Commanding the Right & Forbidding the Wrong

Answered by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, SunniPath Academy Teacher

What is the fiqh of commanding the good and forbidding the wrong in Islam?

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful


From the Reliance of the Traveller (Book Q)

[The Reliance of the Traveller is a book every English-speaking Muslim should have, even if they are not Shafi`i, because it contains much that is necessary for every morally responsible person to know…]


q0.1 (n: The discussion and analysis that follow are Imam Ghazali’s, edited by the Hanbali scholar Ibn Qudama Maqdisi from an earlier abridgement of Ghazali’s Ihya’ `ulum al-din by `Abd al-Rahman ibn Jawzi, which Maqdisi shortened to a single volume whose conciseness, if less vivid than the Ihya’, better lends itself to the purpose of the present section, which is to discuss the practical implications of an important aspect of Scared Law.)

q0.2 (Ibn Qudama Maqdisi:) One should know that commanding the right and forbidding the wrong is the most important fundamental of the religion, and is the mission that Allah sent the prophets to fulfill. If it were folded up and put away, religion itself would vanish, dissolution appear, and whole lands come to ruin.


q1.1 Allah Most High says,

“Let there be a group of you who call to good, commanding the right and forbidding the wrong, for those are the successful” (Koran 3:104).

This verse explains that commanding the right and forbidding the wrong re a communal rather than a personal obligation (dis: c3.2), for He says, “Let there be a group of you…”and not, “All of you command the right.” So if enough people do it (A: meaning that whenever a wrong is seen, one of those who see it corrects it), the responsibility is lifted from the rest, those who perform it being expressly mentioned as the successful. There are many verses in the Holy Koran about commanding the right and forbidding the wrong.

q1.2 The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:

“Those who keep within Allah’s limits and those who transgress them or allow them to be compromised may be compared to people on a ship, some of whom must stay below deck in the hardest and worst place, while others get passage above. When those below need water, they pass through those on the upper deck, injuring and annoying them until those below reflect, ‘If we were to stave a hole in the hull we could get water without troubling those above. ‘Were those above deck to leave those below to themselves, all would be destroyed, while if they were to help them, all would be saved.”

“Whoever of you sees something wrong, let him change it with his hand. If unable to, then let him change it with his tongue. If unable, then with his heart. And that is the weakest degree of faith.”

“The best jihad is speaking the truth to an unjust ruler.”

“When you see my Community too intimidated by an oppressor to tell him, ‘You are a tyrant,’ then you may as well say good by to them.”

“Command the right and forbid the wrong, or Allah will put the worst of you in charge of the best of you, and the best will supplicate Allah and be left unanswered.”

q1.3 Abu Bakr (Allah be well pleased with him) rose from his place, and after having praised Allah Most High, said, “O people: you recite the verse,

“‘O you who believe: you are responsible for yourselves; those who go astray will not harm you if you are guided’ (Koran 5:105),”

while we have heard the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) say,

“‘People who do not change something wrong when they see it are on the verge of a sweeping punishment from Allah.'”


q2.1 There are four integrals (def: q2-5) in commanding the right and forbidding the wrong, the first of which is that the person doing so be legally responsible (def: c8.1), Muslim, and able to, these being the conditions for it to be obligatory, though a child of the age of discrimination (def: f1.2) who condemns something dishonorable is rewarded for doing so, even if it is not obligatory for him to.


q2.2 As for requirements of moral rectitude in the person giving the reprimand, some scholars take this into consideration and say that a corrupt person is not entitled to censure, a position for which they adduce the word of Allah Most High,

“Do you enjoin piety to others and forget yourselves?” (Koran 2:44),

but there are no grounds in the verse for such and inference.


q2.3 Some scholars stipulate that the person delivering the censure must have permission to do so from the caliph (def: o25) or his regional appointee, and do not grant that private individuals may censure others. This is untrue, for the Koranic verses and hadiths all indicate that whoever sees something wrong and does nothing has sinned. Stipulating that there must be permission from the caliph is mere arbitrary opinion. One should realize that there are five levels of censure: explaining the wrong nature of the act, admonishing the person politely, reviling him and harshness, forcibly stopping the act (such as by breaking musical instruments or pouring out wine), and finally, intimidation and threatening to strike the person or actually hitting him to stop what he is doing. It is the latter level, not the first four, that requires the caliph, because it may lead to civil disorder. The early Muslims’ invariable practice of reprimanding those in authority decisively proves by their consensus (def: b7) that there is no need for a superior’s authorization. If it be wondered whether a child is entitled to reprove his father, or a wife her husband, or for private citizens to reprove their ruler, the answer is that all are fundamentally entitled to. We have distinguished the five levels: the child is entitled to explain the nature of the act, to admonish and advise his parents politely, and finally may censure at the fourth level by such things as breaking a lute, pouring out wine, and so forth. This is also the sequence that should be observed by a wife. As for private citizens with their ruler, the matter is much graver than a child’s reproving his father, and citizens are only entitled to explain the matter and advise.


q2.4 It is a necessary condition that the person condemning something wrong be able to do so. Someone who is unable is not obliged to condemn it except in his heart. The obligation is not only lifted when physically unable, but also when one fears that problems (def: q2.7) will result for one, which also comes under the heading of inability. The obligation to censure the wrong is likewise lifted when one knows that the reproach will be ineffective. Four situations may be distinguished with respect to this.

