05 Jan The Necessity of ‘amr bil ma’roof wa nahy anil munkar (Enjoining Good & Forbidding Evil)
Why should I read this?
This article tackles an unfortunate new mindset that has managed to infect all us Muslims today, namely, abandoning the duty of
advising others to do good as defined by Allah (swt) and letting others know when they are doing something wrong as defined by Allah (swt). Instead of this duty, our minds have been infected by the “don’t judge others, or don’t judge me” mentality. This article tries to correct this mindset.
The Necessity of ‘amr bil ma’roof wa nahy anil munkar (Enjoining Good & Forbidding Evil) among contemporary Muslims
The Qur’an is the eternal source of guidance for Muslims, indeed for all mankind. According to a Prophetic hadith, the Qur’an yields ever greater insights as human knowledge expands, yet contemporary Muslims have a frightening tendency to indulge in trivia concerning the Divine Book. Far from gaining deeper insights into the meanings of the Qur’an, many Muslims channel their energies into “proving” that modern scientific discoveries confirm Qur’anic revelations, as if the Qur’an needs such validation. There are others who have busied themselves with finding errors in the Bible. How many errors in the Bible does it take to make one a better Muslim? Yet other groups insist on watering down commandments in the Quran to mere rituals i.e. “tabligh” or “tasawwuf” to fellow Muslims, leaving out all other relevant precepts of the deen aside. These may still be considered less serious in light of the frightful arguments Muslims get into over where they should place their hands in salah or whether they should celebrate the prophet’s birthday.
It is at a more fundamental level that Muslims are guilty of willful distortion of the meanings of the Qur’an, and of the Sunnah and Seerah of the noble Messenger of Allah (saw). Nothing illustrates this better than the manner in which Muslims have distorted the meaning of the ayah “amr bil ma’roof wa nahy anil munkar“. All English translations give: “To enjoin good and forbid evil”, or minor variations to that effect. Let us first remind ourselves that this phrase occurs at least 28 times in the Qur’an, in various forms, which indicates its importance. (Even though once is more than enough).
The key point to note is that the Arabic word ‘amr is an active command, not a passive verb. Thus, Allah says: “You Muslims must command the common good and forbid evil.” This is in stark contrast to the normal Muslim understanding of the phrase as being passive. Moreover, it is not enough merely to only command the common good; one must also forbid evil. Without forbidding evil and wrong-doing, the duty of commanding the common good cannot be fulfilled. It is like trying to clean a room while permitting others to continue throwing garbage into it.
How did Muslims come to distort the meanings of the noble Qur’an and move away from its true commands, as well as proper understanding of the Sunnah and Seerah?
Most Muslims today are guilty of abandoning the duty of amr bil ma’roof wa nahy anil munkar. Let us consider the divine punishment for such dereliction. In Surah al-A’araf, Allah (swt) narrates the story of Bani Israel who lived on the banks of a river (al-Qur’an 7:163-166). They were prohibited from fishing on the day of the Sabbath. A group among them started to subvert this prohibition by digging a channel from the river, into which the fish swam. The channel was then blocked to prevent the fishes’ returning to the river; the next day, they would be ‘caught’. When another group of God-fearing Jews castigated them for this, a third group reprimanded them for interfering unnecessarily. If God willed to punish the first group, they argued, He would do so Himself. When God’s punishment came, only the group that had spoken out was spared; the rest were all punished.
We need to bear in mind that these ayaat come after a long series of ayaats in this Surah in which the story of the Pharaoh’s rebelliousness is narrated in great detail. He and his people were repeatedly punished, and after each reprieve they returned to their evil ways. Finally, when Pharaoh chased Moses (as) and his followers across the Red Sea, Allah saved Bani Israel and the pursuing Pharaoh and his army perished. The group of Jews who were punished for violating the Sabbath knew the consequences of Pharaoh’s rebelliousness, yet they still thought that they could cheat Allah. Equally revealing is the punishment meted out to the third group which, although not involved directly, failed to prohibit the munkar (evil).
In yet another Surah, Allah tells us that the transgressors of Jews were condemned by both the Prophets Da’ud and Isa (peace be upon them). Further, that those who do not prohibit evil deeds when they see them, they also stand condemned and will be punished (see below). The duty of prohibiting munkar cannot be abandoned without opening oneself to Allah’s wrath. In a hadith the Prophet, upon whom be peace, has said that the Yahudi deviation began when one person would see another indulging in evil and would tell him to stop it; but 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 Daud, 4336).
In another hadith, he says:
“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 Ahmed ibn Hanbal, vol. 5, p.388).
