AS BELIEVERS, WE ARE not meant to see politics as merely the playing-out of the various interests of people vis-a-via one another. Rather, we must see it more so as the playing out of the af‘al al-rabb – the divine acts (lit. “acts of the Lord”) – in human society. Without trying to understand what God is saying to us through how He causes political fortunes of people to unfold, and why His acts can sometimes be acts of beauty and blessings or of divine rigour and harshness, we fail to engage in the kind of politics the Qur’an wishes us to engage in.
It is from such Quranic “seeing” that one of Islam’s greatest scholars and sages, al-Hasan al-Basri, advised concerning the brutality and tyranny of al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf: إِنَّ الْحَجَّاجَ عَذَابُ اللَّهِ فَلَا تَدْفَعُوا عَذَابَ اللَّهِ بِأَيْدِيكُمْ وَلَكِنْ عَلَيْكُمْ بِالِاسْتِكَانَةِ وَالتَّضَرُّعِ – ‘Indeed, al-Hajjaj is a punishment from God, so do not repel it by your hands. But take to humility and imploring God.’1 This political strategy and spiritual advice echoes what God has said in the Holy Qur’an: وَلَقَدْ أَخَذْنَاهُمْ بِالْعَذَابِ فَمَا اسْتَكَانُوا لِرَبِّهِمْ وَمَا يَتَضَرَّعُونَ – Thus We seized them with punishment, and yet they humbled not themselves to their Lord, nor did they implore Him. [Q.23:76]. Which is to say, had they humbly turned to God and made a real and concerted effort to reform their lives, Allah would have lifted His majestic wrath and sent down His beautiful mercy.
The same sentiment is echoed in these words of the Qur’an: وَكَذَلِكَ نُوَلِّي بَعْضَ الظَّالِمِينَ بَعْضًا بِمَا كَانُوا يَكْسِبُونَ – Thus do We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [Q.6:129] The political rule of thumb here is that: ‘If those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from unjust [sinful] acts.’2 And this can only begin to occur as we begin listening to what the af‘al al-rabb are telling us. This listening is key to the political well-being of Muslims.
Also related to this context. Al-Hasan al-Basri was once asked by some young activists to endorse an uprising against the brutal tyranny of al-Hajjaj, to which he replied: أَرَى أَنْ لا تُقَاتِلُوْهُ؛ فَإنَّهَا إِنْ تكُ عُقُوْبَةً مِنْ اللهِ فَمَا أَنْتُمْ بِرَادِّي عُقُوبَةَ اللهِ بِأَسْيَافِكُم، وَإِنْ يَكُنْ بَلاءً، فَاصْبِرُوا حَتّٰى يَحْكُمَ الله وَهُوَ خَيْرُ الْحَاكِمِيْن – ‘I hold that you should not fight him. For if this is a punishment from God, you shall not repel God’s punishment by your swords. But if this be a trial, then be patient, till God judgement comes; and He is the best of Judges.’3 Ticked-off by his reply, and riled up by zeal and more than a hint of recklessness, they fought against al-Hajjaj, and he slew all of them.
On hearing about the ill-fated uprising, al-Hasan al-Basri went on to remark: لَوْ أَنَّ النَّاسَ إِذَا ابْتُلُوا مِنْ قِبَلِ سُلْطَانِهِمْ صَبَرُوا مَا لَبِثُوا أَنْ يُفْرَجَ عَنْهُمْ ، وَلَكِنَّهُمْ يَجْزَعُونَ إِلَى السَّيْفِ فَيُوَكَّلُونَ إِلَيْهِ ، فَوَاللَّهِ مَا جَاءُوا بِيَوْمِ خَيْرٍ قَطُّ – ‘If the people only showed patience when they are being tried by their ruler, it would not be long before they would be given relief from it. But they always rush for the swords, so they are left to their swords. By God, not even for a single day did they bring about any good!’4
If this last sentence of al-Hasan al-Basri seems somewhat sharp, see it – not as some kind of endorsement of the tyrannical status quo; as those with shallow intellects claim – but as a reprimand to all those who failed to heed the af‘al al-rabb; who turned their backs on the duty to be patient; who probably convinced other impressionable souls to do likewise and follow them to their deaths through an ill-judged activism; and who indirectly helped rationalise and entrench further tyranny of shabby tyrants.
