One of the issues about which the Sunnis and the Imamate Shi‘ahs differ is obedience to a corrupt ruler or submission to a tyrannical government. Is it permissible to dismiss the caliph from office if he is corrupt or becomes corrupt? Is it permissible to rise up in arms against him or is it never permissible?
The Sunnis have reached consensus that the caliph cannot be dismissed and removed from office, even if he is corrupt and perverted. Therefore, they say it is not permissible to revolt against him. The only thing Muslims can do is to advise him to change his corrupt ways.
In contrast, the Imamate Shi‘ahs not only regard obeying a tyrannical and corrupt ruler not to be incumbent, but consider it to be forbidden [haram] by the Islamic law to submit to such a leader. In certain circumstances, it is obligatory [wajib] to rise up against a tyrannical ruler.
In this discussion, we intend to prove the truthfulness of the Shi‘ah standpoint.
1. Imam Nuwi says, “The Sunnis have reached consensus that the sultan and caliph cannot be dismissed from office, even though he is corrupt…”1
2. Qadi ‘Ayad says, “All the Sunnis from different fields of specialization such as Islamic jurisprudence, hadith, history and theology believe that the sultan cannot be dismissed from office, even if he is corrupt, perverted, oppressive and tramples the rule of law underfoot.”2
3. Qadi Abu Bakr Baqilani writes, “All the Sunnis believe that an imam cannot be dismissed from office even if he is corrupt, oppressive, or seizes people’s property by force. He cannot be removed from power although he hits or slaps people in their faces and does not respect the honor of others, and even though he tramples the rule of law underfoot. It is not permitted to rise up against him.
The Muslims can only go so far as to advise and warn him about the negative consequences of his actions. It is of course not binding upon the people to obey him when he invites them to participate in his sinful actions, but they cannot dismiss him from office. There are a number of narrations which assert that it is incumbent to obey an imam and caliph, even though he might be an oppressor or even if he forcibly usurps and seizes people’s property. Because the Prophet (S) has said, ‘Listen to and obey your ruler, even if he is a slave with a flat nose or an Ethiopian. Also, pray behind every person, virtuous or perverted.’ He also said, ‘Follow and obey your rulers, even if they loot your property and break your backs’.”3
However, some Sunni scholars have opposed this point of view, and instead believe that a corrupt ruler should not be obeyed. Some of those who have opposed obeying the corrupt ruler are Mawardi in his book “Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah”4, ‘Abd al-Qahir Baghdadi in his book “Usul al-Din”5, Ibn Hazm Zahiri in his book “Al-Fisal fi al-Millal wa al-Ahwa’ wa al-Nihal”6, and Jurjani in his book “Sharh al-Mawaqif”.7
Many Sunni scholars [‘ulama’] have agreed that rising up against a corrupt ‘imam’ or caliph who is an oppressor is not permissible.
Among those of old, ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar and Ahmad ibn Hanbal are some of the most headstrong opposers of rising up against the Muslim caliph even if he is an oppressor and a perverted man. Abu Bakr Marwazi narrates that Ahmad ibn Hanbal used to advocate preventing bloodshed and strongly denied the legitimacy of uprising against the Muslim caliph.8
Dr. ‘Atiah al-Zahrani adds a footnote at the bottom of Abu Bakr Marwazi’s narration saying, “The chain of transmission of this narration is correct. This is the true belief of the Salafi sect.”9
Imam Nuwi, while expounding on the agreement of the Sunni scholars on this issue, says, “According to the consensus of the scholars, rising up against the Muslim caliph is forbidden [haram], even though he is corrupt and oppressive.”10
However, this claim is not correct and, as we will explain later, the Imamate Shi‘ahs oppose it and believe that not only is obeying a corrupt and oppressive ruler not permissible, but it is also obligatory [wajib] to rise up against him under certain circumstances.
