Q. As Muslims, what should our stance be on racism or racial discrimination, and should we be supporting social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM)? And isn’t all of this support for BLM privileging justice for black people over others, especially when we Muslims realise the increasing Islamophobia and injustices being perpetrated against our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters around the globe?
A. At the outset, let me be clear about how I intend to engage these concerns. And that is by rooting them in mainstream teachings of Islam so as to address the issue of racism in a manner that might be meaningful in a British context, and recognised as being Islamic in a Muslim one. I have divided the response into five parts: [i] Islam & racism; [ii] modernity & racism; [iii] Britain & racism; [iv] Muslims & racism; and [v] BLM & racism.
I. ISLAM & RACISM
Although the following verse is not speaking of the modern social construct of racism per se, it is speaking to the pre-modern concept of groupings of people related by significant common descent; in terms of location, language, history and culture. Thus we read in the Holy Qur’an: O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and then made you nations and tribes that you might know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is he who is the most pious. God is indeed Knowing, Aware. [Q.49:13]
The Prophet ﷺ brought skin colour into the mix in these words: ‘O mankind! Indeed your Lord is one, and indeed your father is one. Truly, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor white (ahmar, lit. ‘red’ or ‘reddish’) over black, nor black over white – except by piety. Have I not conveyed [the message]?’1
In fact, the Qur’an doesn’t only negatively condemn such discrimination, but it positively and actively celebrates diversity too: And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the differences of your languages and your colours. In this are signs for people of knowledge. [Q.30:22]
The above verses and prophetic statement, then, were a total restructuring of the moral or ethical landscape prevalent throughout Arabia at the time. True worth would no longer be determined by skin colour, lineage, or even by grandiose shows of courage or generosity. Rather, true worth would be measured by taqwa – ‘piety,’ ‘godliness’ and ‘mindfulness’ of God’s commands and prohibitions.
Once, when one of the Prophet’s wives hurled a racial slur (or ethnoreligious insult, as we might say today) at another co-wife in a state of annoyance, disparagingly called her ‘the daughter of a Jew’, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Indeed, your [fore]father [Moses] was a Prophet; your [great] uncle [Aaron] was a Prophet; and you are married to a Prophet. What can she boast to you about?’2 Again, when one companion insulted another person, by insulting his mother because she was a non-Arab, the Prophet ﷺ said to him: ‘You still have some pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah) in you.’3 Thus no Muslim has even the slightest right to resurrect the vile attitude of racism; xenophobia; tribal bigotry; or insulting people due to them being seen as the ‘Other’, when the Prophet ﷺ radically eliminated such attitudes from the believer’s worldview and relationships. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘There isn’t a single verse in God’s Book that praises someone or censures someone due to just their lineage. Instead, praise is due to faith and piety, while blame is because of disbelief, immorality or disobedience.’4
II. MODERNITY & RACISM
In the 1830s, Samuel Morton, an American craniologist, amassed and studied hundreds of human skulls so as to measure differences in brain size between people from various ethnic backgrounds. Morton believed he had used science to prove that white people were intellectually superior to other ‘races’. In his Crania Americana, Morton declared that not only did white people have larger brains and thus were intellectually superior to all other races, but also that black people had the smallest brains sizes and were hence inferior to all others. Morton and others used this conclusion as a ‘scientific’ justification to continue slavery in the United States and negatively stereotype black people. Many hold Morton to be the founding father of scientific racism. It’s here that, based upon this pseudo-science and on certain superficial differences in physiological traits, the categorisation of people into distinct ‘races’ begins in earnest. And while the institutional racism, racial prejudice, and white supremacy that was to follow were directed at all races in Morton’s descending hierarchy, providing adequate grounds to treat other races differently, in terms of rights and privileges, it would be black people (at the supposed bottom of the heap) that would bear the greatest and most sustained brunt of it.
Of course, modern science has long since shown that brain size isn’t necessarily related to intelligence. Instead, brain size is tied to things like environment, climate and body size, while intelligence is more related to how many neurons, or how efficient the connections between neurons, are in the brain. Indeed, modern science has also largely debunked the biological basis of race, showing that there is as much genetic diversity within such racial groups as there is between them. Science now regards race as a conventional attribution; a social construct, but not a scientifically rooted or valid classification. And while today we tend to favour the term ethnicity over the arbitrary construct of ‘race’ based upon skin colour and physiognomy, race remains, for some, a focus of individual and group identity, particularly members of socially disadvantaged groups, like blacks, where it oftentimes is a source of pride and joy. All this has led many anthropologists to argue that since there is no scientific basis for race, we should just chuck the whole idea in the bin. Others say that if we’re going to continue to insist on the social fiction of racial differences, let it be based on ethical considerations that enhance justice, fairness and familiarity between peoples, not hatred, discrimination and xenophobia. In fact, this latter way of looking at ethnic or racial divides is probably more in keeping with what Islam wants for humanity. After all, God made of us nations and tribes lita‘arafu – ‘that you might know one another.’
The above, then, amidst the activities of European empires and colonialism is where such modern ideas of racial discrimination and racism were birthed; ideas and realities which still reverberate frustratingly down to these present times. Just how many ordinary white Britons internalised the racist pseudo-science over the past one hundred and fifty years or so, not because they were particularly bad or evil people, but because they believed the ‘science’, is anyone’s guess. Add to that the usual xenophobia that often exists against the outsider, the modern feats and achievements of white Western Europe which feed into the idea of white exceptionalism or supremacy, and the political utility of whipping up blame against immigrants in times of national difficulty and economic downturn, make for well-entrenched myths and discrimination against people of colour.
III. BRITAIN & RACISM
Although the history of the United States is drenched in racism; with the issue of race still being the most painful, divisive one for its citizens, it is racism in Britain – my home, and where I was born and raised – that I’d like to confine my remarks and anecdotes to. And in Britain, just as in America, while peoples of diverse ethnic minorities have undeniably been, and continue to be, victims of racism, it is discrimination against black people that is by far the more endemic and systemic.
The recent anti-racist protests that are taking place across the country aren’t just to show anger about the death of yet another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of yet another American police officer. They are also protests against the systemic racism here in Britain too. Long before racism against blacks, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, Jews as a people, and also the Irish, suffered racism in Britain. Jewish people still do; and we Muslims are fast becoming the new Jews (or even the new Blacks).
Whilst structural or institutional racism is difficult to conclusively prove, the lived reality of people of colour, as well as statistics after statistics, or report after report, all point to similar conclusions: Britain has a race problem. It doesn’t just have a problem with casual racism (now called micro aggression; as experienced in schools, jobs or everyday life), or racism born from unconscious bias (snap decisions conditioned by cultural upbringing or personal experience); it has a problem of systemic racism too – racial discrimination and negative stereotyping within many of its key institutions: the police force and the criminal justice system deemed to be among the main culprits.
It is, of course, argued that although Britain does indeed have individual racists, and that acts of racism do tragically still occur here, but Britain itself; even if it may have been in the recent past, isn’t institutionally racist anymore. We have the Equalities Act of 2010, as one of the clearest proofs against any institutional racism.
Or the case has been put that, ever since the Macpherson Report of 1999, which came as a result of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 – and the two words in it that stood out from the rest of the 350 page report, that London’s Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ – Britain’s police forces have internalised the criticism and have come on leaps and bounds since then: individually and institutionally. So to describe Britain’s police forces as still being systemically racist is unjust and unfair; or so the argument goes.
Be that as it may; and while many positive changes of both mind and structure have been sincerely made, the stark, present-day statistics tell us another story. Modern Britain is a place where black people, in contrast to white ones are: 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched; 4 time more likely to be arrested; twice as likely to be temporarily excluded from school; and 3 times as likely to be permanently excluded from school; and twice as likely to die in police custody. From any unbiased standard, does this look anywhere like equality? And just as importantly, are we saying that institutional racism is totally absent from these numbers?5
For most of my life, I’ve lived on one council estate or another in East London. In my pre-teen years, I grew up on an estate in Chingford, where most of the people were white, with a few Afro-Caribbean families and a couple of Asian ones: my family being one of them. I, like many other non-whites of my generation, encountered my share of racist abuse; and for a short time, a little racist bullying too. On the whole, I got along with most kids on the estate and at its primary school, regardless of colour; and they got along with me.