The apex of our politically worsening times, when religious guidance will be eclipsed by deceptions and distraction, will happen during the times of the Dajjal; as one hadith puts it: مَا بَيْنَ خَلْقِ آدَمَ إِلَى قِيَامِ السَّاعَةِ خَلْقٌ أَكْبَرُ مِنَ الدَّجَّالِ – ‘Nothing between the creation of Adam until the establishment of the Hour is graver than [the matter of] the Dajjal.’5
In another hadith, we learn this disturbing news: فَيَأْتِي عَلَى الْقَوْمِ فَيَدْعُوهُمْ، فَيُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ وَيَسْتَجِيبُونَ لَهُ، فَيَأْمُرُ السَّمَاءَ فَتُمْطِرُ، وَالْأَرْضَ فَتُنْبِتُ، فَتَرُوحُ عَلَيْهِمْ سَارِحَتُهُمْ، أَطْوَلَ مَا كَانَتْ ذُرًا، وَأَسْبَغَهُ ضُرُوعًا، وَأَمَدَّهُ خَوَاصِرَ، ثُمَّ يَأْتِي الْقَوْمَ، فَيَدْعُوهُمْ فَيَرُدُّونَ عَلَيْهِ قَوْلَهُ، فَيَنْصَرِفُ عَنْهُمْ، فَيُصْبِحُونَ مُمْحِلِينَ لَيْسَ بِأَيْدِيهِمْ شَيْءٌ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ، وَيَمُرُّ بِالْخَرِبَةِ، فَيَقُولُ لَهَا: أَخْرِجِي كُنُوزَكِ، فَتَتْبَعُهُ كُنُوزُهَا كَيَعَاسِيبِ النَّحْلِ – ‘Then he [the Dajjal] shall come to a people and call them; and they will believe in him and respond to him. At which he will instruct the sky, and it will send down its rain; and the earth, and it will grow its vegetation. Then in the evening the grazing animals will come back to them: their humps high; their udders full; their flanks bulging. He will then come to another people and summon them. But they will reject what he has to say. So he will leave them. By daybreak, they will be utterly impoverished, possessing nothing. He will pass through the wasteland and tell it to bring forth its treasures; and these treasure will follow him like swarms of bees.’6 So economic prosperity awaits those who accept the Dajjal; the Anti-Christ – this arch-deceiving, one-eyed imposter – even though such people will have sold their souls to the devil in order to gain it! As for the faithful who deny him, they must fortify their faith and patiently endure like never before.
At some point, around the time of the Mahdi, Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, shall be returned to Earth: وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ لَيُوشِكَنَّ أَنْ يَنْزِلَ فِيكُمُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ حَكَمًا مُقْسِطًا فَيَكْسِرَ الصَّلِيبَ، وَيَقْتُلَ الْخِنْزِيرَ، وَيَضَعَ الْجِزْيَةَ، وَيَفِيضَ الْمَالُ حَتَّى لاَ يَقْبَلَهُ أَحَدٌ – ‘By Him in whose hand is my soul! The son of Mary will soon descend among you as a just judge. He will break the cross, slay the swine and abolish the jizyah-tax. Wealth shall flow abundantly so much so that none shall take it.’7
And that: يَقْتُلُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ الدَّجَّالَ بِبَابِ لُدٍّ – ‘The son of Mary shall slay the Dajjal at the gates of Lod.’8 At such a time, as hearts truly lift up their gaze only to God: لَتَذْهَبَنَّ الشَّحْنَاءُ وَالتَّبَاغُضُ وَالتَّحَاسُدُ – ‘Mutual spite, hatred and jealousy shall depart.’9
It shall be a time that, as the people live their lives solely in terms of the af’al al-rabb, the earth will give freely of itself and will be filled with political justice, economic prosperity and righteous peace: فَيَكُونُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ عَلَيْهِ السَّلاَمُ فِي أُمَّتِي حَكَمًا عَدْلاً وَإِمَامًا مُقْسِطًا يَدُقُّ الصَّلِيبَ وَيَذْبَحُ الْخِنْزِيرَ وَيَضَعُ الْجِزْيَةَ وَيَتْرُكُ الصَّدَقَةَ فَلاَ يُسْعَى عَلَى شَاةٍ وَلاَ بَعِيرٍ وَتُرْفَعُ الشَّحْنَاءُ وَالتَّبَاغُضُ وَتُنْزَعُ حُمَةُ كُلِّ ذَاتِ حُمَةٍ حَتَّى يُدْخِلَ الْوَلِيدُ يَدَهُ فِي فِي الْحَيَّةِ فَلاَ تَضُرَّهُ وَتُفِرُّ الْوَلِيدَةُ الأَسَدَ فَلاَ يَضُرُّهَا وَيَكُونُ الذِّئْبُ فِي الْغَنَمِ كَأَنَّهُ كَلْبُهَا وَتُمْلأُ الأَرْضُ مِنَ السِّلْمِ كَمَا يُمْلأُ الإِنَاءُ مِنَ الْمَاءِ وَتَكُونُ الْكَلِمَةُ وَاحِدَةً فَلاَ يُعْبَدُ إِلاَّ اللَّهُ وَتَضَعُ الْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا – ‘Jesus, son of Mary, peace be upon him, will be a just judge and a just ruler among my nation. He will break the cross, slay the swine, abolish the jizyah, and charity will be left untouched. None will be appointed [to collect zakat] on sheep or camels. Rancour and mutual hatred will disappear. The harm of every harmful creature will be removed, such that a baby boy will put his hand in a snake without him being harmed; a baby girl will chase a lion and not be harmed; and a wolf will roam among sheep like their sheepdog. The Earth shall be filled with peace, just as a vessel is filled with water. The people will be united, and none shall be worshipped except God; and war will lay down its burdens …’10
Thus the End of Days will see an earthly bliss, with the hypocrites perishing; non-Muslims converting to Islam en mass; and Islam and Abrahamic monotheism ultimately becoming triumphant: لَيَبْلُغَنَّ هَذَا الْأَمْرُ مَا بَلَغَ اللَّيْلُ وَالنَّهَارُ وَلَا يَتْرُكُ اللَّهُ بَيْتَ مَدَرٍ وَلَا وَبَرٍ إِلَّا أَدْخَلَهُ اللَّهُ هَذَا الدِّينَ بِعِزِّ عَزِيزٍ أَوْ بِذُلِّ ذَلِيلٍ عِزًّا يُعِزُّ اللَّهُ بِهِ الْإِسْلَامَ وَذُلًّا يُذِلُّ اللَّهُ بِهِ الْكُفْرَ – ‘This affair shall reach wherever night and day reach. And God will not leave a dwelling of brick, nor of fur, except that He will cause this religion to enter it; bringing honour or humiliation: honour which God brings with Islam, or humiliation which He gives to disbelief.’11
So between the bad and good there’s lots to be done, much du‘a to be made, and a great deal of inward purification to engage in. But this promised triumph of Islam must be seen in terms of the af‘al al-rabb, not the egotistical nafs that blinds us to understanding the af’al al-rabb and the response our Lord demands from us in politically trying situations. For we will not be given to glory in a glory that never ceases, if we seek to glory in a glory that does.
1. Ibn Sa‘d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (Cairo: Maktaba al-Khanji, 2001), 9:165; no.3883.
8. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2244, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan sahih.’
9. Muslim, no.244.
10. Ibn Majah, no.4077. Al-Albani has a separate tract on this entire lengthy hadith, only a tiny part of which I cited. He breaks-up the hadith into forty-nine segments, then goes on to show what segments are supported and strengthened by other hadiths, and what have no support or corroboration. In this tract, entitled: Qissatu’l-Masih al-Dajjal wa Nuzuli ‘Isa ‘alayhi al-salatu wa’l-salam (Amman: al-Maktabah al-Islamiyyah, 1421H), 47, he begins by analysing the chain in detail, grading it weak (da‘if). He then starts a detailed analysis of each of the 49 segments of the hadith, declaring on p.49: ‘However, the hadith is, overall, sahih. Most of its segments are found in other hadiths, except a few parts which I couldn’t find any support of corroboration for.’ The parts of the hadith quoted above correspond to segment nos.43-45; pp.113-115, in the tract. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.1904, supports the first part; and a sahih mursal and a sahih mawquf in ‘Abd al-Razzaq, Musannaf, nos.20843-44, corroborate the second and third parts.
11. Ahmad, no.16509, and it is sahih. Cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.3.
Q. What is our Islamic duty when one Muslim – individual or nation – mistreats, exploits, oppresses or tyrannises another?
A.Alhamduli’Llah, wa’l-salatu wa’l-salamu ‘ala rasuli’Llah. In theory, the answer is pretty straightforward. In practice, it may often be tricky – especially if the oppression (zulm) is not by an individual, but by a group or faction, or it is political tyranny of a government; a police state; or a tyrant dictator.
