Q. What is our Islamic duty when one Muslim – individual or nation – mistreats, exploits, oppresses or tyrannises another?
A.Alhamduli’Llah, wa’l-salatu wa’l-salamu ‘ala rasuli’Llah. In theory, the answer is pretty straightforward. In practice, it may often be tricky – especially if the oppression (zulm) is not by an individual, but by a group or faction, or it is political tyranny of a government; a police state; or a tyrant dictator.
As for the theory, or principle, our Prophet ﷺ said: انْصُرْ أَخَاكَ ظَالِمًا أَوْ مَظْلُومًا. قَالُوا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ هَذَا نَنْصُرُهُ مَظْلُومًا فَكَيْفَ نَنْصُرُهُ ظَالِمًا قَالَ: تَأْخُذُ فَوْقَ يَدَيْهِ – ‘Help your brother, be he the oppressor or the oppressed!’ They said: O Messenger of Allah, we can help the oppressed. But how do we help an oppressor? He said: ‘By restraining his hand.’1
There are some important points to consider here:
Firstly, it is a collective obligation; a fard kifayah, to stop an oppressor harming, exploiting or oppressing another. Which is to say, if one or more people do not stand up to stop the oppression or tyranny, the whole of the community or ummah is sinful.2 This, then, is the general rule of thumb concerning helping an oppressed person – regardless of the type of injustice or oppression; be it personal, marital, social, or political.
Secondly, the Prophet ﷺ warned of a divine punishment if such a collective obligation is shirked or left unfulfilled: ‘People, if they see an oppressor and do not restrain him, then perhaps Allah will cover them all with punishment.’3
Thirdly, there will be times where it simply isn’t possible to restrain the oppressor; but this should not be for a lack of wanting to stop oppression. One hadith states: ‘Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to, then with his tongue; if he is unable, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’4 So not having even the wish to help a victim of domestic violence; economic unfairness; or political tyranny, for instance, is a serious indictment on one’s level of faith and personal piety; and any claim to be upon the Sunnah is likely to be nothing more than a fantasy.
Fourthly, although the hadith that says: ‘Whoever is not concerned with the affairs of the Muslims is not of them’ isn’t authentic,5 its meaning is religiously sound. The next hadith bears this out: ‘The likeness of the believers in their mutual love, mercy and compassion is like that of a single body; when one part of it is in pain, the rest of the body suffers in sleeplessness and fever.’6 Which is to say, the bonds of faith between believers should be a cause for us to feel the injustices or suffering other Muslims are feeling. To the degree it does not, this is a telling sign that one’s faith (iman) is weak and that the heart has been desensitised to the cries of the ummah and the suffering of the sufferers. We ask that Allah place in our hearts concern and the desire to serve.
Fifthly, in attempting to rectify any instance of oppression or injustice, one must be sure to observe the well-established rule of enjoining good and forbidding evil, that:la yu’addi ila munkar akbara minhu – ‘It should not give rise to a worse evil.’ If righting a wrong is likely to result in a greater evil, or to the loss of a greater good, then one leaves off doing so until a positive outcome can be assured, or it is more likely to be the result. Ibn al-Qayyim said: ‘Forbidding munkar (“wrong”, “evil”, “sin”) has four levels: Firstly, it will be eliminated to be replaced by good. Secondly, it will be reduced, but not fully eradicated. Thirdly, it will be [removed but] replaced by an equivalent evil. Fourthly, it will be [removed but] replaced by a worse evil. The first two levels are [areas where forbidding evil is] legislated; the third is an area for personal reasoning (ijtihad); the fourth, however, is prohibitted.’7
Sixthly, as for preventing acts of political oppression, then of course this is far harder and could also be life threatening. But whilst keeping the above previous points in mind, there are these words of our Prophet ﷺ to internalise: ‘There will soon be rulers whom you’ll approve of and also object to. Whoever recognises [abhors their evil] is absolved. Whoever objects to it is saved. But whoever is pleased with it or approves of it [is sinful].’8 In other words, as al-Nawawi noted, ‘whoever is unable to remove the evil isn’t considered sinful merely by keeping silent. Rather, the sin is in approving of it, or in not [even] denouncing it in one’s heart.’9
Seventhly, entering upon rulers is always fraught with great danger, both in spiritual and worldly terms. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Listen! You may well have heard that after me there will leaders, whoever enters upon them and agrees with their lies, and supports them in their oppression, then he is not of me, nor I of him; and he shall not drink with me from the Fountain. Whoever does not enter upon them, nor help them in their oppression, nor agrees to their lies, he is of me, and I of him, and he will drink with me at the Fountain.’10 Scholars that do enter upon the ruler must do so only to wisely and gently right a wrong; or give religious instruction and exhortation; or to lessen an existing evil: this is what is sought after from such scholars. We ask that Allah grant our scholars ‘afiyah – safety and well-being.
Eighthly, in fact, to enter upon a ruler or a head of state, and flatter him or heap upon him exaggerated platitudes, isn’t really the conduct of a godly Muslim; let alone a scholar. Ibn ‘Umar relates that he was once told: ‘We enter upon our sultans and say to them things contrary to what we say when we leave their presence.’ Ibn ‘Umar remarked: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, we used to consider this to be hypocrisy.’11 Such platitudes only serve to obscure the true state of affairs to the ruler, in terms of his responsibilities and duties to God, and to subjects or citizens. It also reinforces his delusion that he is truly fit for purpose! As for speaking to him wisely, gently and by acknowledging the good he has done, this is praiseworthy. As for the dangers of the state seeking to domesticate Muslim scholars, I’ve written about it here.
