In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Bestower of Mercy
All praise is for Allah, the One Who responds to the distressed one when he invokes Him, alleviates the troubled one when he calls Him, removes evil and dispels grief. Hearts do not come to life except by His Remembrance. There is nothing that occurs except by His Permission. There is no escaping adversity except by His Mercy, and nothing is safe from harm except by His Protection. That which is hoped for is not attained except by His facilitation. And happiness is not obtained except through His obedience.
I testify that there is nothing worthy of worship except Allah, alone without partner, Lord of all that exists and the Sustainer of the heavens and the earths. And I testify that Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger, sent with the Clear Book and the Straight Path. May Allah send His Peace and Blessings upon him, his family and all of his companions.
Dear brothers and sisters, know that, being patience with and obedience to our leaders, especially in this trying time of struggling to fight the Covid-19 has been an important principle of Islamic creed (aqidah) since the time of our pious righteous predecessors (Salafus-Salih). But it is one that today some people do not understand well, either exploiting it for some political agenda or rejecting it altogether.
The Sunnah and the way of our righteous predecessors strikes a balance between civil obligations to the government, civil obligations to the common citizenry, and our moral obligations as Muslims. Islam does not advocate violent rebellion according to the whims of the citizenry, nor does it approve of every action taken by a leader.
The default rule (al-asl) is that Muslim leaders must be obeyed in all matters of civil law, as long as we are not ordered to commit sins. The sinful actions of a Muslim leader is not an excuse to violate basic laws and norms of civil society. Allah the Almighty said:
“O you who have faith, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those invested with authority among you. If you disagree over something, refer it to Allah and the Messenger if you truly believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is better and most suitable for determination.” [Qur’an, 4:59]
Imam Ali (RA) reported that: The Prophet (Peace be upon him) said:
“There is no obedience to anyone if it is disobedience to Allah. Verily, obedience is only in good conduct.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
Respected brothers and sisters, authority not only applies to the highest executive in the country, but also to anyone invested with lawful and proper authority: Sultan, Emirs Imams, teachers, doctors, security agents, and so on. If disobedience to them is necessary to avoid a sin, it should be done so civilly and without violence.
This principle of obedience is also true for Muslims who are visiting or residing in non-Muslim countries, as a visa or citizenship in such countries is a type of contract that must be upheld. Allah the Most High said:
“O you who have faith, fulfill all of your contracts.” [Qur’an, 5:1]
The meaning of ‘obedience to the leader’ is not related to the individual personality of the leader, but rather for the civil laws that maintain the rules and order in society. In the past, the leader was considered the source of the law but in most countries today the bureaucratic state has replaced any particular individual. As the Emperor Napoleon once said:
“I am the state.”
This means that ‘obeying the leader’ in our context means obeying state law statues against crimes like murder, theft, and assault, state regulations like curfew or lock down due to the epidemic or plague, traffic laws, housing laws, safety standards, and so on. It is not obedience to the personality of the leader, who may in fact be very sinful in his personal life, but rather it is obedience to the legal apparatus of which he is at the top, as long as we are not forced by them to commit sins. This obedience ensures that society will not descend into chaos and lawlessness.
With regard to governments and leaders, Muslim scholars tend to follow three types of approach:
1. Sincerely adhering to Islamic teachings whether or not it pleases the government or the citizenry.
2. Adapting Islamic teachings to fit a government agenda.
3. Adapting Islamic teachings to fit a populist movement.
Imam Shaikh Ibn Uthaymin said:
“The scholars are divided into three types: 1. religious scholars, 2. government scholars, and 3. populist scholars. As for the religious scholar, it is one who spreads the religion of Islam and issues verdicts based on knowledge of it. It does not matter to him whether the evidences of the law agree with the whims of people or not. As for the government scholar, it is one who considers what the government wants and issues verdicts accordingly, even if that distorts the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him). As for the populist scholar, it is one who considers what pleases people. If he sees people doing something, he issues verdicts to satisfy them and attempts to distort the texts of the Book and Sunnah to make them agree with the whims of the people. We ask Allah to make us among the religious scholars, acting in accordance with them.” [Sharhu Riyadul Salihin]
As such, the proper Islamic approach in any context is to sincerely follow the Qur’an and Sunnah wherever they lead, whether it happens to support a government agenda, or a populist agenda, or neither.
