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Speaking Truth to Power

ʿAbdullah b. Masʿūd (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) narrated that:

“A man asked the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), ‘What deeds are the best?’

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) answered:

(1) ‘To perform the (daily compulsory) prayers at their (early) stated fixed times;

(2) to be good and dutiful to one’s own parents;

(3) and to participate in jihād in Allāh’s Cause.’” [1]

But what exactly constitutes as jihād? Evidently, it is a deed that Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) loves, but depending on who you ask, some will have you believe it involves wanton violence against innocents. This is indeed a product of centuries of mass misrepresentation, but also miscommunication between Muslims and the rest of the world. Thereby, it has allowed the newspapers’ long game of ‘Chinese whispers’ to add fuel to the Islamophobia industry, war on terror, and any other scheme that wants to gain traction in order to validate the authorities’ control to monitor, target, belittle, and overpower Muslims.

The literal translation of jihād, as any Muslim with some knowledge of the Arabic language will tell you, is ‘to strive’, but the essence of that struggle is all for a praiseworthy aim. Jihād can take many forms, with some being greater than others, depending on context.

One such form was emphasised by the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) when he said:

“The best type of jihād is speaking a word of truth in the presence of a tyrant ruler.” [2]

Speaking truth to power can be defined as disclosing uncomfortable truths to those in power, whereby the people in power will deem the truths to be an inconvenience. It is this teaching that gave rise to many historical accounts of a great number of scholars who, despite knowing the consequences, stood and spoke before tyrants, as you shall read below. Yet, it is important to remember that to first speak out against the imbalance between the oppressed and the oppressor, can either be awkward or critical, depending on the circumstance.

As Jeremy Hammond once said:

“When we speak truth to power we are ignored at best and brutally suppressed at worst.” [3]

However, the Qur’ān tells us something different. You will find it is rare for a person to be celebrated, during their life, when speaking truth to power, for during that time, their truth will be considered controversial, as they went against the established structure at the time. It is when they are gone that their legacies start and their biographies are written, and everyone tries to claim these so-called “controversial” figures as their own. It has been the case with great influential leaders of decades gone: whilst they were once unpopular, it is now that they are universally revered and admired among all lands and ethnic backgrounds, and commemorated for their bravery, grit, and determination, although, for some, their efforts remained unsuccessful at the time.

If we look back at the lives of the Prophets, it was almost the case for every major Prophet to speak out against the authority at the time and remain unpopular in the process. It happened to our Prophet Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) with the Quraish, Prophet ʿĪsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) with the Romans, and Prophet Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) with the Pharaoh, just to name a few.

The palpable consequences that one can suffer are possibly the reason why so many of us choose not to speak up and correct injustice, thus, allowing the oppression to grow due to dictators being left unopposed. However, we must remember that it is our Islamic duty to speak up against injustice, and by not doing so, we are neglecting this duty.

Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) and the Pharaoh

If Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) had not challenged the rule of his previously unchallenged oppressor, the Pharaoh, the environment for those slaves would never have changed. His haughtiness and deluded self-admiration paved the way for him to become, and remain, the worst of humanity, although throughout his life, he was feared by the ones who shared his palace. Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) emphasises the point of speaking truth to power in a few short verses, summarising one of the encounters between Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) and Pharaoh.

First, let us better understand the character of the person whom Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) was addressing. Pharaoh said to his people:

“Is not the kingdom of Egypt mine, and these rivers are flowing beneath my feet? Can you not see?” [4]

His arrogance was documented in the Qur’ān to be recited until the end of time. However, he did not meet any challengers, and no-one rose to the occasion, so he found it within himself to take it a step further by saying to them:

“I do not know of any other god that you have other than me.” [5]

But when Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) commanded His prophets, Mūsā and Hārūn (ʿalayhim al-Salām), to go to him, he instructed them to speak to him.

“Indeed, we are both messengers from your Lord, so let the Children of Israel go with us, and do not oppress them. We have come to you with a sign from your Lord. And salvation will be for whoever follows the guidance.” [6]

The meeting continued.

“Indeed, it has been revealed to us that the punishment will be upon whoever denies and turns away.” [7]

Surely, questioning a man of this calibre could only transpire threats of torture, imprisonment, or murder, especially seeing as he had no problem killing children, enslaving women, and subjugating the men.

But how did he respond?

“Who is your Lord, O Mūsā?” [8]

He gave an attentive ear and even said Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām)’s name. Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) knew the Pharaoh would never embrace Islām and begin fearing Him, so why did He tell them do that? Among the wisdoms are: as a lesson for me and you.

According to Jeremy Hammond’s statement, the Pharaoh should never have entertained such a discussion, however, Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) is capable of all things. When He decrees a matter, it is done, and here, He had decreed for the Pharaoh to prolong his conversation with Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām).

Through this incident, Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) highlights that we should worry less about the character of the oppressor, and put our trust in Him. The outcome of any stance and any confrontation is known only to Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā). Although there are concessions given for remaining silent under exceptional circumstances such as duress, you cannot remain silent forever; and though there is a place for accountability and a place for silence, if and when the situation calls for it, you must speak truth to power.

