The following is a chapter from my upcoming book, God-willing, called: Salafism Reconsidered: True Salafism, False Salafism & Ijma’ Theology. This is the fortieth chapter, and discusses the issue of whether or not Muslims can publicly criticise their Muslim ruler or government (if so, where, when and how), and if rebelling against state authority would Islamically be allowed? This article is a long read, comprised of seven sections.
IT’S AN INARGUABLE fact Islam does not abide anarchy on any grounds. Even as something as simple and mundane as a group of people travelling on a journey, we see the Prophet ﷺ urging: ‘When three [or more] people set out on a journey they should appoint one of them as their leader.’1 It is even more urgent for a country to have a clear leader having executive authority. A well-known hadith says: ‘Each of you is a shepherd, and each of you is answerable for what you shepherd. So the leader over the people is a shepherd and answerable for his flock. The man is a shepherd for his family and is answerable for his flock. The woman is a shepherd over her husband’s home and children and is answerable for them. The servant is a shepherd over his master’s property and is answerable for it. Indeed, each of you are shepherds and each of you is answerable for their flock.’2 The Holy Qur’an states: O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those in authority among you. [Q.4:59]
Ibn Taymiyyah, following in the footsteps of earlier scholars, and quoting something much older, offers the usual take on orderly governance (even if it be oppressive) being better than all-out anarchy. Thus he wrote in his short treatise on political thought:
وَيُقَالُ سِتُّونَ سَنَةً مِنْ إمَامٍ جَائِرٍ أَصْلَحُ مِنْ لَيْلَةٍ وَاحِدَةٍ بِلَا سُلْطَانٍ وَالتَّجْرِبَةُ تُبَيِّنُ ذَلِكَ.
‘It has been said: “Sixty years of tyrannical rule is better than a single night without a ruler.” And experience bears this out.’3
Some have falsely read this as the Islamic political tradition not being too bothered with how bad tyranny and despotic government is. Yet that’s the very opposite point being made by Ibn Taymiyyah, which we might better see after the Arab Spring. The point of the adage is to tell us just how bad anarchy and lawlessness actually are.
But is there any limit to acquiescing to state authority? Does Islam allow the public to object to, or openly criticise a ruler’s public policy or action? And are there any circumstances where Muslims can withdraw their hand of obedience to the ruler to rebel and replace him? This is what we’ll look at in this chapter, to see if there is an ijma‘ on any of these matters such that it could be said that this is the way of the salaf. Also, can the classical notions to do with ruler and the ruled, the government and the governed, be applied to today’s nation states and situation? Or has modernity made these ideas redundant or simply untenable?
I. OBEDIENCE TO AL-RAHMAN TRUMPS OBEDIENCE TO THE SULTAN
The entry point in this issue is something no one disagrees over, which is that obedience to the ruler or political authorities is conditional on it not involving disobedience to Allah. About this, the Prophet ﷺ said: la ta‘ata li makhluq fi ma‘siyat al-khaliq — ‘There is no obedience to the created if it entails disobedience to the Creator.’4 This applies between ruler and the subjects or citizens, parents and children, husband and wife, or any other dynamic where one has a conditional right of obedience from the other. In Islam, there simply is no obedience to anyone if it means disobedience to Allah, mighty and majestic is He. While this in itself doesn’t allow anyone to rebel against the state or incite political agitation and rebellion, does it permit public criticism of the ruler or government? That is the next query to be addressed.
II. OPENLY CRITICISING THE RULER’S PUBLIC ACTS OR POLICIES
There are two ends of a spectrum where public criticism of the ruler falls. At one end we read in the following report: It was said to Usamah b. Zayd: ‘Will you not enter upon [the caliph] ‘Uthman and speak to him?’ He said: ‘Do you think I haven’t spoken to him unless you hear it? By Allah! I have spoken to him concerning what is between me and him, without opening a matter which I would not like to be the first to open.’5 Offering advice privately to the ruler, so as not to stir up any public resentment or ill-will against him (which is what Usamah b. Zayd was trying to avoid), comes to us in this hadith too: ‘Whoever intends to advise the ruler, let him not do so publicly. Instead, let him take him by the hand [and do so] privately. If he accepts, then fine; if not, he has discharged his duty to him.’6 Private advise, even about public errors or infringements of a ruler, is seen as the best way to yield the desired result of getting the ruler to redress his wrong or correct the erroneous act. The standard manner of speaking to political authority comes to us in the verse where Allah tells Moses, peace be upon him, to go to Pharaoh and: ‘Speak to him with mild words, that perchance he may take heed or fear [Allah].’ [Q.20:44]
At the other end of the corrective spectrum we have this. Tariq b. Shihab relates: The first person who began delivering the khutbah of ‘Id day before the prayer was Marwan. A man stood up and said: ‘Prayer [comes] before the khutbah!’ Marwan said: ‘This [practice] has been done away with.’ Upon which Abu Sa‘id said: ‘As for this [man], he has fulfilled what was due upon him. I heard Allah’s Messenger ﷺ say: “Whosoever 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 to, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.”’7
This, and other textual proofs like it, lead us to understand that it’s a part of faith to correct the public wrongs and sins of a ruler, ideally addressing him while he is present, if possible; but if not, to still correct the wrong so as not to leave the public in doubt as to its reprehensibility and unIslamic nature.
