“between the two of them are doubtful [or ambiguous] matters…”
After stating that lawful and unlawful matters in Islam are clear, the Prophet (s) mentioned in this hadith, that there are also ‘doubtful matters’. It is only a minority of acts that fall into this category, and there are different factors that may lead people to be uncertain about a particular act and whether or not it is permissible.
Firstly, we may find that there are differences of opinion amongst the scholars about different topics. Often, the reasons for differences can be explained very simply. For instance, one scholar may have made a decision based on his own personal reasoning, whilst another may have made a ruling whilst being unaware of another hadith on the subject. This aspect has been a common cause for differences amongst the scholars in different madhabs or schools of thought.
There are also occasions when the evidence related to an act appears to be contradictory. For example, one hadith from the Prophet (s) states that one should not drink whilst standing up, and another hadith states that he (s) drank whilst standing. Both of these hadith are authentic, and the scholars have come to different conclusions about how to reconcile them.
Further, there are acts that may technically be permissible, but they may become doubtful because they may lead someone towards that which is forbidden. An example given here is ‘enjoying one’s wife’ without intercourse whilst she is menstruating. It’s permissible, but if he does not have strong self-control, it may lead him towards that which is forbidden.
There are also matters that may become impermissible due to the circumstances surrounding them, or acts which are disapproved of (makroohaat) but not forbidden, which some scholars have classed as falling into this ‘doubtful’ category.
The example of the Prophet Muhammad (s) and how he conducted his affairs, shows us that he would avoid doubtful matters. He (s) would also advise those that came to him with problems towards conduct that left nothing to doubt or uncertainty. He (s) said:
“Verily, the permissible things are clear and the forbidden things are clear. And between them are some matter which are doubtful. Therefore, leave that which makes you doubt for what does not make you doubt.” (Recorded in al-Nisaai)