Justification for Violence in Islam: Part IX, Quietist Authoritarianism and Activist Radicalism


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[64] The readiness to give up one's life for a goal beyond oneself presupposes a free human agent who could engage in risk- benefit analysis and decide to risk his life for a just cause. There is considerable agreement among Muslims that the precise direction in the matter involving endangering one's own or the lives of other in the community should be determined with a renewed commitment to the activist precepts of Islam. It was not always possible to undertake the moral obligation of "commanding good and forbidding evil" without actively seeking to order society in a manner consistent with the guidance given to humanity by its Creator. Moreover, the existence of the legitimate authority invested with God's sovereignty to fulfil divine purposes was important in view of the Qur'anic injunction requiring obedience to God, the Prophet and to those invested with political authority. (4:59) In other words, as pointed out earlier, in Islam it was not possible to gain the authoritative and determinative guidance for the common good without considering constitutional questions as to who is authorized to determine a quietist or an activist direction and by what procedures.

[65] It is important to emphasize that the question of legitimate authority in determining the goals of divine revelation and the means to implement them has been central to Islam as a comprehensive social and political system. At no time did the Muslim community abandon its vision of a qualified leadership to create the Islamic polity. Indeed, religious leadership is the single most important issue that has divided the community and has provoked debates about the justification of engaging in religiously sanctioned violence to establish or dethrone it. Political activism in Islam has been intimately related to the establishment of Islamic public order under the qualified leadership of a Caliph or an Imam. On the other hand, quietism as a legitimate tactic for the community living under adverse settings was always determined by the religious leadership (either of the caliph/imam or the ulema, the jurist-theologians, who acted as juridical authority in the community) that was denied the right to head the Islamic polity.

[66] There were precedents in the political history of Islam as well as the teachings of the Qur'an for the exponents of both the postures of activism and quietism. A close examination of the arguments used to support one or the other posture reveals that the problem was related to government and obedience. The sole justification for the existence of the government, according to the Qur'an, was "commanding the good and forbidding the evil." This moral justification also made it morally as well as religiously obligatory to obey the government that undertook to implement that duty.

[67] The Sunni and Shi'i division of the Muslim community was based on their respective views about the legitimate government under the Caliph/Imam. The problem faced by the Muslim community was a classic one in the world history, namely, how to reconcile the discrepancy between the promised ideal and the existing real? In other words, how should the faithful respond to the existing problems of injustices and distortions that had propped up in upholding the duty of "commanding the good and forbidding the evil"?

[68] The obvious question that arises in the minds of pious Muslims when they confront unjust government that fails to command good and interdict evil, whether personally or collectively, is: "Do Muslims have an obligation to take arms to oppose or expunge tyranny and corruption within the community?" In other words: "Is obedience to the government that leads to disobedience to God to be tolerated?" The response to the question of perceived injustices has depended upon the current socio-political circumstances and has been determined by the political and religious leadership.

[69] Bernard Lewis in his lectures on The Political Language of Islam1 has traced the development of activist and quietist tradition in the political writings of the classical age. In earlier times, as he has shown, the question of obedience to the legitimate authority and the legality of those who exacted obedience in his name was critical for the community. In other words, the manner in which authority was acquired was important to determine the level of obedience that accrued to that authority. With the passage of time, more particularly, when power was seized by force, the question of legality of power was abandoned in favor of the manner in which power was exercised, because the reality was that political leadership had passed on to those who possessed little legitimacy in their claim to obedience. The only source of their legal claim to obedience, as the Muslim jurists came to recognize and require of the community, was their respect for the Islamic legal norms. The concept of the sovereign being bound to rule according to the legal norms, the Shari'a, meant that his supreme duty was the protection of public interest. To this end he was given an overriding personal discretion to decide how the Islamic norms for the community might be best effected. This principle, as discussed earlier, is known as "government in accordance with the revealed law (siy_sa shar'iyya)." As a legal accommodation with existing political power it became the precedent for activist pacifism, as discussed above.