Don’t Judge Me Mentality
“Those among the Children of Israel who disbelieved were cursed by the tongue of Dâwud (David) and ‘Isa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary). That was because they disobeyed (Allah and the Messengers) and transgressed beyond all bounds. They habitually refused to forbid one another from the “munkar” (wrong, evildoing, sins, disbelief, etc.), that they committed.
How vile were the things they used to do!”
[Surat ul-Ma’idah, v. 78-79]
The ayahs translated above are a lesson about the past for the present day. In it, Allah (swt) informs us that two of our most important prophets cursed a large group among our predecessors, Bani Isrâ’îl (“The Children of Israel”).
For what reason, we might ask? It’s simple: those people avoided forbidding each other’s munkar (evil). They would watch each other doing clearly haram acts, and allow it to happen by remaining silent both outwardly—and even in their hearts.
These verses continue to be a warning against following such ways. Muslims are supposed to be superior to all other nations because we help each other back to the Path should some of us fall astray. Allah (subhanahu wa ta‘ala) has an ayah in the Qur’an that mentions:
“You are the best nation amongst mankind because you command the good (Islam), you forbid evil (sins), and you believe in Allah…[Surat Āl ‘Imran, v. 110]
A climate of remaining silent in the face of haram acts is foreign to the Ummah of Muhammad (SAW). However, due to secularist domination in thought and practice, this phenomenon is now prevalent within our Ummah. Just try to enjoin the good or forbid the evil; and almost instantly, you’ll get the knee-jerk response,
“Who are you to judge?”
“Are you better than me?” “Only God can judge me!”
“Look at X or Y, what I’m doing is not as bad as them”
Those who snarl such words want to take the shame off their shoulders and set it on those of the messenger, stigmatizing him or her for “playing judge.” Such a mentality is a byproduct of the extreme secular individualism bred in the West, not anything found in the texts or beliefs of Islam.
The secularism of the dark “Age of Enlightenment” has reduced religion to something of a private affair (“keep it in the closet!”). From this came the notion, “If I commit a sin, it is between me and my God; so stay out of my business!” The non-Muslims around us adopt this concept without hesitation; and, unfortunately, it has emerged among Muslims around the world too.
The notion that our sins are a personal issue, as opposed to a public one, has no place in Islam. Accepting someone’s alcohol/drug use, open fornication, or political collusion against other Muslims is one step closer to making the habit commonplace—if we remain silent about it.
All of this goes against what our beloved Prophet (SAAW) expected from us. In one of the most oft-narrated ahadith the Prophet (SAAW) says:
So in this hadith, we are commanded to forbid any munkar, either physically (when we have the legitimate legal authority to do so), orally, by speaking up, or at least by detesting it from within (if you are unable to do the first two).
It is important to understand these components. Islam does NOT call nor condone senseless vigilante violence; legal political authority among Muslims would only reside on a body or entity that is empowered by Islamic law via a bayah contract and is accepted by all Muslims as legitimate Islamically to do so (not pseudo militia frauds like ISIS or Taliban or aimless nihilist violence done in the name of Islam by al-Qaeda or jihadists).
What people neglect to do is the second one. In times of universal deceit and deception, speaking up and speaking out is a political act. This is especially the case when we speak up and forbid munkars both individually as well as collectively. Only in the case of severe persecution are we then permitted to detest the evil within our hearts. Too often, either due to fear or circumstances Muslims choose the easy way out and stay silent (“the least of belief“)
The Prophet (SAAW) warned us in another hadith about the consequences of NOT forbidding each other’s munkar. He compared the society to a ship with two decks floating in a lake. He said:
“Imagine that the people on the lower deck of the ship had to go to the upper deck to fetch water to drink, but one day they decided that there was no longer a need to go to the upper deck since they could easily drill a hole through the bottom of the ship. If those from the upper deck do not prevent those from the lower deck from drilling the hole, then the whole ship will end up sinking.”
Imagine going over to the person drilling the hole at the bottom of your ship and asking him to stop before catastrophe strikes. Imagine if the response you got was, “Don’t judge me!”
Therefore, your sins are a matter of public concern, with severe political consequences, even. We must care enough about each other to make sure that the norms that Muslims live and act by are Islamic. Nobody is playing “judge” just by telling you to follow Islam. Otherwise, why would Allah tell us to enjoin the good and forbid the evil?
A Culture of a Lack of Personal & Political Accountability
Unfortunately, many Muslims do not realize the impact of saying and thinking: “Don’t judge me” Not only does it go against core Islamic values to think this way, but it eventually breeds major corruption in our public life. If we won’t help our relatives, friends, neighbors, and scholars by reminding and correcting them, then how shall we ever get the courage to expose the wrong-doing of the present age’s rulers? Especially when everyone else around us says, “Never mind, politicians always lie and governments are always corrupt!” More importantly, how shall we Muslims develop the ability to straighten out the leaders and scholars among us when they go wrong? Many of the symptoms afflicting the Muslim Ummah everywhere these days are a direct result of its losing this ability to adjust and correct itself.
