Recently, in the context of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the killing of Geoge Floyd, a prominent Saudi Cleric was asked about how protests were viewed in Islam. In a tweet (see here) he responded that “it is not permissible to protest in Islam”. His response created an uproar and a discussion of how we should view Muslim scholars, and those who collaborate with oppressive rulers in particular. Many on social media crititized them, but some claimed they were beyond reproach.
The classical jurists, including early Muslims (the Salaf), frowned upon scholars visiting despots or accepting gifts from them. For example, the celebrated early Meccan scholar Sufyan ibn ‘Uyaynah (died 198 AH/ 814 CE) is quoted by Ibn al-Jawzi as saying: “Since I accepted the gift of such and such prince, I was stripped from the understanding of the Qur’an.” [Sayd al-Khatir (‘Captured Thoughts’), p. 632]
Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201) himself, a prominent Hanbali scholar, wrote in perhaps his most famous work, Talbis Iblis:
‘It is from the Devil’s deception of scholars to make them intermingle with rulers and sultans. They look away from their faults and never admonish them in spite of their ability to do so. Some of them might even give fatwas allowing them to do things just for worldly gain. Three aspects of harm are involved with such behaviour:
First: The ruler assumes that had he not been on the right path, then the scholars would have admonished him. And had my wealth been gained through illegitimate ways, scholars would not have eaten from it.
Second: The general public will think that this ruler, his wealth and his actions are fine because the scholar is always visiting him.
Third: The scholar himself ruins his religion. Sometimes the scholars use an excuse just to (be able to) mix with the rulers. They say: “We will only visit the ruler to intercede for so and so.” However, what proves that this is from the devil is that if someone else goes to intercede he would get annoyed, and might even attack that person for visiting the Sultan.
lblis also deceives them to take from the ruler’s wealth…’ [The Devil’s Deceptions, Dar as-Sunnah, p. 213]
Elsewhere, Ibn al-Jawzi says: “We have seen among the Sufis and scholars those who cheat the rulers in order to get what they have. Among them are those who flatter them or try to impress them with their virtue and knowledge, and among them are those who praise them in ways that are forbidden, and among them are those who stay silent regarding evil deeds the rulers do, and beyond these of flattery and servility…” [The Sayings of Ibn al-Jawzi, translated by Ikram Hawramani, Steward Publishing, 2018, pp. 9-10]
The famous scholar Imam Ghazali, devotes a whole chapter on how to deal with despotic rulers in Book XIV of his Ihya’ ‘Ulum al Din (‘Revival of the Religious Sciences’). He states:
“Know that three relationships are possible to you in regard to despotic rulers and officials:
First, and this is the worst of all possible relationships, that you visit them;
Second, and this is not quite so injurious, that they visit you; and Third, and this is the safest, that you avoid them so that you never see them and they never see you.
The First Relationship: Visiting Rulers
This is an extremely blameworthy state from the perspective of Shari‘a. Indeed, there are numerous texts in censure and reproach of such a relationship …”
[Al-Ghazali on the Lawful and the Unlawful, Islamic Texts Sociey, 2014, translated by Shaykh Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo, p. 201]
Imam Ghazali then cites several narrations from the Prophet (ﷺ) and from the early Muslims. Below is a selection (as translated by Shaykh DeLorenzo):
“When the Messenger of God (ﷺ) described tyrannical rulers, he did so in the following terms. ‘Whoever repudiates them will find deliverance, and whoever avoids them will be safe, or almost safe, and whoever falls in with them will be accounted as one of them’ ” [Haythami, Majmu‘ al-Zawa’id, V, 411; Tabarani, Al-Mu‘jam al Kabir, XI, 39]
“[He] (ﷺ) also said, ‘After me there will come rulers who will lie and oppress. So anyone who upholds the untruths that they speak and assists in the wrong that they do will have no relationship with me, and I will have none with him; nor will that person pass by the pool of paradise.’
[Ahmad, Musnad, V, 191; Tirmidhi, Sunan, IV, 525]
(The above hadith is also cited by Imam al-Dhahabi in his Kitab al-Kaba’ir (Book of Major Sins))
Abu Hurayra reported that he (ﷺ) said, ‘The most detested of all those who recite the Qur’an are those who visit rulers.’
[Ibn Majah, Dibaja, I, 154]
“Still another narration states, ‘Scholars are the trustees of God’s Messengers over those who worship Him, as long as they do not mix with rulers. If they do that, they will have betrayed the trust of God’s Messengers. So be on your guard against them, and stay away from them.’ This was related by Anas (May God be pleased with him).”
