This article will discuss several topics related to how Sunni Islam treats rulers. The article will discuss most of the major texts relevant to this topic, and it will discuss some wrong interpretations people have made of some of those texts.
The correct position, in summary, is that:
We are commanded to obey Muslim rulers that have authority over us in things that do not contradict Allah’s commands, and we are prohibited from rebelling against their authority as long as they do not commit blatant kufr. Legislating false laws is not blatant kufr.
It is at least recommended to advise Muslim rulers in private, but this is not part of agreed-upon aqidah.
There is legitimate difference of opinion about the exact status of criticizing rulers (after agreement that it is not part of aqidah), but the following seems to be the view of a majority:
Public criticism of the rulers is not forbidden, and private criticism is not backbiting.
All of that will be discussed and proven in the following sections In sha Allah.
- 1. Major Texts on Obedience to the Rulers
- 2. Doubts in Favor of Rebellion
- 2.1 Understanding Verse 5:44: Is Legislating False Laws Kufr?
- 2.2 Understanding the Hadith: “So long as he leads you according to the Book of Allah”
- 2.3 Did the Sahabah rebel against their rulers?
- 3. Doubts About Criticizing the Rulers: Is criticizing the rulers allowed?
- 3.1 Is the prohibition of criticizing the rulers part of aqidah?
- 3.2 Criticism Is Not Rebellion
- 3.3 Understanding the Hadith: “Take him by his hand”
- 3.4 Why is it recommended to advise in private?
- 3.5 Is criticizing the ruler in private or not in front of him considered backbiting?
- 3.6 Importance of Intentions
1. Major Texts on Obedience to the Rulers
1.1 Ahadith: Listen to the Rulers and Obey Him
The Prophet (SAW) said, “Whoever exits from obedience, separates from the community, then dies, his death is like the death of Jahiliyyah.” (Sahih Muslim)
The Prophet (SAW) said, “Listening and obeying (the rulers) is (an obligation) upon every Muslim individual, in both things he likes and things he dislikes, as long as he is not commanded to do a sin. When he is commanded to do a sin, then there is no listening or obeying.” (Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim)
Allah says ⟪O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.⟫ (4:59)
The Prophet (SAW) said, “Whoever sees from his leader something he dislikes should be patient, because no one separates from the main group even a bit then dies except that he dies the death of Jahiliyyah.” (Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim)
The Prophet (SAW) said, “Listen and obey even if an Ethiopian slave whose head looks like a raisin is given authority over you.” (Sahih Bukhari)
Ethiopians had invaded Arabia recently, so the Arabs used to hate Ethiopians. The Prophet (SAW) commanded them to obey their leader even if a race they hated became their leaders.
1.2 Ahadith: Do not Rebel Even If They Are Sinful and Unjust
Salamah ibn Yazid (RA) asked the Prophet (SAW), “O Prophet of Allah, what if rulers that ask for their rights but do not give us our rights rule over us? What do you command us to do?” The Prophet (SAW) avoided answering him. He asked him again, and again, he avoided answering him. He asked him a third time. Then, Ash’ath ibn Qays pulled him aside and said, “Listen and obey, because they will carry what they commit and you will carry what you commit.” (Sahih Muslim)
The Prophet (SAW) said, “You will see after me (in the rulers) selfishness (or unjust preference) and things you disapprove (think are evil).” The companions asked, “What do you command us to do, Messenger of Allah?” He said, “Fulfill their rights, and ask Allah for your rights.” (Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim)
Ubadah ibn Samit said about the pledge the Sahabah gave the Prophet (SAW), “We pledged to listen and obey (the leaders), whether we were enthusiastic or reluctant, whether we were in difficulty or ease, even if he preferred others over us, and [we pledged] to not rebel against his authority except if you see blatant kufr which you have clear proof from Allah about.” (Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim)
Meaning, only blatant kufr allows rebellion against the rulers. Other narrations mention that one needs to obey as long as they establish Salah.