For my entire teen years, I lived on another estate in Leytonstone, where this time most of the residents were black. It was the mid 1970s, and it was a time when many young black people were, I wouldn’t say suffering an identity crisis, but more that they were searching for an identity. For unlike their parents, they were neither Jamaican, Bajan [Barbadian], or Trinidadian, nor did they feel (or were made to feel) totally British. Instead, young black Britons were turning to their Blackness to make sense of their place in Britain, developing a sense of collective cultural identity in the process. I felt a greater affinity to that culture, than I did any other. Voices like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls and Black Uhuru spoke to our plight and our aspirations. But whilst their conscious lyrics of roots reggae was coming out of Jamaica, it was home-grown, British reggae artists that would tell our own specifically British story: artists like Steel Pulse, Black Roots, Mikey Dread or, particularly for me, Aswad (or early Aswad, from ’76-’82). Aswad sang of African Children (which I’d swap in my mind for ‘immigrant’ children) ‘living in a concrete situation;’ in ‘precast stone walls, concrete cubicles. Their rent increasing each and every other day; Structural repairs are assessed and yet not done; Lift out of action on the twenty-seventh floor; And when they work, they smell.’ All of us youths crammed into the estate’s small youth centre, smiled, nodded away approvingly, and perfectly identified with the message when we first heard such conscious lyrics booming out at us. Whilst Marley spoke of the daily ghetto struggles of growing up in the concrete jungle of Kingston 12; Trenchtown, for me, Aswad spoke of parallel struggles growing up in the concrete situation of Leytonstone E11. We all a feel it, yes we a feel it!
Back to racism. My one little anecdotal proof of black victimisation from the police comes from the time when I was living on Leytonstone’s Cathall Road Estate. Police raids were a fairly usual occurrence on our estate as well as in the youth centre; sometimes with actual justification. In the youth centre, the police (usually with their police dogs), would stomp in; turn off the music; stamp out any spliff that was lit up; and then we’d all be told to line up against the wall with our hands behind our heads. Every time this happened, without exception, when it came to searching me, they never did. They’d simply insist that I leave the centre, or go home, which I would. I’d then usually come back half an hour or an hour later, and resume playing pool, table-tennis or bar football; or just soak up the vibes (not the spliff). Once, after a raid had happened, I came back to the centre, only for one of my close Rasta friends to advise me that it would be best if I stay home for a few days. I asked why? He told me that some people who hang out at the centre, but who don’t really know me, nor live on the actual estate, are saying that it’s odd that I never get searched and that maybe I was a grass. It would be an understatement if I said that I was scared stiff. I took the advice, and stayed away from the centre for a week, till I got the nod that things were all okay. A month or so later, and yet another raid. But this time, for me it was a Godsend: they actually searched me! I felt relieved, vindicated, and took it as a badge of honour. My point being is that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, there were countless times when I saw specifically black people stigmatised and victimised by the police.
To be honest, by the mid 1980s, with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism doing their thing against the far-right National Front; with Reggae and Two-Tone Ska bands and gigs more and more mixing blacks and whites; and with attitudes of the young positively changing, I thought (perhaps naively) that racism in Britain would liklely be a thing of the past by the mid ’90s. Optimism, of course, is entirely healthy, as long as it doesn’t become blind to realism.
IV. MUSLIMS & RACISM
Here I’d like to speak about something that some Muslims will find uncomfortable: which is that we Muslims need to admit the anti-black racism that infects our own communities. Sadly, racism against black people – including fellow black Muslims – is all too common among British Asian Muslims of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. Whether it is being stared at by elderly Asians in the mosque and so made to feel self-conscious, to the way we of South Asian descent use the word kala, ‘black’, in a derogatory way; or whether it’s about marriage, or thinking all black Muslims must be converts and then dishing out patronising praise to them over basic acts like making wudhu – this un-Islamic nonsense; this jahiliyyah, simply has to stop.
We must speak to our elders about their anti-black racism. We need to respectfully discuss why so many of our mosques continue to make black Muslims feel unwelcome, or drive them away, and what can be done about it? Yet while our masjids are undeniably masjids; ‘Most mosques function as “race temples” created as enclosures for single ethnicities, and their mono-ethnic and introspective leadership are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos.’6 Such ‘race temples’ are where Ethnic Islam rules the roost, even at the cost of shari‘ah race equality, sirah hospitality, or sunnah unity.
But racism isn’t just an issue with South Asian elders. It lurks in the hearts and minds of my generation too; and maybe that of my children’s? It’s less the stares or the ignorance about Black achievements, and more the negative stereotyping; post-colonial complexes; desperation to whiten-up; or outright racism when it comes to marriage. Here as an Asian Muslim parent, I’m happy for my daughter or son to marry – religiously speaking – some adamant fasiq or fasiqah – especially if they are of a lighter complexion: but I could never accept them marring a godly, well-mannered, responsible Black person! But we convince ourselves we are not racist: after all, I love the sahabi, Bilal. I weep when I read Bilal’s life story. My good friend, Bilal, is black. But the proof is in the pudding, and the truth is that we need to move beyond tokenism; beyond Bilal.
Those Muslims who make an issue of colour; whose racist or tribal mindsets lead them to look down upon a person of darker colour or treat them unequally, let them consider the son-in-law of the Prophet ﷺ, and fourth Caliph, sayyiduna ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. The classical biographers all state: kana ‘ali adam, shadid al-udmah – ‘Ali was black, jet black.7 Or take our master ‘Umar who is also described in the same terms.8 The colour, adam may refer to skin complexion which is dark brown, like a native American; or darker still, like in native Australian aborigines; or jet black, like many Africans. When the phrase, shadid al-udmah is added, ‘extremely dark’, then there’s no mistaking what is meant: a person who, for all intents and purposes, is black. Such a description seems quite usual for the Arabs among the sahabah. Black skin is also the colour of the lady with whom the whole Muhammadan saga begins: our lady Hagar (Hajarah); she was a black Egyptian. Or consider the Prophet Moses, peace be upon him. Our Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘As for Moses, he was tall and dark brown, as like the men of al-Zutt.’9 The Zutt were a well-known tribe of tall dark men from the Sudan.10 After knowing the above, if we are still going to look down at people merely due to their darker complexion, then what ghustakh; what mockery and disrespect will we be possibly drowning in?
Islam is neither racist nor colour blind. It wants us to understand that skin colour has no intrinsic worth, only piety does. Yet at the same time, it allows us to celebrate differences in a way that does not offend Heaven, and in a way that causes us to offer joyful thanks to the One Who is the Maker of all Colours.
So let’s have the conversations. Let’s have some serious introspection. Let’s listen to what Black Muslims have to say. Let’s desire to be healers, not dividers. Let’s educate ourselves about the reality of Black lives in general, and Black Muslim lives in particular. Olusoga’s Black & British and Akala’s Natives are good places to start. Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering is, with its theological insights, a must read. Above all, let’s work towards not just being non-racist, but anti-racist.
Change, thankfully, is in the air. For urban, millennial Muslims, and those of a generation younger still, these older ethnic divides are more and more of an irrelevance in their lives (though I’m not sure how much this applies to those raised in ethnic silos in Britain’s less urbanised cities). Such millennials have heard the stories of the intra-ethnic fighting; the anti-black racism; the token hospitality to black Muslims, but without ever giving them a voice; and the fruitless attempts to make the ‘race temples’ more inclusive, and how after decades, it’s a case of banging heads and brick walls. So owing to this, they are seeking to create more inclusive, culturally more meaningful spaces; away from all this toxic, ethnic Islam. Surely that’s where the rest of us should be heading too?
V. BLM & RACISM
The Qur’an says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2] Between this verse and the hilf al-fudul pact the Prophet ﷺ upheld and endorsed even after prophethood, we have a solid religious basis for supporting any individual or group working for issues of social justice: be it for Muslims or non-Muslims; be it led by Muslims or non-Muslims.
The Black Lives Matter movement has proven itself to be a powerful and effective vehicle over the past five years to demand reform in terms of anti-Black racism; with their current focus on justice for George Floyd and his family. Thus, how can Muslims not support it? Of course, we cannot give any organisation carte blanche support. Religiously, we Muslims cannot give unconditional support to anybody save to God and His Prophet ﷺ. Given that BLM has a few stated aims that are inconsistent with Islam’s theology (‘freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking’ is one of them, for instance), our activism must be guided by sacred knowledge and illumined by revealed guidance. Our intention is not supporting BLM, as such. Instead, it’s a case of making a stand against injustice, in this case anti-Black racism: supporting those individuals or organisations that are likely to be the most effective in achieving this goal. (It should go without saying, that we can work for justice for more than one cause or more than one set of people at the same time). And this is what the above verse and the hilf al-fudul pact have in mind. And just like the BLM describes itself as ‘unapologetically Black’, perhaps some of us need to be a tad more unapologetically Muslim?
But let’s take our focus off such theological nuances for now, and tie a ribbon around the whole thing and say: Let us, at least in spirit and in principle, if not in body, fully support Black Lives Matter as a cause, more than as a movement, in seeking to resolve structural racism; get justice done for all the George Floyds and all the Stephen Lawrences; and to get people to reflect on their own attitudes to racism and the racial ‘Other’ – ensuring our knee isn’t on the necks of others. We should support the overall goals of any grassroots movement that is working for a fairer, more just and tolerant Britain for everyone: black or white. Of course, for that to happen, from a Black Muslim perspective, anti-Black racism as well as an ever-growing Islamophobia must be tackled. Currently in Britain, God forbid that you are ostensibly a Muslim and Black!
