Islam and the Unjust Ruler

What does Islam say we should do about Saddam?

In a recent interview, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice outlined the "moral" case to oust Saddam Hussein: "This is an evil man, who left to his own devices, will wreak havoc again on his own population, his neighbors and, if he gets weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, all of us. [It] is a powerful moral case for regime change."

What the White House hasn't yet acknowledged is there are equally powerful moral arguments against regime change: Saddam Hussein is deranged and dangerous, a man who had his own son-in-law executed. Rice is probably right that he would have no qualms at seeing his populace massacred to stay in power. But can the United States, for its part, justify regime change if the cost is thousands of American and Iraqi lives?

Opponents to war in Iraq also raise questions of precedent, and pragmatism. A number of countries (some of them our allies) are ruled by unjust, even brutal dictators. Will ridding Iraq of Public Enemy Number One be followed by regime change elsewhere? And will our reputation in the Islamic world will be further damaged if we take it upon ourselves to enforce democracy in Iraq?

This last point begs the question: how does Islam say we should deal with an unjust ruler?

This question has been debated by Islamic scholars for centuries, most vigorously in the 1400s. The debate has been reignited in the modern age. It is often assumed that violent overthrow of an unjust ruler is not allowed. But this is not entirely correct, according to Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of Islamic Law at UCLA and author of "Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law" (Cambridge University Press, 2001). "Islamic jurists are first and foremost lawyers," said Dr. Abou El Fadl in an interview. "Typical of all legal cultures, Muslim jurists were biased toward stability and admired law and order." Thus, violent overthrow of a ruler, even if he were unjust, is not something Muslim jurists would wholeheartedly support.


This is not to say that Islam condones injustice. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said, "Fear the prayer of the oppressed. There is no barrier between it and God." A just ruler is greatly rewarded by God, and the Prophet mentioned that such a ruler would be shaded by God's throne on Judgement Day. The Qur'an demands of Muslims: "Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor" (4:135). Another Islamic scholar noted that it is the responsibility of the governed to make the unjust ruler see the error of his ways. "The greatest jihad is to speak a word of truth in the face of a tyrant," said the Prophet.

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Hesham A. Hassaballa
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