Edit this post

The On Being Project

Stopping Oppression: An Islamic Obligation

“A person should help his brother, whether he is an oppressor or is being oppressed. If he is the oppressor, he should prevent him from continuing his oppression, for that is helping him. If he is being oppressed, he should be helped to stop the oppression against him.”
—The Prophet Muhammad

The terrorist attacks of September 11th have raised important questions about the role of Muslim leaders in shaping a responsible discourse of resistance to oppression and injustice. In this article, I will examine some of the issues that have been raised in this regard and will consider the question, what kind of leadership do Muslims need in the face of oppression? In particular, I will consider the role of American Muslims in the context of world events following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I will acknowledge that since Muslim leadership must be responsive to events, this question cannot be answered completely in isolation of specific circumstances. The appropriate response will necessarily depend on the nature of the threat. At the same time, I will stress that any truly appropriate response must be firmly rooted in faith. A faith-based response is one that recognizes the omniscience of God, and the limits of human understanding. Faith urgently demands that we recognize the omnipotence of God, and the limits of human authority. Finally, faith demands that we acknowledge the absolute accountability of each individual before God, and that communal solidarity should never impede honest self-criticism, nor should it lead to injustice against other groups.

Within hours of the September 11th attacks, Muslim leaders worldwide, including the Chief Mufti of Saudi Arabia and the leaders of all major Islamic organizations in the United States, issued strong statements denouncing the attacks as sinful and illegal. In the weeks and months following the attacks, Muslim scholars and leaders wrote articles analyzing the Islamic legal basis for classifying these acts as terrorism or brigandry. War (jihad) is permitted in Islamic law, they explained, but only a legitimate head of state can conduct a war. They further argued that there are strict rules in Islamic law governing the conduct of warfare, for example, civilians cannot be targeted and property cannot be wantonly destroyed.2 This was an entirely appropriate and correct response.

At the same time, many Muslim leaders have not felt comfortable with the American military response to the acts of terrorism, apprehensive that it will lead to further interventions in Muslim lands that will only increase the suffering of ordinary people. In addition, Muslims perceive that Israeli aggression against Palestinians continues without American sanction; indeed, enormous financial and military support for Israel has continued. It seems that, any Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation is termed “terrorism,” and is responded to with overwhelming force. The result is the Palestinians themselves are increasingly showing less restraint in the force they employ to defend their families and lands. How should American Muslims respond to this expansion of American military force, to this increase in Israeli action, and to the further radicalization of Muslim resistance in Palestine and elsewhere? In the heightened tension that has ensued since the terrorist attacks, many have argued that it has become more important than ever for American Muslims to act as ambassadors for America to the Muslim world, and as ambassadors for Islam to the American public. This is a natural role for American Muslims, but it will have efficacy only if they are perceived as sincere advocates for, and honest critics of each community to which they belong.

