Insurrection: The Right to Rebel from an Islamic Perspective

The right to rebel in Islamic law (Sharia) is considered to be a controversial issue, owing to the differing interpretations and explanations of the Islamic texts by religious scholars in this regard. Rebels in this essay can be defined as “bughat, indicating groups of Muslims dissenting from the policy of the established leadership” Kelsay (2007, p.99). Muslim scholars are divided into various groups when they study this matter. However, this paper will focus on two main scholar groups and their understanding of this issue. The first group comprises those who are proponnents and approve the right to rebel with almost no reservations. The second group is formed by those who reject the idea of resistance, however, they may permit resistance under certain conditions.

To illustrate these different arguments, it seems important to answer some related questions such as, is there a right to rebel or to revolt in the Islamic Law? Is it justified to use violence in a rebellion or revolution? Who does have the right to change inappropriate behavior when it occurs in a public place or to rebel against it? Can rebellion be justified in any way if someone does not have the right to do so under Sharia? In McMahan theory killing a civilian can be justified in some circumstances (2009, pp.156-157), but is such an opinion acceptable in Islamic Law? Is there a difference between giving the right to rebel against aggressive national authority and giving the right to rebel against a colonial government? How should security forces deal with rebels in Islamic Law? Is there any alternative to rebellion and demonstration in Sharia?

This essay will start by highlighting two crucial dimensions which Muslim scholars argue about in terms of which should be given  priority. Is it  obedience to the ruler or the rite of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, in terms of the right to change what is wrong in  public life. Then the paper will illustrate the theoretical side or what it is called in the Sharia, the maxims or the Jurisprudential rules which are useful to judge different arguments. Furthermore, the right to change public wrongs will be discussed to show how Muslim scholars think about this aspect based on their preference of one of these two dimensions and how the jurisprudential maxims manage this relationship. This argument, which concerns the right to change what is considered wrong in public life, will be followed by the right to criticize the ruler or to rebel against him and use violence when revolting. The following section will go further to discuss rebellion against colonizers and what the conservative scholars say about it. Before reaching a conclusion, this paper will discuss the alternative options to rebellion and demonstration in the Sharia.

For better understanding of how different opinions are built about the right to rebel from an Islamic perspective, it seems important to consider two essential dimensions. The first dimension is the obedience to the ruler, and the second dimension is the rite of promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice.

The political system is one of many systems that combine to form a Muslim society. The importance of the ruler as the head of this essential system comes from the Qur’anic and Sunnah which assert to obey him. The Holy Qur’an 4:59 states, “O you who believe, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority[1] from among you; then if you quarrel about anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the last day; this is better and very good in the end”. It might be useful to indicate that this Qur’anic verse contains two aspects; the obedience and the quarrel which can be considered as the core or the base for this essay. Ibn Umar reported:  The Holy Prophet said: It is obligatory upon a Muslim that he should listen to the ruler appointed over him and obey him whether he likes it or not, except that he is ordered to do a sinful thing. If he is ordered to do a sinful act, a Muslim should neither listen to him nor should he obey his orders (Albukhari, 1997, v9, pp.125-163 and Muslim, 2007, v5, pp.165-170)[2].

The second dimension is the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, which is seen by some Muslim scholars as the sixth pillar of Islam. It can be said that there is a complete agreement among Muslim scholars that the priority of Islam relies on this rite according to the verse which says: “You are the best of the nations raised up for the benefit of men; you enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong and believe in Allah” (Holy Quran, 3: 110). Abu Sa’eed al-Khudree said: “I heard the Messenger of Allah say “Whoso- ever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then let him change it with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart, and that is the weakest of faith” (Muslim, 2007, v1, p.143). This “Hadith” or speech is misunderstood by many Muslims because it appears as if it gives the right to change to everyone, which will be discussed later.

The relationship between these systems which arrange the Muslim society is organized by general rules. These Jurisprudential maxims are various and often very short. However, there are five main maxims in the Islamic Jurisprudence, and each of them has its subsidiary maxims. One important maxim for this argument originally derived from the prophet’s (Hadith) speech which was narrated by Ibn Abbas. The Messenger said: “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm” (Sunan Ibn Majah,[3] 2007, v3, p.338). Many sub-maxims are attached to this one, such as “Harm shall be warded off “, “When greater and lesser banes are incompatible, the lesser shall be committed” and “A severe harm shall be removed by a lesser harm” (Assafi, 2012, p.72). This jurisprudential maxim seems similar to the one stated by McMahan (2009, p.114), “the insistence that the harm averted be substantially greater than the harm caused”. More maxims derived from the mentioned Hadith are “Harm shall not be warded off by a similitude”; “Harm is not justified by being old”; “Harm shall be warded off as much as possible”; “Repelling banes is better than securing benefits”and “Private harm shall be tolerated to dispel public harm” (Assafi, 2012, pp.73-136). These maxims can be considered as a theory which may be useful to analyse and discuss different perspectives regarding the right to rebel. This essay will try to use this maxim and its subsidiaries to evaluate the relationship between these two Islamic systems; the ruler obedience and the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.