When one knows (def: q2.6) the wrong will be eliminated by speaking or acting without this entailing problems for oneself, one is obliged to censure it.

When one knows that speaking will be ineffective and one will be beaten if one does, one is not obliged to.

When one knows that one’s censure will be ineffective but it does not entail problems for one, it is not obligatory, because of its ineffectiveness, though one is still recommended to censure the act is order to manifest the standards of Islam and remind people of their religion.

(A: Hadiths that seem to show the non-obligatoriness of commanding the right and forbidding the wrong are understood by Islamic scholars as referring to specific situations in which censure is ineffectual, and are not global statements about this obligation’s inapplicability to a certain era of history, such as our own or some future time. Commanding the right and forbidding the wrong will be obligatory until the Day of Judgement.)

And when one knows that it will cause problems for one but the wrong will be eliminated by censuring it, such as with breaking a lute or dumping out wine when one knows one will be beaten for it, then one is not obliged but rather recommended to, as is evident from the hadith,

“The best jihad is speaking the truth to an unjust ruler”

There is no disagreement among scholars that it is permissible for a single Muslim to attack battle lines of unbelievers headlong and fight them even if he knows he will be killed. But if one knows it will not hurt them at all, such as if a blind man were to hurl himself against them, then it is unlawful. Likewise, if someone who is alone sees a corrupt person with a bottle of wine beside him and a sword in his hand, and he knows that the person will chop his neck if he censures him for drinking, it is not permissible for him to do so, as it would not entail any religious advantage worth giving one’s life for. Such censure is only praiseworthy when one is able to eliminate the wrong and one’s action will produce some benefit.

q2.5 If one wants to censure something but knows it will result in one’s companions also being beaten with one, it is not permissible for one to do so, because one is incapable of removing one blameworthy thing without its leading to another.

(N: It is not lawful to censure anything reprehensible when doing so will lead to a thing or state that is more reprehensible.)

q2.6 Know only means what one believes will probably result. Someone who thinks that it will create problems for him is not obligated to censure, though someone who does not believe that problems will result is obliged to.
Cowardice does not enter into consideration here, not foolhardy courage, but rather the normal temperament of someone with a sound disposition.

q2.7 Problems means being beaten, killed, robbed, or acquiring a bad name in town. As for being reviled and disparaged, it is not an excuse to remain silent, for someone who commands what is right generally meets with it.


q3.1 The second integral of commanding the right and forbidding the wrong is that the thing censured is something blameworthy that exists at present and is apparent.

Blameworthy means that its occurrence is prohibited by Sacred Law, this being of wider scope than mere disobedience, for someone who sees a child or insane person drinking wine (A: which is not a sin in relation to them) is obliged to pour it out and forbid them.

That exists at present excludes someone who has drunk wine and is now finished, and so forth. It also excludes something which will take place later, as when there is evidence that a person intends to go drinking that night. There is no censure in such cases other than to appeal to the person’s conscience.
Apparent excludes someone who conceals his disobedience at home and locks his door. It is not permissible to spy on him. An exception is if something is manifest to another outside the house, such as the sound of pipes and lutes. Someone who hears them may enter and break the instruments. If one smells the odor of wine outside the house, the sounder opinion is that it is permissible to enter and condemn it.


q3.2 It is a necessary condition that the thing censured be something whose blameworthiness is not merely established by ijtihad (n: the independent legal reasoning of a particular Imam). Any question in which there is ijtihad may not be a cause for censure. A Hanafi, for example, may not condemn a Shafi’i for eating something slaughtered without the Basmala (dis: j17.5(4)), nor a Shafi’i condemn a Hanafi for drinking some non-intoxicating raisin drunk (N: nor a Muslim condemn a non-Muslim for drinking wine (dis: o11.5(1))). (A: But if two individuals follow the same school of Sacred Law and one commits an act that is unlawful or offensive in that school or in each of the two’s respective schools, it is obligatory for the other person to condemn the act even when it involves the ijtihad of their Imam. And the Shafi’i must condemn the Hanafi for eating something slaughtered without the Basmala, as the Hanafi is doing something he believes to be wrong.)


q4.1 The third integral of commanding the right and forbidding the wrong is the person being reprimanded. It is sufficient that he be a person, and is not necessary that he be legally responsible, as we have previously mentioned (q3.1) in respect to censuring a child or insane person.


q5.1 The fourth integral is the censure itself, which has various degrees of severity and has rules.


q5.2 The first degree consists of knowing the wrong act. One should not eavesdrop at another’s house in order to hear the sounds of musical instruments, or try to catch the scent of wine, or feel for an object concealed beneath someone’s shirt to see if it is a flute, or ask a person’s neighbors to see what he is doing. But if two upright witnesses (def: o24.4) come and inform one that someone is drinking, one may enter his house and take him to task.