Ninethly, in the attempt to restrain the tyranny of those in power, scholars shoulder a huge responsibility. As guardians of the sacred law and the prophetic legacy, they are expected to be courageous or independent enough to clarify truth from falsehood – without desires or ego getting in the way; and to gently, yet firmly speak truth to power – if the occasion arises. Fear that they may likely lose their life in the process; or be tortured; or bring harm upon their family or loved ones, may excuse them from this duty. But what they cannot be is a sheepish mouthpiece for shabby tyrants. So while speaking about how the venerable scholar and exemplar from Islam’s early past, Imam al-Awza‘i, spoke infront of the tyrant of the time, Imam al-Dhahabi explains that al-Awza‘i, يَصْدَعُهُ بِمُرِّ الحَقِّ كَمَا تَرَى، لاَ كَخَلْقٍ مِنْ عُلَمَاءِ السُّوءِ الَّذِيْنَ يُحَسِّنُوْنَ لِلأُمَرَاءِ مَا يَقْتَحِمُوْنَ بِهِ مِنَ الظُّلمِ وَالعَسْفِ، وَيَقلِبُوْنَ لَهُمُ البَاطِلَ حَقّاً ، قَاتَلَهُمُ اللهُ ، أَوْ يَسكُتُوْنَ مَعَ القُدْرَةِ عَلَى بَيَانِ الحَقِّ – ‘… proclaimed the bitter truth, as you have seen. Unlike those corrupt scholars who justify for the rulers the persecution and tyranny they plunge into, and turn falsehood into truth for them – may Allah fight them; or who keep silent, despite having the ability to proclaim the truth.’12
We ask Allah for ‘afiyah, courage and tawfiq.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.2444; Muslim, no.2584.
2. Cf. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 6:238.
3. Ahmad, Musnad, no.31. Its chain was graded as sahih by Ahmad Shakir, al-Musnad al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1954), 1:36.
4. Muslim, no.49.
5. According to al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), nos.309-12, this and similar hadiths with this wording range from being mildly weak (da‘if), to very weak (da‘if jiddan), to fabricated (mawdu‘). The actual hadith is related in al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 4:352.
6. Al-Bukhari, no.6011; Muslim, no.2586.
7. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:339-40.
8. Muslim, no.1854.
9. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1995), 12:204.
10. Ibn Hibban, no.282; al-Tirmidhi, no.2190, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan sahih.’
11. Al-Bukhari, no.7178. The words: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ’ is recorded in al-Tayalasi, Musnad, no.1900; and not al-Bukhari.
In principle, there’s good cause to counter the allegation that, historically, Islam impeded the development of modern science in the medieval Muslim world. In practice, this must not translate into the belief that scientific progress is an absolute value upon which the credibility of Islam must actually rest.
In principle, a Muslim scholar possessed of sound theological learning has every right to declare a particular act or utterance to be disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs necessitate this. In practice, this is very different from declaring a specific individual who may have ignorantly, mistakenly or coercively committed such an act, or uttered such a profanity, as being a kafir; a disbeliever. The rule of thumb here is: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief [necessarily] becomes a disbeliever.’1
In principle, the believer ought to have a calm loathing for liberalism and its attempts to dismantle an engendered world. In practice, one must have pity for the shrunken victims of this insane, ungodly monoculture and help them back to the path of sanity and Adamic humanity: But God has endeared faith to you and beautified it in your hearts, and has made unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to you. Such are the rightly guided. [Q.49:7]
In principle, anyone who does not declare the shahadah in this world is considered to be a non-Muslim in this world. In practice, some non-Muslims (kuffar) shall have an excuse or an amnesty in the Hereafter for only having heard a distorted message of Islam while in this world. The Qur’an says: Nor do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [Q.17:15] The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or a Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with, will be among the denizens of Hell.’2 An-Nawawi explains: ‘In its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’3 Imam al-Ghazali ecumenically wrote about those who only heard a distorted message of Islam; filled with lies, half-truths and propaganda: ‘These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and an imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet … This party, in my view, is like the first party [which is excused]. For though they’ve heard of him, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this doesn’t provide enough incentive for them to look into [his true status].’4
In principle, an atheist may feel smug by countering the supposed theistic assertion that: ‘Everything must have a cause for its existence’, with: ‘So what caused God?!’ In practice, no Muslim theologian (nor any Jewish or Christian one) has ever asserted this. Rather the theistic belief is: ‘Everything that comes into existence, from non-existence, must have a cause for its existence.’ God, however, did not ‘come into existence’. He necessarily exists. God’s eternal attribute of life is intrinsic to, and inseparable from, His holy Essence.
In principle, it is not against Islam to believe that Adam, peace be upon him, was created over a period of time, in contrast to instantaneously; or even that other human-like bipeds walked the earth before him. In practice, this must never lead us to believe that Adam had biological parents, or to somehow imagine that he was the offspring of two proto-human bipeds of the homo genus.
In principle, the sirah teaches us the socio-political importance of forming an “Alliance of Virtue” with non-Muslim seekers of social justice, as per the hilf al-fudul saga. In practice, the sirah also tells us that alliances of this sort must not come at the cost of compromising Islam’s core tenets or blurring the unchangeables. Thus, even as Quraysh’s big whigs put Abu Talib, the Prophet’s dear uncle, between a rock and a hard place, to get his nephew to tone down his message before they forcefully made him do so; and even as the Prophet ﷺ may have been torn between seeing his uncle under such pressure, on the one hand; and his duty not to compromise the message, on the other, we hear this from the nephew to his beloved uncle: ‘I am no more able to stop this [message] as you are to snatch a piece of flame from the sun.’5 And in a popular wording: ‘O uncle, if the sun were placed in my right hand and the moon in my left, I would not give up this affair until either God grants me success in it, or I perish in its pursuit.’ The Prophet ﷺ then broke down in tears.6
In principle, Allah’s earth has been made for the whole of humanity’s use and enjoyment, not just for the privileged few: God created for you all that is on the earth. [Q.2:29] And: Eat and drink, but not excessively. For God loves not the excessive. [Q.7:31] In practice, partake of the earth’s fruits for our needs we must; partake of them for our wants we surely may; but partake of them excessively and irresponsibly, or in a way that upsets the balance, we may not: And He has raised the heavens and has set a balance, that you may not upset the balance, but observe the balance and not fall short therein. [Q.55:7-9] Currently we are not doing so well on this score; heading, as we are, to the brink of ecological disaster.
