Is it a Muslim’s duty to enforce Islamic law?

In the last two years, anti-Muslim activists have produced dozens of “anti-Shariah” bills in nearly half of America’s states. This is supposedly being done to protect American law and shield the country from the onslaught of “Islamization.” Even though American Muslims have just about zero interest in changing the legal system, a vociferous right-wing fringe insists that Muslims are concealing their true intentions, and that their faith demands that they establish Islam as the law of the land.
To support this claim, some figures cite the Qur’anic injunction to “command right and forbid wrong.” This command, taken at face value, might seem to call for the government enforcement of Islamic morality on men and women, but a closer look at the Qur’an yields an abundance of evidence indicating that the sacred text does not support such an interpretation.

To “command good and forbid evil” (amr bil ma’ruf wa nahy an al munkar – ??? ???????? ? ??? ?? ?????? ) is one of the basic moral obligations that the Qur’an places on Muslims. This injunction, given by the Prophet Luqman in verse 31:17, is binding on all believers:

Keep up the prayer, my son; command what is right; forbid what is wrong; bear anything that happens to you steadfastly: these are things to be aspired to. (31:17)

Elsewhere in the Qur’an, the ideal believers are described as those who “enjoin good and forbid evil” (9:112). The following is merely one of several verses sprinkled throughout this holy book that echo this message:

The believers, both men and women… enjoin what is good and forbid evil, they attend to their prayers and pay the alms and obey God and His Messenger. On these God will have mercy, for God is Almighty and Wise. (9:71; see also 3:104, 3:110)

Muslims interpret this principle in many different ways. Some believe that “commanding” and “forbidding” mean giving sound, sincere advice grounded in Islamic tenets to friends and family. Others apply the principle to government, assuming that the state should legislate Islam. Striking a balance between these two poles, others still read the injunction as a call to public preaching and educational outreach, or a general obligation to speak against oppression. Many radical thinkers, like the influential Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, gave politicized readings of these passages. In the second volume of his famous exegetical work, Fi Zilal al-Quran, Qutb writes that “[a]nyone may be able to invite to what is good, but no one can enjoin and forbid unless he is equipped with real authority” (p. 165, emphasis added). For him, “enjoining” and “forbidding” amount to state enforcement. The straightforward logic of this conclusion is certainly attractive, but in actuality, this line of reasoning finds little support in the Qur’an.

Arabic words are based on a system of trilateral roots. The root of the word “enjoin” is a-m-r, and its variations appear dozens of times throughout the Qur’an, usually translated as “enjoin,” “command,” or “bid.” Some readers assume that an element of force is involved in “commanding,” but the word’s usage throughout the Qur’an suggests otherwise.

In a passage about Moses and Pharaoh, the word “command” is used in a way that removes all possibility of force. Pharaoh, growing wary of Moses’ burgeoning influence in his kingdom, consults his advisors about how to proceed, asking them, “What, then, do you enjoin (tamuruna – ??????????? )?” (7: 110) According to the Qur’an, Pharaoh was a supremely arrogant, narcissistic man who forced his people to worship him as a deity (26:29, 28:38). If the Arabic word for “enjoin” suggested force or coercion, Pharaoh would never have used it when speaking to his advisors, over whom he had absolute authority.

In another passage, the careful reader finds that the word “enjoin” is distinguished from compulsion even more clearly. Verses 34:31-33 describe an exchange between two groups of sinners in the afterlife, with the weaker ones blaming the stronger for leading them to hellfire: “…it was your scheming, night and day, enjoining us (tamurunana – ?????????????? ) to disbelieve in God and set up rivals to Him” (34:33). But had the weaker group truly been forced to rebel against God, God would not banish them to hell in the first place. After all, the Qur’an warns that “one who denies God after he has believed, with the exception of one who is forced to do it, . . . shall incur the wrath of God” (16:106, emphasis added). Obviously, by virtue of their abode in the afterlife, this group of people does not fall within the category of those coerced into disbelief. They were not compelled to reject God, but only encouraged (see 39:64 for a similar usage).

