After the battle of Hunayn, a delegation from the Hawazin clan came to the Prophet, upon whom be peace, requesting the return of their wealth and captives. They were given a choice between one or the other, so they chose the return of the captives. The Prophet, peace be upon him, then addressed his Companions, saying: ‘These brothers of yours have come to us in repentance, and I wish to return the captives to them. So those of you who wish to return your captives freely, let them do so; and those who wish to keep their share until we give him something of the first booty that God has bestowed on us, let them do so.’ Some of the people said that they would willingly give up their captives for the sake of the Prophet, while others said that they could not. The Prophet said: ‘I cannot tell who among you is granting permission, and who is not. So go back and send your leaders to discuss the matter with us.’ The people went back to speak to their leaders, who then returned to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and gave their consent to set the captives free.1
Undoubtedly, to garner the opinions or sentiments of the masses definitely makes for good governance. When it becomes difficult to ascertain their opinions directly, then appointing representatives on their behalf becomes vital. This is the rationale behind what we now call representative democracy. This type of democracy, says the English philosopher Roger Scruton, is where ‘the people choose (say by voting) representatives who are then answerable to them, but at the same time directly involved, and usually without further consultation, in the practice of government.’2
Does the incident of the Hawazin clan prove the validity of representative democracy in Islam? Not quite. Consultation or shura is at the heart of good decision making in Islam, and so the public should be consulted and governance must reflect their needs and aspirations. But to allow unambiguous revealed truths to be consented to or cast aside by public opinion is a different thing altogether. Faith-based truths, private and public morality, and what is lawful and prohibited are to be decided by the dictates of Revelation – not withstanding juristic disagreement on some of the finer details of the Revealed Law. The Qur’an asserts: It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by God and His Messenger, to have any option about their decision; and he who disobeys God and His Messenger is clearly astray. [33:36] Government of the people, by the people, for the people certainly has its merits. But: Who is a better judge than God for a people who have certainty of faith? [5:50] Democracy wherein people have sovereignty even over the Divine, cannot be countenanced by the faithful.
What then is the value of ‘We the People’? The Qur’an is explicit about the question of following the majority, insisting that numbers in themselves do not make for truth or right guidance: Were you to obey most of those on earth, they would mislead you far from God’s way. [6:116] Again, the Qur’an states: But most of mankind know not. [45:26] Or do you think that most of them hear or understand? They are like cattle. No, they are even more astray. [25:44]
And while human history is replete with examples of ‘We the People’ coming together to demonstrate courage and resilience in the face of tyranny, exhibiting strength and sacrifice in confronting falsehood, or showing acts of profound collective forgiveness against those who formerly oppressed them, that is no reason to downplay the above unambiguous verses nor, for that matter, ignore the warnings in the following hadiths which speak about the deterioration of people:
1. ‘The righteous will depart, one after another, leaving only the dregs behind, like the chaff of barley or dates: God will not accord to them any worth or weight.’3
2. ‘Glad-tidings are for the strangers: a few righteous people amidst a great number of wicked people; those who disobey them are more than those who obey them.’4
3. ‘Nations will soon summon each other to attack you, like [hungry] diners invite one another to eat from a platter of food.’ A person asked: Is it because we will be few in number that day, O Messenger of God? He said: ‘Rather, you will be plenty in number, but you shall be [as insignificant] as the foam on the ocean. And God will remove from the hearts of your enemies fear of you, and shall cast into your hearts weakness.’ They asked: What is the weakness, O Messenger of God? He replied: ‘Love of this world and hatred for death.’5
4. The hadith with which Part 1 began: ‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted, the trustworthy one considered treacherous; and the Ruwaybidah shall speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘The lowly, contemptible one who will speak out about public affairs.’6
5. ‘Indeed, people are like camels, out of a hundred you will hardly find a single one suitable for riding.’7
Explaining the above, Imam al-Sa‘di wrote: ‘This hadith incorporates a truthful report and a beneficial piece of guidance. As for the report, it is that the Prophet, upon whom be peace, informed us that deficiency (naqs) is something found in most people and that perfection (kamal) – or near perfection – is rare among them. Just like a hundred camels; a large number, but if you wanted one for carrying, riding, or going to and fro, you would be hard pushed to find even one. The majority of people are similar: if you wanted one suitable for teaching, giving fatwas, leadership, holding the highest office of governance, or lesser offices, or any other important task, you would hardly be able to find anyone to carry out the task properly. Such is the reality; and this because man is unjust and ignorant – injustice and ignorance being the causes of defects, which bar the attainment of perfection and completeness.
