From Qays ibn Abi Hazm who said I heard Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) say, “O you people! I hear you reciting this verse: ‘O you who believe! Worry about your own selves. If you follow the (right) guidance [and enjoin what is right (Islamic Monotheism and all that Islam orders one to do) and forbid what is wrong (polytheism, disbelief and all that Islam has forbidden)] no harm can come to you from those who are in error.’ (5:105) But I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say: “Indeed when people see an oppressor but do not prevent him from (doing evil), it is likely that Allah will punish them all.”
In this blog post we will look at the rulings on silence as it is not often addressed in a comprehensive manner. We will cover three Hadiths regarding this matter, and I’ll begin with a Hadith narrated by Qays bin Abi Hazm, may Allah be pleased with him, who said:
“I heard Abu Bakr, may Allah be pleased with him, say, ‘Oh you people! I hear you reciting this verse: ‘Oh you who believe! Worry about your own selves. If you follow the right guidance, no harm can come to you from those who are in error.’ (al-Ma’idah 5:105) But I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say: ‘Indeed when people see an oppressor but do not prevent him from doing evil, it is likely that Allah will punish them all.”
Abu Bakr made a very important point here in mentioning that there are verses that are often recited and given improper explanations, or they are applied to contexts that have meanings contradictory to the actual intent of the verse (ayah). We should note here that Abu Bakr, may Allah be pleased with him, said these words to a generation that was very close to the revelation of the Qur’an, yet they were still applying or interpreting the verses incorrectly.
Shaykh Abul Abed made a very profound statement that I believe elaborates very well on the above: “Any explanation (tafseer) that departs from the reasons of revelation (asbab an-nuzul) and the Sunnah context of those tafseer is bound to go astray.” This is because departing from the original contexts makes it susceptible to the agenda of the one doing the explanation (tafseer), which can in turn do harm to the original meaning of the verses.
Going back to the Hadith itself, Abu Bakr was reminding the people that Allah is not saying that we should be silent in the face of injustice. He therefore went on to mention what the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said in this regard; the Prophet ﷺ is the one through whom we learn the true meaning of the Qur’an, and naturally his life practice (Sunnah) is the explanation (tafseer).
Whilst it may at first seem as though there is a contradiction between the statement of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the verse (ayah), Allah is in fact talking about those people who have already exhausted their options in trying to change others around them. They become saddened by their inability to correct the wrong in society, and it is because of this that Allah has said that no harm will come from those who are in error.
These people feel paralysed by their lack of success in stopping oppression, similar to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ who felt great empathy towards his people and was saddened over the fate of the people around him. Allah talks about this nature of His Messenger ﷺ in Surah al-Kahf, 18:6: “Then perhaps you would kill yourself through grief over them, [O Muhammad], if they do not believe in this message, and out of sorrow.”
The Prophet ﷺ even described himself as being like a man who’s trying to catch flies as they are jumping into the fire; meaning to say that he was so saddened by people around him and he was trying to ‘rescue’ them all from a fiery fate but it was not always possible.
What we take from this is that Abu Bakr, may Allah be pleased with him, was saying that the ayah from Surah al-Ma’ida can not be used as an excuse for complacency or laziness towards speaking out against injustice. Another point to be aware of is that if his own generation was misinterpreting the ayah over 1400 years ago, we must exercise even more caution in understanding and implementing the Qur’an.
The second Hadith is that of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in which he asked his Companions of the strange things they encountered in Abyssinia. Jabir, may Allah be pleased with him, narrated:
“When the emigrants who had crossed the sea came back to the Messenger of Allah, he said, ‘Tell me of the strange things that you saw in the land of Abyssinia.’ Some young men among them said, ‘Yes oh Messenger of Allah. While we were sitting, one of their elderly nuns came past carrying a vessel of water on her head. She passed by some of their youth, one of whom placed his hand between her shoulders and pushed her. She fell on her knees and her vessel broke. When she stood up, she turned to him and said, ‘You will come to know oh foolish young man, that when Allah sets up the Footstool and gathers the first and the last, and hands and feet speak of which they used to earn, you will come to know your case and my case in His presence soon.’ The Messenger of Allah said, ‘She spoke the truth, she spoke the truth, she spoke the truth. How can Allah purify any people (of sin) when they do not protect their weak against their strong?’”
