Answered by Shaykh Hamza Karamali, SunniPath Academy Teacher
If a person takes a vow that he will not indulge in such – and – such a sin, but later breaks down and does indulge in it, then renews his vow, but breaks down again, and then doesn’t renew his vow after this, but tries to be careful to the best of his ability, but breaks down every now and then, does he perform one expiation, two expiations, or an expiation for every occurrence of a break down? Also, what is entailed in an expiation? The Questioner doesn’t remember whether the vow was made about a particular sin, or all sins of the same ‘genre’. He also doesn’t remember the exact wording of the vow. And all this apparently occurred in an emotional moment of repentance, before he knew the fiqhi consequences of taking a vow.
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
According to the Shafi‘i school, a vow is to make obligatory upon oneself something that the Shari‘ah recommends by saying, for example, “I hereby owe Allah to perform such and such”, or, “I am hereby obliged to do such and such,” or “I make such and such obligatory upon myself.” (Bughyat al-Mustarshidin, 264; Reliance, j18.1(c))
Reliance defines a vow by saying:
“Lexically, the word vow means any promise. It is legally defined as making obligatory some act of worship that was not originally obligatory in Sacred Law.” (Reliance, j18.0)
Because of this definition, a vow to undertake something that is already obligatory is not a valid vow and of no consequence. Reliance says:
“By act of worship, our author means acts that are supererogatory and not obligatory, since an oath to undertake an obligatory act is invalid whether it involves performance of something, such as an obligatory prayer or fast, or nonperformance of something, such as vowing to abstain from wine or fornication and the like. Such vows are not valid to begin with, as Allah has made these obligatory and “obligating oneself to do them” is meaningless.” (Reliance, j18.1)
As such, if the Questioner made a vow to abstain from something unlawful, then the vow is not effected (la yan‘aqid); in other words, it is as if he never made a vow. If one did end up committing the sin, all that would be required of him would be repentance to Allah. No expiation is necessary.
If, however, the Questioner made an oath not to indulge in a certain sin, the ruling would differ.
There are many conditions for the validity of an oath; one can refer to Reliance, section o19 for details. In brief, an oath is only valid if sworn by one of Allah’s names or attributes, and it must have a wording similar to “I swear by Allah that …” or “By Allah, I will not …” Other wordings, if intended as oaths, might also be considered oaths. If the conditions for an oath’s validity are not met, one has not really sworn an oath and no expiation would be required if one “violated” it.
If the Questioner swore an oath that he would not indulge in a particular sin, then the oath would be unlawful to break, and if he did break it, he would have to perform an expiation. The general rule is that if someone swears not to do something, then only one expiation is due when he breaks the oath for the first time. Once the oath has been broken, it is as if it no longer exists (yanhallu’l – yamin) so that performing the sin again would not require additional expiations. In the case described in the Question, if the Questioner swore an oath not to indulge in a sin, broke the oath, swore again, and then broke the second oath, there would be two expiations due and if he indulged in the sin again, no further expiations would be required. This can be inferred from what has been mentioned at the following references: Tuhfat al-Muhtaj + Hawashi, 10.19-20 and 10.24; Bughat al-Mustarshidin, 261.
What is Entailed in Expiating for an Oath?
Someone performing an expiation for an oath must do any one of the following: either (a) free a Muslim slave, or (b) feed 10 people who are “short of money” (the details of zakat al-fitr apply to the quantity and type of food), or (c) clothe 10 people who are “short of money” (Reliance, o20.2).
Someone “short of money” (miskeen) is defined in the chapter of zakat (see Reliance, h8.11). Briefly, this is someone who does not have enough to meet all his needs and the need of those he is obliged to support, such as if he needs 10 dollars but only has 8 dollars. Needs include food, clothing, housing, and other needs and it is not restricted to the bare necessities required for one to survive. Owning a house, clothes (even if some of them are for “dressing up” (tajammul)), jewelry (if one is a woman and needs it for beautification), books, having a servant, or owning more than the minimum zakatable amount (nisab) does not necessarily exclude one from being classified as “short of money”. (Hashiyat al-Sharqawi, 1.390; Hashiyat al-Bajuri, 1.329)
If one falls under the category of someone “short of money” as defined above, or if doing any of the three things above would cause one to become short of money, then one is considered unable to perform the above and may instead fast for three days. It is not necessary that the three days of fasting be continuous (Mughni al-Muhtaj, 4.442).
And Allah knows best.