Have Muslim rulers become unbelievers by applying secular laws?

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

One of the most dangerous claims in the discourse of modern extremists is the assertion that every leader of a Muslim government, and by extension their citizens, has become an unbeliever by incorporating secular laws into his state. This is not merely an abstract accusation, but rather it is used to justify campaigns of terrorist violence against innocent Muslim civilians. We must understand clearly that such claims are based upon ignorance and distortion of the Quran, the Sunnah, and Islamic law.

In general, any Muslim who claims to be a Muslim should be considered a Muslim even if he commits major sins and heresies. This applies not only to common Muslims but to the rulers as well.

At-Tahawi writes:

وَلَا يَخْرُجُ الْعَبْدُ مِنَ الْإِيمَانِ إِلَّا بِجُحُودِ مَا أَدْخَلَهُ فِيهِ

A person does not leave faith except by disavowing what brought him into it.

Source: Aqeedah At-Tahawi

Accusing another Muslim of unbelief, including the rulers, requires an enormous burden of proof and the removal of numerous excuses.

Ash-Shawkani writes:

اعلم أن الحكم على الرجل المسلم بخروجه من دين الإسلام ودخوله في الكفر لا ينبغي لمسلم يؤمن بالله واليوم الآخر أن يقدم عليه إلا ببرهان أوضح من شمس النهار

Know that with regard to the ruling upon a Muslim man for leaving Islam and entering into unbelief, it is not befitting for a Muslim who believes in Allah and the Last Day to apply it unless with a proof that is clearer than the light of day.

Source: Sayl Al-Jirar 1/978

Therefore, as a general rule we should consider as Muslims by default the rulers who claim to be Muslims. It is not the right of individual lay Muslim or group to excommunicate another Muslim, including the rulers.

With this principle firmly established, we need to answer the question of whether Muslim rulers have become unbelievers by incorporating secular laws. It is undeniable that Muslim rulers have adopted secular laws, but does this necessitate unbelief and apostasy?

The charge of unbelief on this basis stems from a fundamental ignorance of the nature of Sharia law in relationship to secular law. In violent extremist ideology, it is imagined that Sharia law is an entirely self-contained and divinely revealed system with no need of “man-made” laws. However, the fact of the matter is that a number of laws popularly associated with the Sharia are in reality man-made interpretations of divine scripture. This is why Fiqh, which means understanding, is distinct from Sharia, which means the way of Allah. The four major schools of Sunni Islamic law were known as schools of Fiqh and not schools of Sharia, thus we have Hanafi Fiqh and not Hanafi Sharia.

Professor Mohammad Kamali explains this important distinction:

It was in view of the legal character of Sharia that many have described it as “God’s commandments related to the activities of man,” of which those that are related to ethics are taken out and classified under morality. Fiqh is the legal science and can sometimes be used synonymously with Sharia. The two are, however, different in that Sharia is closely identified with divine revelation, the knowledge of which could only be obtained from the Quran and Sunnah. Fiqh has, on the other hand, been largely developed by jurists and consists of rules which are mainly founded upon human reasoning. Sharia is thus the wider circle, and it embraces in its orbit all human actions, whereas Fiqh is narrower in scope and addresses mainly what is referred to as practical legal rules. The path of Sharia is laid down by God and His Messenger; the edifice of Fiqh is erected by human endeavor.

Source:  Kamali, M. H. (2008). Shari’ah law: An introduction. Oxford: Oneworld.

In sum, the Sharia serves as the legal philosophy, the divine spirit and values and objectives of the law, whereas Fiqh is the human understanding of the law, which may or may not fulfill the Sharia. Muslims are united in their reference to the objectives of the Sharia (maqasid ash-sharia), but differ in their interpretations of secondary issues. Violent extremists obscure this important distinction and imagine that whatever ruler does not implement their sectarian ideological understanding of Islamic law has entirely abandoned the Sharia. They intend to forcefully impose their narrow understanding upon society while they have no right to do so.

Ibn Taymiyyah reported:

قَالَ الْأَئِمَّةِ لَيْسَ لِلْفَقِيهِ أَنْ يَحْمِلَ النَّاسَ عَلَى مَذْهَبِهِ

The Imams would say it is not the duty of the jurist (faqih) to force his school of thought upon the people.

Source: Majmu’ Al-Fatawa 30/80

In the case of secular law, the word “secular” simply means worldly and it has a neutral connotation. A secular law may or may not be consistent with the values of the Sharia, just as a social custom may or may not be consistent with the Sharia, thus incorporation of these laws in itself does not necessitate unbelief. For example, traffic laws are modern secular laws which are not directly based upon classical Islamic law, yet they are consistent with the Sharia’s objective of protecting life and public welfare. The ideological rhetoric of “man-made laws” equates secular laws with unbelief, while this is not necessarily the case.

