By Raziuddin Aquil
This is with reference to frequent debates in medieval Muslim societies on what actually constituted Islamic norms in the light of the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet (hadis), and how from time to time these norms were sought to be established. In particular, I will focus on the Quranic instruction, ‘amr bil ma‘ruf wa nahi anal munkar’, which advises Muslims to recommend what is considered to be just and right in Islam to others and to forbid what is perceived as false or wrong. This injunction has given a license to many reformist zealots to take upon themselves the responsibility to correct things from their own perspective or understanding of Islam, even though Muslim jurists have proposed a set of conditions and regulations for implementing the guidelines.
The Quran, hadis, anecdotes pertaining to the companions of the Prophet and even longstanding Semitic traditions have called for action in matters related to ‘amr bil ma‘ruf wa nahi anal munkar’, if a person is capable of doing that. Since taking the law into one’s hands might be counterproductive, it is advised that deviation from the way of God should be condemned, which, in turn is tantamount to inviting trouble and harm. Therefore, the best strategy is to identify immorality as such and refrain from practising it. Also, if one capable person takes the initiative in challenging what is identified as an offence in the eyes of Allah, then the obligation for the required intervention is not binding on the rest of the community.
Who are the people who are capable of intervening in matters between Allah and his servants or followers? There are certain conditions for appointing a muhtasib, or the official or person in charge of endorsing the right behaviour and disallowing wrong conduct. To start with, the individual concerned must be known for his fine qualities and uprightness (mukallaf) as an intelligent adult male, that is, he should be aqil and baligh. Thus, people who might lack credibility such as an insane person or a minor boy are not expected to take the initiative for ihtisab, or forbidding disorderly activities in the community. This is because a lunatic lacks rational sense, aptitude and integrity, while a minor lad does not have experience and any credible sense of judgment. In other words, commending right and disapproving wrong is not obligatory (wajib) for a mad person or a young male; ordinary people, slaves and women are also considered unfit as they are assumed to lack the required level of intelligence, strength, and ability.
Nevertheless, it is valid (jaiz) for a teenager to take action if he can, for the law only requires a discerning mind, aql and tamiz. This is applicable especially to someone who is an adolescent, still developing the qualities of a mature mind. Such a person may be able to reject impiety and prevent unlawful activities by, for instance, vandalizing a wine shop, overturning a container of alcohol or by destroying equipment for entertainment such as musical instruments. It must be noted here that indulgence in both wine and music is condemned by most schools of Islamic jurisprudence, though there are certain qualifications regarding the kinds of music which are allowed. Juristically, no one can stop a young man from taking the law into his own hands in such matters, even when he has no political support. The legitimacy for his deeds comes from the fact that they are perceived to be a kind of prayer (ibadat) that leads to rewards or sawab; ihtisab is considered to be a form of worship or service to Allah. For this reason, even a commoner or a slave, even though both of them might be lacking in political power, is permitted to disarm a polytheist, ransack his belongings, and even kill him. In certain conditions, for both an adult and a minor, irrespective of whether they enjoy political power, restraining a sinner is equal to suppressing an infidel.
How does one explain this reversal of order in terms of political authority? Would not individuals taking the law into their hands lead to anarchy? For this reason, Imam Ghazali condemned any situation where an ignorant mob defied political authority. Ghazali also abhorred the idea of a territory without legitimate political authority, no matter how despotic the ruler. The king, after all, represented the sovereignty of God. Possibly, the moral rights of righteous Muslims could be emphasized in times of political upheavals or in contexts where the ruler is incapable of implementing the laws of Islam. So, whether a Muslim, young or old, can legitimately take action, violent or peaceful, in matters relating to the shariat or Muslim law hinges on the given political situation. A belligerent assault might be permitted in certain political contexts, especially in situations where established rules for governance have collapsed or have been suspended and there is no justice in society (adl-wa-insaf).