The Arabic word which specifies coercion in verse 16:106 is ukriha (????????), from the root k-r-h. In the Qur’an, this root denotes true compulsion (see 4:19, 10:99, 20:73, 24:33), and it most famously appears in verse 2:256, which declares that “there shall be no compulsion (ikraha – ?????????) in matters of faith.”

Interestingly enough, a group of verses about Satan remove any doubt about whether or not the use of the verbs “enjoin” and “forbid” in the Qur’an imply coercion. At cursory glance, we find several verses warning us that Satan will “command” humankind to do evil:

Satan threatens you with the prospect of poverty and commands you (wayamurukum – ????????????? ) to do foul deeds; God promises you His forgiveness and His abundance…. (2:268)

[A]nd whoever follows in the footsteps of Satan should know that he enjoins (yamuru – ???????? ) only indecency and evil. (24:21; see also 4:118-119, 2:168-169)

Those familiar with the Qur’an will know that Satan’s command has nothing to do with force or compulsion, because God has assured readers that Satan “has no power over those who believe and put their trust in their Lord; he has power only over those who are willing to follow him” (16:98-100). In another passage, Satan’s tactics are described in more detail:

And when everything will have been decided, Satan will say: … I deceived you. Yet I had no power at all over you: I but called you (da’awtukum) – and you responded unto me. Hence, blame not me, but blame yourselves.”(14:22)

How can Satan “command” people when he “has no power” over any being except “those who are willing to follow him”? The obvious answer is that his “commands” are not enforced; he only “calls” to people – and they choose to listen. Thus, the Qur’an makes clear that “enjoining” something does not mean enforcing it, but rather promoting it.

Just as “commanding” or “enjoining” good does not imply coercion, neither does “forbidding evil.” The Arabic word for “forbid” (based on the root n-h-y) is used in three different ways in the Qur’an. In a metaphorical sense, it refers to exerting self-control or making oneself “immune” to bad inclinations. For example, the Qur’an describes a type of person who “feared the meeting with his Lord and restrained (wanaha – ??????? ) himself from base desires” (79:40), and tells Muslims are to pray regularly, because prayer “restrains one (tanha – ???????? ) from indecency and evil” (29:45). Both examples illustrate a more abstract, spiritual meaning of “forbidding evil” — to shield oneself from becoming vulnerable to evil.

The third, and most common, usage of “forbid” (n-h-y) is in reference to revelation. Scores of verses (such as 6:56, 4:31, 7:157, 7:166, and 11:61-2) describe God “commanding” and “forbidding” through His prophets and scripture. As with the word “enjoin,” we should not understand forbiddance as an act of force, but rather, an act of communication. Many translators, for example, render “forbid” in verse 11:116 as “speak out against” or “warn against”:

Why, then, were there not among the generations before you upright men who would speak out against (yanhawna – ?????????? ) the [spread of] corruption on earth—except for the few whom We saved?” (11:116)

The Qur’an often employs the words “forbid” or “command” in the context of a person using his or her intellect. These passages show that enjoining and forbidding depend on reason and conceptual understanding, rather than force:

Say, “I have been forbidden (nuhitu – ??????? ) to invoke those whom you invoke besides God—seeing that clear signs have come to me from my Lord.”(40:66)

Other verses describe people being “commanded” by their own beliefs (2:93) and “ordered” by their reason (52:32). It is interesting to note that the word “understanding” (al-nuha, seen in verses such as 20:54 and 20:128) shares the same Arabic root (n-h-y) as the word “forbid” (nahy).

Radicals like Sayyid Qutb (and Ayaan Hirsi Ali) may insist that Islam’s holy book commands Muslims to enforce “Islamic law” through state power, but it seems their views are not grounded in careful study. The Qur’an does not require Muslims to force their morality on others when it tells them to “enjoin right and forbid wrong.
Peter Gray recently finished his B.A. in Asian Studies at Clark University with a special focus on Indonesia. His writing interests include Islam, Islamophobia, and Muslim feminism.

(Photo Credit: Aslan Media)

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