“A community may arise among you which calls other to goodness, encourages what is good, and forbids what is bad. Here are those who will prosper” (Sūrat Āl ‘Imrān, 3:104).
In the digital Ummah, the ongoing uprising in Iran, sparked by the tragic killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, seems to go almost unnoticed. And yet, for us Muslims there is no shortage of questions to reflect upon. The narrative of the Western media has focused on the Iranians’ protest at the obligation for women to wear the hijāb imposed by the “religious police”. The Western media have also denounced the repeated executions of the demonstrators and the numerous killings by the regime, which still has to recognize the violence perpetrated against the population.
However, this is inevitably a limited view, able to grasp only what happens on the surface, but not the underlying problems that have triggered the ongoing tragedy. Only Muslims can actually do it, by resorting to the intellectual discernment (Jihād al ‘Aql) which is necessary both for the invitation to Islām and the activity of Daʿwa, as well as for meditating on themselves and on the state of the Ummah.
Looking at what is happening in Iran through the lens of the Jihād al ‘Aql, what needs to be called into question are the methods of implementation of the so-called hisbah (literally “verification”), a legal institution dating back to the Islamic classical period, which gave to a figure (the muhtasib, most often the Caliph himself) the task to oversight the moral conduct of citizens in public places and of entrepreneurs in the markets.
Naturally, the hisbah drew its legitimacy (and should still draw it today) from the dictates of the Quran, where the duty of every Muslim to “order good and forbid evil” (al amr bi’l ma’rūf wa’l nahi ‘an al munkar) is repeatedly reminded (Sūrat Āl ‘Imrān, 3:104, 110 and 114; Sūrat al A’rāf, 7:157; Sūrat at Tawba, 9:71) as a fundamental cornerstone of a just Muslim community, which enables the purification of the souls on the Straight Path to Jannāh.
As Muslims, we are all called to contribute to the creation of this community, executing the hisbah to promote the respect for Sharīʿa as part of the Dīn, each according to his/her own possibilities, as the Prophet Muhammad (saw) clearly explains: “Whoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart” (Sahīh Muslim, 49).
Therefore, the traditional Islamic doctrine (Ahl al Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah) on the hisbah is fully grounded in the word of Allāh swt and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad saw, and establishes that the task to “order good and forbid evil”, for both individuals and governments, must necessarily comply with three fundamental principles: knowledge (of Islām, it seems obvious but it is not), kindness (compassion), patience (tolerance). This is stated by acknowledged masters of fiqh, who acted since the first centuries of the Islamic era in the wake of the Sahāba, handing down their teachings from generation to generation. For example, Sufyān al Thawrī: ” No one may enjoin good or forbid evil except for one who has three qualities: gentleness in what he enjoins and forbids, justice in what he enjoins and forbids, and knowledge of what he enjoins and forbids”.
Al Thawrī was echoed by Qādī Abū Yaʿlā: “No one may enjoin good and forbid evil unless he understands what he enjoins and forbids, he is gentle in what he enjoins and forbids, and he shows forbearance in what he enjoins and forbids”.
The explanation of al Qādī Abū Yaʿlā is taken up by Shaykh Ahmad al ʿAlāwī, and it is also quoted entirely by Ibn Taymiyya in the work entitled, coincidentally, “Ordering Good, Forbidding Evil”, where there is also a clear reference to al Thawri. Taymiyya reiterates that “one who enjoins good must have three qualities: knowledge, gentleness, and patience”, specifying that “knowledge comes before it, gentleness comes during it, and patience comes after it”, and that “the separation does not mean to deny that these three qualities must always be present”.
In ordering good and forbidding evil, if just one of the three qualities is missing, the risk, Ibn Taymiyya warns, is that a worse situation will be created both for oneself and for the others: “Based on this, it is said to let not your enjoining good and forbidding evil be evil itself. As it is among the greatest of obligatory and recommended deeds, thus the benefit of obligatory and recommended deeds must outweigh their harm”.
Basically, evil must not be prohibited by resorting to another evil. This is not the solution and, to avoid such a scenario, it is essential to embrace the balance (wasat) that Allāh swt recommends in the Quran (Sūrat al Baqara, 2: 143) as the criterion that must enlighten the way of Muslims also concerning the hisbah. As stated by Ibn al Qayyim in the work Madārij al Sālikīn: “Wisdom is to act as one should, in the manner that one should, in the time that one should”.