In principle, we are proud to be Muslims; pride born, not of the ego’s arrogance (kibr), but of joyous gratitude for God’s gift of guidance: We would not have been guided had God not guided us. [Q.7:43] For we can rightfully be proud if it’s without the ego; if it is godly and not worldly. In practice, it is rare for such pride to be without ego – even when it relates to pride in Islam’s revealed truths. Al-Ghazali once said: ‘How much blood has been spilt to promote the causes of the masters of the law schools!’7 So whilst truth and the details of ritual correctness are indeed important, it must not be driven by sectarian pride, nor come at the cost of one’s own salvation: ‘Whoever has an atom’s worth of pride in his heart will not enter Paradise’8 Hence if you know someone has opposed the Book, Sunnah, or ijma‘, ensure that your state is one of gratitude to Allah for your guidance.9 Or better still, let us pray as Imam Ahmad would pray: اللَّهُمَّ مَنْ كَانَ مِنْ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْحَقِّ وَهُوَ يَظُنُّ أَنَّهُ عَلَى الْحَقِّ فَرُدَّهُ إِلَى الْحَقِّ لِيَكُونَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْحَقِّ – ‘O Allah, whosoever from this community is upon other than the truth, believing himself to be upon the truth, return him to the truth, that he may be from the People of the Truth.’10
In principle, we may incline to measured political activism, or to a principled apoliticism; there is leeway in the prophetic Sunnah for either. In practice, if we wish to thrive and not just survive, we must each grow in inward and outward godliness and in practical degrees of worldly detachment (zuhd), in humility, in respecting neighbours and serving the poor; whilst also choosing our battles wisely and fussing less about Islamophobes, not being so antagonistic, seeking to win peoples’ hearts while sincerely working for their welfare.
5. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.6526, with a hasan chain. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh; Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.92.
6. Ibn Hisham, Sirah, 1:303. The chain is missing two successive links between the Prophet and the narrator, Ya‘qub b. ‘Utbah. Hence the chain is da‘if mu‘dal. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.909.
7. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 8:382.
8. Muslim, no.147.
9. See: Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 174.
10. The du‘a is cited in Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Beirut: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1990), 10:329.
Q. Do times get worse throughout the ages, after the Prophet’s era ﷺ? And is there a basis for believing this in the textual sources of Islam? Can you also say something about the return of Jesus, peace be upon him, and the coming of the Dajjal, and how they fit into the overall pattern of decay, deterioration and then revival?
A. In the Name of God, Most Gracious, All-Merciful. As a general rule, what you’ve said is true. We are taught in Islam that times do indeed deteriorate: that each age is followed by an age worse than it. However, this is not without its exceptions. The following is usually cited to support the downward spiral of history:
From al-Zubayr b. ‘Adi, who said: We came to Anas b. Malik and complained to him about what was happening from al-Hajjaj. So he said:
‘Be patient! For there will not come a time upon you except that after it will be worse than it, until you meet your Lord.’ I heard this from your Prophet, peace be upon him.1
Taking the above words of our Prophet ﷺ as our starting point, let’s explore some of their context, meanings and implications:
1. As for the context, it is the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan (r.65-86H/685-705CE ), fifth Umayyad ruler. He became caliph after a number of tragic intra-Muslim schisms and civil wars had blighted the ummah over the past five years: the death of al-Husayn at Karbala; the battle at Harrah and the subsequent looting of Madinah; and the siege of ‘Abd Allah b. al-Zubair at the Ka‘bah. Given all these woeful tribulations, ‘Abd al-Malik set about trying to consolidate his rule and to restore some order to the expanding Muslim empire. History credits him with much good and success. But part of this consolidation of power required that he end Ibn al-Zubayr’s nine year claim to the caliphate based in Makkah. This he did by unleashing against him his ruthless lieutenant, al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf. After laying siege to Makkah, and shelling the Sacred Precinct using catapults, Ibn al-Zubayr was killed then crucified, in 73H/692CE.
2. As for al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf (the one people were complaining to Anas about), a glimpse of his cruel and unsparing character can be seen in al-Dhahabi’s brief biographical remarks on him: وَكَانَ ظَلُوْماً ، جَبَّاراً ، نَاصِبِيّاً ، خَبِيْثاً ، سَفَّاكاً لِلدِّمَاءِ ، وَكَانَ ذَا شَجَاعَةٍ ، وَإِقْدَامٍ ، وَمَكْرٍ ، وَدَهَاءٍ ، وَفَصَاحَةٍ ، وَبَلاَغَةٍ ، وَتعَظِيْمٍ لِلْقُرَآنِ … وَلَهُ حَسَنَاتٌ مَغْمُوْرَةٌ فِي بَحْرِ ذُنُوْبِهِ ، وَأَمْرُهُ إِلَى اللهِ ، وَلَهُ تَوْحِيْدٌ فِي الجُمْلَةِ ، وَنُظَرَاءُ مِنْ ظَلَمَةِ الجَبَابِرَةِ وَالأُمَرَاءِ – ‘He was a tyrant, a despot, hater of ‘Ali and the Prophet’s family, wicked, and a shedder of blood. He was [also] fearless, audacious, shrewd and cunning; as well as being an eloquent and persuasive speaker who venerated the Qur’an … He has some good deeds amidst an ocean of sins; his affair is left to God. He had faith, in general, and wasn’t alone among the oppressive tyrants and leaders.’2 He perished in 95H/714CE.
Maybe it was during al-Hajjaj’s onslaught against Ibn al-Zubayr; or when, between 700H-703H, he put down the full scale uprising of Ibn al-Ash‘ath and his followers; or when he brought his brutal governorship to Iraq and to the eastern Islamic lands, that Anas related this hadith. Certainly the people, including Anas himself, had much cause for grievance against al-Hajjaj. But Anas reminds them of something decidedly prophetic: in the face of tyranny from those in power, patience – not to be confused with complacency – is what brings about relief and divine help.
