Ideas & Philosophy — 03 September 2013
Mubarak to Morsi, Assad to Sisi:  To rebel or not rebel?

The removal of former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has seen the revival of the heated debate over when it is permitted to rebel against a Muslim ruler. At this time the focus of the discussion is not whether those who rebelled against Morsi were justified in their rebellion. Instead a number of scholars and personalities have stated that it is those who are protesting against the removal of Morsi who are the real rebels – or in the Arabic pejorative term – khawarij; used to describe the original group who violently rebelled against the authority of the Caliph Ali in the first generation of Islam. Any subsequent group deemed to be rebelling against a legitimate Islamic ruler maybe thus labeled, by sharing the same central identifying characteristic, though there are a number of others linked to issues of belief and action

The question arises – how can it be that those who protest against a popularly elected ruler being overthrown by a small coterie of military and liberal secularists led by General Sisi be considered the offending rebels in this case?

The clue to unlocking this particular mystery is to look at who is making the accusation of ‘khuruj’ (rebellion) against protesters complaining about Morsi’s removal from office by the current defence minister (and the real power behind the throne) Sisi.  They are largely the same collection who announced anyone coming out to oppose former President Hosni Mubarak was a blameworthy khariji – a diverse cohort, from the former mufti of Egypt and others currently in official government positions in Egypt (generally from a Sufi “spiritual” background, but also joined by the Salafi al-Nur party), to the “austere” Salafi scholars employed by the Saudi Monarchy to wrap their thrones in Islamic legitimacy.

It would not be too cynical to suggest that it appears that for some the issuing of fatwa is based upon interests rather than any Islamic judgement. How else could one explain that the some of the same scholars who spoke out against protests that were held in Tahrir square against Mubarak in 2011 and in Raba’a square against the removal of Morsi, remained silent when the crowds came out to protest against Morsi while he was in office – giving the excuse to the military leadership to depose him as president. Having accused those protesting against the military leadership of illegitimate rebellion, they argue it is legitimate to kill them to end their protests -usefully giving a cover to deal with political opposition in the crude manner often witnessed in the Middle East and seen in the bloody scenes during the clearance of Raba’a last month.

Whatever the academic merits deployed in their arguments, it is clearly a case of politics dictating theology and not vice versa. It is important to note – this otherwise unusual alliance of Sufi and Salafi officialdom is limited to those in government circles and does not necessarily represent either strand – for example, in Saudi Arabia the majority of intellectuals and scholars from all backgrounds have opposed the removal of Morsi, denouncing it as an illegitimate coup and in an almost unprecedented fashion have openly rejected the stance of the King. Therefore, the main shared issue which crosses any differences in jurisprudence or approach is that this alliance represents government mandated Islam.

But accusations have been flying both ways. A number of opponents of Morsi’s removal have claimed that the true khawarij in this case was Sisi and his government, who are deserving of the label as they removed the legitimate ruler of Egypt, a position that Morsi earned due to ultimately prevailing in the 2012 Presidential elections. In addition, it should be not be forgotten that during the period of Morsi’s short presidency, a few personalities on the (now defunct) Islamic satellite channels prior to the June 30 protests did also state that anyone protesting against Morsi was to be considered from the khawarij.

To add to the confusion, the Saudi monarchy is supporting the rebellion against the Assad regime in Syria, in an attempt to reduce Iran’s regional influence. A number of those who claim that the armed rebellion against the Assad regime is religiously mandated and praiseworthy, also claim that the largely peaceful protests against the Sisi administration constitutes illegal rebellion. Of course there are differences between the nature of the Assad and Sisi regimes, one being that Sisi is a Sunni Muslim while Assad is a member of the Alawite sect deemed as heretic by both Sunni and Shia, and Assad’s regime is more deadly than Sisi’s so far. But more fundamentally, Assad is the head of a ba’athist secular government, and Sisi is controlling a government of secular liberals and leftists, and both have shown their willingness to use force against peaceful protest. So the positions taken appear more to do with the interests of the Saudi Monarchy rather than the merits of the arguments regarding the difference between the two regimes.


Recent history

The topic of rebellion under Islamic law has been particularly heated in the last 30 years, coinciding with the rise and decline of armed movements which aimed at removing the various Middle East governments during the 1980’s and 90’s. Provocations, such as the cancellation of the FIS election victory in Algeria in 1991, led to some taking up arms.  These movements believed that Islamic law justified rebellion against governments they viewed as  sacrilegious infidel governments – a viewpoint opposed by various scholars and personalities from official government institutions, who claimed that Muslim rulers had to be obeyed and that those involved in armed rebellion were in fact khawarij, and needed to be killed.

Consequently, the various militarised police states from Algeria to Egypt had a theological endorsement to either eradicate or imprison Islamic opposition (including those in opposition who did not participate in armed struggle).

By the late 1990’s, as a result of harsh prison conditions over a number of years coupled with pressure upon the leaders of armed groups to revise their methodologies, a number of imprisoned ideologues in Egypt wrote public repudiations of their former understanding. These efforts gathered pace after 9/11 and were part of a strategy by other Middle Eastern governments, the aim of which was to alienate al-Qaeda from those seen as their ideological bedfellows.

As a result, the debates about when it was permitted to rebel against Muslim leaders were (practically-speaking) laid to rest – or at least were confined to a limited discussion space, particularly after al-Qaeda’s star waned in the mid 2000’s partly as a result of the increase in sectarian conflict in Iraq. That was the case until the Arab uprisings began in 2011. With masses of people take to the streets against their regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere, the debate was reopened.

Once again it was the government-mandated scholars (and those trained or enamored by them) who were vocal in their opposition to the protests, claiming that they constituted a blameworthy khuruj – or rebellion – against the ruler.


