The Conditions of Promoting Virtue and Prohibiting Vice

1. Knowledge:

The promoter of virtue should be competent enough to know what virtuous and sinful deeds are, for he might promote a sinful deed or forbid a virtuous act if he lacks proper religious knowledge. Allah the Almighty says, “Say: This is my way; I invite to Allah with insight, I and those who follow me” [1]. This verse indicates that the call to Islam must be based on reasonable and unambiguous evidences [2], especially in cases that require the promoter of virtue to use the methods of mental persuasion to help people fathom the purposes of Sharia [3].

However, the promoter of virtue doesn’t have to learn the detailed jurisprudential verdicts of Islamic obligations and prohibitions, which are clearly mentioned in the Quran or Hadiths, as Zamakhshari said in his book “Al-Kashaaf,” “The promotion of virtue and prevention of vice is a communal obligation, which can only be undertaken by those who have knowledge of virtue and vice, for those who lack proper religious knowledge may contribute to religious misconceptions” [4].

2. Using wisdom and good advice:

The promoter of virtue should use wisdom, kind admonition, and reason to call people to Islam, as Allah said, “Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and kind exhortation, and reason with them in the best way” [5]. Resorting to cruelty and violence in the call to Islam alienates people from Islam. Hence, the promotion of virtue should only be assigned to those who have the wisdom, knowledge and patience to withstand mistreatment, for the promoter of virtue may sometimes be subjected to the hostility of some corrupt and misguided people. This is why Luqman said to his son, “O my son, establish prayer, enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and be patient over what befalls you. Indeed, that is of the matters [requiring] determination” [6]. Thus, wisdom and kind admonition require knowledge and patience, since knowledge helps the one who enjoins virtue to mentally persuade the public he addresses using methods of reasoning.

Moreover, patience and kindness are necessary to achieve the intended purposes, for violence and harshness only detach and alienate people. Ibn Taymiyah placed emphasis on kindness as one of the requirements of jurisprudence when enjoining virtue and said, “No one enjoins what is right and forbids what is wrong except the one who has knowledge of what should be enjoined and what should be forbidden” [7]. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “When kindness is found in anything, it beautifies it and when it is taken out from anything it, blemishes it” [8]. Once someone insulted Al-M’amun, yet he was wise and patient enough to say to him, “Please be kind, for Allah sent someone who is better than you to someone who is more vicious than me and ordered him to be kind and gentle: He sent Moses and Aaron, who are much better than you, to Pharaoh, who is worse than me, and said to them: Go to Pharaoh, he has indeed transgressed, and speak unto him a gentle word, that perhaps he may heed or fear” [9].

Compassion and gentleness are also essential to persuade people to accept the call to Islam, for Allah says, “It was by the mercy of Allah that thou was lenient with them (O Muhammad), for if thou hadst been stern and fierce of heart they would have dispersed from round about thee” [10]. Also, patience is needed when calling people to Islam, since people usually take a long time before they can be persuaded into perfecting their misguided path.

3. Only forbidding what has been clearly forbidden in religious texts:

The one who enjoins virtue should only forbid what is clearly forbidden in the Quran, Hadiths or what has been agreed upon by the consensus of scholars, and thus he should never forbid a matter that scholars have disagreed upon, or a matter that is based on independent judgment [11]. Imam al-Nawawi said in his book Rawdat at-Taalibeen, “Scholars should only forbid what is clearly known as forbidden, and never forbid any matter based on and independent judgment or a matter that scholars disagree upon, since not all independent judgments are correct, and although the Companions and Tabi’oon disagreed in the verdicts of the branches of Sharia, they only forbade what has been clearly know as forbidden in religious texts” [12].

Also, Ibn Qudaamah said, “The one who enjoins virtue should only forbid what is clearly forbidden in religious texts, and thus he should never forbid a matter that is based on independent judgment, for Imam Ahmad said: sholars should never force people to follow a certain school of thought” [13].

Hence, no deed is considered a sin, unless it is known in religious texts as a sin that invokes Allah’s Wrath, and deserves punishment, whether it is a minor or major sin, but trivial things may be sometimes tolerated, as Allah said, “If you avoid the major sins which you are forbidden, We will remove from you your lesser sins and admit you to a noble entrance” [14].

Thus, the one who enjoins virtue should never forbid what is only disliked, nor enjoin what is only desirable, for a man once asked the Prophet, peace be upon him, about what Allah had made obligatory in Islam and he told him about the five pillars of Islam; when the man vowed to fulfill them, the Prophet, peace be upon him, promised him Paradise. Accordingly, the forbidden deed should be a sin that is clearly forbidden in Quran, Hadiths, or Muslims’ Consensus that is based on a verdict inducted from the texts of Sharia. However, what scholars disagree upon can never be regarded as a sin that must be forbidden [15].

