Obedience to unjust Muslim rulers
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Obedience to Muslim rulers, even if they are sinful, has been an important principle of creed since the time of the righteous predecessors. But it is one that some people do not understand well, either exploiting it for some political agenda or rejecting it altogether.
The Sunnah and the way of 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 Muslim ruler.
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.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ وَأُولِي الْأَمْرِ مِنكُمْ ۖ فَإِن تَنَازَعْتُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ فَرُدُّوهُ إِلَى اللَّهِ وَالرَّسُولِ إِن كُنتُمْ تُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ خَيْرٌ وَأَحْسَنُ تَأْوِيلًا
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.
Surat al-Nisa’ 4:59
Ali reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لَا طَاعَةَ فِي مَعْصِيَةٍ إِنَّمَا الطَّاعَةُ فِي الْمَعْرُوفِ
There is no obedience to anyone if it is disobedience to Allah. Verily, obedience is only in good conduct.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6830, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Authority not only applies to the highest executive in the country, but also to anyone invested with lawful and proper authority: local Imams, teachers, doctors, police officers, 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.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَوْفُوا بِالْعُقُودِ
O you who have faith, fulfill all of your contracts.
Surat al-Ma’idah 5:1
The meaning of ‘obedience to the ruler’ is not related to the individual personality of the ruler, but rather for the civil laws that maintain order in society. In the past, the ruler 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 ruler’ in our context means obeying state law statues against crimes like murder, theft, and assault, state regulations like traffic laws, housing laws, safety standards, and so on. It is not obedience to the personality of the ruler, who may in fact be very sinful in his personal life, but rather it is obedience 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 rulers, 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, or 3) adapting Islamic teachings to fit a populist movement.
Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymin writes:
العلماء ثلاثة أقسام عالم مِلَّةْ وعالم دولة وعالم أمة
أما عالم الملة فهو الذي ينشر دين الإسلام ويفتي بدين الإسلام عن علم ولا يبالي إلا بما دل عليه الشرع أوافق أهواء الناس أم لم يوافق
وأما عالم الدولة فهو الذي ينظر ماذا تريد الدولة فيفتي بما تريد الدولة ولو كان في ذلك تحريف كتاب الله وسنة رسوله صلى الله عليه وسلم
وأما عالم الأمة فهو الذي ينظر ماذا يرضى الناس إذا رأى الناس على شيء أفتي بما يرضيهم ثم يحاول أن يحرف نصوص الكتاب والسنة من أجل موافقة أهواء الناس
نسأل الله أن يجعلنا من علماء الملة العاملين بها
The scholars are divided into three types: religious scholars, government scholars, and 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 (ṣ).
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.
Source: Sharḥ Riyāḍ al-Ṣāliḥīn 4/307-308
As such, the proper Islamic approach in any context is to sincerely follow the Quran 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 (ṣ) warned us not to fall for the siren call of rebellion, as long as we are able to practice Islam safely in our countries.
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 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
The wisdom behind these traditions is that violent rebellion, which is civil war, is almost certainly worse than the oppression of any government ruler. The long track-record of failed rebellions and harmful civil wars has led latter scholars to achieve consensus on the prohibition of insurrection.
Al-Nawawi commented on these traditions, writing:
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 … 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 the traditions that demonstrate this meaning. The people of the Sunnah have agreed that the ruler 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 tribulations, bloodshed, and corruption, for the harm in removing the ruler is greater than letting him remain.
Source: Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1840
This matter is so important that the righteous predecessors included it in their treatises on sound creed and Islamic theology, such as what was written by Imam al-Tahawi:
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 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.
Source: al-ʻAqīdah al-Ṭaḥāwīyah 1/68
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-Hall wal-‘Aqd), as many of them were, can decide if the evil of a rebellion outweighs the evil of a particular ruler; it is not a decision to be made by populist preachers or the common citizenry.
As for the traditions of the Prophet (ṣ) on this matter, they counsel patience in the face of unjust rulers and this is the general rule for common Muslims.
Furthermore, Muslims should provide sincere advice to the rulers and wish for their well-being in this life and in the Hereafter. This is very difficult to do for an oppressive Muslim ruler and many of us may not be prepared to wish them well, perhaps understandably, but this is the standard set by the Prophet (ṣ).
Tamim al-Dari reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ الدِّينَ النَّصِيحَةُ
Verily, the religion is sincerity.
