Islam advocates non-violent reform of unjust rulers
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
It is not lawful for us to violently rebel against an unjust Muslim ruler, or any ruler, as long as we can practice the basics of Islam in safety. Rather, Muslims should be patient and encourage reform through non-violent action.
Obedience to civil laws, whether in a Muslim or non-Muslim state, is obligatory as long as we are not commanded to commit sins. If the rulers command us to commit sins or they stubbornly persist in oppression, then we must strive to reform them without resorting to violence or destabilizing civil order.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ وَأُولِي الْأَمْرِ مِنكُمْ
O you who believe, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.
Surat al-Nisa 4:59
Ibn Umar reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
السَّمْعُ وَالطَّاعَةُ عَلَى الْمَرْءِ الْمُسْلِمِ فِيمَا أَحَبَّ وَكَرِهَ مَا لَمْ يُؤْمَرْ بِمَعْصِيَةٍ فَإِذَا أُمِرَ بِمَعْصِيَةٍ فَلَا سَمْعَ وَلَا طَاعَةَ
Listening to and obeying the leader is an obligation upon a Muslim, whether he likes it or dislikes it, as long as he is not commanded to disobey Allah. If he is commanded to disobey, then there is no listening or obedience.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 2796, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
In many narrations, the Prophet has forbidden us from rebelling against the rulers as long as they pray and allow Islam to be practiced in their lands. Violence that leads to civil war almost always results in a much worse situation than the unjust ruler himself. While an unjust ruler is an evil in itself, the violence required to overthrow him is even worse.
Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
يَكُونُ بَعْدِي أَئِمَّةٌ لَا يَهْتَدُونَ بِهُدَايَ وَلَا يَسْتَنُّونَ بِسُنَّتِي وَسَيَقُومُ فِيهِمْ رِجَالٌ قُلُوبُهُمْ قُلُوبُ الشَّيَاطِينِ فِي جُثْمَانِ إِنْسٍ
Rulers after me will come who do not follow my guidance and my tradition (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 said:
تَسْمَعُ وَتُطِيعُ لِلْأَمِيرِ وَإِنْ ضُرِبَ ظَهْرُكَ وَأُخِذَ مَالُكَ فَاسْمَعْ وَأَطِعْ
You should listen and obey them even if the ruler strikes your back and takes your wealth, even still listen and obey.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1847, Grade: Sahih
Awf ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
خِيَارُ أَئِمَّتِكُمْ الَّذِينَ تُحِبُّونَهُمْ وَيُحِبُّونَكُمْ وَيُصَلُّونَ عَلَيْكُمْ وَتُصَلُّونَ عَلَيْهِمْ وَشِرَارُ أَئِمَّتِكُمْ الَّذِينَ تُبْغِضُونَهُمْ وَيُبْغِضُونَكُمْ وَتَلْعَنُونَهُمْ وَيَلْعَنُونَكُمْ
The best of your rulers are those whom you love and they love you, who pray for you and you pray for them. The worst of your rulers 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:
لَا مَا أَقَامُوا فِيكُمْ الصَّلَاةَ وَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمْ مِنْ وُلَاتِكُمْ شَيْئًا تَكْرَهُونَهُ فَاكْرَهُوا عَمَلَهُ وَلَا تَنْزِعُوا يَدًا مِنْ طَاعَةٍ
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.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1855, Grade: Sahih
Umm Salamah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
سَتَكُونُ أُمَرَاءُ فَتَعْرِفُونَ وَتُنْكِرُونَ فَمَنْ عَرَفَ بَرِئَ وَمَنْ أَنْكَرَ سَلِمَ وَلَكِنْ مَنْ رَضِيَ وَتَابَعَ
There will be rulers from whom you will see both goodness and corruption. One who recognizes 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:
لَا مَا صَلَّوْا
No, as long as they pray.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1854, Grade: Sahih
Many of those who call for violent rebellion have resorted to the use of terrorism against innocent civilians to destabilize the government. Such acts are completely forbidden in Islam. The Prophet severely warned those who engage in unlawful civil disobedience and acts of reckless and indiscriminate violence, saying that they have nothing to do with Islam and will have died a death of ignorance.
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَنْ خَرَجَ مِنَ الطَّاعَةِ وَفَارَقَ الْجَمَاعَةَ فَمَاتَ مَاتَ مِيتَةً جَاهِلِيَّةً وَمَنْ قَاتَلَ تَحْتَ رَايَةٍ عُمِّيَّةٍ يَغْضَبُ لِعَصَبَةٍ أَوْ يَدْعُو إِلَى عَصَبَةٍ أَوْ يَنْصُرُ عَصَبَةً فَقُتِلَ فَقِتْلَةٌ جَاهِلِيَّةٌ وَمَنْ خَرَجَ عَلَى أُمَّتِي يَضْرِبُ بَرَّهَا وَفَاجِرَهَا وَلاَ يَتَحَاشَ مِنْ مُؤْمِنِهَا وَلاَ يَفِي لِذِي عَهْدٍ عَهْدَهُ فَلَيْسَ مِنِّي وَلَسْتُ مِنْهُ
Whoever rejects obedience to the ruler and divides the community and dies will have died upon ignorance. Whoever fights under the banner of one who is blind, raging for the sake of tribalism, or calling to tribalism, or supporting tribalism, and is killed will have died upon ignorance.
