In recent years, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a notable Islamic scholar from North America, has gained global prominence by supporting efforts by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to deal with the fallout of the Arab revolutions. The UAE is a Middle Eastern autocracy that has been the chief strategist behind quelling the Arab revolutionary aspiration for accountable government in the region. Shaykh Hamza views himself as helping prevent the region from falling into chaos by supporting one of its influential autocratic states. However, more recently, he has become embroiled in another controversy because of comments he made regarding the Syrian revolution in 2016 that surfaced online earlier this week and for which he has since apologised. I will not discuss these comments directly in this article, but the present piece does have a bearing on the issue of revolution as it addresses the question of how Islamic scholars have traditionally responded to tyranny. Thus, in what follows, I somewhat narrowly focus on another recent recording of Shaykh Hamza that has been published by a third party in the past couple of weeks entitled: “Hamza Yusuf’s response to the criticism for working with Trump administration”. While it was published online at the end of August 2019, the short clip may, in fact, predate the Trump controversy, as it only addresses the more general charge that Shaykh Hamza is supportive of tyrannical governments.
Thus, despite its title, the primary focus of the recording is what the Islamic tradition purportedly says about the duty of Muslims to render virtually unconditional obedience to even the most tyrannical of rulers. In what follows, I argue that Shaykh Hamza’s contention that the Islamic tradition has uniformly called for rendering obedience to tyrannical rule—a contention that he has been repeating for many years—is inaccurate. Indeed, it is so demonstrably inaccurate that one wonders how a scholar as learned as Shaykh Hamza can portray it as the mainstream interpretation of the Islamic tradition rather than as representing a particularly selective reading of fourteen hundred years of scholarship. Rather than rest on this claim, I will attempt to demonstrate this in what follows. (Note: this article was sent to Shaykh Hamza for comment at the beginning of this month, but he has not replied in time for publication.)
Opposing all government vs opposing a government
Shaykh Hamza argues that “the Islamic tradition” demands that one render virtually absolute obedience to one’s rulers. He bases this assertion on a number of grounds, each of which I will address in turn. Firstly, he argues that Islam requires government, because the opposite of having a government would be a state of chaos. This is, however, to mischaracterise the arguments of the majority of mainstream scholars in Islamic history down to the present who, following explicit Qur’anic and Prophetic teachings, opposed supporting tyrannical rulers. None of these scholars ever advocated the removal of government altogether. They only opposed tyranny. For some reason that is difficult to account for, Shaykh Hamza does not, in addressing the arguments of his interlocutors, make the straightforward distinction between opposing tyranny, and opposing the existence of any government at all.
A complex tradition
Rather than support these tyrannical governments, the Islamic tradition provides a variety of responses to how one should oppose such governments, ranging from the more quietist—opposing them only in one’s heart—to the more activist—opposing them through armed rebellion. The majority of later scholars, including masters such as al-Ghazzali (d. 505/1111), Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (d. 795/1393), and Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 852/1449) appear to have fallen somewhere between these two poles, advocating rebellion only in limited circumstances, and mostly advising a vocally critical posture towards tyranny. Of course, some early scholars, such as the sanctified member of the Prophetic Household, Sayyiduna Husayn (d. 61/680) had engaged in armed opposition to the tyranny of the Umayyads resulting in his martyrdom. Similarly, the Companion ‘Abdullah b. Zubayr (d. 73/692), grandson of Abu Bakr (d. 13/634), and son of al-Zubayr b. al-‘Awwam (d. 36/656), two of the Ten Companions Promised Paradise, had established a Caliphate based in Makkah that militarily tried to unseat the Umayyad Caliphal counter-claimant.