Racism affects all people of colour. But when it comes to black people, they face a unique anti-black prejudice as the ultimate Other, propagated both by white majorities and even other ethnic minorities. As a marginalised community South Asians, no doubt, have their own prejudices thrown their way. But they are not the same lived experiences as that of Black people. And while it can be easy to lump everyone together and perceive ourselves as having a shared trauma, statistics show that this equivalence is not really true.
In closing, I’d like to thank my youngest daughter, Atiyyah, for inspiring me to revisit and renew my ideas on anti-black racism; and my friend, Dr Abdul Haqq Baker for prompting me to write this piece, offering invaluable suggestions, and then reviewing it for me.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22978. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chain to be sahih in Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Dar Ishbiliyah, 1998), 1:412.
2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3894, where he declared the hadith to be hasan sahih.
3. Al-Bukhari, nos.2545; 6050.
4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:230.
It has now been four years since I started this three part instalment. It’s been over three years since I wrote the rough outlines for this third and final part. One thing or another, however, stopped me from completing it. But given Saudi Arabia’s current socio-religious changes or transition under the Crown Prince Muhammad b. Salman; given how so many western ‘ISIS-brides’ wish to return home; given that the ISIS ‘caliph’ was recently killed, and given that even if ISIS as an entity has all but been vanquished, its kharijite ideology lives on, this seems as good a time as any to post the third and final part.
The first instalment of the blog (here) traced the ruthless and murderous pedigree of ISIS back to the first heterodox Muslim sect, the Khawarij. Anyone wishing to get to the nub of today’s Muslim political violence needs to first understand who or what the Khawarij are. Without understanding the religious component of this extremism and misuse of religion, any political analysis of the phenomenon is likely to be significantly flawed.
The second part (which can be read here) tackled ISIS’s claim of being a true caliphate, by addressing the question of what makes a caliphate legitimate in Islam? It also tackles the sensitive topic of jihad, beyond the usual cliches, and addresses whether a Muslim state wages jihad against a non-Muslim one because of their disbelief, or because it has shown hostile intent or aggression against a Muslim state?
This final part discusses the violent political programme which ISIS and al-Qaeda model themselves on: The Management of Savagery. It explains the rationale for the jihadi-takfiri worldview and violence. As for just how instrumental Saudi ‘Wahabbism’ has been to the mass takfir narrative, and to the ideology underpinning ISIS and al-Qaeda, that sits at the centre of our discussion. So with six fairly in-depth sections covered in the first two parts, here are the last five:
In 2004, a treatise was posted on the internet which, as it turns out, was nothing less than a manifesto for global murder and mayhem. It was aptly and unblushingly entitled, idarat al-tawahhush – ‘The Management of Savagery.’ Published online, possibly by an al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Bakr Naji, its aim was to offer a definitive strategy for al-Qaeda and other such groups to establish an Islamic Caliphate.1 It laid out the various stages of the jihadi-takfiri violence in the following terms:
First comes the ‘stage of disruption and exhaustion’ wherein the enemy is politically worn down, economically drained and socially demoralised, by constant campaigns of violence and terror. ‘Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible,’ Naji writes, ‘so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.’
Hand in hand with the above stage comes ‘the management of savagery’. This is a phase of violent resistance and assault, with an emphasis of carrying out shockingly visible acts of terror. This serves as a glaring message to all its enemies, allies and sympathisers alike. Here the objective is to get the enemy, mainly the United States and its allies, to ‘abandon its war against Islam by proxy … and to force it to fight directly.’ Such media managed savagery is intended to recruit new youths into the takfiri fold and program and help push weaker regions of the Muslim world towards breakdown and savagery. Nothing can ever be achieved without the singular method of total warfare: ‘We must drag everyone into the battle in order to give life to those who deserve to live and destroy those who deserve to be destroyed,’ proclaimed the manifesto.
The final stage is to be the empowerment of ‘the regions of savagery’. Here, the sequence of events runs something like this: During “the management of savagery” steps, the first priority is to bring these regions under their administrative control. For such mayhem will spontaneously polarize those who live in these lawless regions of savagery and will drive these people, in their desperate desire to seek stability and security, into the arms of the jihadi-takfiris. ‘We will find,’ explained Naji, ‘that along with this first step there will be a continuous emigration of the youth of other regions to our regions’ in order to flee the anarchy and mayhem so as to live under some political stability. He also noted, of course: ‘There is a difference between the people accepting administration so that security may be provided for them and so forth, and between joining the ranks and working towards set goals and joining in the battle.’ Once under their control, the takfiri indoctrination and extremism can truly begin, and new soldiers and die-hard leaders can arise. About this, Naji wrote that, ‘speaking on the pulpit is easy, and in the newspaper even easier; and in books even easier than that. As for having [one’s] home destroyed and one’s family made homeless, or one’s mother and sister torn to pieces, only the most extraordinary men are capable of [bearing] that. Great leaders and hardened troops will not come forth save in an atmosphere like this.’
As for the relevance of Naji’s treatise, we need only look at how closely al-Qaeda sought to contour this manifesto in its strategies and actions, and how many of the plans laid out in the manifesto have already been carried out by ISIS!
Despite the plethora of fatwas (commencing two decades before, and right after, 9-11) by senior Salafi/Wahhabi scholars against unbridled takfir, suicide bombings, acts of terror and targeting civilians in war, as well as against political agitation and rebellion against Muslim state authority, a forceful argument has been made that the al-Qaeda/ISIS modus operandi is inspired, in significant part, by Wahhabism. So let’s look into the claim:
Now the idea that al-Qaeda and ISIS are inspired by Wahhabism is not anything strange; especially given how the works of Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d.1206H/1792CE), and books from other scholars from the same Wahhabi stream of thought, were a staple diet of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, and were/are core components of their educational curricula. But whilst that is very telling, the real issue is: did ISIS and al-Qaeda pick up their mass takfiri habbits from Wahhabi shaykhs, or is it something that the Saudi Wahhabi/Salafi scholars are free of? (I’m employing the terms Wahhabi and Salafi descriptively, not pejoratively; as well as using them interchangeably.) As for when a charge of takfir may or may not be made against an individual, and the conditions required to be actualised in doing so, I’ve explained the matter here.
It has long been alleged by the Muslim world, and most of its scholars, that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab didn’t just make takfir of certain specific individuals (which he certainly did), but more than that, he made mass takfir of whole Muslim societies and states; and that this mentality of mass takfir was carried on by his descendants and by other leading Wahhabi scholars and ideologues till our present time.
The more informed supporters of Shaykh Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his da‘wah will, at this point, demand that it is upon the accusers to bring a clear, unambiguous statement from him to support the allegation of mass takfir; and they’re quite right on insisting so. They may even point to specific statements from Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab refuting those who made such allegations against him during in his own lifetime – of which there are quite a few. From them are: ‘As for what has been mentioned to you that I make generalised takfir [of the masses] (takfir bi’l-‘umum), then this is from the lies of the enemies.’2 There’s also the following:
‘As for the lie and slander, its like is their saying that we make generalized takfir … And when it is the case that we do not make takfir of those who worship the idol which is on the grave of ‘Abd al-Qadir [al-Jilani], or the idol upon the grave of Ahmad al-Badawi; and their likes – due to their ignorance and an absence of one to caution them – how could we then make takfir of those who does not commit shirk, when they do not migrate to us, nor make takfir of us, nor fight us?’3
His holding a certain act to be disbelief (kufr), but not accusing one who commits the act to be an unbeliever (kafir), is in keeping with a well known scholarly rule: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief becomes a disbeliever.’ And: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-shirk sara mushrik – ‘Not everyone who commits idolatry becomes an idolater.’ That is, scholars might judge a statement or act to be shirk or kufr, but refrain from declaring the one who utters such a statement or does such an act to be a mushrik or a kafir – either because of not being informed (or sufficiently informed) about the falseness of the act, or due to a mistaken interpretation that warrants giving them an excuse or amnesty.
There are these words too: ‘As for takfir, I only make takfir of whoever knows the religion of the Messenger ﷺ and thereafter insults it, forbids people from it, and manifests enmity towards whoever practices it. This is who I make takfir of. And most of the ummah, and all praise is for God, is not like this.’4
Of course, his detractors will take issue with some of the things he actually considers to be shirk or kufr, or what he included under the category of insulting the religion. Many will also point out that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, once he made an alliance with Ibn Sa‘ud, in 1744, inaugurating what is now called the first Saudi state, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab gave his loyalty and unyielding support to Ibn Sa‘ud, the amir of the new state. Ibn Sa‘ud, in turn, spread the doctrines of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab as a core part of his campaigns, killings and crusade, to bring the whole Najd province under his control. Opponents of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab will point out that he endorsed Ibn Sa‘ud’s “jihad” against the people in various regions of the Najd, and took booty from them, and that this is proof writ large that he made large scale takfir upon Muslims – as jihad is only waged against a disbelieving enemy! Eye witness Wahhabi chronicles of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers confirm that Ibn Sa‘ud did wage jihad against various peoples and provinces in the Najd: something these chronicles talk about with much pride and a great deal of satisfaction.5 So is this not a proof of mass takfir? It might well be!