Populism can be a potently dangerous threat to society if the whims of the citizenry are aggravated to the point that they take up violence against the government. The Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) warned us not to fall for the siren call of rebellion, as long as we are able to practice Islam safely in our countries. Hudhaifah Ibn al-Yaman reported that:
“The Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said: Leaders after me will come who do not follow my guidance and my Sunnah. Some of their men will have the hearts of devils in a human body.” I said, “O Messenger of Allah, what should I do if I live to see that time?” The Prophet (Peace be upon him) said: “You should listen and obey them even if the leader strikes your back and takes your wealth, even still listen and obey.” [Muslim]
Auf Ibn Malik reported that:
“The Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said: “The best of your leaders are those whom you love and they love you, who pray for you and you pray for them. The worst of your leaders are those whom you hate and they hate you, whom you curse and they curse you.” It was said: “Shall we confront them with swords?” The Prophet said: “No, as long as they establish prayer among you. If you find something hateful from them, you should hate their actions but not withdraw your hand from obedience.” [Muslim]
Ummu Salamah reported that:
“The Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said: “There will be leaders from whom you will see both goodness and corruption. One who recognises their evil and hates it will maintain his innocence, but one who is pleased with it and follows them will be sinful. It was said, “Shall we not fight them?” The Prophet said: No, as long as they pray.” [Muslim]
Beloved servants of Allah, the wisdom behind these Prophetic Hadiths is that violent rebellion, which is civil war, is almost certainly worse than the oppression of any government or leader. The long track-record of failed rebellions and harmful civil wars has led latter scholars to achieve consensus (Ijma’) on the prohibition of insurrection. Imam Al-Nawawi commented on these Prophetic Hadiths, saying:
“As for rebelling against the leader and fighting him, it is forbidden by consensus (Ijma’) of the Muslims, even if he is sinful and oppressive. I have mentioned the Hadiths that demonstrate this meaning. The people of the Sunnah (Ahlus-Sunnah wal Jama’ah) have agreed that the leader should not be removed due to his sinfulness… The reason his removal and rebellion against him is forbidden is because of what that entails of chaos, lawlessness, anarchy, tribulations, bloodshed and corruption, for the harm in removing the leader is greater than letting him remain.” [ Sharh Muslim]
This matter is so important that the righteous predecessors (Salafus-Salih) included it in their treatises on sound creed and Islamic theology (aqidah and manhaj), such as what was written by Imam al-Tahawi. He said:
“We do not rebel against our leaders or those in charge of our affairs, even if they are tyrannical. We do not supplicate against them, nor withdraw from obedience to them. We view obedience to them as obedience to Allah Almighty, an obligation, as long as they do not order disobedience to Allah. We supplicate on their behalf for righteousness and wellness.” [Al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyah]
It is true that some of the companions and righteous predecessors supported rebellions against some of the early Caliphs. This was from their ijtihad (personal reasoning), which may or may not be correct. Only those who are invested with authority over constitutional matters of government (Ahl al-Hal wal-Aqd), as many of them were, can decide if the evil of a rebellion outweighs the evil of a particular leader; it is not a decision to be made by any populist preachers or the common citizenry.
As for the Hadiths of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) on this matter, they counsel patience in the face of their leaders and this is the general rule for common Muslims.
Furthermore, Muslims should provide sincere advice to the leaders and wish for their well-being in this life and in the Hereafter. This is very difficult to do for an oppressive leaders and many of us may not be prepared to wish them well, perhaps understandably, but this is the standard set by the beloved Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him).
Tamim al-Dari reported that:
“The Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said: Verily, the religion is sincerity. We said, “To whom?” The Prophet said: To Allah, His Book, His Messenger, the leaders of the Muslims, and their common people.” [Muslim]
For this reason, as stated by Imam al-Tahawi, the righteous predecessors generally did not supplicate or pray against the leaders even when they were sinful. In fact, some of them made it a point to supplicate for guidance on their behalf.
Imam Al-Dhahabi reported that:
“Imam Al-Fudail Ibn Iyad, may Allah have mercy on him, said: If I had one supplication to be answered, I would make it for no one but the leader. If the leader is righteous, it will lead to the righteousness of the country and the people.” [Siyaru A’lam al-Nubala]
Indeed, if a leader is guided to the right decision or right policy, or at least away from a bad decision or a bad policy, it will benefit the entire country, and that is why Imam Al-Fudail would supplicate for the leaders despite their sins.
It should also be appreciated that leaders are like everyone else, in the sense that unfairness to them is just as bad as unfairness to any other person. Al-Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf, for instance, was a draconian leader in early Islamic history and he was hated by many for his policies, yet the eminent scholar Muhammad Ibn Sirin warned that slandering or even backbiting such a hated leader is still sinful.
