Do It Yourself interpretation of the Qur’an in order to extract rulings, by those not qualified, can be fraught with danger. We only have to see how some think it is permissible to plant bombs here or there and kill innocent civilians, citing the verses in the Qur’an concerning warfare, to appreciate this. Often, the appeal to the Holy Book is only a justification, as the reason for terrorist acts may well be only an emotional response to injustice.
The Qur’an can also be misquoted to justify the status quo when it comes to, for example, the oppressive regimes in the Middle East. These rulers seem to act with impunity and get away with it, and some are only too happy to sing their praises.
A recent example is the storm created by a prominent Saudi cleric who tweeted that “it is not permissible to protest in Islam”. In reply to some who criticized the cleric’s apparent support for the Saudi ruling family, one twitter user posted the following image:
The words underlined above are from a verse of the Qur’an (4:59), and are translated: “…obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you…”
On face value, those of us with only a cursory knowledge of the Qur’an and classical Arabic may well be convinced by this argument. It would appear that obeying all rulers, including despots, is mandated by these words from the Qur’an and that this is linked to obeying Allah and His Messenger ﷺ.
A more nuanced understanding, however, results from examining how the classical Islamic scholars, especially the mufassireen (commentators), interpreted this verse and from examining the context. Also, words from the Qur’an must never be taken in isolation – the best explanation of the Qur’an is the Qur’an itself. Therefore, what is needed is a holistic approach.
Firstly, who exactly are meant by “those in authority among you”? Would it be right to assume that this refers to ALL those in authority, including, for Muslims in the US, Donald Trump?
The Quranic commentary of al-Baydawi (died 1308/1316 CE) has been “for 700 years the most read, taught, copied and commented-upon of all tafsir in Islam”*. In his commentary of 4:59, he states that “it comprises caliphs, judges and military commanders…as long as they stand for truth” [See Integrated Encyclopedia of the Qur’an (IEQ), vol. 1, p. 278] So this means that the words “those in authority among you” apply to a legitimate, bona fide Caliphate, its ruler and those appointed by him.
Ibn Kathir (d. 1373 CE), another well-known commentator, mentions the following saying (hadith) of the Prophet ﷺ related in Sahih Muslim when explaining the meaning of 4:59:
‘Even if a slave was appointed over you, and he rules you with Allah’s Book, then listen to him and obey him.’ [Ibn Kathir, vol. 2, p. 497]
It would appear that obedience to the ruler is conditional. Al-Baydawi states “as long as they stand for truth” and here this hadith states the condition that the Caliph “rules you with Allah’s Book”.
The founder of one of the major schools of law (madhab), Imam Shafi‘i (), said:
“Some of the learned said that those in authority refers to the commanders of the military detachments of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), and Allah knows best. This is what was narrated to us by a number of exegetes, and it appears that this is what He said, and Allah knows best. For none of the Arabs that were around Makka were familiar with authority and they used to reject with contempt any notion of submitting to each other’s authority. When they professed obedience to the Messenger of Allah, they did not consider such obedience could be to anyone other than him. Therefore, they were ordered to obey those in authority whom the Messenger of Allah had placed in authority, not with unconditional obedience but with conditional obedience respecting their rights and duties.”
[al-Shafi‘i, al-Risala, pp. 79-80]
Also, reading the preceding verse (4:58) also sheds more light on the meaning of these words:
The celebrated scholar from the Salaf (Predecessors), Ibn ‘Uyayna (d. 814 CE) said: “I asked Zayd b. Aslam about it at a time when no one in Madina could explain the Qur’an like him other than Muhammad b. Ka‘b. He said: ‘Read what precedes it and you will know.’ I read Behold, Allah bids you to deliver all that you have been entrusted with unto those who are entitled thereto, and whenever you judge between people, to judge with justice. Verily, most excellent is what Allah exhorts you to do; verily, Allah is all-hearing, all-seeing! Then he said: ‘This verse refers to those who govern (al-wulat).’ ” [IEQ, vol. 1, p. 278]
Commenting on this preceding verse (4:58), Ibn Kathir explains the meaning as follows:
“The Order to Be Just
Allah said, ‘and that when you judge between men, you judge with justice’, commanding justice when judging between people. Muhammad bin Ka‘b, Zayd bin Aslam and Shahr bin Hawshab said, “This Ayah was revealed about those in authority”, meaning those who judge between people. A Hadith states, ‘Allah is with the judge as long as he does not commit injustice, for when he does, Allah will make him reliant on himself’ [Ibn Majah, 2:775].
