The rationale and relevance of the discourse on the subject of obedience to constituted authority in Islam may be informed, understood and appreciated in light of the following declaration by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), the Holy Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community:
“A community cannot be a community and cannot have the spirit of nationhood and concord unless it adopts the principles of obedience. If difference of opinion and discord is prevalent, then consider these as signs of misfortune and decline. Along with various other reasons, mutual disagreements and internal conflicts are also behind the weak state and decline of Muslims. If difference of opinion is abandoned and only one person is obeyed, whose obedience is commanded by Allah the Exalted, success is achieved in everything. The hand of Allah the Exalted is on the community; therein lies the secret.” (Vide: Friday Sermon, Essence of Obedience and Submission, December 5th, 2014)
Furthermore, the current Supreme worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) also emphatically maintained that, “Obedience is the pre-condition of Khilafat; obedience is the lifeline of the moral and spiritual existence of the believers and striving to excel in the standard of obedience is extremely important for a believer”. (Friday Sermon, Khilafat and Obedience, May 24th, 2019)
In the light of the above, it is the thrust of this article to demystify the meaning, the essence, significance, scope and merits of obedience to constituted authority in Islam.
Islam and Obedience
If Islam means submission to the will and command of Allah – as it really denotes; and, if to obey is to submit to the will and order of a superior authority; then, Islam is obedience, and obedience is Islam. Hence, the significance of obedience, its standards, benefits as well as the harms in disobedience all occupy prominent place in the teachings of Islam.
In the celestial kingdom of Allah, the Quran represents absolute obedience as the standard principle which the angels accord to every divine will and command: “they disobey not Allah in what He commands them and do as they are commanded,” (Quran, 66:7). “And remember the time when We said to the angels: ‘Submit to Adam,’ and they all submitted,” (Quran, 2:35). Thus, absolute obedience to Divine Authority is the order that governs the heavenly relationship between the Transcendent Authority and the subordinate angelic entities.
Coming down to the terrestrial terrain, a look into the teachings of Islam also reveals that, in order for the faithful to establish, maintain and sustain strong divine-human relationship and moral and spiritual development, and to achieve concord, orderliness, cohesion, success and progress in all ramifications of human social, religious and political organization and community, Allah’s will also emphasizes the primacy of obedience to the following hierarchical order of authorities: the Divine and Prophetic authorities, the Caliphate (Khilafat) authority and the rest forms of constituted authorities.
Going by the above perspective, let us dissect our subject of obedience in the following contexts.
Obedience to Divine and Prophetic Authorities
The Holy Quran enjoins upon Muslims unconditional obedience to Allah and His Messenger, Muhammad (saw), declaring that Messengers are sent to be obeyed (Quran, 4:65), and that obedience of Messenger is obedience of Allah (Quran, 4:60).
The Quran often mentions the reward or benefits of obedience along with the commandment of obedience to Allah and His Messenger. For example: Allah enjoins on Muslims obedience to Him and His Messenger so as to be shown mercy (Quran, 3:133, 173); obedience of Allah and His Messenger leads to prosperity, success and guidance (Quran, 24:52, 53); it leads to highest spiritual upliftment and ranks (4:70); safeguards efforts and works from going in vain (Quran, 47:34). Obedience is better than sacrifice (24:54) and is an evidence of true faith (8:2).
Instructively, when Iblees disobeyed Allah through refusal to bow in obeisance to Adam, he was condemned to eternal curse and perdition (Quran, 15:32-36; 38:75-79). Similarly, though his error was absolved as not borne out of conscious resolve but sheer forgetfulness (Quran, 20:116), Quran yet admits that Adam disobeyed his Lord (Quran, 20:122), and was, consequently, sent out of the garden (Quran, 20:124); only to be forgiven, elected and guided afterward, following his repentance (Quran, 20:123).
While describing the highest level of obedience which the noble Companions demonstrated towards the Holy Prophet (saw), Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) quoted the Promised Messiah (as) as saying that, “How blessed were the Companions (ra) that they were a community wholly devoted in their obedience of the Holy Prophet (saw)…….Allah the Exalted likes oneness, and unity cannot be established unless obedience is practiced.”
“In the time of the Holy Prophet (saw) the Companions were learned and had the ability to make judgments. God had thus created them that they were also well-versed in politics. The competence and excellence with which Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra), Hazrat Umer (ra) and others Companions handled power when they became Khalifa demonstrates very well how capable they were at being learned with the ability to make judgments.”