As for the theory, or principle, our Prophet ﷺ said: انْصُرْ أَخَاكَ ظَالِمًا أَوْ مَظْلُومًا. قَالُوا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ هَذَا نَنْصُرُهُ مَظْلُومًا فَكَيْفَ نَنْصُرُهُ ظَالِمًا قَالَ: تَأْخُذُ فَوْقَ يَدَيْهِ – ‘Help your brother, be he the oppressor or the oppressed!’ They said: O Messenger of Allah, we can help the oppressed. But how do we help an oppressor? He said: ‘By restraining his hand.’1
There are some important points to consider here:
Firstly, it is a collective obligation; a fard kifayah, to stop an oppressor harming, exploiting or oppressing another. Which is to say, if one or more people do not stand up to stop the oppression or tyranny, the whole of the community or ummah is sinful.2 This, then, is the general rule of thumb concerning helping an oppressed person – regardless of the type of injustice or oppression; be it personal, marital, social, or political.
Secondly, the Prophet ﷺ warned of a divine punishment if such a collective obligation is shirked or left unfulfilled: ‘People, if they see an oppressor and do not restrain him, then perhaps Allah will cover them all with punishment.’3
Thirdly, there will be times where it simply isn’t possible to restrain the oppressor; but this should not be for a lack of wanting to stop oppression. One hadith states: ‘Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to, then with his tongue; if he is unable, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’4 So not having even the wish to help a victim of domestic violence; economic unfairness; or political tyranny, for instance, is a serious indictment on one’s level of faith and personal piety; and any claim to be upon the Sunnah is likely to be nothing more than a fantasy.
Fourthly, although the hadith that says: ‘Whoever is not concerned with the affairs of the Muslims is not of them’ isn’t authentic,5 its meaning is religiously sound. The next hadith bears this out: ‘The likeness of the believers in their mutual love, mercy and compassion is like that of a single body; when one part of it is in pain, the rest of the body suffers in sleeplessness and fever.’6 Which is to say, the bonds of faith between believers should be a cause for us to feel the injustices or suffering other Muslims are feeling. To the degree it does not, this is a telling sign that one’s faith (iman) is weak and that the heart has been desensitised to the cries of the ummah and the suffering of the sufferers. We ask that Allah place in our hearts concern and the desire to serve.
Fifthly, in attempting to rectify any instance of oppression or injustice, one must be sure to observe the well-established rule of enjoining good and forbidding evil, that:la yu’addi ila munkar akbara minhu – ‘It should not give rise to a worse evil.’ If righting a wrong is likely to result in a greater evil, or to the loss of a greater good, then one leaves off doing so until a positive outcome can be assured, or it is more likely to be the result. Ibn al-Qayyim said: ‘Forbidding munkar (“wrong”, “evil”, “sin”) has four levels: Firstly, it will be eliminated to be replaced by good. Secondly, it will be reduced, but not fully eradicated. Thirdly, it will be [removed but] replaced by an equivalent evil. Fourthly, it will be [removed but] replaced by a worse evil. The first two levels are [areas where forbidding evil is] legislated; the third is an area for personal reasoning (ijtihad); the fourth, however, is prohibitted.’7
Sixthly, as for preventing acts of political oppression, then of course this is far harder and could also be life threatening. But whilst keeping the above previous points in mind, there are these words of our Prophet ﷺ to internalise: ‘There will soon be rulers whom you’ll approve of and also 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].’8 In other words, as al-Nawawi noted, ‘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.’9
Seventhly, entering upon rulers is always fraught with great danger, both in spiritual and worldly terms. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Listen! You may well have heard that after me there will leaders, whoever enters upon them and agrees with their lies, and supports them in their oppression, then he is not of me, nor I of him; and he shall not drink with me from the Fountain. Whoever does not enter upon them, nor help them in their oppression, nor agrees to their lies, he is of me, and I of him, and he will drink with me at the Fountain.’10 Scholars that do enter upon the ruler must do so only to wisely and gently right a wrong; or give religious instruction and exhortation; or to lessen an existing evil: this is what is sought after from such scholars. We ask that Allah grant our scholars ‘afiyah – safety and well-being.