The Prophet (SAW) said, “The best of your leaders are those whom you love and who love you in return and who pray for you and whom you pray for in return. The worst of your leaders are those whom you hate and who hate you in return and whom you curse and who curse you in return.” It was said to the Prophet, “Shouldn’t we resist them with weapons?” He said, “No, as long as they establish Salah among you. When you see something from your leaders you dislike, dislike his action but do not remove your hand from obedience.” (Sahih Muslim)
The Prophet (SAW) said to Hudhaifah (RA) about the future, “After me, there will be leaders that do not take my guidance and do not follow my Sunnah. And there will be established among them men whose hearts are the hearts of the devils in the bodies of humans.” Hudhaifah (RA) asked, “What should I do, O Messenger of Allah (SAW), if I see this?” He said, “You should listen and obey the leader, even if your back is whipped and your wealth is taken, listen and obey.” (Sahih Muslim)
1.3 Difference Between Disobedience and Rebellion
Obedience in these texts is used in two different ways.
One is obedience in terms of the actual commands the ruler gives. This is limited to when his commands do not entail disobedience of Allah. You cannot obey a ruler if that means disobeying Allah. We can term this obedience of commands.
The second is obedience in terms of staying within his authority and not rebelling against him or delegitimizing his rulership. This is obligated except when you see “blatant kufr.” We can term this obedience of authority.
1.4 Aqidah Texts on Rebellion
Since early on in the history of Islam, Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah agreed that rebellion against the rulers is not allowed based on the overwhelming hadith evidence as sampled above. They do not take solitary ahadith to overrule the clear message of the vast majority of strong narrations, unlike the people of rebellion and innovation.
Imam Tahawi (a Hanafi) in his famous Aqidah Tahawiyyah says, “We do not rebel against our leaders or those in charge of our affairs, even if they are tyrannical. We do not supplicate against them, nor withdraw from obedience to them. We view obedience to them as obedience to Allah Almighty, an obligation, as long as they do not order disobedience to Allah. We supplicate on their behalf for righteousness and wellness.”
Imam Ahmad in his Usool as-Sunnah says about the khalifah, “Whoever rebels against one of the leaders of the Muslims even though they had agreed upon him and affirmed khilafah for him because of any reason, whether voluntarily or by being forced, this rebel has split the unity of the Muslims and opposed the narrations of the Prophet (SAW). If the rebel dies, he dies the death of Jahiliyyah.”
Then, Imam Ahmad goes on to talk about leaders in general, “And it is not permissible for any person to fight or rebel from the authority of the sultan (leader). Whoever does this is an innovator not upon the sunnah (i.e. outside Sunnism).”
Imam Muzani, a student of Imam Shafi’i, includes in his Aqidah, “And [part of our obligatory aqidah is] obedience to those of authority in what pleases Allah and staying away [from obedience] in what displeases Allah, and [part of it is] not rebelling against them even when they transgress and oppress. And we turn to Allah to [reform them and] make them kind to their subjects.”
Abu Hatim ar-Razi and Abu Zur’ah ar-Razi say in their Aqidah, “We met scholars in all the regions, Hijaz, Iraq, Egypt, Sham, and Yemen, and their views were that […] we do not believe in rebellion against the leaders, nor in fighting during fitnah, we listen and obey whomever Allah gave authority over us to, and we do not take our hands away from obedience.”
Similar statements about the prohibition of rebellion against the rulers exist in hundreds of aqidah texts. No similar statements exist about criticizing the rulers.
2. Doubts in Favor of Rebellion
2.1 Understanding Verse 5:44: Is Legislating False Laws Kufr?
Allah says in the Quran: ⟪And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the disbelievers.⟫ (5:44) and ⟪it is those who are the wrongdoers⟫ (5:45) and ⟪it is those who are the defiantly disobedient.⟫ (5:47)
Some people claim that any ruler that makes laws against Islam is a disbeliever according to the mentioned verse, thus rebellion against them is justified.
However, the interpretation of this verse has difference of opinion since early Islam, and there is no way this can be construed as “blatant” or “obvious” kufr in the presence of so much disagreement. The following are three possible interpretations from the earliest scholars that do not entail rulers who go against Allah’s laws are disbelievers:
2.1.1 First Possibility
Some of the early commentators said this verse is specifically about the Jews and Christians and other disbelievers.
Bara’ ibn al-Azib, the companion, said about these verses after mentioning that they were revealed in the context of the Jews, “Allah revealed all [these verses] about the kuffar.” (Sahih Muslim)
Meaning, they were not revealed about people who claimed to be Muslim but about the Jews and the Christians. Thus, they are not verses to be used for takfir.
Ikrimah said about these verses, “All of them are about the People of the Book because of what they abandoned from the Book of Allah.” Similar is reported from Abu Mujliz, Abu Salih, and Muqatil.
