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Conditions and Limits of Obedience to the Rulers
Political Issues
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Tariq Haashmi)


Obedience in Islam

In Islam obedience to God necessarily implies obedience to the Messenger. One cannot be obedient to God while being disobedient to the Messenger. Similarly, obedience to the Messenger implies obedience to his successors and representatives, in effect rulers of the Islamic State. A person who believes that he can be obedient to God without acknowledging and obeying the Messenger is utterly ignorant of Islamic teachings. It is none other than the Messenger who explains to us the will of God which is to be implemented in our lives. It is only he who divulges and implements the will of God in this world. This links the duty of obeying the Messenger with the duty to obey Allah. Serving God is not meaningful when one defies the commands of the Messenger. Similarly, in order to truly obey the Messenger one has to obey his successors and representatives, for, after the Messenger, it is only they who are responsible to implement the will of God and to promulgate his sharī‘ah and commandments on the earth. The rulers are thus obliged to strengthen the Islamic society and run it according to the will of God. The right of a Messenger to be obeyed cannot be fulfilled without obeying the rulers of the Islamic Sate. The interrelation of God, His Messenger and the rulers is so natural and crucial that it cannot be severed in any circumstances. The chain binding the Islamic political system comprises these three entities. If you break any of these components the rest would fall. The whole structure of the Islamic system will collapse. The following verses of Sūrah Nisā’ reveal the interrelation of these three entities and stress the importance of obeying all three of them:

 يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ أَطِيعُواْ اللّهَ وَأَطِيعُواْ الرَّسُولَ وَأُوْلِي الأَمْرِ مِنكُمْ (٥٩:٣)

Believers! obey God, the Messenger and the rulers from among you. (3:59)

 The same reality has been expressed by the Prophet (sws) in the following words:

 عن ابي هريرة قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم من أطاعني فقد أطاع الله، ومن اطاع الامام فقد أطاعني، ومن عصاني فقد عصى الله ومن عصى الامام فقد عصاني

Abū Hurayrah narrated that the Prophet (sws) of God said: “Whoever obeys me, obeys God and whoever obeys the ruler, obeys me. Whoever disobeys me, disobeys God and whoever disobeys the ruler, disobeys me.” (Ibn Abī Shaybah, No: 32529)

 The word imām in this narrative refers to the successors and representatives of the Messenger who, along with his administrators etc, form the group termed ūl al-amr (the rulers) by the Holy Qur’ān. This is the tool through which the Islamic state achieves all its goals and ends including matters of interpreting divine commands, performing ijtihād in the process of the formation of law, in implementing the laws in the land and maintaining justice and law and order in the country.

 The Hallmarks of the Rightly Guided Caliphate

The Islamic political system in the Muslim land established by the group of people equipped with a deep and unparalleled bond with the messenger of God is called the khilāfah al-rāshidah (the pious caliphate) or khilāfah ‘alā minhāj al-sunnah (the caliphate designed after the example of the Prophet (sws)). Such a group of the rulers has been awarded rights which none other is entitled with save for the Messenger. We will discuss a few such specificities and privileges of this kind of rulers which will in turn make us see what extraordinary traits does a real Islamic government is marked with in relation to other worldly irreligious political systems and what is the difference between obeying such a rule and the ordinary state authorities.

The first and foremost thing in this regard is that to remain loyal to and to obey this group of rulers is a necessary requirement of one’s expression of loyalty with Islam itself. In the presence of this group, none enjoys the right to separate from it and then claim to have observed the directives of Islam the way they should be discharged. The Prophet (sws) of God says:

عن ابي ذر قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم من فارق الجماعة شبرا فقد خلع ربقة الاسلام من عنقعه (أبو داؤد ، رقم: ٤٧٥٨)

Abū Dharr narrates that the Prophet (sws) said: “The one who separates himself from the collectivity an inch indeed takes off the yoke of Islam from his neck.” (Abū Dā’ūd, No: 4758)

 The second important point is that following such a group of rulers is not only necessary for being eligible for the rights of citizenship in the Islamic State but also for the eternal success on the Last Day. If someone separates from the collective system of the Muslims and dies in this state, all his religious deeds are discounted and he dies a death of the age of ignorance:

 عن ابن عباس عن النبي قال من كره من اميره شيئا فليصير فانه من خرج من السلطان شبرا مات ميتة جاهلية (بخاري ، رقم: ٦٦٤٥)

Ibn ‘Abbās narrates that the Prophet (sws) said: “Whoever finds something detestable with his rulers, he should observe patience. For whoever detaches himself from the state system an inch and dies in this state, indeed dies a death of the age of ignorance.” (Bukhārī, No: 6645)