What strengthens these allegations is that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, in the year 1165H/1752CE, declared that the town of Huraymila had apostatised from Islam; including his very own brother Sulayman, their judge (qadi). That is, he made takfir of the whole town. Jihad was duly waged against them, and the booty was distributed among the Wahhabi warriors.6 If we add to this fatwa of town takfir, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s claim that in the Najd, only he alone knew the true meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah; not even the other scholars did, then it’s not surprising that mass takfir and the shedding of Muslim blood is seen to be his legacy. Here are his words:
‘And I inform you of myself – by God, whom there is none deserving of worship save Him: I sought knowledge, and those who knew me believed I had knowledge whilst I did not know the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah at that time, nor know the religion of Islam, before this goodness that God graced me with. Such was also the case with my teachers; there was no man among them who knew [any of] this. And if someone from the scholars of this and the surrounding areas claims he knew the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah, or knew the meaning of Islam before this time, or claims about his teachers that someone from them knew that, then he has lied, uttered falsehood, hoodwinked the people, and praised him with something he doesn’t possess.’7
Remember, we are not discussing whether such statements constitute sheer arrogance or some devilish narcissism. Rather, we are looking at the question: Did Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab make mass takfir upon Muslims, from which outfits and misfits like ISIS have taken their cue? Although takfir of even one individual, without the conditions or impediments being taken into consideration, or without the pious caution which is a hallmark of mainstream Islamic orthodoxy, is abhorrent and misguidance. That said:
An argument is made that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s policy was one of noninterference in the military activities of Ibn Sa‘ud, not active support or religious legitimation for them. That is to say, the shaykh’s attempts at religious reform were being eclipsed by the amir’s quest for state consolidation and material prosperity. By the time Ibn Sa‘ud had died, in 1767, and was succeeded by his son ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the Wahhabi capital of Dir‘iyyah, rather than being famous as a centre of learning, became known instead for its opulence, wealth and strength. According to Ibn Bishr, people had grown weary of holding back their desires.8 The sources will have to be scrutinised to see just how well the argument holds up, and to evaluate if Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s takfir of the whole town of Huraymila was an exception to the rule. What is beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s da‘wah was used as justification – first by Ibn Sa‘ud, then his son – to kill, slaughter and assassinate multitudes of Muslims during Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s own lifetime; there being no public word of condemnation or unambiguous dissent recorded from him.
Again, it’s been suggested that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab had a tendency to withdraw from Ibn Sa‘ud’s company during jihad operations. Be that as it may, what we do know is that the shaykh withdrew from his public position, in the year 1773, six years into the rule of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Sa‘ud; and focused on teaching and authoring. He died nineteen years later, at the age of ninety-two, in 1792.
So did Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab make takfir? Yes he did; of, it appears, many individuals and at least one entire town. The contention was usually the issue of istighathah – calling on righteous, deceased persons for the fulfilment of a need. Unlike al-Razi or Ibn ‘Aqil before him who described the act as being shirk or kufr,9 Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab went steps further and made takfir of actual individuals who engaged in the act – after what he considered to be iqamat al-hujjah or “establishment of the proof” against them. As for mass takfir, the pro-Wahhabi sources do not mention it, except for Huraymila; and anti-Wahhabi sources, which I’ve chosen to avoid for this discussion, are adamant that he did! And Allah knows best.
After his demise, the first Saudi state expanded rapidly, growing even richer. It conquered Karbala, in 1802; and captured Makkah, in 1803. It reached its zenith in 1818, when it was vanquished by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha. It is during the years of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s sons and grandsons, however, that we see categorical mass takfir being made. And that’s what we’ll address next:
The Ottoman-Egyptian armies of Muhammad ‘Ali landed in Arabia, in 1811, reestablishing their control over the Hijaz, and also sacking the capital of the first Saudi state, Dir‘iyyah, in 1818. What helped this all out victory is that large pockets of Arabs, either unconvinced with Wahhabism; disaffected with it; or unhappy with the Sa‘ud (Saudi) state moving into their provinces and wresting control from them, welcomed Muhammad ‘Ali’s armies and lent support to them. In fact, even during a truce between Muhammad ‘Ali and the Saudi state, in 1815, many of these dissatisfied people called for the resumption of attacks upon Saudi-Wahhabi forces. Unsurprisingly, the Wahhabi scholars considered such support to a foreign invasion as a serious act of treachery and disloyalty.
During this political upheaval, Sulayman b. ‘Abd Allah (d.1818), a grandson of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and one of the leading Wahhabi scholars of the time, wrote a tract on the highly sensitive topic of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’a – “Loyalty and Disavowal” – placing it in the context of the Saudi-Ottoman war.10 In it he asserts that any Muslim showing loyalty (muwalat, wala’) to the idolators – of whom he includes the Ottomans – is an idolator like them. The treaties opens with this passage: ‘Realise, may God have mercy upon you, that if a person manifests conformity (muwafaqah) to the religion of the idolators (mushrikin), from fear of them; or flattering them; or compromising so as to ward off harm from them, then he is a disbeliever like them – even if he detests their religion, loathes them, and loves Islam and the Muslims.’11 He continues by saying that those Arabs who assisted the Ottomans with loyalty, support or wealth, allied with them, conformed to their religion, and severed their connection to the [Wahhabi-Saudi] Muslims, ‘become from the soldiers of [worshipping] domes [over graves] (al-qubbab), and idolatry and its people.’12
Another core dimension of wala’ and bara’ah addressed in the tract, and another cause to excommunicate other Muslims, is the issue of al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar – “seeking help from the unbelievers” against other Muslims. Citing the verse: O you who believe! Take not the Jews or Christians as friends and allies, they are friends and allies one to another. Whoever amongst you takes them for friends and allies is of them. Indeed, God guides not an unjust people, [Q.5:51] the tract declares: ‘Such is the ruling upon one who allies themselves with the unbelievers from the Magians or the worshippers of idols: then he is of them.’13 By the latter depiction, he means the Ottomans. And once the idea of wala’ and bara’ah had been weaponised in this way, it would have serious repercussions for our contemporary times; as we shall see in sections ten and eleven.
Other statements of mass Ottoman takfir include: Sa‘ud b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the third ruler of the first Saudi state (r. 1803-1814). In one of his letters to an Ottoman governor, he writes: ‘But if you continue upon this condition of yours, and do not repent from the shirk you are upon; nor adhere to the religion of God with which He sent his Messenger; nor abandon idolatry and innovations, we will never cease fighting you until you return to the upright religion of God, and traverse its Straight Path.’14
And if anyone was having doubts about the legitimacy of this mass takfir of the Ottomans, ‘Abd Allah, son of ‘Abd al-Latif – the latter being the most learned Wahhabi scholar of his time – wrote: ‘Whoever does not acknowledge the disbelief (kufr) of the [Ottoman] State, nor differentiate between them and Muslim rebels (bughat), does not know the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah! If, along with that, he believes the State is Muslim, then this is worse and is graver. This is what is [considered] doubting the disbelief of one who disbelieves in God, or commits shirk with Him. So whosoever aids and abets them against the Muslims, with any type of help, then this is clear-cut apostasy.’15
In fact, the fatwas, tracts and writings of the Wahhabi ‘ulema are replete with the verdict, and unanimous in their conviction, that the Ottoman empire was a disbelieving state; that it was dar al-harb – a “land or war” – exempting those towns, villages or settlements that accepted the Wahhabi da‘wah; and that the Al al-Sa‘ud, the Saudi ruling dynasty, was the true caliphate (khilafah).
Thus, Ibn Sa‘ud’s biography in al-Durar al-Saniyyah describes him as the ‘khalifah in Najd from the [Islamic] year 1157-1179; and the khilafah has continued through his descendants till now.’16 ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Hasan, a prominent Wahhabi scholars of his age during the second Saudi state, described the reign of ‘Abd Allah b. Faysal (r. 1865-1871) as khilafah nubuwwah – ‘caliphate [upon the pattern of] prophethood.’17 And to a previous ruler, he addresses him as: imam al-muslimin wa khalifah sayyid al-mursalin – ‘leader of Muslims, and caliph of the master of the messengers.’18 So the vexing question about whether the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance rebelled against the Ottoman caliphate need not be asked. For in the Wahhabi worldview, the Ottomans were mushriks, and hence had no Islamic rule, let alone being caliphs. In fact, in this worldview, it was the mushrik Ottomans who rebelled against the [Wahhabi-Saudi] caliphate!
For our purpose, the Saudi story doesn’t quite end here. Although the victory over the first Saudi state was thorough and complete, by 1824, Turki b. ‘Abd Allah had retaken Riyadh. This marked the beginning of the second Saudi state. Things were going along pretty well, particularly during the reign of Turki’s son, Faysal. But when Faysal died in 1865, and his son, ‘Abd Allah, became the new ruler, this is where the story takes on a greater relevance for our times.
