By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
(Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009)
September 18, 2013
This is complementary to Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi’s just posted article on the theme, though offering some fresh insights.
The Qur’an enjoins what it calls Ma’ruf – which it connotes with doing good to others and behaving in the most decent and reasonable manner in the community, forbids the Munkar: all acts, gesture, and behaviour that run counter to reason and contradict all norms of good behaviour (3:104, 3:110, 7:157, 9:112, 22:41, 31:17). For simplicity, we will be rendering these terms as the good (Ma’ruf) and the evil (Munkar).
At an early phase of the Medinite period, the Qur’an declares:
“Let there be a community among you who will invite (others) to all that is good, enjoin the good (Ma’ruf), and forbid the evil (Munkar), and it is they who shall succeed” (3:104).
“Thus We have made you a justly balanced community that you may be witnesses to humanity, and the Messenger, a witness to you …” (2:143),
Traditionally Muslim scholars interpret the verse 3:104 in conjunction with the opening statement of the verse 2:143 (above) to claim exclusivity of the Muslim community for all times. This conflicts with the pluralistic message of the Qur’an (49:13, 5:48), and its common criteria of divine justice (2:62, 4:124, 5:69, 22:17, 64:9, 65:11) which posit the Muslims at a par with the non-Muslims in the divine scheme. Notably, the verse 3:103 which immediately precedes 3:104 refers to the mutual hostility of pagan tribes in pre-Islamic Arabia [“Remember God’s favour to you as you were enemy to one another and God joined your hearts and you became friends”..]. Thus, read as a passage, the verses 3:103-104 were addressed to the immediate audience of the revelation and ‘the community among you’ mentioned in it refers to the Muslim community that was evolving under the leadership of the Prophet, and not to any ‘select group’ within the Muslim community. The Qur’an further declares:
“You are the best community brought forth for humanity; you enjoin the good, and forbid the evil, and believe in God. If the People of the Book would only believe - it would be best for them: some of them have true faith (Mu’minun) while most of them are perverse” (3:110).
As in case of the passage 3:103-104 just reviewed, this verse describing Muslims as ‘the best community’ was addressed to the Prophet’s followers: being under direct guidance of the Prophet and first hand witnesses to the revelation, they were by far the best of all communities for all time. However, the verse (3:110) also acknowledges ‘some of the People of the Book’ as truly faithful (Mu’minun), while the passage 3:113/114 attests to their enjoining the good, forbidding the evil, hastening to good deeds and being among the righteous.
“They are not the same: among the People of the Book is an upright community: they recite God’s messages through the hours of night as they bow down before Him (3:113). They believe in God and the Last Day; enjoin the good, and forbid the evil and hasten to good deeds - it is they who are among the righteous (114).
Thus, the Qur’an does not single out the Prophet’s followers as the bidders of good and restrainers of evil.
Traditional Interpretation and Implementation
Traditionally the opening statements of the verses 3:110 and 3:104 (‘You are the best community brought forth for humanity,’ ‘Let there be a community among you’) are interpreted complementarily to relegate the community’s collective responsibility of compliance to bidding the good and restraining the evil on a ‘select group’ of people among each community of Muslims. Accordingly, Muslim legal doctrine regards the captioned commandment (bidding the good and forbidding the evil) as ‘Fard al-Kifaya’ – “a legal obligation that must be discharged by the Muslim community as a whole; if enough members in the Muslim community discharge the obligation, the remaining Muslims are freed from the responsibility before God. Accordingly, in the classical era, Religious Police known as Muhtasibeen (inspectors or vigilance officers) were employed in Islamic states to ensure compliance to this pivotal Qur’anic dictate. They patrolled all public places including roads, gardens, parks, madrasas, markets, hospitals, courts and administration centres to ensure its compliance by persuasive, failing which compulsive exhortation or even coercion.