It might be said that Muslim rulers have incorporated the laws of unbelief from Western countries. However, it should be understood that the Prophet himself looked to the experience of other nations in order to develop rulings on worldly issues in Islam.

For example, consider the following narration:

Judamah bint Wahb reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَقَدْ هَمَمْتُ أَنْ أَنْهَى عَنْ الْغِيلَةِ حَتَّى ذَكَرْتُ أَنَّ الرُّومَ وَفَارِسَ يَصْنَعُونَ ذَلِكَ فَلَا يَضُرُّ أَوْلَادَهُمْ

I was thinking of forbidding intercourse with a breastfeeding woman, until it occurred to me that the Romans and Persians do that and it does not harm their children.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1442, Grade: Sahih

In this narration, the Prophet looked at the experience of the Romans and Persians in some non-religious worldly matter before he issued a ruling in Islam. As such, there is nothing inherently wrong with borrowing secular laws from the West as long as there is nothing sinful about these laws. Each secular law has to be measured according to its consistency with Islamic values and objectives.

It might further be said that Muslim rulers have chosen their own rule instead of the rule of Allah, something which the Quran condemns as unbelief. They base their opinion on the following verse:

Allah said:

وَمَن لَّمْ يَحْكُم بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْكَافِرُونَ

Whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, then it is those who are the unbelievers.

Surat Al-Ma’idah 5:44

Even if this were the case, the companions understood “unbelief” in this verse to mean lesser unbelief, an act of unbelief that does not excommunicate a Muslim.

At-Tabari reported: A man asked Ibn Abbas concerning this verse, “If someone does not judge by what Allah has revealed, then has he disbelieved?” Ibn Abbas said:

فَمَنْ فَعَلَ هَذَا فَقَدْ كَفَرَ قَالَ اِبْن عَبَّاس إِذَا فَعَلَ ذَلِكَ فَهُوَ بِهِ كُفْر  وَلَيْسَ كَمَنْ كَفَرَ بِاَللَّهِ وَالْيَوْم الْآخِر وَبِكَذَا وَكَذَا

If he does that, then there is disbelief in it, but this is not like one who disbelieves in Allah and the Last Day and so on.

And Tawus said:

لَيْسَ بِكُفْرٍ يَنْقُل عَنْ الْمِلَّة

It is not the disbelief that rejects someone from the religion.

Source: Tafseer Al-Tabari 5:44

Therefore, this verse was never meant to justify violence in any way. Rather, the verse applies to all Muslims and not simply rulers. Every Muslim has the responsibility to judge by the revelation of Allah in his personal and public life. This is the comprehensive meaning of the word “judge” (hakim).

Ibn Taymiyyah writes:

وَكُلُّ مَنْ حَكَمَ بَيْنَ اثْنَيْنِ فَهُوَ قَاضٍ سَوَاءٌ كَانَ صَاحِبَ حَرْبٍ أَوْ مُتَوَلِّي دِيوَانٍ أَوْ مُنْتَصِبًا لِلِاحْتِسَابِ بِالْأَمْرِ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَالنَّهْيِ عَنْ الْمُنْكَرِ حَتَّى الَّذِي يَحْكُمُ بَيْنَ الصِّبْيَانِ فِي الْخُطُوطِ فَإِنَّ الصَّحَابَةَ كَانُوا يَعُدُّونَهُ مِنْ الْحُكَّامِ

Everyone who rules between two people is considered a judge, whether he is a person of war, or one appointed to office, or one responsible for enjoining good and forbidding evil, such that even one who rules between two children regarding their handwriting is a judge. Verily, the companions considered them to be judges.

Source: Majmu’ Al-Fatawa 18/70

Thus, the verse is intended to remind every Muslim to judge by the wisdom of the Quran and Sunnah in his everyday life, even in small matters, whereas violent extremists have distorted this purpose by infusing it with a partisan political-ideological meaning.

The correct Islamic method for correcting corrupt rulers is to pursue patient and peaceful reforms and, if necessary, engage in civil disobedience. As long as the ruler allows Muslims to practice their religion, then violence can never be justified.

Awf ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

خِيَارُ أَئِمَّتِكُمْ الَّذِينَ تُحِبُّونَهُمْ وَيُحِبُّونَكُمْ وَيُصَلُّونَ عَلَيْكُمْ وَتُصَلُّونَ عَلَيْهِمْ وَشِرَارُ أَئِمَّتِكُمْ الَّذِينَ تُبْغِضُونَهُمْ وَيُبْغِضُونَكُمْ وَتَلْعَنُونَهُمْ وَيَلْعَنُونَكُمْ

The best of your rulers are those whom you love and they love you, who pray for you and you pray for them. The worst of your rulers are those whom you hate and they hate you, whom you curse and they curse you.