4. Prohibiting vice should never lead to a greater sin:

Muslim scholars agree that people should never forbid a sin if it will lead to greater sin, but rather choose the lesser of two evils. No sin should be forbidden if doing so may lead to the bloodshed of innocent people, the violation of sanctities, and the spread of corruption in the land [16]. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said to Aisha, “O ‘Aisha, if your people had not been recently polytheists (and new converts to Islam), I would have demolished the Ka’ba, and would have brought it to the level of the ground and would have constructed two doors, one facing the east and the other one to the west, and would have added to it six cubits of area from Hijr, for the Quraish had reduced it when they rebuilt it” [17]. Also, the Prophet, peace be upon him, didn’t immediately destroy the idols in Mecca, but waited until Islam had spread and people believed in it, for if he had immediately destroyed them, Muslims would have been massacred, and the call to Islam would have stopped; thus, he chose the lesser of two evils [18]. Hence, the conditions of forbidding wrong are as the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “Whoever amongst you sees an evil, should change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest form of faith” [19].

Hence, whoever can prevent wrong deeds with his hand should do so, as long as it doesn’t contribute to a greater evil. If it might contribute to a greater evil, he should merely speak out against it, and if this contributes to greater evil, then he should simply abhor this deed deep in his heart. In fact, there are vicious deeds that can only be amended under the authority of rulers and leaders, who have the ability to stop corruptors, unlike normal preachers whose violent sermons may contribute to sedition or bloodshed. Also, some guardians, such as parents, husbands, mothers and employers, can help in the process of preventing evil without leading to greater corruption. No one should forcefully change evil with his hand under the assumption that it is the best form of faith.

Unfortunately, some misguided people carried out lots of terrorist acts, to pressure their leaders to amend evil, without realizing the consequences and tragedies that result from their criminal acts, which do nothing but spread corruption and bloodshed [20]. Even more, scholars agreed that if changing evil may contribute to greater evil then it shouldn’t be changed, for this is a rule that is based on the Islamic principle of protecting Muslims’ interests and preventing negative consequences [21].

Al-Qadi ‘Iyad said, “If one feels that amending evil with his hand would contribute to greater evil then he should only change it through kind exhortation, and if he feels that changing evil with his tongue causes greater evil then he should only reject it deep in his heart” [22]. Ibn Taymiyah said, “Although enjoining virtue and prohibiting vice may be of great benefit, the promoter of virtue should never prohibit a wrong deed that would lead to greater evil, and thus he must settle for the lesser of two evils, which is a rule based on the Islamic principle of protecting Muslims’ interest and preventing negative consequences” [23].
Advising Rulers:

One of the greatest types of enjoining what is good is a word of truth spoken before an unjust ruler, as the Prophet, peace be upon him, said when he was asked about the best type of Jihad [24]. However, the conditions of advising a ruler are as follows:

1. One may advise a ruler with kind exhortation if he has the ability, and prohibit evil without causing even more damage.

2. If advising a ruler may contribute to a greater evil, one should only reject the ruler’s sinful act deep in his heart, and this is the weakest form of faith.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “Leaders will be appointed over you, and you will find them doing good as well as bad deeds. One who hates their bad deeds is absolved from blame. One who disapproves of their bad deeds is (also) safe (so far as Divine Wrath is concerned). But one who approves of their bad deeds and imitates them (is doomed). People asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, shouldn’t we fight them?’ He replied, ‘No, as long as they pray'” [25]. Abu Sa’eed al-Khudri said, “I heard the Prophet, peace be upon him, say, ‘Whoever amongst you sees an evil must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart, and that is the weakest form of faith'” [26-27].

Ibn al-Jawzi said, “The promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice with the sultan is permissible if the preacher uses kind exhortation, yet if kind exhortation causes greater evil, then he is not allowed to advise the sultan, for Imam Ahmad said, ‘Don’t invoke the wrath of the sultan, for his sword is drawn.’ [28]
The conditions of changing evil with one’s hand:

The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said, “Whoever amongst you sees an evil should change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest form of faith” [29].

The First Condition:

That the prohibition of vice by hand should not contribute to greater evil, such as murder, beating, looting, and so on. Al-Qadi ‘Iyad said, “If one feels that amending evil with his hand would contribute to greater evil then he should only change it through kind exhortation, and if he feels that changing evil with his tongue causes greater evil then he should only reject it deep in his heart” [30].

The Second Condition:

The prohibition of vice by hand should not contribute to sedition that the public might ignorantly take part in, in which sanctities would be violated, and innocent people would be killed.