 Another narrative says:

 من مات و ليس في عنقه بيعة مات ميتة جاهلية (مسلم ، رقم: ١٨٥١)

Whoever dies while he is free of allegiance to the rulers, dies a death of the age of ignorance. (Muslim, No: 1851)

 Another narrative tells us that for a successful entry into Paradise one has to offer the prayer, pay the zakāh and obey the rulers:

 صلوا خمسكم وصوموا شهركم وأدوا زكاة أموالكم وأطيعوا ذا أمركم تدخلوا جنة ربكم

Offer your five obligatory prayers, observe the fast of your month, pay the zakāh on your assets and obey your rulers, you will enter the Paradise of your Lord. (Tirmidhī, No: 616)

 The third important point is that obedience to the rulers is not to be rendered ostensibly. Unlike other common worldly states, where the citizens are obliged to render the orders of the rulers and follow them practically without being convinced of the commands given to them, the Islamic teachings oblige the believers to have full conviction in what their rulers command them. Here the inner affiliation, sincerity of heart and purity of intention is a necessary element of obedience. This is evident from the Hadīth narratives which count wishing well for the rulers a necessary condition of Islam. Another Hadīth says that God will not talk to those, among others, who pledge allegiance to the rulers in order to secure some personal benefits and do not follow them with true intent:

 رجل بايع إماما لا يبايعه إلا لدنيا فإن أعطاه منها وفي وإن لم يعطه منها لم يف

[God will not talk to] a man who enters into a pledge of allegiance with the ruler only in order to secure some worldly gains; if they are granted to them, he fulfils the pledge and if not goes back on his vows. (Muslim, No: 108)

 ‘Umar (rta) once reminded people of the obligations arising out of pledges in the following words:

و اعينوني على نفسي بالامر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر و إحضاري النصيحة فيما ولاني الله من اموركم

And help me against the shortcomings of my personality through exhorting me on the right and forbidding me the evil and through wishing well for me concerning the obligation of managing your affairs God has entrusted me.1

 The fourth important point is that in Islam some important worship rituals can only be properly discharged under the supervision and leadership of the rulers. Jihād can only be waged under a ruler. Zakāh has to be paid to the bayt al-māl under the state authority. Hajj, ‘īd prayers and the Friday congregations are also to be led by the rulers. If a group of people wages war on some forces against the Almighty and religion without permission from the ruler, their jihād will not be acceptable to God. It is considered disorder in the land and a crime regardless of the great benefits it yields or is expected to yield. A saying of the Prophet (sws) clarifies this issue:

الغزو غزوان فاما من ابتغى وجه الله و اطاع الامام و انفق الكريمة و يسر الشريك واجتنب الفساد فان نومه و نبهه اجر كله و اما من غزا فخرا و رياء و سمعة و عصى الامام و افسد في الارض فانه لم يرجع بالكفاف

Wars are of two kinds. Whoever fights in order to please God, obeys the rulers, spends his pure wealth, treats his fellow [soldiers] well and avoids creating nuisance will have his sleep and rest while on jihād rewarded. On the contrary, the one who fights for showing-off, in order to show pride and earn fame, disobeys the rulers and creates nuisance in the land will not get any benefit.2

Another Prophetic saying follows:

انما الامام جنة يقاتل من ورائه

The ruler is a shield. [Muslims] wage war behind him.3  

The fifth point worthy of note in this regard is that in the issues which have not been clearly judged by the Qur’ān and the Hadīth, in other words, which are to be decided by independent reasoning (ijtihād), the view of the imām should be followed [which of course will be based on the majority opinion of the shūrā]. The ruler in consultation with the shūrā has the authority to adopt any of the various views held by various authorites. Thus, the mere choice of the khalīfa binds a view for all. It will become the law of the land even if it is against the viewpoint of the renowned scholars and jurists. Now no individual including is allowed to disobey his directives. Some jurists and scholars may believe in the veracity of their own opinion intellectually but practically the directive adopted by the state will prevail.

The sixth conspicuous characteristic of the rightly guided caliphate is that in Islam the decision of the caliph in the political and collective affairs is considered a legal precedent for the coming generations. Just as Muslims follow the example of the prophetic conduct in all the religious affairs, they consider this precedence as a guide for them in their political and collective affairs. The word and practice of the Messenger is the first binding precedence following which earns the Muslims the countenance of God and ignoring which earns them His wrath. After the Messenger, it is the precedent set by the rightly guided caliphs which is considered as binding following which earns them the pleasure of God and ignoring which is tantamount to inviting the wrath of God. This reality has been expressed by the Prophet (sws) in different ways. To keep the discussion brief we will only refer to one such prophetic saying:

 انه من يعيش منك بعدي فسيرى اختلافا كثيرا فعليكم بسنتي و سنة الخلفاء الراشدين المهديين تمسكوا بها و عضوا عليها باالنواجذ و اياكم و محدثات الامور فان كل محدثة بدعة و كل بدعة ضلالة

Those among you who survive me will see many differences. In such circumstances, it is your duty to follow my Sunnah and the Sunnah of the rightly guided caliphs and to hold fast to it, clinging strongly to it. Beware! Never draw even near innovations in religion. Every innovation is a bid‘ah4 and every bid‘ah leads [people] astray.5

Islam does not demand Unconditional Obedience to the Rulers

The above mentioned status of the Islamic rulers and the duty to obey them is not unconditional. There are very strict conditions attached to it by the law. Obedience to the rulers required of the citizens is thus incumbent upon them only when these conditions are fulfilled by the rulers. When a government fulfills these conditions the citizens are obliged to religiously obey the authorities and to remain loyal to it. When the government fails to fulfill any one or more of these conditions the citizens will have to see the circumstances and nature of the government before deciding if to obey it or not. Thus different approaches are required with regards to different types of deviant governments and circumstances involved. Now we discuss these conditions and what approach is required of the believers when the government does not fulfil these conditions.

Conditions of Obedience

We will first put the Hadīth narratives in a proper order which spell out the conditions which must be fulfilled by the government in order to lawfully deserve obedience. We have left out our comments so that the reader is exposed to a brief but concrete list of the prophetic guidance available in this regard. The reader will then have the fundamental guidance in this regard before his eyes. We will start with a mention of the narratives which say that the rulers will only be obeyed when they establish the word of God, institutionalize the congregational prayer under their supervision and implement the directives of Islam in the land they rule:

اخرج البخاري من حديث انس اسمعوا وأطيعوا، وإن استعمل حبشي، كأن رأسه زبيبة

Bukhārī has mentioned a narrative on the authority of Anas Ibn Mālik that the Prophet (sws) said: “Listen and obey even if a negro slave whose head is like a raison is appointed over you.”6

عن أم سلمة أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال ستكون أمراء فتعرفون وتنكرون فمن عرف برئ ومن أنكر سلم ولكن من رضي وتابع قالوا أفلا نقاتلهم قال لا ما صلوا

Umm-i Salamah narrates: The Messenger of God said: “Soon there will be rulers who, you will find, will have some virtues and vices. Whoever treated the vice as vice will have his excuse with God, whoever objected to it will be safe. However, the one who remained satisfied and followed [such vices, will be ruined]. The Companions asked: “Are not we obliged to fight such rulers?” The Prophet (sws) said: “No, as long as they persist in the prayer.”7

ابن عم عوف بن مالك الأشجعي، يقول: سمعت عوف بن مالك الأشجعي يقول: سمعت رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يقول (خيار أئمتكم الذين تحبونهم ويحبونكم. وتصلون عليهم ويصلون عليكم. وشرار أئمتكم الذين تبغضونهم ويبغضونكم. وتلعنونهم ويلعنونكم) قالوا قلنا: يا رسول الله! أفلا ننابذهم عند ذلك؟ قال (لا. ما أقاموا فيكم الصلاة. لا ما أقاموا فيكم الصلاة. ألا من ولى عليه وال، فرآه يأتي شيئا من معصية الله، فليكره ما يأتي من معصية الله، ولا  ينزعن يدا من طاعة.

A cousin of ‘Awf Ibn Mālik al-Ashja‘ī narrates: “I heard ‘Awf Ibn Mālik al-Ashja‘ī say that he heard the Prophet (sws) say: “The best among your rulers are the ones you love and they love you, they pray for you and you pray for them. The worst among your rulers are those you hate and they hate you, you curse them and they curse you.’ The narrator says: We said: ‘O Messenger of God, should we declare war on them in such circumstances?’ The Messenger of God replied: ‘No, never fight them as long as they establish regular prayer among you. If someone happens to be under a ruler who defies God, then he should detest his evil. However, he may never stop obeying him.’” 8

عن عبادة بن الصامت قال بايعنا على السمع والطاعة، في منشطنا ومكرهنا، وعسرنا ويسرنا وأثرة علينا، وأن لا ننازع الأمر أهله، إلا أن تروا كفرا بواحاً، عندكم من الله فيه برهان

‘Ubādah Ibn al-Sāmit narrates: We pledged hearkening to and obeying to the Prophet (sws) in all circumstances, easy and straitened, and comfort and difficulty even when we are wronged, and not to dispute with the one in authority over us unless he commits an act of open disbelief, for which we have clear proof from the word of God to consider it disbelief.9

 The word kufr bawāh in the last Hadīth does not stand for their openly rebelling against the Almighty Allah and His Messenger and ignoring their rulings. For such an act can only be expected of a person who practically and intellectually departs from Islam. The meaning of the kufr bawāh should be derived from the parallel narratives mentioned above. The first three narratives explain the true meaning and application of this word in the last Hadīth. They would be considered to have committed kufr bawāh (open disbelief) when they start looking for guidance to sources other than the Almighty Allah and His Messenger, start deciding the issues disregarding prophetic guidance regarding good and evil, disregard the duty of institutionalizing prayer, which differentiates between a believer and a disbeliever; not offering it themselves nor implementing this in their rule, for these are the only ends to achieve which the Islamic Sate is established. The following verse clearly determines the basic obligation of the state authority and sets out the fundamental duties of the rulers in the Islamic state.

 الَّذِينَ إِن مَّكَّنَّاهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ وَأَمَرُوا بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَنَهَوْا عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ (٢٢: ٤١)

Those, who, when we establish them in the land, establish the prayer, pay the zakāh, enjoin good and forbid evil. (22:41)

 Now we turn to study some other narratives which specify the scope and limit of this right of the rulers. They explicitly say that the rulers should be obeyed as long as they command ma‘rūf. When they demand from the subjects to do munkar they will not be obeyed. By ma‘rūf are meant things which are recommended by the sharī‘ah and munkar stands for things prohibited in the divine law. The sharī‘ah has also specified the process through which one can know the ma‘rūf from the munkar. The Almighty has commanded us to take the Qur’ān and the Sunnah as the only criterion for judging ma‘rūf from munkar. There is no other source in this regard to turn to. Imām Shawkānī writes in his book Nayl al-Awtār:

الامور بالمعروف ما كان من الأمور المعروفة في الشرع لا المعروف في العقل و العادة

By ma‘rūf is meant what is desirable in the sharī‘ah not in intellect and custom.10

اخرج الشيخان و غيرهما من حديث ابن عمر على المرء المسلم السمع و الطاعة فيما احب و كره إلا ان يومر بمعصية فان امر بمعصية فلا سمع ولا اطاعة

Shaykhān [Bukhārī and Muslim] have recorded the following prophetic Hadīth on the authority of Ibn ‘Umar (rta): “It is incumbent upon a Muslim to listen to and obey [the ruler in all circumstances], whether he is commanded what he likes or not. However, when he is commanded something involving sin he should neither listen nor obey.”11

عن عبد الله رضي الله عنه عن النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم قال   السمع والطاعة على المرء المسلم فيما أحب وكره ما لم يؤمر بمعصية فإذا أمر بمعصية فلا سمع ولا طاعة

‘Abdullāh (rta) narrated that the Prophet (sws) said: “To listen to and obey [the rulers] is the duty of every Muslim whether he likes what he is commanded or detests it, as long as he is not commanded to do some sinful act. When he is required to do a sinful act, he may not listen to [the rulers] or obey [them].”12

عن علي قال بعث رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم سرية واستعمل عليهم رجلا من الأنصار وأمرهم أن يسمعوا له ويطيعوا فأغضبوه في شيء فقال اجمعوا لي حطبا فجمعوا له ثم قال أوقدوا نارا فأوقدوا ثم قال ألم يأمركم رسول الله أن تسمعوا لي وتطيعوا قالوا بلى قال فادخلوها قال فنظر بعضهم إلى بعض فقالوا إنما فررنا إلى رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم من النار فكانوا كذلك وسكن غضبه وطفئت النار فلما رجعوا ذكروا ذلك لرسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم فقال لو دخلوها ما خرجوا منها ابدا فقال لا طاعة في معصية الله إنما الطاعة في المعروف

‘Alī (rta) narrates that once the Prophet (sws) sent a battalion of soldiers on some military expedition and appointed an Ansārī Muslim over them. He commanded the soldiers to obey their commander. People disobeyed him in some issue. [This enraged him]. He commanded them to gather wood. People collected some wood. Then he commanded them to light a fire. People then put the wood on fire. Then the commander asked them whether the Prophet (sws) had not commanded them to obey him. All chorused that he had, indeed. Then he commanded them to jump into the fire. The people were confounded, gazing at each other. They exclaimed, “We have escaped nothing but the fire when we clung to the Prophet (sws). [How can now we jump into it?] They remained in this state of uncertainly for a while till he recomposed himself and the fire was out. The soldiers narrated the whole incident to the Prophet (sws) when they returned back. The Prophet (sws) explained to them that if they had jumped into the fire, they would never have been able to get out of it. He further explained that the rulers may not be obeyed when what they command involves disobeying God. This obligation only pertains to the ma‘rūf.13

و الطبراني عن عبادة سيلي أموركم من بعدي رجال يعرفونكم ما تنكرون وينكرون عليكم ما تعرفون فلا طاعة لمن عصى الله 

Tabarānī has reported the following prophetic tradition on the authority of ‘Ibādah (rta): “You will find rulers after me who will declare things as ma‘rūf which you think are munkar. They will consider things you believe to be ma‘rūf as munkar. [So beware] none who disobeys God should be followed.”14

و عند ابن ابي شيبة من حديث عبادة يقول ستكون عليكم أمراء يأمرونكم بما تعرفون ويعملون ما تنكرون فليس لأولئك عليكم طاعة

Ibn Abī Shaybah has recorded in his Musannaf a narrative on the authority of ‘Ibādah. [The Prophet (sws) said]: “Soon you will be ruled by rulers who will command you to do ma‘rūf while they themselves will indulge in committing munkar. You are not obliged to follow such rulers.”15

 Other narratives tell us that when the Companions (rta) would enter into a pledge of allegiance with the caliphs and the rulers they would declare that they would only obey the rulers as long as their commands did not mean defiance to the rulings of God and His messenger. The letter of ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar (rta) to one of the caliphs of his time follows:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم أما بعد لعبد الله عبد الملك أمير المؤمنين سلام عليك فإني أحمد إليك الله الذي لا إله إلا هو واقر لك بالسمع والطاعة على سنة الله وسنة رسوله فيما استطعت 

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate the Merciful. ‘Abd al-Mālik, Chief of the Believers! Peace be upon you! I express my thanks to God, besides whom there is no god. I vow to listen to and obey your commands to the best of my ability as long as you follow the path of God and the Messenger.16

 The above quoted Hadīth narrative sufficiently proves that the duty to obey the rulers in the Islamic systems is greatly stressed. Equally important are the conditions attached to this duty which the rulers have to fulfil in order to rightfully deserve to rule. On the one hand, the right and status of the ruler is so great that the one who disobeys it in the slightest form will have his religion and worldly benefits in jeopardy, and on the other the ruler too is obliged to establish the rule of the word of God, follow the Sunnah of the Prophet (sws), enjoin good, forbid evil and make sure that the Islamic religious and worship rituals are observed by the subjects. If the ruler is not able to accomplish these duties, the subjects are no more obliged to obey his commands. The obligation of obedience to the rulers will change in proportion to the deviation of the rulers from religious directives.

(Translated from Islāhī’s Islāmī Riyāsat by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)




1. Muhammad Hussayn Haykal, al-Fārūq ‘Umar, 9th ed., vol. 1 (Cairo: Dār al-Ma‘ārif, 1986), 94.

2. Abū Da’ūd, No: 2515.

3. Muslim, No: 1841.

4. By bid‘ah is meant, in Islamic terminology, innovations which are at variance with the Islamic norms and which do not fit in the anatomy of the religion. What differentiates between a bid‘ah and a ruling reached at through independent reasoning (ijtihād) is that a mujtahid reaches a conclusion regarding an unprecedented matter by studying the principle guidance of Islam, known precedents, considering the overall tendency of the religious teachings in that specific matter. Such a conclusion would then match the structure of the religious teachings and befits it. As regards the innovator he forges an entirely novel thing which does not correspond to the teachings of Islam.

5. Abū Dā’ūd, No: 4607.

6. Bukhārī, No: 661.

7. Muslim, No: 1854.

8. Muslim, No: 1855.

9. Muslim, No: 1709.

10. Shawkānī, Nayl al-Awtār, vol. 7 (Berut: Dār al-Jīl, n.d.), 230.

11. Muslim, No: 1839.

12. Bukhārī, No: 6725.

13. Muslim, No: 1840.

14. Al-Mu‘jam al-Awsat, No: 2894.

15. Musannaf Ibn Abī Shaybah, No: 37721. The fourth and the fifth narratives relate to the state when the rulers do not consider the Islamic teachings as the criterion to judge the good form the evil and start following the opposite of what Islam teaches. Things disallowed in Islam become desirable in their eyes and things which are desirable and virtuous in Islam are declared as irrational and uncivilized.

16. Mu’atta, No: 1776.


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