Dr. Muhammad Faruq Nahban attributes the edict [fatwa] which forbids rising up against a corrupt and oppressive caliph to the majority of Sunni scholars and says, “Sunni scholars have two opinions regarding revolution and rising up against a tyrannical and perverted ruler:
The first opinion is that rising up against the ruler and dismissing him from power is permissible. This opinion is held by the Mu‘tazilites, the Khawarij, the Zaydis, and a number of sects. They even say that it is incumbent to rise up against an oppressive ruler. They have resorted to the following Qur’anic verses to prove their claim,
﴿ وَتَعَاوَنُوا عَلَى البِرِّ وَالتَّقْوَي ﴾
“… and help one another in goodness and piety…”11
﴿ ... فَقَاتِلُوا الَّتِي تَبْغِي حَتَّى تَفِيءَ إِلَى أَمْرِ اللهِ ... ﴾
“… but if one of them acts wrongfully towards the other, fight that which acts wrongfully until it returns to Allah’s command…”12
﴿ ... لاَ يَنَالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ ﴾
“… My covenant does not include the unjust.”13
The second opinion is that drawing one’s sword and rising up against the caliph is not permissible, because it brings about sedition [fitnah] and bloodshed. This is the opinion held by most Sunnis and the Rijal al-Hadith14 as well as a number of the Prophet’s (S) companions like Ibn ‘Umar, Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas and Usamah ibn Zayd.”15
In order to prove the illegality of rising up against a corrupt ruler and the incumbency of obeying him, Sunni scholars have resorted to a number of traditions narrated through Sunni sources. Now, we will mention some of these hadiths:
1. In his book “Al-Sahih”, Muslim quotes from Hudhayfah that the Holy Prophet (S) said, “There will come after me imams who will not be guided to what I have been guided, and who will not act according to my sunnah (way of life). Soon it will come to pass that people will rise up against them. Some of the people revolting will possess hearts like those of the satans [shayatin] in their bodies.” Hudhayfah says, “I asked the Noble Prophet (S), ‘What should I do, O Prophet of Allah, if I experience such a period?’ The Noble Prophet (S) said, ‘You must listen to the rulers. Obey them even if they break your back and take your property by force. You should listen to the ruler and obey him’.”16
2. Muslim also quotes from Ibn ‘Abbas that the Holy Prophet (S) said, “Anyone who witnesses something from his imam which is displeasing to him should exercise patience, because a person who separates himself from the community and then dies in that state has died the death of the Age of Ignorance [‘asr al-jahiliyyah].”17
3. Muslim recounts another hadith from the Holy Prophet (S) saying, “Anyone who turns his back for just a span on his sultan and dies in that state has died the death of the Age of Ignorance [‘asr al-jahiliyyah].”18
4. Muslim narrates yet another hadith from ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar ibn Khattab. He says that when the event of Harrah occurred, ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar ibn Khattab used to say, “I heard the Noble Prophet say, ‘Anyone who quits obeying his sultan will meet Allah without any plea or appeal for themselves. And anyone who dies in a state where he has not paid allegiance to the sultan has died the death of the Age of Ignorance [‘asr al-jahiliyyah]’.”19
In order to prove the illegality of rising up against a corrupt and perverted ruler, some Sunni scholars have resorted to reasoning that preserving the standing structures of Muslim affairs is the most important duty of all, and hence rising up against the ruler will cause sedition [fitnah], chaos, anarchy and bloodshed among the Muslims.
Therefore, they say it is not permissible to rise against any ruler. Rather, it is forbidden [haram].
Dr. Muhammad Faruq Nahban says, “… the majority of Sunnis believe that it is not permissible to rise up against a corrupt and oppressive ruler because this will lead to sedition [fitnah] and much bloodshed…”20
The belief that it is obligatory [wajib] to obey and follow the caliph and sultan, even if he is corrupt and oppressive, and that rising up against him is forbidden [haram], has a lot of faults and weaknesses according to Islamic thought.
We will now mention some of those faults:
It can be understood from Qur’anic verses that the Imamate and caliphate are not bestowed upon or granted to oppressive and corrupt people, and that if the ruler is a corrupt man, it is not at all permissible to obey him.
a. “And when his Lord tried Ibrahim with certain words, he fulfilled them. He said: Surely I will make you an imam of men. Ibrahim said: And of my offspring? My covenant does not include the unjust: said He.”21
﴿ وَإِذِ ابْتَلَي إِبْرَاهِيمَ رَبُّهُ بِکَلِمَاتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ قَالَ إِنِّي جَاعِلُکَ لِنَّاسِ إِمَاماً قَالَ وَمِنْ ذُرِّيتِي قَالَ لا ينَالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ ﴾
b. “Say: Is there any of your associates who guides to the truth? Say: Allah guides to the truth. Is He then who guides to the truth more worthy to be followed, or he who himself does not go aright unless he is guided? What then is the matter with you; how do you judge?”22
﴿ ... أَفَمَنْ يَهْدِي إِلَي الحَقِّ أَحَقُّ أَنْ يُتَّبَعَ أَمَّنْ لاَ يَهِدِّي إِلاَّ أَنْ يُهْدَي فَمَا لَکُمْ کَيْفَ تَحْکُمُونَ ﴾
It can be deduced from this verse that a person who does not guide towards the truth of Allah is not worthy of being followed and obeyed.