“However, in the presence of the Holy Prophet (saw) they considered naught all their opinions and discernment. Whatever the Holy Prophet (saw) said they deemed it worthy of practice. So devoted were they in his obedience that they sought blessing in the leftover water of his ablution and considered his blessed mouth venerable. If they did not have this spirit of obedience and compliance and everyone considered his opinion the best there would have been discord among them and they would not have attained high status.”(Friday Sermon, Essence of Obedience and Submission, December 5th, 2014)
Obedience to Constituted Authority
Allah says: “O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey His Messenger and those who are in authority among you. And if you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger if you are believers in Allah and the Last Day. That is best and most commendable in the end.” (Q. 4:60)
In his classic Quranic exegesis, Imam Qurtubi, as quoted by Dr. Khalid Ahmad al-Shantut, reviewed the various views of the classical commentators and rationalized that the Quranic term “Ulul-Amr, translated above as ‘those who are in authority’, refers to both the rulers and the scholars of the Quranic sciences and knowledge. (Khalid Ahmad al-Shantut, man hum ulul amr? www.dr-khalid.net )
In the same light, Hadhrat Mirza Bashirudeen Mahmud Ahmad, making reference to the duo Arabic lexica, Taaj al-Aroos and Aqrab al-Mawarid, defined the term as implying “(1) those who possess or hold authority, command or rule; and (2) the learned men who, as it were, possess authority in knowledge.” (The Holy Quran with English Translation and Commentary, vol. 2, p. 532)
Obedience to Caliphate (Khilafat) Authority
Interestingly, the Promised Messiah (as) posited that, “In worldly terms, ‘ulul amr’ [who are in authority], means the king, and in spiritual terms, it means the Imam of the age.’ (The Need for The Imam, p. 37)
As divinely established successorship in the pattern of the Prophethood, Muslims understand the Khulafaa (Successors) as occupying the highest position in the hierarchy of the Ulul-Amr or the possessors of authority. Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih V (aba) declared that: “The obedience of the Khalifa of the time is much more important than obedience of a general Ameer.” (Firday Sermon, Khilafat and Obedience, May 24th, 2019)
Addressing this issue, the famous historian, Hazrat Ibn Khaldun(rh), quite magnificently explains that:
“it is not the Khalifah who should qualify his position because it has already been certified by Almighty Allah through the mechanism of divine appointment; rather, it is, in fact, the members of the Ummah who must qualify their status and worthiness to be led by a Khalifah…The obligation to recognize and obey the Khalifah is a ‘legal obligation’ and not rational necessity.” (Adam Walker, Obedience to the Institution of Khilafat, http://www.alislam.org/…/obedience-to-institution-of…)
Furthermore, Ibn Khaldun defined the pledge of allegiance (Bay’ah) which is to be offered by the Muslims to the Rightly Guided Khalifah: ‘’It should be known that the bay’ah is a contract to render obedience. It is as though the person who renders the oath of allegiance made a contract with his amir, to the effect that he surrenders supervision of his own affairs and those of the Muslims to him and that he will not contest his authority in any of (those affairs) and that he will obey him by (executing) all the duties with which he might be charged, whether agreeable or disagreeable.’’ (ibid)
Similarly, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih 11 (ra) writes that the concluding words of the verse of Istikhlaf, ‘Whosoever is ungrateful after that, they will be rebellious’ (Quran, 24:56) signifies, ‘’…that Khilafah is a great Divine blessing. Without it there can be no solidarity, cohesion and unity among Muslims and therefore they can make no real progress without it. If Muslims do not show proper appreciation of Khilafat by giving un-stinted support and obedience to their Khalifas they will forfeit this Divine boon and in addition will draw the displeasure of God upon themselves’’ (The Holy Quran with English Translation and Commentary, vol. 4, p.1870)
Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih V (aba) also impressed that, “Within the framework of worldly system of government a spiritual system can and does function. Fortunate are we to be part of this spiritual system. Khilafat endeavours to establish kingdom of God and His Messenger in hearts and minds and in situations of discord the Khalifa reaches judgement according to the commandment of God and His Messenger.”
