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Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(1987)


Commanding the proper and forbidding the improper (amr bi alma 'ruf wa nahi 'an alnunkar) is one of the most important Islamic principles, stressed again and again in the Qur'an and Hadith. Indeed, from one point of view this principle can be seen as the most important Islamic principle; for, if this principle is duly practiced in the Ummah, then, as a result, all other teachings of Islam will also be practiced, while if this one principle is ignored then the rest of Islam will also gradually come to be ignored.

Commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong provides a mechanism whereby the Muslim Ummah can fight off various social, moral and spiritual ills and maintain a healthy and dynamic life. For an individual, too, the practice of this principle provides both a source and an indication of spiritual and moral health. If we ignore this principle and in the face of wrong we do not react in any way, then this means that in a spiritual and moral sense we are dead. `Abd allah ibn Mas'ud was once asked, "Who are the living dead?" and he replied, "Those who never command something good and never forbid something bad". A similar point is made in that well known Hadith in which the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said:

"If one of you sees something wrong, let him change it with his hand; if he cannot, then with his tongue; if he cannot, then with his heart and this is the weakest faith." Some versions add: "there is no part of faith behind that, not even so much as a mustard seed."

 

BEGINS WITH GOD AND HIS MESSENGER

Commanding the proper and forbidding the improper begins with God. The Qur'an says:

"God does command you justness, goodness and liberality to the near ones and He does forbid you shameful deeds, impropriety and rebelliousness." (16:91)

God, of course, carries out the function of commanding the right and forbidding the wrong through His Messenger. So the mission of the Prophet is described in one verse as follows:

"He commands them what is right and forbids them what is wrong, he makes lawful the things that are wholesome and makes unlawful the things that are bad and lifts from them their burdens and the yokes that were upon them." (7:157)

The three functions of the Prophet (pbuh) mentioned in this verse are closely related. "Wholesome things" are a part of "what is right" and making them lawful is a way of commanding the right, it being understood that previously they were unlawful and so legalizing them would bring them into practice. Similarly, "bad things" are a part of "what is wrong" and making them unlawful is a way of forbidding the wrong. But commanding the right and forbidding the wrong is more general than making wholesome things lawful and bad things unlawful, since a great deal of right and wrong is determined by particular situations and cannot be covered by well defined and fixed laws. The Prophet (pbuh) therefore commanded the right and forbade the wrong also by giving general principles and by teaching wisdom (hikmah), in the light of which the believers could themselves begin to distinguish between right and wrong in particular situations.

To understand the third function of the Prophet- "lifting their burdens and the yokes that were upon them" - we need to look at the situation in earlier ummahs. To the Jews, for example, many wholesome things were made unlawful, as is stated in Qur'an 4:160:

"Because of the transgression of the Jews We made unlawful many of the wholesome things that were (previously) permitted to them."

Examples are the many strict legal restrictions in Judaism concerning the Sabbath. In addition to legal restrictions imposed by God as a punishment for transgression, there were some restrictions that earlier people had put upon themselves, e.g. some food restrictions in case of the Jews and ascetic practices in case of the Christians:

"All food was lawful for the children of Israel except that which Israel had made unlawful for itself before the Torah was revealed." (3:93)

"And monasticism which they (i.e. the Christians) invented for themselves was not prescribed by Us." (57:27)

If some wholesome things were prohibited for earlier people, there were also some bad things that were permitted for them. For example, drinking of alcoholic beverages, described in the Qur'an as an action of Satan has been an acceptable practice among Jews and Christians throughout most of their history.

In contrast to this situation in earlier religious communities, in Islam there is nothing wholesome which is unlawful and nothing bad that is lawful; everything wholesome is lawful and everything bad is unlawful.

Since the Prophet makes lawful many of the things that were prohibited for earlier communities, either by God or by the people themselves, he "lifts their burdens and the yokes that were upon them." But he accomplishes this also by making unlawful the bad things that were permitted to them, for a wrong that has become acceptable can be as much of a burden as a right that has become unacceptable.

 

A RESPONSIBILITY OF THE UMMAH

The function of commanding the proper and forbidding the improper is shared with the Prophet by his Ummah and after his departure from this world becomes its responsibility:

"You are the best community ever brought forth for mankind (in that) you command the proper and forbid the improper and believe in God." (3:110)

"Let there among you be a group that summon to all that is beneficial commands what is proper and forbids what is improper; they are the ones who will prosper." (3:104)

"Believing men and believing women are protecting friends of one another; they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong; they perform salat and give zakat..." (9:71)

"(Believers) who repent, serve and glorify God...command the proper and forbid the improper..." (9:112)

"(Luqman said to his son:) O my son: Establish regular prayer, command the proper and forbid the improper and bear with patience and steadfastness whatever difficulties you have to face (as a result)." (31:17)

These verses make it a collective and individual responsibility of all Muslims to command the proper and forbid the improper. It is generally held that commanding of what is right and forbidding of what is wrong is to be done only or primarily by government officials and that the imams in the mosques. Now people in government and the imams of the mosques are indeed supposed to command the right and forbid the wrong. The Holy Qur'an says:

"Those who, if We establish them in the land (with authority), establish regular prayers and practice regular charity and enjoin the right and forbid the wrong..." (22:41)

This includes both political and religious authorities, government officials and imams in the mosques. But the work of commanding the proper and forbidding the improper is not to be thought of as limited only to this group. Every believer is to do his work according to his or her capacity. In one of the verses quoted above (9:71) commanding the proper and forbidding the wrong is mentioned along with performing salat and paying zakat, etc., which means that all believers, men and women, are expected to command the proper and forbid the improper just as they are expected to pray and give zakat. Verses 9:112, 31:17 and the well known Hadith quoted earlier also point in the same direction. This Hadith addresses the entire Ummah and says: "If any of you sees a wrong, let him change it..." The Hadith does not say: "If any government official or any imam of the mosque..." Also, this Hadith and verses 9:71, 9:112, 31:17 link commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong with iman (faith and conviction) in an unconditional way, making it nothing short of a necessary consequence of iman.

Furthermore, suppose that the work of commanding the proper and forbidding the improper is left only to government officials and imams of the mosques. What will happen if in some society most of the officials and imams are corrupt? What happens if the government is headed by people like the ex-shah, Saddam, Asad or Fahd and the mosques are controlled by their paid supporters?

This is a possibility that may not only be raised by those who are called "crazy revolutionaries". It is a matter raised by none other than the Prophet himself (who, incidentally, was a revolutionary; and also was called "crazy" by his enemies). Tradition like the following are found in many books of Hadith; Tirmidhi, Abu Da'ud, Nasai, Ibn Majah, Kanz al-'ummal:

"After me there will come some people as rulers. Whosoever supports their lying and helps their oppression, he is not of me and I am not of him."

"Whoever pleases a ruler by saying what displeases Allah, he gets out of the religion of Allah."

"A time will come when people who will control your livelihood will sit over you as rulers. They will talk and tell lies, they will act and act in an evil way. They will not be happy with you unless you praise their evil ways and support their lies. But you should declare the truth in front of them as long as they can tolerate. If they cross the limits (in their hatred of truth and justice), then anyone killed because of this will be a martyr."

In view of such ahadith it would be difficult to say that we can leave the work of commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong to governments and their salaried imams.

The verse "Let there among you be a group..." (3:104) does suggest that commanding the right and forbidding the wrong is a fard al-kifayah (mandatory to a Muslim community, i.e. there should at least be some people who carry out a task). But the verse contains no suggestion that the group that is to command the proper and forbid the improper is to consist of government officials and imams of the mosques. Rather the implication is that to establish a right and uproot a wrong there should arise out of the Ummah as a whole as many people as are needed to effectively do the job. If to establish a particular right or to uproot a particular wrong satisfactory and effective work is being done by some people then the rest of the Ummah has no longer any obligation in that regard and should divert its efforts in some other direction.

The words "commanding" and "forbidding" which imply authority may also suggest to some that amr bi al-ma'ruf wa nahi 'an al-munkar (commanding the good and forbidding the evil) is to be done by those in some kind of authoritative position, either in a government or a religious establishment. But the authority that is needed for amr bi al-ma'ruf nahi 'an al-munkar is possessed by every believer. It is the moral authority that a believer has as a vicegerent of God, in accordance with the following Qur'anic verses:

"He is the one who has made you (His) vicegerents on earth." (35:39) 

"God has promised to those among you who believe and do good that He will establish them as (His) vicegerents...(24:55)

These verses, and others, show that all men and women are vicegerents of God on earth, especially believing men and women, since they are the ones who are willing to accept the responsibilities of vicegerency. This gives every believer the duty and necessary authority to command good and forbid evil. 

 

PUNISHMENT FOR NOT COMMANDING GOOD AND FORBIDDING EVIL

Failure to perform any religious duty may result in divine punishment in this world or the hereafter or both (or it may be forgiven, for God is most forgiving, most merciful). Failure to command the proper and forbid the improper is no exception. The Holy Qur'an mentions the case of the children of Israel who were cursed and punished for, among other things, not forbidding wrong:

"Those among the children of Israel who rejected truth were cursed by the tongue of David and Jesus son of Mary because they disobeyed and committed excesses, because they did not use to forbid one another the wrongs they committed." (5:82)

"When they ignored the warnings given to them, We rescued those who used to forbid wrong and visited the wrong-doers with a grievous penalty for the sins they used to commit." (7:165)

According to one Hadith:

"When people see a wrong-doer and do nothing to stop him, they may well be visited by God with a punishment."

(the word for "wrong" in this Hadith and some others is zulm which in the Qur'an and Hadith has a more general meaning of "transgression", sin' including such apparently different acts as an act of injustice and shirk than its Urdu meaning of "cruelty".) 

 

METHODS OF COMMANDING THE PROPER AND FORBIDDING THE IMPROPER

There are, broadly speaking, three ways of commanding good and forbidding evil:

1) By hand, i.e. action, which includes military, political or legal action.