Whoever rebels against my nation, striking the righteous and wicked alike and sparing not even the believers and does not fulfill the pledge of security, then he has nothing to do with me and I have nothing to do with him.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1848, Grade: Sahih
The righteous predecessors (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ) recognized that the evil of violent rebellion is far worse than the evil of an unjust ruler himself. For this reason, they counseled patience and wisdom in the face of injustice. In fact, they would pray for the ruler to be guided to righteousness, as the reform of the ruler would benefit the entire society.
Hasan Al-Basri said:
لَوْ أَنَّ النَّاسَ إِذَا ابْتُلُوا مِنْ قِبَلِ سُلْطَانِهِمْ صَبَرُوا مَا لَبِثُوا أَنْ يُفْرَجَ عَنْهُمْ وَلَكِنَّهُمْ يَجْزَعُونَ إِلَى السَّيْفِ فَيُوَكَّلُونَ إِلَيْهِ فَوَاللَّهِ مَا جَاءُوا بِيَوْمِ خَيْرٍ قَطُّ
If the people had patience when they are being tested by their unjust ruler, it will not be long before Allah will give them a way out. However, they always rush to their swords, so they are left with their swords. By Allah, not even for a single day did they bring about any good.
Source: al-Ṭabaqāt al-Kubrá 8789
Fudayl ibn Iyad said:
لَوْ أَنَّ لِي دَعْوَةً مُسْتَجَابَةً مَا جَعَلْتُهَا إِلَّا فِي إِمَامٍ فَصَلَاحُ الْإِمَامِ صَلَاحُ الْبِلَادِ وَالْعِبَادِ
If I had one supplication to be answered, I would make it for no one but the ruler. If the ruler is righteous then it will lead to the righteousness of the country and the people.
Source: Siyar A’lam An-Nubula 8/434
وَلَا نَرَى الْخُرُوجَ عَلَى أَئِمَّتِنَا وَوُلَاةِ أُمُورِنَا وَإِنْ جَارُوا وَلَا نَدْعُو عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا نَنْزِعُ يَدًا مِنْ طَاعَتِهِمْ وَنَرَى طَاعَتَهُمْ مِنْ طَاعَةِ اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ فَرِيضَةً مَا لَمْ يَأْمُرُوا بِمَعْصِيَةٍ وَنَدْعُو لَهُمْ بِالصَّلَاحِ وَالْمُعَافَاةِ
We do not recognize the rebellion against our leader or those in charge of our affairs even if they are unjust, nor do we wish evil for them, nor do we refuse to follow them. We hold that obedience to them is part of obedience to Allah the Exalted and therefore obligatory as long as they do not command us to commit sins. We pray for their right guidance and pardon.
Source: al-Aqīdah al-Ṭaḥāwiyyah
Ahmad ibn Hanbal said:
لَا يُتَعَرَّضُ بِالسُّلْطَانِ فَإِنَّ سَيْفَهُ مَسْلُولٌ
Do not confront the ruler, for his sword is unsheathed.
Source: Jāmi’ al-‘Ulūm wal-Ḥikam34
An-Nawawi summarizes the views of the righteous predecessors, saying:
وَأَمَّا الْخُرُوجُ عَلَيْهِمْ وَقِتَالُهُمْ فَحَرَامٌ بِإِجْمَاعِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَإِنْ كَانُوا فَسَقَةً ظَالِمِينَ وَقَدْ تَظَاهَرَتِ الْأَحَادِيثُ بِمَعْنَى مَا ذَكَرْتُهُ وَأَجْمَعَ أَهْلُ السُّنَّةِ أَنَّهُ لَا يَنْعَزِلُ السُّلْطَانُ بِالْفِسْقِ وَأَمَّا الْوَجْهُ الْمَذْكُورُ فِي كُتُبِ الْفِقْهِ لِبَعْضِ أَصْحَابِنَا أَنَّهُ يَنْعَزِلُ وَحُكِيَ عَنِ الْمُعْتَزِلَةِ أَيْضًا فَغَلَطٌ مِنْ قَائِلِهِ مُخَالِفٌ لِلْإِجْمَاعِ قَالَ الْعُلَمَاءُ وَسَبَبُ عَدَمِ انْعِزَالِهِ وَتَحْرِيمِ الْخُرُوجِ عَلَيْهِ مَا يَتَرَتَّبُ عَلَى ذَلِكَ مِنَ الْفِتَنِ وَإِرَاقَةِ الدِّمَاءِ وَفَسَادِ ذَاتِ الْبَيْنِ فَتَكُونُ الْمَفْسَدَةُ فِي عَزْلِهِ أَكْثَرَ مِنْهَا فِي بَقَائِهِ
As for rebelling against the ruler and fighting him, it is forbidden by consensus of the Muslims even if he is sinful and oppressive. I have mentioned many narrations with this meaning. The people of the Sunnah have agreed that the ruler should not be removed due to his sinfulness.
