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.
One of the enormous achievements of our Prophet, peace be upon him, is that in less than twenty years he managed to bring law and order to a land that had hitherto been plagued with lawlessness and the absence of any political organisation whatsoever. In the event of a crime or injustice being committed, the norm was for the injured party to take the law into its own hands and dispense “justice” to the aggressor. Usually, this would lead to acts of great barbarity and would normally provoke reprisals, vendettas and tribal feuds which could often drag on for generation after generation. War was a permanent feature of pre-Islamic Arabian society. Rule of law didn’t enter the picture; ‘asabiyyah (“tribalism”, “clan zealotry” or “partisanship”) did.
By the time the final verse of the Qur’an had been revealed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, the Arabian Peninsular had undergone a profound transformation. For the Prophet had taken the fierce loyalties and strong sense of solidarity, which hitherto had been centred around tribe and clan, and extended it to embrace the whole society of believers; the ummah. Blood feuds and tribal vendettas were chiselled away to be replaced by a community which collectively worked for social welfare and service to others. The old traditions of tribal raiding were directed away from personal ambition or clan bravado towards the idea of jihad, fought for the sake of Allah, against tyranny and injustice and in order to make the word of Allah triumphant. Islam quarried the traits of the Arabs; elevating and refining their virtues like hospitality, generosity and chivalry, but rejecting their intemperance, zealotry and casual cruelty. The result was that a more egalitarian society arose, which valued the culture of law and order that the new religion brought, in the form of Islam’s Sacred Law or shari’ah (and the highly sophisticated fiqh, or jurisprudence, which would develop shortly after).
Given the above, it will come as no surprise how disdainfully Islam looks upon things like vigilante “justice”, taking the law into one’s own hands, anarchy, civil war, rabble-rousing that endangers collective security, or whatever gives rise to a mob mentality that seeks to jeopardise public order. The shari’ah, though it makes provisions for the public to air political grievances, strongly condemns the use of violence, or an assault against law and order, for such ends. As Islam sees it, such things would be a return to jahiliyyah – the pre-Islamic days of ignorance, lawlessness, arbitrary justice, vendettas and blind tribal zealotry! The laws regarding rebel insurgents, rebellion and political violence to or from the state are outlined in the smaller manuals of fiqh, and fleshed out in the larger ones, under the section: qital al-bughat/ahl al-baghi – “fighting rebel insurgents.”
Currently, much of what is called the Muslim world is haunted by great violence and political turmoil. Whether due to armed rebellion, civil war, sectarian schism, military occupation, state tyranny, Western interference, or petrodollar meddling, carnage and conflicts rage on. What follows are some hadiths that speak about such End of Days violence and how we are to act during such chaotic and confusing times. Indeed the believer puts more stock in the prophetic counsels and warnings about the end times, than he does his own ego-driven rationalisations.
1. Abu Musa relates that Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: ‘Before the Hour comes there will be harj!’ I said: O Messenger of Allah, what is harj? He said: ‘Killing.’ Some of the Muslims inquired: O Messenger of Allah, now we slay [in battle] such and such number of idolaters in a single year. Allah’s Messenger said: ‘This will not be like slaying the idolaters. Instead, you will kill one another, to the extent that a person will kill his neighbour, his nephew and relatives!’ Some people said: O Messenger of Allah, will we be in our right minds that day? He replied: ‘No! For reason will have departed from most people at that time, and there shall remain only the dregs of people who will be devoid of reason. Most of them will assume they are upon something, but they won’t be upon any thing.’1
Thus we are assured in this hadith that madness shall descend upon the mob, giving rise to bloodshed and violence; giving rise to the marauding reckless herd. The story’s all too familiar. Whether due to civil war, or mob hysteria, or for reasons completely unclear, the frenzied herd throw reason and pious caution to the wind and goes on a rampage (a case of the mob having many heads but no brains). This itself is nothing new. What will be different about the End of Days drama is the frequency with which slaughter and bloodshed occur, and the intensity. No doubt, the carnage that modern, mechanised weapons of violence can inflict is unlike anything else that has ever come before. In certain instances, these “dregs of people devoid of reason” won’t even know what they are actually fighting for. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life, a time is coming upon the people when the killer will not know why he killed and the victim will not know why he was killed.’2 Such are times when people are blinded to the truth by their desires, anger or political grievances (real or perceived), as in the hadith: ‘There will be civil strife which will render people deaf, dumb and blind. Those who give it consideration will be drawn by it, and giving reign to the tongue during it will be like striking with the sword.’3
In some instances, there will be legitimate grievances and reasons to be angry. But the means won’t justify the ends. Seeking redress of wrongs is certainly mandated in the religion. But not through violence and bloodshed; nor by pitting one Muslim against another, as in a civil war. All of this is expressly haram. In fact, seldom does righting such socio-political wrongs ever warrant the chaos, killing and intense social unrest which normally ensues in these affairs. Righting a wrong must never lead to a greater harm, or wrong, prevailing. That, too, would be haram. The Arabs say: al-‘aqil la yubni qasr wa yuhaddimu misr – ‘The intelligent one doesn’t build a palace by laying waste to the city.’4 How much more absurd if the grievance, for which swords are drawn, does not amount to a palace, but only a garden shed or a tin hut!