A statement goes, “One day of justice equals forty years of worship.”
[Kanz al-ummal, 6:12]
Allah said, ‘Verily, how excellent is the teaching which He (Allah) gives you!’ meaning, His commands to return the trusts to their owners, to judge between people with justice, and all of His complete, perfect and great commandments and laws.” [Tafsir Ibn Kathir, 2:494-495]
In addition to the preceding verse, the context of the words in question would shed further light on their meaning:
“O You who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those in authority among you. If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if you believe in Allah and in the Last Day. That is better and more suitable for final determination.” [4:59]
Ibn Kathir comments:
“The Necessity of Referring to the Qur’an and Sunnah for Judgment
Allah said, “(And) if you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger.”
Mujahid and several others among the Salaf said that the Ayah [verse] means ‘(Refer) to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger.’ ”
[Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 2, p. 498]
Thus, according to the preceding verse (4:58) and the context of the verse in question, the ruler who is to be obeyed must rule in accordance with the Shari‘ah.
The command to judge/rule by revelation is mentioned in many hadiths and verses of the Qur’an. For example, verse 5:50 reads:
‘Do they then seek the judgement of (the days of) ignorance? And who is better in judgement than Allah for a people who have firm faith.’
Ibn Kathir comments on this verse;
“Allah criticizes those who ignore His commandments which include every type of righteous good thing and prohibit every type of evil, but they refer instead to opinions, desires and customs that people themselves invented, all of which have no basis in His religion. During the time of Jahiliyyah, the people used to abide by the misguidance and ignorance that they invented by sheer opinion and lusts. The Tatar (Mongols) abided by the law that they inherited from their king Genghis Khan who wrote Al-Yasiq for them. This book contains some rulings that were derived from various religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many of these rulings were derived from his own opinion and desires. Later on, these rulings became the followed law among his children, preferring them to the Law of the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger ﷺ. Therefore, whoever does this, he is a disbeliever who deserves to be fought against, until he reverts to Allah’s and His Messenger’s decisions, so that no law, minor or major, is referred to except by His Law. Allah said:
“Do they then seek the judgement of (the days of) ignorance?”
Meaning, they desire and want this and ignore Allah’s Judgement.
“And who is better in judgement than Allah for a people who have firm faith?”
Who is more just in decision than Allah for those who comprehend Allah’s Law, believe in Him, who are certain that Allah is the best among those who give decisions and that He is more merciful with His creation than the mother with her own child? Allah has perfect knowledge of everything, is able to do all things, and He is just in all matters.”
[Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol. 3, p. 202]
The conditional nature of the command to obey those in authority is also emphasised by Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 1449 CE), a famous commentator of Prophetic hadiths:
‘The subtlety of repeating the verb for the Prophet – upon him blessings and peace – in Obey Allah and obey the Messenger but not for and those in command among you – although the one being obeyed in reality is Allah – is that the sources by which one determines one’s legal responsibility are the Qur’an and the Sunna. It is as if Allah Most High were saying: “Obey Allah in whatever He textually stipulates for you in the Qur’an and obey the Messenger in whatever he elucidates from the Qur’an for you and textually stipulates in the Sunna,” or “Obey Allah in all He commands you in the revelation instituted for worship-through-recitation, and obey the Messenger in all he commands you in the revelation that is other than the Qur’an.” Al-Ṭibi said (d. 743/1342): “He repeated the verb and obey the Messenger as a sign that the Prophet – upon him blessings and peace – is obeyed independently, but he did not repeat it for and those of you who are in authority as a sign that some of them do not have to be obeyed. Then He expounded this by saying and if you have a dispute concerning any matter, as if saying: if they do not act according to right, then do not obey them, and refer to whatever you differed about to the judgment of Allah and His Messenger.” ’
[IEQ, vol. 1, p. 279]
The question may arise as to whether it is permitted to rebel against a tyrant ruler or overthrow him. Again, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani sheds some light on this. In his commentary of Sahih al-Bukhari, he mentions “and Ibn al-Tin relayed from al-Dawudi who said: The scholars view upon despotic rulers is that if it was possible to remove them without fitna (discord) or oppression, then it is obligatory to do so, otherwise patience is mandated. Some of them considered that it was not permitted to pledge allegiance to someone who was sinful (a fasiq) in the first place. If it is the case that they became despotic after being just, there is a difference over whether it was permitted to rebel against them, and the correct opinion is that it wasn’t permitted unless they committed an act of disbelief, in which case it became obligatory to rebel.” [Fath al-Bari, commentary on hadith 7057]
A similar view is expressed by Imam Ghazali in his Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (‘Revival of the Religious Sciences’)
This subject is the matter of number of Prophetic hadiths, among them the following related in Sahih Muslim:
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “‘There will be rulers (amirs), you recognise (something of what they do) and you reject (some). Whosoever recognised, he would be absolved (of sin) and whosoever rejected, he would be safe. But whosoever accepted and followed (what they do, he would not be safe).’ They (the Companions) asked ‘Shouldn’t we fight them?’ He said; ‘No, as long as they pray.’” (Sahih Muslim 1854a)
In the narration that follows it has a slightly different wording:
“Whoever hated he would be absolved (of sin) and whoever disapproved he would be safe, but whoever consented and followed (he would be not).” (Sahih Muslim 1854b)
The well-known Shafi‘i jurist and scholar of hadith, Imam Nawawi (d. 1277 CE), comments on this saying as follows:
“Concerning his ﷺ saying,‘Whosoever recognised, he would be absolved’ and in the narration which follows it ‘Whoever hated he would be absolved’:
As for the narration ‘Whoever hated he would be absolved’ it is clear and its meaning is whoever hates the Munkar (evil) then he is absolved from its sin and its punishment. This is the right of one who is incapable of disavowing with his hand or his tongue, so let him hate it in his heart and be absolved.
As for the narration, ‘Whosoever recognised, he would be absolved’ then its meaning, Allah knows best, is whoever recognises the Munkar and is not doubtful about it then it becomes for him a method of absolution from its sin and its punishment. By that he changes it with his hand or his tongue, and indeed the weakest is for him to hate it in his heart.
His ﷺ saying: ‘But whosoever accepted and followed’ its meaning is that the sin and punishment are on whoever accepted and followed. In this is an evidence that whoever is incapable of removing the Munkar, there is no sin by his silence. Rather he commits a sin by accepting the Munkar or by not hating it with his heart or by following it.
As for his saying: ‘Shouldn’t we fight them?’ He said; ‘No, as long as they pray’. In it is the meaning of what preceded this, that rebellion (khuruj) is not allowed against the Caliphs due to their oppression or transgression as long as they don’t change anything from the principles of Islam.”
[Imam Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim]
A more radical stance was taken by many of the early Muslims, including some of the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ. Ibn Hazm relates in his Al-Muhalla:
“That which proves that bringing down the deviating ruler by force is obligatory if those revolting against him have the capability to do that, is based upon the area of commanding the Ma‘ruf [Good] and forbidding the Munkar [Evil] which is compulsory (fard) and has not been abrogated…” He then mentions that this was the opinion of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra) as well as Mother of the Believers ‘Aisha (r). This was also the view of Talha (r), al-Zubair (r), Husain bin Ali (r), Abdullah bin al-Zubair (r) among several other companions and the subsequent generation.
