Syria: Rulers, Righteous Outrage & Rethinking Revolutions
Initially, Aleppo never witnessed the large scale anti-government protests that kicked-off in other parts of Syria, in March 2011. A year later, though, and Aleppo too became a bloody battleground when rebel fighters tried to drive government forces from the city. The offensive was not decisive and Aleppo ended up divided: government forces controlling the west, rebel fighters the east. For four years now, the battle for Aleppo has become a microcosm of the wider carnage engulfing Syria. The greater tragedy in this ongoing civil war has been to the civilian population. Over 13 million people need humanitarian aid in Syria. Just under 5 million Syrians are now refugees, one million of whom have fled to Europe. And in the past few days the world has seen an exodus of more than 100,000 people from Aleppo.
In the month-long siege which has seen pro-government forces oust the rebel fighters from Aleppo, thousands have been caught in the crossfire and have died, many have been seriously injured, families and children have being viciously massacred, and the city lacks basic food, water, sanitation and medicines. And while we must not lose our capacity to feel outrage when civilians have been so callously massacred, the question remains: how can we turn this righteous outrage into useful action?
What follows is far from being a decisive action plan. It is simply a few thoughts of a beleaguered student of Islam’s sacred sciences who, like so many others, is desperately trying not to be numbed by the sheer scale of the horrors that are now unfolding.
Three matters need urgently doing: one immediate, the other more long term, while the third is more mid-term. All three are crucial, but some things have an immediacy over others.
Finally, some (or even, much) of what I’ll advocate can and does apply to the people of Yemen, Iraq, Mali, Kashmir, Tunisia, Palestine and anywhere else where wars rage and civilians become fodder in the crossfire.
Immediate Action: This has surely got to be humanitarian aid to victims and refugees. Money, medical supplies, doctors and other skilled personnel are the types of services and aid the people of Aleppo need right now. As well as contributing to relief agencies and humanitarian convoys, volunteer rescue workers operating in war zones, such as the White Helmets, should be supported too. Undeniably, what is even more pressing than this is to broker a temporary truce that all sides are compelled to honour, so that the remaining civilians in Syria have time to move into safe zones or be evacuated.
Given that a million Syrian refugees have crossed into Europe, this raises the issues of asylum and the socio-economic difficulties, unrest, xenophobia or Islamophobia that can come along in the wake. Resettlement of refugees and taking in orphans becomes our collective responsibility: Have you seen him who denies the Religion? Such is he who repels the orphan, and who does not urge the feeding of the poor. [107:1-3] Islam does not just ask us to feed the poor; it requires of us to “urge others” to do so too.
A recent report by Oxfam highlights that the UK has taken just 18 per cent of its ‘fair share’ of Syrian refugees. Canada, in contrast, tops the league table of wealthy nations by welcoming 248 per cent of its share. While the United States has taken in a meagre ten per cent. To achieve what Oxfam reckons to be its fair share, the UK should have offered sanctuary to around 25,000 people since the crisis began, rather than just the 4414 it has thus far resettled. We the citizens of such under performing states should lobby our politicians and parliamentarians to get them to commit to resettling more refugees, as well as insist that they speak out against the xenophobia, distortions and myths which surround these refugees and other people who are in need of shelter and protection.
Along with aiding relief efforts, sponsoring orphans, fundraising, creating awareness, combating media stereotypes and public xenophobia, and lobbying government to do more to resettle refugees, we musn’t forget the power of petitioning Allah in du‘a. For du‘a is a powerful weapon for the oppressed, needy and helpless: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors! And give us from Your presence a protecting friend; oh, give us from Your presence a defender!’ [4:75]
Mid-Term Action: The key task here must surely be to bring this grinding conflict to an end, so that some semblance of peace, safety and security is returned to whatever remains of Syria and its people. By ‘mid-term’ I do not mean that one works for it only after the humanitarian crises is concluded. Of course not! Peace must be brokered as soon as possible. But given the diverse mix of factions, forces and fears entailed, and the geo-political interests involved, calling for peace is easier said than done. So while the politics of it all is playing out, the humanitarian relief work must push on with as much urgency as the world can muster. That’s what I mean by brokering a peace deal being a ‘mid-term’ action.