One of the main reasons that will give rise to so much unprecedented slaughter is the fitnah of civil wars, which is the subject of the next hadith:
2. Abu Dharr narrates that Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: ‘How will you be when killing will afflict the people such that Ahjar al-Zayt will be blood drenched?’ I said: Whatever Allah and His Prophet want of me. He said: ‘Be with those who are like-minded as you are.’ I said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, should I not take my sword and strike those who do that? He said: ‘Then you shall be just like them. Instead, stay in your house.’ I said: O Messenger of Allah, what if they enter my house? He said: ‘If you are afraid that the glimmer of the sword will dazzle you, lift the edge of your garment over your face and let him bear his own sin as well as yours; and he will be one of the denizens of Hell.’5
Another hadith runs as follows: ‘Before the Hour there will be civil strife like pieces of dark night, in which a man will be a believer in the morning and an unbeliever by the evening; or a believer in the evening and an unbeliever by the morning. He who sits during it is better than he who stands; and he who stands is better than he who walks; and he who walks is better than the he who runs. So during such times, break your bows, cut your bow-strings and blunt your swords upon stones. If one of them should enter upon you, then be like the better of the two sons of Adam.’6
Civil war, referred to in Arabic as fitnah (“sedition” or “civil unrest”) is where Muslim is pitted against Muslim. Islamic history has seen, and continues to see, its fare share of civil wars. But as the above hadith (and others like it) shows, a believer is required to do his or her utmost not to fan the flames of civil war, let alone shed blood for any particular faction – even if it means resigning oneself to being killed. And though it is easier said than done in the heat of the moment, the prophetic counsel here is: better to be killed than to kill. Those with the blood of Muslims on their hands, for whatever political goal or agenda, may have, in all likelihood, damned themselves. The Prophet, peace be upon him, warned in no uncertain terms: ‘Whoever fights under the banner of blind zeal, becoming angry for partisanship, calling to partisanship or aiding it, and is killed, dies upon jahiliyyah. And whosoever attacks my ummah, slaying its righteous and wicked alike, not sparing any believer, nor upholding his pledge [of allegiance], he is not of me, nor I of him.’7
In times of great public upheaval one definitely needs a level head and avoid the hot-heads; for they are about as much use as walnuts are to the toothless. One must also cling to the prophetic advice about keeping out of the fitnah, by staying at home and shunning the political agitators, seditionists and strife-mongers; avoiding them like one would do the plague. It is imperative also that one seeks to be guided by the wise counsel of seasoned ‘ulema in such tricky affairs; for they best comprehend the fiqh, theology and purposes of the religion. Above all, we should pray to Allah for wellbeing (‘afiyah) and security (aman); for there’s nothing like asking Him for ‘afiyah.Sayyiduna Abu Bakr once stood on the pulpit and wept, saying; Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, once stood in our midst on the pulpit while shedding tears and saying: ‘Ask Allah for forgiveness and wellbeing; for after certainty (yaqin) none has been given anything better than wellbeing.’8
Unjustified accusations of takfir – “excommunication”; declaring other Muslims to be unbelievers and apostates – is a vile scourge that underpins much of the slaughter and carnage that is currently visited upon Muslims and their lands; which is what the next hadith addresses:
3. Hudhayfah narrated that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Truly what I most fear for you is a man who will recite the Qur’an until its radiance appears on him and he becomes a support to Islam, changing it to whatever Allah wills. He then separates from it, casts it behind his back and raises the sword against his neighbour, accusing him of idolatry (shirk).’ I asked: O Prophet of Allah, who most deserves to be imputed with shirk; the accused or the accuser? He replied: ‘The accuser.’9
This depicts to a tee the trajectory of many a takfiri. Enthused with a commitment to Islam, taking steps to improve their religious practice (usually just external practices), reading a few booklets, surfing a few websites, yet ignorant of how ignorant they truly are, they take to the takfiri narrative. In their ideology, they and those who agree with them are Muslims, while all other Muslims are apostates, idolators or Allah’s enemies whose blood is lawful. If circumstances are right, murder and mayhem usually follow. Ego, false piety and their own pathetic pathologies are often the driving forces behind such takfiri zealotry. And although a few trajectories are more complex and nuanced than this, most are probably not.
