A Debate on Plural Leadership and Defining Religious Leaders

What exactly is meant by the “leader” under whose banner we fight in our day and age?

The eminent scholar Ibn ‘Uthaimīn answered this question saying:

“He is the highest authority in a country, and he does not necessarily have to be the leader of all the Muslims [on earth]. This is because worldwide leadership ended a long time ago and the Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Listen to, and obey, [your leader], even if an Abyssinian slave is put in charge over you.’(1) Thus, whenever someone assumes a position of leadership in society, he becomes similar to the general ruler in that his orders must be carried out and he must be obeyed. Plural leadership in the Islamic Nation began during the Caliphate of the Commander of the Faithful ‘Uthmān Ibn ‘Affān, who put Ibn az-Zubayr in charge of al-Ḥijāz (the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula), Banu Marwān in charge of Shām (Syria), and al-Mukhtār Ibn ‘Ubaid and others in charge of Iraq, so the Nation was divided.
Islamic scholars still consider obeying the leader of a particular region an act of worship, even if the leader is not in charge of the entire Islamic Nation.
Thus, we know that some groups have gone astray when they claim that allegiance cannot be given to any leader today based on the fact that no leader has control of all Muslims worldwide!! May Allah protect us from such misguidance! I do not know if those people desire complete chaos and an absence of leadership or if they want each man to be his own leader! If someone dies holding such beliefs they will have died a death of pre-Islamic ignorance – may Allah protect us from that – because, for many generations, Muslims have been considering anyone to rise to a position of power in any given land the leader of that land. Many scholars have explicitly stated this, such as aṣ-Ṣan‘āni, the author of ‘Subul as-Salām,’ who said, ‘This is not possible to implement in our times, and that is just the reality we are living in.’”(2)

This statement, which agrees with the statement made by Ibn ‘Uthaimīn, is a commentary on the ḥadith which states, “Whoever disobeys [his leader], departing from the congregation, has died a death of pre-Islamic ignorance.” Aṣ-Ṣan‘āni further said:
“This refers to disobeying the Caliph to whom the Muslims unanimously yield authority, and it is as if the Caliph of any given country is meant since Islamic countries have not all been ruled by a single Caliph since the Abbasid Caliphate; rather, each region has had its own ruler. If we were to try to understand the ḥadith in light of a Caliph who governs all Muslims [worldwide], there would be little benefit in it.”(3)

The eminent scholar Ibn ‘Uthaimīn also said:
“The Islamic Nation split up during the era of the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh). You all know that Abdullah Ibn az-Zubayr was in charge of Makkah, Banu Umayyah were in charge of Shām (Syria), and there were others in charge in Yemen and Egypt. Muslims have continually given allegiance to those in authority over them in their respective countries, referring to them as ‘Commander[s] of the Believers.’ No one denies this. So anyone disobeying his leader has violated the code of allegiance agreed upon by the Muslims and the consensus held by them since times of old. The Messenger said, ‘Listen and obey, even if an Abyssinian slave is put in charge over you.’”(4)

While explaining the ḥadith about the three people whom Allah will not speak to on the Day of Resurrection, Ibn ‘Uthaimīn said:
“In the ḥadith related by Abu Hurayrah is mentioned, ‘A man who gives allegiance to a leader purely for worldly reasons; if [the leader] gives him something, he remains faithful to him and if he does not give him anything, he is unfaithful.’ This is one of the people whom Allah will not speak to, look at, or purify on the Day of Resurrection, and who will receive a painful punishment. This is because giving allegiance to a leader is obligatory, and every Muslim must have a leader, whether he is large-scale leader – as was the case in the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs and the Caliphs to follow them – or the leader over a region – as is the case now.
For a long time the people have been separated, with each region having its own leader, and Muslims unanimously agree that we are to listen to and obey those leaders. No Muslim ever said that obedience to the leader is not obligatory unless there is a single leader over all Muslim lands, and it is not possible for anyone to make such a statement because it would imply that there is no Muslim leader alive today. So each region has its own leader.”(5)

Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said:

“The Sunnah is for the Muslims to have a single leader and for others in positions of authority to be his deputies. If the condition of the Islamic Nation were to change – due to the sins of some of its members, the incapability of the rest, or some other reason – and they had several leaders, every leader would have the obligation of implementing laws and allotting rights.”(6)

A number of scholars have related the consensus on the obligation of obeying the leader who comes into power by overthrowing the previous leader. This is a general rule to which there is no exception. Ibn Baṭṭāl said, “All jurists agree on the obligation of obeying the leader who assumes power via deposition as long as he implements congregational prayers and Jihād. They also agree that obeying him is better than attempting to depose him since doing so safeguards blood and averts catastrophes.”(7) Ibn Ḥajar cited this opinion and agreed with it.(8) Sheikh al-Islam Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdul-Wahhāb said:
“Scholars from all schools of thought unanimously agree that anyone who overthrows the ruler of a country is to be regarded as the ruler in all respects. Were this not the case, there would never be any peace on earth. For a long time before Imam Aḥmad, and up until our time, there has been no single ruler and none of the scholars have mentioned rulings which apply exclusively to the sole ruler.”(9)