Back to the present

So we arrive at the discussion today. Cynical politicking by government-mandated Islam has trampled over any real attempt to explain what the correct Islamic position vis-à-vis rebellion – understandable given that the regimes in question have always been more concerned with maintaining their grip on power than on authentic Islamic jurisprudence!

The question of rebellion against the ruler is dependent upon two main factors: firstly, what types of protest are permitted and which are forbidden; and secondly, against which type of ruler is the rebellion taking place.

The answers are summarized by Dr. M.K. Heykal, a Syrian scholar who wrote his PhD thesis “Jihad and Killing in the Islamic Sharia” elaborating all of the various Prophetic narrations related to the subject in one section of his work.

In relation to the types of rebellion forbidden, he stated armed rebellion is forbidden against a legitimate Islamic ruler who has been given the pledge of allegiance by the Muslims to rule by the Quran and Sunnah (the Prophetic way), and who then proceeds to rule by Islam. He goes on to say that rebellion becomes permitted in a number of specific circumstances that clearly indicate that Islamic rule is no longer being applied as a principle, such as permanent cancellation of some of the agreed upon Sharia rulings. Such a circumstance would mean an Islamic system crosses a red-line that delegitimizes the system.

As regards any lesser infringements, such as personal shortcomings, harsh rule or individual instances of discrepancy and oppression – he argues the ruler should be accounted by the public – which can include vocal public accounting.

His analysis largely agrees with traditional mainstream Islamic scholarship on this matter.

Applying these principles – given that the protests in Egypt over the past two years – whether they opposed Mubarak’s rule, criticised Morsi’s presidency or opposed Morsi’s removal generally do not constitute armed rebellion, they would not be forbidden from the angle of violence used.

Instead, non-violent protests – even very vocal ones – come under the general rubric of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil with the tongue, considered to be a duty of all Muslims at all time as long as they are capable. If a protest was accounting the ruler on a matter in accordance with Islam, then the protest would be praiseworthy, and if it was to call for something against Islamic law, then it would be blameworthy, but not constituting violent rebellion.

But what is more fundamental is the second factor – regarding the type of ruler being rebelled against. None of the aforementioned personalities constitutes an Islamic ruler ruling by Islam. Rather, all of the rulers today lead un-Islamic systems based upon a nation-state model, with constitutions that are largely copied from European precedents. Sometimes they might contain a few clauses mentioning that Sharia law should be one of or the only source of legislation – but these words never make it beyond the ink on the pages (nor could they ever, given that the Islamic notion of state fundamentally contradicts the nation-state model).

In other words, the Prophetic narrations which delineate when it is not permitted to rebel within the context of Islamic rule are not applicable to the context of any of the realities today, given that none of the ruling systems could be considered Islamic in the first place.

When the question is raised why such narrations and viewpoints have been used in the contemporary era despite the fact that they do not match the context, it should be remembered that they have generally been used by those who support the power to justify the continued status-quo of the regimes left behind in the fallout of the post-Sykes-Picot Middle East.

In particular – since the emergence of state control of Islamic institutions, and formal appointments of national mufti and councils – such scholars have often condemned opposition to the rule as un-Islamic, referencing back to classical views commonly held and commented upon, such as that of Imam Nawawi in his explanation of Sahih Muslim in which he states that there is a consensus upon the prohibition of rebellion against the ruler. (It should be easily understood though that Nawawi was talking about an Islamic ruler rather than the head of a secular ba’athist regime or republic for example.)

However, the uprisings in 2011 overturned the nexus, and the masses generally disregarded the by-now largely discredited voices of official scholarship who were seen as apologists for harsh dictatorships, reflecting the words of the Prophet peace be upon him “a slave does not come nearer to the ruler, except that he becomes further from Allah.”


Accounting the Ruler

Despite the calls to quietism from a mix of government appointed officials to popular scholars from both Sufi and Salafi strands, the people went onto the streets. Until now, none of the uprisings have successfully fully uprooted the colonial frameworks, evidenced by the continued formal existence of the artificially created nation-state and the creation or continuation of governments based upon constitutions modeled upon Western political theory and practice. This has meant that as the former regime members struggle to re-impose themselves back within the state structures in Tunisia and Egypt, with support from those in the Gulf who are nervous that the itch for change spreads from the republics to the monarchies, the religious backers for the old regimes repackaged their previous legitimating and defence of dictatorship for the new situation.

This cynical use of Islamic law has had numerous effects – not only can it discredit those seen as apologists for Mubarak et al, but given the Islamic pretentions of those involved it can also serve to make the general public distrustful of Islamic law and politics, believing that it acts as Karl Marx described it – the opium of the masses, used to keep the oppressed in check. While in origin the scholars were considered to be forefront of those responsible for accounting the Islamic ruler, in the contemporary era many have become tools for legitimizing the rule of secular dictatorships and despotic monarchies.

Despite the fact that some elements of quietism crept into elements of classical scholarship, the reality of Islamic law is far from the picture shown today by the official government mandated scholars. Having rulers that are accountable is one of the foremost responsibilities of any community to ensure a healthy society, coupled with the discipline to support government for the greater good in spite of clashes with personal interest.

The Prophetic narrations regarding rebellion form an important part of the culture of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, the political doctrine that every Muslim believer embraces as part of their Islam, and so it is important for every Muslim to understand them correctly to benefit from their wisdom and act upon their commandment in the correct context.

(To be continued – the second part will outline the evidences regarding rebellion against the ruler, and detail how they apply under the general Islamic commandment of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil.)


REZA PANKHURST (Twitter: @rezapankhurst) is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. His latest book, The Inevitable Caliphate? A History of the Struggle for Global Islamic Union, 1924 to the Present, is published by Hurst and available now. He was formerly a political prisoner of the Mubarak regime.





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