Let’s be clear here. What the above hadith is censuring isn’t takfir, per se, but wanton and unjustified takfir. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said – as reported in another hadith: ‘Whoever accuses someone of disbelief, or of being an enemy of Allah, whilst he is not like that, it will return back to him.’10 The issue of takfir has been previously discussed on this blog, in a piece entitled, Takfir: Its Dangers & Its Rules (which may be read here).
Imam al-Ghazali stated: ‘One ought to guard against imputing takfir as much as one can. For to render lawful the lives and property of those who pray towards the qiblah and clearly state that there is no deity [worthy of worship] but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger (la ilaha illa’Llah muhammadur-rasulu’Llah) is a serious matter. To err in leaving a thousand unbelievers alive is preferable than to err in shedding a drop of Muslim blood.’11
Ever since its origins in the mid-eighteenth century in the oasis settlements of Najd; central Arabia, most of its critics, opponents and foes have insisted that Wahhabism is an extremist, takfiri ideology. Without wading into that debate; and without arguing that Wahhabism in and of itself is responsible for takfir and terrorism – which have a whole host of social, economic, doctrinal and political causes – it does seem to supply the ideological conditions for takfir and religious violence on account of its intolerant and absolutist claims. This isn’t to say that all Wahhabis [Salafis] are takfiris or violent extremists. Absolutely not. Many are quietist and apolitical. Others are political, but eschew violence as a method for change. It is only a relatively tiny minority that seeks as much militant mileage out of Wahhabi-Salafi teachings as possible.12
The scourge of takfir is now a global epidemic. Indiscriminate violence, destruction of lives and property, decimation of public security and bloody sectarian violence are its fruits. The image of Islam has never been so tarnished or been made to appear so vile. Those who, for reasons of wanting to revive the Sunnah, opened the door for ordinary Muslims to ‘weigh-up’ and follow the ‘strongest’ proof in issues of taharah, salat and personal piety, but somehow imagined that they could keep the door closed when it came to the more delicate matter of politics and public affairs – well that logic doesn’t seem to have faired too good. Those ‘ulema who opened that door now see droves of ignorant and unqualified people rushing through it and making wild and not so wild fatwas on Islam – undermining qualified juristic authority, creating religious anarchy, and tearing apart whatever remains of Muslim unity – and they don’t know what to do or how to stem this tide. And, of course, out of this collapse of traditional scholarly authority have come the takfiris, with their terror and tribulations.
Islam is too good for wild egos to eclipse its light; for ignorance, anarchy and political violence to block out its beauty. The door to such takfir must be closed; as must those to religious anarchy. The narrative of groups like al-Qaeda, Boko Haram or ISIS seek to cheapen the sanctity of human life, in general; and of the people of la ilaha illa’Llah muhammadur-rasulu’Llah, in particular. Their takfiri ideology must be repudiated and rejected: wisely, firmly and courageously. We must also reaffirm amongst ourselves as Muslims – in spite of our sectarian divisions, and despite the orthodox and heterodox amidst us – that Muslim life and blood is sacrosanct. One hadith tells us that during one of the battles, one of the Muslims subdued one of the enemy combatants and was about to slay him, when unexpectedly the man uttered the shahadah – the Testimony of Faith, and declared that he was a Muslim. Believing that he only became a Muslim to avoid being slain in battle, the Muslim plunged his sword into him and killed him. When the Prophet, peace be upon him, was informed about this he rebuked the man, telling him that he should never have tried to second guess that person’s intentions. A short while later the man died. They buried him, only to find the following morning that the earth had cast him out and he was lying on the ground. So they buried him again, only to find the earth had cast him out yet again. On informing him about this unusual incident, the Prophet, peace be upon him, declared: ‘Truly the earth accepts those who are worse than him. But Allah wanted you to see how great is the sanctity of la ilaha illa’Llah.‘13
1. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3959, Ahmad, Musnad, no.19509. It was graded as sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1682.
2. Muslim, no.2908.
3. Abu Dawud, no.4264. Its chain contains some weakness, as was detailed by Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Hidayat al-Ruwat ila Takhrij al-Ahadith Masabih wa’l-Mishkat (Cairo: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 2001), 5:97, no.5329.
4. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 17:420.
5. Ibn Majah, no.3958. It is sahih, as per Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, Ibn Majah al-Qazwini, al-Sunan (Damascus: Dar Risalah al-‘Alamiyyah, 2009), 5:105-6.
6. Ibn Majah, no.3961; al-Tirmidhi, no.2204, who said that it is hasan. As for being the better of the two sons of Adam, this is a reference to Abel who was killed by his older brother Cain.