To a great extent, the terrorist attack on Sept. 11th exacerbated a double bind American Muslims have been feeling for some time now. It has seemed, so often in the past, that we have had to apologize for reprehensible actions committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. We would tell other Americans, “People who do these things (oppression of women, persecution of religious minorities, terrorism) have distorted the “true” Islam.” And so often we have to tell other Muslims throughout the world, that America is not as bad as it appears. We tell them, “These policies (support for oppressive governments, enforcement of sanctions against Iraq, lack of support for Palestinians) contradict the “true” values of America.” The line between apologetics and the desire to foster mutual understanding has not always been clear. What is needed now from American Muslims, therefore, is to seriously heed the words of the Prophet Muhammad that if we really want to help our “brothers,” not only must we support them against those who would harm them, but also we must stop them from committing oppression against others. The critical situation we find ourselves living in today is the result, to a great extent, of allowing injustice and oppression to continue unchecked. Muslims, for example, did not criticize the Taliban strongly enough for their oppression of many groups of people in Afghanistan, thinking that they should “support” the struggling rulers in a chaotic situation. The American government has not criticized sufficiently the brutality of the Israeli government, believing that it needs to be “supportive” of the Jewish state. The result is that oppression, left unchecked, can increase to immense proportions, until the oppressed are smothered with hopelessness and rage. The first duty of Muslims in America, therefore, is to help shape American policies so they are in harmony with the essential values of this country. In the realm of foreign policy, this “idealistic” view has been out of fashion for some time. Indeed, the American Constitution, like foundational religious texts, can be read in many different ways. The true values of America are those which we decide to embrace as our own. There is no guarantee, therefore, that Americans will rise to the challenge of defining themselves as an ethical nation; nevertheless, given the success of domestic struggles for human dignity and rights in the twentieth century, we can be hopeful. At the same time, on the pragmatic level, there are strong arguments for the benefits of upholding international law and fostering human rights in foreign relations. As Robert Crane, President of the Washington based Islamic Institute for Strategic Studies has argued, it is truly in the best interest of the United States to act according to a consistent moral standard in international relations.3 The United States has learned a hard lesson that international cooperation is essential to fighting terrorism. Other nations will be more willing to cooperate with us on this issue if we compromise on issues important to them, even if we can achieve short-term gains pushing our own agenda. The best strategy for achieving national security needs to be reconsidered in an age of trans-national terrorism and narcotic networks, and proliferating nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. If Muslim Americans are to participate in such a critique of American policy, however, they will only be effective if they do it, according to the Prophet’s words, in a “brotherly” fashion. This implies a high degree of loyalty and affection. This does not mean, however, that citizenship and religious community are identical commitments, nor that they demand the same kind of loyalty. People of faith have a certain kind of solidarity with others of their faith community that transcends the basic rights and duties of citizenship. But most faith groups, including Islam, obligate believers to honor their covenants and contracts, including those that entail from obtaining permission to enter a country as a visitor, or by becoming a citizen. Islam further obligates the believer to provide for his neighbors and make them feel secure, without regard to their religious status or identity. The Prophet Muhammad said, “None of you believes who eats while his neighbor goes to bed hungry,” and he said, “None of you believes whose neighbor does not feel secure from (your) harm.” It is therefore a religious obligation for Muslims in America to promote what is in the best interest of the American people, in terms of their security and basic needs. Muslim Americans cannot be a special interest group concerned only with the rights of Muslims in America and abroad. At the same time, Muslims in America urgently need to address injustice when it is committed in the name of Islam. The most difficult part of fulfilling this responsibility is to achieve recognition, by other Muslims, that one is speaking about Islam with some authority. After all, Islam is not self-explanatory; it is a religious tradition that needs to be interpreted and claimed. As a practicing Muslim, I believe that there is a core of fundamental beliefs and practices that distinguish authentic Islam from deviations. I also believe that apart from this essential core, the task of interpreting