So, there was no consensus even among the companions about whom this verse applies to. Then, how can anyone claim the act of not legislating by Allah’s laws is “blatant kufr”? How can something the companions and early scholars differed about be considered “blatant” when there is no later consensus about it either?
2.1.2 Second Possibility
Some of the early commentators, even if they agreed it was about Muslims, said it was about people who refused to judge according to Allah’s law while disbelieving in His laws. So, it is not just an action of false judgement but an associated disbelief.
It is reported that Ibn Abbas commented, “Whoever disbelieves in the judgement of what Allah revealed has committed kufr. But, whoever believes in it but does not judge by it is a wrongdoer and disobedient.”
It is reported from Abdurrahman ibn Zaid ibn Aslam about this verse, “Whoever judges according to a book that he wrote with his own hands and leaves the book of Allah and claims that this book of his came from Allah has disbelieved.”
An interesting interpretation is reported from Ikrimah. He said this verse only refers to those who disbelieve Allah’s judgement in their heart and deny it with their tongue because the one who believes something to be Allah’s judgement and affirms it with his tongue is, in reality, making judgement according to what Allah revealed. Him failing to implement it in actions does not change the fact that he is affirming and thus judging according to what Allah revealed already.
He interprets “judgement” in this verse, not as legal judgement, but literal judgement. Literal judgement is what you affirm to be true. In that sense, even a ruler who does not legislate properly is still judging according to what Allah revealed on some level, so he does not fall into Allah’s statement ⟪Whoever does not judge by Allah revealed⟫.  But, Allah knows best.
2.1.3 Third Possibility
Many other early commentators, even after agreeing the verse is about any Muslims who judges by other than what Allah revealed regardless of whether he denies Allah’s commands, interpreted the kufr in this verse as minor kufr.
The word “disbelief” or kufr has different meanings in different contexts. Some crimes are called kufr (intending minor kufr) to emphasize their greatness and strongly warn against them.
For example, the Prophet (SAW) said, “Cursing a Muslim is fisq, and fighting him is kufr.” (Sahih Bukhari) However, everyone agrees fighting (or even murdering!) a Muslim is not kufr. Allah explicitly says in the Quran ⟪And if two factions among the believers should fight⟫, indicating that even “believers” can fight each other. If fighting or killing were kufr, it would not be possible to call them two groups among the believers. So, fighting and murder are major sins and are compared to kufr because of their magnitude. They may be considered minor kufr.
The verse ⟪it is those who are the disbelievers⟫ can be understood in the same way.
It is reported that Ibn Abbas said, “It is not the kufr you are thinking of. It is not kufr that takes one out of the religion. [It is] kufr less than [full] kufr.” It is also reported he said, “It is kufr in that [thing], and it is not like the one who disbelieves in Allah or the Last Day.”
Similar interpretations that it is minor kufr are reported from Tawus ibn Kaisan and Ata ibn Abi Rabah.
It is not possible to argue that this verse proves judgement against Allah’s law is blatant kufr. Even if one disagrees with all the above interpretations of the verse according to the early scholars and decides to interpret it to mean any judgement against Allah’s law is kufr, the existence of so much early disagreement (with no subsequent consensus on one view) removes any possibility of claiming this kufr is “blatant.”
The allowance of rebellion in the Prophet’s hadith is not just for any kufr. It is specifically for “blatant kufr,” and this much disagreement cannot be over something blatant.
2.2 Understanding the Hadith: “So long as he leads you according to the Book of Allah”
Some people dispute the obligation of obeying leaders that rule with false laws using a hadith in Sunan Ibn Majah.
It is reported the Prophet (SAW) said, “Even if a mutilated Ethiopian slave were appointed over you, listen to him and obey him, as long as he leads you with the Book of Allah.” (Sunan Ibn Majah)
This hadith can be discussed in two ways: 1) how to understand it if we assume this wording is accurate, and 2) what is the most accurate wording of the hadith and what does that wording say.
2.2.1 Understanding This Wording
Assuming this wording is accurate, it (being a solitary and vague hadith) will be interpreted in light of the other more authentic and more clear ahadith. So, it will be understood to mean the same as, “Listening and obeying (the rulers) is (an obligation) upon every Muslim individual […] as long as he is not commanded to do a sin.”