7. Muslim, no.1848.
8. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3558, saying: the hadith is hasan gharib. Al-Albani, however, graded it hasan sahih in his critical edition of al-Mundhari, al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh, Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2004), no.4869.
9. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.282. Ibn Kathir said: ‘Its chain is excellent (jayyid).’ See: Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar a-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 2:276.
10. Muslim, no.61.
11. Al-Ghazali, al-Iqtisad fi’l-I‘tiqad (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2012), 305.
12. Of course, this three-fold classification doesn’t take into account the fierce intra-Wahhabi/Salafi polemic where one group denounces the other of not being Salafi, or part of the Saved-Sect. Instead, I use such labels and classifications reluctantly, and in very broad terms. I have also equated Salafism with Wahhabism, again reluctantly and for the sake of brevity; though others may feel to make nuanced distinctions between the two. It is also worth noting that many quietist Salafis have been at the forefront of countering the takfiri narrative; not just post 9/11, but since the early 1990s.
13. Ibn Majah, no.3930. The hadith was declared hasan in al-Albani, Sunan Ibn Majah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, n.d.), 648-9.
* This piece was originally written for www.islamicate.co.uk and is posted here with kind permission.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien puts these words into the mouth of the brave though modest Faramir (younger brother to the brave but impulsive Boromir): ‘War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I only love that which they defend …’
In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’1 Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following words of the Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask God for safety. When you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’2 In other words, pursue the path of peace, with the presence of justice; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently.
War, invariably, can and does throw up immense carnage and destruction, and brings untold human loss and suffering. Yet it is also where some of the profoundest acts of courage, bravery and heroism are found, as well as invaluable lessons for life. In what follows, we shall look at two battles in the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and their core lessons that need internalising:
The first lesson is from the Battle of Uhud. It began at dawn on Friday, March 25th, 2H/624AD, a year on from the Battle of Badr. The Muslims numbered seven hundred against an enemy three-thousand strong. The prestige of the Makkan idolaters was at stake for the crushing defeat they suffered at Badr – including seventy deaths and just as many taken captive. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned his men so that Mount Uhud was behind them. The only way the Makkan cavalry could attack them now was from infront, so the Prophet posted fifty archers on a rise with strict orders to stay put, no matter what happened. This would be an excellent strategy, provided the archers obeyed their orders. But by nightfall, and due to the archers abandoning their post (thus leaving the rear of the army unguarded), the fortunes of war changed and disaster befell the Muslims: the Prophet would be wounded and seventy Muslims would be killed. But it didn’t have to be that way.
The Companion, Bara’ b. ‘Azib, recounts: We encountered the pagans on that day [of Uhud]. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned a group of archers and appointed ‘Abd Allah [b. Jubayr] as their leader, saying: ‘Do not leave this position. If you should see us defeat them, do not leave this position; if you should see them defeating us, do not come to our aid.’ When we met the enemy they fled on their heels, to the extent that we saw their women fleeing to the mountains, lifting their dresses and revealing their anklets. Some people started saying: ‘The booty, the booty!’ But ‘Abd Allah said: ‘The Prophet took an oath from me to not leave this post.’ His companions, however, disobeyed. So when they disobeyed, Allah confused them, so they did not know where to go, and because of which they suffered seventy deaths.3
Ibn al-Qayyim comments: ‘This calamity that struck them was as a result of their own actions. Allah 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. Allah is able to do all things.’ [3:165] And He mentioned this very same matter in that which is more general than this, in one of the Makkan chapters: Whatever misfortune befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And He said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] So the good and bad mentioned here refer to blessings and misfortunes: Blessings are what Allah favours you with, while misfortunes occur because of your own selves and your misdeeds. The first is from His grace (fadl); the second, His justice (‘adl).’4
So the single most important lesson to learn from Uhud is that whenever we Muslims suffer defeat – be it on the battlefield of swords, ideas, or hearts and minds – we are to blame ourselves, take account of our souls and repent for our sins. There being no other way to correct our course. For despite the enemy attacking the Muslims from their unprotected rear and being the reason why one believer after another was cut down and killed; and despite the enemy being the reason for Muslim flight turning to full-scale panic as the Prophet, peace be upon him, was knocked down by a crushing blow to the head – the Qur’an still laid the blame for these calamities squarely at the feet of the Muslims: 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]
Nor was the defeat the result of the entire army’s disobedience, or even the majority; but because of less than fifty men among a total of seven-hundred! If such can be the consequences of a sin of a tiny minority, what then about the plethora of sins or acts of disobedience committed by a heedless, unrepentant, transgressing majority!