One crucial aspect of the rite of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice is the right to change what is wrong in public life, and whether it is given to everyone or not, which is considered a controversial issue within Muslim society. Some Muslim scholars have interpreted the Hadith, “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it”, as meaning that the right to change what is wrong should be organized by the ruler who gives the right to certain people to correct this wrong. However, ibin Baz (1993, p.17) has stated that to prevent the wrong act is a right guaranteed to all people, but it is important to notice that to change by hand must depend on the capacity to do so and it must not result in more corruption, for instance, one can use his hand at home to prevent his children or his wife from doing harmful things. He asserted that unless one is given power and authority from the state, he is not allowed to change any wrong in public life using his hand as this may lead to more evil. Instead he can advise people with kindness and he should enhance and strengthen his argument with evidence from the Quran and Sunnah. It can be noticed here that ibin Baz has based his ideas on the theory or the maxim of “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm,” especially the sub-maxim “Harm shall not be warded off by a similitude.”

On the other hand, some Muslim scholars say it is everyone’s right to change what is wrong by tongue or hands without any permission from the state, but they differ when it comes to the level of force such as the use of a weapon. Ibin Annahhas (1989, p.31) has asserted that everyone is allowed to use his hands and even to beat the one who commits wrong if he refuses to quit. However, some scholars such as the judge Aiadh, Arrafe’e, and Annawawi state it is not permissible to use power unless with permission from the ruler, while Imam Alghzali believes that there is no need to have permission from the ruler to prevent what is publically wrong even when using power. Ibin Hazim mentioned that some Muslim scholars and (khwarij)[4] believe that it is compulsory upon individuals to use power if they could not prevent wrong occurring in public life (Addorar Assuniyah 2012). The Egyptian al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya which is considered as a terrorist group believes that this aspect of religion is very important, but not everyone has the right  to exert power and this right is not given by the state, instead it is given  under two certain conditions; the first is being responsible -which can be clarified according to one’s age, mentality and religion, and the second is his ability to change the inappropriate act, so that if he can then he must do it, especially if there is no one else to do it (Meijer, 2009, p.205). It is important to note that one principle of this rite is that one should command and forbid politely. Sufyan Atthawri pointed out that this rite should be done with kindness (Cook, 2000, p.53). Unfortunately, those who want to perform this duty with power seem to ignore the principle of civility. Furthermore, they torture or kill those who do not obey them, like the Khawarij, such as Al-Qaida and ISAL who do anything to force people to obey them regardless of these maxims.

Muslim scholars differ in opininion concerning the right to rebel against a Muslim ruler and to use violence when doing so. Lambton (1991, p.66) has stated that Ibn Qutayba opposed those who gave the right to rebel against an un-righteous ruler citing the prophet hadith, “perform the prayer behind the imam whether he is righteous or not”. According to Lambton, Ahmad ibn Hanbal rejected the idea to rebel against the Imam who must be obeyed by people. Moreover, Ibn Hanbal assertrd that individuals have no right to disobey him, unless he orders them to disobey God, then they must decline his request (ibid, p.42). According to Meijer (2009, p.215), some jurists have stated that  if the ruler states that he is a Muslim, then the rebellion against him is unjustified “even if he does not apply the whole shari‘a”.

The use of violence by rebels or losing the ability to restore discipline in public may justify the use of violence by the ruler. Ibn Hanbal warned people not to call for armed rebellion, which is not permitted and there is no justification for it if the Imam always performs his prayers (Lambton, 1991, p.42). However, if secessionists insist on being violent, Bonner (2008, pp10-11) has mentioned that all Muslim scholars support the fighting of those who revolt against an authorized Muslim ruler, at least as a last solution. Additionally, armed revolutionaries should be dealt with as if they were external enemies. According to (Kelsay 2007, p103), Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani has stated that if revolutionaries fight against the Muslim ruler, then he is allowed to use violence against them to guarantee the regulation of the state.

The approval of using violence against armed rebels may be understood from Galtung’s perspective. Galtung (1961, p.168) claimed “there are obviously many types of violence…If peace action is to be regarded highly because it is action against their violence, then the concept of violence must be broad enough to include the most significant varieties, yet specific enough to serve as a basis for concrete action”. For example, the violence used by revolutionaries is rejected because it is harmful and leads to anarchy. While the violence used by the state is justified because it is useful and helps to set order.  Furthermore, Wolff (1969, p.606) argued that using force which is legitimized authority is not violence. He assured that even capital punishment endorsed by the legal state is not violence, while murder is a violent act. To clarify the issue of when to use violence, it seems essential to know that Muslim religious scholars prohibit fighting for Muslims except in four cases. Combating is allowed only against disbelievers, apostates, brigands and rebels (Abou El Fadl, 2001, p.32).

On the other edge of this argument stand the proponents of giving the right to rebel against an unjust Muslim ruler. Kelsay argued that many jurists disapprove of disobeying the Imam unless he commands them to do what is forbidden in Sharia without using any type of force. However, when the deprivation reaches an unbearable level then people must condemn it. This means that there is no conflict between warning people not to resort to the use of force and their right to rebel against an unrighteous Muslim ruler (Kelsay, 2007, pp.190-191). Nevertheless, those who approve armed rebellion cite a proverb claimed to be associated to Ali bin Abi Talib, the fourth caliphate.  Ali said, “if the Khawarij rebel against a just ruler, then Muslims should fight them. However, if the Khawarij rebel against an unjust ruler, Muslims should not fight them because in this situation they may have a legitimate cause of action” (Abou El Fadl, 2001, pp.127-128).  IbnHajar Al-Asqalani and AlMawardi, based on Ali’s statement, assured that Muslims should not combat those who revolt against an unjust Imam (ibid). One final key point here is that Khawarij do not differ from the Muslim jurists regarding the four categories whom can be combated by Muslims. Rather, they categorize them amongst these four groups. As mentioned by Kamolnick (2012, p11), Khawarij claims that unjust rulers can be considered as apostate regimes. As an illustration, Khawarij exploits takfir to rebel against the Muslim rulers or to murder anyone who works with them. For instance, in his book “The Neglected Duty”, Muhammad Faraj[5] has stated that anyone who cooperates with the apostate Egyptian regime either by voting or paying taxes can be considered as an apostate (Kelsay, 2007, p.139 & Sageman, 2011, p15).

On the contrary to the Khawarij’s argument, some Indian Muslim scholars amongst them the famous reformer Sayyid Ahmad Khan, during British colonization, argued that Jihad was not an obligation on Muslims unless they were prevented from performing their religious rites, but because the British guaranteed the freedom of religion then Indian Muslims did not have to rebel against them (Bonner, 2008, p.159). Reservation may be raised against this Indian tolerance, not from an Islamic perspective only, but also from a theoretical dimension. Wolff has justified an assumed attack on Hitler during the Second World War because his authority was illegitimate. Consequently, Wolff has described the use of force by an illegitimate state against revolts as a violent act even if it was issued legally (1969, p606).

Gibb and Kramers (1991, pp.6-15) have explained why many Muslim scholars disapprove of rebellions, associating this very strict thought to the chaos which occurred by the Khawarij secessionists. In addition to this, the two Muslim civil wars during the early Islamic period, have driven many jurists to forbid revolutions against Muslim rulers regardless of their justice. Gibb and Kramers have described the Muslim scholars’ reaction toward the violence that results from such revolt as if it is “going to the other extreme, from an extreme of idealism to an extreme of realism” (ibid, p.15).  Muslim jurists seem to be motivated by the disastrous consequences, which may follow rebellions, to coin a new maxim to alert people to the danger of revolutions. According to Feldman (2009, p.143), the maxim “Better sixty years of tyranny than one night of anarchy” attempts to illustrate the miserable situation that is produced by a conflict which must be avoided even if it is short lived. This rule may go under the main maxim,“There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm”. It will be better understood or more valued today while observing how the Arab Spring has backfired. Those jurists who coined this late maxim were probably heavily affected by the Muslim civil war which existed, according to Armstrong (2002, p.41), between 680-92, where thousands of people were killed amongst them Imam Husayn ibn Ali, who was killed in the first year of that (Fitnah) disorder.

It seems essential to analyse how rebellions have backfired in order to understand why many Muslim Jurists reject rebellion against a Muslim ruler. The harmful backlash that has always accompanied violent revolutions decisively affects the religious scholars. During the history of Islam there have been uncountable rebellions, and some of them are unforgettable. The rebellion that followed the death of the prophet Muhammad led to the martyrdom of more than seventy of the prophet’s companions. Another revolution resulted in the martyrdom of the third caliphate. In current times, violent resistance has led to two civil wars in Libya and Syria which have resulted in the killing of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of millions. Regardless of what the proponents and opponents think about the right to rebel, it appears that examining the negative effects of rebellions by the jurisprudential maxims, may explain the disapproval of the rebellion by many Muslim religious scholars. The rebels want to eliminate grievances and achieve some of their rights such as democracy when they revolt against their rulers. However, analysing the harm and benefit from a theoretical dimension using the maxim “Repelling banes is better than securing benefits” demonstrates that almost all the parties in the countries that have rebellions such as Libya, Syria and Yamen are losing. While each side attempts to defend his rights, they are losing in many different aspects. Comparison between what they have lost and what they have won leads to an important fact which is that the armed revolutions are theoretically disapproved of by Islamic jurisprudence.

