The duty of amr bil ma‘roof wal nahy ‘anil munkar

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Awwal 24, 1429 2008-04-01


by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 2, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1429)

Commanding the collective good and forbidding evil must rank as the most important obligation of Muslims, the Islamic movement and the Islamic state. The Qur'anic ayah, “amr bilma‘roof wal nahy ‘anil munkar” (3:104 and 110) is often mistranslated as “enjoining good and forbidding evil”, minimising its forcefulness and giving it a pacifist twist. Implicit in the ayah is the aspect of power, because without power, good cannot be commanded nor evil prevented. The Arabic verb amr is an active command. A further signifier of the importance of this duty is that this verse, with slight variations, occurs at least 28 times in the noble Qur'an.

When Allah says: “You must command the [common] good and forbid evil,” it is clear that these two go together; merely to command the good is not enough, one must also banish evil. Without that, the aim of commanding the good cannot be realized. It is like trying to clean a room while others are throwing rubbish into it. A society cannot move towards its sound, wholesome Islamic potential if its people indulge in all kinds of vices without anyone exercising the power to check them. And yet today we have Muslims, especially those who wield power as rulers, actually encouraging the munkar under the guise of liberalism, progress or personal freedom. This is the case in most Muslim countries today. Progress and freedom have come to mean the promotion of vulgarity and lewdness in society.

But we must also be clear about the nature of evil itself. In most Muslim countries, drinking alcohol is rightly considered to be bad. But what about those who drink the blood of people? – not literally, but by causing the deaths of thousands of innocent people, including women and children, as a result of their policies; are such acts any less evil? In Pakistan, Afghanistan,Kashmir, Iraq, Egypt and many other places, Muslims are murdered by the kuffar in connivance with Muslim rulers. Often, Muslim soldiers are deployed to kill other Muslims while the vast majority of Muslims, including many ulama, remain silent. Some even socialize and dine with people whose hands are drenched in the blood of innocent people. Allah’s verdict on this is clear: even if one innocent person is killed, it is like killing the whole of humanity (5:32). How, then, can Muslims justify their behaviour or inaction in light of this divine verdict?

We must consider how Muslims have come to distort the meanings of the Qur’an and its commands, as well as the proper understanding of the Sunnah and Seerah. This has much to do with our history. Soon after the khilafah was subverted into mulukiyyah (kingship), the ulama came under great pressure from rulers to confer legitimacy upon them. The rulers believed, quite rightly, that they needed religious sanction to be accepted by the Muslim masses. Many ulama refused to oblige and suffered grievously for it. The persecution of the leaders and followers of the Ahl al-Bayt, and of Imams Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi’i and Ahmed ibn Hanbal (ra), is well known; but many less known ulama also suffered great hardships at the hands of ruthless rulers. Gradually, scholars emerged who succumbed more easily to official pressure and inducements.

The scholars’ acquiescence took several forms. Unable to change a bad situation, they tried to limit the damage to the Islamic polity by justifying it under the pretext of avoiding fitna(sedition), hoping that the situation would gradually rectify itself. Gradually, a body of “court ulama” emerged who provided religious sanction for the un-Islamic behaviour of rulers. TheQur’anic prohibition on backbiting (49:12) was extended to stifle criticism even of those in power. The court ulama reduced the duty of amr bil ma‘roof and nahy anil munkar to merely giving naseeha (advice), regardless of whether the rulers accepted it or not. Such attitudes are far removed from the Prophetic command of actively and positively preventing or stopping evil; if that is not possible, he said, we must speak out against it. And if that too is impossible, it should be considered evil in your hearts, although that is the lowest form of imaan.

The Qur’an tells us that Allah punished a group of Yahud for violating the Sabbath (7:163-166). In a hadith the Prophet (saws) tells us that the Yahudi deviation began when one person would see another indulging in evil and would tell him to stop it, yet the very next day would dine with the offender. The Prophet then went on: “You must command the good, forbid evil and prevent injustice, otherwise you will incur Allah’s wrath” (Abu Da’ud). In another hadith, Allah’s Messenger (saws) has said: “If you abandon this duty [of commanding the good and forbidding evil], you will earn Allah’s wrath and your prayers will go unanswered” (Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal).

Most Muslims today have clearly abandoned this Qur’anic duty as well as the Prophetic hadith, especially the aspect of forbidding munkar. Seeking refuge in rituals is no substitute for honest responsibility towards Allah’s deen.

Is it any wonder that the Muslims’ prayers go unanswered in the face of horrendous crimes in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and elsewhere?

Muslims in these areas are paying a high price for the historic failures of the Ummah, while most of us remain shamefully passive in the face of appalling atrocities.

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