‘Abd Allah’s legitimacy was militarily challenged by his brother Sa‘ud. And although he managed to keep the reigns of leadership for several years, Sa‘ud took power in 1871. For the next decade or so, the second Saudi state was enmeshed in a civil war which erupted between the two brothers. In the same year, in 1871, ‘Abd Allah wrested back control; two years later, in 1873, Sa‘ud seized control for a second time. His reign lasted two years, but in 1875 he was replaced by ‘Abd al-Rahman. A year later, ‘Abd Allah regained power and reigned until his death in 1889. The above ‘Abd al-Rahman succeeded him and reigned for two more years by which time, weakened by all the political infighting, the second Saudi state (with very little territorial expansion during its time, and with diminished religious zeal) was led to its demise in 1891. Ibn Sa‘ud – having regained control of Riyadh in 1902, and most of the Arabian cities and regions by 1926 – established the third, modern Saudi state in 1932; formally calling it the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The point of this history is that they way ‘Abd Allah regained leadership (for a third time) from ‘Abd al-Rahman, was by calling upon the Ottomans for help and support. Although most Wahhabi scholars of the time viewed soliciting the Ottoman “mushriks” for political support to be a necessity, a small, yet powerful clique of leading Wahhabi scholars were incensed by this. Harkening back to the treatise of Sulayman, the grandson of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in his treatment of wala’ and bara’ah, and of al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar, as well as add their own take on the matter, they declared that this amounted to an act of disbelief and duly made takfir upon Ibn ‘Ajlan, the Wahhabi judge who backed ‘Abd Allah’s decision. At the forefront of the charge was the preeminent Wahhabi scholar of the time, ‘Abd al-Latif b. ‘Abd al-Rahman Al al-Shaykh (d.1876) and Ibn ‘Atiq (d.1883). The latter wrote a tract on the issue, entitled: Sabil al-Najat wa’l-Fikak min Muwalat al-Murtaddin wa’l-Atrak – “Path of Salvation and of Separation from Loyalty to the Apostates and the Turks.”19
The tract commences with a few hadith citations, one of which states that the ummah will fight the unbelieving Turks (al-turk al-kuffar) described as having small eyes, ruddy faces, flat noses and faces like leather shields.20 He laments how so many Muslims have fallen into love, loyalty and imitation of non-Muslim ways and lifestyles.21 But the most novel and significant thing to come out of the treatise is that Ibn ‘Atiq didn’t just emphasise not having wala’ for non-Muslims as a foundational part of faith, but that Muslims must also show bara’ah towards non-Muslims by actively disavowing them and showing contempt for them. So whilst Sulayman’s Dala’il spoke about the unlawful, inadmissible wala’, Ibn ‘Atiq’s Sabil shifted the emphasis to compulsory bara’ah.22
Fast-forward a century or so, and the fatwas of Shaykh Sulayman and Ibn ‘Atiq were given a new lease of life in the writings of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b.1959).23 Inspired by the proof-texts and textual arguments in the Dala’il and Sabil, al-Maqdisi penned (1984) his Millat Ibrahim – “The Religious Way of Life of Abraham” – where he restated the duty to show enmity towards shirk and the mushriks, as part of having true faith, preferably by waging jihad against them. In it, he also re-weaponised wala’ and bara’ah by calling for jihad against what he deemed as nominal or token Muslim states and rulers.24 Ironically, whilst the establishment Saudi scholars had all but disregarded these 19th century tracts on wala’ and bara’ah, and had for varying rationales sanitised and depoliticised them, al-Maqdisi quoted freely and extensively from them, demonstrating their political relevance for today’s Muslim world. Summarising the radical jihadi-takfiri imperative, al-Maqdisi, wrote: ‘Know that from the most particular traits of the Abrahamic way of life, and most important of its essentials, which we see most of the callers in our age falling extremely short in – in fact, most have forsaken them and have let them die out – are: [i] Manifesting bara’ah against the idolators and their false objects of worship; [ii] Proclaiming disbelief in them, their deities, and their methods, legislations and idolatrous laws; [iii] Initiating enmity and hatred of them and their statutes and conditions of disbelief until they return to God; abandoning all of this, disavowing it all and disbelieving in it. God, exalted is He, stated: There is an excellent example for you in Abraham and those who followed him, when they said to their people: ‘We are free of you and that which you worship besides God. We disavow you; and enmity and hatred has arisen between us, until you believe in God alone.’ [Q.60:4]’25
It is his al-Kawashif al-Jaliyyah fi Kufr al-Dawlah al-Sa‘udiyyah – “The Evident Unveilings Concerning the Disbelief of the Saudi State” (1989) which took the Wahhabi weaponised understanding of wala’ and bara’ah to what appears to be its logical conclusion: accusing Saudi Arabia of being a kafir, infidel state. Again, drawing upon Wahhabi scholarship of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and the twentieth century former Senior Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad b. Ibrahim Al al-Shaykh (d.1969), al Maqdisi insists that Saudi Arabia is a kafir state from three principle angles:
Firstly, that the kingdom, although it legislates with certain shari‘ah laws, also legislates with man-made laws in place of, as well as along with, many shari‘ah prescriptions. Al-Maqdisi calls the kingdom’s attempts at making people believe that it only legislates with shari‘ah laws as ‘an obvious lie!’26 He then goes on to devote the next ten pages or more documenting law after law after law that Saudi Arabia has legislated with respect to home affairs and foreign policy, and which violate shari‘ah teachings.27 To add insult to injury, he also records a volley of fatwas and letters by the former mufti, Muhammad b. Ibrahim wherein he rejects a whole raft of laws the kingdom introduces and which he believed was in opposition to the shari‘ah: these letters also advise the kingdom’s movers and shakers to keep to the straight and narrow, but to little or no avail.28 During this meticulous, yet scathing censure of how the kingdom has adopted man-made laws contrary to the norms of Islamic legislation, al-Maqdisi also marshals certain Quranic verses to nail the point; verses such as: Do they have partners [with God] who have made lawful for them in religion that for which God has not authorised? [Q.42:21] Also: Have you not seen those who pretend that they believe in what is sent down to you and what was sent down before you? They seek the judgement of false gods, although they are ordered to reject them. [Q.4:60] And: Is it a judgement of ignorance that they seek? Who is better in judgement than God for people who have sure faith? [Q.5:50] It should be noted, that despite Muhammad b. Ibrahim’s rejection of certain laws the kingdom introduced, he never once made takfir of the government, or deemed Saudi to be an unIslamic country (even if it did have some unIslamic laws).
Secondly, the kingdom has accepted membership of certain foreign organisations, such as the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, with its Charter, that govern on the basis of man-made laws. Such membership is an endorsement of man-made laws, and man-made laws are tawaghit (sing. taghut) – “false objects of worship” besides Allah.29
Thirdly, al-Maqdisi tries to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia’s ties with, and dependency on, the United States is a reason for it being a kafir state. This he does by giving a detailed, pedantic account of Saudi defense expenditure, showing that although the kingdom has spent billions of dollars on weaponry, Saudi still has a weak and incompetent army. This, he asserts, is because most of this military budget is spent on American advisors, soldiers, trainers and planners who are employed by the kingdom, not for Saudi interests, but for America’s (and for its main ally in the region, Israel).30
Al-Maqdisi’s radical solution to this Saudi ‘fitnah’, as he put it, is simply migration (hijrah) and jihad.31 Migration away from the kingdom (to where, he doesn’t really say), and then jihad against it (as well as against all other Muslim majority states and their leaders who have also substituted (tabdil) divine legislation with man-made laws). Writing about the Kuwaiti constitution, by then a typical example of legislators in Muslim lands replacing shari‘ah rulings with man made laws in their bid to modernise, al-Maqdisi wrote: ‘Before all else, you must disbelieve in this idol – the [Kuwaiti] constitution and its laws – hate it, show enmity to it, disavow it, and not be pleased or submit except to the rule of God alone. This is so that one actualises the meaning of la illaha illa’Llah … And just as it is obligatory upon you to disavow this idol – i.e. the constitution and its laws – it is likewise obligatory on you to disavow everyone who defends it, protects its laws, and persists in legislating it and enslaving people to it.’32 In other words, enmity is not just to the laws themselves, but also to those who uphold them and defend them: be it rulers, legislators, bureaucrats, army, police, or the secret services. Such an outlook, slow to take off at first, would soon become the pivotal rationale for the jihadi-takfiri program – particularly after the First Gulf war of 1990.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Ottoman tanzimat reforms, which started in 1836, saw many shari‘ah laws being replaced with man-made laws; largely based on the Napoleonic Code and French law. It is this tabdil or “substitution” of shari‘ah laws, alongside Ottoman ideas of istighathah and their contravention of wala’ and bara’ah, that were the principle factors animating Wahhabi takfir of the Ottoman empire.