‘As for the guidance, then the report comprises an indication from the Prophet, peace be upon him, that the ummah should endeavour and labour together to prepare people who are suitable for taking charge of matters of importance and the running of public affairs beneficial to society as a whole.’8
The idea of human social life in its unregulated form as lacking morality, cooperation or cohesion has deep roots in traditional teachings. Without a higher code of ethics to guide them, or law to restrain them, human beings tend to ruthlessly pursue their own self interests and diverse passions; engage in harmful rivalry and constant strife; put qualities like affection and altruism on the back burner; and are ignorant of their true interests in this world and the Hereafter, thereby bringing about their own rack and ruin. Left to their egos and their own devices, man’s corrupted nature, or fitrah, would render man’s life – to cite Hobbes’s now famous words – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’9 Hence, according to medieval Muslim scholarship, the blessings of God sending Revelation and Prophets, for the guidance and welfare of both individuals and society. Hence, also, Islam’s insistence on yielding to political authority over anarchy and guarding public security, wary of any actors seeking to erode or undermine them. Needless to say, Islam envisages government to pursue the objectives of justice (‘adl), the promotion of benefit (maslahah), and prevention of harm (mafsadah). To be more specific, Islamic governance is committed to protect man’s five essential interests (al-dururiyyat al-khamsah); namely: faith, life, intellect, lineage and property. This, at least, is the theory.
My point here isn’t to try and flesh out the particular forms of Islamic governance in a post-Westphalian world of sovereign nation states, forceful regional/global economic unions and mega-corporate capitalism: even if I could! Rather, my point is simply this: what should the role of the masses in Muslim majority countries be, in terms of public uprisings, religious activism and socio-political change? Should they lead or must they be led? Steer or be steered? Define the discourse or defer to a higher discourse? And does the old dichotomy of the masses being the ‘ammah; the common folk and riffraff, and the rulers and religious leaders as the khassah; the elite, still hold? And given mass education and specialisation in the secular sciences, is there now not a new breed of masses; a third tier?
A number of Arabic words may be translated to mean “masses,” particularly ‘ammah (commoners, general public), jumhur (majority, multitude) and sha‘b (folk, populace). There are also more pejoratives terms, like ra‘a and ghawgha – often translated as the rabble, riffraff, or mob. The masses, especially in pre-modern history, were the lower and working classes, the great majority; sharply distinguished from the elite – those of learning and high culture – by their ignorance, or poor education or erudition.10 The great multitude can be a tremendous force for positive change. They can also be fickle and easily swayed. Sometimes they can be the reckless herd, even if well-intended. At other times they can exhibit mob mentality or mob rule; this is where the whims and passions of the majority rule over reason and religion. Ochlocracy, government by mob rule, is certainly not unheard of in human history!
The truth about human nature is that this mob mentality can be extremely infectious. Stand too close to the whirlpool of a reckless herd, and one is likely to get sucked right in. The medieval Syrian jurist-theologian, Ibn Taymiyyah, observed: ‘How many there are who intend neither good nor evil, until they see another – especially someone like themselves – doing it, and then they go and do the same! For it is the nature of human beings to imitate each other, as birds of a feather flock together.’11 This, in large part, explains fashion trends, social media trending, why those who are usually law-abiding and sensible can plunge into bouts of recklessness, frenzy and criminality when with a crowd, how the general public can become highly volatile and violent in the absence of law and order, and other mass hysterias.
Received wisdom from our scholars, sages and saints tells us that ‘We the People’ – the march of the masses – if it is not led by sound religious learning and judgement, and if unenlightened by deep-rooted spiritual acumen, will do far greater harm than good. It will neither bode well for our religious welfare, nor our worldly one. Experience and textual proofs amply prove the point.
Consider the following hadiths:
1. ‘God does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; rather He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are astray and lead others astray.’12 Here we are told of the public’s inability to reign in their haste and impulsiveness and patiently seek out whatever remains of qualified scholarship. As headless chickens, they race about asking any Tom, Dick or Harry for religious judgements and guidance. The masses turn things on their head by making the unworthy worthy, the unqualified qualified, the unacceptable acceptable. The upshot: the ummah, as whole, seriously suffers. (Much of the above prophecy has, in fact, already come to pass – and God’s aid is sought!)
2. Abu Musa relates: God’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: ‘Before the coming of the Hour there will be harj!’ I said: O Messenger of God, what is harj? He said: ‘Killing.’ Some of the Muslims said: O Messenger of God, now we slay [in battle] such and such number of idolaters in a single year. God’s Messenger said: ‘This won’t be like slaying the idolaters. Instead, you will kill one another, to the extent that a person will kill his neighbour, his nephew and relations!’ Some people said: O Messenger of God! Will we be in our right minds that day? He replied: ‘No! Reason will have departed from most people at that time, and there shall remain only the dregs of people who will be devoid of reason.’13 Thus we are assured in this hadith that madness shall descend upon the mob, giving rise to mutual bloodshed and much violence and murder.