Imam al-Nawawi, squaring the text about public rebuke with the report of Usamah b. Zayd advising the ruler privately, explained:
وَفيهِ الأَدبُ مع الأُمَرَاءِ واللُّطفُ بِهم وَوَعْظُهُمْ سِرًّا وَتَبْلِيغُهُمْ ما يقولُ النَّاسُ فِيهِم لِيَنْكَفُّوا عَنهُ، وَهَذَا كُلُّه إذا أَمكَنَ ذلك، فإِنْ لم يُمكنِ الوَعظُ سِرًّا وَالإِنكارُ فَلْيَفْعَلْهُ عَلانيَةً؛ لِئَلَّا يَضِيعَ أَصلُ الحَقِّ.
‘In it is [evidence for] politeness with the leaders, being courteous to them, admonishing them privately, and relating what the people are saying about them so as to get them to stop. All this is if it’s possible. If it is not possible to admonish or correct them privately, then let him do so publicly so that the foundation of truth is not lost.’8
Again, we have this salaf-report informing us that Ka‘b b. ‘Ujrah said that he entered the mosque while ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Umm al-Hakam was giving the khutbah sitting down. I said: ‘Look at this wretched person delivering the khutbah seated, while Allah says: Yet when they see some merchandise or distraction, they break away to it and leave you standing. [Q.62:11]’9 To this, Imam al-Nawawi said: ‘These words entail a rejection of evil, and a rebuke to those in authority when they oppose the prophetic guidance.’10
Another example of public inkar of those in authority, or of their deputies and ministers, is seen in a report where al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf was delivering a khutbah in the Sacred Precinct of Makkah where he stated: ‘Indeed Ibn al-Zubayr has altered the Book of Allah.’ Upon this, Ibn ‘Umar stood up and said: ‘You lie! Neither Ibn al-Zubayr, nor you, have the ability to alter the Book of Allah.’ Al-Hajjaj said: ‘You are an old man who has grown senile. Sit down!’ Ibn ‘Umar replied: ‘As for you, if you recant [what you said], I’ll recant too.’11
Shaykh Muqbil b. Hadi, who throughout the eighties and nineties was seen as being the fourth of the kibar Salafi scholar (after Ibn Baz, al-Albani and Ibn ‘Uthaymin), waded into the issue with these words:
وَأَمَّا الِانْكَارُ عَلَيْهِمْ فَلَا بَأْسَ بِذَلِكَ مَعَ إِعْلَامِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ أَنَّكَ لَسْتَ دَاعِ ثَوْرَةٍ ، وَلَا دَاعِ انْقِلَابَاتٍ ، وَلَكِنْ تَدْعُو إِلَى تَغَيُّرِ هَذَا الْمُنْكَرِ ، وَبَدَلٍ مِنْ الْقِيَامِ عَلَى الْحُكَّامِ الْقِيَامُ عَلَى هَؤُلَاءِ الْفَاسِدِينَ الْمُفْسِدِينَ الَّذِينَ أَفْسَدُوا الْمُجْتَمَعَ ، فَهَذَا هُوَ الْوَاجِبُ وَأَمَّا التَّشْهِيرُ بِهِمْ فَهُوَ كَمَا تَقَدَّمَ إِنْ كَانَ الْمَقْصُودُ اسْتِثَارَةَ النَّاسِ عَلَى الْخُرُوجِ عَلَيْهِمْ فَلَا ، وَإِنْ كَانَ الْمَقْصُودُ تَحْمِيسَ النَّاسِ لِلْإِنْكَارِ عَلَى أَصْحَابِ الْمُنْكَرِ فَأَمْرٌ طَِيِّبٍ.