What is important to note in all of this is that al-Maqdisi draws heavily on the fatwas and works of preeminent eighteenth and nineteenth century Wahhabi scholars like Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Sulayman, ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Hasan and Ibn ‘Atiq. In his view, and the jihadi-takfiri cohort which was beginning to grow and mature around him and transnationally, Wahhabism was the doctrine giving legitimacy to the Saudi state; but the Saudi dynasty has for a long time now been biting the hand that feeds it, so to speak, thereby losing the right to govern. Wahhabi theology, once used to confer validity on the Saudi dynasty, had come full circle and was now being used to pull down the House of Sa‘ud! And as black and white, hostile, extreme, and devoid of compassionate concern for human welfare the traditional, non-Wahhabi ‘ulema find the Wahhabi worldview to be, there’s no mistaking al-Maqdisi’s pedigree: it is thoroughly Wahhabi, through and through.
Al-Maqdisi’s voice was not a native Saudi one, being born in the West Bank. It would be a whole ten years after publishing his Kashf al-Niqab (1988) and his Kawashif, and almost fifteen years after his Millat Ibrahim, that the isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar theme would be raised by a native Saudi scholarly voice; putting it into, as al-Maqdisi did, a contemporary context. The first of these voices was that of Humud b. ‘Uqala (1927-2002), who penned al-Qawl al-Mukhtar fi Hukm al-Isti‘anah bi’l-Kuffar (1999). A few other voices followed, like al-‘Uyayri (d.2003), who was the first leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Nasr b. Hamd al-Fahd. After 9/11, it wasn’t just a case of the jihadi-takfiris accusing the Saudis of seeking help from the [American] disbelievers. But due to their participation in the U.S.-led ‘war on terror’, they could be accused of another act of kufr: of helping the disbelievers against other Muslims.
It must, of course, be said that other Salafi scholars have written rebuttals of al-Maqdisi’s views, attempting to offer alternative interpretations whilst trying to remain faithful to the classical Salafi-Wahhabi worldview. Muhammad b. ‘Umar Bazmul’s Mudhakkirah al-Radd ‘ala Kutub Mashbuhah, and Tabdid Kawashif al-‘Anid of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Ra’is, are two such rebuttals. Both tracts attempt to defend Saudi against the takfir charges, and demonstrate how al-Maqdisi’s lack of scholarly credentials and nuance in such delicate issues, and his hastiness and generalisations, are his downfall. Bazmul noted that in his introduction, al-Maqdisi says: ‘I composed these pages out of an urgency of the matter and restricted time. I haven’t spent much time [doing so], nor a lot of effort.’33 To this, Bazmul retorts: ‘This, may God guide him, is what he says about giving such a critical matter its due.’34
Al-Ra’is, while clarifying the issue of al-wala wa’l-bara’ah, writes that some have gone to extremes in understanding the Quranic verses on the topic, while others have fallen short of what is required. He then said: ‘Of those who have gone into extremes in the matter; in fact, the utmost extreme, is this obstinate al-Maqdisi.’35 He then runs through the types of relationships with non-Muslims in respect to wala and bara’ah, seeking to put verses like: You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day loving those who oppose God and His Messenger … [Q.58:22] in their proper context. He explains, in fairly typical Salafi fashion, that wala (love, loyalty) for the non-Muslims is of three categories: Firstly, loving a non-Muslim due to their religion or beliefs: this itself is clear-cut disbelief. The Quranic verse applies in this case: Whoever turns to them is of them. [Q.5:51] Secondly, loving a non-Muslim for a worldly motive or reason. This is forbidden and sinful, but not disbelief. You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day loving those who oppose God and His Messenger … [Q.58:22] speaks to this. Thirdly, natural love, affection or affinity (wala’ tab‘i, hubb tab‘i) for a non-Muslim due to them being one’s parents, siblings, wife (in the case of a Muslim man being married to a Jewish or Christian lady); or a kind and loveable relative or close friend. The Qur’an says to the Prophet ﷺ about the guidance of his dear uncle, Abu Talib, who was a non-Muslim: You cannot guide whom you love, but God guides whomsoever He wills. [Q.28:56]36 So this is the more nuanced Salafi-Wahhabi take on wala and bara’ah, contrasted with al-Maqdisi’s jihadi-takfir notions, and seemingly even those of nineteenth century Wahhabi thought.
It would be useful to research (if it hasn’t already been done so) just how well highlighted the idea of a natural wala has been in the writings of Salafi shaykhs before 9-11, and how much has come as an afterthought. For it is seldom enough just to have the correct stance. Often, it’s also a case of how one emphasises an issue or downplays it that has a crucial bearing on sound Islamic education and nurturing.
Ruling by other than the judgement of God (hukm bi ghayri ma anzala’Llah) likewise has its nuances, as well as a difference of opinion between Wahhabi-Salafi scholars. Shaykh Muhammad b. Ibrahim elucidated what looks to be the dominant stance of senior Salafi-Wahhabi jurist-theologians on the matter. He explains that the disbelief (kufr) of ruling by other than God’s judgement is of two types: the greater form of kufr, which takes a person out of the fold of Islam, and a lesser kufr, which makes a person a sinful Muslim; but not an apostate. He says that the greater kufr involves:
[i] To totally reject judging by God’s judgments, believing it is not required at all. [ii] The belief that some other judgement or system of legislation is better than God’s law. [iii] The belief that another judgement is equal to, but not better than, God’s judgement. [iv] The belief that it is permissible to give a judgment that opposes the judgement of God – even if one believes nothing is equal to, or better than, God’s laws. [v] To judge by one’s tribal or cultural norms and conventions, in complete disregard for God’s laws. [vi] To substitute the shari‘ah and shari‘ah courts with man-made systems of legislation, root and branch. As for the lesser kufr, which Ibn ‘Abbas explained was: ‘Disbelief lesser than [the greater] disbelief (kufr duna kufr)’, it is when someone judges in opposition to God’s judgement, whist believing it is forbidden and that one is sinful for doing so.37Is not God the best of Judges? [Q.95:8] speaks to all the above, as does: Whoever judges not by what God has sent down, such are the disbelievers. [Q.5:44]
About the last category of tabdil – “substituting”, “replacing” the shari‘ah with man-made laws from top to bottom; completely or predominantly, Muhammad b. Ibrahim said: ‘This is the greater, most extensive, clearest obstinacy against the shari‘ah; haughtiest rejection of its laws; and worst defiance of its law-courts [in terms of] organisation, maintenance, provisions, foundations, branches, forms, types, rulings, diktats, or sources of reference. For just as the shari‘ah courts have their reference points they refer to – each relying on the Book of God and the Sunnah of His Messenger ﷺ – then these courts that judge with a patchwork of disparate man-made laws also have their reference points; be it the French, American, British, or other legal systems … So what disbelief is more audacious than this? Or what greater opposition is there to the testimony that Muhammad ﷺ is the Messenger of God?’38
Other Salafi scholars, in concert with most other non-Wahhabi ones, hold the view that the act of tabdil alone isn’t sufficient to prove disbelief or apostasy in one’s heart, unless accompanied by istihlal – a verbal affirmation that one “believes it to be lawful” to do so. This was the view held by Bin Baz (d.1999), al-Albani (d.1999) and a few other prominent Salafi scholars.39 What that means is that one cannot declare a ruler or a government to be apostates, unless and until they verbally declare their belief that the man-made rules they have substituted, instituted, or inherited are permissible to judge by in opposition to the shari‘ah. Therefore, such governments or leaders are, at best, sinners; not apostates.
So where are we in all this politics and theology? Well the fact remains, whilst the views of the Saudi establishment scholars concerning the Islamic forbiddance of suicide bombings or targeting civilians can and has made significant inroads in the deradicalising process, they appear to be struggling to win the argument against the jihadi-takfiris in other areas such as hukm bi ghayr ma anzala’Llah and isti‘anah. For here, the latter have the firm and decisive support of early Wahhabi fatwas and theology. Not only that, but the way Middle-Eastern politics has and is unfolding, and the current liberalesque reforms in Saudi, only serve to exacerbate the situation. There is, of course, a flip side to all this extremism and radicalism. The voices of our ‘ulema have, since 9-11, been key in combating jihadi-takfiri extremism head on; with the Salafi ‘ulema addressing these concerns earlier still – since possibly the 1980s. Another factor in deradicalisation is simply age: young people who may hold radical views about politics, or about the world and their place in it, will often grow out of their black and white take on things when they grow into the responsibilities of life, marriage, job and family. There’s also the growing mistrust with the promises of Islamism (although the term is semantically problematic, I use it for lack of a better one), particularly after the Arab Spring. And while the Muslim world reconsiders the pros and cons of anti-government protests and uprisings, the ummah is in dire need of a prophetic uprising; that’s for sure. Religious burn outs and religious apathy may, in part, be behind this mistrust: but they are two more reasons for a reduction in extremism. Another is that a large and growing part of the ummah, especially its younger elements, just wish to live a worldly life; have fun; and catch up (or keep up, as the case may be) with the rest of the “progressive” world! Lastly, there are government-orchestrated deradicalisation programs for which, I suppose, we ought to be guardedly thankful.