And tragically, as frequent as these verses appear in the Qur’an, we still choose not to internalise them or allow them to enter into our hearts. Instead, we allow our souls to be invaded by a false victim mentality and choose to play the blame game. We accuse all and sundry for our political woes and misfortunes – the West, the rulers, bankers, Zionists, along with a whole host of conspiracy theories which plague our minds and cripple our thinking – but we never accuse ourselves. We are keen to hold to account other people – in a way that contains no pity, mercy or leeway – but are not prepared to take ourselves to any serious account. And yet: Allah never changes the condition of a people unless they change what is within themselves. [13:11] Thus while we are clear about the evils of Assad and his crimes of carnage in Syria; and the shameless hypocrisy and tyranny of al-Sisi et al. in Egypt, we tend to steer shy of the all-important question of why such calamities occurred in the first place. The Quranic reply to this is very likely to be: Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] Isn’t it? And while this does not excuse us from raising our hands in prayer, and giving as much humanitarian aid as possible, we still need to sincerely confront the deeper question.
The second lesson we will consider is the Battle of Hunayn. It is Wednesday morning, February 2nd, 8H/630AD. The Muslim army, now twelve thousand strong, marched towards the valley of Hunayn to encounter the Hawazin tribe and their allies, whose number was perhaps a third of that of the Muslims. It is worth noting that two years earlier, when the Prophet came to Makkah for the lesser pilgrimage, or ‘umrah, only 1,400 people were with him. This was the time when the Prophet, peace be upon him, concluded the peace treaty with the Makkans at Hudaybiyah. A few months later, the same number fought alongside him at the Battle of Khaybar. And in previous battles, their numerical strength had been far smaller. But this time, many of the newcomers to Islam felt a sense of euphoria and over confidence as they observed the size of their army. They felt sure that, having previously won battle after battle with much smaller numbers, such large numbers would make victory a sure certainty. But as soon as the Muslims reached the valley, they were met with a fierce, unexpected torrent of arrows from all directions. Caught off guard, confused and overwhelmed, the Muslims were forced into a chaotic and panicked retreat. And though the Muslims would eventually prevail as victors in this battle (for the Prophet, as ever, remained calm in his wisdom, certainty and faith: he eventually rallied a hundred men and inflicted a most crushing defeat on the enemy), it wasn’t without many of them being slain in the ambush first. The Qur’an says: Allah had already helped you on many fields, and on the day of Hunayn, when you delighted in your numerical strength, it availed you nothing. And the earth, vast as it was, narrowed on you, and you turned back in retreat. [9:24]
Ibn al-Qayyim again: ‘Thus from Allah’s wisdom, transcendent is He, is that He first made them taste the bitterness of defeat and of being overcome – despite their large numbers, strength and preparation – so that heads that were raised in the Conquest of Makkah, should be lowered. For they did not enter His city and sanctuary as Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, had done: head bowed upon his horse; to the extent that his head almost touched the saddle out of humility to his Lord, humbleness to His glory, and submission to His might. For Allah had made lawful to him His sacred city [Makkah] and sanctuary, and had not made it lawful to anyone before him nor to anyone after him. [All this occurred] so that He could make it clear to those who said, “We will not be defeated today due to our numbers,” that help and victory come from Him alone; that whomsoever He helps, none can overcome; and that whomsoever He forsakes, none can grant victory to. [And that] it was He who took it upon Himself to give victory to His Messenger and to His religion – not because of their numbers that they revelled in. Such numbers, in fact, were of no avail to them, since they turned and fled. But when their hearts were humbled, Allah sent down the removal of their distress and a foretaste of victory by sending down His tranquility upon His Prophet and upon the believers, and by sending an army unseen. Hence from His wisdom is that He sends down His victory and gifts to them when their hearts become humbled and broken: And We desired to show favour to those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them leaders, and make them inheritors. And to grant them power in the earth, and to show Pharaoh, Haman and their hosts that which they feared. [28:5-6]’5
The core lesson of Hunayn is, undoubtedly, to never overlook the real, most essential reason for victory: Allah. For victory comes from Him, not from numerical strength. (We do, however, have a duty to tie our camel, as one hadith says, and to then trust in Him.) The Muslims were initially given to taste the bitterness of defeat in order that they might remember precisely this. In fact, large numbers – in the absence of hearts feeling humbled before the majesty and might of Allah – are of little use. Having been taught a lesson in humility; having their pretensions of numerical strength shattered; and having presented their broken hearts to Allah, Allah then granted the believers victory at Hunayn at the hands of a small band of courageous, steadfast Muslims who remained dedicated to the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Allah is with the broken-hearted and will call overconfident, self-assured Muslims to account if they exult in their numbers or their material achievements – as He will call proud establishments and arrogant religiousness to account.
W’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Ibn Hajr al-Haytami citing al-Zarkashi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj bi Sharh al-Minhaj (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1972), 9:211.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.2991. For comparisons between Jihad theory and Western Just War theory, consult: Kelsay & Johnson (eds.), Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York, Westport & London: Greenwood Press, 1991).
