A Discussion of Obedience and Authority in Islam

Islam is an interesting way of life. It is based on a simple code of conduct that originates from a simple command; “obey.” It gets complicated when we start to question that we should or shouldn’t obey. God no doubt knew that mankind would constantly be perplexed by the idea of simple obedience. It stands to reason that we will constantly be challenged by the idea of an “unquestioning obedience” since we cannot see God. We have no way, on our own, to validate the prophet hood, or to be assured that those placed in authority over us who are not prophets should be obeyed, so God did something ingenious. He revealed Holy Books. There is no Muslim in the world, left or right, who can question the authority of the Qur’an, and so whenever questions relating to right and wrong arise, God says for us to come to His judgment and not to rely upon our own desires as guide. The Qur’an teaches that on certain matters, we must rely upon what is said in the Qur’an. This ! means we must accept and follow what was taught by the prophet (sa), and in such cases no opinion is allowed. This doesn’t appear to be a matter of “interpretation” since the interpretation is clearly acted out in the prophets life, and in the lives of those who followed his way. The Qur’an says in Chapter 33, verse 36, ” It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by God and His messenger to have an opinion about the decision. If anyone disobeys God, and His messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong path.” There are other verses of the Qur’an that address the issue of obedience, one verse saying, “Oh you who believe, obey God, and obey the messenger and those charged with authority among you. If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to God, and His messenger, if you do believe in God and the last Day. That is best and most suitable for final determination (4:59). The mention of God and messenger here, refers to the Qur’an and the prophets sunna, or way of life. Another verse compares obedience to self-sacrifice, and makes it very clear that obedience is better. The Qur’an says: “They swear their strongest oaths by God, that if you (Muhammad) were to command them, they would leave their homes. Say “Swear not; obedience is more reasonable. Verily God is well acquainted with all that you do ” (24:53) And in another verse, the Qur’an says: ” It is such as obey God, and His messenger and fear God, and do right that will win in the end” (24:52).

There are some that might argue that obedience and “blind obedience” are different issues, since one refers to obedience to God and prophets, and another raises questions related to obedience to human beings. Yet, it is clearly stated that God also commands us to obey “those placed in authority over us,” referring to non-prophets. This of course leads to a question of legitimacy. Who is the authority that we must obey? Is it only God and prophets? This question is posed not only in the religious discourse, but also in every worldly discussion that addresses the issue of authority. Who is to be obeyed among human beings, and to what extent? Is mankind free to question, to follow his or her own judgment, and why or why not, and when and or when not? Historically this has been the question that has driven the movement of secularists and leftists as well, and so we must expect that always the issue with such people is legitimacy of authority. The French revolution began in the same way. The people questioned the role of the clergy, and its relationship with the government. The argument that religion has no place in government, and that religious authorities enjoy no compulsory rights or entitlement continues in many forms to this very day, and in many places of the world. The French revolution, which was instigated from abroad, yet mounted and acted out by mostly the poor and uneducated, driven more by hunger and anger than reason, or enlightenment, overthrew the monarchy, and drove the Church underground. This set an impressive precedent that until today is the rallying call of such men and women who would claim that sovereign majorities should rule, and that religion and state should not adjoin. For such a thing to happen in Europe and to the Christian Church is perhaps seen as a major step toward modernity. For such to be threatening a Muslim country is not only very dangerous, but inappropriate, since as Muslims, we have already accepted, and agreed that Islam is not merely an organization or institution, but it is also a way of life. Muslims should not allow themselves to be engrossed in debates that threaten the peaceful change and progress in ideas that is central to Islam. And neither should Muslim authorities feel threatened by the rebellious rhetoric of so-called “revolutionaries” whose true aim might not be to challenge the religious institution per se, but rather to challenge the legitimacy of religious Islamic authority, as in government, in Muslim countries. The timing of such rebellions might be telling, since it coincides with a general resurgence in leftists’ activism in response to a triumphant conservatism that is causing a sort of panic in the leftist movement internationally. Rejection of the leftist agenda that has heretofore been advocated and advanced by the United Nations has led many leftists to take resort once again, to rebellion as a catalyst for social transformations. F! or some reason, this type of theoretic challenge to tradition is particularly appealing to the young, since it seems that traditionally young people have viewed their rise to power in society as resulting from confrontation with the status quo, rather than through cooperation. A good example of this might be what occurred in the United States in the sixties and seventies. Leftists came to power by first lowering the voting age, while simultaneously creating a “generation gap” in communications, that undermined young people’s trust in their parents ability to understand, and thereby act in their interest. This lack of trust or faith undermined the first line of social authority and order, which is the family, and the role that parents traditionally played in families.

