Q. What is our Islamic duty when one Muslim mistreats, exploits, oppresses or tyrannises another? And what should the role of Muslim scholars be in addressing the tyranny and injustices perpetrated by the state?
A. Alhamduli’Llah, wa’l-salatu wa’l-salamu ‘ala rasuli’Llah. In theory, the answer is pretty straightforward. In practice, it may often be tricky – especially if the oppression (zulm) is not by an individual, but by a group or faction, or it is political tyranny of a government; a police state; or a tyrant dictator.
As for the theory, or principle, our Prophet ﷺ said: انْصُرْ أَخَاكَ ظَالِمًا أَوْ مَظْلُومًا. قَالُوا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ هَذَا نَنْصُرُهُ مَظْلُومًا فَكَيْفَ نَنْصُرُهُ ظَالِمًا قَالَ: تَأْخُذُ فَوْقَ يَدَيْهِ – ‘Help your brother, be he the oppressor or the oppressed!’ They said: O Messenger of Allah, we can help the oppressed. But how do we help an oppressor? He said: ‘By restraining his hand.’1
There are some important points to consider here:
Firstly, it is a collective obligation; a fard kifayah, to stop an oppressor harming, exploiting or oppressing another. Which is to say, if one or more people do not stand up to stop the oppression or tyranny, the whole of the community or ummah is sinful.2 This, then, is the general rule of thumb concerning helping an oppressed person – regardless of the type of injustice or oppression; be it personal, marital, social, or political.
Secondly, the Prophet ﷺ warned of a divine punishment if such a collective obligation is shirked or left unfulfilled: ‘People, if they see an oppressor and do not restrain him, then perhaps Allah will cover them all with punishment.’3
Thirdly, there will be times where it simply isn’t possible to restrain the oppressor; but this should not be for a lack of wanting to stop oppression. One hadith states: ‘Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to, then with his tongue; if he is unable, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’4 So not having even the wish to help a victim of domestic violence; economic unfairness; or political tyranny, for instance, is a serious indictment on one’s level of faith and personal piety; and any claim to be upon the Sunnah is likely to be nothing more than a fantasy.
Fourthly, although the hadith that says: ‘Whoever is not concerned with the affairs of the Muslims is not of them’ isn’t authentic,5 its meaning is religiously sound. The next hadith bears this out: ‘The likeness of the believers in their mutual love, mercy and compassion is like that of a single body; when one part of it is in pain, the rest of the body suffers in sleeplessness and fever.’6 Which is to say, the bonds of faith between believers should be a cause for us to feel the injustices or suffering other Muslims are feeling. To the degree it does not, this is a telling sign that one’s faith (iman) is weak and that the heart has been desensitised to the cries of the ummah and the suffering of the sufferers. We ask that Allah place in our hearts concern and the desire to serve.
Fifthly, in attempting to rectify any instance of oppression or injustice, one must be sure to observe the well-established rule of enjoining good and forbidding evil, that: la yu’addi ila munkar akbara minhu – ‘It should not give rise to a worse evil.’ If righting a wrong is likely to result in a greater evil, or to the loss of a greater good, then one leaves off doing so until a positive outcome can be assured, or it is more likely to be the result. Ibn al-Qayyim said: ‘Forbidding munkar (“wrong”, “evil”, “sin”) has four levels: Firstly, it will be eliminated to be replaced by good. Secondly, it will be reduced, but not fully eradicated. Thirdly, it will be [removed but] replaced by an equivalent evil. Fourthly, it will be [removed but] replaced by a worse evil. The first two levels are [areas where forbidding evil is] legislated; the third is an area for personal reasoning (ijtihad); the fourth, however, is prohibitted.’7
Sixthly, as for preventing acts of political oppression, then of course this is far harder and could also be life threatening. But whilst keeping the above previous points in mind, there are these words of our Prophet ﷺ to internalise: ‘There will soon be rulers whom you’ll approve of and also object to. Whoever recognises [abhors their evil] is absolved. Whoever objects to it is saved. But whoever is pleased with it or approves of it [is sinful].’8 In other words, as al-Nawawi noted, ‘whoever is unable to remove the evil isn’t considered sinful merely by keeping silent. Rather, the sin is in approving of it, or in not [even] denouncing it in one’s heart.’9
Seventhly, entering upon rulers is always fraught with great danger, both in spiritual and worldly terms. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Listen! You may well have heard that after me there will be leaders, whoever enters upon them and agrees with their lies, and supports them in their oppression, then he is not of me, nor I of him; and he shall not drink with me from the Fountain. Whoever does not enter upon them, nor help them in their oppression, nor agrees to their lies, he is of me, and I of him, and he will drink with me at the Fountain.’10 Scholars that do enter upon the ruler must do so only to wisely and gently right a wrong; or give religious instruction and exhortation; or to lessen an existing evil: this is what is sought after from such scholars. We ask that Allah grant our scholars ‘afiyah – safety and well-being.
