This is a companion-piece to the post, Basic Rules for Religious Activism which may be read here.
In Islam, change isn’t sought for itself, but rather to improve an existing situation. If change does not lead to a greater good, or if it brings about a greater harm, then to bring about such change would be forbidden by Islam. The rule concerning changing the evil is that: la yu’addi ila munkar akbara minhu – ‘It must not give rise to a worse evil.’ If social or political activism is likely to result in a greater evil, or to the loss of a greater good, then what is the point of seeking change?
The hadith master, Hanbali jurist and master of the inward life, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751/1350CE), penned these words on the subject:
‘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 juristic reasoning (ijtihad); the fourth, however, is prohibitted.
Thus, if you see sinful and immoral people playing chess, for instance, then rebuking them would be a case of poor understanding and insight – unless you can turn them to pastimes that are pleasing to God and His Messenger, such as archery or horseback riding, or the like. If you see immoral people gathered for [sinful] amusements, or for listening to music – if you can coax them away from such acts to acts of obedience to God, then do so: otherwise it is best to let them be than to push them into acts which could be worse. Likewise, if you see a person preoccupied with indecent literature, or its like, and you fear deterring him from it will cause him to turn to books of religious innovation, deviation or magic, you should leave him – for the first types of books are less harmful. This is indeed a vast subject.
I heard Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah say: “During the time of the Mongols, I and a companion of mine passed by some Mongols who were drinking wine. He censured them, so I rebuked him, explaining: God has indeed forbidden wine, as it diverts from God’s remembrance and prayer. As for these people, wine diverts them from murder, enslaving people and pillaging. So let them be!”‘1
1. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:339-40.