3. Along with the two sahabah, Anas and Ibn al-Zubayr, another leading Muslim sage who lived through the brutal governorship of al-Hajjaj was al-Hasan al-Basri. He counselled us how, 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 – within human society. Without trying to understand what God is saying to us through how He causes the political fortunes of people to unfold, we fail to engage in the kind of politics the Qur’an wishes us to engage in. It is from such Quranic “seeing” that al-Hasan al-Basri once said of al-Hajjaj: 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. Instead, take to humility and imploring God.’3 The Qur’an says: وَلَقَدْ أَخَذْنَاهُمْ بِالْعَذَابِ فَمَا اسْتَكَانُوا لِرَبِّهِمْ وَمَا يَتَضَرَّعُونَ – We seized them with punishment, yet they humbled not themselves to their Lord, nor did they implore Him. [23:76]. Also: وَكَذَلِكَ نُوَلِّي بَعْضَ الظَّالِمِينَ بَعْضًا بِمَا كَانُوا يَكْسِبُونَ – Thus do We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [6:129] ‘Hence if those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from unjust [sinful] acts.’4 Listening to what the af‘al al-rabb are telling us is key to the political well-being of Muslims.
4. One last word related to our context. Al-Hasan al-Basri was once asked by some young activists to endorse Ibn Ash‘ath’s uprising against 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.’5 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 rulers, 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!’6
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. So what good did such rabble-rousing and rebellion actually bring about to society or to the common person? And what about activism being accountable to the well-established Islamic “Law of Consequences”? As for the few who may have misread the af‘al al-rabb, or erred in their qualified scholarly ijtihad, theirs is a different case.
The above depicted something of the turbulent context. As for what it means for the times to grow steadily worse, then that’s what we’ll discuss now:
5. One of the objections raised against the meaning of the hadith is that within four years of al-Hajjaj’s demise, it was the rule of the eighth Umayyad caliph, the righteous ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (r.99-101H/717-720CE). A paragon of godliness and learning, he reversed the preceding tyranny and returned the Muslims to a culture of justice, learning and piety. So this apparently shows that not every age is followed by an age worse than it. Or does it? In answering this dilemma, scholars have offered the following explanations:7 [i] the hadith is to be understood as describing what is usually the case: [ii] that the hadith speaks of an overall comparison between each successive age; and [iii] the deterioration is referring to the demise of the scholars and the loss of religious knowledge and guidance. Let’s look at each opinion in more detail:
6. For the first opinion, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani wrote: ‘This generalisation is problematic in that some ages have [apparently] not been worse than the ones before them. Such is the case with the times of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, which was shortly after the time of al-Hajjaj; and information concerning ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s time is well-known.’8 He then states that this worsening is what is predominantly the case, but not always the case. This view was held by al-Hasan al-Basri who, when asked about ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz coming after al-Hajjaj, said: لَابُدَّ لِلناَّسِ مِنْ تَنْفِيْس – ‘People need some breathing space!’9
7. The second opinion, that each age contains more overall excellence than the age which follows, is explained by Ibn Hajr, thus: ‘Others have replied [saying] that what is meant by the excellence [of the preceding age compared to what comes after] is overall excellence of one age in comparison to the overall excellence of another. For in the age of al-Hajjaj, many sahabah were alive, whilst in the age of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz [many] had died. And an age wherein the sahabah are present is better than one that comes after, as the Prophet ﷺ stated: “The best of mankind is my generation,” recorded in the Two Sahihs; and in his saying: “My sahabah are the custodians for my ummah, when they depart what has been decreed for my ummah will come to it.” Related by Muslim.’10
8. As for the third opinion, Ibn Hajr quotes these words of Ibn Mas‘ud: ﻻ ﻳَﺄْﺗِﻲ ﻋَﻠَﻴْﻜُﻢْ ﺯَﻣَﺎﻥٌ ﺇِﻻ ﻭَﻫُﻮَ ﺷَﺮٌّ ﻣِﻤَّﺎ ﻛَﺎﻥَ ﻗَﺒْﻠَﻪ ، ﺃَﻣَﺎ ﺇِﻧِّﻲ ﻻ ﺃَﻋْﻨِﻲ ﺃَﻣِﻴﺮًﺍ ﺧَﻴْﺮًﺍ ﻣِﻦْ ﺃَﻣِﻴﺮٍ، ﻭَﻟَﺎ ﻋَﺎﻣًﺎ ﺧَﻴْﺮًﺍ ﻣِﻦْ ﻋَﺎﻡٍ، ﻭَﻟَﻜِﻦْ ﻋُﻠَﻤَﺎﺅُﻛُﻢْ ﻭَﻓُﻘَﻬَﺎﺅُﻛُﻢْ ﻳَﺬْﻫَﺒُﻮﻥَ، ﺛُﻢَّ ﻻ ﺗَﺠِﺪُﻭﻥَ ﻣِﻨْﻬُﻢْ ﺧُﻠَﻔَﺎﺀَ، ﻭَﻳَﺠِﻲﺀُ ﻗَﻮْﻡٌ ﻳُﻔْﺘُﻮﻥَ ﺑِﺮَﺃْﻳِﻬِﻢ – ‘There will not come upon you a time, except that it is worse than the time before it. I do not mean a leader better than another leader, nor a year better than another year. But your scholars and learned ones shall depart, and you will not find anyone to succeed them. Then there will come a people who will give fatwas according to their mere opinion.’11 In another wording: ﻭَﻣَﺎ ﺫَﺍﻙَ ﺑِﻜَﺜْﺮَﺓِ ﺍْﻷﻣْﻄَﺎﺭِ ﻭَﻗِﻠَّﺘِﻬَﺎ ﻭَﻟَﻜِﻦْ ﺑِﺬَﻫَﺎﺏِ ﺍﻟْﻌُﻠَﻤَﺎﺀِ ﺛُﻢَّ ﻳُﺤْﺪِﺙُ ﻗَﻮْﻡٌ ﻳُﻔْﺘُﻮﻥَ ﻓِﻲ ﺍﻷﻣُﻮﺭِ ﺑِﺮَﺃْﻳِﻬِﻢْ ﻓَﻴَﺜْﻠِﻤُﻮﻥَ ﺍﻹﺱﻻَﻡَ ﻭَﻳَﻬْﺪِﻣُﻮﻧَﻪ – ‘It is not due to an abundance of rain or its scarcity. Rather, it is because of the disappearance of the scholars. Then there’ll come a people who will give fatwas on matters based on mere opinion, thereby disgracing and destroying Islam.’12 So this view demonstrates that the worsening has less to do with political leaders or economic fortunes – ‘I do not mean a leader better than another leader, nor a year better than another year’ – and has far more to do with the absence of scholars and scholarly guidance. Indeed, Ibn Hajr deems this to be the best explanation.13
9. As for the apex of these worsening times, when religious guidance will be eclipsed by deceptions and distraction, that 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.’14 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.’15 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.