‘As for rebuking them [openly], then this is fine, along with announcing to the Muslims that you aren’t inciting to rebellion or a coup. You are calling to change the wrong, and that instead of standing against the ruler, to stand against these decadent matters which are corrupting the society. This is an obligation. As for defaming them, then this is as has preceded. If the point is to incite people to rebel against them, then no! If the aim is to motivate people to rebuke the [evil and the] people of evil, that’s a good thing.’12
Shaykh al-‘Uthaymin states the following, in one of the numerous sittings with him that was documented in a multi-volume collection of responses known as Liqa’ al-Bab al-Maftuh:
‘Likewise is the case of advising the rulers. Of the people are those that take one side of the texts, which is to publically denounce those in authority, no matter if it results in more harm. And of them are those who say that it isn’t right to publically [rebuke them] categorically and that it is a duty to advise them privately, as occurs in the text the questioner cited. We say: the texts do not belie each other, nor clash with each other. So when is the criticism [to be] done publically? When there is benefit. The benefit being that evil is eliminated and replaced by good. It is done privately when public criticism does not serve a benefit; neither in eradicating the evil, nor in replacing it with good.’13
To hold that publically rebuking a ruler for the open sin he perpetrates or flaunts, or for an anti-shari‘ah policy he enacts, contradicts the way of the salaf, and to then label anyone who does so to be a modern-day Kharijite, is to be up to one’s knees in the slime of false Salafism. Of course, niyyah is crucial here, as are the likely consequences. For if the intention is just to shame the ruler and insult him, or if it is to whip-up people’s anger and incite them to lawlessness or armed rebellion — or even if it is not, but the probable consequence of openly speaking about a ruler’s falsehood is that it will result in public disorder — then one cannot critique the authorities openly. Public criticism of leaders is tied to whether or not a greater good prevails in society, and whether or not evil is reduced or eliminated. We’ll do well to recall that shirking the duty of commanding good or forbidding wrong, even to those in authority, is to possibly invite the curse of Allah upon us: Those of the Children of Israel who went astray were cursed by the tongues of David and Jesus, son of Mary. That was because they rebelled and transgressed. They forbade not one another from the wickedness they did. Evil indeed is what they used to do. [Q.5:78-9]
III. NOT GETTING BLOOD ON OUR HANDS
There is yet another reason why it is important to keep alive the spirit of justice and the deisre to right wrongs, political or otherwise. And that’s due to the maxim:
الرِّضَا بِالفِعْلِ كَالفِعْلِ إِثَابَةً وَعِقَابًا، وَإِنْ تَجَرَّدَ عَنِ العَمَلِ وَالقَصْدِ.
‘Being content with the act is like [doing] the act [in terms of] punishment or reward, even when devoid of the act or intent.’
In other words, so much depends on how we dispose our soul towards what is just and unjust, what is good and evil. The right attitude towards good and evil makes all the difference. Such is the centrality of the heart’s state and orientation. It’s when the heart becomes desensitised to sin, injustice and violating revealed guidance, that’s when the real rot has set in. That’s when you can say that there’s a seriously damaged soul. Ibn Mas‘ud once heard someone say that whoever does not command good or forbid evil has persished. At which he was compelled to say: ‘Rather, one whose heart does not recognise the good, nor reject the evil, perishes.’14 For a believer, such must be the heart’s knowledge and sensitivity. It’s not overdramatic to say that between modernity and believers, it’s all a battle for hearts!
We can begin to see how this relates to the above principle. In one hadith, the Prophet ﷺ informs us: ‘When a sin is committed on earth, one who is present but detests it, is as one who was not there. While one who wasn’t there but is okay with it, is as if he was present.’15 That is to say: ‘The one who approves of the sin, shares in the ruling of the sinner.’16 There’s also this hadith: ‘There will soon be rulers who you will approve of and object to. Whoever abhors their evil is absolved. Whoever objects to it is saved. But whoever is pleased with it or approves of it [is sinful].’17 On this basis, Imam al-Sha‘bi once said to a man who expressed contentment with the killing of ‘Uthman: sharikta fi damihi – ‘You share in his blood.’18
It goes both ways. To approve (or perhaps even be blasé about) the crime of murdering a ruler illegally, or without the due process of law, is to have blood on one’s hands. Yet the same goes for when rulers or political heads kill dissidents and political opponents; wage wars on other Muslim states knowing only too well the death toll will consist mainly of ordinary men, women and children; or imprison ‘ulama and citizens because of justified critiques of unIslamic state actions. The hope in this last scenario is that such people have a share spoken of in the hadith: ‘The greatest jihad is to speak a word of truth in front of a tyrannical ruler.’19 One doesn’t have to be in the actual presence of such a ruler to engage in this jihad. It suffices to know the ruler’s reach extends even to you, were you to speak truth to power, and that your life would likely be in serious danger for doing so. In all such cases, approving of, or giving a nod to such evils amount to being a partner in such crimes, possibly with blood on our hands! To twist all of this clear teaching about loving justice and having even the heart’s piety and courage to reject the open acts of state fawahish, under the falsehood that publically criticising such political wrongs is against the ijma‘ or way of the salaf, is perverting the truth and continues to be the howling of false Salafism. Yet more bizarre is when the voices go into fanboy mode for the ruler, pushing all sorts of nonsensical validations for such shari‘ah crimes, in the attempt to make people feel at ease with these evils and vindicate the ruler. Rather, what is wajib in Islam, as a bare minimum, is our heart’s repudiation of these evil — lest we too wish to share in such crimes against the ways of our Lord. If we find scholars known for their God-fearingness and knowledge urging that advice to the ruler be given privately, instead of publically, that may simply be due to their perception of the prevailing political mood and the social turmoil that may likely kick-off if things go public; then possibly viral! But an ijtihadi fatwa does not amount to being the way of the salaf.