Alternative options are available to eliminate any wrong or grievance and to achieve any rights instead of rebellions. One possible choice for those who want to rebel against the ruler for any reason is to advise or criticize him. Abou El Fadl, Ibn Hanbal who refused to obey the Caliphate Almamoon and refused to rebel against him, instead used to criticize him. Sufyan Atthawri disapproved of rebellions, but he habitually criticized the caliphates in his time (Abou El Fadl, 2001, p.96). On the other hand, some Muslim jurists argue that preaching to the ruler is an indecisive way to eliminate his tyranny. Sayed Qutb has stated, “Those who have usurped the authority of God and are oppressing God’s creatures are not going to give up their power merely through preaching” (Sageman, 2011, p15). However, it can be argued that Qutb is categorized as Khawarij and his thought contradicts the prophet’s teaching. It has been narrated that the prophet said, “Whoever wants to advise a leader about something then he should not expose him publicly. Rather, he should take his hand and privately counsel him. If he accepts (his advice) from him then that (is beneficial), otherwise the person has then fulfilled his obligation” (Ibn Hanbal, v3, p.404).

Another possible option is to hate the wrong act of the ruler and remain patient. In light of  the prophet’s instruction, “Whoever sees from his leader something of a sin against Allah, then let him dislike whatever is sinful to Allah, but he should certainly not retract even a hand span away from obedience” (Albukhari, V9, p.92). A probable explanation of why many religious scholars encourage people to choose these options instead of rebellion is that ruled people should reform themselves before reforming others. To put it another way, Allah says in the Quran (6:129), “Thus, we make the unjust rule over each other because of what they [themselves] have earned”. Abou El Fadl (2001, p.124) has claimed, “This, of course, can be interpreted to mean that if people are led by unjust rulers, they should accept this situation because they deserve to be ruled as such”.

As shown above, the right to rebel is a serious controversial matter in Islamic jurisprudence. Although Quranic and Sunnah texts are almost certain to be clear in terms of encouraging Muslims to live in peace and avoid conflict, some jurists tend to interpret some texts to prove their argument and to permit rebellions against the Imam. It has been shown that there is a huge gap between Muslim religious scholars in this differing issue starting from its basic aspects. The jurists differ in the matters of the rite of promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice. However, the gap is widening when it comes to the right to rebel against the ruler. As has been previously mentioned in this essay, revolution is rejected by some jurists who encourage people to obey and be patient. While some religious scholars, especially the Khawarij, favor rebellion and the fighting of the unjust Muslim Imam for being an apostate. This paper has highlighted the theoretical dimension of this issue from an Islamic perspective. It appears important to realize that these maxims seem practical methods to judge this argument. Nevertheless, some jurists tend to neglect them and use their own ways when studying such matters. To conclude, despite the assumed benefit of the rebellions, it appears that the harmful consequences of the combating of the ruler are much more expensive. Even though there are many examples of conflicts that have provoked many jurists to extremely disapprove of rebellions, studying the current events, such as the Libyan, Syrian and Afghani cases may provide better judgment. This thought does not mean to ignore the successful rebellions such as the Tunisian and Iranian which should be studied carefully by the jurists to achieve a better judgment.

Fahd Alghofaili


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[1] “According to Islamic theory, the authority (sovereign power) is delegated by God to the community as a trust. The community can, therefore, legitimately exercise this delegated authority only in accord with His will (Islamic law or sharia). It is very clear that political authority on earth is a gift to the community as God’s vicegerent (khalifah), but it is a sacred trust to be exercised by rulers of the community for implementing the will of God (Islamic law or sharia) for betterment of the Muslim community at large” (Thaib, 2012, p.16).

[2] AlBukhari and Muslim are two books contain the prophet speech (Hadith), both of them are considered, in the Muslim world, to be the most important and correct books after the Holy Qur’an.

[3] This book is one of most famous nineteen books that contain (Hadith) the speech of the prophet, sex of them called the sex books; Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan an-Nasa’i, Sunan Abu Dawood, Sunan al-Tirmidhi and Sunan ibn Maja. The first two of them are considered the most authentic books after the Holy Qur’an.

[4] The Khawarij (plural its singular is Khariji) Arabic term means seceders, separatists or the rebels. It can be literally translated to go out of the ruler’s authority or to reject him, those people have been existing since the time of the prophet Mohammed. They killed the third and fourth caliphate. Since their first presence until now Muslim scholars have been calling them Khawarij. In the media, now a day, they are called terrorists. However their preferred nickname is mujahedeen.

[5] “Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj (1954-1982), was head of the Cairo branch of the Tanzim al-Jihad (Jihad Organization) that killed President Anwar al-Sadat” (Sageman, 2011, p15).