In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.
Dear questioner, we commend your pursuit of knowledge and your eagerness to seek what is lawful and avoid what is not. We earnestly implore Allah to bless your efforts in this honorable way.
Gradualism is one of the laws of nature that Allah Almighty has created. It is also needed in applying the rulings of the Shari`ah to make a change in people’s life. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) stayed in Makkah for thirteen years struggling to shake the false beliefs the Makkan people had adopted. Then, for other ten years, Allah Almighty revealed to him (peace and blessings be upon him) the laws that the Muslims would live by. Gradualism played an effective role in that regard. That was shown, for example, in prohibiting alcohol, riba (interest), and other vices.
The opposite of gradualism is to enact and enforce the rulings of Shari`ah immediately. But mind that, if we are to observe gradualism in applying the rulings of the Shari`ah in this age, this does not mean that we are to be sluggish and delay achieving that aim for too long. Gradualism refers to the importance of preparing the Muslim people to sincerely and enthusiastically adopt the rulings of the Shari`ah in all their walks of life, so as to guarantee that such a matter would last.
Responding to the question, the prominent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, states the following:
Gradualism in applying the Shari`ah is a wise requirement to follow. In doing so, we will be following Allah’s Laws with regard to physical nature and teachings of Islam. Gradualism was observed in enjoining the obligations of Islam such as Prayer, fasting, et cetera, and in forbidding the prohibitions as well.
The most telling example in that regard is prohibiting alcohol; the stages taken in that respect are well known by anyone studying the Shari`ah. Islam also took into account the effectiveness of gradualism when it did not suddenly abolish slavery, which was prevalent in the whole world on the advent of Islam.
Abolishing slavery then would have led to economic and social uprising, so, it was wise then to deal with such a problem in an indirect way (by, for instance, regarding setting a slave free as a good deed and making it an expiation for some sins). This implied a gradual abolishing of slavery.
Being a divine law, gradualism is to be followed on the political level nowadays. That is to say, gradualism is to be observed when it comes to applying the rulings of the Shari`ah in today's life when Muslims have been socially, legislatively, and culturally invaded.
If we want to establish a real Muslim society, we should not imagine that such an end can be achieved by a mere decision issued to that effect by a king or a president or a council of leaders or a parliament.
Gradualism is the means through which such an end can be fulfilled. Gradualism here refers to preparing people ideologically, psychologically, morally, and socially to accept and adopt the application of the Shari`ah in all aspects of life, and to finding lawful alternatives for the forbidden principles upon which many associations have been founded for so long.
Gradualism in that sense does not mean we are to procrastinate and put off applying the Shari`ah. It is not to be taken as a pretext for discouraging people and foiling their pressing demands to establish Allah's Laws.
It, rather, should spur us to spotlight our aims, set our plans, and decide, sincerely and wisely, on the gradual stages to be taken in that respect. In that way, step by step, and through wise planning, organizing and determination, we can reach the last and long-awaited stage of applying all the teachings of Islam heart and soul.
This was the same approach that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) adopted so that he (peace and blessings be upon him) could change the pre-Islamic life of degeneration and ignorance into the enlightened life of Islam.
There is an example in that respect which is related concerning `Umar ibn `Abdul-`Aziz, whom the Muslim scholars regard as the fifth rightly-guided caliph and a true follower of his great-grandfather, `Umar ibn Al-Khattab.
`Umar ibn `Abdul-`Aziz’s son, `Abdul-Malik, who was a firm pious young man, said to his father one day, "O father! Why you do not implement the rulings firmly and immediately? By Allah, I would not care if all the world would furiously oppose us so long as we seek to establish the right [that Allah Almighty has enjoined]." These words show how zealous that young man was to destroy all signs of corruption and deterioration immediately and without delay whatever the consequences.
But the wise father said to his son, "Do not deal with matters hastily, son. Allah Almighty [Himself] despised drinking alcohol twice in the Qur'an and did not declare it forbidden but in the third time. I am afraid that if I enjoined the right on people at one stroke, they would give it up all at once, which might lead to sedition." (See Al-Muafaqat by Ash-Shatibi, vol. 2, p. 94.)
That attitude of `Umar ibn `Abdul-`Aziz shows that he saw it wise to tackle matters gradually. He was guided in that respect by Allah's dealing with prohibiting alcohol. `Umar wanted to lead people step-by-step towards establishing the right and this, in fact, is the wise juristic approach to handle matters.
Allah Almighty knows best.