Auf reported that:
“I entered the home of Imam Ibn Sirin, may Allah have mercy on him, and I began discussing the sins of the leader Al-Hajjaj. Imam Ibn Sirin said: Verily, Allah Almighty is a just judge. Just as he passes judgment against Al-Hajjaj, he will pass judgment in favour of Al-Hajjaj. If you were to meet Allah tomorrow, the smallest sin you committed would be worse for you than the greatest sin Al-Hajjaj committed against you.” [Al-Risalah al-Qushairiyah]
Even so, the sins of the leader are magnified, as their actions are far-reaching and can affect entire countries for generations to come. They should be reminded that by their leadership they are in a precarious position with regards to the Reckoning on the Day of Resurrection. Ma’aqil Ibn Yasar reported that:
“The Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said: “No servant is given authority by Allah and he does not fulfill its duties sincerely but that he will never smell the fragrance of Paradise.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
And Aisha reported that:
“The Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said: “O Allah, whoever is given charge over my nation (ummah) and he is harsh with them, be harsh with him. Whoever is given charge over my nation and he is gentle with them, be gentle with him.” [Muslim]
This is why according to some scholars it is disapproved for anyone to seek a position of leadership. Instead, the most qualified persons should be called to serve without requesting it for themselves.
Dear brothers and sisters, advising the leaders, like advising ordinary Muslims, should first be done in private if possible. This is to protect their reputations and to avoid agitating the citizenry unnecessarily. Iyad Ibn Ghanam reported that:
“The Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said: “Whoever intends to advise one with authority, he should not do so publicly. Rather, he should take him by the hand and advise him in private. If he accepts the advice, all is well. If he does not accept it, he has fulfilled his duty.” [Musnad of Imam Ahmad]
Imam Al-Muzani reported that:
“Imam Ash-Shafi’i, may Allah have mercy on him, said: “Whoever admonishes his brother in private has been sincere to him and protected his reputation. Whoever admonishes him in public has humiliated him and betrayed him.” [Hilyatul Auliyah]
As this is the proper first step of criticism, one should not assume that scholars who do not ‘speak out’ about various issues have not already addressed them in private. We should usually give our scholars the benefit of the doubt on this matter.
But if a leader is generally doing a good job, then they should definitely not be criticised publicly in a way that belittles or humiliates their status, as Allah will retaliate against such humiliation. Ziyad Ibn Kusaib reported that:
“I was with Abu Bakrah under the pulpit of Abdullah Ibn Amr, may Allah be pleased with him, while he was delivering a sermon wearing a fine garment. Abu Bilal said: Look at our leader wearing the clothes of wickedness! Abu Bakrah said: Be quite! I heard the Prophet (Peace be upon him) say: Whoever belittles the authority of Allah on earth, Allah will belittle him.” [Sunanut-Tirmidhi]
Belittling a leader who is otherwise doing a good job will weaken the confidence of the citizenry under his authority, which may have detrimental effects on society and his ability to enact beneficial policies.
This Hadith has been incorrectly transcribed in the published manuscript of Riyadus-Salihin, missing the important qualification ‘authority of Allah’:
“Whoever belittles the authority, Allah will belittle him.” [Riyasus-Salihin, Dar Ibn Kathir, 2007]
Hence, this unqualified text is an error and it is not proof that just any authority should be immune from any and all criticism, public or not. Rather, it is among the greatest acts of jihad to speak a word of truth and justice in front of a tyrant leader. Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported that:
“The Prophet (Peace be upon him) said: “Verily, among the greatest acts of jihad is a word of justice in front of a tyrannical leader.” [Sunanut-Tirmidhi]
In keeping with Islamic principles, this word of truth should be done in private first, but sometimes a situation can become so grievous that the oppressed must make their case in public. Allah the Almighty said:
“Allah does not like public mention of evil except by one who was wronged.” [Qur’an, 4:148]
Such public rebuking is not to be taken lightly and should come as a last resort, when all other avenues of redressing wrongs have been exhausted.
Respected brothers and sisters, sincerely speaking, obedience to authorities is an obligation upon Muslims as long as we are not ordered to commit sins. If we are compelled to commit sins, we must act with non-violent civil disobedience. Muslims should try to follow the Qur’an and Sunnah as best as possible, without being biased towards the government or populist movements. Public criticism of leaders should be avoided except when absolutely necessary or appropriate.
Violent rebellion is likewise forbidden for common Muslims and it may only be collectively considered as a last resort by scholars and authorities who are entrusted with the constitutional matters of their government (Ahlul-Hal wal-Aqd).
I pray, may Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala in His Infinite Mercy safeguard us all, heal the infected patients of Covid-19 and all sick all over the world, and remove the epidemic of Coronavirus entirely from the surface of the earth. Ameen.
All praise is due to Allah, Lord of the worlds. May the peace, blessings and salutations of Allah be upon our noble Messenger, Muhammad, and upon his family, his Companions and his true followers.
Murtadha Muhammad Gusau is the Chief Imam of Nagazi-Uvete Jumu’ah and the late Alhaji Abdur-Rahman Okene’s Mosques, Okene, Kogi State, Nigeria. He can be reached via: firstname.lastname@example.org or +2348038289761.