As for the view mentioned in the books of jurisprudence from some of our companions that he should be removed, which is also the opinion of the Mu’tazilites, then it is a serious mistake from them and is in opposition to the consensus.
The scholars have said the reason his removal and rebellion against him is forbidden is because of what that entails of tribulations, bloodshed, and corruption, for the harm in removing the ruler is greater than letting him remain.
Source: Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1840
Some Muslims claim that the narrations mentioned earlier forbidding rebellion against a Muslim ruler only apply to a ruler who “implements the Sharia” as they understand it. This is an unjustified restriction of the prophetic command that they have invented.
Rather, the Prophet has forbidden violence even if “they strike your back and take your wealth” and “they do not follow my guidance or tradition” and they have “hearts of devils.” The only criterion the Prophet mentioned is that they allow the prayer.
For this reason, Imam Muslim collected all of these narrations under the following chapter heading:
وُجُوبِ الإِنْكَارِ عَلَى الأُمَرَاءِ فِيمَا يُخَالِفُ الشَّرْعَ وَتَرْكِ قِتَالِهِمْ مَا صَلَّوْا وَنَحْوِ ذَلِكَ
The obligation to denounce the rulers when they contradict the Sharia and to avoid fighting them as long as they pray and so on.
To claim that the Sharia is a political system, the absence of which necessitates violence, is a modern innovation in the religion.
Instead, the proper way to enjoin good and forbid evil regarding the rulers is through non-violent preaching, advising, and if necessary, acts of civil disobedience.
Ahmad ibn Hanbal said:
التَّغْيِيرُ بِالْيَدِ لَيْسَ بِالسَّيْفِ وَالسِّلَاحِ
Changing evil with one’s hand is not done with swords or weapons.
Source: Jāmi’ al-‘Ulūm wal-Ḥikam34
Muslims should sincerely advise the ruler using calm and measured speech. Allah sent Moses and Aaron, upon them be peace, to speak to Pharaoh gently, even though he was a great tyrant who claimed to be God and enslaved and massacred thousands.
فَقُولَا لَهُ قَوْلًا لَّيِّنًا لَّعَلَّهُ يَتَذَكَّرُ أَوْ يَخْشَىٰ
Speak to him with mildly that perhaps he may be reminded or fear Allah.
Surat TaHa 20:44
Moses and Aaron spoke to Pharaoh with the intention to guide him to the truth, not to condemn him to Hell. If this is how Allah asked his prophets to speak to one of the worst tyrants the world has seen, then we should act the same in our situation.
We must also have a good intention to benefit the ruler on a personal level, as part of the good will (naṣīḥa) they should receive from us. We should advise them of their misdeeds in private and only condemn their unjust deeds in public when it is necessary.
Iyad ibn Ghanam reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَنْ أَرَادَ أَنْ يَنْصَحَ لِسُلْطَانٍ بِأَمْرٍ فَلَا يُبْدِ لَهُ عَلَانِيَةً وَلَكِنْ لِيَأْخُذْ بِيَدِهِ فَيَخْلُوَ بِهِ فَإِنْ قَبِلَ مِنْهُ فَذَاكَ وَإِلَّا كَانَ قَدْ أَدَّى الَّذِي عَلَيْهِ لَهُ
Whoever intends to advise one with authority, then he should not do so publicly. Rather, he should take him by the hand and advise him in seclusion. If he accepts the advice, then all is well. If he does not accept it, then he has fulfilled his duty.
Source: Musnad Aḥmad 14909, Grade: Sahih
Even so, it may be necessary to become more vocal and assertive if the ruler is a stubborn oppressor. Speaking the truth to him in this case is a form of non-violent jihād without weapons.
Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ مِنْ أَعْظَمِ الْجِهَادِ كَلِمَةَ عَدْلٍ عِنْدَ سُلْطَانٍ جَائِرٍ
Verily, among the greatest jihād is a word of justice in front of a tyrannical ruler.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2174, Grade: Sahih
In sum, Muslims should reform an unjust ruler and enjoin good without resorting to violence or destabilizing society. Violence and terrorism leads to the fracturing of Muslim society, which is even worse than the oppression of the rulers. Rather, Muslims must be patient and wise in the face of injustice, and we should pray for Allah to guide the rulers to right conduct.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.