Returning to the discussion on the ideal conditions for ihtisab, apart from being aqil and baligh, the muhtasib should also be a believer, for ihtisab is a contribution to the cause of Allah and a non-believer is not expected to have any interest in the matter. Thus, a kafir or an idolater cannot be a muhtasib. Further, though the stipulation prescribes a good and believing Muslim for the position or role of a muhtasib, even a Muslim sinner, whose integrity is otherwise questionable on account of his neglect of decorum, behavior, and appearance, can preach righteousness to others. This is because, irrespective of the fact that a person does not practise what he preaches, his utterances in support of the Truth are a form of prayer and, therefore, acceptable to Allah. Ghazali insisted that though God does not like people who do not practise what they preach, it is lawful for a great sinner to enjoin good and forbid evil. The discourse of the sinner would then be qualified with the caveat that his audience should listen to what he says in the light of the shariat, even if he himself is incapable of adhering to the law in his own practice.
In this context, it is important to refer to a Tradition, where the Prophet advises his companions to command people to do only what is lawful, even though they themselves may not be strictly following all the laws. Similarly, the companions are asked to prohibit what is unlawful in the eyes of Allah, even if they themselves may not be refraining from all such activities themselves. Since there are a number of ways in which ihtisab can be conducted, it is permitted for a sinner to use his strength or power to set things right using a heavy hand (this refers to the first option, the others being through speech and by appealing to one’s conscience), instead of sermonizing or counselling. Further, it is clarified, even if a sinner is capable of giving a scholarly oration and, therefore, does not need to resort to violent means of ihtisab, he should do it at a place where he is not known. It is reasoned that if he goes around preaching in an area where he is already known as an impudent and worthless fellow, there will be little credibility attached to his words. However, as a matter of strategy, in known contexts, a reprobate is advised to use his image of a tyrant to subdue people into submission to God’s will. In the opinion of some Muslim political theorists, such people are, indeed, required for areas where only severe violence will eventually yield fruitful results, though this position deviates from certain verses of the Quran which question the integrity of people who go around preaching religion to others.
This explains why political theorists such as Ghazali, who worked within the framework of adab or theologically informed political theory, supported the powers of Muslim Sultans and recommended the inclusion of their names in khutbas (sermons preached during the Friday congregational prayers), even though some of the Sultans were completely irreligious in their demeanour. The Sultans, in turn, invoked the rhetoric of Islamic laws both for appeasing orthodox Muslim groups such as the ulama, as well as for providing legitimacy to their claims as ‘shadows of God’ (zillullah). Many of them even appointed a muhtasib (in this case, a censor official) to ensure that the stipulations of the shariat were strictly followed in their kingdoms. In general, however, little was done to actually implement the regulations. Active interest in enforcing the shariat was, in reality, the exception rather than the rule. Though such enforcement could make life difficult for the infidels and other sets of ‘sinners’, the invocation of shariat often had some nuisance value for the population during political regimes that identified themselves as Islamic. Also, the preachers often lacked the requisite moral integrity and this weakened their case. It was for this reason that the Quran and some prophetic reports advised believers to search their own souls before criticizing or counselling others.
Further, medieval Indian Muslim monarchs had realized early in their experience of rule in the Subcontinent that a vast majority of the non-Muslim population could not be governed using a narrow interpretation of the shariat, even if Islamic institutes or law were not be abandoned altogether. The regulations were modified to suit the circumstances. The muhtasibs, then, served as the superintendents of police, examined weights, measures and provisions, and also worked towards preventing gambling, drinking, etc. The duties of the muhtasibs resemble those of the modern police and were aimed at suppressing crime and ensuring law and order. They were not in reality expected to serve as the soldiers of Allah who prevented evil in society. Therefore, what we are discussing here is the recommended ideal and not actually what happened during the medieval Muslim regimes of the Subcontinent. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that there was enough pressure on Muslim rulers to enforce Islamic guidelines and the tension between the ideal and actual practice has always been a major concern in Muslim societies.