IV. KHURUJ: VIVA LA REVOLUTION
What is an incontestable fact concerning early Islamic history in the days of the venerable salaf, is that a few notable pious individuals did attempt to rebel against what they saw as the rule of a hardened tyrant. Rebellion, or khuruj (lit. ‘to leave’ allegiance to the ruler and ‘come out’ against him, so as to remove and replace him) was a deeply disputed issue in the first two generations of the salaf, as was its wisdoms and perceived benefits. When al-Husayn sought to rebel against Yazid, Ibn ‘Umar, Ibn ‘Abbas and others objected to this course of activism.20 Likewise, when Ibn al-Ash‘ath and many of the notable tabi‘un rebelled against al-Hajjaj, al-Hasan al-Basri, Mujahid and others from the tabi‘un objected.21 Moreover, the prominent amongst the sahabah who were still alive, like Anas b. Malik, Sahl b. Sa‘d, ‘Abd Allah b. Abi Awfa, ‘Amr b. Abi Salamah, al-Miqdad and others, some of whom suffered severely at the hand of al-Hajjaj’s tyranny, all abstained from rebellion against him. As for Ibn al-Zubayr’s stand-off with al-Hajjaj, or his refusal to accept the hereditary khilafah of Yazid, it wasn’t rebellion as such.22 In fact, as Ibn Qudamah states, the affair was the opposite: ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan rebelled against Ibn al-Zubair’s contested caliphate and had al-Hajjaj besiege and kill him.23 Nevertheless, the fact is that some of the righteous salaf did partake in rebellion.
So does that settle the issue on the legality of rebelling against tyrannical leaders? It certainly shows that there was a difference about it among the early salaf. And some continue to use this point of ikhtilaf for justifying it even today. But they err in doing so for two key reasons:
The first is that there is a volley of hadiths that speak on this very matter, and any clear-cut prophetic guidance must trump any ijtihadi opinion by any notable Imam. Among these hadiths are:
1 – In context of a Muslim ruler, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It is upon a Muslim to hear and obey in what he likes and detests, so long as he is not ordered to sin. If he is ordered to sin, then there is no hearing or obeying [in that matter].’24
2 – In the case of a subject or citizen seeing something objectionable from the ruler that can’t be remedied via any lawful political protocol through which to air objection or dissent, then the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever sees something from his ruler that he dislikes, let him be patience. For whoever separates from the ruler by even a handspan and dies, dies a death of [pre-Islamic] ignorance.’25
3 – This is the case, even if the ruler is a brutal despot or an autocrat. The Prophet ﷺ cautioned: ‘There will come rulers after me who will not guide by my guidance, nor will they follow my Sunnah. Among them will be me whose hearts are the hearts of devils in the bodies of men.’ He was asked: O Messenger of Allah, what should I do if I reach tha time? He said: ‘Hear and obey the ruler; even if he flogs your back and seizes your wealth, still hear and obey.’26
4 – One’s duty is to exercise patience, but never to acquiesce to the evil, as per this hadith: ‘There will soon be rulers whom you shall approve of and object to. Whoever detests their evil is absolved. Whoever objects to it is saved. But whoever is pleased with it or approves of it [is sinful].’27
5 – As for rising up in rebellion against a tyrannical Muslim ruler so as to remove him by force, we have this from our Prophet ﷺ: ‘The best of your rulers are those whom you love and they love you, and whom you pray for and who pray for you. The worst of your rulers are those whom you hate and who hate you, and whom you curse and they curse you.’ It was said: Shall we not raise the sword against them, O Messenger of Allah? He said: ‘No, not as long as they establish the prayer amongst you. If anyone sees from their leader something objectionable, let them hate his action and not withdraw their hand from obedience.’28
6 – Rising-up against an iron-fisted Muslim ruler so as to forcefully remove him is only lawful if he openly and unambiguously demonstrates disbelief. ‘Ubadah b. al-Samit said: ‘The Prophet ﷺ called on us to pledge the oath of allegiance to him. Among what we pledged was to hear and obey in what we like and dislike, in ease and in hardship, to give the rights due from us, and that we not remove the affair from its people unless we see clear-cut disbelief for which there is a proof from Allah.’29
So whilst we have the actions of a few of the salaf leading or partaking in the act of khuruj, or rebellion; and words of others from the salaf objecting to the act, we cannot ignore what the Prophet ﷺ himself had to say about the matter. So how do we reconcile all this in a way which neither ignores our history, nor denies the prophetic authority?