We said, “To whom?” The Prophet said:
لِلَّهِ وَكِتَابِهِ وَرَسُولِهِ وَأَئِمَّةِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَعَامَّتِهِمْ وَأَئِمَّةِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَعَامَّتِهِمْ
To Allah, His Book, His Messenger, the leaders of the Muslims, and their common people.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 55, Grade: Sahih
For this reason, as stated by Imam al-Tahawi, the righteous predecessors generally did not supplicate or pray against the rulers even when they were sinful. In fact, some of them made it a point to supplicate for guidance on their behalf.
Al-Dhahabi reported: Al-Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad, may Allah have mercy on him, 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, it will lead to the righteousness of the country and the people.
Source: Siyar A’lām al-Nubalā 8/434
Indeed, if a ruler is guided to the right decision, or at least away from a bad decision, it will benefit the entire country, and that is why Al-Fudayl would supplicate for the rulers despite their sins.
It should also be appreciated that Muslim rulers are Muslims like everyone else, in the sense that unfairness to them is just as bad as unfairness to any other Muslim. Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, for instance, was a draconian ruler 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 ruler is still sinful.
‘Awf reported: I entered the home of Ibn Sirin, may Allah have mercy on him, and I began discussing the sins of the ruler Al-Hajjaj. Ibn Sirin said:
إِن اللَّه تَعَالَى حكم عدل فكما يأخذ من الْحَجَّاج يأخذ للحجاج وإنك إِذَا لقيت اللَّه عَزَّ وَجَلَّ غدا كَانَ أصغر ذنب أصبته أشد عليك من أَعْظَم ذنب أصابه الْحَجَّاج
Verily, Allah Almighty is a just judge. Just as he passes judgment against Al-Hajjaj, he will pass judgment in favor 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.
Source: al-Risālah al-Qushayrīyah 1/291
Even so, the sins of the ruler 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’qil ibn Yasar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
مَا مِنْ عَبْدٍ اسْتَرْعَاهُ اللَّهُ رَعِيَّةً فَلَمْ يَحُطْهَا بِنَصِيحَةٍ إِلَّا لَمْ يَجِدْ رَائِحَةَ الْجَنَّةِ
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.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6731, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
اللَّهُمَّ مَنْ وَلِيَ مِنْ أَمْرِ أُمَّتِي شَيْئًا فَشَقَّ عَلَيْهِمْ فَاشْقُقْ عَلَيْهِ وَمَنْ وَلِيَ مِنْ أَمْرِ أُمَّتِي شَيْئًا فَرَفَقَ بِهِمْ فَارْفُقْ بِهِ
O Allah, whoever is given charge over my nation 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.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1828, Grade: Sahih
This is why is it disapproved for anyone to seek a position of leadership. Instead, the most qualified person should be called to serve without requesting it for themselves.
Advising the rulers, 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: 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, 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.
Source: Musnad Aḥmad 14909, Grade: Sahih
Al-Muzanni reported: Al-Shafi’i, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
مَنْ وَعَظَ أَخَاهُ سِرًّا فَقَدْ نَصَحَهُ وَزَانَهُ وَمَنْ وَعَظَهُ عَلانِيَةً فَقَدْ فَضَحَهُ وَخَانَهُ
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.
Source: Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’ 13854
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 Muslim ruler is generally doing a good job, then they should definitely not be criticized publicly in a way that belittles or humiliates their status, as Allah will retaliate against such humiliation.
Ziyad ibn Kusayb reported: 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 and blessings be upon him, say:
مَنْ أَهَانَ سُلْطَانَ اللَّهِ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَهَانَهُ اللَّهُ
Whoever belittles the authority of Allah on earth, Allah will belittle him.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2224, Grade: Sahih
Belittling a ruler 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 tradition has been incorrectly transcribed in the published manuscript of Riyad al-Salihin, missing the important qualification “authority of Allah”:
من أهان السلطان أهانه الله
Whoever belittles the authority, Allah will belittle him.
Source: Riyāḍ al-Ṣāliḥīn (Dar Ibn Kathir, 2007) 1/216 #672
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.
Abu Sa’id al-Khudri reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ مِنْ أَعْظَمِ الْجِهَادِ كَلِمَةَ عَدْلٍ عِنْدَ سُلْطَانٍ جَائِرٍ
Verily, among the greatest acts of jihad is a word of justice in front of a tyrannical ruler.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2174, Grade: Sahih
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.
لَّا يُحِبُّ اللَّهُ الْجَهْرَ بِالسُّوءِ مِنَ الْقَوْلِ إِلَّا مَن ظُلِمَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ سَمِيعًا عَلِيمًا
Allah does not like public mention of evil except by one who was wronged.
Surat al-Nisa’ 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.
To sum, 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 Quran and Sunnah as best as possible, without being biased towards the government or populist movements. Public criticism of rulers 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 (Ahl al-Hall wal-‘Aqd).
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.