The Companions who related their experience to the Prophet ﷺ did not get involved in the situation as they were refugees in Abyssinia and were in no position to intervene. They even wanted to defend Najashi when there was internal conflict and rebellion against him, but they could not due to being observers and people under protection. However, we can see from this Hadith that this experience had left a profound impact on them and made them feel uncomfortable as they knew it was wrong, and this was due to the lessons (tarbiyyah) that the Prophet ﷺ had given them beforehand. Muhammad ﷺ had instilled traits in them which unnerved them when they witnessed transgression and injustice.
Upon relating this incident, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ blamed society as a whole, and not just the young man who had oppressed the nun. The blame was to be put on the society that had allowed such behaviour to normalise, it was society’s fault that the young man could freely push an old woman without being held accountable. The young oppressor was a product of a facilitating institution. The third Hadith that we will cover in this chapter is from the mother of believers, Zainab Bint Jahsh, may Allah be pleased with her:
“I asked the Prophet ﷺ: Will we be destroyed even if we have righteous people amongst us? The Messenger ﷺ said, ‘Yes, if filth (base sins) becomes rampant.’”
The Prophet ﷺ here was saying that even if there are righteous people amongst us, but sins are allowed to thrive in society without anyone speaking up against them, then everyone suffers as a result.
Furthermore, when looking at all three Hadith, essentially the moral of all three is that if people do not speak up when evil is being committed, everyone will suffer. Scholars have mentioned a few things regarding this matter:
1. All the nations that were destroyed before were not destroyed just because they were worshipping other than Allah (shirk), but for becoming oppressors (dhaalim). Nations were destroyed when they became aggressive and oppressive towards their messengers. The people of Shuaib, may the blessings of Allah be upon him, were destroyed for their polytheism (shirk) and cheating with weights/scales (tatfeef). Saeed bin Musayab, may Allah be pleased with him, commented on this and said that if you find a place where people do not cheat with their weights, settle in that land, and if you find that they do cheat, then leave as quickly as you can. When these types of things are normalised in society, the problems and suffering caused by them will affect everyone.
2. Umar bin Abdul Aziz commented on private sins versus public oppression and injustice. Allah would never punish an entire population even if everyone committed private sins, whereas if one person sins publicly, the entire population may become deserving of Allah’s punishment.
3. Different scenarios call for different actions. The Muslims in Abyssinia were under an observer status and wanted to be able to practice their religion freely. The Muslims in Makkah were under persecution and had to hide their Islam and the Muslims in Madinah were in a place of authority. They were all in different positions, but they were all responsible for doing their part.
4. Allah also mentioned that people would be punished as a result of that which they used to do. If people wrong one another, they will also experience some of what that feels like. Usually when people are punished, they are punished by the elements (nature), such as rain or wind. They are punished by things that they took for granted and did not see any threat in. Similarly, the people who are exploited do not see the threat in others in many situations. They are in a position of vulnerability, and many times that vulnerability is volunteered because they feel safe with them, but unfortunately, they are then taken advantage of and their vulnerability is violated. Allah has placed a duty upon us of being upright and speaking the truth regardless of the circumstances, bringing us onto the rulings of silence.
Silence is prohibited (haram) when three conditions are met:
1. When we are certain of something being evil (munkar); there is no grey area. Musa, may the blessings of Allah be upon him, made an assumption when he saw the man from Bani Israel and the Egyptian fighting. It was not a clear situation (thus could be classed as a grey area). Shaykh Salman made an interesting observation; has said that if you notice Muslims being overzealous, they are usually so regarding things that are not a hundred per cent certain, but they will not be overzealous on matters that are completely indisputable and known to be wrong.
2. When we are sure that an evil was committed; not based on gossip or rumours, but strong evidence. Allah has stated clearly in the Qur’an in Surah al-Hujurat 49:6: “Oh you who have believed, if a rebellious evil person comes to you with news, verify it…” We must be certain, through witnessing it ourselves or a testimony from someone who had witnessed it first-hand.
3. When the greater likelihood is that speaking up will remove or reduce the evil being committed. Speaking out for the sake of Allah requires courage as we can expect both criticism and opposition by people, however, we must speak out against injustice for the sake of Allah, regardless of the people. Imam al-Ghazali, may Allah be pleased with him, spoke regarding the major sins of the scholars (ulema): when a scholar is in the presence of an unjust ruler, they must speak about the injustice committed by the oppressive ruler.