V. … AND THEN THERE WAS IJMA‘
The second key reason why it is a mistake to legitimise rebellion against a Muslim ruler, even if he be a shabby tyrant or a despot — and our history, particularly our modern one, has its fair share of them — is because of what occurred immediately after that early period of failed rebellions, civil wars, mayhem, anarchy, and blood baths (the very socio-political state of affairs our Prophet ﷺ spent his whole life redressing, healing and finally setting aright).
Sayyiduna al-Husayn was tragically martyred at Karbala, in 61H/680CE. Ibn al-Zubayr was killed in Makkah, in 73H/692CE. While the rebellion of Ibn al-Ash‘ath was thoroughly put down by 85H/703CE. It seems that around the time of the later tabi‘un and their followers in the third generation of the salaf, a scholarly consensus began to form around the ‘rebellion-hadiths’, and soon after crystalised in the form of forbidding rebellion against the Muslim ruler, even if he was tyrannical or unjust — as long as he remained a Muslim and didn’t commit clear-cut disbelief (kufr bawah). As for the act of rebuking the ruler’s public wrongs or shari‘ah violations, that remained intact and a communal duty. Therefore al-hafiz Ibn Hajr wrote under the biographical notice of al-Hasan b. Salih:
وَقَوْلُهُمْ كَانَ يَرَى السَّيْفَ يَعْنِي كَانَ يَرَى الْخُرُوجَ بِالسَّيْفِ عَلَى ائِمَةِ الْجَوْرِ، وَهَذَا مَذْهَبٌ لِلسَّلَفِ قَدِيمٌ، لَكِنْ اسْتَقَرَّ الِامْرُ عَلَى تَرْكِ ذَلِكَ لِمَا رَأَوْهُ قَدِ افْضَى إِلَى أَشَدَّ مِنْهُ، فَفِي وَقْعَةِ الْحُرَّةِ وَوَقْعَةِ ابْنِ الِاشْعَثِ وَغَيْرِهِمَا عِظَةٌ لِمَنْ تَدَبَّرَ.
‘Their statement that “he saw the sword [was fit]” means that he deemed that armed rebellion against unjust rulers is right. This was the earlier position of the salaf. However, they eventually settled on renouncing this when they saw how the outcome of doing so was far worse than it [the ruler’s tyranny]. What happened at al-Harrah and with Ibn al-Ash‘ath and others is a lesson for whoever reflects.’30
Al-Nawawi rounds out the issue in these reconciling terms:
وَأَمَّا الْخُرُوجُ عَلَيْهِمْ وَقِتَالُهُمْ فَحَرَامٌ بِإِجْمَاعِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَإِنْ كَانُوا فَسَقَةً ظَالِمِينَ، وَقَدْ تَظَاهَرَتِ الْأَحَادِيثُ بِمَعْنَى مَا ذَكَرْتُهُ وَأَجْمَعَ أَهْلُ السُّنَّةِ أَنَّهُ لَا يَنْعَزِلُ السُّلْطَانُ بِالْفِسْقِ، وَأَمَّا الْوَجْهُ الْمَذْكُورُ فِي كُتُبِ الْفِقْهِ لِبَعْضِ أَصْحَابِنَا أَنَّهُ يَنْعَزِلُ وَحُكِيَ عَنِ الْمُعْتَزِلَةِ أَيْضًا فَغَلَطٌ مِنْ قَائِلِهِ مُخَالِفٌ لِلْإِجْمَاعِ، قَالَ الْعُلَمَاءُ وَسَبَبُ عَدَمِ انْعِزَالِهِ وَتَحْرِيمِ الْخُرُوجِ عَلَيْهِ مَا يَتَرَتَّبُ عَلَى ذَلِكَ مِنَ الْفِتَنِ وَإِرَاقَةِ الدِّمَاءِ وَفَسَادِ ذَاتِ الْبَيْنِ فَتَكُونُ الْمَفْسَدَةُ فِي عَزْلِهِ أَكْثَرَ مِنْهَا فِي بَقَائِهِ … وَقَالَ جَمَاهِيرُ أَهْلِ السُّنَّةِ مِنَ الْفُقَهَاءِ وَالْمُحَدِّثِينَ وَالْمُتَكَلِّمِينَ لَا يَنْعَزِلُ بِالْفِسْقِ وَالظُّلْمِ وَتَعْطِيلِ الْحُقُوقِ وَلَا يُخْلَعُ وَلَا يَجُوزُ الْخُرُوجُ عَلَيْهِ بِذَلِكَ بَلْ يَجِبُ وَعْظُهُ وَتَخْوِيفُهُ لِلْأَحَادِيثِ الْوَارِدَةِ فِي ذَلِكَ، قَالَ الْقَاضِي وَقَدِ ادَّعَى أَبُو بَكْرِ بْنُ مُجَاهِدٍ فِي هَذَا الْإِجْمَاعَ وَقَدْ رَدَّ عَلَيْهِ بَعْضُهُمْ هَذَا بِقِيَامِ الحسن وبن الزُّبَيْرِ وَأَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ عَلَى بَنِي أُمَيَّةَ وَبِقِيَامِ جَمَاعَةٍ عَظِيمَةٍ مِنَ التَّابِعِينَ وَالصَّدْرِ الْأَوَّلِ عَلَى الحجاج مع بن الأشعث، وتأول هذا القائل قوله أن لا نُنَازِعَ الْأَمْرَ أَهْلَهُ فِي أَئِمَّةِ الْعَدْلِ، وَحُجَّةُ الْجُمْهُورِ أَنَّ قِيَامَهُمْ عَلَى الْحَجَّاجِ لَيْسَ بِمُجَرَّدِ الْفِسْقِ بَلْ لِمَا غَيَّرَ مِنَ الشَّرْعِ وَظَاهَرَ مِنَ الْكُفْرِ. قَالَ الْقَاضِي وَقِيلَ إِنَّ هَذَا الْخِلَافَ كَانَ أَوَّلًا ثُمَّ حَصَلَ الْإِجْمَاعُ عَلَى مَنْعِ الْخُرُوجِ عَلَيْهِمْ، وَاللَّهُ أَعْلَم.