This is a companion piece to the previous blog I wrote, called: British Muslims & their Strategies for Living in the UK (which can be read here). Here, I will discuss a few of the principles which ought to animate our engagement with wider society and our fellow citizens; and how, in the time honoured tradition of Abrahamic monotheism, we are called upon to hold a mirror up to society and help steer it away from self-harm.
One Qur’anic verse is particularly telling on this point, for it says: Thus have We made you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses over mankind and that the Messenger may be a witness over you. [2:143] Thus this ‘community of the middle way’, distant from all types of extremism; this ‘best part of everything,’1 has been tasked with the burden of being witnesses over mankind: witnesses to the truth of God’s Prophets and to the monotheistic message they each came with, and witnesses to the truth that a life lived in hedonistic pursuits will not bring about human happiness.
Muslims are called to witness that: Indeed We have created man in hardship [90:4]; that each day of our life brings a host of difficulties, discomforts and disappointments. We must bear witness too that while the monoculture teaches us to drown them out with drink, drugs and distractions; monotheism insists that our happiness is greatest when we face such trials patiently, stoically and responsibly: Those who endure with patience will be rewarded without measure. [39:10] ‘We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who show patience.’ [2:155] Adversity, then, is the non-negotiable fee that each of us must pay for the privilege of being born.
To be a witness is to be actively engaged. Isolationist policies that some Muslims have chosen stifle such witnessing. And who can be better in speech than one who calls others to God, does what is right, and says: ‘I am one of the Muslims’, states the Qur’an [41:33] In another verse, the Prophet, peace be upon him, is told to declare: Say: ‘This is my path. I call to God, clear-sightedly, I and those who follow me.’ [12:108] Isolationism oftentimes leads to ghettoisation and to monotheism’s lights being veiled from reaching others. The call need not be verbal: ‘actions speak louder than words’, and doing what is right has a greater impact on hearts than words alone. Debating the correctness of tawhid over shirk undeniably has its place and can help win arguments. But the conviction of tawhid lived out in a life of prayer, piety, charity, service and sacrifice tends to have a decisive edge in softening souls and inviting intellects.
Let us also recall that the uncompromising monotheism of God’s Prophets, peace be upon them, didn’t arise in the wilderness, or away from centres of civilisation or civic life. We only sent before you men to whom We reveal, of the people of the towns. [12:109] Some Prophets may have been driven to the wilderness, exiled there, or taken refuge there for a while. A few have felt the need to head for the hills for a time. But the core of their call was decisively urban and city-centred.
Prophetic cries from the wilderness there have been. But Prophets offer us something practicable and liveable; something people may actualise in their urban worlds which would help them to be recognisably human and spiritual. Along with an unflinching monotheism, the history of the great monotheistic epics were rooted in impassioned protests against corruption, tyranny, social iniquity or ‘the privilege and arrogance of power, whether that of kings as in the Hebrew bible, or the Roman Empire as in the Gospels, or a tribal elite as in the Quran.’2 Historical records show that what we now refer to as the drive for social justice was the idealistic underpinning of monotheistic faith. Such is the energy of the monotheistic call and the prophetically-inspired voices of dissent. Opium of the people? Nothing was ever less an opiate than a monotheistic religion of sacred discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
So what are we Muslims to be or to do here in the West; in the place where most of us call home? What is it that we can offer? We can’t be mere armchair critics of society, that’s for sure; nor can we continue to moan from the fringes. We could, I suppose, settle as comfortably as possible into the consumerist culture and live our lives mostly for material pursuits. But that would be to shirk away from the commitment we have made to Abrahamic monotheism, to la ilaha ila’Llah, and ignore the demands it makes on us in terms of working for a more just, compassionate and ethical society.
We could, as some of us do, wallow in self pity and a culture of blame, accusing others for our woes and predicament, unable to move beyond past grievances. But that is to be ignorant of faith and the sense of personal responsibility, empowerment, hope and optimism that the monotheistic belief injects into individuals. ‘Monotheism makes a difference to what we believe and do,’3 and to the way we see our lives unfold and our responses to it. It is impossible to be moved by the prophetic call and not have a social conscience. Their message, delivered in the name of God, is: worship God alone, and take responsibility. For the world will not get better of its own accord.
We could opt for a browbeaten facsimile of monotheism, having nothing to say about our ever-growing social ills or the downwards spiral of spiritual decadence; content to pander to corporate agendas and the money markets; desperate to confine religion to the home, vexed whenever it enters the public space; servile to the monoculture; and in homage to the modern liberal state. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop, says that ‘the liberal Christian approach assumes that the business of Christian commitment is not to produce lives that participate in the holiness of Christ so much as lives that can be lived with a fairly easy conscience within the arrangement of the modern state.’4 Theology aside, the above applies equally to Muslim liberals as it does Christian ones; those who see the Qur’an as little more than a social manifesto which wholeheartedly endorses the liberal orthodoxies of our age. A privatisation of religion, no doubt; but a publicisation of a shameless defeatism too.