[70] Throughout this development Muslim jurists in their endeavors to rationalize the existing power had required obedience on the part of the Muslim subject. Thus, in addition to the numerous traditions like the one cited on the authority of the Prophet, who advised Hudhayfa, his close associate, to listen and obey the political leader "even if he beats you on the back and confiscates your property, you must only listen and obey," the tenth-century manbali jurist Ibn Bamma (d. 387/997) observed:

You must abstain and refrain from sedition (fitna). You must not rise in arms against the imams, even if they be unjust. 'Umar b. al-Khamm_b, may God be pleased with him, said: "If he oppresses you be patient; if he dispossess you, be patient." The Prophet, may God bless and save him, said to Ab_ Dharr: "Be patient, even if he be an Ethiopian slave."2

[71] There are other traditions that contradict the above narratives attributed to the Caliph 'Umar and the Prophet himself. But their purpose in the tenth century is obvious, namely, it was to justify the authoritarian power of the ruling sovereign and to give unquestioning obedience however unjust the sovereign might be. In fact, majority of the writers on statecraft argued for the rights of authority and the necessity of obedience rather than the duty of challenging authority. Such challenging on balance proved to be more harmful to the common good. Thus, at times tolerance of injustice was necessary to avoid civil strife (fitna).

[72] The use of the word fitna in Sunni traditions carries the notion of quietist passivity and hence, a negative connotation as far as Islamic teaching on just ethical order is concerned. Moreover, for the Sunni majority, it is a term that evokes bitter recollection of the great rift in the Muslim community shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. This conflict, later dubbed the "Great fitna" (al-fitna al-kubr_) or the "first fitna," pitted some of the closest associates of the Prophet against each other and led to major schisms in the community. The conflict was never fully resolved, but its memory in retrospect left a deep impression among the Sunnis that the best stance in a conflict situation was simply to adopt quietist passivity.

[73] The alternative, namely, fighting injustice and "forbidding the evil," as the Qur'anic ethics required, was regarded by these scholars to lead to some scandal in the shape of a serious ensuing disturbance or strife.3 Thus, fitna was associated with undesirable change and consequently, it implied reliving the political experiences connected with leadership struggles, disputes and conflict of interests. It was to be avoided at any cost, even if it meant side-stepping the Qur'anic demand for "commanding the good and forbidding the evil," and the ensuing defensive jih_d to restore peace with justice.

[74] Nevertheless, fitna as an experience of the first Muslim community has not, as an idea, entirely shaped Muslim attitude of authoritarian quietism. Rather, actual social changes and historical recollection together produced the consciousness of fitna as a delimiting and debilitating factor in social exigencies. The consciousness of fitna has grown and matured around a continual series of historical re-interpretations of the first civil strife in the light of new emerging sedition. While the first civil strife has acted as a prototype, other civil wars and disturbances have continually affected the Muslims' historical perception of it. The term fitna, therefore, acts and continues to act as a description, a justification and a recipe for quietism, and even inaction.

[75] Emmanuel Sivan has rightly alluded to this situation as a "trauma" in Muslim attempts to redress grave social and political injustices.4 The apprehension involved in taking an activist stand looms so large in Sunni political understanding that even contemporary revolutionary ideologues like Sayyid Qumb and Sa'Ad mawwa have had to go to great lengths to justify revolutionary activity if it may lead to some form of civil disturbance. The only way they could justify activism was to declare the disbelief of modern governments and Muslim societies against whom waging jih_d was a legitimate step. Even that was a departure from the generally held Sunni position that the ruler, even if he be a sinner, must be obeyed as long as he respects the basic minimum. Some jurists, however, conceded that while a sinful sovereign must be obeyed, the same privilege might not be extended to agents of the sovereign who are sinful.

[76] Sinful rule and tyrannical government, according to the authoritarian quietist view, are not the greatest evils, because the alternative to such a rule is chaos. Anything that disrupted the authority that was necessary to guarantee the unity of community and to provide the legality to the execution of the most fundamental objective of government, namely, to enable Muslims to live the good Muslim life was to be regarded as sinful deviation from the right tradition. Hence, through the centuries, quietism has been legitimized as a religious duty to maintain order in Muslim community.

[77] Yet this legitimization would not have been possible without creating a creed that viewed the divine being as the Absolute Sovereign, the All-Powerful God, who determined every action of humanity, leaving it completely helpless in the divine plan for human history. When God, as the Omnipotent Being, could do as he willed, so could the ruler, who was symbolized as the "Shadow of God on earth." All these ideas were part of the doctrinal development in Sunni theology and the related field of political thought.

