Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil
Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
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
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
"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."
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
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
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
"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."
"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..."
"(Believers) who repent, serve and
glorify God...command the proper and forbid the improper..."
"(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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
(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
"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.
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:
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.
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
"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.