And then there’s this disconcerting hadith: يَنْزِلُ الدَّجَّالُ فِي هَذِهِ السَّبَخَةِ بِمَرِّقَنَاةَ – وادٍ بالمدينة – فَيَكُونُ أَكْثَرَ مَنْ يَخْرُجُ إِلَيْهِ النِّسَاءُ ، حَتَّى إِنَّ الرَّجُلَ لَيَرْجِعُ إِلَى حَمِيمِهِ وَإِلَى أُمِّهِ وَابْنَتِهِ وَأُخْتِهِ وَعَمَّتِهِ فَيُوثِقُهَا رِبَاطًا مَخَافَةَ أَنْ تَخْرُجَ إِلَيْهِ – ‘The Dajjaal will come to this marsh in Marriqanat – a valley in Madinah – and most of those who go out to him will be women. To the extent that a man will come to his mother-in-law, mother, daughter, sister, and aunt, and will have to constrain them firmly for fear that they will go out to him.’16 Precisely what makes Dajjal a magnet for women, and what will he offer that causes this mass feminine allegiance to him, is a question that must be explored at another time. Although given the essence of Dajjal’s fitnah is to make truth appear as falsehood; and falsehood as truth, whatever he peddles, it will be nothing short of putting them (and others) to trial in their very faith and salvation. We seek refuge in God from the trials of the Anti-Christ.
Before saying a few words about the hadith’s implications for us today, let us look at the ‘exceptions’ to the rule. Let’s say something about the good that is still to come; and about how the future is for Abrahamic monotheism. So believing hearts need not despair.
10. One of these exceptions is that the political fortunes of the Muslims will take a turn for the better with the return of the caliphate or khilafah. So we read at the start of one hadith (whose soundness is open to some question), that: يَكُونُ اخْتِلاَفٌ عِنْدَ مَوْتِ خَلِيفَةٍ فَيَخْرُجُ رَجُلٌ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ هَارِبًا إِلَى مَكَّةَ فَيَأْتِيهِ نَاسٌ مِنْ أَهْلِ مَكَّةَ فَيُخْرِجُونَهُ وَهُوَ كَارِهٌ فَيُبَايِعُونَهُ بَيْنَ الرُّكْنِ وَالْمَقَامِ – ‘Disagreement will occur at the death of a caliph; and a man from Madinah will flee to Makkah. Some of the Makkans will go to him, bring him out against his will, and pledge allegiance (bay‘ah) to him between the Corner [of the Ka‘bah] and the Station [of Abraham] …’17 In another hadith: يَقْتَتِلُ عِنْدَ كَنْزِكُمْ ثَلَاثَةٌ ، كُلُّهُمْ ابْنُ خَلِيفَةٍ ، ثُمَّ لَا يَصِيرُ إِلَى وَاحِدٍ مِنْهُمْ – ‘Three men, all of whom are sons of a caliph, will fight over your treasure, but none of them shall get to it …’18 Then there is this good news:تَكُونُ النُّبُوَّةُ فِيكُمْ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ تَكُونَ ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ثُمَّ تَكُونُ خِلَافَةٌ عَلَى مِنْهَاجِ النُّبُوَّةِ فَتَكُونُ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ تَكُونَ ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ثُمَّ تَكُونُ مُلْكًا عَاضًّا فَيَكُونُ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ يَكُونَ ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ثُمَّ تَكُونُ مُلْكًا جَبْرِيَّةً فَتَكُونُ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ تَكُونَ ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ثُمَّ تَكُونُ خِلَافَةً عَلَى مِنْهَاجِ النُّبُوَّةِ ثُمَّ سَكَتَ – ‘Prophethood will remain among you for as long as God wishes it to, then God will raise it up when He wishes to. Then there will be khilafah upon the way of Prophethood, and it shall remain among you for as long as God wishes it to; then God will raise up whenever He wishes to. Then there will be harsh kingship which will remain among you for as long as God wishes it to, then God shall raise it up when He wishes to. Then there will be tyrannical kingship and it shall remain among you for as long as God wishes it to, then He will raise it up whenever He wishes to. Then there will be khilafah upon the way of Prophethood.’ Then he was silent.19
Of course, we can question if a medieval-styled khilafah could or should ever be revived in the modern era. Or have deep reservations about whether a khilafah could ever simply be transplanted onto the structures of a modern state – especially given that the all-invasive modern state monopolises legislation, whilst a classical Muslim state doesn’t legislate at all: traditionally, legislation belongs to God, as understood and deciphered by the ‘ulema. But that is not a reason to negate the return of the khilafah or speak in a way to undermine its prophesied return. As for what shape or form the khilafah will take, well that’s an open ended question; and there’s likely to be more than one viable political arrangement. But what’s clear, though, is that liberal, secular democracy isn’t quite the believers’ story, nor really their desired end.
11. Another exceptional good is the time and rule of the charismatic al-Mahdi. Although there are many spurious hadiths about the Mahdi, there are also a number that are sound. Among them: الْمَهْدِيُّ مِنِّي أَجْلَى الْجَبْهَةِ أَقْنَى الأَنْفِ يَمْلأُ الأَرْضَ قِسْطًا وَعَدْلاً كَمَا مُلِئَتْ جَوْرًا وَظُلْمًا يَمْلِكُ سَبْعَ سِنِينَ – ‘The Mahdi is from me; he will have a broad forehead and an aquiline nose. He will fill the Earth with fairness and justice, as it was filled with oppression and tyranny; and he shall rule for seven years.’20 Also: الْمَهْدِيُّ مِنَّا أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ يُصْلِحُهُ اللَّهُ فِي لَيْلَةٍ – ‘The Mahdi is from us, the People of the Household; and Allah will ready him in a single night.’21 That night is indeed fast approaching.
