On the Permissibility And Practices of Opposing Unjust Rulers in Islam In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious and Most Merciful: Faced with the popular and (with the help of God) world-‐changing events of the so-‐called “Arab Spring”, certain rulers of Muslim majority nations in the Middle-‐East have sought to declare those who question or oppose their conduct as rulers as perpetrators of a “Fitnah”, an Arabic word meaning “division”, with negative connotations of unnecessary conflict, upheaval and chaos. This implication is then being used to justify obviously anti-‐Islamic behavior against that Muslim nation’s citizenry by that ruler’s followers, not limited to but including murder, rape, the threat of rape, torture, coercion, and other acts of oppression. These tragic events raise three basic questions, requiring answer: 1. Must Muslims bow to authority, when they consider that authority to be unjust in intent or practice? 2. What are the requirements and responsibilities placed upon the ruler of an Islamic State? 3. What actions are permissible to Muslims in seeking redress when those requirements and responsibilities are not being fulfilled? With the help of Allah, His revealed message to humanity through the pages of the Holy Quran, and the example of our beloved prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his earliest followers, it is our intent to answer those basic questions.
1. Must Muslims bow to authority, when they consider that authority unjust in intent or practice? Alhamdulillah this is the easiest question to answer. The Holy Quran itself declares: O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well acquainted with all that ye do. “The Women” 4:135 This Ayah makes it clear that Justice is the prime virtue for which Muslims are commanded to strive, pursuing it to the best of our ability above all else in this life. Another Ayah, revealed close to the time that Muslims became dominant in the Arabian peninsula made it very clear that oppression and the disruption unjust rulers impose upon Muslim lives can outweigh the value of even those lives themselves. When unjust rule prevented Muslims from following their religion in the Holy environs of Mecca, the earliest Muslims were told: And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. “The Heifer” 2:190 However, valid Hadithi also tell us Allah loves a Just ruler: “There are seven categories of people whom God will shelter under His shade on the Day when there will be no shade except His. [One is] the just leader.”(Saheeh Muslim) This valid Hadith confirms that a Just Muslim ruler has God’s blessing, and deserves Muslim support, making the discerning of an unjust ruler an important Muslim task. But that realization, that Allah’s beneficence demands a Just Ruler, begs an obvious question: How then, can a Muslim discern the characteristics of a Just Ruler, truly deserving our fullest Muslim support?
2. What are the requirements and responsibilities placed upon the ruler of an Islamic State? Alhamdulillah, to answer this question we have the example of our beloved prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) earliest companions and the dictates of Sharia. Few familiar with the history and character of Caliph Umar would question that if there were to be an absolute and dictatorial ruler over the Muslim people it would have been Umar. Physically and intellectually imposing, respected by all and feared by his enemies, Umar was a man who knew his own mind. And yet, all Muslims know that his governance was one of enlightened empowerment for all Muslim and non-‐Muslim alike. When he sought to impose his own wishes upon the Ummah regarding the size of a woman’s wedding dower, the voice of one woman alone speaking the words of the Holy Quran was sufficient to call him back to the true path of Islam. When he could have conquered Jerusalem through military might alone, he instead chose to walk up to the gates with one servant, and instead left Jerusalem’s governance in the hands of it’s then Christian governor, merely confirming that governor would ensure equal rights and freedoms for all, regardless of race, gender or creed. Under Umar, Islamic governance does not empower a ruler over their subjects. In fact, according to his example Islamic governance is an act of obedience, a daunting task. Caliph Umar summarized a Muslim ruler’s responsibilities by pointing out that before God, if a she-‐donkey stumbled in Iraq, he would be responsible in the eyes of God for neglecting to pave the roads for her. Instead of conferring power on rulers, Sharia makes it clear that the obligations of an Islamic State towards those under that State’s authority are: 1. The right to the protection of their life. 2. The right to the protection of their family. 3. The right to the protection of their education. 4. The right to the protection of their religion. 5. The right to the protection of their property. 6. The right to the protection of their human dignity. Any state that does not recognize and protect those rights for it’s citizens is not an Islamic State, and a ruler who does not protect those rights to the best of his or her ability is not a “Just” ruler, under the expectations of our Lord Creator’s Islam.