the application of Islamic norms to human society is an enormously complicated task, which inevitably leads to a broad range of opinion and practice. I agree with ” Sunni” Muslims, the majority of the Muslim community worldwide, that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, no one has the right to claim infallibility in the interpretation of sacred law. At the same time, this does not mean that all opinions are equal, nor that everyone has the ability to interpret law. Without the intense study of Islamic texts and traditions under qualified scholars and without the presence of a stable Muslim community through which one can witness the wisdom of the living tradition, the chances of an ordinary believer arriving at a correct judgment about most legal issues are slim. This is one of the reasons why revolutionary leaders who arise in periods of great instability often are accused of having superficial knowledge of sacred texts, and little knowledge of the actual application of law, despite being apparently sincere in their desire to relieve people of oppression. It is also the case that it is often exceedingly difficult to sustain a self-critical attitude within revolutionary movements. When external threats are immense, disfunction within a community is usually given little attention. This difficulty is apparent in any nation that faces a challenge to its security. Even many Americans have little patience for complaints about violations of immigrants’ rights, racist profiling or transgressions of internationally recognized rights of war captives in the wake of September 11th. The international Muslim community, feeling under siege for centuries since the beginning of European colonial rule, has similarly had great difficulty sustaining a self-critical attitude. Bold, charismatic revolutionary leaders have won the hearts of the people because they have given some hope for success against oppression. The inability of such leaders to address internal dysfunction has seemed less important for many people. A number of scholars have pointed out that the revolutionary discourse of many modern Muslim leaders has most in common with the ideologies of resistance employed by Third World national liberation and self-determination movements. Khaled Abou El Fadl writes that, “modern nationalistic thought exercised a greater influence on the resistance ideologies of Muslim and Arab national liberation movements than anything in the Islamic tradition. The Islamic tradition was reconstructed to fit Third World nationalistic ideologies of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism rather than the other way around.”4 Before colonialism, authority was acquired by religious leaders in a much more subtle process, and religious leaders who advocated extreme hostility or aggression against the state were usually marginalized. After all, most Muslims did not want to be led into revolution, they simply wanted their lives to be better. In general, the most successful religious leaders were those who, in addition to serving the spiritual needs of the community, were able to moderate how state power was exercised on ordinary people, and in some sense, acted as intermediaries between the people and state. However, at those times when forces hostile to the practice of Islam attacked or occupied Muslim lands, for example, during the Mongol invasions, (Christian) Crusades, European colonialism, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, meaningful mediation was often impossible. At such times, the people needed revolutionary leaders; leaders who were not able to stand against occupying forces were marginalized, and their opinions were considered lacking in authority. Many historically Muslim lands have undergone unending turmoil since the beginning of European colonialism. Continued occupation and imperialism by foreign powers has allowed revolutionary discourse to take firm root in much of the Muslim world. Oppressive circumstances have disabled many Muslims, making them blind to the effectiveness of peaceful avenues of change, and deaf to the arguments of generations of Muslim scholars that revolt and lawlessness usually cause more harm to society than even government corruption. At the same time, when corruption is severe, when people are suffering continually under an oppressive government, a scholar who remains silent will lose all authority with the majority of people. This is the reason why it is so difficult to find authentic, authoritative Muslim voices advocating peaceful resistance to oppression. Religious leaders who speak out in a peaceful way against injustice will remain marginalized if their speech has no effect. The majority of Muslims simply will not recognize such people as religious leaders. At the same time, in many parts of the world, even those who speak out against corruption in a peaceful manner are jailed, tortured and killed.5 Anwar Ibrahim, former Minister of Finance of Malaysia, for example, is widely believed to have been the victim of a state conspiracy in 1998 to prevent him from publicizing proof of widespread government corruption linked to the President of Malaysia. After the September 11th attacks, he published an article, in which he linked the growth of extremism to such repression by the state, saying,