A simplified sketch of the key actors in the Syrian conflict should serve as a reminder about the obstacles standing in the way of any peace accord. At the eye of the storm there is President Bashar al-Assad who, in March 2011, used brutal force to crush pro-democracy demonstrations concerned about the country’s high unemployment; state repression; and wide scale corruption. This triggered nationwide protests demanding that the president resign. As the unrest spread, the state crack down intensified. Very soon, opposition supporters were taking up arms to defend themselves and then later to fight government forces in their areas. The president vowed to crush the uprising and restore state control. The opposition formed into a myriad of rebel brigades and resolved to fight government forces; oust the president from power; and seize control of the country.
The president’s Shi‘ah Alawite sect and regime has the financial, political and military backing of Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah. The rebel factions, having no central authority and no single political ideology, represent a cross-section of Syria’s diversely religious society; although driven largely by an overall Sunni majority. Added to this already volatile cocktail are factions of foreign fighters and rebel groups who are al-Qaeda sympathisers. ISIS, who control large tracts of Syria, are also fighting: fighting both government forces and rebels. Saudi, Turkey and Qatar have been assisting some of the rebel factions, including both ‘moderates’ and ‘hardliners’, with military aid and financial support. The United States, too, has offered limited military assistance, but has thus far not given weapons to any of the rebel factions in Syria from fear of them falling into extremist hands. All in all, then, there is a Syrian civil war; a Sunni-Shi‘ah proxy-war being fought by Saudi and Iran; and a geo-strategic war being fought for regional hegemony. To top it all, various international peace initiatives have thus far failed, and the monster that is President al-Assad seems to be slowly garnering greater sympathy for apparently being the only capable actor that can stand in the way of an ‘Islamist’ or ISIS take over of Syria. Those, at least, are the cards being openly shown on the table: the cards beneath are anyone’s guess!
Of course, certain politician, on whatever side of the divide, will be busy sharpening their knives ready to carve out a slice of whatever they can for their own greedy souls. Other politicians, with a genuine concern for human welfare and world stability, will continue doing their utmost to bring about a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has already claimed the lives of millions. As for our scholars, given the hurdles, all we may hope for from those few that have any serious public or government clout is that they wisely, gently [though not sheepishly] and courageously speak truth to power, speak up for the voiceless, and help restore a sense of stability into the narrative. What we don’t want is for them to be domesticated by the powers that be, serving as little more than their voice pieces.
Longer Term Action: This action demands a deep and honest collective introspection in terms of our hitherto strategies for soci0-political reform. It requires of us to put aside strategies that are born of rage or revenge, knee-jerk reactions, pursuit of short-term goals, and not giving enough consideration to the consequences of our political action. If we’re to have any hope of climbing out of the political quagmire the Muslim world has wallowed in for the best part of a century, our politics needs to be infused with a deeper commitment to piety (taqwa), be guided by sound religious instruction and, in the light of such instruction and realpolitik, wisely weigh-up the benefits and harms (al-mawazanah bayn al-masalih wa’l-mafasid) of any and all subsequent political activism.
The violence and mayhem, or the chaos and carnage, that much of the Muslim world is now beholden to must surely give us all pause for serious political rethinking. If we are being unbiased and just, the tides of change for a brighter future the Arab Spring was supposed to usher in not only failed to materialise, in most cases it left in its wake a far greater scale of dissension, discontent, tyranny, and political abuses; arrests; and repression, than it sought to reform or replace. For in its wake came civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the rise of ISIS, repressive rule in Egypt, collapse of stable government in Libya, and waves upon waves of migrants risking all to flee such horrors. Tunisia, not without its huge share of problems, is the only Arab Spring country to have achieved most political change at the lowest human cost.