[Daylami, al-Firdaws bi ma’thur al-khitab, III, 75]
Imam Ghazali also quotes some of the Companions of the Prophet (ﷺ):
“Hudhayfa said, ‘Beware of the places of trial!’ When he was asked what places those were, Hudhayfa replied, ‘The doors of the rulers. You might visit the amir and find yourself verifying his untruths, and saying things about him that are fictitious.’ ”
[Isfahani, Hilyat al-awliya, II, 273; ‘Abd al-Razzaq, al-Kitab al-musannaf, XI, 316]
“Abu Dharr said to Salama, ‘O Salama! Do not enter the doors of rulers! You will never take anything from their world except that they will take something better from your religion [i.e. regardless of the opportunities you may find with them for the acquisition of worldly possessions and influence, the price you will have to pay will come from your religion (translator)]”
[Ibn Abi Shayba, al-Kitab al-musannaf, XIV, 221-222]
“ ‘Ubada b. Al-Samit said, ‘An ascetic scholar’s love for rulers is hypocrisy (nifaq) and his love for the wealthy is dissimulation (riya’).”
“Abu Dharr said, ‘Whoever frequents a people will become one of them; especially if those frequented are tyrants.’ ”
[Daylami, al-Firdaws bi ma’thur al-khitab, III, 519]
“Ibn Mas‘ud (May God be pleased with him) said, ‘A person may enter into the presence of a ruler with his religion intact, and then exit without it.’ When he [Ibn Mas‘ud] was asked why this should be, he replied, ‘Because when he pleases the ruler, he angers God.’ ”
[Bukhari, al-Tarikh al-kabir, I, 443; Ibn Mubarak, al-Zuhd wa’l-raqa’iq, p. 129]
Some noted early Muslims are also quoted in this section:
“Sufyan [al-Thawri] [d. 166/777] said, ‘In the fire of hell (jahannum) there is a valley inhabited only by those scholars who used to visit kings.’ ”
[Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ bayan al-‘ilm wa-fadlih, I, 636]
“Awza‘i [d. 157/774] said, ‘There is nothing more hated by God than a scholar who visits a governor.’ ”
[Ibn ‘Adi, al-Kamil fi du‘afa al-rijal, II, 35]
“Sahnun [d. 240/855] said, ‘What could be less becoming of a scholar than to be sought at his regular place, but not found; and then to have it said to those who seek him, “He is with the amir!” I used to hear it said that if you see a scholar in love with the world, then do not trust him in matters of your religion until you have tested him. I have tested myself and found that whenever I visit a ruler, I incline towards him; regardless of how harshly I speak with him or oppose his desires.’ ”
[Isfahani, Hilyat al-awliya, III, 194; Qadi ‘Ayyad, Tartib al-Madarik, IV, 76-77]
“Al-Fudayl [d. 187/803] once said, ‘No one ever grew closer to a ruler except that they grew more distant from God.’ ”
[Ahmad, Musnad, II, 371; a-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Tarikh Baghdad, II, 446]
“Wuhayb [d. 153/771] once said, ‘Those who are constantly in the presence of rulers are worse for this community than gamblers.’ ”
Imam Ghazali encourages scholars to stand up to rulers, citing the example of Sa‘id ibn al-Musayyib [d. 94/713]:
“When Sa‘id ibn al-Musayyib was invited to pledge his allegiance to to al-Walid and to Sulayman, the two sons of ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan he said, ‘As day follow night, I will not pledge to two [at the same time]! The Prophet (saw) prohibited* two pledges [to more than one caliph at one time]. People said to him, ‘Just go in one door and go out the other.’ He [Sa‘id] responded by saying, ‘By God! [If I do that] no one will ever follow me again.’**
Then Sa‘id was whipped one hundred lashes and forced to wear a rough woollen garment.”
[Isfahani, Hilyat al-awliya, II, 166]
*‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan was concerned about the matter of succession, especially after he had gone to such extremes in order to consolidate power for his branch of the Umayyad family. Therefore, before his death, he sought to have the allegiance of the public for two of his sons, Sulayman and al-Walid. Those concerned for the welfare of Sa‘id ibn al-Musayyib suggested what they supposed to be a solution to the dilemma he faced, and one that perhaps other public figures has used (translator).
**i.e. no one will ever listen to me, or give credence to what I say, or emulate my example, again. Obviously, Sa‘id’s concern was not with how many people followed him, but with his credibility as a religious authority (translator).
Imam Ghazali concludes this section:
“It is therefore prohibited to call on such people, except in two [instances which will be] excused.
The first is that the invitation to visit be a binding invitation rather than a courtesy invitation. If one knows that by refusing to attend one will be punished, or that one’s non-attendance may lead to civil unrest or political instability, then one must [accept the invitation and] attend, not out of obedience but in consideration for the welfare of the populace and so that no disruption occurs in the state.