12. 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.’22 And that: يَقْتُلُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ الدَّجَّالَ بِبَابِ لُدٍّ – ‘The son of Mary shall slay the Dajjal at the gates of Lod.’23 A time where: لَتَذْهَبَنَّ الشَّحْنَاءُ وَالتَّبَاغُضُ وَالتَّحَاسُدُ – ‘Mutual spite, hatred and jealousy shall depart.’24 And: 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 …’25
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.’26
But between now and then there’s plenty of work to be done, much du‘a to be made, and a great deal of inward purification to engage in. But this triumph of Islam must be seen in terms of the af‘al al-rabb, not the egotistical nafs. For we won’t be given to glory in a glory that never vanishes, if we seek to glory in a glory that does.
We must also be clear that, at root, there’s a parting of ways between Islam and the liberal monoculture when it comes to what human beings fundamentally are, what it is possible for them to be or become, and what it means to be liberated or free. Islam teaches that the human person is imbued with a ruh, a “spirit,” that yearns to know God, truth and beauty. For the monoculture, there is no spirit or soul, merely a “self.” And this self is made up of our whims, wants and desires. Islam teaches that the intellect or reason’s role, in light of Revelation, is to enable us know the good and what’s morally right, and direct our desires towards it. Reason is a restraint on desires, it is master of desires; and so the importance of self-mastery or mastery of self in Islam. In stark contrast, the monoculture would have us believe that reason is not, and cannot be, master of desire but only its servant. Reason can tell us not what to desire or want, but only how to get whatever it is we desire or want. For the monoculture, it’s not about restraining our desires or mastering the self; it’s about slavery to self. The monoculture’s freedom is freedom of the self; freedom to be servile to the self. Islam’s freedom is freedom from the dictates of the self; freedom from self-slavery. That being the case, any fiqh that isn’t rooted in this reality; any taysir or ease which fails to factor this into its fatwas, is sloppy and short-sighted and, in the long run, part of the actual problem.
True, meaningful peace, then, can only come with tawhid; with Abrahamic monotheism. It’s clear that the monoculture is heading the wrong way. It’s leading us like lemmings to a cliff-edge. It’s driving the bus of humanity over the edge; and Muslims must be the ones to apply the brake. Monotheism’s message of hope; of healing, must restore direction and meaning back into peoples’ lives. It must help steer them towards God and the good. Key to much of this is sabr – patience, perseverance, and deepening our commitment to God. The Prophet ﷺ foretold: يَأْتِي عَلَى النَّاسِ زَمَانٌ الصَّابِرُ فِيهِمْ عَلَى دِينِهِ كَالْقَابِضِ عَلَى الْجَمْرِ – ‘There will come upon the people a time where a person patiently practicing his religion will be like holding on to hot coal.’27 And finally there’s this hadith: وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ النَّصْرَ مَعَ الصَّبْرِ وَأَنَّ الْفَرَجَ مَعَ الْكَرْبِ وَأَنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا – ‘And know that victory comes with patience, relief with affliction, and ease with hardship.’28
7. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Egypt: al-Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2012), Kitab al-Fitan; Ch.6; 15:610-13.
8. ibid., 15:612.
9. ibid., 15:612.
10. ibid., 15:612.
11. Al-Darimi, Sunan, no.188; al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8551. Al-Darimi records the narration with the words: ‘I do not mean a year more fruitful than another year’ and also with, ‘your best’ occurring between the words, ‘your scholars and learned ones’. Ibn Hajr states, Fath al-Bari, 15:613, that the chain of the report is hasan.
12. Fath al-Bari, 15:613.
13. ibid., 15:612.
14. Muslim, no.2946.
15. Muslim, no.2937.
16. Ahmad, no.5353. Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut analysed the separate chains of this hadith in his critical edition to Musnad Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 9:255-56, declaring them to all be weak. The hadith does, however, have support from the narration of Samurah b. Jundub, as per Ahmad, no.20027; and Abu Umamah; Ibn Majah, no.4077, to yield a final, collective grading of sahih. Cf. al-‘Adawi, al-Sahih al-Musnad min Ahadith al-Fitan wa’l-Malahim wa’l-Ashra’at al-Sa‘ah (Riyadh: Dar al-Hijrah, 1991), 497.
17. Ibn Majah, no.4286. After analysing its various chains, it was graded da‘if in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1965.
18. Ibn Majah, no.4084. Ibn Kathir said its chain is qawi sahih in al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Beirut & Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2010), 17:43. Al-Albani, having criticised its chain as well as a part of its wording, said: ‘However, its meaning is sound.’ Cf. Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.85.
19. Ahmad, Musnad, no.18406; Ibn Hibban, no.1631. It was declared as sahih by al-‘Iraqi, Mahajjat al-Qarab fi Mahabbat al-‘Arab (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 2012), 176; as well as by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.5.
20. Abu Dawud, no.4585, with a hasan chain. Cf. al-Albani’s critical edition of al-Mishkat al-Masabih (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), no.5454.
21. Ibn Majah, no.4075, and it is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1991), no.2371.
22. Al-Bukhari, no.2222; Muslim, no.242.
23. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2244, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan sahih.’
24. Muslim, no.244.
25. 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.
26. Ahmad, no.16509, and it is sahih. Cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.3.
27. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2260. It was given a grading of sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.957.
28. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11243; al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.745. Ibn Badran says, Sharh Kitab al-Shihab (Beirut & Damascus: Dar al-Nawadir, 2007), no.136, that the hadith, with its collective chains, is hasan.
I suppose our starting point can only be this advice from the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Whoever comes to the doors of the ruler is put to trial.’1 Discussion about this, I must admit, is a difficult and delicate one; so I’ll try to be as nuanced and even handed as possible. And Allah’s help is sought.