2) By words, sometimes soft and sometimes harsh, sometimes private and sometimes open and public, as the Qur'an says quoting the prophet Noah:

"So I have called to them aloud. Further, I have spoken to them openly in public as well as secretly in private." (71:8-9)

Here the following verse is also relevant:

"God does not like that evil be publicized except if one is wronged." (4:148)

This verse primarily applies to private actions of individuals which, if bad, should not be publicized unless one suffers some wrong on account of those actions. But the verse has another application: actions or behavior of public institutions or of individuals in a public capacity as a result of which the society as a whole suffers, may be publicly criticized by anyone, since in such a case every individual in the society is wronged. Of course, if such public criticism is the only peaceful way to correct the harmful action or behavior then it becomes not only permissible but obligatory.

Muslims generally have a negative view of public criticism even in public matters but the question is that if commanding the right and forbidding the wrong can be done by hand, as the Qur'an (49:9) and Hadith make clear, then why can't it be done by public criticism, if private persuasion does not work? Is not the use of hand or physical force more serious than non-violent public criticism?

3) By feelings, which include feelings of approval for what is right and of disapproval for what is wrong. It also includes praying in one's heart for the establishment of what is right and the destruction of what is wrong.

We must obviously adopt softer measures whenever they have a chance to work. To illustrate the point by a somewhat extreme example, suppose a sincere convert to Islam is doing something wrong out of ignorance about Islamic teachings. It would be clearly wrong to try and correct him by beating him up. Gently telling him of what Islam requires of him would be the right approach to follow. Even in case of arrogant oppressors it may be best to begin gently. The Holy Qur'an relates that when God sent Moses and Aaron to Pharoah, He instructed them:

"Speak to him gently, perchance he may heed or fear (God)." (20:44)

Here a question is raised by the Hadith already quoted, which mentions hand, tongue and heart in that order. The first impression conveyed by this Hadith is that one should begin by using hand, but as examples like the ones mentioned above show this would in many cases violate the Islamic standards of peacefulness. Why then does the Hadith mention the hand first? The answer is that this Hadith is talking about a wrong about which it is obvious that it may need harsher measures. In the face of such a wrong a believer should be prepared to use all types of measures. The greatest effort, sacrifice and moral courage is usually needed in the use of hand. The Hadith links it with the strongest level of iman and therefore mentions it first. The purpose of the Hadith really is to tell us that the level of our iman is closely related to the degree to which we are prepared to combat evil. It does not mean to tell us which measure we should adopt first. That will depend on other considerations. 

 

OTHER RULES

It is clear that commanding the proper and forbidding the improper should be done in a proper way. An improper way of commanding the proper and forbidding the improper will in itself become one of those improper things that should be changed by hand, tongue or heart.

In addition to the principle that we should begin with softer measures the following other rules provide the basis for a proper way of commanding right and forbidding wrong:

1) Knowledge. One should have sure knowledge that a certain thing is right or wrong before commanding or forbidding it. This, however, does not mean that one should be a scholar. In many matters every Muslim, indeed every human being, knows right from wrong and in such matters he should command right and forbid wrong. In other matters he can support and cooperate with an Islamic scholar in whom he has trust.

2) Sincerity. Like all religious duties, commanding good and forbidding wrong should also be based on sincere intentions. It should be done for the sake of Allah and not for any worldly motives, like satisfying one's desires, or prejudices, or any material motives

3) Including one's own self. That is, one should practice what one preaches. The Qur'an says:

"Do you command other people righteousness and forget your own selves." (2:44)

 

 

MUSLIM UNITY AND THE DUTY OF COMMANDING GOOD AND FORBIDDING WRONG

There seems to exist an impression that commanding good and forbidding evil is not helpful for Muslim unity. For example, it is said by some that Iran is creating conflict and division in the Ummah by continuing the war against the rulers of Iraq who started the aggression, who are allied with the powers of kufr and who themselves follow the secularist ideology of kufr. it is also said of AL-UMMAH and other publications that their criticisms do not help Muslim unity. But the Qur'an sees no contradiction between unity and commanding good and forbidding wrong. In 9:71 the Qur'an first says:

"Believing men and believing women are friends and protectors of one another."

And then says:

"They command what is right and forbid what is wrong."

The Qur'an contains criticism of almost every segment of the Arabian society in the days of the Prophet and still succeeded in uniting the Arabs as they were never united before or after. The truth is that true unity is prevented by some established wrongs and cannot be achieved unless those wrongs are corrected and to do that we need the principle of commanding good and forbidding evil. Thus this principle not only does not harm true unity but is rather required by it.

Iran-Iraq war would have never taken place had Muslims kept alive the principle of commanding good and forbidding evil. For, then they would have spoken or acted against the secularist and fasiq Iraqi regime and it would not have existed and there would have been no war. Today we are divided not because some Muslims are commanding good and forbidding evil by hand, tongue or pen but rather because not enough of us are carrying out this religious obligation.

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