Answered by Mufti Yusuf Mullan
In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. May his abundant blessings be showered on his beloved prophet, the best of creation.
An essential condition for the validity of a vow and subsequent obligatory nature of the fulfillment thereof, is the act upon which the vow was made must be a primary act of devotional worship (‘ibaadah maqsoodah). By primary it is meant that ‘in and of itself’ the act must be devotional and not a means towards other worships. Examples of these are prayer, fasting, I’tikaaf and charity to the poor.
In the case of a vow made upon a secondary form of worship such as wudu, building a masjid or hospital, or visiting a sick person, none of these will be considered vows, nor will they be binding. [Ibn Abideen]
Pursuing a Phd in Islamic studies, although a service to Islam no doubt, is not an act of devotional worship as outlined above. As such, it is not binding on your friend to bring this to completion. Nor is there any expiation necessary upon him for not doing so.
And Allah knows best,
ومن شروطه أن يكون قربة مقصودة فلا يصح النذر بعيادة المريض ، وتشييع الجنازة ، والوضوء ، والاغتسال ، ودخول المسجد ، ومس المصحف ، والأذان ، وبناء الرباطات والمساجد وغير ذلك ، وإن كانت قربا إلا أنها غير مقصودة ا هـ فهذا صريح في أن الشرط كون المنذور نفسه عبادة مقصودة لا ما كان من جنسه
"Indeed this discipline of ours is from cradle to grave. Whoever intends to leave this knowledge of ours for one moment, let him leave it now!"
Mohammed Ibn al-Hassan ash-Shaybani
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