(sulṭān, ulū al-amr)

Gibril Fouad Haddad

The Qurʾān refers to Divine authority over humankind, angels, jinn, and the entirety of the natural world as an absolute prerogative by proclaiming Allah’s exclusive possession of power (qudra, Q 2:20, 106, 109; etc. and its quasi-synonym sulṭān, Q 7:71; 37:157; etc.); dominion (mulk, Q 3:26; 67:1; etc.); command (amr, Q 13:31; 3:128; etc.); judgment or decree (ḥukm, Q 6:57; 12:40 and 67); and glory (ʿizza, Q 4:139; 10:65; 35:10) (see Beautiful Names of Allah; Divine Decree; Judgment; Kingdom; Power; Proof).

Definitions and Usage

Divine authority commands undivided obedience (Q 2:285; 4:46; 33:66) both to Allah and to those in whom He invests authority—Prophets and Messengers (q.v.) (Q 3:179; 4:136)—specifically the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace (Q 3:32, 132; 4:69, 80), who represents the supercessive and everlasting role of Islam (Q 3:19, 85; 5:3) (see Abrogation), and thereafter leaders and scholars, identified as “those in command” (ulīl-amr) in two verses: O Believers, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you; and if you have a dis­pute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the Messenger if you are [in truth] believers in Allah and the Last Day (Q 4:59); and If they referred it to the Messenger and to those in authority among them, those of them whose task is to investigate it would have known it (Q 4:83). It is to this last category that the rest of this article is devoted.

The expression ulīl-amr, literally “the possessors of command,” is a construct of the accusative form of the singularless noun ulū, “those who possess,” with the masculine singular noun amr (pl. umūr), one of several similar constructs in the Qurʾān, such as the possessors of blood ties (ulūl-arḥām, Q 8:75), strength and brute force (ulū quwwatin wa-ulū baʾsin shadīd, Q 27:23), and hearts (ulīl-albāb, Q 2:179). Amr stems from the triliteral root ʾ-m-r and means situation (ḥāla), affair (shaʾn), event (ḥāditha)—such as the Day of Resurrection (Q 16:1)—and injunction, as in the transitive verb amara, “to command” (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān; Fayyūmī, Miṣbāḥ; and Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs, sub ʾ-m-r). The intransitive verb amira denotes magnitude—for example, “there was a large group” (amira al-qawm, cf. Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub a-m-r), because when people become numerous they need a leader (amīr), hence the meaning of “abundant” for the term maʾmūr in the report “The best property is a prolific mare (muhratun maʾmūra)” (Aḥmad, Tatimmat musnad al-Makkiyyīn, ḥadīth Suwayd b. Hubayra §15845; narrated through trustworthy reporters but mursal: missing the Companion-link; cf. Haythamī, Majmaʿ 5:258)—and, by extension, an enormity as in the verse Truly you have done a dreadful thing (shayʾan imran) (Q 18:71; cf. Ṭabarī, Tafsīr).

Exegeses of those in authority

The expression those in authority (Q 4:59 and 83) has received a variety of mutually compatible interpretations. The two major ones refer to military commanders or people of learning and jurisprudence, or both meanings may be equally meant.