Eighthly, in fact, to enter upon a ruler or a head of state, and flatter him or heap upon him exaggerated platitudes, isn’t really the conduct of a godly Muslim; let alone a scholar. Ibn ‘Umar relates that he was once told: ‘We enter upon our sultans and say to them things contrary to what we say when we leave their presence.’ Ibn ‘Umar remarked: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, we used to consider this to be hypocrisy.’11 Such platitudes only serve to obscure the true state of affairs to the ruler, in terms of his responsibilities and duties to God, and to subjects or citizens. It also reinforces his delusion that he is truly fit for purpose! As for speaking to him wisely, gently and by acknowledging the good he has done, this is praiseworthy. As for the dangers of the state seeking to domesticate Muslim scholars, I’ve written about it here.
Ninethly, in the attempt to restrain the tyranny of those in power, scholars shoulder a huge responsibility. As guardians of the sacred law and the prophetic legacy, they are expected to be courageous or independent enough to clarify truth from falsehood – without desires or ego getting in the way; and to gently, yet firmly speak truth to power – if the occasion arises. Fear that they may likely lose their life in the process; or be tortured; or bring harm upon their family or loved ones, may excuse them from this duty. But what they cannot be is a sheepish mouthpiece for shabby tyrants. So while speaking about how the venerable scholar and exemplar from Islam’s early past, Imam al-Awza‘i, spoke infront of the tyrant of the time, Imam al-Dhahabi explains that al-Awza‘i, يَصْدَعُهُ بِمُرِّ الحَقِّ كَمَا تَرَى، لاَ كَخَلْقٍ مِنْ عُلَمَاءِ السُّوءِ الَّذِيْنَ يُحَسِّنُوْنَ لِلأُمَرَاءِ مَا يَقْتَحِمُوْنَ بِهِ مِنَ الظُّلمِ وَالعَسْفِ، وَيَقلِبُوْنَ لَهُمُ البَاطِلَ حَقّاً ، قَاتَلَهُمُ اللهُ ، أَوْ يَسكُتُوْنَ مَعَ القُدْرَةِ عَلَى بَيَانِ الحَقِّ – ‘… proclaimed the bitter truth, as you have seen. Unlike those corrupt scholars who justify for the rulers the persecution and tyranny they plunge into, and turn falsehood into truth for them – may Allah fight them; or who keep silent, despite having the ability to proclaim the truth.’12
We ask Allah for ‘afiyah, courage and tawfiq.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.2444; Muslim, no.2584.
2. Cf. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 6:238.
3. Ahmad, Musnad, no.31. Its chain was graded as sahih by Ahmad Shakir, al-Musnad al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1954), 1:36.
4. Muslim, no.49.
5. According to al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), nos.309-12, this and similar hadiths with this wording range from being mildly weak (da‘if), to very weak (da‘if jiddan), to fabricated (mawdu‘). The actual hadith is related in al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 4:352.
6. Al-Bukhari, no.6011; Muslim, no.2586.
7. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:339-40.
8. Muslim, no.1854.
9. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1995), 12:204.
10. Ibn Hibban, no.282; al-Tirmidhi, no.2190, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan sahih.’
11. Al-Bukhari, no.7178. The words: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ’ is recorded in al-Tayalasi, Musnad, no.1900; and not al-Bukhari.
I suppose our starting point can only be this advice from the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Whoever comes to the doors of the ruler is put to trial.’1 Discussion about this, I must admit, is a difficult and delicate one; so I’ll try to be as nuanced and even handed as possible. And Allah’s help is sought.