Ibn Taymiyah and the Tatars

The Tatars were infamously known for their barbaric ways and their gruesome attacks on all those who stood in their path, not sparing the elderly, children, or even animals.

Thus, when Ibn Taymiyah stood before the oppressors, people would tremble in his presence and cover their faces, attempting to protect themselves from the blood of Ibn Taymiyah’s expected mutilation.

However, what did he say when he stood before Qazān, the great grandson of Genghis Khan, and the ruler of the opposition, who was about to attack Damascus?

“You claim that you are Muslim, and you have with you Mu’addhins, Muftīs, Imāms, and Shaykhs but you invaded us and reached our country for what? While your father and your grandfather, Hulagu, were non-believers, they did not attack, and they kept their promise. But you promised and broke your promise.” [9]

His courage impressed Qazān so much that he later left Damascus unharmed and even freed those whom Qazān had held captive. Ibn Taymiyah played a great role in establishing jihād against the Tatars, simply by speaking and confronting them whilst others feared for their lives.

Imām Aḥmad and the claims of the Qur’ān’s creation

Speaking truth to power should not only take its course when lives are being oppressed, but when erroneous ideologies are put forward to trample over the Truth.

In the earlier part of the second century, the allegations that the Qur’ān was created were bought forward by a group known as the Muʿtazilites. Anyone who did not accept their views would face their punishment. Therefore, some of the scholars of the time accepted their views, simply out of fear for their lives.

When they bought Imām Aḥmad forward, they would ask him, “What do you say about the Qur’ān? Is it a creation?”

And his only reply was: “It is the word of Allāh, ancient and uncreated.” [10]

Despite immense persistence shown to divert Imām Aḥmad and to succumb to their beliefs, he wrote in his book about the lengthy predicament:

“The Qur’ān is the Words of Allāh, not created. So, whoever claims that the Qur’ān is created is a Jahmite,[11] and a Kāfir (disbeliever).” [12]

He was imprisoned and tortured for over two years, but later became honoured for his courage and sacrifice. This stance that Imām Aḥmad took was described by the great teacher of Imām Bukhārī as one of the two pivotal points in the preservation of Islām, the other being with Abū Bakr al-Siddīq (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) on the Day of Ridda (reneging of Arab tribes after the death of the Prophet sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam).

Saʿīd b. Jubayr and Hajjāj b. Yūsuf 

Hajjāj b. Yūsuf was known as an oppressive and bloodthirsty ruler, remaining determined in his pursuit of Saʿīd b. Jubayr after he fought against him on the side of Ibn al-Ashʿath. An arrest order was put out on Saʿīd and eventually he was captured and bought to Hajjāj.

As they spoke, Saʿīd outsmarted him with every response, speaking only the truth in every statement. Hajjāj then ordered Saʿīd to be killed.

What is interesting however, is that after Saʿīd’s execution, copious amounts of blood came out from his body. The doctors who checked him for the cause of this said:

“His tranquillity and composure at the time of death had kept his blood in its original form. Generally, people to be executed are so much scared and afraid of death that their blood curdles and does not flow profusely.” [13]

Through this incident, Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) highlights that Saʿīd b. Jubayr did not regret his decision to speak the truth, even though it led him to his death.

Al-Imām al-Nawawī and al-Ẓāhir Baybars

As we mentioned previously, taking a stance can take many forms. People cannot always meet because factors such as geographical barriers and physical incapabilities may halt a person to meet eye to eye with the one they wish to address. Take for example the story of al-Imām al-Nawawī and his letters to al-Ẓāhir Baybars.

Al-Ẓāhir Baybars was the leader of Mamālīk, tasked to defend the Muslim civilisation. After his army triumphed, the renaissance of the new Mamlūk dynasty ruled with a tight and oppressive rule.

This led al-Imām al-Nawawī to address this in a letter and remind al-Ẓāhir of his humble beginnings:

“O al-Ẓāhir Baybars, you started as an individual that had nothing, and Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) now made you the leader of the Muslim empire. Do not abuse your rights over the people. This property does not belong to the ruler, but belongs to the Muslim state and that is the way it should remain.” [14]

In another period, al-Ẓāhir Baybars raised the tax on the people after the war instead of decreasing it. In Islamic discourse, this is forbidden.

So, al-Imām al-Nawawī wrote another letter:

“Fear the day where you will stand in front of Allāh. In this dunyā, you are taxing the people and in the ākhirah it is your deeds that will be taxed by Allāh.” 13

When he found that al-Imām al-Nawawī wrote this letter, al- Ẓāhir Baybars became very afraid to react due to a fear; a sign that al-Imām al-Nawawī was in fact, a friend of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā).

What is the point of mentioning these bouts? What did these men have in common? Ibn Taymiyah was admired for his courage, Imām Aḥmad was thrown into prison for his stance, Saʿīd b. Jubayr was martyred and al-Imām al-Nawawī was feared. Their commonality is not the outcome, but rather their status as believers.