The first gloss refers to commanders of military detachments, according to Abū Hurayra (d. 58/678), Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688) in one narration, and some of the Successors and later scholars such as Maymūn b. Mahrān (40-117/ca.660-735), Zayd b. Aslam (d. 136/ca.754), Wakīʿ b. al-Jarrāḥ (d. 196/ca.812), al-Shāfiʿī (150-204/767-820), and al-Bukhārī (194-256/810-870) (Bukhārī and Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, Tafsīr, qawluh Aṭīʿūl-Lāha wa-aṭīʿūr-Rasūla wa-ulīl-amri minkum; Muslim, Imāra, wujūb ṭāʿat al-umarāʾ; Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Ibn al-Mundhir, sub Q 4:59). A similar gloss is “those who govern.” Ibn ʿUyayna (107-198/ca.725-ca.814) said: “I asked Zayd b. Aslam about it at a time when no one in Madina could explain the Qurʾān like him other than Muḥammad b. Kaʿb. He said: ‘Read what pre­cedes it and you will know.’ I read Behold, Allah bids you to deliver all that you have been entrusted with unto those who are entitled thereto, and whenever you judge between people, to judge with justice. Verily, most excellent is what Allah exhorts you to do: verily, Allah is all-hearing, all-seeing! (Q 4:58). Then he said: ‘This verse refers to those who govern (al-wulāt).’” Al-Bayḍāwī (d. 685/1286) also chose this meaning but stated that “it comprises caliphs, judges, and military commanders… as long as they stand for truth” (Tafsīr, sub Q 4:59).

The second gloss refers to people of learning and jurisprudence who must be imitated, according to Jābir, Ibn ʿAbbās in another narration, and most of the Successors, including al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728), ʿAṭāʾ al-Kurāsānī (50?-135/670?-753), ʿIkrima (d. 107/725), Mujāhid (d. 104/722), and al-Ḍaḥḥāk (d. 102/ca.721)—specifically the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs and Ibn Masʿūd according to the latter two, and more specifically Abū Bakr and ʿUmar according to ʿIkrima (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Ibn al-Mundhir, sub Q 4:59). This is also Mālik’s (93-179/712-795) view (Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām, sub Q 4:59) and that of al-Bayhaqī (384-458/994-1066) in the chapter of his book al-Madkhal ilā-l-Sunan al-kubrā entitled “The Common Person’s Imitation of the Learned One” (Taqlīd al-ʿāmmī lil-ʿālim).

Others hold that both meanings are equally meant by those in authority (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām al-Qurʾān 3:177; Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām, sub Q 4:59; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 4:59; Shinqīṭī, Aḍwāʾ, sub Q 47:24). Like al-Bayhaqī, Ibn Abī Zayd al-Qayrawānī (310-386/922-996) brought together the obligation of civil obedience and the requirement to imitate (taqlīd) past scholars toward the end of his al-Risāla, where he said: "Obedience to the imams of the Muslims—those in charge of their affairs and their ulema—is a categorical obligation; following the righteous predecessors and treading their steps is required; and asking forgiveness for them is a duty." (Ibn Abī Zayd, al-Risāla p. 62)

Another gloss brings together all of the above explications and applies them to all Muslims. Qāḍī Ismāʿīl al-Jahḍamī (200-282/ca.816-895) said: “This verse regards the fulfillment of trusts and good governance universally, for governors and all creatures, because every Muslim is a learned person (kull Muslimin ʿālim)—nay, every Muslim is a judge and governor” (Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām, sub Q 4:58). Al-Rāghib (d. 502/ca.1108) mentions the above interpretations and adds that those in authority may mean the Imams of the Family of the Prophet—upon him and them blessings and peace (Mufradāt, sub ʾ-m-r)—an exclusively Shīʿī gloss (Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr, sub Q 4:59; al-Dhahabī, al-Tafsīr wal-mufassirūn 2:126-127).

Elaborating on the first of the meanings mentioned above, al-Shāfiʿī said:

Some of the learned said that those in authority re­fers to the commanders of the military detach­ments of the Messenger of Allah—upon him blessings and peace—and Allah knows best. This is what was narrated to us [ms. addition: by a number of exegetes], and it appears that this is what He said, and Allah knows best. For none of the Arabs that were around Makka were familiar with authority and they used to reject with contempt any notion of submit­ting to each other’s authority. When they professed obedience to the Messenger of Allah, they did not con­sider that such obedience could go to anyone other than him. Therefore, they were or­dered to obey those in authority whom the Messenger of Allah had placed in authority, not with unconditional obe­dience, but with conditional obedience respecting their rights and duties.

al-Shāfiʿī, al-Risāla p. 79-80 §258-263 and Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām 1:29; al-Bayhaqī, Maʿrifa 1:105 §32 n. 4

Among “some of the learned” meant by al-Shāfiʿī are Abū Hurayra and Wakīʿ (cf. al-Bayhaqī, Maʿrifa 4:224-225 §5953-5954).