[Ibn Hazm, Al-Muhalla, 9/362]
The famous commentator of the Qur’an Abu Bakr al-Jassas, in his tafsir, describes the opinion of Abu Hanifah (d. 767 CE), the founder of the most popular school of law (madhab) followed by Sunni Muslims:
“There is no difference according to Abu Hanifah between the judge and the Caliph in that the condition for each one them (i.e. to remain in their seat of authority) is justice, and that the corrupt person can be neither the Caliph, nor ruler. This is just as how we reject his testimony and narrations from the Prophet ﷺ. How could he be a Caliph while his narrations are to be rejected and his rulings are not to be implemented?… His madhab [i.e. Abu Hanifah] was well known regarding fighting oppressors and tyrannical rulers… And he used to say: Enjoining good and forbidding evil is compulsory by speech, and if it doesn’t work, then the sword [i.e. fighting] based on what was narrated from the Prophet. Ibrahim al-Saaigh – who was one of the jurists from Khorasan – asked him [i.e. Abu Hanifah] about enjoining good and forbidding evil, so he replied: It is compulsory. And then he told him about the hadith of Ikrimah on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas, that the Prophet [ﷺ] said “The best of martyrs are Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib and a man who stands up to a tyrant and enjoined him to do good and forbade him from evil, and is then killed as a result.”
[Abu Bakr al-Jassas, Ahkam al-Qur’an, vol. 1, pp. 86-87]
The early scholar and historian, Imam al-Tabari (d. 923 CE)), relates in his voluminous history how another founder of a Sunni madhab, Imam Malik bin Anas (d. 795 CE), stood up to the tyrant Abu Ja‘far al Mansur by supporting the rebellion of Muhammad bin Abdullah bin al-Hasan against the Caliph Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur. Al-Tabari narrates: “Malik bin Anas was asked for a legal opinion about joining Muhammad’s uprising. People said to him, ‘We are obligated by an oath of allegiance to Abu Ja‘far.’ Malik responded, ‘You gave the oath of allegiance only under compulsion. A sworn contract is not incumbent upon anyone who has been coerced.’ At this, the people hurried off to join Muhammad…” [The History of al-Tabari, vol. 28, p. 156]
Al-Tabari also relates another rebellion, this time against the notorious governor of Iraq and the East, Al-Hajjaj, which was supported by many Muslims from among the Successors of the Companions (Tabi‘in). Tabari relates that “when ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad [Ibn al-Ash‘ath] entered Basra, all of its qurra (Qur’an reciters) and middle-aged men rendered the oath of allegiance to him to fight al-Hajjaj…” [The History of Tabari, vol. 23, p. 12]
Al-Nawawi comments on this rebellion, citing the Maliki jurist Qadi ‘Ayyad:
“Al-Qadi stated: Abu Bakr ibn Mujahid claimed consensus in this matter. So some people tried to refute him using [as a proof] the actions of Al-Husayn, Ibn Az-Zubayr (may Allah be pleased with them both), and the people of Madinah who opposed Banu Umayyah, and the large body among the Successors who stood against Al-Hajjaj with Ibn Al-Ash‘ath. Those who use these actions as a proof state that the narration which states: ‘We do not contend with those in authority’ refers to the just rulers [only]. However [we say]: the evidence of the majority of those who rebelled against Al-Hajjāj was not on the basis of his sins but due to him altering the Shar‘a (divine legislation) and making manifest unbelief.”
[Al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, 12/318]
In his book Sharh al-‘Aqa’id al-Nasafiyyah, which is studied throughout the Muslim world in Islamic seminaries, Al-Taftazani (d. 1390 CE) mentions the view of Imam Shafi‘i: “According to al-Shafi‘i the Imam may be removed on the grounds of evil-doing and tyranny, and in like manner any judge or commander [may be removed]. The basis for this view is that the evil-doer according to al-Shafi‘i is not a person of authority (min ahl al-wilaya), for since he does not look after himself, how can he look after others?” [Al-Taftazani, Sharh al-‘Aqa’id al-Nasafiyyah, p. 150]
Finally, the founder of the Hanbali madhab, Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 855 CE), is quoted by Qadi Abu al-Hassan as saying, “Do not answer to or show respect towards those from among them (leaders) who calls to reprehensible innovation (bid‘ah), and you should remove them if you are able to”.
*From the English translation of the first part of al-Baydawi’s commentary by Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad