith?
If the person is performing an act that is customarily considered improper, because it is known to lead to harmful results, such as lighting a large bonfire in their property on a windy day, and the neighbour’s property were to get damaged, then that person will held responsible for that act because they should have prevented that harm.
On the other hand, if a person wants to perform an act that is considered acceptable, like building a second level on their house, but the result is unacceptable for their neighbour, in that it means their privacy is lost, what would the ruling be? The scholars have differed on their interpretation of such an action in the light of this hadith.
The shareeah itself does not contain any strict definition of ‘harm’, and as a result, the understanding of this is left up to the cultural environment in which the action is being considered. This understanding may also change over time. In other words, what may be considered harmful at one time, may not be considered harmful by a particular society at a later point in history. Therefore the current cultural context must be taken into account when making a decision.
Taking into account these considerations, it seems that if the act causes a ‘normal and expected harm’ and the person performs the act without ill intention, then they are not accountable for the harm that it causes. However, if they perform the act in an improper fashion, or if the act causes ‘unacceptable’ levels of harm, then they will be accountable and liable before the people, and before Allah, for the damage caused to others. And Allah knows best.
What we can see clearly throughout this discussion, is that in Islam we should never intentionally cause harm to others. However, some indirect, normal and expected harms may occur as a result of us performing permissible actions, and these are taken into account and are not included in the meaning of this hadith. Intention is important, and we should never intend to bring harm to others even if they have harmed us. It is better to restrain ourselves and Allah will be pleased with that.
One of the deeper understandings that can be reached from this hadith and others like it, is that Allah has not ordered anything harmful in the religion of Islam. This religion comes from Allah, the Creator of mankind, and He knows best our abilities and limitations. The laws of Islam take into consideration all of these aspects. The Prophet Muhammad, SallAllahu Alayhi Wa Sallam, stated that we should not harm others or reciprocate harm done to ourselves. When implemented, these actions will bring about a greater good for mankind and all of the creation. It is, simply, what is best for us, both in this life and the Hereafter.