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
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.
5. See: RAND report, 2007: Building Moderate Muslim Networks, pp.65-74.
6. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 195.
7. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 42.
8. Al-Shihab, Musnad, no.1262. It was judged sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.947.
9. Abu Dawud, no.3641; al-Tirmidhi, no.2683. The hadith is hasan, due to its various chains that strengthen one another. See: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, 1:245.