Returning to the contemporary era, in Western journalistic simplifications the hisbah is usually equaled to a brutal, repressive, and unjust government apparatus, and this is only partially due to the ignorance of the media themselves, which know little or nothing about Islām. The greatest responsibility for the dissemination of news that discredits and completely distorts the image of Islām falls precisely on the “misguided” application of the hisbah carried out in recent decades in some “Islamic” countries, coupled with the damage caused by the jihadist terrorist organizations. In both cases, the hisbah was not placed at the service of the “cause of Allāh” (fī sabīlillāh), but grievously exploited to satisfy one’s own nafs in its most narcissistic ambitions for control and dominance, while projecting a false image of Islamicness to demonstrate hypocritically to the outside world to be more Muslim than all the others (and how many naive believers have taken the bait?).
Therefore, the study of the traditional Islamic doctrine on the subject of the hisbah would have been of great help to the Iranian mullahs and pasdaran, as they would have avoided to unleash with their own policies the fierce reaction that today is cornering them and that they can do nothing but repress in the blood and in the most absolute violence, as already happened in previous circumstances.
On the other hand, examples of wrong hisbah also come from other countries. In this regard, we cannot fail to mention what happened until recent times in Saudi Arabia, where the beatings, oppressions, and misdeeds of the infamous “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” are a vivid memory. The agents of the Committee have gone beyond the limits of absurdity, even preventing some female students from escaping the building of a burning school because they were not dressed in a sufficiently “modest” way. Some male passersby, who arrived on the spot with buckets of water, were not allowed to enter the building, while the firefighters who arrived on site to rescue the girls were beaten up. The toll was 15 girls dead and 52 injured: too many casualties even for the Saudi “royal” family, which thus decided to limit the prerogatives of the Committee in order to appease the growing internal dissent towards its own (bad) governance.
Afterwards, the “Anti-Islamic State of Terror” appeared in the Shām, putting the hisbah at the service of even more shaytanic purposes. The deranged members of Dāʿish, in extreme contradiction with the Islamic doctrine, blatantly manipulated the meaning of the statement al amr bi’l ma’rūf wa’l nahi ‘an al munkar, attributing the label of evil or reprehensible to a series of small “liberties”, which they punished with penalties of unprecedented violence to impress the crowd and persuade it to obey and submit not to Allāh swt, but to the power of man!
There is no other explanation for the beheading in a public square of a fifteen-year-old boy, condemned by self-styled shariatic judges for having listened to Western music on his CD player, or for the massacre of 13 Iraqi boys with machine guns, as they were guilty of having supported their national team during the football match against Jordan during the Asian Cup. While a muhtasib truly respectful of the Sharīʿa would have never ordered the shooting of two boys under the helpless eyes of their parents, because they had not attended the Friday prayer. On top of that, in the “Anti-Islamic State of Terror”, the hisbah was also carried out by gangs of brutal and bloodthirsty “policewomen”, who systematically inflicted corporal punishment and death on other women, not sparing little girls or teenagers.
In the wake of Dāʿish, there are also the cases of Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Shabāb in Somalia. Sadly, in the territories under the control of these groups, stories like those happened in the Shām are a daily matter.
And what about the Taliban “brothers” in Afghanistan? With their misogynistic policies, they do continue to offer shocking examples of total “deviation”. Denying girls and young women the right to study is a serious violation of the Sharīʿa, since the Quran explicitly calls both men and women to pursue knowledge starting from the first revelation. “Iqrā” (Sūrat al ‘Alaq, 96:1) is indeed a commandment addressed to all the children of Adam, without discrimination. And if the purpose of the law is the interest (maslaha) of the Ummah, it means that female education is an essential prerequisite for the rise of a “community” that “calls others to goodness, encourages what is good, and forbids what is bad” (Sūrat Āl ‘Imrān, 3:104), which Allāh swt sets as a goal for us Muslims to achieve. A community completely opposite to the one pursued by the Taliban, who are condemning Afghanistan to remain a prisoner of darkness and ignorance, brutalization and poverty, both spiritual and material: what community of “males” can arise in a context where women are nullified as human beings and reduced to living like animals? This is undoubtedly bad and should be prohibited.
In the Kitāb Ihyā′ ‘Ulūm al Dīn, Muhammad al Ghazālī explained that the profile of the muhtasib had to correspond to that of a pious and wise man, calm and poised in his reactions, sensible and mentally healthy, just and empathetic. The Khomeinist, Wahhabi, jihadist and Taliban deviations, have instead led the hisbah to be entrusted to fanatical and violent individuals, who vent instincts and frustrations on the rest of the community, women in particular. Therefore, to “order good nd forbid evil”, let’s go back to the authentic Islām: the consequences of when those who handle the hisbah are “deviated” are there for all to see.