The Religious Police, however, could only keep a watchful eye on the visible do’s and don’ts of the Qur’an, such as prayer, fasting, eating of Halal food, dressing mode, drinking, gambling, attending the dancers’ chambers, gambling, openly immoral behaviour in public for example. This apart, the religious police played a very important social role. It served as a broad moral cum ethical safety net of the society, curbed sexual freedom and licenses that would have been catastrophic for the women who had no personal rights and were unprotected against any sexual abuse. It also contributed to peace, harmony and stability that the fear of being under constant surveillance engenders.
Limitations Of The Spiritual Role Of The Religious Police
There are great many do’s and don’ts - Ma’ruf and Munkar category in the Qur’an that are invisible, immeasurable and unverifiable such as relating to personal conduct and behaviour in conjugal matters and family situation. Thus, for example, the Qur’an requires every person to conduct him/herself in a Ma’ruf manner during the following circumstances:
while treating a wife under notice of divorce (2:228- 2:229, 2:231, 65:2),
paying a maid hired for nursing a child (2:233),
fixing the blood money (2:178),
framing a will (2:180),
a divorced woman entertaining a marriage proposal (2:232),
a man offering a marriage proposal to a widow (2:235), paying compensation to a contractually married woman a man divorces before consummating the marriage (2:236),
giving alimony to a divorced wife (2:241),
speaking to the feeble minded whose property may be under one’s trust (4:5),
taking charges for maintaining the property of minor orphans (4:6),
speaking to an orphaned indirect heir present at the time of the division of an inheritance (4:8),
dealing with an estranged wife or the widow of the next of kin (4:19),
giving dowry to a bondmaid (4:25).
Based on these Qur’anic illustrations, a broader connotation of the word ‘Ma’ruf will encompass all that is descent, lawful and honourable in inter-personal and community matters. Thus, the pagan women taking oath of allegiance to the Prophet while entering Islam were required to take a number of oaths that included “not to disobey him in anything Ma’ruf “ (60:12).
All these areas of human interaction and behaviour remain outside the scrutiny of the Religious police, though they may be no less important in God’s sight. Thus, the religious or spiritual role of the Religious Police was very limited, if not marginal. The real role of the Religious Police, apart from its maintenance of social harmony lay conceivably in the political domain.
The Political Role of the Religious Police
Constant threat of punishment – caning on earth and perdition in afterlife for any default in the performance of Islamic rituals created a regimented society. Thus, from waking up in the morning through to turning in at night, the Muslim performed each element of his/her daily chore in a religiously prescribed way accompanied by specific invocation appropriate to the occasion. Religion thus occupied, rather overwhelmed the Muslim mind and spirituality became the opium for the poor and the downtrodden, license for the rich, the aristocracy and the royalty to live lavishly (who were indemnified of their excesses by the Religious Police), and divine mandate to the Caliph to rule even if he was incompetent, unjust and tyrannical. The institutionalization of this social and political order through the agency of Religious Police curbed the emergence of any social awareness, political dissent and independent thinking that are precursors to reform or intellectual activity, and led to intellectual stagnation of Islamic societies that helped consolidation and smooth governance of the Islamic Caliphate. Thus, the Religious Police served as state agents for giving religious overtone to the feudalistic order and intellectual stagnation of the Islamic societies.
The Personal Dimension of the Qur’anic Dictate
One of the major paradigm shifts in religious thought the Qur’an introduced was the personal accountability of each individual for his/ her deeds and moral uprightness (Taqwa). Accordingly, the Qur’an commands individuals to do good deeds, exercise Zakah and Taqwa, and abide by its social, moral and ethical tenets and behavioural paradigms (eschewing greed, arrogance, slander, calumny, foul talk, backbiting for example). As illustrated in the foregoing by referencing Qur’anic verses, it commands the Muslims to conduct themselves in the most honourable (Ma’ruf) manner in day to day family life and cites a man of wisdom, Luqman advising his son to “enjoin good (Ma’ruf) and forbid evil” (31:16), pointing to the personal onus of compliance. A number of Qur’anic verses reinforce this notion by declaring: “no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another (6:164, 17:15, 35:18, 39:07, and 53:38).” Moreover, there is no word, practically anywhere in the Qur’an about any collective responsibility in any matter pertaining to religion.