But seeds had been sown. In the 1980s, al-Maqdisi revived the writings of eighteenth and nineteenth century Wahhabi ‘ulema on the incendiary socio-political topics of wala and bara’ah, and al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar. In the 1990s, a group of diehards centred on Humud b. ‘Uqala propagated al-Maqdisi’s books and ideas, and soon added their own works to his. ‘Uqala et al. were pivotal in convincing a generation of how they should hold firmly to the pure Wahhabi ideals, unsullied by the state’s more palatable version of Wahhabism; and how they should stand against Western intrusion and hate both it and the West. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, after 9-11, provided just the right pretext to demonstrate that contempt and bara’ah. We must add to the mix certain jihadi-takfiri foot soldiers, like al-Maqdisi’s one time prodigy, al-Zarqawi (d.2006). Al-Zarqawi, ideologically forged by al-Maqdisi; but his time as actual practitioner of war, terror and mass murder in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the early 2000s, in contrast to a jihadi-takfiri academic like al-Maqdisi, earned this jihadi thug a sizeable following. This self-proclaimed leader of ‘Al-Qaeda in the land of the two rivers’ took his ideas of takfiri terror to new heights, disturbing people like his former mentor and even Bin Laden! And so it is that a mixture of Wahhabi ideology, their application to the contemporary Muslim world by al-Maqdisi, al-‘Uqala, and co., al-Naji’s Management of Savagery, and the grassroots strategies of terror devised by the likes of al-Zarqawi, became the potent mixture that would form the operational basis for the jihadi-takfiri outlook of ISIS and their like. That this well-defined program and outlook is wholly khariji; of Kharijite nature and nurturing, should be of little doubt.
Today’s jihadi-takfiris extend their jihad to all rulers over Muslims states, along with their armies, police force and government administrators. The political logic behind the enmity and violence is simply that: [i] Hakimiyyah, (“sovereignty”, “judgement”) belongs solely to God. [ii] Today’s rulers do not judge by God’s laws, hence they are disbelievers (kuffar). [iii] It is obligatory to fight against them, remove them and replace them with true Muslim leaders. [iv] Those who side with such rulers (be they scholars, bureaucrats, or citizens) are also disbelievers. [v] Since the rulers are disbelievers, all their covenants of security, and domestic or international treatises, are null and void. Only the jihadi-takfiris are true Muslims; hence political violence must fill our cities! For them, fighting and acts of terror are ideally for tamkin – “consolidating” or “establishing” authority over a particular piece of land or region; and if not, then for nikayah – inflicting as much harm, damage, murder and mayhem as possible. Even if one takes out the first two pillar about hakimiyyah, and convince the jihadi-takfiris about the correctness of the second view on tabdil, it only gets replaced with: [i] Wala’ should only be for God and Islam. [ii] Today’s rulers do not have wala for God, Islam or its laws, hence they are disbelievers!
This, then, is the jihadi-takfiri agenda; inspired – in great part – by original, authoritative Wahhabi teachings. And while groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS emotionally employ atrocities of Western foreign policy in Muslim countries, Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, or the murder and tyranny of brutal dictators against their Muslim citizens, as a recruitment tool and motivator; and while many who join their terrorist bandwagons may not be clued up about the details of the core jihadi-takfiri philosophy, the real driver for their raison d’être and savage activism are the above five pillars of their religious-political logic. It is not only Western foreign policies and interventions in the Middle-East and Palestinian grievances that need to be redressed. But to truly take the sting out of these terrorist outfits and their ideologues, we ask that our ‘ulema continue to deconstruct their falsehood, twisted logic and extremism – especially as it concerns the Quranic understanding of wala’ and bara’ah and al-hukm bi ghayri ma anzala’Llah – “ruling by other than the judgement of God”. But merely contenting ourselves with labelling them Kharijites and terrorists, and not tackling their warped understanding of these delicate religious texts and concepts head-on, we do our religion; ourselves; and the wider world a possible disservice.
Conclusion: Whether blaming Wahhabism (and indirectly, Saudi Arabia) for acts of terror carried out in Islam’s name is a red herring or not has been fiercely debated for over two decades. Yet while it is true that there is no single-cause explanation behind why people join terrorist groups, Wahhabi ideas are certainly the main driver behind the jihadi-takfiri worldview – as evinced by the fact that all its main ideologues subscribe to the Wahhabi-Salafi form of religion. We have further seen that even if the charge of mass takfir against Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab seems to be inconclusive; or at best, untrue, mass takfir is undoubtedly found from his descendants and other leading Wahhabi scholars in the end part of the first Saudi state, and throughout the era of the second Saudi state. Given how the earliest Wahhabi historians, Ibn Ghannam and Ibn Bishr, weren’t shy of recording the takfir verdicts (large scale or otherwise) of Wahhabi ‘ulema – in fact, it often seems like a badge of honour – one would expect them to have chronicled any mass takfir of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself, if he had done so. And God knows best.
Again, while there are complex political, economical or psychological reason people join terrorist outfits like ISIS; and while other conservative, apolitical forms of Salafism (even if there is religious intolerance), do not necessarily lead to becoming terrorists, we noted how al-Maqdisi infused a new lease of life into the takfir fatwas of the 18th & 19th century leading Wahhabi ‘ulema, which would soon become the very backbone of the jihadi-takfiri worldview and activism.
Likewise, it is absurd to suggest that would-be terrorists, especially in Britain and Europe, end up joining or supporting ISIS by wandering from mosque to mosque or trawling the internet, and stumbling upon the book Kitab al-Tawhid by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, then a few weeks later the book incites them to make their way to Syria, or to plot terrorist attacks in their native countries. The reality is far more involved than that. Yet that mustn’t obscure the fact that core Wahhabi tenets are the linchpin for today’s jihadi-takfiri ideas. Certainly, Sayyid Qutb (d.1966) may have partly inspired some core al-Qaeda members, though less so core ISIS ones. And yes, he may have supplied some of the jihadi-takfiri vocabulary and context. But there is no doubt that the bulk of the jihadi-takfiri theological scaffolding and inspiration is decidedly Wahhabi. Starting with early Wahhabi takfir writings, through to al-Maqdisi, then ‘Uqala and others, the pillars of the jihadi-takfiri method were forged:  Hakimiyyah.  Apostasy of all the rulers.  Jihad against the apostate rulers and regimes to establish an Islamic State.  The only viable means to change secular Muslim states is the bullet, not the ballot box.  The inevitable conflict between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr); between the jihadi–takfiris and the rest.
As for the non-Wahhabi, classically-trained ‘ulema: In general, for much of the twentieth century these ‘ulema scrutinised the contents of the shari‘ah, in order to accord Muslims some principled accommodation with the emerging global reality. As it happens, Islam’s legal tools were well-disposed to the task. The juristic tool of tahqiq al-manat – identifying the context for laws so as to ascertain their current form and application, and maslahah mursalah – taking account of public interest and utility, moved the legalists of the major centres of Muslim scholarship in the direction of acclimatisation and adaption. Yet while it’s not Islam’s calling to conform to the age – it is, after all, the great global dissent – it can and must furnish Muslims with the spiritual and social technologies required to live in the age and navigate its eclectic mix of challenges. More than that, true religion must offer people insights into how best to heal modernity’s discontents and despair too.
Those doctors of Islam’s legal tools, who are also blessed with being spiritually rooted in the realities of ihsan, teach us that God’s law exists to instantiate mercy not severity; ease not hardship; good news (tabshir) not alienation (tanfir). They insist that today’s times call for tashil; facilitation, but not tasahul; slackness or over-leniency. And that far from caving-in to secular modernity, as the short-sighted or fiqh-less zealots believe, this path maintained a wise, far-sighted openness to gentleness, which long predated the advent of the modern world. Sufyan al-Thawri stated: ‘In our view, knowledge entails granting legal concessions (rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’40Sayyiduna ‘Ali, may God be pleased with him, once said: ‘The scholar is not the one to cause people to despair of God’s mercy, nor to give them licence to sin.’41
Such scholars were also concerned about pseudo-scholars and charlatans, and the weak-spirited, not turning Islam into as many things as modernity wants Religion to be; in that Islam’s texts are twisted and tortured so as to make them compliant with whatever “ism” that happens to be modernity’s prevailing mood or zeitgeist: be it humanism, secularism, materialism, or nationalism; or in more recent times, liberalism, individualism, feminism, etc. Such concerns were not unjustified!
Some of the ‘ulema were also quick to realise that whatever political or religious spectrum Muslims advocate, most Muslim activism and movements that sought change, throughout the twentieth century till today, are locked in the logic of modernity, and can only operate within its hegemonic parameters. Islam, however, premised on the Adamic fitrah and the prophetic Sunnah, lies outside the monoculture’s plethora of philosophies, and so cannot be made subordinate to it. And this is why Islam is, and continues to be, the great global dissent from the totalising ideology of liberal modernity.