3. What actions are permissible to Muslims in seeking redress when the requirements and responsibilities incumbent upon an Islamic State are not being fulfilled? Alhamdulillah, to answer this most difficult question we have nothing less than the example of our beloved prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself. There are four occasions well know to all Muslims familiar with the Sunnah of our prophet, during which he was forced to respond to an unjust State. The first occasion was during his early life and the early years of our Ummah in the city of Mecca. At that time, when he and his followers were weak and powerless before the temporal powers of the day they were forced to dissemble, accommodate and to eventually flee. From this example we may conclude that when Muslims are weak and powerless and facing oppression, we should dissemble, accommodate and perhaps even flee, avoiding conflict. The second occasion that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was forced to respond to unjust rule was in the early days of his leadership in Medina, when Medina was plagued by inter-‐tribal strife and intrigue. In response, Muhammad (peace be upon him) authored what today is known as the “Charter of Medina”, a document which spelled our clearly the independent rights and freedoms of Medina’s citizens regardless of race, or creed, and clearly stated the responsibilities of those citizens towards the nascent City-‐State of Medina, and towards each-‐other. Once the leaders of Medina had accepted those terms, Muhammad (peace be upon him) governed himself and that State according to the terms of that mutually acceptable Charter. That document created a consultative form of government termed “Shura” which many now consider most similar to representational parliamentary democracies found in Britain and Canada, with Muhammad (peace be upon him) acting as Prime Minister. From this example we may conclude that when governing a diverse people including Muslims, non-Muslims, and different interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence, Islamic government should be consultative, democratic and representational, confirming and protecting the rights and freedoms of all. The third occasion Muhammad (peace be upon him) was forced to respond to unjust rulers was upon his return to Mecca, best demonstrated in his negotiations with the Meccan leadership at the well of Huddaybiyyah. There, Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his companions were present in force, with sufficient power to enforce
justice upon the rulers of Mecca immediately, but at significant cost of human life both Meccan and Medinan. The Medinan and Meccan expectations were clear: Mecca expected a bloody battle to defend their oppressive power, and Medina craved a bloody conquest for the sake of justice and Islam. However, Muhammad (peace be upon him) saw a better way. Instead of battle he pledged to retreat, requiring nothing from the Meccans at that time and demanding no immediate justice, in return for the right to return a year later to see justice fulfilled. It is important to note that when the Medinans did return to Mecca a year later, even though they had received permission to pursue bloody conquest, Mecca fell without bloodshed, and even without a blow being struck by either side. From this example we can conclude that Muslims granted near absolute power must still protect the life, rights and freedoms of their enemies as well as their own. If justice delayed can be achieved through peaceful means, then justice delayed remains a better path to resolution than unnecessary conflict. The final occasion Muhammad (peace be upon him) was forced to respond to unjust rule was in the conflict between the Arabs of Medina and the Jews of Khaybar. In that conflict, Khaybar’s Jews were weak, and their leadership pursued a pact with non-‐Muslim Arabs to exterminate every Muslim in the world, in return for surrendering half Khaybar’s possessions and produce from that point onwards. This unquestionably evil and provocative pact begged for a commensurate response. However, instead of seeking to exterminate all Khaybar’s Jews in return for that evil, Muhammad (peace be upon him) punished Khaybar’s leadership alone, and even accepted the terms of the pact upon himself and his fellow Muslims, pledging to protect them according to their contract, a pact the Muslims kept for over a thousand years. It should be noted that at a banquet thrown by the Jews of Khaybar to honor Muhammad (peace be upon him), a young Jewess tried unsuccessfully to poison Muhammad (peace be upon him), instead killing one of his closest companions. When the poisoner was brought before Muhammad for judgment, she proclaimed the poisoning was an attempt to test his prophet-‐hood that he passed by surviving. Muhammad (peace be upon him) spared her life, perhaps in hope for the peace to come. From this example we can conclude that even when faced with the greatest of possible injustice at the hands of people living far from Islam and pursuing an obviously evil course (like those Muslims supporting unjust dictators in the Muslim world today), Muslims should punish only those in command, while still striving to protect the rights of those in conflict with them, but not themselves directly responsible for the conduct of the conflict itself.
Conclusion: Pertaining to the permissibility and practices when opposing an unjust ruler in Islam. Alhamdulillah, on this issue our religion is clear. Rather than being guilty of a “Fitnah”, when faced with the necessity of opposing unjust rule in a Muslim country Muslims have an obligation to do so, because justice for all is Islam’s primary goal. However, it is incumbent upon us to do so in accordance with the commands of our Holy Quran and the example of our prophet and his earliest followers. To honor those commands and that example, Muslims have a responsibility to avoid unnecessary conflict and upheaval, to seek a moderating course, and to protect the life and freedoms of all others to the best of our ability. Muslims should never forget our duty to Allah, as stewards over His Creation. When opposing unjust rule certain principles stand clear: Our rulers deserve our support when they are seeking justice, and also deserve our help if at all possible, when seeking to find a better path if they have gone astray. Even if active opposition proves necessary, discretion, consultation and mercy remains the best course for all. In a State blessed with diverse tribes, cultures and religions, the Sunnah of Medina’s governance indicates that a consultative form of democracy similar to a modern representational parliamentary system is likely best. In true Islamic practice, violent opposition and conflict is a last recourse, reserved purely for purposes of self-‐defense. Instead, the earliest Muslims sought consultation with even their worst enemies, and protected the rights of even those they found the furthest from Islam. When dealing with claims and counter-‐claims of “Fitnah”, it should perhaps be remembered that the word “fitnah” first referred to the act of refining pure metal from base ore. That process certainly demands some division, requires some loss, and permits some destruction, but it requires discretion, discernment and wise judgment as well. InshaAllah, the so-‐called “Arab Spring” will be most successful when all voices are heard equally, all perspectives sought avidly, and all our lives, rights and freedoms are protected and respected honorably and reliably by all, for the sake of the One Who Made Us To Be Together. AMEEN