q5.3 The second degree consists of explaining that an act is wrong, since an ignorant person will often do something he does not know is blameworthy, but will stop when he finds out. So one must explain it politely, saying, for example: “People are not born scholars; we were unfamiliar with many things in Sacred Law until scholars mentioned them to us. Perhaps there are not many in your hometown,” and thus lead up to it diplomatically so the person understands without being offended. To avoid the evil of remaining silent when there is something wrong, only to commit the evil of offending a Muslim when able not to, it like washing away blood with urine.


q5.4 The third degree of severity is to prohibit the act by admonition, advice, and making the other fear Allah, mentioning the hadiths of divine punishment for it and reminding the person how the early Muslims behaved, all of which should be done with sympathy and kindness, not harshness or anger. The great danger here which one must beware of is that a learned person explaining that something is wrong may be proud of his knowledge and gloat over the lowliness of the other’s ignorance, which is like saving someone from a fire by casting oneself into it. It is ignorant in the extreme, a deep disgrace, and a delusion from the Devil. The touchstone and test for this is to ask oneself whether one would prefer the censured person to stop at his own or another’s behest, or whether one would prefer to forbid him oneself. If reproving him is difficult and weighs upon one, and one would prefer that someone else do it, then one should proceed, for religion is the motive. But if it is otherwise, then one is following mere personal caprice and using the censuring of others as a means to display one’s merit, and one should fear Allah and censure oneself first.


q5.5 The fourth degree of severity consists of reviling the person and bearing down on him with sharp, harsh words. One does not resort to this degree unless one is unable to prevent the person by politeness, and he shows he wants to persist or mocks one’s admonitions and advice. Reviling him does not mean vulgarity and lies, but rather saying “You degenerate,” “You idiot “You ignoramus,” “Do you not fear Allah?” and so forth. Allah Most high quotes Ibrahim (upon whom be peace) saying:

“Fie on you and what you worship apart from Allah! Can you not think?” (Koran 21.67).


q5.6 The fifth degree consists of changing the blameworthy thing with one’s hand, such as by breaking musical instruments, pouring out wine, or turning someone out of a house wrongfully appropriated. There are two rules for this degree:

not to do so when one can get the person to do it himself, i.e. if one can get someone to leave the land he has unjustly taken, one should not drag or push him from it;

and to break the instruments, for example, just enough to obviate their being used for disobedience and no more, or to be careful not to break the bottles when pouring out wine. If one cannot manage except by throwing rocks at the bottles or the like, then one may do so and is not obliged to cover the damages.
If it be wondered whether one may break the bottles or drag someone by the foot out of a wrongfully appropriated house to create fear, as an object lesson to others, the answer is that this is for leaders alone and is not permissible for private individuals because of the obscurity of the decision-making criteria in the matter..


q5.7 The sixth degree is threatening and intimidation, such as by saying, “Stop this or I’ll-“; and when possible this should precede actually hitting the person. The rule for this level is not to make a threat that one cannot carry out, such as saying “or I’ll seize your house,” or “take you wife hostage,” because if one says this seriously, it is unlawful, and if not serious, then one is lying.


q5.8 The seventh degree is to directly hit or kick the person, or similar measures that do not involve weapons. This is permissible for private individuals provided it is necessary, and that one confines oneself to the minimum needed to stop the reprehensible action and nothing more. When the action has been stopped, one refrains from doing anything further.


q5.9 The eighth degree is when one is unable to censure the act by oneself and requires the armed assistance of others. Sometimes the person being reproved may also get people to assist him, and a skirmish may ensue, so the soundest legal opinion is that this degree requires authorization from the caliph (def : o25). since it leads to strife and the outbreak of civil discord. Another view is that there is no need for caliph’s permission.


q6.1 Having presented in detail the rules for someone condemning the wrong, they may be summarized in three traits needed by the person giving the reprimand:

knowledge of the (A: above-mentioned) appropriate circumstances for censure and their definitions, so as to keep within lawful bounds;

god-fearingness, without which one might know something but not apply it because of some personal interest;

and good character, the prime prerequisite for being able to control oneself, for when anger is aroused, ;mere knowledge and piousness are seldom sufficient to suppress it if character is lacking.


q6.2 Among the rules for commanding the right and forbidding the wrong is to depend less on others and eliminate desire for what they have, so as not to have to compromise one’s principles. A story is told about one of the early Muslims who used to get offal each day from the neighborhood butcher for his cat. He noticed something blameworthy about the butcher, so he returned home and turned out the cat before returning to reprimand the man, who retorted, “From now on. I’m not giving you a thing for your cat,” to which he replied, “I did not censure you till I gave up both the cat and any desire for what you have.” And this is the fact of the matter. One cannot reprimand others as long as one is anxious for two things: the things people give one, and their approval and praise of one.

q6.3 As for politeness in commanding the right and forbidding the wrong, it is obligatory. Allah Most High says,

“Speak unto him gentle words” (Koran 20:44)

(A: this being to Pharaoh, the enemy of Allah, so how then with one’s fellow Muslims?) (Mukhtasar Minhaj al-qasidin (y62), 123-30).