Someone could possibly argue that the aforementioned consensus contradicts some ḥadith and other points mutually agreed upon by scholars.
For example, the ḥadith related by Abu Sa‘īd al-Khudrī states that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said, “If allegiance is given to two Caliphs, kill the second one.”(10) Also, ‘Arfajah reported that he heard Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) say, “If your affair is stable under one man and someone tries to separate your congregation, kill him.”(11) Another narration states, “Whoever desires to disunite the affair of this nation while it is united, strike him with a sword, regardless of who he may be.” Furthermore, Abdullah Ibn ‘Amr reported that the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Whoever gives allegiance to a leader, shaking his hand and giving him the fruit of his heart, let him obey him as much as possible.
If another man comes contending with him, strike his neck [with a sword].”(12) Concerning the consensus of the scholars, Ibn Ḥazm stated, “They mutually agree that it is not permissible for Muslims to have two rulers at one time anywhere on earth, whether they are united or divided, in separate places or in the same place.”(13)

The response to this argument is: it is correct that division within the Islamic Nation is not permissible and Muslims must unite upon the truth under a single ruler.
However, what needs to be determined is what should happen if division does take place and there is no way to avoid deposition: should people be left with no leader to command and forbid them? Should they be neglected and left to fight each other, shedding one another’s blood? No one would say that people should be left without leaders, or that they should be left to shed one another’s blood because the evil outcomes of such an opinion are no secret.
Whoever would dare to contradict scripture and reason by making such a claim does not even deserve to be argued with because he is either arrogant or ignorant.

Once we have come to realize this we can address the abovementioned ḥadith. When the Muslims are in a position of power and unity under a strong Caliph and someone contends with him, he is to be killed, regardless of who he may be, because he is trying to bring about division. An-Nawawi said:
“This means to repel the second man because he is trying to overthrow the ruler. If he only desists by war and fighting, fight him. If fighting him leads to killing him, then this is permissible and no one will be responsible for his blood money because he was transgressing in his fighting.”(14)

He also said, “This also shows that it is permissible to fight whoever tries to overthrow the ruler or causes division amongst the Muslims. He should first be warned against doing so; if he does not desist he should be fought; if his evil can only be repelled by killing him he should be killed.”(15) He further stated, “This is under the condition that his evil will only be repelled by killing him.”(16)

If the Muslims happen to be divided, however, and each of the two Caliphs is powerful, such that turmoil will churn amongst the Muslims here and there, this is when we implement the consensus of the scholars about obeying the triumphant leader.
The other point of consensus cited by Ibn Ḥazm, which states that it is not permissible for Muslims to have two rulers at one time, which is supported by evidence such as the ḥadith of Abu Sa‘īd, is to be implemented in cases such as cited by Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah:
“The disagreement about this is well-known amongst those who speak on the subject, such as the philosophers and rhetoricians.
The position of the Kurramites and others is that it is permissible because Ali was a leader and Mu‘āwiyyah was a separate leader.
The position of the jurists is that each of them should impose laws on those under his jurisdiction just as a single leader rules.
It is not permissible to initiate a treaty granting authority to two separate leaders while the Islamic Nation is united.
If the Nation becomes divided, however, each party does not give allegiance to two leaders; rather, each party either makes a truce with the other or they declare war against one another.
There is no doubt that a truce is better than war, which brings much harm. There are several views and opinions about this matter.”(17)

Thus, there is no contradiction between the two points of consensus or the various ḥadith cited because it is well-known that whatever rulings a Muslim is commanded with are to be carried out according to his ability.
This even applies to the pillars of Islam, as Allah the Exalted says, “It is mankind’s duty toward Allah to make the Pilgrimage to His House, as long as they are able.”(18) This is extremely clear and needs no explanation. And Allah knows best.

1 Concerning the advice Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) gave about obedience to the leader even if he be an Abyssinian slave, Bukhari (693), (7142) related the ḥadith of Anas which mentions that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said, “Listen and obey even if an Abyssinian slave whose head is like a raisin is put in charge over you.
” The ḥadith of Abu Tharr which was related by Muslim (648), (240) states, “My best friend advised me to listen and obey even if it were to a slave whose limbs had been maimed.
” The ḥadith related by Muslim (1298), (311) on the authority of Umm al-Ḥuṣain al-Aḥmasiyyah states, “Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) once spoke a lot then I heard him say, ‘If a maimed slave (I think she said: who is black) leads you according to Allah’s book, listen and obey.’” The ḥadith related by Aḥmad (4/126), Abu Dāwūd (4607), at-Tirmithi (2676), Ibn Mājah (42), (43) and declared authentic by al-Albāni in “Irwā’ al-Ghalīl,” (2455) and “Aṣ-Ṣaḥīḥah,” (937) on the authority of al-‘Irbāḍ Ibn Sāriyah states, “One day Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) led us in prayer then turned to us and gave us an eloquent admonition which caused eyes to shed tears and hearts to tremble.
Then someone said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, it is as if this were a farewell admonition! So what do you advise us?’ He said, ‘I advise you to be dutiful to Allah and to listen to and obey [your leader] even if he be an Abyssinian slave…’”
2 Ash-Sharḥ al-Mumti’, (8/9-10).
3 Subul as-Salām, (3/499).
4 Cited in “Al-Fatāwa ash-Shar‘iyyah fīl-Qaḍāyā al-‘Aṣriyyah,” (81-82).
5 Sharḥ Riyāḍ aṣ-Ṣāliḥīn, (4/503).
6 Majmū’ al-Fatāwā, (34/175-176).
7 Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhāri, (10/8).
8 Fatḥ al-Bāri, (13/9).
9 Ad-Durar as-Saniyyah, (7/239).
10 Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, (1853).
11 Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, (1852).
12 Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, (1844).
13 Marātib al-Ijmā’, (144).
14 Sharḥ an-Nawawi ‘ala Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, (12/234).
15 Ibid, (12/241).
16 Ibid, (12/242).
17 Naqd Marātib al-Ijmā’, (216)
18 The Qur’an, Surah Āl-‘Imrān [3]:97.