The hadith, thus, means a ruler’s commands should be followed as long as they are within the allowance of the Book of Allah. If he commands something that goes against Allah’s Book, it must not be followed. So, the “obedience” in this hadith refers to obedience of commands, not obedience of authority.
It cannot be interpreted to allow rebellion against unjust rulers, because the ahadith are clear that even sinful people who do not judge by Allah’s laws cannot be rebelled against, as long as there is no blatant kufr. The Prophet (SAW) said, “When you see something from your leaders you dislike, dislike his action but do not remove your hand from obedience.”
2.2.2 More Accurate Wording
There are two major wordings of this hadith. One is the wording mentioned by Ibn Majah as quoted above. Another wording, mentioned by Imam Muslim, is that the Prophet (SAW) said, “If a slave is appointed over you who leads you according to the Book of Allah, listen to him and obey him.” (Sahih Muslim) This is the more accurate version of this hadith.
The striking difference between the wording of Sahih Muslim and Sunan Ibn Majah is that Ibn Majah’s wording implies a limit by saying “as long as he leads you according to the Book of Allah” but Sahih Muslim’s wording only mentions “leading according to the Book of Allah” as a description of this slave. The description does not necessarily indicate a limit to the obligation of obedience.
So, while the hadith of Ibn Majah might lead one to think there is an allowance to rebel, the hadith of Muslim gives no such implication. Instead, the Prophet (SAW) was emphasizing that we should follow a slave who became leader no matter how much we looks down on his class, race, or appearance.
The phrase “who leads you according to the Book of Allah” is a form of emphasis to indicate, “How can you rebel against someone who leads you according to the Book of Allah only because you don’t like his race and status??” It does not indicate it is allowed to rebel against someone who doesn’t lead according to the Book of Allah.
This type of description that does not indicate limit appears in the Quran as well. Allah says ⟪Prohibited to you [for marriage] are […] your step-daughters under your guardianship [born] of your wives unto whom you have gone in.⟫ (4:23) Here, Allah describes the step-daughters as “under your guardianship” even though there is consensus all step-daughters are forbidden for marriage, even those that were never under the man’s guardianship. So, the description is meant as emphasis instead of limitation.
Returning to our hadith, when the two wordings give different implications, the wording of Sahih Muslim should definitely be preferred over Sunan Ibn Majah, especially when an analysis of the chains leads to the same conclusion and especially when one considers all other ahadith on this subject. Any clash in meaning between the two wordings should yield to the narration of Sahih Muslim, and Muslim’s narration does not indicate any allowance of rebellion.
Some people try to use the narration of Ibn Majah to limit every other hadith about rebellion against the rulers, but using a doubtful wording of a solitary narration to limit tens of other very strong narrations is not proper methodology.
And Allah knows best.
2.3 Did the Sahabah rebel against their rulers?
2.3.1 Ikhtilaf of the Sahabah Is Not Accepted After Ijma’
Some of the Sahabah doing something before the ahadith prohibiting that action reach them or before a consensus on this topic developed among Ahlus-Sunnah is not evidence of permissibility.
Even if one argues that some of the Sahabah believed rebellion was allowed, there are hundreds more senior companions like Ibn Umar and Ibn Abbas that believed rebellion was not allowed, refused to rebel, and advised other companions not to rebel.
Consensus among Ahlus-Sunnah developed after the Sahabah that rebellion is forbidden, and this consensus can be seen clearly in the many aqidah texts quoted in this article. The difference of opinion of the Sahabah before a consensus developed cannot be used as evidence.
It is important to keep in mind that Hussain (RA), although the beloved grandson of the Prophet (SAW), is eclipsed in knowledge and wisdom by many of the senior Sahabah who opposed rebellion. Preferring one companion’s opinion, even the grandson of the Prophet (SAW), without strong evidence and after a contrary consensus is not the way of Ahlus-Sunnah.
2.3.2 Disputing Successorship vs. Rebellion
It is important to differentiate between disputing someone’s succession and rebelling against an established ruler. The line between the two may be blurred in some situations, but they are fundamentally different things.
Hussain (RA) who attempted to resist against the Umayyad ruler Yazid had never given a pledge of allegiance to Yazid in the first place, and he believed the city he was travelling to (Kufa) had not given him a pledge of allegiance either, as the people of Kufa kept telling him. The city Hussain (RA) was travelling from (Makkah) had also never given Yazid the pledge of allegiance.