However, the model of outright military rebellion adopted by these illustrious scholars was generally relinquished in later centuries in favour of other forms of resisting tyranny. This notwithstanding, I will try to show that the principle of vocally resisting tyranny has always remained at the heart of the Islamic tradition contrary to the contentions of Shaykh Hamza. Indeed, I argue that the suggestion that Shaykh Hamza’s work with the UAE, an especially oppressive regime in the Arab world, is somehow backed by the Islamic tradition can only be read as a mischaracterisation of this tradition. He only explicitly cites two scholars from Islamic history to support his contention, namely Shaykhs Ahmad Zarruq (d. 899/1442) and Abu Bakr al-Tartushi (d. 520/1126), both of whom were notable Maliki scholars from the Islamic West. Two scholars of the same legal school, from roughly the same relatively peripheral geographic region, living roughly four hundred years apart, cannot fairly be used to represent the swathe of Islamic views to be found over fourteen hundred years in lands as far-flung as India to the east, Russia to the north, and southern Africa to the south.
What does the tradition actually say?
Let me briefly illustrate the diversity of opinion on this issue within the Islamic tradition by citing several more prominent and more influential figures from the same tradition alongside their very different stances on the issue of how one ought to respond to tyrannical rulers. Most of the Four Imams are in fact reported to have supported rebellion (khuruj) which is, by definition, armed. A good summary of their positions is found in the excellent study in Arabic by Shaykh ‘Abdullah al-Dumayji, who is himself opposed to rebellion, but who notes that outright rebellion against tyrannical rule was in fact encouraged by Abu Hanifa (d. 150/767) and Malik (d. 179/795), and is narrated as one of the legal positions adopted by al-Shafi‘i (d. 204/820) and Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 241/855). As these scholars’ legal ideas developed and matured into schools of thought, many later adherents also maintained similar positions to those attributed to the founders of these schools. To avoid suggesting that armed rebellion against tyrants was the dominant position of the later Islamic tradition, let me preface this section with a note from Holberg Prize-winning Islamic historian, Michael Cook, who notes in his magisterial study of the doctrine of commanding right and forbidding wrong that “in the face of the delinquency of the ruler, there is a clear mainstream position [in the Islamic tradition]: rebuke is endorsed while [armed] rebellion is rejected.”
But there were also clearly plenty of outliers, or more qualified endorsements of rebellion against tyrants, as well as the frequent disavowal of the obligation to render them any obedience. Thus for the Malikis, one can find Qadi Abu Bakr b. al-‘Arabi (d. 543/1148) who asserts that advocating rebellion against tyrants is the main position of the madhhab; similarly among later Hanafis, one finds Abu Bakr Al Jassas (d. 370/981); for the Hanbalis, one may cite the positions of the prolific scholars Imam Ibn ‘Aqil (d. 513/1119), Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201), and in a more qualified sense, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali. Among later Shafi‘is, I have found less explicit discussions of rebellion in my limited search, but a prominent Shafi‘i like the influential exegete and theologian al-Fakhr al-Razi (d. 606/1210) makes explicit, contrary to Shaykh Hamza’s claims, that not only is obeying rulers not an obligation, in fact “most of the time it is prohibited, since they command to nothing but tyranny.” This is similar in ways to the stance of other great Shafi‘is such as Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani who notes concerning tyrannical rulers (umara’ al-jawr) that the ulama state that “if it is possible to depose them without fitna and oppression, it is an obligation to do so. Otherwise, it is obligatory to be patient.” It is worth noting that the normative influence of such a statement cited by Ibn Hajar transcends the Shafi‘i school given that it is made in his influential commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari. Once again, contrary to the assertions of Shaykh Hamza, there is nothing to suggest that any of the illustrious scholars who supported rebellion against tyrannical rulers was advocating the anarchist removal of all government. Rather they were explicitly advocating the replacement of a tyrant with a just ruler where this was possible.
Al-Ghazzali on confronting tyrants
A final example may be taken from the writing of Imam al-Ghazzali, an exceptionally influential scholar in the Islamic tradition who Shaykh Hamza particularly admires. On al-Ghazzali, who is generally opposed to rebellion but not other forms of opposition to tyranny, I would like to once again cite the historian Michael Cook. In his previously cited work, after an extensive discussion of al-Ghazzali’s articulation of the doctrine of commanding right and forbidding wrong, Cook concludes (p. 456):
As we have seen, his views on this subject are marked by a certain flirtation with radicalism. In this Ghazzālī may have owed something to his teacher Juwaynī, and he may also have been reacting to the Ḥanafī chauvinism of the Seljūq rulers of his day. The duty, of course, extends to everyone, not just rulers and scholars. More remarkably, he is prepared to allow individual subjects to have recourse to weapons where necessary, and even to sanction the formation of armed bands to implement the duty without the permission of the ruler. And while there is no question of countenancing rebellion, Ghazzālī is no accommodationist: he displays great enthusiasm for men who take their lives in their hands and rebuke unjust rulers in harsh and uncompromising language.