The second is when the visit is for the purpose of redressing injustice done to a Muslim, or to oneself, either through official channels or by means of an appeal. In such a case an allowance may be made, but only on the condition that one not speak falsely or give praise, or neglect to offer advice that one might expect to be accepted.
This concludes our discussion in regard to one’s visiting rulers.” [p. 211]
Later on in the chapter, Imam Ghazali mentions an objection and replies to it:
“OBJECTION: The scholars among our Predecessors used to visit rulers.
My reply is, ‘Yes, they did. But first learn how they used to visit, before you go [and do the same].’ It is related that Hisham b. ‘Abd al-Malik went to Mecca for the pilgrimage. When he arrived, he said, ‘Bring me someone from the Companions.’ When he was told that they had all passed away, he said, ‘Then, from among the Successors.’ And so Ṭawus al-Yamani (d. 106/725] was brought to him.
When Ṭawus entered, he removed his sandals at the edge of the carpet; and he did not greet him as Commander of the Faithful, saying instead no more than, ‘Peace be upon you.’ Nor did he use the agnomen*. Then he sat by his side and said, ‘How are you, O Hisham?’ At that, Hishām flew into a towering rage, such that he considered killing him [Ṭawus]. But he was reminded, ‘You are within the sacred precincts of God [Mecca] and the sacred precincts of His Messenger [ﷺ], and that [killing] is not possible!’
So instead he replied, ‘O Ṭawus! What made you do what you have done? Ṭawus replied, ‘What did I do?’ Then Hisham grew even more angry and agitated. He said, ‘You took your sandals off at the edge of my carpet, but then you failed to kiss my hand. Nor did you greet me as Commander of the Faithful! Nor did you address me by my agnomen! Then you sat down beside me without first taking permission. Finally, you said, “How are you O Hisham!”’
[Ṭawus] replied, ‘As for my removing my sandals by the edge of your carpet, I take them off five times a day when I go [to pray] before the Lord of All the Worlds. He has never punished me for doing so, or grown angry with me. As for your saying that I failed to kiss your hand, I once heard ‘Ali b. Abi Ṭalib, the Commander of the Faithful, (may God be pleased with him), say that is it is unlawful for anyone to kiss the hand of another unless it is a man kissing the hand of his wife in a surfeit of passion, or kissing the hand of his child in a surfeit of affection. As for your saying that I failed to greet you as Commander of the Faithful, well, not everyone is happy with your rule; so I disliked having to lie. As for your saying that I did not address you by your agnomen, God called His prophets and saints by their first name, saying, ‘O Da’ud!’ or ‘O ‘Isa!’ or ‘O Yaḥya!’ and He addressed His enemies, like Abu Lahab, by means of their agnomen. Now, as for your saying that I sat next to you, I heard ‘Ali, the Commander of the Faithful, (may God be pleased with him) say, ‘If you want to look at a person from among the inhabitants of the Fire, look at someone who is seated while others remain standing around him.’ At that, Hisham said, ‘Please advise me.’ [Ṭawus] said, ‘I heard ‘Ali, the Commander of the Faithful, (may God be pleased with him) say, “Verily in hell there are snakes like the summits of mountains and spiders the size of mules to bite [and sting] any amir who is not just to his subjects.” ’ Then Ṭawus rose and left.
[Ibn Khallikan, Wafayat al-a‘yan, II, 510; Hamawi, Thamarat al-awraq, I, 87]
It is related that Sufyan al-Thawri (may God be pleased with him) said, ‘I was brought into the presence of Abu Ja‘far al-Manṣur at Mina and he said to me, “Tell us what you need.” I replied, “Fear God! For verily the earth is filled with injustice and discrimination!” So he dropped his head [in shame]. But again he raised it and said, “Tell us what you need?” I replied, “You have reached this stage [in the conquest of new territories] by means of the swords of the Emigrants and Helpers, yet their children are dying of starvation! So fear God, and see that they get their due!” So he dropped his head [in shame]. But again he raised it and said, “Tell us what you need?” So I replied, “When ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭab performed the Pilgrimage, he said to his treasurer, ‘How much have I spent?’ The treasurer replied, ‘Ten and something dirhams.’ But here I see more opulence than a camel load of money could pay for!” Thereafter, Sufyan departed.
[Isfahani, Hilyat al-awliya, VII, 43]
* “To do so would have been another way of showing respect, by saying, for example, O Abu Sulayman! To have neglected to address Hisham either by his title or by his agnomen was to have emphasised the fact that his words were chosen carefully, and that Ṭawus had meant to slight the ruler.” [translator]
So that was how they used to visit rulers, even if they did so under duress. Indeed, they risked their own lives in order to avenge for the Almighty those who had been treated unjustly.” [pp. 214-217]