This means Yazid’s authority at the time did not strongly extend to these areas, at least in Hussain (RA)’s view. So, Hussain (RA) did not consider his situation rebellion but seeking authority that had not actually settled with anyone yet.
Note that the absence of the pledge of allegiance itself does not matter since it is not allowed to rebel against an established ruler even if you as an individual did not give him a pledge. Rather, what matters is whether he is an established ruler in the first place, and those cities not having given the pledge of allegiance (since pledges were how authority worked at the time) could have indicated to an observer that the ruler was not actually established there.
Abdullah ibn Zubair (RA), in Makkah, openly spoke against Yazid after death of Hussain (RA) at Karbala. Ibn Zubair (RA) had also never given Yazid a pledge of allegiance. Despite that, Ibn Zubair (RA) never rebelled against Yazid in Yazid’s lifetime.
After Yazid died, Ibn Zubair (RA) claimed successorship and most of the Muslim lands pledged allegiance to him. So, in the beginning, it was the Umayyads who rebelled against Ibn Zubair (RA), not the other way around!
2.3.3 Speed of Information
As mentioned above, rebellion refers to fighting against an established ruler, not just any claimant to the throne. As such, this depends on judging whether a ruler’s authority is established or not.
The speed at which information travels through the world has changed drastically in the modern period compared to early Muslim history. This means both that the establishment of a ruler’s authority would take longer than it does today and knowledge of this establishment would also take longer to proliferate.
That is why it is not very easy to assume Yazid actually did have his authority established in Iraq when Hussain (RA) went there. All historical sources point to the idea that Hussain (RA) did not believe he was established there, and that was probably the correct judgement.
As for us, it is required for us to act according to the speed of information today, and it is not allowed to rebel when we know a ruler is established. That is because the Prophet (SAW) said, “Listen and obey, because they will carry what they commit and you will carry what you commit.”
3. Doubts About Criticizing the Rulers: Is criticizing the rulers allowed?
Some people claim that criticizing the rulers is a form of rebellion or incites rebellion and thus is not allowed. They further consider it a part of aqidah not to criticize the rulers publicly in the same way as not rebelling is part of aqidah.
3.1 Is the prohibition of criticizing the rulers part of aqidah?
The prohibition of criticizing the rulers, even if it existed, is definitely not part of aqidah, nor is it something the scholars have a consensus about.
There are many aqidah texts from the early scholars, and no text explicitly states criticizing the rulers is forbidden according to Ahlus-Sunnah. So, anyone who claims it is a part of our aqidah needs to bring proof.
Aqidah texts frequently mention the prohibition of rebellion against rulers, but none of them mention a prohibition of public criticism.
Criticism of the rulers is also not mentioned in any clear and undisputed text of the Quran or Sunnah. It is mentioned in some ahadith, as this article will discuss, however those ahadith do not reach the level of strength or numbers to even approach being part of aqidah. They are all in the realm of debate.
3.2 Criticism Is Not Rebellion
A lot of brothers conflate between criticism and rebellion (khuruj). When asked for evidence against criticism, they give evidence against rebellion. This is a fundamental mistake in both language and religion.
Criticism is not the same as rebellion. Criticism does not even necessarily lead to rebellion. The only one who thinks criticism is a direct road to rebellion is an insecure, oppressive ruler.
I listed the major ahadith on this topic one by one above just to show that every hadith is about actual rebellion and there is no clear hadith against criticism itself except the one mentioned in the next section.
Some people do strange linguistic tricks to prohibit criticism like claiming the word khuruj or rebellion includes criticism. But, this has no basis. Rebellion is, in the technical Arabic usage, physical and not verbal. It is not possible to call speech “rebellion” without proof from the Quran, Sunnah, or the early scholars.
3.3 Understanding the Hadith: “Take him by his hand”
The main hadith used to justify the prohibition of public criticism is a report in Musnad Ahmad.
It is reported that: Iyadh ibn Ghanam lashed the (non-Muslim) governor of Dara when it was conquered, so Hisham ibn Hakeem spoke harshly with Iyadh until Iyadh became angry. Then, a few nights later, Hisham ibn Hakeem came to him to excuse himself and said, “Didn’t you hear the Prophet (SAW) say, ‘The worst torture (on the Day of Judgement) will be for the one who is worst in torturing people?'” Iyadh ibn Ghanam said, “O Hisham ibn Hakeem, we heard what you heard and saw what you saw. Didn’t you hear the Messenger of Allah say, ‘Whoever intends to advise the sultan of authority, he should not do so publicly. Rather, he should take him by his hand and be alone with him. If he accepts it, that [is it]. If not, he has fulfilled his obligation.’ You, O Hisham, are very brave. When you act brave with the sultan of Allah, don’t you fear that the sultan will kill you, then you will be someone killed by the sultan of Allah?” (Musnad Ahmad 15333)
In some narrations, the phrase “he should not do so publicly” is not mentioned.