Another insight of the ‘ulema was that one cannot simply go crashing into the juggernaut of modernity, as it has a tendency to flatten anything that comes charging at it. Therefore, instead of the Wahhabi obsession of defining what we are against, these ‘ulema privileged the notion of what we are for. Of course, shirk is shirk and tawhid is tawhid, and never the twain shall meet. Thus, for example, a Muslim’s relationship with non-Muslims would be guided by privileging this Quranic passage over others: God does not forbid you in terms of those who neither wage war against you on account of your religion, and nor drive you from your homes, from being kind to them and treating them justly. God loves the just. God only forbids you from befriending those who wage war against you on account of your religion, or drive you from your homes, or aid others in your expulsion. Whoever befriends them, those are the unjust. [Q.60:8-9] The Wahhabi insistence on enmity and hate would be privileged by the prophetic virtue of loving guidance and goodness for the non-Muslims wandering in the darkness and distractions of disbelief.
Of course, such privileging, or giving emphasis to one thing over another, isn’t without its dangers and difficulties. For those unschooled in ihsan – in the beauty of shari‘ah-rooted suluk or spirituality – will only bring ugliness into the world. If we are to be constructive healers, healing the world a day at a time or an act at a time, we must ensure that our fiqh deliberations are infused with the profound wisdoms and insights of our suluk tradition.
Let me wrap-up the post (and, indeed, this series) with these reflections – which speak of where we Muslims need to be heading. Explaining his own contention: ‘Being heretics to the Monoculture requires both courage and style,’ Abdal Hakim Murad writes:
‘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 is called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’42
Part of that gratitude and humility, he says, involves an awareness that not everyone can muster up the strength to be different: ‘Human nature is conformist and the monoculture increasingly demonises Muslim distinctiveness. Browbeaten Muslims, anxious to please, are everywhere; they are no use to their communities, or, ultimately, to their hosts, since they cannot function as healers, only as a chorus of frightened eulogists. Allah is testing us through them; and the only successful response to this test is to be forgiving, and try and find an ointment for the scars inflicted by the melting-pot, as it grows ever hotter, year after year.’43
We ask Allah for guidance, courage, humility and safety.
Allahumma ‘rzuqna’l-iman wa’l-aman fi kulli bilad wa’ruqna’l-fahm wa tasihhu’l-jihad anta rabb wa nahnu al-‘ibad. wa’rzuqna khayr al-zad.
1. First posted on the now defunct al Ekhlas website, it was translated into English in 2006 by William McCants and released by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point. See: Stern & Berger, ISIS: the State of Terror (London: William Collins, 2015), 23. A translation is downloadable here.
2. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah fi’l-Ajwabat al-Najdiyyah (n.p, 2004), 10:131, a collection of essays, tracts and fatwas by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and early Wahhabi scholars,
3. Mu’allafat al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Su‘ud, 1398H), 4:11.
4. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 1:82-3.
5. Cf. Ibn Ghannam, Tarikh Najd (Riyadh: Dar al-Thuluthiyyah, 2010), volume two devoted to the jihad campaigns, ending in 1206H with the death of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab; Ibn Bishr, Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd (Riyadh: Matbu‘at Darat al-Malik ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, 1982), 1:46, which speaks about the first of many jihad campaigns.
6. Consult: Unwan al-Majd, 1:65, 69-72.
7. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 10:51.
8. Cf. Unwan al-Majd, 1:44.
9. See: al-Razi, Tafsir al-Kabir (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1981), 17:63; Ibn ‘Aqil, approvingly cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar Ibn al-Haytham, 2004), 388-89; also al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 6:128. As for Ibn Taymiyyah, then he has a separate treatise on the issue, entitled: al-Istighathah fi Radd ‘ala’l-Bakri (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1426H).
10. The tract is called, al-Dala’il fi Hukm Muwalat Ahl al-Ishraq (The Proofs Against Loyalty to the Idolators), and can be found in al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 8:121-43.
11. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 8:121.
12. ibid., 8:121. Al-‘Anqari writes in the next volume, 9:157: ‘The reason for composing the Dala’il is that Shaykh Sulayman authored it when the Turkish armies invaded Najd in his time, intending to eradicate the religion from its foundations.’
13. ibid., 8:127-28.
14. ibid., 1:312. Towards the end of a letter to the Ottoman governor of Baghdad, Ibrahim Pasha, written at the close of the year 1810CE.
20. ibid., 25. The hadith about fighting the Turks is given in al-Bukhari, no.2928; Muslim, no.2912.
21. ibid., 62-3.
22. ibid., 23 onwards.
23. For a comprehensive review of al-Maqdisi’s life, ideology and influence as one of the most important radical jihadi thinkers of our age, see: Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
35. Tabdid Kawashif al-‘Anid (Cairo: Dar al-Imam Ahmad, 2007), 86-7.
36. ibid., 91-8. Also consult: al-Fawzan, I‘anat al-Mustafid bi Sharh Kitab al-Tawhid (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2002), 356, on natural wala’ towards non-Muslims.
37. See: Fatawa wa Rasa’il Samahat al-Shaykh Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. ‘Abd al-Latif Al al-Shaykh (Makkah: al-Hukumah al-Makkah al-Mukarramah, 1399H), 12:284-91. This letter is published as a separate epistle, under the title of Tahkim al-Qawanin.
38. ibid., 12:289-90.
39. Cf. al-Halabi (ed.), al-Tahdhir min Fitnah al-Takfir (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 1997), 13-44, for al-Albani’s fatwa; and pp.45-9 for Ibn Baz’s approval of al-Albani’s fatwa and that istihlal is a condition for judging by other than God’s laws to be kufr akbar. Also cf. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Baz, Majmu‘ Fatawa wa Maqalat Mutanawwi‘ah (Riyadh: Dar al-Qasim, 1420H), 5:355.
40. Quoted in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.
41. Cited in al-Qurtubi, Kitab al-Tadhkirah (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1425H), 800.
42. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contention (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 68; no.39.
Are the various conspiracy theories that have etched their way into popular culture true?
Have the powerful elites of every age sought to band together to control, manipulate and exploit the masses?
Can any of these conspiracies be conclusively proven?
Is God in full control of history and human destiny?
Yet many people forget this last fact and instead are obsessed with chasing shadows! Not only can conspiracy theories become an addiction, they can rapidly become a source of intellectual arrogance too. For once someone has plunged deeply into this toxic mindset, and filled their head and heart with such paranoia, balanced thinking becomes almost impossible. The theorist now thinks himself to be one of the enlightened elite who know what’s really going on, while the rest of us are seen as naive or dumb sheep that can’t see beyond the tiny patch of grass under our noses. Seeing the world through the conspiracy lens can foster a sense of empowerment, which can be hugely intoxicating.
But worse than the vanity or self-conceit is the untold amount of hours and energy that is squandered – time which might otherwise have been spent growing in knowledge of God, knowledge of Self, and knowledge of Sin. For how many Muslims do we find who know the intricacies of certain wild conspiracies, yet their knowledge of Islam is embarrassingly infantile.
Perhaps the biggest conspiracy at work here isn’t 9/11, the assassination of JFK, the death of Princess Diana, the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion; nor the re-engineering of global systems by the Illuminati or Bilderberg Group; and nor the various plots to control the population and its behaviour, like the spread of HIV, the fluoridation of our drinking water, or jet engine chemtrails. The biggest conspiracy may simply be how Satan, the arch conspirator, has employed this mixed bag of facts and fiction to distract us from growing in God’s obedience and remembrance.
Are conspiracy theorists all irrational or pathological? No, not really. The millions of them that there are around the world are too diverse to be put into one box. Some, for sure, are hooked on conspiracies because of a pathology. Some are obsessed with blaming others for the world’s woes. Some just enjoy the thrill and empowerment of ‘knowing the truth.’ For others, it can be more negative. Some can become so anxious about the supposed fact that certain powerful, elite puppet-masters in the shadows are pulling everyone’s strings that they are paralysed by fear; and feel that they can do nothing to change the world, or even their own life.
The Qur’an praises the believers, when it says: Those to whom men said: ‘The enemy has gathered against you, so fear them!’ But this only increased their faith, and they said: ‘Allah is sufficient for us! He is the best Guardian.’ So they returned with bounties and grace from Allah, and no harm touched them. They followed the good pleasure of Allah, and Allah is of abounding bounty. It is only Satan who would make [people] fear his followers. Fear them not; but fear Me, if you are indeed believers. [Q.3:174-6] To fear Allah is not a suggestion; it’s a command. It is also a reminder that Allah is in full control of His creation: no-one has rested control from Him; not even for a nanosecond. And knowing for certain destiny is unfolding according to His plan assures the believer’s heart and allays his fears.
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 mistreats, exploits, oppresses or tyrannises another? And what should the role of Muslim scholars be in addressing the tyranny and injustices perpetrated by the state?
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 be 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.