Bin Laden and his protégés are the children of desperation; they come from countries where political struggle through peaceful means is futile. In many Muslim countries, political dissent is simply illegal. Yet, year-by-year, the size of the educated class and the number of young professionals continue to increase. These people need space to express their political and social concerns. But state control is total, leaving no room for civil society to grow.6

In such circumstances, very few people — only those who are willing to risk losing everything: their property, their families, their security and their lives–will continue to speak out. Such individuals rarely limit their attempts to change state behavior through speech, because they have seen it to be ineffective. Indeed, in such circumstances, “extremism” might seem to be the only rational choice, because extreme actions are the only actions that seem to have an effect. In this context, Muslim Americans need to deeply consider what kind of leadership they can and should exercise in the Muslim world. First of all, it is clear that we need to be lovingly self-critical of our own flaws, and of the errors committed by fellow Muslims, even those in difficult circumstances. We cannot allow unsubstantiated suspicions, vague accusations of conspiracies, and exaggerated protests of attempts to ensure security to be used as excuses for violating the rights of women, non-Muslims and others. According to the words of the Prophet Muhammad, we are truly helping our fellow Muslims when we insist that they cease their injustice and oppression of others. During the Prophet’s own life, despite persistent external attacks on the Muslim community, the Prophet did not shy from addressing injustice committed by individual Muslims. Indeed, by helping his companions leave their old culturally acquired practices of brutality, he helped them develop a communal solidarity that was the key to the security of the state. At the same time, by focusing on the absolute primacy of an individual’s relationship with God, the Prophet gave the early Muslims a measure of success that was not dependent on political achievement. Soumayya, the first martyr in Islam, a slave-woman who was killed by her polytheist owner, was “successful” because she recognized only God as her true master. The Prophet Muhammad was unable to stop Soumayya from being oppressed and killed, because he had not yet been successful in establishing a state ruled by law; indeed, his own security was tenuous. All he could say to Soumayya and her husband Yassir as they were being killed was, “Patience family of Yassir, for verily Paradise is yours.” Certainly Muslim Americans must, in the first place, pray for their oppressed brothers and sisters, and assure them that God will reward them if they suffer innocently. But what if such people react to their oppression with their own brutality? We need to examine the argument that oppressed people must use only non-violent means of resistance, or confine military action to what is permitted by the law of war, even when such limited methods appear to be totally ineffective in stopping oppression. Is it possible that usual standards of morality in warfare and conflict must be ignored when it appears that great suffering cannot be stopped if resistance and retaliation is limited by these norms? This argument has been made many times in periods of crisis, leading the United States, for example, to drop atomic bombs on Japan, knowingly killing thousands of innocent civilians in the most horrible fashion. Some Muslim leaders, using the same logic, have argued that standard Islamic limits on the means employed in warfare must be set aside if the brutal oppression of ordinary Muslims is to be stopped. They argue that in the Palestinian case, for example, some leaders have argued that peaceful means have not led to a lessening of Israeli oppression. During fifty years of diplomacy at the United Nations, they cite that the numerous resolutions have been passed in support of Palestinian statehood and in condemnation of Israeli oppression, which the UN has been unable, or unwilling, to enforce. Millions of Palestinians continue to live in squalid refugee camps, and in daily humiliation and insecurity under Israeli rule. Faced with this reality, they suggest the Palestinians have no choice but to use any means to destabilize Israeli society, to force the Israelis to back off out of a desire to protect their own interests and true security for their citizens. I believe this argument is flawed because it confuses the need to understand what might compel a desperate person to commit indiscriminate acts of violence, and the need to provide strategies, that can be justified by faith, that might relieve such a person from suffering. Before we consider such strategies, however, we must seriously consider the deep suffering experienced by those who suffer persistent abuse and humiliation. We should not be surprised that extremely oppressive circumstances might lead an individual to disregard any moral code. To illustrate this point, we might want to consider this statement, make by a man who fled from American slavery to safety in Canada in the early 19th century:

The abuse a man receives at the South is enough to drive every thing good from the mind. I sometimes felt such a spirit of vengeance, that I seriously meditated setting the house on fire and night, and killing all as they came out. I overcame the evil, and never got at it — but a little more punishment would have done it. I had been so bruised and wounded and beset, that I was out of patience. I had been separated from all my relatives, from every friend I had in the world, whipped and ironed till I was tired of it. On that night when I was threatened with the paddle again, I was fully determined to kill, even if I were to be hanged and, if it pleased God, sent to hell: I could bear no more.7