This concern, first off, is not new. Scholars down the ages of Islam have cautioned the scholarly community about the trial (fitnah) entailed in rubbing shoulders with rulers or governments. Ibn al-Jawzi sketches the usual pious concerns, thus:
‘From the Devil’s deception on the jurists is them mixing with the rulers and sultans, flattering them and leaving-off censuring them when able to do so. And perhaps they find allowances for them when there really isn’t one, in order to attain some worldly thing … In summary: entering upon rulers entails great danger. For the intention may be good at first, but then may change by them honouring you or bestowing [gifts] on you; or by [you] harbouring worldly ambitions; or by not being able to avoid flattering them; or leaving-off censuring them. Sufyan al-Thawri used to say: “I don’t fear them debasing or disgracing me. Rather, I fear them being generous towards me so that my heart inclines towards them.”‘2
Again, teasing out the soul’s psychology in this matter, and the subtle cravings of the ego, Ibn Rajab said: ‘Also, many of the salaf used to forbid those who desired to order the kings with good or prohibit them from evil, from entering upon them … And this was from fear of the fitnah of entering upon them. For when he is at a distance from them, the ego deceives the person into believing he will order and forbid them, and be stern with them. However, when he comes face to face with them, his soul is swayed towards them. For love of being honoured is concealed in his ego. Hence, he starts to flatter them, is over lenient with them, and perhaps he grows fond of them and loves them – especially if they treat him well and hold him in high regard, and he accepts this from them.’3
Of course; and this is the second point, this avoidance is by no means categorical, nor absolute. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr rounds-up the chapter in which he relates the salaf’s dislike of entering upon rulers and kings, stating: ‘The meaning of this entire chapter is with regard to the wicked, oppressive ruler (al-sultan al-ja’ir al-fasiq). As for the just among them, and the virtuous, then entering upon them; meeting them; and assisting them to rectify affairs is from the best deeds of righteousness … Thus when a scholar enters upon the ruler now and again, and whenever there is a need; and he says what is good and speaks with knowledge, then that is good and is a means of Allah’s pleasure until the Day he meets Him. Such meetings, however, are usually a fitnah; and safety lies in abandoning what is in them.’4
One will not find a ‘one-hat-fits-all-sizes’ rule in this area. For the needs and variables of each country or polity are different. The whole affair hinges on benefits and harms and final outcomes; and rests on the individual scholar’s intention and ability to cope with the fitnah, and the openness or otherwise of the ruler or regime. If a scholar feels strong enough in faith or feels obligated to to do so, or/and the ruler is open to advise, then one enters and does ones duty wisely, courageously and respectfully (respectful, if not of the actual ruler, then of the office they hold). Scholars should also keep this juristic maxim in play: ma la yudrak kulluhu la yutrak ba‘duhu – ‘If one cannot achieve the whole, one does not give-up [achieving] the part.’ What a scholar must not be is a sheepish partisan voice piece for the outrages and injustices of power, or an apologist for it. The scholar’s burden is neither to pander to the palace, and nor to the public. It is simply to be principled according to the dictates of piety.
My third and final point bears upon Muslim scholars in Britain (and North America, for that matter); especially in respect of helping their governments in the fight against extremism and the promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam. The aim in what follows is not to preclude any collaboration or cooperation between Muslim scholars (or activists) and governments. Instead, I wish only to point out that there are different fitnahs at work in any such union, which cannot be ignored.
One issue that tends to haunt the air of any genuine cooperation for many a scholar is the RAND report of 2007: Building Moderate Muslim Networks. The report strategised how the United States government could nurture what they accepted to be ‘moderate’ Muslims: those committed to the liberal values of democracy, human rights, equality, and who oppose terrorism or other illegitimate forms of violence. As for conservative shari‘ah expressions, they are seen as incompatible with this world view, needing to be either jettisoned or interpreted away. It suggested partners in this effort would best be found in secularists, liberal Muslims, and moderate traditionalists; including Sufis: but not Salafis or Islamists. It urged aiding liberals, moderate young scholars, activists and women’s groups; helping moderateness with an online presence too.5 A decade on, and much of that strategy is well under way – both in the US and in Britain. With this being so, it makes even well-intended cooperation with government, in the fight against extremism, more than a little murky and problematic.
Not only have terms like ‘moderate’ Islam; ‘good’ Muslims; ‘Islamists’ and ‘terrorists’; or equating being too ‘conservative’ with an inclination for violence, been predefined and then institutionalised for all to fall in line with. But even spaces to air legitimate political dissent and social frustration are rapidly diminishing or being highly policed when it comes to Muslims. The irony may be that in the effort to root out extremism from Muslim communities and establish a government engineered ‘moderate Islam’, favourable conditions for driving disenfranchised individuals into the arms of violent extremism are being created.
In a climate where organisations and individuals are in a panic to establish themselves as bastions of moderate Islam, it is vital that Muslim scholars not get caught up in all the political posturing and money grabbing. They must also avoid succumbing to the pressures of employing religious vocabulary or definitions imported from outside the scholastic tradition. In fact, the onus is on them to inject some much needed nuance or tafsil into the discourse. One example concerns the driving factor behind terrorism of the ISIS type. Some insist it is driven solely by oppression, foreign policy, or other similar rational grievances: religion has no hand in it whatsoever. Others dismiss such naiveté and aver it is inspired purely by the vile, totalitarian ideology of Islamism (and for some, just Islam): they brook no further discussion about it.