c. Some Qur’anic verses have said that submission and inclination towards oppressors will make man taste the fire of Hell. One verse says,
﴿ وَلا تَرْکَنُوا إِلَى الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا فَتَمَسَّکُمُ النَّارُ ... ﴾
“And do not incline to those who are unjust, lest the fire touch you…”23
d. The Holy Qur’an has called a ruler who does not rule and judge according to what Allah has revealed to be an unbeliever [kafir]. It says,
﴿ ... وَمَنْ لَمْ يحْکُمْ بِمَا أَنْزَلَ اللهُ فَأُولَئِکَ هُمُ الْکَافِرُونَ ﴾
“… and whoever did not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the kafirs.”24
All Muslims agree that obeying and following an unbeliever is not permissible.
There are a lot of verses in the Holy Qur’an which have unconditionally and generally (in such a way that no limitations are mentioned) forbidden obeying anyone who is well-known for sin, regardless of whether he is a caliph, sultan and imam or otherwise.
a. Allah, the Exalted says,
﴿ فَلا تُطِعِ المُکَذِّبِينَ ﴾
“So do not yield to the rejecters.”25
b. “And yield not to any mean swearer.”26
﴿ وَلاَ تُطِعْ کُلَّ حَلّاَّفٍ مَهِينٍ ﴾
c. “And be not compliant to the unbelievers and the hypocrites.”27
﴿ وَلاَ تُطِعِ الکَافِرِينَ وَالمُنَافِقِينَ ... ﴾
d. “And do not obey the bidding of the extravagant.”28
﴿ وَلاَ تُطِيعُوا أَمْرَ المُسرِفِينَ * الَّذِينَ يفْسِدُونَ فِي الأَرْضِ وَلاَ يُصْلِحُونَ ﴾
e. “Therefore wait patiently for the command of your Lord, and obey not from among them a sinner or an ungrateful one.”29
﴿ فَاصْبِر لِحُکْمِ رَبِّکَ وَلاَ تُطِعْ مِنْهُمْ آثمِاً أَوْ کَفُوراً ﴾
f. “And do not follow him whose heart we have made unmindful to Our remembrance, and he follows his low desires and his case is one in which due bounds are exceeded.”30
﴿ ... وَلا تُطِعْ مَنْ أَغْفَلْنَا قَلْبَهُ عَنْ ذِکْرِنَا وَاتَّبَعَ هَوَاهُ وَکَانَ أَمْرُهُ فُرُطاًَ ﴾
g. “On the day when their faces shall be turned back into the fire, they shall say: O would that we had obeyed Allah and obeyed the Apostle! And they shall say: O our Lord! Surely we obeyed our leaders and our great men, so they led us astray from the path; O our Lord! Give them a double punishment and curse them with a great curse.”31
﴿ يومَ تُقَلَّبُ وُجُوهُهُمْ فِي النَّارِ يقُولُونَ يا لَيْتَنَا أَطَعْنَا اللهِ وَأَطَعْنَا الرَّسُولا * وَقَالُوا رَبَّنَا إِنَّا أَطَعْنَا سَادَتَنَا وَکُبَرَاءَنَا فَأَضَلُّونَا السَّبِيلا * رَبَّنَا آتِهِمْ ضِعْفَيْنِ مِنَ الْعَذَابِ وَالْعَنْهُمْ لَعْناً کَبِيراً ﴾
h. “And do not incline to those who are unjust, lest the fire touch you, and you have no guardians besides Allah, then you shall not be helped.”32
﴿ وَلاَ تَرْکَنُوا إِلَى الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا فَتَمَسَّکُمُ النَّارُ ... ﴾
In the Holy Qur’an, Allah, the Exalted, has ordered people in general or specific ways that they should enjoin the good and forbid the evil. This generality covers all people from all walks of life, the rulers and the ruled alike. Enjoining the good and forbidding the evil [amr bi’l-ma‘ruf wa nahy ‘an al-munkar] takes various forms, among them:
Allah, the Exalted, says,
﴿ وَلتَکُنْ مِنْکُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعرُوفِ وَيَنْهَونَ عَنِ المُنْکَرِ وَأُولئِکَ هُمُ المُفْلِحُونَ ﴾
“And from among you there should be a party who invite to good and enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong, and these it is that shall be successful.”33
And, He also says,
﴿ کُنْتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِالمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ المُنْکَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللهِ ... ﴾
“You are the best of nations raised up for the benefit of mankind; you enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong and believe in Allah...”34
And He also says,
﴿ لُعِنَ الَّذينَ کَفَرُوا مِنْ بَني إِسْرائيلَ عَلي لِسانِ داوُدَ وَعيسَى ابْنِ مَرْيَمَ ذلِکَ بِما عَصَوا وَکانُوا يَعْتَدُونَ * کانُوا لا يَتَناهَونَ عَنْ مُنْکَرٍ فَعَلُوهُ لَبِئْسَ ما کانُوا يَفْعَلُونَ ﴾
“Those who disbelieved from among the children of Israel were cursed by the tongue of David and Jesus, son of Mary; this was because they disobeyed and used to exceed the limit. They used not to forbid each other the hateful things they did; certainly evil was that which they did.”35
This belief is opposed to another set of hadiths which have been recounted in Sunni sources. This other set of hadiths forbids following a corrupt and perverted ruler.