The repetition of the governing verb (al-ʿāmil) only for the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—but not for those in command in the statement Obey Allah and obey the Prophet and those in command among you indicates that among the latter are those whom it is not obligatory to obey (Tafsīrs of Ibn ʿAjība and Ibn ʿĀshūr, sub Q 4:59). Ibn Ḥajar (773-852/1371-1449) elaborates:

The subtlety of repeating the verb for the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—in Obey Allah and obey the Mes­senger but not for and those in command among you—although the one being obeyed in reality is Allah—is the fact that the sources by which one determines one’s legal responsibility are the Qurʾān and the Sunna. It is as if Allah Most High were saying: “Obey Allah in whatever He textually sti­pu­lates for you in the Qurʾān and obey the Messenger in whatever he eluci­dates from the Qurʾān for you and textually stipulates for you in the Sunna;” or “Obey Allah in all He commands you in the revelation instituted for worship-through-re­ci­tation, and obey the Messenger in all he com­mands you in the revela­tion that is other than the Qurʾān.” Al-Ṭībī (d. 743/1342) said: “He repeated the verb in and obey the Mes­senger as a sign that the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—is obeyed in­de­pen­d­ently, but he did not repeat it for and those of you who are in author­ity as a sign that some among them do not have to be obeyed. Then He expounded this by saying and if you have a dispute concerning any matter, as if saying: if they do not act ac­cording to right, then do not obey them, and refer whatever you differed about to the judg­ment of Allah and His Messen­ger.”

Fatḥ al-bārī, Aḥkām, qawl Allāh taʿālā Aṭīʿūl-Lāh wa-aṭīʿūr-Rasūl wa-ulīl-amri minkum

The scholars explained “referring it to Allah” as going back to His Book, and “referring it to the Messenger” as going back to him in his lifetime and to his Sunna after his death (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Naḥḥās, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Ibn al-Jawzī, and Qurṭubī, sub Q 5:59; al-Bayhaqī, al-Iʿtiqād p. 296).

Obedience and Disobedience as Part of the Creed

In addition to the explicit Qurʾānic command to obey those in authority, the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—explicitly made such obedience a matter of the highest religious belief: "Whoever obeys me has certainly obeyed Allah and whoever disobeys me has certainly disobeyed Allah; and whoever obeys the one in command (al-amīr) has certainly obeyed me and whoever disobeys the one in command has certainly disobeyed me." (Bukhārī, Jihād, yuqātal min warāʿ al-imām; Muslim, Imāra, wujūb ṭāʿat al-umarāʾ)

Thus civil obedience to legitimate Muslim leaders (aʾimmat al-Muslimīn) is an article of Belief mentioned in the credal texts (cf. al-Bayhaqī, al-Iʿtiqād p. 323-329; al-Lālakāʾī, Sharḥ uṣūl 4:1296-1302; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, Īmān, umūr al-īmān)—particularly in the performance of communal prayer and jihad—by consensus of all schools (Ibn Ḥazm, Marātib; Ibn Mujāhid, Risāla, 45th consensus; both cited in Ibn Qaṭṭān, al-Iqnāʿ 1:107 §179, 1:115 §188).