In terms of weighing the benefits and harms in our political activism, the Arab Spring furnishes us with a few invaluable lessons:
Firstly, wherever civil resistance is used against a regime, there must be a credible plan for governing the country. Without such a plan, civil resistance is part of the problem, not the solution. Many of the spontaneous leaderless uprisings of 2011 were unsuited to take on the complex roles of governance.
Secondly, there’s a strong case for mass movements to make more modest demands of the government, rather than call for the fall of the regime or demand sweeping social changes all at once.
Thirdly, getting rid of murderous tyrants and corrupt rulers isn’t enough. Building the many essential institutions of governance, and restoring confidence in a flawed state, are much harder tasks.
Fourthly, civil resistance does indeed have political power, but sometimes too much. It is often reckless, and can undermine the pillars upon which orderly governance rests. And if it does bring the pillars of governance down, its needs to recognise the serious consequences of creating political power vacuums.
Fifthly, which brings me to my final point: just how in keeping with Islam is the call to rebel against an oppressive ruler? Unbeknown to so many Muslim activist in our time, our Prophet ﷺ had quite a lot to say about this very question. And it is because there is so much to learn, and so much more to be done, and so much doubt and confusion to overcome that I’ll end this piece with what revealed wisdom has to say on this vital matter:
1 – In context of a Muslim ruler, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It is upon a Muslim to hear and obey in what he likes or detests, so long as he is not ordered to sin. If he is ordered to sin, then there is no hearing or obeying [in that matter].’1
2 – In the case of a subject or a citizen seeing something objectionable from the ruler that cannot be remedied via any lawfully established political protocol through which one airs objections or dissent, then the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Whoever sees something from his leader which he dislikes, let him be patience. For whoever separates from the ruler by even a handspan, and dies, dies a death of [pre-Islamic] ignorance.’2
3 – This is the case, even if the ruler is a brutal despot or an autocrat. The Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘There shall come rulers after me who will not guide by my guidance, nor will they follow my Sunnah. Among them will be men whose hearts are the hearts of devils in the bodies of men.’ He was asked: O Messenger of Allah, what should I do if I reach that time? He replied: ‘Hear and obey the leader. Even if he flogs your back and seizes your wealth, still hear and obey.’3 In another hadith, it relates: ‘Hear and obey, in what you find easy or difficult, whether you are in high spirits or find it troublesome, even if others are preferred over you; and even if your wealth is devoured and your back is beaten – except if it entails sin.’4
4 – One’s duty is to exercise patience, but not to acquiesce to the evil: ‘There will soon be rulers whom you’ll approve of and object to. Whoever recognises [abhors their evil] is absolved. Whoever objects to it is saved. But whoever is pleased with it or approves of it [is sinful].’5 In other words, as al-Nawawi explained, ‘whoever is unable to remove the evil isn’t considered sinful merely by keeping silent. Rather, the sin is in approving of it, or in not [even] denouncing it in one’s heart.’6
5 – As for rising up in rebellion against a tyrannical Muslim ruler so as to remove him by force, we have this from our Prophet ﷺ: ‘The best of your rulers are those whom you love and they love you, and whom you pray for and who pray for you. The worst of your rulers are those whom you hate and who hate you, and whom you curse and they curse you.’ It was said: Shall we not raise the sword against them, O Messenger of Allah? He said: ‘No, not as long as they establish the prayer among you. If anyone sees from their leader something objectionable, let them hate his action and not withdraw the hand from obedience.’7 And in the above hadith about not consenting to a ruler’s evil, the Prophet ﷺ was asked at the end of it: Shall we not fight them? To which he replied: ‘No, not as long as they pray.’8 The rational for not attempting to topple such ruthless dictators is given by Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, when he wrote:
‘As for maintaining obedience to them [those in authority], even if they are tyrannical, then that is because the harms that would result from rebelling against them would be many times worse than that which results from their tyranny. Instead, by patiently bearing their injustices lies an expiation for our sins and an increase in rewards [from Allah]. For Allah only inflicted them upon us on account of our corrupt actions – and rewards are proportional to their deeds. Thus it is upon us to diligently strive to seek forgiveness, repent, and rectify our deeds. Allah, exalted is He, said: Whatever calamity befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And the Exalted said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] And the Exalted said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] Also: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [6:129] So if those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from unjust acts.’9
6 – In fact, there’s even a specific piece of prophetic guidance on how to advise those in authority: ‘Whoever intends to advise the ruler, let him not do so publicly. Rather, let him take him by the hand [and do so] privately. If he accepts, well and good; if not, then he has discharged his duty to him.’10
7 – Rising-up against an iron-fisted, pitiless Muslim ruler, to forcefully remove him, is only lawful if he openly and unambiguously demonstrates disbelief (kufr). A number of jurists have reported a consensus (ijma‘) about it. To this, the sahabi, ‘Ubadah b. al-Samit said: ‘The Prophet ﷺ called on us to pledge allegiance to him. Among what we pledged was to hear and obey in what we like and dislike, in ease and hardship, to give the rights due on us, and that we not remove the affair from its people unless we see clear-cut disbelief for which there is a proof from Allah.’11
Rebellion or armed revolt, then, is only lawful under strict conditions. That it doesn’t lead to greater evil or instability is the first. That the ruler or regime be replaced with a better one is the second. The question of the Muslim ruler’s apostasy or not is the third. Although a few theologians allowed rebellion against a ruler whose tyranny had become entrenched and widespread (provided the first two conditions could be met), most did not allow it unless there appeared from such a ruler unambiguous, clear-cut disbelief (kufr bawah). Imam al-Nawawi and the best part of Sunni orthodox record a consensus on this latter point. He states:
‘As for rebellion (khuruj) against them, and fighting them, it is forbidden by consensus of the Muslims; even if they are sinful or oppressive … Ahl al-Sunnah are unanimously agreed that the ruler is not to be removed due to sin. As for the view mentioned in the books of fiqh from some of our colleagues, that he should be removed – which is also the stance of the Mu‘tazilah – then this is an error from those who espoused it and is in opposition to the consensus. Scholars have said that the reason why he is not to be removed, and why rebellion against him is forbidden, is because of what it entails of sedition, bloodshed, and causing corruption between people. For the harm in seeking to remove the ruler is far worse than permitting him to remain.’12
Of course, it can and has been argued that all these hadiths are only applicable in the context of the state affirming Islam as the basis of its law, legislation or constitution. This stance also argues that most, if not all, present-day Muslim states are illegitimate from the above said angle. Now is not the place to discuss the rights or wrongs of this outlook, save to ask: If, for argument’s sake we accept this, does it imply that all state institutions, administrations, statutes, treatises, enactments and laws are illegitimate too? If the regime has no Islamic validity, are the judgement of its court, or its traffic laws, its granting of visas or asylum, its law-enforcing agencies, its monetary policies, its edicts concerning the protection of private wealth or property, etc., null and void too? If the response is yes, then that is agreeing to total anarchy and lawlessness – and both Islam and sound reason utterly abhor such a state of affairs. If one responds by saying that the state’s laws remain valid, but there’s a duty to replace the regime with an Islamic one, then the above hadiths retain their relevance in terms of the actual conditions required for rebelling against the existing political order and not creating a situation of greater evil, social unrest, civil war, anarchy, bloodbath, or power vacuum. Either there is a realistic confidence that the rebellion will, in all likelihood, succeed. If not, it is haram; and patience, working to deepen public piety, and refraining from political agitation become the duty and order of the day.