This report is disconnected in Musnad Ahmad, however, there are weaker connected chains for it. That is why the part of how to advise the ruler is graded by some as Hasan li-ghayrihi or Sahih li-ghayrihi.
The first thing to note is that this report is not nearly authentic enough to treat as a major pillar of the religion.
The second thing to note is that it is possible this statement by the Prophet is a recommendation rather than an obligation.
As evidence for it being recommendation, it is reported in Sahih Muslim that (the same) Hisham ibn Hakeem passed by some people in Sham who were being made to stand in the sun and olive oil had been poured on their heads. He asked, “What is this?” People responded, “They are being punished over jizyah (i.e. they had failed to pay jizyah).” Then, Hisham said, “I testify that I heard the Messenger of Allah say, ‘Allah will torture those who torture people in the world.'” (Sahih Muslim) Another narration in Sahih Muslim adds, “Their leader at that time was Umair ibn Sa’d, ruling over Palestine, so Hisham entered upon him and narrated the hadith to him. So, he ordered them to be released.” (Sahih Muslim)
In this narration, Hisham ibn Hakeem (again!) sees a ruler torturing one of his subjects and criticizes him publicly by quoting a hadith of the Prophet (SAW). Then, he also goes to the ruler and narrates the hadith to him. There is no mention of him being in private, and in fact, the fact that this hadith is being narrated to us at all indicates it was not something secret or private. One does not reveal private conversations! He was open in criticizing this ruler’s actions.
The reason I quote a narration of Hisham ibn Hakeem specifically criticizing a ruler is because the first hadith about not criticizing the rulers in public was narrated by Iyadh to Hisham ibn Hakeem. However, Hisham ibn Hakeem criticized rulers’ actions publicly even after he had heard this hadith. We know it was after him knowing the hadith because Iyadh ibn Ghanam died before Umair ibn Sa’d was appointed governor of Palestine. So, Hisham ibn Hakeem himself understood this hadith about not criticizing publicly as recommendation and not obligation.
There are many narrations of other companions criticizing the conduct of rulers. The incident of Abu Saeed al-Khudri (RA) criticizing the Umayyad rulers for doing khutbah before Eid is famous, and it was in public. It is in that very context of correcting the rulers publicly that Abu Saeed (RA) narrated the famous hadith of the Prophet (SAW) saying, “Whoever sees an evil should change it with his hands. If he is not able to, [he should change it] with his tongue. If he is not able to, [he should believe it to be evil] with his heart, and that is the lowest level of faith.” (Sahih Muslim)
3.4 Why is it recommended to advise in private?
It is important to understand the correct reason why it is recommended to advise a ruler in private rather than public. It is not because criticism incites rebellion as some people claim. Rather, it is because of fear the ruler would kill the critic and because public criticism is often less effective.
That is why Iyadh after narrating the hadith against public criticism said, “Don’t you fear that the sultan will kill you?”
It is also reported that Saeed ibn Jubair asked Ibn Abbas, “Should I command good and forbid evil to the ruler?” Ibn Abbas said, “If you fear he will kill you, then no.” Saeed ibn Jubair repeated his question. Ibn Abbas responded the same. He repeated his question again. He responded the same again. Then, he said, “If you must do it, then about what is between you and him.” (Al-Amr bil-Ma’roof by Ibn Abi Dunya)
Note how Ibn Abbas does not condition privacy for the criticism and he only gave fear of being killed as a cause of prohibition.
The idea that all criticism incites rebellion is ridiculous. If a person who teaches against rebellion criticizes the ruler, that no more incites rebellion than a person speaking against alcoholics incites people to kill alcoholics. It is true some criticism can incite rebellion if the speaker decides to point the audience in that direction. But, some criticism inciting rebellion is definitely not evidence to prohibit all criticism.
What one interprets to be the reason behind the prohibition of criticizing the ruler can change whether one believes private criticism to be recommended or obligated.
