Bismillahi Al-Rahmani Al-Rahim

Choosing Between Good Actions

Examine which one most benefits your heart, and do it.
--Imam Ahmad

al-salamu `alaykum

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 [wajiba] 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 to a pray one has made made obligatory through an oath.

  • When both actions are recommended [masnunah], precedence is given to be most meritorious. So, the sunnah prayers associated with specific times [al-sunan al-ratibah] 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. Such as

  • The act with lower precedence being specific for a given time or place, such as dhikr--instead of reciting Qur'an--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.

(Source: Al-Qawa'id al-fiqhiyyah, Sheikh `Abd al-Rahman bin Nasir bin `Abd Allah al-Sa`di (1376 - 1307 AH). Dar Ibn al-Jawzi: 1423 AH. pp22-23)

Wa al-salamu `alaykum