It also must be taken into account that:
Firstly, every hadith must be compared with the Holy Qur’an; if it is opposed with the verses of the Holy Qur’an, it cannot be considered authentic because all Muslims believe the Holy Qur’an to be completely authentic and unchanged.
In addition, from the previous section we can see that the hadiths which say that it is incumbent to obey a corrupt ruler are opposed to the verses of the Holy Qur’an; therefore, they are not acceptable.
Secondly, there is obvious contradiction and disagreement between hadiths which prohibit following a corrupt ruler and those which say that it is incumbent to follow the Muslim ruler whether he is corrupt or not. In accordance with the law of incongruity, the final judge is Allah’s Book, the Holy Qur’an.
When faced with such a dilemma as having discrepancies in the wordings of hadiths, we act upon those hadiths which are in accordance with the Holy Qur’an and reject those hadiths which disagree with the Book of Allah. In this case, it means we must follow the hadiths which have forbidden obeying and following a corrupt ruler.
Thirdly, if there are no contradictions between hadiths and hence there is no seeming need to refer to the Holy Qur’an, we still must suspend all the hadiths and only refer to the general verses of the Holy Qur’an if they prohibit obeying a corrupt leader.
We will now mention a few hadiths which have been recounted in Sunni sources of hadith prohibiting obedience to a corrupt leader.
a. Allah’s Prophet (S) said, “The spinning wheel of Islam is soon to roll. Wherever the Holy Qur’an is, you must revolve around it. A day shall come when sultans and the Holy Qur’an will be separated from each other. With all certainty, soon it will come to pass that kings will rule over you.
They will judge for themselves in one way and for others in another way. If you obey them, they will mislead you. If you do not follow them they will kill you.” The people asked, “O Prophet of Allah! What should we do if we experience that period?” The Noble Prophet (S) said, “You should be like Jesus’ followers, whose bodies were cut to pieces or they were hung to death, but they never followed the corrupt rulers. Death in the way of obedience to Allah is better than life in sin.”36
b. ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Umar says, “Allah’s Prophet (S) said, ‘It is incumbent upon every Muslim man to follow his caliph in things he likes and things he dislikes, except when he is ordered to sin. In this case, obeying the caliph is not permissible’.”37
c. ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud says, “Allah’s Prophet (S) said, ‘Soon it will come to pass after me that custodians who will extinguish the sunnah and act according to their own innovations will take charge of your affairs.
They will delay the prayers from being said at their right times.’ I asked, ‘O Prophet of Allah! What should I do if I experience that period?’ He said, ‘Are you asking me what you ought to do, O son of Umm ‘Abd!? A person who commits sins against Allah is not supposed to be followed or obeyed’.”38
a. In interpreting the Qur’anic verse,
﴿ لاَ ينَالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِينَ ﴾
“My covenant does not include the unjust: said He.”39
Suyuti quotes ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (as) saying, “Obedience is only in good and virtuous acts.”