Most Muslims today have clearly abandoned the Qur’anic duty of forbidding munkar (evil). seeking refuge in rituals or “spirituality” is no substitute for honest accountability and responsibility towards Allah’s deen. Is it any wonder, then, that Muslims’ prayers go unanswered in the face of such horrendous crimes against us as currently occurring in Syria, Palestine, Burma, Iraq, Kashmir and elsewhere? A small group of Muslims are paying a very high price while most of us are silent spectators in the face of these atrocities against fellow Muslims.
It is also important to understand where the fault really lies. There are at least 56 Muslim nation-states. The Muslim world is not poor, but its rulers are, with rare exception, cowards, traitors, and agents of colonizers and have effectively declared war on Islam and the Muslims. Most are also morally bankrupt, which makes them unfit to govern; yet Muslims have remained largely oblivious of their duty in this situation. The few who dare to speak out are often castigated by others, accused of causing fitna (strife) or of ghiba (backbiting). A few naive Muslims may sincerely fall for this argument, but there are also hordes of paid agents of these regimes who deliberately promote such thinking in order to cause confusion among Muslims. Many of the petty fiqhi divisions among Muslims are similarly promoted by agents of these regimes and the west for the same reason.
An important principle rule of governance in Islam is that the greater the authority of a person, the greater his responsibility to live up to Islamic principles. Lying is bad if an ordinary person indulges in it, but it is infinitely worse if someone in authority is guilty of it. The same holds true for other offenses. Yet in the Muslim world, the rules are applied ruthlessly against the weak and poor, while the rich and powerful go free.
In his first sermon as Khalifah, Abu Bakr Siddiq (RA) said:
“I am not the best among you for this position, but I have been charged with it. Obey me so long as I obey Allah and His Messenger. If I go astray, you have no obligation to follow me; rather, you must set me right.”
Muslim rulers today take exactly the opposite position. They indulge in every kind of vice but the people must not speak against them. The heavy hand of the law is used against those who do.
After the period of the Khulafa-ar-Rashidoon, the rulers tried to enlist the support of the ulema to legitimize their rule. Many ulema refused to cooperate. Imam Abu Hanifa, for instance, repeatedly refused to accept the position of qadi (judge) under the Abbassid ruler Mansoor. On one occasion, the Imam was lashed 30 times for displeasing the ruler. When Mansoor’s uncle chastised him for offending such a great scholar, he sent 30,000 dirhams as compensation. Imam Abu Hanifa refused to accept the money, and told the courier to ask Mansoor whether he had a single coin in his coffers earned by halal means. How many ulema do we have today who can stand up to our rulers?
Let us look at the House of Saud, occupiers of the Haramain. Their moral corruption is well-recorded. Were the hudood punishment of stoning adulterers applied, few members of the House of Saud would escape; there may not even be enough stones to do the job! Yet how many ulema in the Arabian peninsula defy them and fulfil their Qur’anic obligation of ‘amr bil ma’roof wa nahy anil munkar? These same individuals won’t hesitate to yell and shout about the salaf-as-sallah or proper aqueeda, but curiously are silent when it comes to speaking out about rulers in their own lands.
Such corruption is not confined to the House of Saud. In other places, Burma or Uzbekistan, for instance, Muslimahs are threatened with rape for daring to practice Islam. In Egypt, this has actually happened. For Muslims to remain silent in the face of such crimes is for us to become accomplices.
One needs to remember the wrath that befell the Jews during the time of Moses for violating the prohibition on fishing on the Sabbath. The crimes that we Muslims are now guilty of are far worse.
Forbidding each other’s munkar (sins) and enjoining the good (Islam) was once the shield that protected the Muslim Ummah from falling into corruption. That shield is simple; enjoin the good (Islam), forbid the evil (sins), and believe in Allah. If we neglect this essential foundation of Islam, we will continue to wonder why Islam and Muslims are in such a lowly state and our duas are not answered.
In today’s society what we are desperately missing as Muslims is not more people using physical vigilante “jihadist” means/ or hiding and isolating themselves from people but more Muslims taking the time to learn the issues; master the ability to speak and become the conduit of ideas. This is essentially what the seerah of Muhammad (saw) demonstrates during his time in Mecca.
We are supposed to be a dignified people, an honorable people because we have Islam. So if Islam is our honor, we must practice it in private and public. Let us support one another by enjoining good and forbidding evil amongst ourselves with the hope that we don’t end up cursed like those condemned before us.