As for rebellion against them and fighting them, then this is forbidden by consensus of the Muslims, even if they are sinners or tyrants. The hadiths I have mentioned demonstrate this meaning that ahl al-sunnah are agreed on not removing the ruler due to sinfulness. As for the view mentioned in the books of fiqh of some of our [Shafi‘i] collegues that he can be removed, and it is related from the Mu‘tazilites too, this is incorrect and contradicts the ijma‘. The reason scholars give for not removing him or the forbiddance of not rebellion against him is what it leads to of civil discord, shedding of blood and dividing people. The damage in removing him is far worse than that of allowing him to remain … The vast majority of ahl al-sunnah, from the jurists, hadith masters and theologians, state that he isn’t removed due to sin, oppression or witholding rights; it isn’t allowed to remove him or to rebel against him because of this. Rather, it is obligatory to admonish him and instil into him fear [of Allah]. Al-Qadi states: “Abu Bakr b. Mujahid has claimed an ijma‘ in this. Some [have tried to] refute him in it by [using] the uprising of al-Husayn, Ibn al-Zubayr and the people of Madinah against the Ummayads; and the uprising of a sizeable body of tabi‘un and earlier ones against al-Hajjaj with Ibn al-Ash‘ath. Those who state this interpreted his words about not removing the authority from its people as referring to the just ruler. But the proof is with the majority. For their standing against al-Hajjaj was not due only to his sin; instead, it was due to him changing the shari‘ah and manifesting disbelief.” Al-Qadi [also] states: “It is said that this differing was in the beginning. Then a consensus was reached prohibitting rebellion against them.” And Allah knows best.’31
So using the uprising of al-Husayn, Ibn al-Ash‘ath or any other individual from the early salaf, prior to the ijma‘ being established, is incorrect. It is no longer a valid difference of opinion. The ijma‘ concerning it is a bit like the ijma‘ about writing down the hadiths. It wasn’t there at the beginning of Islam, but it crystalised soon after. Al-Dhahabi says: ‘Then an ijma‘ was established after the sahabah differed, may Allah be pleased with them, as to the desirability of recording this knowledge [hadiths] by putting it down in writing.’32
As for rebellion, it is an obligation with these conditions. That it does not lead to greater evil or instability is the first. That the ruler be replaced by a better one is the second. The critical question of the ruler’s apostasy or not is the third. Although a few theologians permitted rebellion against a ruler whose tyranny had become entrenched or widespread (provided the first two conditions could be met), most forbade it unless there appeared from such a ruler unambiguous, clear-cut disbelief (kufr bawah). Imam al-Nawawi and the best part of Sunni orthodoxy from just before the time of Imam Ahmad record an ijma‘ on the point. Without clear disbelief from the ruler, patience and restraint are what Islam makes incumbent: ‘Whoever sees something from his ruler he detests, let him be patience. For whoever separates from the ruler by even a handspan and dies, dies a death of pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah).’33 In jahiliyyah, there was no single political leader; it was a bit of a free for all. In Islam, there always must be.