Generation “gappers” in the United States promoted the idea that the nation was divided between the young and old, the old being anyone over 30. The “older” over 30 group represented stagnancy in ideas and all of the ills of society, while the young were presented as the fresh voice of change and progress and enlightenment. After nearly 40 years we have learned that the young were not so enlightened, and in fact were perhaps extremely gullible. They too challenged the role of religion with challenges to ideas about marriage, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, drug use and abortion, which rocked the very foundation of Christian morality upon which the United States was established. This was the generation that gave us the movie the Exorcist, and a myriad of other movies in the same genre that showed evil triumphant over good. They argued that men and women were the same, that no one had the right to tell anyone else what to do, that there could be no moral judgment and that everyone should do their own thing, and whatever made them happy. The myriad of social ills coming out of this movement that took a moral and economic toll on the United States are only now beginning to subside. Yet, they have left behind a story that should be studied by every society that claims a certain tradition and faith in God, since it is this belief that is the actual target of the secular left. Our generation was particularly susceptible to leftists’ rhetoric, which seems to appeal to the restless energy of youth, as well as its inexperience and naiveté. Only now have many in the United States began to consider that perhaps the generation gappers of our time were interested only in undermining the rules, traditions and morality of U.S. society. Rules and traditions and a moral bearing that had provided the stability upon which a nation had advanced in some 200 years beyond civilizations that had existed for centuries. The United States was a young nation that had made major advances. Its accomplishments are impressive in comparison to others whose major accomplishment is that they succeeded in demonizing the Church as an institution, nearly destroying the clergy, violently overthrowing the monarchy, and initiating a reign of terror that was one of history’s must brutal political purging. Strangely people who considered themselves “enlightened” carried out this murderous purging.

Along with the numerous commands in the Qur’an that command us to obey, there are verses of the Qur’an that advise us of the merits of obedience. There are also many verses that teach us that if a society is to succeed, it must be organized, and it must have an authority, and in an Islamic society, there must be a religious authority, or at least an authority that is guided by the laws and traditions of the faith. Contrary to many ideas of freedom, in Islam there is no concept of freedom that implies that the individual human being is an absolute sovereign, and therefore left entirely to ones own opinion as a governing law. If this were the case, it would be impossible to govern, or to have peace, or cooperation. Each individual would be like a single kingdom, operating only in its own personal interests, and according to its own individual tastes, and desires, while at the same time forced by circumstances to utilize common space and share limited resources! . Whereas we might all agree that the aim of religion is to free mankind to think, and chose and judge, Islam asks that on the basic issues, that are the foundation for cooperation between peoples, and social organization, that there be compromise of individual will and recognition of authority. Who this authority is, or will be is a matter for discussion. It is worthwhile to note that in Islam, such discussion is not only permitted, but also encouraged, since through an examination of such issues, we increase our knowledge and strengthen our understanding of these ideas. The proof of this is found in a conversation held between God and the prophet Abraham, in the Qur’an, where Abraham asks God to explain the resurrection. The Qur’an says: ” Behold Abraham said, “My Lord, show me how thou give life to the dead. He (God) said “Does thou not then believe?” He (Abraham) said, “Yes, but I ask to satisfy my understanding” (2:260) God, according to the Qur’an, then proceeds to answer Abraham’s questions, saying that souls are trained to respond to the voice of their master, and when He calls, they will rise from the graves.

The type of questioning that seems to be prohibited in the Qur’an is the type of questioning that raises issues with the intent to create suspicion or to undermine the conviction of believers. It has a malicious intent. This is the type of questioning that is aimed at creating doubt, or casting aspersion upon others due to their beliefs, rather than to question a criminal or illegal act, or truly subversive ideology.. The Qur’an says “avoid suspicion, since in some cases suspicion is a sin.” In another verse the Qur’an says it was this type of questioning that caused the ancient Jews to loose faith in the Law of Moses, and to transgress. Yet, on the other hand, when discussants are agreed upon the basic principles of the faith, they can engage one another in discussions where they deliberate the proper ways to achieve desires within the boundaries established by Islamic law, principles and tradition. This means that whether or not to obey is not the point of! such discussions, but rather how we carry out our duty, which is a matter of covenant with God for the Muslim. According to the Qur’an, the Muslim (servant of God), has entered into a covenant with God through choice. The terms of the covenant are that we will obey God, and he will not punish us. In fact He has promised us that He will forgive our faults, relieve us of fears and grant security along with prosperity and many other rewards, because we have sacrificed the individual will to some extent, for the betterment of society as a whole. The Qur’an says: “such as dispute about the signs of God without authority grievous and odious is such conduct in the sight of God” (40:35). This means that not only is disputation on certain topics only allowed for those who are knowledgeable, and recognized as authorities, but also that in Islam, the disputants must be people who are recognized as religious authorities. They must be able to make decisions, since w! hat they are debating are matters pertinent to the message of the Qur’an, and the quality of life of Muslims, and their potential.