The reality is that religion plays a role, less as a driver of their behaviour, but more as a vehicle for their pathologies and political outrage. To deny the role of foreign policy in nurturing violent extremism is as naive or coloured by self interest as denying the role of a twisted fiqh-cum-theology in fostering it. Until we acknowledge and tackle both gremlins, we fail public security and give kudos to a false political narrative. This has been my experience, since the early 1990s, while engaging some of the key voices and ideologues of such extremism. As for the twisted theology bit, I’ve attempted to discuss this in: Khawarij Ideology: ISIS Savagery.
Another fitnah scholars must be circumspect about is: giving fatwas under siege. Ibn Hamdan, a highly accomplished legalist in the Hanbali school, explains: ‘Fatwa is not to be given in a state where the heart is preoccupied or inhibited from examination or careful deliberation; because of anger, hunger, thirst, sadness, grief, fear, melancholy, overwhelming joy, sleepiness, fatigue, illness, irritating heat, intense cold, or needing to answer the call of nature.’6
If, as can be seen from above, pretty much any debilitating emotional or physical state renders giving a fatwa a no no, what about the state where a mufti is under relentless socio-political and psychological pressures to get Islam to conform to the essentially atheistic, liberal landscape? Or the case where a mufti’s mind and moods of the heart have already been significantly colonised by the attitudes of the dominant [Western] monoculture? How will that affect the quality, integrity and correctness of the fatwa? To think this does not already happen is to live in a cocooned or naive state. How else can one explain why proposed maqasid-based reforms to the shari‘ah so often seem to be of Western inspiration. ‘The public interest (maslahah, maqsad),’ says Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, ‘always turns out to take the form of what is intelligible and desirable to those outside Islam.’7
For the above reasons and more, scholars, perhaps more than ever before, need to be spiritually rooted. The temptations that are touted before them, or the convincers to compromise aspects of the faith and its scholastic teachings, are perhaps greater now than they’ve ever been. Fitnahs so easily throw intellects off balance, and sullying the intentions of a single scholar is more beloved to Iblis than causing a thousand feet of the general Muslim public to stumble. For such reasons our fiqh needs to be deepened and made much wiser; reading and intellectualisation need to be both broadened and sharpened; an atmosphere needs to be cultivated of being less judgemental and more judicious; hostility to sins needn’t be carried over to sinners; and the ego’s pretensions need to be reigned in and conditioned by humility and spiritual poverty (faqr). If we’re not spiritually-anchored, there’s a huge danger of being cast adrift in the tumultuous socio-political storms of the age.
As scholars try to remain alert against the fitnah of governments domesticating them; as they train themselves to deliberate not just on quick-fix fatwas or short term goals, but the longer-term vision too; and as they deepen the virtue of zuhd in their personal lives (the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘What is little but suffices is better than what is plentiful but distracts’8), let them not loose sight of the following:
Where the Makkan Quraysh failed to see the disconnect between them and the pure message of Abrahamic monotheism or tawhid; and failed to heed the discontent and exploitation of the masses by a powerful, wealthy elite, the Prophet ﷺ saw it, felt it, and Allah caused him to give voice to it. The fact that: ‘The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets,’9 as one hadith says, should cause them to follow suite in seeking to heal the disconnect and discontent; in whatever community, and in whatever time or place they find themselves.
We beseech You, O Allah, to protect our scholars, and increase them in goodness, understanding, courage and wisdom. We ask that You place honour in our hearts for sacred knowledge and its inheritors. And save us, O Lord, from poisoning our souls by slandering the scholars. Amin!
1. Abu Dawud, no.2869; al-Tirmidhi, no.2256., who said: ‘This hadith is hasan gharib.’
2. Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar al-Minhaj, 2015), 175-6.
3. ‘Ma Dhi’ban Ja’i‘an’ in Majmu‘ Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2003), 1:86.
4. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 644.
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 be scattered. Amin!
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.