As explained before, Islam’s monotheism calls upon us to be witnesses; it equally calls upon us to be healers too: We send the Messengers only to bring good news and to warn. So those who believe and set things aright, no fear shall come upon them and nor shall they grieve. [6:48] This setting things aright; this healing, rings out in the next passage too: Have you seen him who denies the religion? Such is he who repels the orphan and who does not urge others to feed the poor. [107:1-2] This monotheistic spirit of healing has been eloquently expressed by Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes: ‘We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.’5
Monotheism undoubtedly urges compassion, but it demands courage too. It is not for the faint-hearted. For as its vision of the world inspires us to partake in the healing of society’s many wounds, it exhorts we be critical iconoclasts too: questioning society’s conventional wisdoms, challenging the secular orthodoxies of the age, speaking truth to power, calling into question whether universal human rights are actually universal, and interrogating liberalism to find out if it is merely a sophisticated veneer for a new type of totalitarianism that is unable to accept any true and meaningful diversity and unwilling to accommodate any significant voices of dissent.
In short: monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. That we heal and we dissent. An apparent paradox? Monotheism’s vision is very much about how to square such paradoxical circles.
Abdal Hakim Murad spoke of the need for Muslims to square the proverbial circle in these terms: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’6
As to the rather tiresome question of whether or not Muslims can truly be at home in the West, then this is answered by the great bulk of ordinary mosque-going Western Muslims with a resounding “yes”. Millions of Muslims who live in the West continue to demonstrate that they are, with different degrees of accommodation, at home with the realities of life in the West. Those bread and butter issues which concern Western Muslims are concerns for everyone else too. Their specific challenge, however, is how to remain conscientious believers whilst being responsible, law-abiding citizens. Thus we need a theory to shore up the practice, and that theory must have at its centre the idea of Muslims being: shuhada ‘ala’l-nas – “witnesses over mankind”.
The hubris of the secular humanist system has placed undue strain upon life on earth. The urgent need from Muslims, therefore, is dignified dissent from the monoculture. But these prophetically-inspired voices of dissent must be infused with great wisdom, sacrifice, service and humility.
The following article was first published at www.islamicate.co.uk and is reposted here with kind permission and addition.
Wherever we look in the world today, particularly in what is called the Arab world, it’s all about people wanting change: change that brings about better governance, social justice, individual freedom, better job prospects, brighter future. Decades of tyranny, repression and authoritarian rule – something had to eventually buckle. Bewildering social changes, fast-track modernisation, rapid population growth and urbanisation, legions of jobless youths with no say in their future; all this without a corresponding evolution in politics – the human spirit cannot be indefinitely stifled. In 2011, those once stifled voices, with the benefit of social media, crescendoed into a mass protest movement; the Arab spring. Whether republics or monarchies, the bulk of the world’s 350 million Arabs, across the world’s nineteen predominantly Arabic-speaking states, demanded change!
In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen change, in the form of the collapse of decades-old dictatorships, came surprisingly quick. Other Arab states, through popular pressure, announced political reforms. Yet other states, specifically the oil-rich ones, offered an increase in public spending and other monetary concessions, in the bid to appease the restless masses. Currently, no Arab country has emerged as a paradigm or model for others, in terms of achieving the mass protests’ goals: alleviating the social problems that spawned the uprisings in the first place and a transition to becoming a stable and peaceful democracy. Instead, the jubilant optimism of 2011 has been replaced with a harsh and stark realism. The road to political change has proven to be highly chaotic and messy; even violent and bloody.
Change (taghayyur,tabdil) is, as one would expect, a central theme of the Qur’an too. There are many verses in it that speak about change (less about political, more about spiritual and social change). The following three verses of the Qur’an outline how the divine hand lends itself to societal change. It says about those who show ingratitude to God for the countless blessings He confers upon them, choosing disobedience to Him over obedience: That is because God never changes the blessings He bestows upon a people until they first change what is within themselves. [8:53] And similarly: God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is within themselves. [13:11] It also lays down a clear method to attract divine blessings and to keep them tethered: And when your Lord proclaimed: ‘If you are thankful [for my blessings], I shall give you more. But if you are ungrateful, My punishment is indeed severe.’ [14:7] Thus gratitude, made manifest in terms of obedience to God, begets an increase in blessings upon a people; ingratitude, on the other hand, professed thorough acts of disobedience to God, necessitates their withdrawal. And without the blessings of divine guidance, help and facilitation, how are things ever to improve for believers?
