The issue of reform is admittedly a difficult one, but it can be approached successfully. The problem that repeatedly surfaces throughout history is that some righteous people become so enthusiastic about their religion – so over-eager in their calling to it and seeking reform– that they push forward blindly without having the ability to achieve anything productive. In this way, they bring themselves and others to destruction.
The great thinker Ibn Khaldûn, in his Introduction to History, has discussed this phenomenon, bringing to it his insights into the conditions of human society and the circumstances surrounding reform.
He writes (pp 280-281):
This includes the condition of revolutionaries, whether scholars or average people, who try to change wrongdoing. Many religious people go to confront the unjust rulers in order to prevent and change wrongdoing and to enjoin what is right. They do so hoping for Allah’s reward. They get many followers and adherents from among the masses and the riffraff, and consequently expose themselves to destruction.
Most of those who meet destruction in this way are debased, not blessed, because Allah did not enjoin this behavior upon them. He only commanded them to do this when they had the ability to do so. Allah’s Messenger (peace and be upon him) said: “Whoever among you sees a wrong being committed, then he should change it with his hands, and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue. and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart.”
Kings and nations are strong and their power is firmly entrenched. They cannot be removed or toppled except with a powerful opposition backed by the strength of the tribes and clans, as we have already mentioned.
This was how the Prophets (peace be upon them) had to deal with the tribes and clans when they called people to Allah, and they were supported by Allah – with the entire world if He so wished. But Allah allowed the events surrounding them to unfold in the normal manner, and Allah is the All-Knowing, All Wise.
So if any individual adopts this methodology in sincerity and truth, then his isolation from the tribal or national consciousness would curtail his efforts and bring his downfall. If, on the other hand, he uses this method as a means of securing personal power, then he is more deserving of failure and of meeting his doom. This is because the command of Allah cannot be fulfilled except as He pleases, and it cannot be fulfilled without His divine assistance. This requires the person’s sincerity and true concern for the Muslims. No Muslim doubts this fact, and no one with insight can have any doubt about it.
Many contemporary experiences in the Muslim world reflect what Ibn Khaldûn had written. The people involved only considered the correctness of their position and the strength that they themselves possessed, without taking into consideration the strength of what they were confronting. They were struck down by the hard facts of reality that cannot be changed except by those who possess experience and great patience.
Beyond this, the nature of reform requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the Qur’ân and Sunnah and the lessons of history.
Obsession with one particular aspect of a situation and the belief that reforming it is the answer to all problems – like changing the political leadership for example – is an error in thinking and a gross misunderstanding of the issues. This outlook completely disregards the various and complex aspects of society. The best approach is a holistic one that seeks to develop every aspect of society in accordance with Islamic norms and values and also seeks to nurture scientific cadres in all fields. It is an approach that must put its ideas to practical use, which is the test that most purely theoretical ideologies fail to live up to.
It is true that the responsibilities of political leaders are quite different – and weightier – than those of others. It is wrong to compare them with the responsibilities of ordinary individuals. Yet, there are influences, methods, and complications that must be taken into consideration by everyone, including the political leaders themselves. These factors must be recognized and dealt with accordingly.
Though Islamic Law comes with clear and specific principles and rulings, it recognizes that for these principles to be practically applied, the circumstances and opportunities afforded by the real world must be taken into consideration. One way it achieves this is by making all of its injunctions contingent upon the ability of the one who has to carry them out. Allah says:
“Fear Allah as much as you are able.”
“Allah does not place a burden on a soul greater than it can bear.”
“…whoever is able to do so.”
The same pattern is reflected in texts of the Sunnah. “…and if you are not able…” “Pray standing, and if you are not able to do so, then pray seated.”
Ability and inability are factors that must be taken into consideration on the individual level and on that of society. Determining the extent of one’s abilities requires the consideration of many contingent factors. It requires broad vision, a thorough understanding, and a keen perception of the circumstances surrounding – and the consequences resulting from – any given action.
Inability removes all obligations. The discourse of the legal scholars testifies to this.
Nevertheless, it is necessary to try to overcome one’s inabilities and not accept them complacently. It is the obligation of society to raise its status and develop itself in both knowledge and industry. Impossibility exists only in the minds of the weak, as some philosophers have said.
From this it should be clear that the incapacity that we are referring to is not a philosophy to excuse weakness, complacency, and inaction. The meaning of incapacity here is a factual inability of an individual or of society to do something. This creates a situation that requires that individual or society to shift its efforts from trying to fulfill one of its obligations to actually fulfilling another. It in no way implies hopelessness or despair.
There is a general principle in Islamic Law requiring that relative benefit and harm be taken into consideration. This principle has many legal implications, and is one of the most important principles for regulating the practical life of a Muslim. It is often misapplied or misconstrued, either through a misunderstanding of the principle itself or a misunderstanding of the circumstances in which it is to be applied.
One of the primary purposes of Islamic Law is to secure and cultivate what is beneficial and to prevent or minimize that which is harmful. Whenever securing one benefit comes in conflict with securing another, then the greater benefit is to take precedence. Likewise, if one of two harmful consequences becomes unavoidable, the greater harm should be averted at the expense of suffering the lesser harm. In cases where the choice is given between securing some benefit or avoiding something harmful, the avoidance of harm will take precedence unless the harm involved is relatively minor compared to the benefits that might be secured.
Based on this principle, the broad injunctions of Islamic Law have many subsidiary rulings. Some of these rulings apply obligation to enjoin what is right and prohibit what is wrong is treated in the same way. It can be carried out physically, verbally, or in the heart. This is contingent on ability, as stated in the hadîth related by Abû Sa`îd that can be found in Sahîh Muslim
. It is also contingent on whether or not any benefit can be realized from it. If, for instance, a person is capable of carrying out this obligation, but he realizes that in doing so, he will bring about more harm than good, then it is forbidden for him to do so. For this reason, Allah says: “Then give admonition, if such admonition will be of benefit.”
The application of these injunctions in the real world requires both knowledge of Islamic Law and an understanding of the world. Ibn Taymiyah has discussed this in the judgment he gave on the Tatar issue. It also requires absolute sincerity and an absence of vested interests and dogmatism. Discussing this matter should not lead people to name-calling and accusations, where one person accuses the other of recklessness or seeking worldly gain, while the other in turn accuses the former of weakness and cowardice – or even seeking worldly gain.
It is necessary to view the opinions and intentions of others in the best possible light. This does not mean that one must agree with them if they seem to be in error. Truth must stand above everyone. Some illustrious scholars have said: “So-and-so is esteemed, but the truth is more esteemed than he.”
The experiences of contemporary and traditional efforts in propagating Islam should be studied in an objective, balanced, and impartial manner. Personal dislikes should not lead one to iniquity or prejudice, whereby the virtues of others are turned into vices.
Allah says: “O you who believe, be steadfast for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let your hatred of a people prevent you from doing justice. Be just; this is nearer to piety.”
The call to Allah’s unity should not be construed by the disputant as a form of troublemaking and as a rejection of the pious and a denial of their virtues. Nor should calling others to self-assessment and correction become a means of seeking revenge.
Likewise, love and loyalty should not make one blind to the mistakes of others. Someone enamored with love might speak about personal criticism and correction, but his deep-rooted loyalty unfortunately will not let him take this beyond a certain point. This is an obvious fact.
So it appears that justice and impartiality in such circumstances is almost impossible – and Allah knows best – except that we have already decided that impossibility exists only in the minds of the weak.
So we ask Allah to help the Muslims in their dealings with each other and give them patience in their weakness and make them aware of their faults before it is too late.
…And Allah knows best.