This concern, first off, is not new. Scholars down the ages of Islam have cautioned the scholarly community about the trial (fitnah) entailed in rubbing shoulders with rulers or governments. Ibn al-Jawzi sketches the usual pious concerns, thus:
‘From the Devil’s deception on the jurists is them mixing with the rulers and sultans, flattering them and leaving-off censuring them when able to do so. And perhaps they find allowances for them when there really isn’t one, in order to attain some worldly thing … In summary: entering upon rulers entails great danger. For the intention may be good at first, but then may change by them honouring you or bestowing [gifts] on you; or by [you] harbouring worldly ambitions; or by not being able to avoid flattering them; or leaving-off censuring them. Sufyan al-Thawri used to say: “I don’t fear them debasing or disgracing me. Rather, I fear them being generous towards me so that my heart inclines towards them.”‘2
Again, teasing out the soul’s psychology in this matter, and the subtle cravings of the ego, Ibn Rajab said: ‘Also, many of the salaf used to forbid those who desired to order the kings with good or prohibit them from evil, from entering upon them … And this was from fear of the fitnah of entering upon them. For when he is at a distance from them, the ego deceives the person into believing he will order and forbid them, and be stern with them. However, when he comes face to face with them, his soul is swayed towards them. For love of being honoured is concealed in his ego. Hence, he starts to flatter them, is over lenient with them, and perhaps he grows fond of them and loves them – especially if they treat him well and hold him in high regard, and he accepts this from them.’3
Of course; and this is the second point, this avoidance is by no means categorical, nor absolute. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr rounds-up the chapter in which he relates the salaf’s dislike of entering upon rulers and kings, stating: ‘The meaning of this entire chapter is with regard to the wicked, oppressive ruler (al-sultan al-ja’ir al-fasiq). As for the just among them, and the virtuous, then entering upon them; meeting them; and assisting them to rectify affairs is from the best deeds of righteousness … Thus when a scholar enters upon the ruler now and again, and whenever there is a need; and he says what is good and speaks with knowledge, then that is good and is a means of Allah’s pleasure until the Day he meets Him. Such meetings, however, are usually a fitnah; and safety lies in abandoning what is in them.’4
One will not find a ‘one-hat-fits-all-sizes’ rule in this area. For the needs and variables of each country or polity are different. The whole affair hinges on benefits and harms and final outcomes; and rests on the individual scholar’s intention and ability to cope with the fitnah, and the openness or otherwise of the ruler or regime. If a scholar feels strong enough in faith or feels obligated to to do so, or/and the ruler is open to advise, then one enters and does ones duty wisely, courageously and respectfully (respectful, if not of the actual ruler, then of the office they hold). Scholars should also keep this juristic maxim in play: ma la yudrak kulluhu la yutrak ba‘duhu – ‘If one cannot achieve the whole, one does not give-up [achieving] the part.’ What a scholar must not be is a sheepish partisan voice piece for the outrages and injustices of power, or an apologist for it. The scholar’s burden is neither to pander to the palace, and nor to the public. It is simply to be principled according to the dictates of piety.
My third and final point bears upon Muslim scholars in Britain (and North America, for that matter); especially in respect of helping their governments in the fight against extremism and the promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam. The aim in what follows is not to preclude any collaboration or cooperation between Muslim scholars (or activists) and governments. Instead, I wish only to point out that there are different fitnahs at work in any such union, which cannot be ignored.
One issue that tends to haunt the air of any genuine cooperation for many a scholar is the RAND report of 2007: Building Moderate Muslim Networks. The report strategised how the United States government could nurture what they accepted to be ‘moderate’ Muslims: those committed to the liberal values of democracy, human rights, equality, and who oppose terrorism or other illegitimate forms of violence. As for conservative shari‘ah expressions, they are seen as incompatible with this world view, needing to be either jettisoned or interpreted away. It suggested partners in this effort would best be found in secularists, liberal Muslims, and moderate traditionalists; including Sufis: but not Salafis or Islamists. It urged aiding liberals, moderate young scholars, activists and women’s groups; helping moderateness with an online presence too.5 A decade on, and much of that strategy is well under way – both in the US and in Britain. With this being so, it makes even well-intended cooperation with government, in the fight against extremism, more than a little murky and problematic.
Not only have terms like ‘moderate’ Islam; ‘good’ Muslims; ‘Islamists’ and ‘terrorists’; or equating being too ‘conservative’ with an inclination for violence, been predefined and then institutionalised for all to fall in line with. But even spaces to air legitimate political dissent and social frustration are rapidly diminishing or being highly policed when it comes to Muslims. The irony may be that in the effort to root out extremism from Muslim communities and establish a government engineered ‘moderate Islam’, favourable conditions for driving disenfranchised individuals into the arms of violent extremism are being created.
In a climate where organisations and individuals are in a panic to establish themselves as bastions of moderate Islam, it is vital that Muslim scholars not get caught up in all the political posturing and money grabbing. They must also avoid succumbing to the pressures of employing religious vocabulary or definitions imported from outside the scholastic tradition. In fact, the onus is on them to inject some much needed nuance or tafsil into the discourse. One example concerns the driving factor behind terrorism of the ISIS type. Some insist it is driven solely by oppression, foreign policy, or other similar rational grievances: religion has no hand in it whatsoever. Others dismiss such naiveté and aver it is inspired purely by the vile, totalitarian ideology of Islamism (and for some, just Islam): they brook no further discussion about it.
The reality is that religion plays a role, less as a driver of their behaviour, but more as a vehicle for their pathologies and political outrage. To deny the role of foreign policy in nurturing violent extremism is as naive or coloured by self interest as denying the role of a twisted fiqh-cum-theology in fostering it. Until we acknowledge and tackle both gremlins, we fail public security and give kudos to a false political narrative. This has been my experience, since the early 1990s, while engaging some of the key voices and ideologues of such extremism. As for the twisted theology bit, I’ve attempted to discuss this in: Khawarij Ideology: ISIS Savagery.
