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Justification for Violence in Islam: V. The Law of Rebellion


Previous: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part IV: The Need for Legitimate Authority to Sanction Violence in the Nam​e of God

[36] The Prophet's injunction to avoid strife and wrongdoing has served as an important principle in the adoption of political quietism or pacifist activism in some sectors of the Muslim community. In general, the law in Islam prohibits rebellion under almost any condition because it expresses a requirement of proportionality by warning that opposition to an unjust government should not result in greater discord than that which is being suffered. The government as an instrument for the common good, with its legitimacy hinging on the condition of providing means of fulfilling the religious-moral obligations of Islam under a just authority, was always an important consideration in conceding the right of rebellion. In situations of rebellion against the Muslim government, the law discusses the criteria relevant to rebellion (al-baghy) which serve to distinguish its participants from apostates and brigands. Muslim jurists define an insurgent as someone who commits an act of insurrection (khur_j), with a reason or interpretation, while enjoying wide support or power (shawka). In the absence of a 'reason' or 'power', the party in question is treated as a common criminal and not an insurgent.

[37] A rebellion may be justified because of what is ascribed to the Prophet who said: "If people see an oppressor and they do not hinder him, then God will punish all of them."1 The tradition somehow requires a communitarian response to the oppressive situation in the society. Accordingly, the criterion of 'power'(shawka) functions as a safeguard against an individual taking upon himself to correct the social and political ill. The insurgent group must demonstrate wide support in order to be recognized as having somewhat equal standing with the authority against which it is rising. The form of organization, leadership and membership reduces the possibility of anarchy and lawlessness arising from a corrupt person inventing a justification and claiming to be a rebel. This requirement is consistent with the Islamic concern for the community and the protection of Islamic order. In the case of collective rebellion the group itself essentially functions as a community and is concerned with the preservation of Islamic values rather than motivated by individual self-interest. The action is undertaken by public mandate, not by private initiative. It is only then and only if the justification for rebellion provided by the legitimate group that wishes to oppose the state is valid and the Imam concedes it, that the law rules that the Imam should be liable for disorder, not the rebels. Additionally, even though both sides of the conflict may have some legitimacy, Islamic law acknowledges the likely power discrepancy between the state and the opposition by exempting the rebels from liability for any harm to property or life occurring during the course of rebellion.2

[38] However, rebels should not use this power discrepancy as a way to justify the use of any violent means necessary to achieve their goals. There are some among Muslim jurists who taking the side of the insurgent group argue that the justness of the rebellion renders considerations of moral restriction on the use of violent means irrelevant, thereby allowing acts of terrorism and the like. On the other hand, there are those jurists who support the state in reasoning that the legitimate authority of the state, i.e. the Imam, when compared with the lack of such authority among the rebels, has the right to put down insurrections using any means necessary as well.3 Moreover, in terms of the balance of power, those engaging in guerilla or terrorist practices commonly argue that their weaker position necessitates the use of such violent tactics in order for their resistance to the state to be possible.

[39] These arguments embody the concern evident in the debates about the Qur'anic jih_d and jih_d in Islamic history where the overemphasis on the importance of the justifications of war led to the relative neglect of limits on use of violence to secure victory. However, in the law of rebellion in Islam the emphasis is on the means of resistance employed by rebels than the ends they seek. After all, in essence, the law is actually engaged in regulating rebellion by Muslims living under an Islamic order. The rebels are not legally classified as criminals and are required to observe moral restrictions in seeking redress to injustices. Thus, the primary concern when rebellion occurs in the Muslim community is to find ways of reconciling the contending parties and reestablish order.

[40] In sum, the law dealing with rebellion in Islam is comprehensive and coherent, which does not negate the possibility of rebellion, but encompasses it within a framework designed to be just and to promote a stable community whatever adversary prevails. Since one cannot resist an unjust tyrant unless such resistance would result in less harm to common good than that suffered under the unjust government itself, the law takes the position that the means of such resistance must be ordered toward preserving the common good as well. Therefore, it views acts of terrorism as illicit in that they would tend to create more societal disorder than that caused by the unjust government. Despite the potential difficulty of implementing the right conduct, especially the criterion of discrimination, in irregular warfare, Muslim jurists tend to place more emphasis on the means of resistance employed by the rebels rather than the ends they seek, by using the same principle of proportionality which they invoke in the defensive jih_d.

[41] The law of rebellion in Islam, accordingly, points to the activist response demanded by the Qur'an to eradicate "corruption on earth." As a reaction to the recognized right of the people to prevent acts of injustices, within the limits imposed by concerns of proportionality and forewarning, a new opinion removing such a responsibility from the people emerged. A number of Muslim scholars believed in the postponement of the decisive judgement upon a Muslim's belief or conduct until the Day of Judgement when God Himself would deal with such individuals and reward or punish them for their behavior. This attitude led to some kind of moral complacency because what it meant was that a Muslim retains his/her membership in the community even if he/she fails to uphold the moral conduct prescribed by the faith. It also suggested that no one beside God can judge a person's real faith and conduct. In support of this attitude many traditions attributed to the Prophet were circulated to justify the tyrannical rule of the Muslim dynasty like that of the Umayyads. Most of these traditions, although accepted by the community at large, are in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Qur'an. Thus, for instance, the Prophet is reported to have advised one of his close associates, Hudhayfa:

"After me there shall be political leaders who will not be guided by my instruction nor shall they follow my custom (sunna). Moreover, there shall rise among them men whose hearts shall be the hearts of devil in the frame of human bodies."

Hudhayfa asked: "What shall I do when I find myself in such a situation?"

The Prophet replied: "You must listen and obey the political leader; even if he beats you on the back and confiscates your property, you must listen and obey."4

Such traditions were actually used to rationalize the concrete situation in the community and to argue for the prohibition of rebellion against an established state.

[42] Nevertheless, such admonitions must be understood within the internal structures of the cultural values that require a connection of peace with justice and encourage the achievement of an ideal just social order ensuring that war, whether regular or irregular, will not be more destructive to society. Peace which not only signifies the absence of warfare but also a perfect state of well-being and harmony, as Islam sees it, is the product of order with justice. Just as private individuals must show proper restraint in self-defense, public officials must also ensure that judicial rulings are reflective of justice and equity. While one ought not despise the peace that comes from a simple avoidance of strife, one must always be aware that such peace is uneasy, and that conflict is always a possibility in oppressive situations.

Next: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part VI: Pacifist Activism in Islamic Legal System

End Notes

1  The tradition occurs in many variant forms, with a clear permission to enjoin the oppressor. See: al-NawawA, Riy_m al-m_limAn (Beirut, D_r al-madAth, 1974), p. 109.

2  Khalid Abou El Fadl, "Amk_m Al-Bugh_t: Irregular Warfare and the Law of Rebellion in Islam," in Cross, Crescent, and Sword: The Justification and Limitation of War in Western and Islamic Tradition, ed. by James Turner Johnson and John Kelsay (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), pp. 162 cites all the relevant juridical sources on the issue.

3  Anwar Sadat&=javascript:goNote(39s assassins relied on the righteousness of the duty of jih_d to validate their questionable method of irregular warfare against the Egyptian state. See: Johannes J. G. Jansen, The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat's Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East (New York: MacMillan, 1986), pp. 25-29.

4  mamAm al-Bukh_rA, Kit_b al-fitan, madAth, 206.




© February 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 2