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Imam Zaid Shakir on Muslim Revolutions

Imam Zaid Shakir on Muslim Revolutions

Issue 79 April 2011

As protests and defiance spread in Muslim countries, questions are being asked as to whether such conduct is lawful.


As revolutions and uprisings sweep the Middle East and North Africa, most Muslims everywhere are energised by a wave of hopeful change in a region that has suffered far too long under the stultifying rule of “presidents for life.” However, some Muslims are more hesitant, and view the protests as unsanctioned rebellions against legitimate rulers.

To begin to analyse the current situation, each of the movements in the various affected countries would have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Conditions in each country are unique, and therefore any blanket statement would be inaccurate and irresponsible. What follows are some considerations that would have to be part of any meaningful discussion of the Islamic legitimacy of the various movements that can potentially reshape the political map of the Middle East.

 Firstly, we have to bear in mind that classical treatises and writings dealing with Muslim political theory will not give us the entire answer to the question of the Islamic legitimacy of the ongoing uprisings in the Muslim world. This is because those writings occurred in a socio-political environment that differs from the current one. Especially significant is the advent of the modern nation-state, and its associated concepts of state sovereignty, legitimacy, allegiance, citizenship, the social contract and the national interest. Each of these concepts, in the modern setting, differs from its pre-modern conceptual counterpart, or was unknown at the time. Hence, the writings of pre-modern Muslim scholars, no matter how brilliant, cannot give us full insight into the social, political and cultural issues that Muslims are currently dealing with.

 Secondly, the nature of the neo-colonial arrangements that prevail in many Muslim nation-states, where a “comprador bourgeoisie” “manages” the indigenous masses on behalf of a foreign power renders the entire question of the legitimacy of the state a controversial point. In other words, if the state is merely a front for foreign control, and the policies it pursues are oriented to serve the interests of a foreign elite first and foremost, it is meaningless to discuss the allegiance people owe to the state without asking a deeper question. Namely, if in reality allegiance to the state is a sort of de facto allegiance to a foreign non-Muslim power, how can questions of allegiance to the state have any definitive meaning or relevance from an Islamic perspective?

 A third issue of significance is the hegemonic nature of the modern state and its ability to exert control over the lives of its citizens in ways that were inconceivable at the time medieval Muslim political theorists were writing. Generally speaking, the modern state controls the economic life chances of its citizens; it defines the parameters of political participation; it controls the scope and nature of education; it can intrude almost at will into the private lives of its citizens; it can determine the conditions of mass incarceration (ie. the Japanese Internment Act, or the current Drug War in the USA) and, if it chooses, it can tyrannise the citizenry with impunity as, by definition, the state monopolises the legitimate use of force in the society it presides over.

 The upshot of the preceding passage is that the expanded reach of the modern Muslim state demands an expanded basis for defining allegiance and legitimacy. In earlier times, when the lack of information and security technology limited the scope of state power, it was natural to limit the scope of state legitimacy to questions revolving around primarily religious issues. However, the deepened reach of the state demands that examination of legitimacy and allegiance begin considering questions such as economic security, political participation, and basic human dignity along with related matters. If these issues are motivating Muslims who are challenging the legitimacy and efficacy of their states, they have to be considered by the religious scholars and authorities who are assessing the appropriateness of those challenges.

 "Furthermore, by accepting the legitimacy of the sovereign state, we accept, implicitly, that all of the citizens share an inherent equality. That being the case, the state is not the property of an individual, or an oligarchy or any other elite. Rather, it is the property of the people. That being such, if the people rise up in response to the abuses of the state, that uprising by definition cannot be considered illegitimate. An example given by the noted political theorist Hannah Arendt can be mentioned here to clarify this idea. We cannot consider an angry mob occupying a bank to be similar to an angry group of students occupying a building on the campus of a public university. The first group is encroaching on private property, while the second "own" the university as much as the faculty and administration who may oppose their actions, by right of their enrollment."

  When we do consider existing Muslim writing on these issues, there are caveats that normally escape discussion. Let us consider, for example, the issue of the legitimacy of revolt against an established “Muslim” ruler. There are those who claim that any rebellion against a Muslim ruler is unsanctioned. However, we do not find this opinion in the writings of the traditional scholars. This opinion is close to the conservative Sunni view. However, even the Sunni view is conditional, and rebellion is sanctioned in the case of the ruler openly rejecting Islam or sanctioning laws or practices that violate accepted Islamic laws or principles, and it is not feared that a greater tribulation will befall the believers should they rise up.

 This Sunni position, which gives priority to stability over justice, evolved over time and is informed by well-known historical realities. However, it is not universally accepted among the Muslims. The Shi’a and the Mu’tazila both hold that a rebellion in the pursuit of justice is lawful, and even encouraged in some instances. This is particularly the case when the injustices being challenged are clearly unsanctioned by the laws or principles of Islam. Hence, the scholarly consensus needed to declare the current protests as absolutely forbidden is lacking.

 Similarly, a simplistic application of the verse, “If two parties of the believers fight each other make peace between them...” (49:9), to challenge the protests would be difficult in places like Egypt, because two parties amongst the believers were not fighting each other. The protesters were non-violent in their actions and intent. Any violence was initiated by the supporters of the government, or the state security forces, while during the periods the protesters resorted to violence it was clearly in self-defence. As soon as the violence against them abated, they returned to their non-violent ways. Their peaceful protest was guaranteed by Article 54 of the Egyptian constitution, while Article 57 clearly condemned as unconstitutional the violence the pro-Mubarak goons were employing against them. Hence, to declare their movement as illegitimate would be difficult from either an Islamic or a constitutional basis.

 This brings up a related point. In that the protesters were speaking out against the excesses of tyrannical, authoritarian powers, they are engaging in the best Jihad. The blessed Prophet mentioned, “The best Jihad is a just word in the face of a tyrannical ruler.” In light of this hadith, what Islamic argument can validly be made to deny the people their right to speak out against the tyranny of their rulers?

 Others argue that these rebellions are sowing the seeds of instability in the region. It should be borne in mind that the seeds of instability are sown by the governments themselves and the rapacious elites and foreign powers that benefit from their rule. The political repression of the people and their economic exploitation is the source of any instability, not the action of those protesting against the abuses. The protesters are themselves the fruit of the seeds sown by the ruling elites. Hence, any efforts to identify the source of any instability must go to the source of that instability and not focus on its effects.

 Finally, we can add that as Muslims we should not see ourselves as being eternally trapped in a world where we are the helpless objects of the actions of others who have constructed institutions that are antithetical to our values and interests. The nation-state system in the Muslim world is less than one hundred years old. As an institution, it has debatable legitimacy and authenticity according to Muslim political thought. The way its socio-political role in Muslim societies has evolved has been shaped by un-Islamic realities such as colonisation and the Cold War, and by un-Islamic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and now the World Trade Organisation. To declare this arrangement beyond question, criticism or challenge is not only unjust, it is a betrayal of Muslim history.

 This is an issue that requires an analysis beyond the limited space available here. We pray that God blesses the people of Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere to fulfil their aspirations to enjoy a dignified existence in lands where the nobility and honour conferred upon them by God is celebrated and cherished.


To check out Imam Zaid Shakir's other articles, click here


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14 Nov 13, 11:49

This topic has always been one of my favorite subjects to read about. I have found your post to be very rousing and full of good information. I will check your other articles shortly.

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Majed Jazairi

9 Aug 11, 11:00

I have never read a more articulate piece of writing regarding this issue.

Thank you.

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Muslim Esq.

7 Apr 11, 01:22

Salaam wa jazak Allaahu khairan Imam Shakir. Certainly, the permissibility of the right of the Muslims to seek reform in corrupt, Muslim and non-Muslim, governments and, if necessary, rebel against them is one of the most important issues of our time. I think you have addressed a lot of the facts and circumstances which relate to the problem. Yet, I think we must do a "rock solid" job of showing that the conservative Sunni position that we cannot dissent against our so-called rulers, lacks both consensus and substantial basis under the Ahkam of the Shari'ah. Those who say there can be no dissent, offer a few hadith and neglect others. They overlook ayat, disregard them or give them a very narrow reading, as you have pointed out in 49:9, and as stated in 42:42 ("The way [of blame] is only against those who oppress men and rebel in the earth without justification..."). Similarly, they ignore authentic hadith as you mention and others, e.g. Sunan An-Nasaa'i, Bk of Bay'ah, #4212.

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Muhammad Eissa

5 Apr 11, 02:44

Thank you Brother Zaid. You have eloquently made the case for the minds of Muslim youth who question the current events in the Middle East. As an Egyptian with Azhar education all the way, I always questioned and debated the political Islamic thoughts with my teachers since early stages of my schooling.

I can't agree more with your comment on classical Islamic sources. God bless you.

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Martin Enriquez

4 Apr 11, 21:59

Thank you, as usual, for your concise, informed, reasoned and multi-faced analysis that forms your view. And it is apreciated that you take the time to share these on current hot topics. There are many passionate voices that unfortunately lack the holistic approach you provide.

I visited Tahrir Square yesterday and was envigorated by the energy. We seem to have lost the grip on this kind of passion in the US (unless you are Tea Party or a Wisconsin school teacher). Even in Berkeley, the epicenter of protest. ISA it will emerge for a just and important cause.


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