The much sought after political change in Muslim majority lands pretty much follows the same contours: God has promised to those among you who believe and do righteous deeds that He will surely make them successors in the land, as He made those before them successors, and that He will establish for them their religion which He has chosen for them, and that He will change their state of fear to one of security; provided they worship Me and ascribe no partner to Me. [24:55]
Therefore, those who wish to see God’s help and blessings manifest themselves in the collective lives of believers risk ignoring the above Quranic method of change at their own peril. Likewise, Muslim political analysis and activism that does not put this method at the very heart of its programme for change, is likely to be doomed from the outset. In fact, any and every political program that ignores this fundamental Quranic principle, or pays it scant attention, may in no way portray itself as “Islamic politics.” Such naivety would beggar belief!
A slightly different note, Ramadan tends to bring about radical change in Muslims; both as individuals and as communities or societies. In it, there is a heightened sense of God-conciousness and piety. A tabdil or change takes hold of the faithful, by which they find it easier to turn their gazes towards Heaven and their hearts towards God’s remembrance (dhikr). The blessed month nurtures a commitment to prayer, fasting, charity, contemplation and reciting the Qur’an. For many, the changes to the soul and the senses that Ramadan frequently wroughts, becomes the springboard for profound and lasting transformation for countless individuals, even after the month ends.
For others, the story is not so respectable. Rather than attempting to keep the spirit of Ramadan alive after the month’s end, the very first day of the new month – the day of Eid – brings with it another kind of tabdil. Prayers that were prayed fully and on time, are now missed and overlooked. Tongues which were guarded from lying, backbiting, swearing and cursing, are now unchained and their ugliness and vulgarity unleashed. And egos that were being tamed, trained and kept in check, are now given free reign. Such tabdil only distances us from our Generous Lord and draws us closer to the Fire. Those caught in this deadly, downward spiral of tabdil must make every effort to tear themselves away from it. With a firm resolve, keeping the right company and seeking God’s help, all is possible.
Returning to the Arab uprisings and tabdil. The scorecard for the Arab spring thus far does look bleak. Two-and-a-half years after ousting their dictators, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen are still struggling. A tragic experiment with democracy in Egypt has deposed an elected president via a military intervention (alternatively read, coup), landed him behind bars, and thrown the country into conflict and violence. While Syria is awash with the blood and carnage of civil war.
Does that mean the Arab spring has failed to deliver? As world revolutions and protest movements go, not really. The revolutions which swept across Europe, in 1848; or the mass protests in the United States and Europe, in 1968; or the revolution against the former Soviet empire, in 1989, were such that the initial uprisings did not bring about immediate change. What they did do was to sow the seeds of change that would reach fruition decades (or a generation) later. Perhaps the Arab spring is destined to follow a similar trajectory. Alternatively, the uprisings may end up replacing one authoritarian rule with another. Worse still, it could see the rule of tyrants replaced with decades of political violence and anarchy, and the complete collapse of public security. Whatever be the outcome(s), it seems too early to talk about success or failure.
Amidst all this uncertainty and anticipation, three key question must be asked: one of them to the West, the other two to the Muslim-Arab world.
The first: When the West speaks of pluralism and diversity, does it truly mean it? Can the West accept that there may be places in the world where the social environment is significantly different? Or is diversity reduced to differences in what one may wear or eat, or the lifestyle choices we can adopt, but with respect to the public space – public morality – it is a case of one size must fit all? Is Western-style modernity totalising, incapable of allowing for any true diversity in the public space? Can it allow the public expression of other peoples’ dreams – their right to self-determination – even if such dreams can only be themselves if they are given public expression? The Muslim world still awaits a clear response.
The second is a question of theology: Is it allowed in Islam to rebel against tyrannical leadership? If not, why not? And if so, what are the actual conditions? As foundational as this question is, it will have to be left for a future post to address.
Thirdly, while freedom from tyranny is undeniably good and necessary, we Muslims must not loose sight of an even greater freedom: freedom from the dictates of the ego (nafs). Received wisdom informs us: ma wasala ila sarihil-huriyyah man baqiyah ‘alayhi min nafsihi baqiyyah – “No one attains true freedom, as long as he remains under even the slightest influence of his own ego.” This then begs the question: If political tabdil weakens peoples’ awareness of the divine presence, or blurs the distinction between what is halal and haram, or it erodes public morality, of what benefit is such tabdil? For change is not sought for the sake of itself, and the politically astute are only those who keep the end in mind.
No doubt, the Arab spring is work in progress. Yet one can’t forget that pious Muslim sentiment, often expressed in the form of a heartfelt plea: wa’Llahu’l-musta‘an – “And God’s help is sought!”