VI. HOW DOES ALL THIS WORK IN THE MODERN AGE?
Quite frankly, with great difficulty. The Sunni position which stresses the duty of obeying the ruler, and which prioritises stability over other social considerations, grew out of these ‘rebellion hadiths’ and was significantly informed by well-known turbulent, historical realities. Muslims, even as late as the last century, could justify their readiness to tolerate a ruthless ruler so long as the government had a short arm and interfered very little in the lives of people. But the modern nation-state has extended the role of government into every nook and cranny of society. As such, some argue that pre-modern Muslim political theories cannot give us any satisfactory insight into the socio-political culture Muslims live under today. This line of thinking makes the case that given the hegemonic nature of the modern state – how it controls the economic life chances of allits citizens; defines the parameters of political participation; controls the nature and content of education; intrudes almost at will into the private lives of its citizens; and if it chooses, can tyrannise its citizens with impunity, for it alone has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in society – how realistic is it to be patient if the state does decide to inflict violence and tyranny on its citizens? So if what motivates Muslims to challenge the legitimacy of the state are issues that relate to economic security, political participation or basic human dignities, then scholars must carefully consider such matter before pronouncing on the validity or not of acts of civil disobedience and rebellion.
Yet while there is no doubt the modern state exerts a control over the lives of its citizens, in ways unimaginable in a pre-modern age, isn’t there still a case to be made for the contemporary relevance of the rebellion hadiths? For it is precisely because the modern state is so overbearing, and that its surveillance or securitisation apparatus is so intrusive, that this rebellion option is still so very unwise. The hadith which states: ‘The ruler is Allah’s shadow on earth’34 isn’t saying there’s a divine right of kings. It’s stressing that governance, even if tyrannical, allows for a certain ‘shade’ of law and order that rebellion and civil war will likely decimate. And then society is left to the mercy of rival political, religious or ethnic militias all locked in a bloody and protracted fight for their own self-interests. That’s not even taking into account the military establishment in those highly militarized societies, who alone alledge to know what is best for the national interest and the bigger picture of the complex, geopolitical realities. In militarized societies, the army doesn’t only guard the borders, it actively takes a role in political affairs. When Ibn Hajr said that what occurred at al-Harra’ and Karbala is a lesson for whoever reflects, might the same not be said about the Arab Spring? Libya, Syria and Yemen spiralled into long drawn out civil wars; Egypt backslid into further authoritarian rule; and Tunisia, the relative success story, struggles to endure parlimentary gridlock, economic disaster and continued protests and riots ten years on. And we dare not speak about the actual human cost of it all. Let’s recall Ibn al-Qayyim’s pertinent, yet unnerving observation here:
وَهَذَا كَالْإِنْكَارِ عَلَى الْمُلُوكِ وَالْوُلَاةِ بِالْخُرُوجِ عَلَيْهِمْ، فَإِنَّهُ أَسَاسُ كُلِّ شَرٍّ وَفِتْنَةٍ إِلَى آخِرِ الدَّهْرِ… وَمَنْ تَأَمَّلَ مَا جَرَى عَلَى الْإِسْلَامِ فِي الْفِتَنِ الْكِبَارِ وَالصِّغَارِ، رَآهَا مِنْ إِضَاعَةِ هَذَا الْأَصْلِ، وَعَدَمِ الصَّبْرِ عَلَى مُنْكَرٍ، فَطَلَبَ إِزَالَتَهُ، فَتَوَلَّدَ مِنْهُ مَا هُوَ أَكْبَرُ مِنْهُ.
‘This is like disavowing the kings and rulers by rebelling against them. This is the basis of every evil or sedition till the end of time … Whoever reflects on the trials that have occurred in Islam, large or small, will see it is because of forsaking this principle and not being patience with the evil, and seeking to remove it by giving birth to what is worse than it.’35
VII. WHY SHOULD THIS MATTER?
Whilst the Arab Spring protests eventually fizzled out, the causes that led to them have not. In the pre-modern world, tyrannical rulers had limited scope to corrupt the religion or smother peoples’ liberties. Their reach was restricted. Not so in the modern age. Autocratic or despotic rulers control the news, educational curricula, appoint state muftis and liberalise in ways that corrupt public morality and are spiritually polluting. With exceptions aside, the Qur’an states: ‘Kings, when they enter a town, ruin it and make the proud among its people debased.’ [Q.27:34]
We urgently need our scholars to theologise ways which allow checks and measures, and modes of dissent against the abuse of state power, while at the same time reminding citizens of their Islamic duty of patience against tyranny, as well as not allowing the orderly structures of society to be torn down through thawrah — ‘revolution’.