They lived with tawḥīd at the pinnacle of their decisions, the forefront of decisions. As Muslims, they understood, and upheld the command of justice. And the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, if Allāh wills, about the people who follow this command, “will be seated upon pulpits of light”. [15]

Always be on the side of justice. Always be on the side of truth – be on the side of defending the oppressed – then you will be on the side of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) and you shall prevail. A person should feel the requirement to be social and political activists and should be able to stand and speak within his or her capacity.

“To say nothing is saying something. You must denounce things you are against or one might believe that you support things you really do not.” [16]

The fruits of this quote are captured by the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), where he said:

“Whosoever of you sees an evil…then [let him change it] with his tongue…” [17]

Do not be from among the blind and the mute, for hushed compliance is approval. Instead, know when to speak up or stand down, as that is courage. It is the absence of this quality that those men and women who assume positions of power and authority, deeming themselves and their methods free from imperfections, have caused an unsolicited retribution against Islām and its teachings, likening it to modern day ‘extremism’ in a post-9/11 world.

Some global leaders and world powers have indulged in profiting solely themselves from their positions, and that methodology is slowly shifting into closer-knit communities and organisations working on a grassroots level. No longer are some of them administered by justice and the effects are showing.

As Martin Luther King said:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” [18]

Only a benchwarmer would watch as evil plagues their world. As for the one who turns a blind eye and fears the repercussions that would come as a result of our stance, read the ferocious words of Khalid b. Walīd (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu), when he said:

“May the eyes of cowards never sleep!”

Instead think about the benefits. One of them can be found in a story from the Pharaoh. At one point, the Pharaoh had enough of Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) and his belief:

“Leave me to kill Mūsā and let him call his Lord! I fear that he may change your religion, or that he may cause mischief to appear in the land!” [19]

Little did he know, however, that there was a secret believer in his own courts – a man who happened to be one of the Pharaoh’s closest advisors. This man said:

“Do you kill a man [merely] because he says, ‘My Lord is Allāh’ while he has brought you clear proofs from your Lord?’” [20]

In this remarkable instance, the man uses his position of integration within the aggressive power to speak the truth. It highlights the huge benefit of speaking truth to power – that it will empower others to do the same. Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) paved the way for the secret believer in the Pharaoh’s cabinet to follow in his footsteps, but to first initiate him on that path, it required his input. The same goes for you: for others to speak truth to power, it requires you to be the middle-man.

In your case, you are not being tasked with speaking to the likes of Pharaoh, the Tatars, or Hajjāj b. Yūsuf, but rather, you are tasked with speaking and addressing the countless acts of transgression that take place in our current democratic regime, especially unto Muslims. Whether that may be the forceful education system, the capitalist financial system, the discriminant social system, or the right-wing political system. Even if that may be to an Islamophobe, a bigot, or a racist, or whether that may be to someone who is smearing our dīn, mocking our Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), or misrepresenting our Holy Book, it must be done.

To conclude, speaking truth to power is no easy task. However, can there be any goodness, and can Allāh’s (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) protection envelop a locality that does not protect its weak from its strong?

“If people see some evil but do not change about it, soon Allāh will send His punishment upon them all.” [21]

Not preventing the oppressors is a cause for collective punishment from Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā), thus we learn that the problem is not only the unjust power, but rather the society that condones their rule by staying silent. Then, it will only be a matter of time before that locality is consumed by that evil, all because they were passive.

As Ibn Taymiyah reported Imām Aḥmad saying:

“If I remained silent and you remained silent, then when will an ignorant person know the authentic from the unauthentic?” [22]

The power that is dismissive of the truth will leave the people feeling disenfranchised and marginalised, slowly erasing our membership as we succumb to their leadership. So, allow your inner frustrations to cause you to stand confidently in defining the power’s flaws and holding them accountable for the moral betterment of all. We all have a role to play.

May Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) enable us to speak truth to power and support those who already do. Āmīn.

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] Al-Bukhārī

[2] Ibn Mājah

[3] https://www.sparrowmedia.net/2013/11/jeremy-hammond-sentence/

[4] Al-Qur’ān 43:51

[5] Al-Qur’ān 28:38

[6] Al-Qur’ān 20:47

[7] Al-Qur’ān 20:48

[8] Al-Qur’ān 20:49

[9] Al-Kawākib al-Durriyah, p. 25

[10] Ṭabaqāt al-Ḥanābilah, p.219

[11] A follower of Jahmiyyah, which is a deviant Islamic sect denying some Attributes of Allāh, claiming they are ascribed to people and cannot be ascribed to Allāh.

[12] Al-Sunnah

[13] https://www.ummah.com/forum/forum/library/islamic-history-persons/274053-who-was-hajjaj-ibn-yusuf

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEM_wSyMg6c

[15] Muslim

[16] Germany Kent

[17] Muslim, on the authority of Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī

[18] Letter from the Birmingham Jail

[19] Al-Qur’ān 40:26

[20] Al-Qur’ān 40:28

[21] Sunan Ibn Mājah

[22] Majmūʿ al-Fatāwa 28/231-232

About Hamza Saleem

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