If the reason is fear of being killed as many of the companions understood it, it is allowed for someone who does not fear being killed to criticize the ruler. This can apply to people who do not directly live under the authority of a particular ruler.
Additionally, if the reason is fear of being killed, criticism can be allowed if the public benefit of criticism is greater than the harm of one person risking death. That is because it is allowed to risk one’s life in many forms of jihad, and commanding good and forbidding evil in front of a ruler is a form of jihad.
It is reported the Prophet (SAW) said, “The best jihad is words of justice in front of an oppressive ruler.” (Sunan Abi Dawud)
If the reason is fear that advice would be less effective in public, then it depends on the person to decide whether the situation warrants taking this less effective method. It would be allowed if there are benefits in criticism unrelated to whether the ruler accepts this advice, like the need for truth to be known.
It is reported that Ubadah ibn Samit said, “We pledged to the Prophet that we would listen and obey in ease and hardship, whether enthusiastic or reluctant, and that we would not dispute the authority of those who have it and that we would speak the truth wherever we are, not fearing in [the way of] Allah the blame of any blamer.” (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Muwatta Malik)
Note how speaking the truth in this hadith is mentioned right after obedience to the rulers. Meaning, if speaking the truth is necessary, one should not fear the blame of any blamer, including the blame of the rulers. And Allah knows best.
3.5 Is criticizing the ruler in private or not in front of him considered backbiting?
A strange argument some brothers make is that criticizing the rulers in private is backbiting. They quote, in favor of this idea, a hadith of the Prophet (SAW).
It is reported that: The Prophet (SAW) asked his companions, “Do you know what is backbiting?” They said, “Allah and His Messenger know better.” He said, “Mentioning about your brother what he does not like.” Someone asked, “What if my brother actually has what I said about him?” He responded, “If he has what you said, you have backbit him. If he does not have it, you have slandered him.” (Sahih Muslim)
The mistake these brothers make is interpreting the short dhābit (maxim) intended to simplify the meaning of backbiting as a full definition of backbiting. This is not the full definition of the backbiting that is forbidden.
Backbiting is a specific social sin against someone (who is from your social circle usually) where you publicize his private shortcoming or mock/mention his public shortcoming without purpose when he is not in the gathering. It is not just any mention of something a person does not like. So, “mentioning about your brother what he does not like” is meant as a shortcut, not a full definition.
There are many things that a person might not like to be mentioned about him but must be mentioned. For example, teachers need to discuss the grades of their students even if the grades are bad and a student would not like them mentioned.
Many scholars like Imam Nawawi listed some things that are excluded from the prohibition of backbiting. He said, “Backbiting is allowed for a shar’i purpose” and he mentions six situations that have such a purpose:
- A person who is wronged reporting the wrongdoer to an authority (only allowed if the authority is expected to be just and not go against the Islamic rights of the individual)
- Seeking help to stop an evil or reform a sinner
- Seeking a fatwa about a situation with someone else
- Warning the Muslims from falling into some harm (e.g. talking about a person’s shortcomings when someone asks about them for the purpose of marriage)
- Talking about the public sins of an open sinner (but talking about their private sins is not allowed)
- Identification (e.g. when someone is known by a name that describes one of his shortcomings)
Criticizing the public sins and shortcomings of a ruler clearly falls into category 5. A person who commits open and public sins does not have any right for his sins not to be discussed. Thus, it cannot be the prohibited form of backbiting.
In addition, many common people are misled into thinking the sinful actions and false legislation of rulers are actually permitted in Islam. For example, many rulers allowing interest and usury leads some people to believe it is allowed in Islam. Some rulers banning niqab or failing to obligate hijab leads many people to believe doing so is allowed in Islam. So, criticizing rulers and noting that they go against Islam in many aspects falls into category 4 as well. It is necessary in order to guide people away from false beliefs.
3.6 Importance of Intentions
Although it may be allowed to criticize a ruler in public and private, the allowance depends on having a proper intention.
Someone who criticizes people as entertainment and mockery without any good intention behind his criticism may be sinful. Someone who criticizes people for a good intention, wishing to spread a proper understanding of Islam and to discredit the actions of sinners, will be rewarded In sha Allah.
Many brothers say criticism of the rulers is not allowed because it is not done with a good intention. But, that does not make criticism forbidden. That only makes criticism with bad intentions forbidden.
And Allah knows best.