Another fitnah scholars must be circumspect about is: giving fatwas under siege. Ibn Hamdan, a highly accomplished legalist in the Hanbali school, explains: ‘Fatwa is not to be given in a state where the heart is preoccupied or inhibited from examination or careful deliberation; because of anger, hunger, thirst, sadness, grief, fear, melancholy, overwhelming joy, sleepiness, fatigue, illness, irritating heat, intense cold, or needing to answer the call of nature.’6
If, as can be seen from above, pretty much any debilitating emotional or physical state renders giving a fatwa a no no, what about the state where a mufti is under relentless socio-political and psychological pressures to get Islam to conform to the essentially atheistic, liberal landscape? Or the case where a mufti’s mind and moods of the heart have already been significantly colonised by the attitudes of the dominant [Western] monoculture? How will that affect the quality, integrity and correctness of the fatwa? To think this does not already happen is to live in a cocooned or naive state. How else can one explain why proposed maqasid-based reforms to the shari‘ah so often seem to be of Western inspiration. ‘The public interest (maslahah, maqsad),’ says Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, ‘always turns out to take the form of what is intelligible and desirable to those outside Islam.’7
For the above reasons and more, scholars, perhaps more than ever before, need to be spiritually rooted. The temptations that are touted before them, or the convincers to compromise aspects of the faith and its scholastic teachings, are perhaps greater now than they’ve ever been. Fitnahs so easily throw intellects off balance, and sullying the intentions of a single scholar is more beloved to Iblis than causing a thousand feet of the general Muslim public to stumble. For such reasons our fiqh needs to be deepened and made much wiser; reading and intellectualisation need to be both broadened and sharpened; an atmosphere needs to be cultivated of being less judgemental and more judicious; hostility to sins needn’t be carried over to sinners; and the ego’s pretensions need to be reigned in and conditioned by humility and spiritual poverty (faqr). If we’re not spiritually-anchored, there’s a huge danger of being cast adrift in the tumultuous socio-political storms of the age.
As scholars try to remain alert against the fitnah of governments domesticating them; as they train themselves to deliberate not just on quick-fix fatwas or short term goals, but the longer-term vision too; and as they deepen the virtue of zuhd in their personal lives (the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘What is little but suffices is better than what is plentiful but distracts’8), let them not loose sight of the following:
Where the Makkan Quraysh failed to see the disconnect between them and the pure message of Abrahamic monotheism or tawhid; and failed to heed the discontent and exploitation of the masses by a powerful, wealthy elite, the Prophet ﷺ saw it, felt it, and Allah caused him to give voice to it. The fact that: ‘The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets,’9 as one hadith says, should cause them to follow suite in seeking to heal the disconnect and discontent; in whatever community, and in whatever time or place they find themselves.
We beseech You, O Allah, to protect our scholars, and increase them in goodness, understanding, courage and wisdom. We ask that You place honour in our hearts for sacred knowledge and its inheritors. And save us, O Lord, from poisoning our souls by slandering the scholars. Amin!
1. Abu Dawud, no.2869; al-Tirmidhi, no.2256., who said: ‘This hadith is hasan gharib.’
2. Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar al-Minhaj, 2015), 175-6.
3. ‘Ma Dhi’ban Ja’i‘an’ in Majmu‘ Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2003), 1:86.
4. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 644.
Cruel and unjust treatment of women continues to be a huge problem the world over, including Muslim societies and communities. Despite the Qur’an insisting otherwise, mens’ egos can all too often turn a deaf ear to the divine commands in this regard. If we Muslim men wish to fare well in the Divine Court, we’d do well to scrub ourselves clean from the stench of male chauvinism and learn the virtue of chivalry (futuwwah). If we Muslims wish to draw down Allah’s favours on our societies or states and climb out of this pitiful state that is currently ‘the Muslim world’, we must put working for social justice at the heart of our concerns. The Qur’an demands: Be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. [5:8]
We’d also do well to understand that it’s not only about better or fairer treatment of women. It’s about justice and fairness for the other voiceless and vulnerable members of society too. In fact, scholars like Imam Ibn Taymiyyah hold that it is the absence of justice that is the main reason for Allah’s help and support to be withdrawn from any Muslim polity, thereby causing it to descend into tyranny, weakness, or rack and ruin. Ibn Taymiyyah puts it thus: ‘The affairs of people in this world are kept in order with justice and a certain measure of sin, more than with infringing peoples’ rights even when no other sin is involved. This is why it has been said that Allah upholds the just state even if it is disbelieving, but does not uphold the unjust one even if it is Muslim. It is also said that the world can endure with justice and disbelief, but cannot endure with injustice and Islam.’1
A little further on in the same discussion and we find Ibn Taymiyyah pressing on with the theme of justice and social stability, when he writes: ‘The reason for all this is that justice is the universal order of things. So when worldly administration is established upon justice, it works; even if the person in charge has no share in the Hereafter. But if it is not based on justice, it doesn’t work; even if the one in charge is a believer who will be rewarded in the Hereafter.’2
Of course, acts of corruption and tyranny that are routinely or ruthlessly perpetrated by a government or ruling elite will certainly have its negative impact upon the social order. But it’s when injustice becomes endemic; when not only the regime, but public servants or the general public play fast and loose with the shari‘ah and with matters of justice, that things really fall apart. When corruption becomes normalised in society; when bribery becomes firmly rooted among public servants; when parents internalise oppressive control mechanisms in the way they raise their children; when patriarchy of husbands crosses a line from being benign and compassionate to being unjust and tyrannical; and when boys are taught to objectify women or to be chauvinistic rather than to respect them and learn to be the gentleman that the Sunnah demands, then it matters little how corrupt or not the actual government is. For by then, the victims of corruption learn to live with it, the perpetrators continue out of habit or because they can, and everyone rationalises their guilt away by blaming the system, saying: “Well everyone does it!” If we add to this list of injustices the crimes of neglecting salat or zakat; lying, cheating and slandering; and sexual misconduct and immoral behaviour, then to blame only the regime for the country’s failings and miseries is nothing short of delusional and a grand lie! Consider wisely and dispassionately the following words of Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz when speaking about tyrannical rulers that are Muslim:
‘As for maintaining obedience to them [those in authority], even if they are tyrannical, then that is because the harms that would result from rebelling against them would be many times worse than that which results from their tyranny. Instead, by patiently bearing their injustices lies an expiation for our sins and an increase in rewards [from Allah]. For Allah only inflicted them upon us on account of our corrupt actions – and rewards are proportional to their deeds. Thus it is upon us to diligently strive to seek forgiveness, repent, and rectify our deeds. Allah, exalted is He, said: Whatever calamity befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And the Exalted said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] And the Exalted said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] Also: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [6:129] So if those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from injustice and doing wrong.’3
1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:146.