While righteous anger when the Prophet ﷺ is mocked or insulted is integral to faith, we Muslims need to invest greater efforts into adhering to the actual obligations and duties instated by faith – be it in our acts or worship; our ethics and behaviour; our relationships; or our social contracts and transactions. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘All my followers will enter Paradise except those who refuse.’ On being asked who refuses, he said: ‘Those who obey me will enter Paradise, while those who disobey me have infact refused.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7280]
While debating whether one should have the right to gratuitous offence or not, or the limits to freedom of speech (for it does indeed have limits and restrictions), this is as good a time as any to take stock of our own commitment to the life and teachings of the Prophet ﷺ and how much we exemplify it or not in our daily lives and conduct: So let those who contravene his command beware lest an affliction befall them or a painful punishment smite them. [24:63] In contrast: Whoever obeys God and His Messenger, they are with those whom God has blessed, of the prophet and the truthful [highest] saints, and the martyrs, and the righteous. What fine company they are! [4:69]
While pointing out the inconsistencies, double standards or blatant Islamophobia in and among the Je suis Charlie voices (both in France as well as elsewhere), we need the voices of our scholars to give us clearer guidance on how and why we cannot take the law into our own hands in the democracies in which we live and consider home, even when Islam’s sacred symbols have become open game: You will surely hear much that is offensive from those who were given scripture before you, and from idolaters. But if you persevere patiently and fear God, such are weighty factors in all affairs. [3:186]
While we call into question the commitment to freedom of speech of many heads of state who marched so sanctimoniously against the disgraceful Paris killings, it is time we questioned how committed we are to the revealed truths of our din – individually and collectively – and how deep our convictions in them really run: Lose not heart, nor grieve. For you shall prevail, if you are truly believers. [3:139] That we prevail not, but are prevailed over, says something very troubling about our collective commitment to religion and revealed truths.
While we still feel the reverberations of the Paris murders and sense more than a little hypocrisy in how the French Republic selectively enacts its freedom of expression, it’s important to also hold ourselves to account and weed out hypocrisy from our actions and persona: ‘The signs of a hypocrite are three, even if he prays and fasts and claims that he is a Muslim: when he speaks, he lies; when he makes a promise, he reneges on it; and when he is entrusted, he betrays his trust.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.33; Muslim, no.107] A far more serious form of hypocrisy is highlighted in the following verse: And when it is said to them: ‘Come to that which God has sent down and to the Messenger,’ you see the hypocrites turn away from you in aversion. [4:61]
While mainstream Muslims denounce such crimes, dismissing them as acts of fringe extremist with troubled pasts, political grievances and little religious learning, we also admit that such acts of lawlessness are now a growing concern within and outside the House of Islam. And yet, as angry and enraged young souls trample over traditional Islamic teachings and ignore established leaders and scholarship, we Muslims need to each play our part in quelling this rising tide of religious anarchy that was foretold to us in this next hadith: ‘God does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; rather He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’ [Bukhari, no.100; Muslim, no.2673]
While freedom of expression currently forbids insulting race and ethnicity, it has no such qualm when it comes to pouring scorn upon beliefs and ideologies – religious or otherwise. Free speech is deemed to be the core value of democracy: a precondition to progress and the guarantor of liberty. The only constraints on it are things like libel, slander, hate speech, obscenity, incitement to violence, and severe and specific threats to public safety. All else is taken to be fair game. And yet Charlie Hebdo didn’t occur in a vacuum. The cartoons come at a time when scorn, bigotry, discrimination, physical violence, mosque burnings as well as a growing host of legal handicaps are day-to-day realities for European Muslims. In what way do such cartoons not serve to further the xenophobic contempt for a community already ill-protected, maligned and under significant social siege?
While much of the West has shown its outrage for the attack on the cherished value of free speech, Muslims will do well to recall that denigrating the Prophet ﷺ – whom they cherish more than any other, for they believe him to be a prophet of God and the epitome of piety, purity and goodness – is a capital offence under classical Islamic law. In a Muslim land where such law is sovereign and applicable, and after investigation, trial and the due process of law, it is the state’s prerogative to carry out the sentence of blasphemy: a crime punishable by death. Just how outraged the Western world may feel about this should be neither here nor there. As for vigilante killing in non-Muslim polities, where neither Islamic law nor its jurisdiction applies, we should recognise it for what it is: criminality and murder. It neither has the validation of classical Islamic law, nor the endorsement of any established, living scholarly authority.
While many see in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy the symbols of the moral superiority of Western values and civilisation, others may ask: How can there be civilisation without civility? And how can there be civility when gratuitous offence is allowed for nothing more than its own sake? Of course, Muslims should understand that those outside of their faith are free, and should be free, to criticise Islam; question its teachings; and challenge its beliefs, laws and ethics; and even reject it out of hand, if they so choose. If some Muslims feel slightly queasy about that, they simply need to get thicker skins: There is no compulsion in religion, is what the Qur’an says. [2:256] What most Muslims, I suspect, are trying to say is this: If for nothing more than community cohesion and peaceful coexistence, let’s avoid senseless provocation and gratuitous offence merely for its own sake. Let’s learn to be a tad more civil.