Revolutions or rebellions are not events, they are processes – often, long, drawn-out ones – whose intended aim is seldom guaranteed. In fact, given our globalised world, powerful outside interests, as well as regional geo-politics, are far more likely to shape ultimate outcomes than are the well-conceived intentions of the masses. Mainstream Sunni orthodoxy has long been suspicious about rebellions, and with good cause. Whatever else the Arab Spring has taught us, one thing’s clear: Revolutions often travel fast, but they seldom travel well.
One final consideration. Given that as Muslims we glean our worldview in light of Allah’s Revelation, and given also that we believe politics is a part of the religion, what are we to make of the following verse; and how have we, to date, incorporated it into our politics — or even into this new post Arab Spring chapter in the struggle for freedom, human dignity and social justice? Allah informs us: Thus do We let some of the unjust have power over others due to their misdeeds. [Q.6:129] This sentiment is echoed in the well-known saying: kama takunun yuwalla ‘alaykum — ‘As you are, so shall your leaders be.’36 The traditional political rule of thumb here is that:
فَإِنْ أَرَادَ الرَّعِيَّةُ أَنْ يَتَخَلَّصُوا مِنْ ظُلْمِ الْأَمِيرِ الظَّالِمِ فَلْيَتْرُكُوا الظُّلْمَ.
‘If those governed wish to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from unjust [sinful] acts.’37
So if our political theorising does not have this at the heart of its concerns or consideration, it’s hard to see just how Allah’s madad or help shall come about. For without it, we’re left to our own devices and delusions.
1. Abu Dawud, no.2608. Its chain was graded hasan in Yahya b. Sharaf al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin min Kalam Sayyid al-Mursalin (Jeddah: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1421H), no.967.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.5188; Muslim, no.1829.
3. Ahmad b. Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:391.
4. Al-Baghawi, Sharh al-Sunnah, no.2455, and it is sahih. See: Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.7520.
5. Al-Bukhari, no.3267; Muslim, no.2989.
6. Ahmad, no.14909. The hadith is debatebly sahih due to supporting chains. Cf. al-Albani, Takhrij Kitab al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1980), nos.1096-98.
7. Muslim, no.78.
8. Yahya b. Sharaf al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 18:92.
9. Muslim, no.864.
10. Al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, 6:132.
11. Cited in Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1993), 3:230.
12. Muqbil b. Hadi al-Wadi‘i, https://www.muqbel.net/fatwa.php?fatwa_id=4262
13. Muhammad b. Salih al-‘Uthaymin, https://shamela.ws/book/7687/1851
14. Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, no.37581; al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8564. The chain was declared sahih by Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut in his critical edition of Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:245.
15. Abu Dawud, no.4345, and it is hasan. Cf. al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir, no.689.
16. ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami’ al-Saghir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), 1:117.
17. Muslim, no.1854.
18. Cited in Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 4:188.
19. Abu Dawud, no.4344; al-Tirmidhi, no.2175, saying: ‘The hadith is hasan.’
20. See: Isma’il b. Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Dar al-Hijr, 1998), 11:494-8; Ahmad b. Taymiyyah, Minhaj al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyyah (Riyadh: Jami’ al-Imam b. Su’ud al-Islamiyyah, 1986), 4:530.
21. Cf. Ibn Sa‘d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (Cairo: Maktabah al-Khanji, 2001), 9:164-65.
22. See: al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 3:364; Ibn Taymiyyah, Minhaj al-Sunnah, 4:308.
23. Consult: Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, al-Mughni (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 2007), 10:49.
24. Al-Bukhari, no.7144; Muslim, no.1839.
25. Al-Bukhari, no.7053; Muslim, no.1849.
26. Muslim, no.1837.
27. Muslim, no.1854.
28. Muslim, no.1855.
29. Al-Bukhari, no.7056.
30. Ahmad b. ‘Ali b. Hajr al-‘Asqalani al-Shafi‘i, Tahdhib al-Tahdhib (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2014), 1:399.
31. Al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, 12:189. The Qadi mentioned is the famous Maliki jurist, Qadi ‘Iyad.
32. Al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 3:80.
33. Al-Bukhari, no.7053; Muslim, no.1849.
34. Ibn Abi ‘Asim, al-Sunnah, no.1024. The hadith is collectively hasan, as per al-Albani, Zilal al-Jannah fi Takhrij al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1980), 492.
35. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in ‘an Rabb al-‘Alamin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2003), 4:338-9.
36. Many cite this as a prophetic saying. But as a hadith, it is da‘if. Cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.320.
37. ‘Ali b. Muhammad b. Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:579.