b. Tabari and other historians narrate that while Imam al-Husayn (as) was on his way towards Kufah, he stopped at Baydah’s house. There, he addressed the people in this way, “O People! Allah’s Prophet (S) said, ‘Any person who sees an oppressive sultan making illegal that which is lawful [halal], breaking Allah’s covenant, opposing the sunnah of Allah’s Prophet (S), conducting himself in a sinful and tyrannical way among Allah’s servants (the people) and does not speak out against such a sultan in order to bring about change; it becomes binding upon Allah to throw this apathetic person where he belongs, in Hell’.”40
c. Tabari and other historians narrate that in his reply to the letter which the people had written to him, al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali (as) wrote, “I swear upon my own soul! No one is an imam, unless he acts according to the Book of Allah, and is equitable and just. He does what is right, and restrains his passions for the sake of Allah.”41
d. Tabari and other historians have also narrated that al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali (as) addressed Walid in this way, “O Amir! We are the Ahl al-Bayt of the Holy Prophet, the abode of the prophetic mission, the place of frequentation of the angels, and the place of divine revelation. It is through us that Allah begins and ends things. Yazid is a drinker of wine and a killer of innocent people. He publicly commits sins and immorality; a person such as I cannot pay allegiance to him.”42
Imam al-Husayn (as) is a person who, according to the explicit wording of the Qur’anic Verse of Purification [ayah al-tathir], is infallible [ma‘sum]. Allah’s Prophet (S) said this about him,
«الحسن والحسين سيدا شباب اهل الجنة.»
“Al-Hasan and al-Husayn are the two leaders of the youths of Paradise.”43
The Holy Prophet (S) also said,
«حسين منّي وأنا من حسين.»
“Al-Husayn is from me and I am from al-Husayn.”44
Elsewhere, he said,
«خير رجالکم علي بن أبي طالب، وخير شبابکم الحسن والحسين، وخير نساءکم فاطمة بنت محمد.»
“The best man among you is ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. The best youths among you are al-Hasan and al-Husayn. The best woman among you is Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad.”45
Ibn ‘Abbas says, “The Holy Prophet (S) said, ‘On the night that I went on the ascension [mi‘raj], I saw it written in heaven,
«لا إله إلاّ الله، محمّد رسول الله، علي حبّ (حبيب) الله، الحسن والحسين صفوة الله، فاطمة أمَة الله (خيرة الله)، على باغضهم لعنة الله.»
“There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is his Prophet, ‘Ali is Allah’s beloved, al-Hasan and al-Husayn are Allah’s chosen ones and Fatimah is Allah’s servant. Allah’s curse and wrath be upon anyone who harbors hatred in their heart for them’.”46
The presence of so many hadiths (traditions) in Shi‘ah and Sunni books which forbid obeying a corrupt and perverted ruler points to the fact that the other set of hadiths, which contradict these hadiths and the Holy Qur’an and permit following a corrupt leader and forbid rising up against him, are all fabrications.
These hadiths were forged by the dynasties of Bani Umayyah and Bani ‘Abbas for the sake of justifying their perverted and oppressive ways of conduct. They fabricated these hadiths in order to preserve the people’s loyalty to themselves and encourage the masses to follow the rulers’ orders no matter what the circumstances. They intended to prevent any kind of uprising against their dynasties by the people, so they were left with no option but to invent false hadiths.
It is regrettable that some scholars chose to record these forged hadiths in their books without considering their contents and comparing these sayings with the verses of the Holy Qur’an and other hadiths.
Unfortunately, as a result, some jurisprudents have issued religious edicts [fatwas] based on these fabricated hadiths that have caused great harm to the Muslim ummah. It must be borne in mind that if an enemy desires to forge a hadith, it is possible to fabricate chains of transmission which are ‘correct’.
That which can be inferred from the reasons put forward by those who oppose rising up against a corrupt and perverted caliph is that preserving political and social structures of the Muslims is binding and incumbent [wajib]. However, it has to be borne in mind that preserving any kind of power structure is not wajib.
The only political system that must be preserved is an Islamic government whose leader is just and acts according to Allah’s orders as noted in Qur’anic verses. This kind of government and its ruler must be preserved. There is no reason to oppose such a government. However, if the political system rules ‘in the name of Islam’ but its leaders are corrupt and perverted, then preserving such a power structure is not wajib at all.
On the contrary, an uprising must take place in order to establish an Islamic political system and exterminate a corrupt and oppressive political system. That is exactly what Imam al-Husayn (as) did: he rose up against the corrupt and oppressive political system of Yazid, the son of Mu‘awiyah, and kept true Islam alive.