Most of the material Cook bases his discussion upon is taken from al-Ghazzali’s magnum opus, The Revival of the Religious Sciences. Such works once again demonstrate that the Islamic tradition, or great Sufi masters and their masterworks, cannot be the basis for the supportive attitude towards tyrannical rule on the part of a minority of modern scholars.
Modern discontinuities and their high stakes
But modern times give rise to certain changes that also merit our attention. In modern times, new technologies of governance, such as democracy, have gone some way to dealing with challenges such as the management of the transition of power without social breakdown and the loss of life, as well as other forms of accountability that are not possible in absolute autocracies. For their part, absolute autocracies have had their tyrannical dimensions amplified with Orwellian technologies that invade private spaces and facilitate barbaric forms of torture and inhumane degradation on a scale that was likely unimaginable to premodern scholars. The stakes of a scholar’s decision of whether to support autocracy or democracy could not be higher.
Modern scholars like Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b. 1345/1926), someone who Shaykh Hamza’s own mentor, Shaykh Abdullah b. Bayyah (b. 1353f./1935) considered a teacher until fairly recently, has advocated for an Islamic conception of democracy as a possible means to deal with the problem of tyranny that plagues much of the Muslim world. He is hardly the only scholar to do so. And in contrast with some of the scholars of the past who advocated armed rebellion in response to tyranny, most contemporary scholars supporting the Arab revolutions have argued for peaceful political change wherever possible. They have advocated for peaceful protest in opposition to tyranny. Where this devolved into violence in places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen, this was generally because of the disproportionately violent responses of regimes to peaceful protests.
Shaykh Hamza on the nature of government
For Shaykh Hamza, the fault here appears to lie with the peaceful protestors for provoking these governments to crush them. Such a conception of the dynamics of protest appears to assume that the autocratic governmental response to this is a natural law akin to cause and effect. The logic would seem to be: if one peacefully calls for reform and one is murdered in cold blood by a tyrannical government, then one has only oneself to blame. Governments, according to this viewpoint, have no choice but to be murderous and tyrannical. But in an age in which nearly half of the world’s governments are democracies, however flawed at times, why not aspire to greater accountability and less violent forms of governance than outright military dictatorship?
Rather than ask this question, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf appears to be willing to defend autocracy no matter what they do on the grounds that government, in principle, is what is at stake. Indeed, in defending government as necessary and a blessing, he rhetorically challenges his critics to “ask the people of Libya whether government is a blessing; ask the people of Yemen whether government is a blessing; ask the people of Syria whether government is a blessing?” The tragic irony of such statements is that these countries have, in part, been destroyed because of the interventions of a government, one for which Shaykh Hamza serves as an official, namely the UAE. This government has one of the most aggressive foreign policies in the region and has been instrumental in the failure of representative governments and the survival of tyrannical regimes throughout the Middle East.
Where do we go from here?
In summary, Shaykh Hamza’s critics are not concerned that he is “supporting governments,” rather they are concerned that for the last few years, he has found himself supporting bad government and effectively opposing the potential for good government in a region that is desperately in need of it. And while he may view himself as, in fact, supporting stability in the region by supporting the UAE, such a view is difficult if not impossible to reconcile with the evidence. Given his working relationship with the UAE government, perhaps Shaykh Hamza could use his position to remind the UAE of the blessing of government in an effort to stop them from destroying the governments in the region through proxy wars that result in death on an epic scale. If he is unable to do this, then the most honourable thing to do under such circumstances would be to withdraw from such political affiliations and use all of his influence and abilities to call for genuine accountability in the region in the same way that he is currently using his influence and abilities to provide cover, even if unwittingly, for the UAE’s oppression.
And Allah knows best.
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