Hence, the notion of a community’s selective group, elders or Religious Police actualizing the bidding to Ma’ruf on behalf of the whole community does not appear to be compatible with the Qur’anic message.
Whether the bidding to the good (Ma’ruf) is persuasive or compulsive?
The qualitative aspects of ‘personal behaviour and dealings’ rules out any notion of compulsiveness in the bidding to all that is good (Ma’ruf). Taking the cited Qur’anic verses, one cannot compel another person to be just, fair and reasonable (Ma’ruf) in treating a wife under notice of divorce through to dealing with an estranged wife or the widow of the next of kin - as the term ‘reasonable’ (Ma’ruf) is subjective and unverifiable and can mean different things to different people. The same subjectivity applies in the interpretation of the term Ma’ruf in the verses 3:104, 3:110 (opening para) which were addressed to the Muslim community under the leadership of the Prophet. Accordingly, even the Prophet was not allowed or asked to coerce his followers in any matter, even if that concerned the survival of the community under attack from an overwhelmingly powerful army. There were several occasions in course of the Medinite period (622-632 C.E.) of the Prophetic mission warranting issuance of compulsive military commands, but the Prophet did not do so.
i. As he was preparing to march to the planes of Uhud (625 C.E.) to meet the powerful Meccan army waiting for an engagement, the Qur’an commands him not to place any moral burden on anyone except for himself (la tukallifo illa nafsuka) (4:84).
ii. As he was marching towards the battlefield of Uhud with his followers, the hypocrites withdrew saying, if they knew how to fight, they would have followed the Prophet (3:167).
iii. Rather than being coercive, the Prophet was mild to the dissenters in the Uhud expedition. He is asked to consult with them rather than reprimand or punish them (3:159).
iv. The nomadic Arabs who wanted exemption from the unarmed pilgrimage caravan to the hostile Mecca (628) were not coerced to join the group. They thought the Prophet and the believers would never be able to return to their families (48:11-12).
v. The Tabuk expedition (630) – by far the most risky and hazardous of the Prophet’s expeditions also saw a section of hypocrites seeking exemption and staying back without being subjected to any mandatory military duty (9:90).
These examples demonstrate the Prophet’s policy of shunning any compulsive exhortation or coercion on matters immensely more serious than performing prayer or religious rituals.
The notion of coercing the Muslims to abide by the various social, moral and ethical commandments of the Qur’an, or the non-Muslims to convert to Islam contradicts the message of Islam. Traditionally Religious Police were engaged to ensure compliance with visible rituals of Islam, which imposed such a regimentation of activities that stalled intellectual activity and pre-empted any political opposition or dissent. It did serve as an ethical-cum-moral safety net in the society during the classical era of Islam, but with changed gender dynamics, rising democratic aspirations of people, growing awareness of personal rights and a right to dissent, and broadening of the notions of morality, any coercion of fellow Muslims on religious matters or on non-Muslims to convert to Islam or shun what is forbidden in Islam stand blatantly un-Islamic and Haram – though God knows best and He alone knows the rightly guided (6:117, 17:84, 28:56, 28:85 and 68:7).
To connect the article with the ground realities of the era, the writer would like to quote the following concluding remark of an article just posted  on the theme:
“Today’s extremist Islamists and jihadists kill non-militant civilians, slaughter innocent people, commit violence, cause sectarian strife and go to the extent of declaring all other (non-Wahhabi) Muslims kafir and deserving to be murdered. This is how this group, in their own assumption, enjoins right and forbids evil believing that they are in complete obedience to Allah, the Almighty. While the fact is that they are extreme transgressors of His boundaries.”
The Beautiful Islamic Doctrine of Enjoining Good and Forbidding Evil: How Wahhabi Ideologues Misused It to Turn Islam from a Spiritual Path to a Supremacist Political Ideology
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.