Nevertheless, such obedience is conditional on the authorities’ commanding what Allah and His Prophet commanded in the first place; otherwise, it is not only not permissible but one is actually obliged to disobey the authorities: “Obedience to the leader is obligatory in matters where obedience is required, but forbidden in [allowing] sins, and going against the Sunna...” (Ibn Balbān, Mukhtaṣar p. 511). Still, disobedience remains within the bounds of peace and loyalty:

We do not approve of rebelling against our leaders and those in charge of our affairs, even if they are unjust. We do not supplicate [Allah] against any of them, nor do we refrain from obeying them. We consider obedience to them obligatory as part of the obligation to obey Allah Most High as long as they do not order that sins be committed. We pray for them for righteousness, success, and forgiveness...Pilgrimage and jihad under the command of those in charge of the Muslims—be they righteous or sinful—are two continuing obligations which nothing can abolish or nullify.

al-Ṭaḥāwī, ʿAqīda p. 110-113

The directive to obey only in good matters is illustrated in the story of the Badr veteran ʿAbd Allāh b. Ḥudhāfa b. Qays al-Sahmī—Allah be well-pleased with him—under whose command the Prophet had sent a military detachment after ordering those who were with him to obey him faith­fully. In the course of the expedition Ibn Ḥudhāfa, known for his jocularity (daʿāba), pretended to become angry with his troops (Ibn Mājah, Jihād, lā ṭāʿata fī maʿṣiyat Allāh, with a sound chain according to al-Būṣīrī, Miṣbāḥ, Jihād, lā ṭāʿata fī maʿṣiyat Allāh; Aḥmad 18:182-183 §11639, a sound report according to Ibn Ḥibbān in his Ṣaḥīḥ 10:421-422 §4558). He had a fire lit and, invoking the Prophet’s instruction that they should obey him no matter what, ordered them to enter it. They refused, say­ing: “We have fled to the Messenger of Allah to get away from the fire!” When the Prophet heard about the incident he said: “Had they entered it they would not have come out of it until the Day of Resurrec­tion. Obedi­ence is only in good matters!” (Bukhārī, Maghāzī, sariyyat ʿAbd Allāh b. Ḥudhāfa; Muslim, Imāra, wujūb ṭāʿat al-umarāʾ; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 4:59). Similarly the Prophet said: “No obedience is due over a sin” (Bukhārī, Akhbār al-āḥād, mā jāʾ fī ijāzat khabar al-wāḥid; Muslim, Imāra, wujūb ṭāʿat al-umarāʾ) and “Whoever among them (your leaders) com­mands you to sin, neither hear nor obey him” (Ibn Mājah, Jihād, lā ṭāʿata fī maʿṣiyat Allāh, with a sound chain according to al-Būṣīrī, Miṣbāḥ, Jihād, lā ṭāʿata fī maʿṣiyat Allāh). It is noteworthy that the complete wording of the latter hadith mentions that a segment of the Companions had actually poised themselves to jump into the fire, whereupon Ibn Ḥudhāfa himself said: “Stand down, I was only jesting!”

Ibn Ḥajar said in commentary of the above hadiths:

One of the most remarkable answers was that given by one of the Suc­cessors to one of the Umayyad princes when the latter asked him: “Did not Allah Most High order you all to obey us when He said and those of you who are in authority?” whereupon the former replied: “Was not obe­dience taken away from you whensoever you contravene right when He said and if you have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the Messenger if you are [in truth] believers in Allah and the Last Day (4:59)?”

Fatḥ al-bārī, Aḥkām, qawl Allāh taʿālā Aṭīʿūl-Lāh wa-aṭīʿūr-Rasūl wa-ulīl-amri minkum

The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—predicted a time of absolute crisis in all the types of political and spiritual Muslim authority—regarding which he gave the following directives: “[There shall be] those who summon to the gates of hell; whoever responds to them and go to it they cast into it… They shall be of our complexion and speak our language… If such a state reaches you, stick to the congregation of the Muslims and their leader. If they have neither congregation nor leader, keep away from all those sects, even if it means you must bite on the trunk of a tree, and die in that state” (Bukhārī, Fitan, kayf al-amr idhā lam takun jamāʿa; Muslim, Imāra, wujūb mulāzamat jamāʿat al-Muslimīn ʿinda ẓuhūr al-fitan).


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See also

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