Eighthly, in fact, to enter upon a ruler or a head of state, and flatter him or heap upon him exaggerated platitudes, isn’t really the conduct of a godly Muslim; let alone a scholar. Ibn ‘Umar relates that he was once told: ‘We enter upon our sultans and say to them things contrary to what we say when we leave their presence.’ Ibn ‘Umar remarked: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, we used to consider this to be hypocrisy.’11 Such platitudes only serve to obscure the true state of affairs to the ruler, in terms of his responsibilities and duties to God, and to subjects or citizens. It also reinforces his delusion that he is truly fit for purpose! As for speaking to him wisely, gently and by acknowledging the good he has done, this is praiseworthy. As for the dangers of the state seeking to domesticate Muslim scholars, I’ve written about it here.
Ninethly, in the attempt to restrain the tyranny of those in power, scholars shoulder a huge responsibility. As guardians of the sacred law and the prophetic legacy, they are expected to be courageous or independent enough to clarify truth from falsehood – without desires or ego getting in the way; and to gently, yet firmly speak truth to power – if the occasion arises. Fear that they may likely lose their life in the process; or be tortured; or bring harm upon their family or loved ones, may excuse them from this duty. But what they cannot be is a sheepish mouthpiece for shabby tyrants. So while speaking about how the venerable scholar and exemplar from Islam’s early past, Imam al-Awza‘i, spoke infront of the tyrant of the time, Imam al-Dhahabi explains that al-Awza‘i, يَصْدَعُهُ بِمُرِّ الحَقِّ كَمَا تَرَى، لاَ كَخَلْقٍ مِنْ عُلَمَاءِ السُّوءِ الَّذِيْنَ يُحَسِّنُوْنَ لِلأُمَرَاءِ مَا يَقْتَحِمُوْنَ بِهِ مِنَ الظُّلمِ وَالعَسْفِ، وَيَقلِبُوْنَ لَهُمُ البَاطِلَ حَقّاً ، قَاتَلَهُمُ اللهُ ، أَوْ يَسكُتُوْنَ مَعَ القُدْرَةِ عَلَى بَيَانِ الحَقِّ – ‘… proclaimed the bitter truth, as you have seen. Unlike those corrupt scholars who justify for the rulers the persecution and tyranny they plunge into, and turn falsehood into truth for them – may Allah fight them; or who keep silent, despite having the ability to proclaim the truth.’12
We ask Allah for ‘afiyah, courage and tawfiq.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.2444; Muslim, no.2584.
2. Cf. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 6:238.
3. Ahmad, Musnad, no.31. Its chain was graded as sahih by Ahmad Shakir, al-Musnad al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1954), 1:36.
4. Muslim, no.49.
5. According to al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), nos.309-12, this and similar hadiths with this wording range from being mildly weak (da‘if), to very weak (da‘if jiddan), to fabricated (mawdu‘). The actual hadith is related in al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 4:352.
6. Al-Bukhari, no.6011; Muslim, no.2586.
7. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:339-40.
8. Muslim, no.1854.
9. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1995), 12:204.
10. Ibn Hibban, no.282; al-Tirmidhi, no.2190, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan sahih.’
11. Al-Bukhari, no.7178. The words: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ’ is recorded in al-Tayalasi, Musnad, no.1900; and not al-Bukhari.
12. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1998), 7:125.