Unfortunately, dictators or unjust rulers use scholars to legitimise the injustice that they carry out, and this even includes massacres that have occurred and are occurring currently. Exploiting the cloak of scholarship to justify ugly injustices is a very old propaganda technique that has been used by Christians such as Pope Urban II as well as Muslims.
Thus, the silence of scholars in such situations is extremely sinful as they are religious authorities and must not be ambiguous towards acts of injustice. Imam Abu Hanifa, may Allah be pleased with him, likened the army of Zayd bin Zain ul Abideen to the people of Badr. He was very forthcoming and was not ambiguous about where he stood on this matter. He was aware that with his position of leadership (imamah), came an even greater responsibility.
We also have the example of Imam Ahmad, may Allah be pleased with him, who was put in an extremely testing situation in which people were trying to force him to adopt a doctrine that was not from Islam. They were pushing him to say that the Qur’an was created and not the speech of Allah. Imam Ahmad was told by other scholars that he would be killing himself if he did not give them the statement that they wanted to hear. Imam Ahmad answered by pointing out of the window from his prison cell at the people, and said that if an average Muslim gets stopped in the street and gets forced to say such a statement or face death, he will not be sinful as he would be trying to protect his own life, whereas Imam Ahmad himself would be sinful as his statement would be legitimising it.
An average Muslim would be like Ammar bin Yasir, may Allah be pleased with him, when he cursed the Prophet ﷺ under duress and the Prophet ﷺ told him that if the oppressors threaten and pressurise him again, he should say it again as his statement would not be corrupting the religion or normalising anything as such. It is a means of escaping persecution, making it permissible for a person not in a position of authority to make such statements.
Another example is of Imam al-Haraawi, may Allah be pleased with him, who said: “I was subjected to the sword five times (threatened with execution), and I was not told to take back my position, rather I was told to be silent about the oppressors but I refused to be silent.” Saeed bin Jubair, may Allah be pleased with him, left a very powerful legacy. He showed no fear whatsoever in the face of the oppression by Hajjaj and it was his courage that drove Hajjaj crazy. He grew increasingly frustrated with Saeed bin Jubair as he was so at ease throughout his ordeal, forcing him to say to Saeed, “Don’t you know that I will take your life?” To which Saeed bin Jubair replied, “If I thought you had the power to take my life, then I would have worshipped you instead of Allah.”
Saeed bin Jubair was killed in prostration (sujood) and this haunted Hajjaj until the day he died of severe illness, at which point he was repeatedly saying, “Saeed has killed me, Saeed has killed me.”
We can learn from these examples that sometimes silence becomes criminal, so much so that even backbiting (gheebah) can become obligatory (fard). Backbiting is something that is generally very sinful and looked down upon in Islam, yet when it comes to an oppressor who abuses others on a serial basis, it becomes obligatory to speak out (even through backbiting) in order to warn potential victims.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ told us to help our brother whether he is the oppressed or the oppressor; we help the oppressor by stopping him from oppressing others further. We do not sit back and allow the oppressor to carry on committing injustice and sins. Sometimes silence is violence; if we do not speak, we risk the lives of the oppressed. And what is worse, is to tell a victim of injustice, to remain silent. Unfortunately, it has happened and continues to happen on many occasions that a victim is shamed into remaining silent in the face of oppression. If someone is being wronged, they must speak, and if they are scared, we must encourage them to speak so that the oppressor does not wrong anyone else. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to everyone who is a potential victim.
It is important for us to realise here that silence in such situations enables oppression to continue, whether it be at a state level or an individual level. As mentioned earlier, backbiting is a sin in normal circumstances, and remaining silent whilst someone is wrongly being backbitten is enabling the wrongdoing.
By sitting there silently, we are essentially condoning sinful behaviour. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ also said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, let him not sit at a table where alcohol is being served.” It is best for us to avoid sitting with people who are involved in drinking alcohol, otherwise by sitting at the same table we are silently approving the serving and consumption of something prohibited (haram).
The rulings of jurisprudence (fiqh) are diverse and they also cover the permissibility of silence, which we will now be looking at. There are times when it is not good to speak, and silence becomes permissible (halal) or even mandatory (fard).