3. As for the masses being the rabble and the riffraff, then Ibn ‘Abbas relates: I used to teach some of the Emigrants, among who was ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Awf. While I was in his house at Mina and he was with ‘Umar b. al-Khattab in what was his last pilgrimage, ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Awf came to me and said: ‘If only you had seen the man who came to [‘Umar] the Leader of the Believers, saying: O Leader of the Believers! What do you say about someone who says that when ‘Umar dies, he will give the oath of allegiance to so and so person, for – by God – the oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr was nothing but a reaction that afterwards became established?’ At this, ‘Umar became angry and said: If God wills, I shall stand and address the people tonight and will warn them against those who seek to deprive people of their entitlements. ‘Abd al-Rahman exclaimed: ‘O Leader of the Believers, don’t do so! For the pilgrimage season gathers the rabble (ra‘a) and the riffraff (ghawgha), and they will be the ones who will get closest to you when you stand to address the people. I fear that they will misconstrue your words and twist them out of context. So wait till you reach Madinah, for it is the land of migration and the Sunnah (dar al-hijrah wa’l-sunnah). There you will be among the people of learning, understanding and nobility, where you can say what you have to say, with confidence. For the people of knowledge will understand your words and they will keep things in context.’ To this, ‘Umar said: By God, that is what I will do in my first address to the people of Madinah; God willing.14 The narration is very telling and begs the question: if that was the case about the masses then, one wonders how it could possibly be any better today?
To conclude: The year 2011 witnessed a seismic change in the concept of citizenship in the Arab world. We saw the masses determined to actively have a direct say in their own affairs and destiny, as citizens. Millions of people from different socioeconomic and religious backgrounds protested against tyranny and dictatorship via organised campaigns of civil resistance, demonstrations, labour strikes and rebellion to improve oppressive regimes or to topple them. ‘We the People’ saw themselves as direct agents of change. But We the People, as this article has sought to highlight, can be a force for mayhem and the erosion of faith, as it can for good. So given the many authoritative Islamic texts that speak of the deterioration of the masses (in terms of faith, spiritual growth and sound religious judgement; and the sociopolitical consequences), given also the rise of the Ruwaybidah among them, the mere fact that the masses are agents of change should not in itself engender any immediate hope or confidence. As for the question of whether or not such activism and rebellion was lawful in the first place, according to the rules and principles enshrined in the shari‘ah, that will have to be left to address elsewhere.
Islam teaches us to assess change, not in terms of material advancement, nor even in terms of the presence or absence of political freedom, but in terms of an increasing awareness of God’s presence, worship of Him, and fulfilling the prescriptions instated by faith. If change through activism facilitates the former, but not the latter, how can believers really rejoice?
Here in the West, over the past four of five decades, much has been said and debated about the dumbing down of society. Dumbing down refers to the oversimplification of critical thought and the diminishment of the intellectual content in education, art, culture and politics. Even though we have more information at our disposal, we are seen to be less capable of critical thinking than those generations of people before us. The argument is that mass media and entertainment, the over reliance on technology, and allowing ourselves to be consumed by consumerism, has all led to this numbing and dumbing down. A more sinister narrative insists that the dumbing down has been engineered, in order that “the powers that be” can keep the masses subdued. (Less the Orwellian, and more the Huxleyan nightmare!)
Dumbing down has also been spoken of in the prophetic hadiths, some of which have been related above. They speak of how the masses will be dumbed down in respect to their escalating ignorance of religious knowledge; their diminishing grasp of spiritual realities; and their succumbing ever more to the dictates of anger and emotions which blind their sense of reason, making increasing moments of mob madness far more frequent. And while it is true that some of Muslim scholarship has still yet to make the transition into the modern world, where simple faith and little intellectual content tend not to be enough, our scholarship is becoming much more informed, critical and thoughtful. But if the masses are to be agents of positive change – and why shouldn’t they be – they too need to nurture in themselves a more thoughtful and enlightened practice of faith. And this can only come from resisting the Ruwaybidah tendencies in themselves and their ranks, reviving their connection to the scholars, and committing to a deeper level of religious study and meditation. Only then, when the scholars and masses work together for society’s moral, spiritual and worldly benefit, will the much sought-after change that believing hearts aspire to begin to come about. This ancient piece of scholarly wisdom must also be kept firmly in our minds: man ta‘ajjala’l-shay’a qabla awanihi ‘uqiba bi hurmanihi – ‘Whosoever seeks to hasten a thing before its time, will be deprived of its outcome.’
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.2307.
2. Scruton, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought (Great Britain & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 169.
3. Al-Bukhari, no.6434.
4. Ibn al-Mubarak, al-Zuhd, no.775; Ahmad, Musnad, no.6650. It was graded authentic (sahih) by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1619.
5. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4297, and it is sahih, Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.958.
6. Ibn Majah, no.4036; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 4:465, who said: ‘Its chain is sahih.‘
7. Al-Bukhari, no.2498; Muslim, no.2547.
8. Bahjat al-Qulub al-Abrar (Cairo: Dar al-Bayan, 1988), 365-66.
9. Hobbes, Leviathan (London: The Folio Society, 2012), 92.
10. See: G. Bowering (ed.), The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (New Jersey & Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2013), 330-31.
11. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:149-50.
12. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.
13. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3959, Ahmad, Musnad, no.19492. It was graded as sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1682.
14. Al-Bukhari, no.6830.