It was said, “Shall we confront them with swords?” The Prophet said:

لَا مَا أَقَامُوا فِيكُمْ الصَّلَاةَ وَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمْ مِنْ وُلَاتِكُمْ شَيْئًا تَكْرَهُونَهُ فَاكْرَهُوا عَمَلَهُ وَلَا تَنْزِعُوا يَدًا مِنْ طَاعَةٍ

No, as long as they establish prayer among you. If you find something hateful from them, you should hate their actions but not withdraw your hand from obedience.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1855, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet explicitly mentioned the case of a ruler who abandons the Sunnah, the main source of Sharia, and yet he still ordered us to refrain from violence.

Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

يَكُونُ بَعْدِي أَئِمَّةٌ لَا يَهْتَدُونَ بِهُدَايَ وَلَا يَسْتَنُّونَ بِسُنَّتِي وَسَيَقُومُ فِيهِمْ رِجَالٌ قُلُوبُهُمْ قُلُوبُ الشَّيَاطِينِ فِي جُثْمَانِ إِنْسٍ

Rulers after me will come who do not follow my guidance and my tradition (sunnah). Some of their men will have the hearts of devils in a human body.

I said, “O Messenger of Allah, what should I do if I live to see that time?” The Prophet said:

تَسْمَعُ وَتُطِيعُ لِلْأَمِيرِ وَإِنْ ضُرِبَ ظَهْرُكَ وَأُخِذَ مَالُكَ فَاسْمَعْ وَأَطِعْ

You should listen and obey them even if the ruler strikes your back and takes your wealth, even still listen and obey.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1847, Grade: Sahih

Imam Muslim interprets these narrations to mean that it is obligatory to denounce a ruler who violates the Sharia, but it is still forbidden to rebel against them. He records these narrations in the following chapter:

وُجُوبِ الإِنْكَارِ عَلَى الأُمَرَاءِ فِيمَا يُخَالِفُ الشَّرْعَ وَتَرْكِ قِتَالِهِمْ مَا صَلَّوْا وَنَحْوِ ذَلِكَ

The obligation to denounce the rulers when they contradict the Sharia and to avoid fighting them as long as they pray and so on.

The wisdom behind these commands was mentioned by many of the righteous predecessors and scholars (salaf as-salih). A violent rebellion and civil war among Muslims causes great harm and internal weakness and threatens the ability of Muslims to perform ultimate objective in Islam, to worship Allah in safety.

An-Nawawi writes:

وَأَمَّا الْخُرُوجُ عَلَيْهِمْ وَقِتَالُهُمْ فَحَرَامٌ بِإِجْمَاعِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَإِنْ كَانُوا فَسَقَةً ظَالِمِينَ وَقَدْ تَظَاهَرَتِ الْأَحَادِيثُ بِمَعْنَى مَا ذَكَرْتُهُ وَأَجْمَعَ أَهْلُ السُّنَّةِ أَنَّهُ لَا يَنْعَزِلُ السُّلْطَانُ بِالْفِسْقِ وَأَمَّا الْوَجْهُ الْمَذْكُورُ فِي كُتُبِ الْفِقْهِ لِبَعْضِ أَصْحَابِنَا أَنَّهُ يَنْعَزِلُ وَحُكِيَ عَنِ الْمُعْتَزِلَةِ أَيْضًا فَغَلَطٌ مِنْ قَائِلِهِ مُخَالِفٌ لِلْإِجْمَاعِ قَالَ الْعُلَمَاءُ وَسَبَبُ عَدَمِ انْعِزَالِهِ وَتَحْرِيمِ الْخُرُوجِ عَلَيْهِ مَا يَتَرَتَّبُ عَلَى ذَلِكَ مِنَ الْفِتَنِ وَإِرَاقَةِ الدِّمَاءِ وَفَسَادِ ذَاتِ الْبَيْنِ فَتَكُونُ الْمَفْسَدَةُ فِي عَزْلِهِ أَكْثَرَ مِنْهَا فِي بَقَائِهِ

As for rebelling against the ruler and fighting him, it is forbidden by consensus (ijma) of the Muslims even if he is sinful and oppressive. I have mentioned many narrations with this meaning. The people of the Sunnah have agreed that the ruler should not be removed due to his sinfulness. As for the view mentioned in the books of jurisprudence from some of our companions that he should be removed, which is also the opinion of the Mu’tazilates, then it is a serious mistake from them and is in opposition to the consensus. The scholars have said the reason his removal and rebellion against him is forbidden is because of what that entails of tribulations, bloodshed, and corruption, for the harm in removing the ruler is greater than letting him remain.

Source: Sharh Sahih Muslim 1840

To conclude, it cannot be said that Muslim rulers and by extension their subjects have become unbelievers in mass due to the adoption of some secular laws. A secular law is merely a worldly law which may or may not fulfill the objectives of Sharia. Each secular law must be judged by its consistency with Islamic values. Furthermore, even in the case of an oppressive ruler, Islam teaches us to pursue peaceful reforms as long as Muslims are free to practice Islam.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.