Continuing the discussion on the requirements for ihtisab, Abdul Haqq has drawn attention to the fact that apart from being an intelligent adult and believer (aqil, baligh and Muslim), the preacher is also expected to be a practising Muslim. Any lack of integrity on the part of the muhtasib would mean that he will not be taken seriously, as the required moral weight for his promulgation of the laws of Allah would be missing. Therefore, a qualified, but non-practising Muslim alim is condemned as a potential inhabitant of hell because the dubious nature of such a person makes a mockery of the whole project of Islam. His case would provide legitimacy to the counter-argument that if such and such activities were unlawful, the alim himself should not be indulging in them. A Muslim sinner’s preaching is considered as absurd as a kafir showing the way to a Muslim in matters of law. Even as a kafir could not be allowed to judge a case involving a believer, the situation worsens if the alim, whose words should otherwise carry some authority, happens to be a sinner.
Now, assuming that all the required conditions for being a muhtasib are met, that is, a person is aqil, baligh, and a pious Muslim, then the question of the circumstances under which action may be considered obligatory arises. The measures taken can be in the form of (i) direct intervention to set things right; (ii) verbal protest; or (iii) recognition of the evil in one’s own personal opinion. If the first two options are not feasible, then tolerance or patience (sabr) is the most recommended strategy, as ihtisab should not lead to fitna (disorder) in society. In case the muhtasib is capable of repressing wrongdoing, it is valid for him to take the necessary action; if not, his inquisitions might be unprofitable or useless, and, therefore, in certain cases, even unlawful (haram).
Thus, even though it is recommended that a glass of wine or a musical instrument can be destroyed, if possible, such a step is to be avoided if there is a danger of an equally strong reaction. This means that though facing hardships for the sake of Allah is considered to be a virtuous act and a drastic action is permitted despite the risk involved, generally, discretion is perceived to be a better option. For instance, in a case where a tyrant ruler is sitting with a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in another, the advice is to avoid proclaiming the truth at that moment, for if the monarch is accosted, he would retaliate by killing the muhtasib. Since the latter would have been aware of the possible repercussion when he took action, there is no or little ground for ihtisab here. Any overzealous enthusiasm on the part of an advocate of Allah in a situation like the one mentioned above will essentially be a haram or forbidden act.
Contrary to the narrow framework and fanaticism of theologians, philosophers of the first few centuries of Islam came up with their own readings of the shariat. Their version of Islam, particularly of the political ideals sanctioned in it, was much more inclusive and derived from diverse ancient sources. Ideas borrowed from a variety of traditions were blended together and presented in Islamic idioms in such a way that they could not be easily identified as something outside the pale of Islam. The ulama sodality, however, ensured that such borrowing or appropriation was allowed only up to an extent. In general, a strict vigil was maintained to ensure that deviations from the standard early interpretations were within limits, even as concessions were sometimes made for extraordinary situations in certain contexts. In the struggle to use political power to ensure that particular interpretations of Islam dominated Muslim polities and societies, the conformist ulama succeeded over rationalist philosophers. The success of theologians, however, did not mean that the everyday life of common Muslims in medieval India was all about virtue and piety. Sinners always did transgress the limits imposed by the shariat.
Yet, the theologically inspired political interventions put serious limitations on norms of governance and on the power and authority of medieval Muslim rulers. The Quran and hadis defined the terms of reference not only for the private lives of the people, but also gave direction to medieval politics, which remained hostage to men of religion with all their pretensions to piety and righteousness. I conclude with Ghazali’s suggestion that knowledge, patience, and kindness are necessary in the matter of recommending right and forbidding wrong. For this, he quoted the Prophet of Islam, who said: ‘He who is not patient in enjoining good and forbidding evil and has got no understanding of what is wrong and what is right should not take upon himself the task of amr bil ma‘ruf wa nahi anal munkar’.
(Based on the author’s book, The Muslim Question: Understanding Islam and Indian History, Penguin, 2017).
Raziuddin Aquil is Associate Professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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