[78] For the exponents of an activist posture in the community the question of obedience and disobedience was posed in the context of early divisive civil wars that split the Islamic state and community, and ultimately the Islamic religion. The paradigm was provided by the second fitna, when the Caliph 'Uthm_n (d. 656 A.D.) was attacked and killed by Muslim Arab rebels. In the course of the argument two basic positions emerged. According to the one, 'Uthm_n was both a rightful and just ruler, and his killing was therefore both a crime and a sin. According to the other, 'Uthm_n was a wrongful and unjust ruler, and his killing was therefore a lawful and a necessary act. In time, and after a long and complex evolution, these two viewpoints became associated with two traditions: the one with the Sunni, the other with Shi'ite Islam. It would be an oversimplification to identify the Sunnis with the quietist and the Shi'a with the activist tradition. The Sunnis, throughout their history, produced their own radicals. The Shi'a evolved their own doctrines, decisions, and practices of passive submission.

[79] To be sure, activist radicalism was at times invoked in specific legal terms to make lawful disobedience to existing unjust regimes, or their forcible overthrow. However, the response to the armed revolt against unjust government in Shi'ism was offered by examining whether such an action is justifiable without the leadership of a divinely appointed Imam, or whether any individual qualified Shi'ite could undertake to fight the tyranny and corruption of his time when it reached an intolerable level. Historically the guidance of the Shi'ite jurists, whether leading to radical political action or otherwise, turned on their interpretation of the two basic doctrines intrinsic to an authoritative perspective that organizes the mundane existence of Shi'ite Muslims. These two doctrines are the justice of God and the leadership of the righteous individuals. Undergirding the social, political, and economic activity in the early centuries was the promise of Islamic revelation that only through obedience to God could believers accomplish the establishment of a just and equitable public order embodying the will of God. The promise was buttressed by the certainty that God is just and truthful. Divine justice demanded that God do what was best for humanity, and divine truthfulness generated the faith that God's promise would be fulfilled if humanity kept its covenant of working toward a truly godly life.

[80] The proof that God is just and truthful was provided by his creating the rational faculty in human beings and sending revelation through the prophets to guide them toward the creation of an ethical world order. The indispensable connection between divine guidance and the creation of an ethical world order provided an ideological mandate for the interdependency of the religious and the political in Islam. It also pointed to some sort of divine intervention being necessary in the creation of a just society. Consequently, the focal point of the Islamic belief system envisions the Prophet and his properly designated successors as representing God on earth--the God who invested authority in them in order for them to rule over mankind rightly. In other words, the linkage between the divine investiture and the creation of an Islamic world order became a salient feature of Islamic ideological discourse almost from the beginning.

[81] However, the essential connection between the religious and the political became an underlying source of crises in the Muslim community. The early history of Islam witnessed discontent among all Muslims. Some were moved by profound religious conviction and deep moral purpose to seek activist political steps to confront injustices. The period, moreover, generated much discussion and deliberation regarding the duty of obedience to an unjust ruler who caused disobedience to God.

[82] The notion of revolution to overthrow unjust authority favored by radical elements in the Shi'ite community took a different turn when the manifest leadership of their Imams came to an end in the tenth century. With this end the activist ideology took on an apocalyptic cast: the revolution would come in a future time of fulfillment when the restorer of pristine Islam, the Mahdi, would appear. This belief in the future messianic role of the Imam has served a complex, and seemingly paradoxical function. It has been the guiding doctrine behind both an activist political posture, calling upon believers to remain alert and prepared at all times to launch the revolution with the messianic Imam who might appear at any time, and behind a quietist waiting for God's decree, in almost fatalistic resignation, in the matter of the return of this Imam at the End of Time.5 In both cases the main problem was to determine the right course of action at a given time in a given social and political setting. The adoption of the activist or quietist solution depended upon the interpretation of conflicting traditions attributed to the Shi'ite Imams about the circumstances that justified radical action. Resolution of the contradiction in these traditions in turn was contingent upon the agreement about, and acknowledgement of, the existence of an authority who could make the messianic Imam's will known to the community. Without such a learned authority among the Shi'ites, it was practically impossible to acquire reliable knowledge about whether a government had indeed become evil, and whether a radical solution was an appropriate form of struggle against it.

Next: Justification for Violence in Islam, Part X: Concluding Remarks


End Notes

1  Published by University of Chicago Press, 1988, particularly Chapter 5.

2  'Ubayd All_h b. Muhammad b. Bamma Kit_b al-sharm wa al-ib_na 'al_ um_l al-sunna wa al-diy_na (Damascus, 1958), p. 66ff.

3  See A. K. S. Lambton, State and Government in Medieval Islam: An introduction to the study of Islamic political theory: the jurists (Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 15-16.

4  Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 90, 96-7.

5  For detailed treatment of the messianic idea in Shi&=javascript:goNote(39ism see my Islamic Messianism: The Idea of Mahdi in Twelver Shi'ism (Albany: State University of New York, 1981).



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