“It is a favour of God that we have the system of Khilafat among us otherwise different sects and different jurists have different views about matters. And rather than resolve issues, they can further entangle them. Similarly, different views can create different issues with the government as well. Thus interpretation of Islamic law over issues can only be achieved under Khilafat. Ahmadis could not be grateful enough for this and this gratefulness can be expressed by showing complete obedience to Khilafat.” (Friday Sermon, Essence of Obedience and Submission, December 5th, 2014)
More so, he (aba) “addresses Jama’at office-holders and said that if they wish to assist in the progress of the Jama’at then they need to understand the concept of obedience more than anyone else! If all office-holders on all levels understood the concept of obedience, the members of the Jama’at would inevitably understand it. Everyone would appear as the straight line of travelling camels.”
“Amirs, Sadrs and other office-holders should self-reflect over their standards of obedience and ponder how they respond to any instruction of the Khalifa of the time. Do they obey instantly or do they construe their own meanings of what is instructed? Some office-holders act upon instructions received from the Khalifa of the time but with some hesitation. This does not signify obedience. Obedience is when something is followed instantly. Indeed, it is fine to have your own opinion; however when the Khalifa of the time decides upon something, then one must overlook one’s opinion. (Friday Sermon, Unconditional Obedience to Khilafat, June 6th, 2014)
“What is needed is to understand the essence of what Khilafat is. And this can only happen with perfect obedience. No matter how academic or authoritative one thinks one may be, there is no room in Jama’at Ahmadiyya for one who is not obedient and such knowledge and wisdom cannot spiritually benefit the world either….. Intellect and wisdom is fruitful with obedience of the Khalifa of the time and cessation of one’s own interpretation of matters. …..Office-holders cannot rightfully be ‘authority over’ people unless they too completely obey Khilafat and do not desist from making their own interpretation; rather they consider each word of the Khalifa of the time as worthy of being obeyed. (Friday Sermon, Unconditional Obedience to Khilafat, June 6th, 2014)
Obedience to Other Forms of Constituted Authority
As noted above, the term Ulul-Amr has general application that incorporates all types or aspects of leadership i.e. political, organizational and cooperate leaderships etc., and Islam enjoins obedience to every possessor of such authority.
Again, Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih V (aba) quoted the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) as saying that; ‘After me you will see injustice, rights suppressed and others given preference over you. You will see matters that you will disapprove of’. When asked what was the commandment in such circumstances, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) replied, ‘pay their [leaders] rights to them and ask God for your rights.’
The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) also said: ‘Whoever disapproves of something done by his ruler should be patient, for whoever disobeys the ruler even as little as the span of a hand will die a death of ignorance.’
A man came to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) and complained that he had appointed so and so as a ruler and had not appointed him, to which the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) replied: ‘After me you will see others given preference over you but you should be patient till the Day of Judgment.’
Once the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) was asked how people should react if unjust rulers are imposed on them. He declined to answer, he was asked again, and again he declined. When he was asked the third time, he replied that even in such a situation the ruler should be obeyed. He would be accountable for the responsibility given to him while the subjects would be accountable for the responsibility laid on them.
Once the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) took Bai’at, after which he said once someone is made a ruler he should not be quarreled with unless he does Kufr (disbelief) publically and for this they [they people] have a proof from God. (Friday Sermon, Obedience to the State, 01/04/2011)
The incident of disobedience by a few Muslims which turned their victory to defeat at the battle of Uhud (H.M.B. M. Ahmad, Life of Muhammad, p.101-114) should remain an eternal lesson for Muslims to always demonstrate obedience to constituted authority.
Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih V (aba) noted that the Holy Prophet (saw) said that whoever obeyed his amir, obeyed him; and whoever disobeyed his amir, disobeyed him. The Holy Qur’an also commands obedience in several places and it is indeed the secret for communal success and is a point that members of the Jama’at need to understand a great deal. (Friday Sermon, Unconditional Obedience to Khilafat, June 6th, 2014)
“If each member of the Jama’at is obedient we will head towards spiritual heights and our faith will be as strong as mountains and as a result message of Islam will spread in all directions in the world.” (Friday Sermon, Unconditional Obedience to Khilafat, June 6th, 2014)
[This article first appeared in the February, 2020 edition of An-Nasr magazine, Volume 18, No.1]
Al-Hafiz Yunus Omotayo is a Missionary and Journalist of Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at of Nigeria and Chairman of the Muslim Writers Guild of Nigeria. Email: email@example.com