Resolving issues related to differences in opinion among Muslims doesn’t seem to require harsh penalties. Rather it seems that the prophet Muhammad, when confronted with disagreement in the ranks even among his trusted companions, as was the case at Hudaybiyah, he understood their inability to perhaps understand many of the subtleties of religion, and asked humbly for their patience, and of course their obedience. In other instances the prophet would allow discussion as he did on the question of guarding Medina, and when he arrived at a decision he acted. Once the period of discussion and debate had ended so did all disagreement. Never did the people take to the streets and protest, or openly defy the final decision, or action of the religious authority who was trusted and acting in the name, and tradition of the prophet and his righteous descendants. Yet, as is seen in the example of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad (sa), when the legitimacy or possible corruption of the authority became the issue, it was the duty of the people to rise up against that authority, even if their uprising seemed futile. Yet for the uprising to be legitimate the challenger must be a legitimate and authoritative voice, moving to restore, and not to tear down institutions and traditions. Such issues and examples might make it important that Muslims everywhere recognize and understand the challenges being placed before us. The left has traditionally targeted the young, the angry and the disaffected in societies to foment rebellion against authority, and to destroy institutionalized religion. This does not exonerate authorities that lose touch with their people, or who refuse to make needed reforms from the consequences, or accountability. In fact it clearly places the onus for stability upon them. The people are dependant upon their wise judgment and their commitment to obedience and law and principle, and their sensitivity to the! needs and the desires of the people, and recognition of the fact that a sizable portion of their legitimacy is found in their ability to lead. Authority might imply a certain expertise that must be demonstrated, and that induces an authority to perform in pursuit of the common good. A famous Muslim scholar and cleric said, “When the government is loved by the people, for its benevolence, and compassion, wisdom and virtues it is loved by God as well. But when a government is hated by the people for its tyranny and oppression, and corruption, it is also hated by God.”

Islam is a way of life that is aimed towards human progress and development, refined living and spirituality and cooperation and peace. It allows for change and in fact encourages change as progress, realized through meditation, discussion, debate, choice and judgement. Yet, it condemns and prohibits rebellion, and fomenting hatred and suspicion especially among Muslims, the Qur’an saying that God condemns those who seek to cause rebellion in ordered societies, especially once the people have entered the covenant between God and man known as Islam. Questions related to obedience and authority are serious questions, and should be addressed with the same deliberation and forethought as the most serious questions related to the more mundane aspects of life. Those who raise such questions have selected a tantalizing topic upon which to encourage civil disobedience. In so doing they have undertaken the difficult task of pleasing God and pleasing the masses of people, which can only be accomplished when one follows the example of those who succeeded previously at this task. They were respectively the prophet Muhammad (sa) and his pious descendants, and those who followed them, meaning the righteous of the clergy. Perhaps the Qur’an speaks to this topic in Chapter 6 “Al An’am” (The Cattle) verses 82-90, where it says:

“It is those who believe and confuse not their beliefs with wrong that are in security, for they are on right guidance. That was the reasoning about which God gave Abraham to use against his people. We raise whom we will degree after degree for thy Lord is full of wisdom and knowledge. We gave him Isaac, and Jacob, all three we guided. And before him we guided Noah, and among his progeny, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Aaron, thus do we reward those who do well. And Zakariyya and John and Jesus and Elisha and Jonah and Lot, and all we gave favor above the nations, to them to their fathers, and progeny and brethren. We chose them and We guided them to a straight way. This is the guidance of God. He gives that guidance to which He pleases of His worshippers. If they were to join other gods with him all that they did would be vain for them. These were the men to whom We gave the book, and authority, and prophet hood, if these their descendants reject them, behol! d we shall entrust their charge to a new people who reject not. Those were they who received God’s guidance. Copy the guidance they received: Say No reward do I ask of you, this is no less than a message to the nations.”

The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women.