Reading such a statement from an Islamic perspective, it occurs to me that certainly one could say that such an act of violence, and other acts of terrorism, might lead a person to hell. It is also possible that God will forgive even such grave sins. But what if another individual, appalled, for example, at the treatment of this slave, unable to compel the abusive master to free him, encouraged him to commit this act of violence? What would be the weight of sin on such a person? At the same time, would it not be wrong for such a person to simply condemn as a grave sinner the desperate slave who has lashed out not only at his oppressor, but has inflicted violence on all those around his oppressor? If we return once more to the example of the Prophet Muhammad for guidance, we see that he used a variety of techniques to relieve the suffering of the unjustly oppressed, depending on his ability to help them. For the early martyrs, all he could do was pray for them and reassure them. Once he was recognized as a prophet by the people of Medina, he was able to do much more. Still, it has been argued convincingly by a number of scholars that political power was relatively decentralized during the time of the Prophet, and he often could use only moral persuasion and shaming to stop certain individuals from committing oppression.8 Thus, Abu Masud al-Ansari, one of the early Muslims from Medina related,

I used to beat a young slave of mine until once I heard a voice behind me saying, “Know Abu Masud that God is more powerful over you than you are over him.” I turned and lo and behold it was the Messenger of God. So I said, “He is free, Messenger of God, for the face of God.” The Prophet said to me, “If you had not done so, hell-fire would have covered you.”9

In other reports about the Prophet, we see him directly ordering a person to free a slave he has struck in anger.10 In these cases, perhaps, the Prophet had the political authority to enforce such an order. What we learn from the Prophet’s example is that Muslims are required to help the oppressed within the limits of authority they possess. Thus, Muslims in America must demonstrate their empathy with their oppressed brethren through prayer and encouragement. They must use their legal rights to free speech to publicize the oppressors and shame them. They must work for a just political order, and in particular, encourage their government to make universal human rights a priority in foreign policy. Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims, are not neutral outsiders to the conflicts in Muslim lands that have come to threaten our security. The United States government has a long history of negative interventions in the Middle East. Muslim Americans, too, have supported resistance movements with words and, in some cases, with money. What is of primary importance is that we ensure that our “help” does not in fact increase oppression and injustice. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the United States gave support to a resistance movement that desperately needed to succeed. Nevertheless, enough care was not paid to the way this support could increase internal oppression among the Afghan people. In my own small way, I learned this lesson too. In 1988, I was working in an Afghan refugee camp in northern Pakistan. Part of my job was to register women for monthly widow’s benefits. One day, a woman who had received her payment the day before walked into our office with a black eye. She told us that her brother-in-law had tried to take her money, and when she refused, beat her up. When we investigated further, we discovered that in some areas, corrupt tribal leaders were seizing all the widows’ benefits and using the money to increase their power to oppress others. What this taught me is that one can do a little good to relieve the suffering of others, or one can do a great deal of harm. We pray that Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims, will have the wisdom to know what is good, and the courage to stand up to oppression, whatever form it takes.



1. Sahih Muslim: being traditions of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad as narrated by his companions and compiled under the title al-Jami`-us-Sahih, translated and edited by ‘Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, 4 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Arabia, n.d.), v. 4, 1367.

2. The articles, op-eds, press releases, and statements are so numerous that the best way to access them is through links collected on the “Muslims Against Terrorism” web-site: www.matusa.org. A brief overview of the statements made by major Muslim leaders was published in a full-page ad in The New York Times and other major American newspapers on October 17, 2001.

3. Robert Crane, “A Wake-up call for America and Muslims World-Wide,” in September 2001 issue of Islam21 on-line magazine, http://www.islam21.net/pages/keyissues/key7-2.htm.

4. Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Islam and the Theology of Power,” Middle East Report 221, Winter 2001.

5. His story is told in Renaissance Man: Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Former Deputy Prime-Minister of Malaysia, UASR Regional Report Series, 3 (Springfield, VA: UASR Publishing Group Inc., 2001).

6. Time (Asian edition), October 15, 2001 (v. 158, no. 15).

7. Benjamin Drew, The Refugee or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada related by Themselves with An Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada (Toronto: Prospero, 2000), 220.

8. W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina (Oxford University Press, 1956), 228-238.

9. Muslim, v. 3, 883-884. 10. Muslim, v. 3, 883

Share Your Reflection