The following Hadith gives us a good insight into the permissibility of silence: Abu Saeed narrates that he heard the Messenger ﷺ say Allah will hold a servant accountable on the Day of Judgement, asking him or her, “What stopped you from calling out that evil when you saw it?” The servant says, “Oh my Lord, I had hope in you and I left the people.” This is a person who tried and was not successful and then withdrew themselves because they were incapable of making a change and was hopeful of Allah’s forgiveness and so they will be forgiven. What we can take from this Hadith is the fact that this person has a legitimate excuse for remaining silent. This person is not admonished by Allah because he had exercised his options but could not do anything to change the situation, unlike a person who chooses to remain silent without even trying. The scholars have also commented on this Hadith saying that this person had hope in the people and tried their best to make them understand the evil of their actions but was not successful so left them. They recognise their incapacity in this regard and turn to Allah in the hope that He will forgive them for leaving the people and will deal with the evil Himself.
Silence can also become mandatory upon us, but when? If evil (munkar) will increase with us speaking, it is important to remain silent and it is often a point that we fail to understand. Imam Ahmad, may Allah be pleased with him, was severely tortured but they could not kill him because they knew that if they killed him, then the supporters of Imam Ahmad would seek revenge by killing them. When Imam Hussain, may Allah be pleased with him, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ went out to fight, the Companions did not think he would be successful. The Companions sensed that the people would not support him; they did not think he was wrong, but they thought that he would not succeed. They tried to stop him because they were worried about his life – not because they thought his cause was wrong.
However, Imam Hussain believed he could remove the evil (munkar). He did not go alone but was amassing an army to face Yazeed. He believed he had the means to undo and remove the evil, but other Companions believed that he would unknowingly cause more harm than good.
Sometimes speaking up is harmful and ineffective in removing evil and instead empowers an oppressor to commit more oppression and it is in these cases that it becomes mandatory to remain silent. Speaking in such circumstances can be reckless, making it important for us to consider withdrawing (uzlah) and deciding at which point we should withdraw from the situation.
Another Hadith narrated by Abu Saeed al-Khudri mentions that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “There will come a time when the best property of the Muslim will be a sheep and he will take that to the top of the mountain so he can flee with his religion from all of the afflictions (fitnah).”
This Hadith is effectively saying that we can withdraw from society or certain situations in order to protect our faith, however we should only take the bare minimum of what we need. We must note that we cannot use this Hadith to try and avoid all forms of afflictions or tests (fitnah). The Companions of the Prophet ﷺ experienced many different and difficult trials, but they did not give up or run away. The Hadith is specifically talking about situations where we cannot speak out, or we are suffering persecution because of our faith or we are unable to practice our faith freely, then we should withdraw. In such a situation we must keep in mind that we should only take that which we can suffice ourselves with (not any luxuries), as moving away is purely for the sake of safeguarding our faith and family.
The Prophet ﷺ also mentioned in another Hadith that “The one who mixes with and tolerates people is better than the one who withdraws from people.”41 What is meant by this Hadith is that there are certain traits and qualities that we can learn by interacting with people. Our faith (iman) is put to the test when we interact with others as we learn to control our tongues, our anger and our gaze, as well as learn how to do business correctly. It is much easier to keep our gaze lowered if there is nobody around, but if we are in a certain situation and we lower our gaze, the reward from Allah is much greater. Umar bin Khattab, commented on this and said, “They are the people whose hearts were tested with taqwa.”
Lastly, it is good to remind ourselves here about the Hadith narrated by Abu Dhar in which he asked the Prophet ﷺ several questions and at the end of the Hadith the Prophet ﷺ said that we should avoid doing harm and withhold our evil from people. If we are in a gathering and we cannot stop an act of injustice from happening, it is not enough to hate it in our heart and stay there, we must get up and leave that gathering. If we are not able to say anything against it, we should leave otherwise our silent presence means that we consent to the injustice.
We might be in a difficult situation with family members (especially those older than ourselves), and we are unable to stop them by saying it outright. We have to be careful not to cause further problems, and one of the best ways to direct them away from the injustice is to change the subject and talk about something that does not involve backbiting or gossip. By doing so we have done our part as we hate the act in our heart and we did our best to steer them away from committing more injustice. But if this does not work then we have the option to withdraw from that situation and leave.
May Allah grant us the courage to stand up to injustice and protect us from causing more harm. Amin.
Excerpt is from 40 on Justice – Omar Suleiman - 9781847741431