The Sunni position which stresses the duty of obeying the ruler, and which prioritises stability over other social considerations, grew out of the above hadiths and was also significantly informed by well-known turbulent, historical realities. Muslims, even as late as the twentieth century, could justify their readiness to tolerate a ruthless ruler so long as the government had a short arm and interfered very little in the lives of the people. But the modern nation-state, with its modern political theorising, techniques and technologies, has extended the role of government into every street, every school and every household. As such, some argue that pre-modern Muslim political theories cannot give us a satisfactory insight into the socio-political culture that Muslims live under today.13 This line of reasoning makes the case that given the hegemonic nature of the modern nation-state – how it controls the economic life chances of its citizens; defines the parameters of political participation; controls the nature and framework of education; can intrude almost at will into the private lives of its citizens; and if it chooses, can tyrannise its citizens with impunity, for it alone has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in society – how realistic is it to patiently plod along with day-to-day life when the state does decide to inflict widespread violence or tyranny on its citizens? So if what motivates Muslims to challenge the legitimacy or efficacy of the state are matters related to economic security, political participation, or basic human dignities, then the scholars must carefully consider such matters before assessing the validity or not of the uprising, act of civil disobedience, or rebellion.
There is little doubt that the modern nation-state (with its concepts of Westphalian sovereignty, legitimacy, allegiance, citizenship, political participation, social contract and monopolisation of legitimate violence over a given territory) exerts a control over the lives of its citizens in ways that were unimaginable in pre-modern times. Hence, any Muslim political theorising that hasn’t grasped the concrete differences between modern and pre-modern governance, or fails to clarify if such theorising is working within the framework of a modern state with its citizens, or a traditional sovereignty with its subjects, is going to be highly deficient, defective and damaging to Islam and Muslims. What we require from our scholars is serious analysis and advice about such issues, so our politics can be rooted in revealed teachings and resonate with the actual times. And yet with that said, there’s still a strong case to be made about the relevance of the “rebellion” hadiths for our times. For it is precisely because the modern state is so overbearing; and that it is highly weaponised; and that its surveillance and its state security is so very intrusive, that the rebellion/revolution option is so very unwise and unhelpful. That divine help is tied to piety and patience can never be underestimated, nor undermined.
Al-Hasan al-Basri once lamented: ‘If only the people had patience when being tried by their leader, it would not be long before Allah gives them a way out. But they rush for their swords, so they are left to their swords. By Allah! Not for even a single day did they bring about any good.’14
More than a few days have passed since I first started writing this blog piece. But as I put the finishing touches to it, a social media alert on my phone has just informed me that a nationwide ceasefire has been brokered in Syria. Here’s praying.
Revolutions are messy and bloody. And although you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, Islam insists that there can be other things on the menu besides eggs. Revolutions are not events, they are processes – often, long, drawn-out ones – whose intended aim and objective is seldom guaranteed. In fact, given our globalised world, wealthy and powerful outside interests, as well as regional geo-politics, are far more likely to shape final outcomes than are the well-conceived intentions of the masses. Mainstream Sunni Islam has long been suspicious about revolutions; and with plenty of reason to be so. Whatever else the Arab spring of 2011 has taught us; in general, and the Syrian uprising; in particular, one thing is clear: Revolutions often travel fast, but they seldom travel well.
O Allah! Heal the blessed land that now lies all shattered.
O Allah, defend and protect its people and
by Thy wrath let enemies
1. Al-Bukhari, no.7144; Muslim, no.1839.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.7053; Muslim, no.1849.
3. Muslim, no.1837.
4. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.4562. The isnad is hasan, as per Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, al-Ihsan fi Taqrib Sahih Ibn Hibban (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1991), 10:426.
5. Muslim, no.1854.
6. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1995), 12:204.
7. Muslim, no.1855.
8. Muslim, no.1854.
9. Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 381.
10. Ahmad, Musnad, no.14909. The hadith is sahih due to its collective chains. See: al-Albani, Takhrij Kitab al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-Islami, 1980), nos.1096-98.
11. Al-Bukhari, no.7056.
12. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 12:189.
13. This train of thought is teased out in Imam Zaid Shakir, The Islamic Legitimacy of the Uprisings in Muslim Countries.
14. Cited in Ibn Sa‘d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (Cairo: Maktaba al-Khanji, 2001), 9:165; entry no.3883.