The Obligation of Social Justice Activism

The Obligation of Social Justice Activism

In this extract from his book ‘Sacred Activism’ Imam Dawud Walid argues that Muslims must not loose sight either of the injunctions to challenge injustice, or while doing so enjoining the good and forbidding the bad.

Supporting existing expressions of justice in society, restoring individuals’ God-given rights which have been denied, and interrupting factors which cause injustice are all part of the Islamic faith. Though the phrase ‘social justice activism’ is not explicitly used in the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions, it resides within the framework of enjoining good and forbidding evil (al-amr bi al-marūf wa al-nahī an al-munkar) which is an essential foundation of Islam. All schools within Islamic theology recognise the necessity of enjoining good and forbidding evil, and scholars have extensively discussed the criteria and manners for doing so. Thus, there is a Prophetically inspired roadmap regarding the mandate for social justice activism which constitutes a collective obligation (far kifāyah) for every Muslim community, as well as an individual obligation (far ayn) upon every sane post-pubescent Muslim.

Obligation of Enjoying Good and Forbidding Evil from the Qur’an

Allah (Mighty and Sublime) made enjoining good and forbidding evil mandatory upon the Muslim community through the imperative command: ‘And let there be from among you a group calling towards constructive excellence, enjoining good and forbidding evil. And these will be the successful ones’ (Qur’an, 3:104).

Allah (Mighty and Sublime) also praises Muslims who enjoin good and forbid evil when He says: ‘You are the best nation brought out for humankind; you enjoin good, forbid evil and believe in Allah’ (Qur’an, 3:113). It is noteworthy in this āyah (verse) that enjoining good and forbidding evil are mentioned before belief in tawḥīd.

Finally, Allah (Mighty and Sublime) identifies enjoining good and forbidding evil as the first adjectives describing those who have sound faith: ‘And the believing men and women are allies of one another; they enjoin good, forbid evil, establish prayer, give charity and obey Allah and His messenger. These will soon receive the mercy of Allah. Surely Allah is Mighty, All-Wise’ (Qur’an, 9:71).

Further Evidence from the Prophetic Tradition

In Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, it is narrated that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: ‘Whoever sees an evil, let him change it with his hand. And if he is unable to do so, then with his speech. And if he is unable to do so, then with his heart, but that is the weakest of faith.’[1]

Regarding enjoining others to good and forbidding them from evil in general, the Prophet ﷺ said, as narrated in Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī: ‘Help your brother, be he a wrong-doer or one who has been wronged.’ The companions said, ‘O Messenger of Allah! In this we know how to help the one who was wronged, but how do we help the wrong-doer?’ He replied, ‘By preventing him from wronging others, for surely that is helping him.’[2]

In Sunan Abī Dāwūd and Sunan al-Tirmidhī, a Prophetic saying regarding enjoining governmental authorities to good and forbidding them from evil is recorded: ‘The most virtuous struggle (jihād) is a word of justice (Ꜥadl) to a tyrannical ruler.’[3] A similar sound hadith, narrated by al-Nasā’ī, states that the most virtuous struggle against an unjust leader is ‘a word of truth (ḥaqq).’[4]

Consequences of Neglecting to Enjoin Good and Forbid Evil

Allah (Mighty and Sublime) speaks of the fate of those who came before us, who neglected their obligation to enjoin good and forbid evil: ‘Cursed are those who disbelieved from the Children of Israel, from the tongues of Dāwūd (David) and ꜤĪsā (Jesus) the son of Maryam (Mary) for that which they disobeyed and transgressed. And they did not prohibit among themselves evil which they did. Indeed, it was vile which they did’ (Qur’an, 5:78-79).

Ḥabīb Abdullah bin Ḥusayn bin Tahir[5] (may Allah sanctify his spirit) stated, in his treatise regarding recalcitrance of the tongue, that it is sinful to be ‘silent regarding enjoining good and forbidding evil without a valid excuse.’[6] Ḥabīb Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Haddar[7] (may Allah sanctify his spirit) also said:

‘A person who dispenses with the acts of enjoining good and forbidding evil shares with the disobedient in their sins; and, being pleased with disbelief is a form of disbelief. If Allah is disobeyed in the east and you are in the west, you must nonetheless forbid evil According to one of the recommended methods as much as you are able.’[8]

Allah (Mighty and Sublime) discusses the punishment given to the wife of Lūṭ (Lot, peace be upon him), when she assisted the men of Sodom in open sexual transgression, though she did not partake in their actions:

‘Allah sets forth a parable of those who disbelieved, the wife of Nūḥ (Noah) and wife of Lūṭ; they were under two servants from among our righteous worshippers, but they both betrayed them [their husbands] so they [Nūḥ and Lūṭ] benefitted them not against Allah; thus it was said, “Enter the fire along with those who enter.”’ (Qur’an, 66:10)

Regarding the learned leaders among the Children of Israel who neglected their duties, Allah the Most High says: ‘Why did not their rabbis and doctors of law forbid them from sinful assertions and devouring the forbidden? Indeed, evil are their works’ (Qur’an, 5:63). Regarding this āyah, the Ḥanbalī scholar Sayyid ꜤAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (may Allah sanctify his spirit) said that their scholars, jurists and cantors did not prohibit them from obscene language, eating the forbidden and acting in recalcitrance.[9]

According to Bukhārī and Muslim, the Mother of the Believers Umm al-Ḥakam Zaynab bint Jaḥsh (may Allah be pleased with her) narrated that the Prophet ﷺ came to her while alarmed and said: ‘There is no deity but Allah. Woe unto the Arabs from mischief that has come near. An opening has been made of a day in the wall of Gog and Magog similar to this,’ and he made a circle with his thumb and index finger. She said: ‘O Messenger of Allah! ﷺ Shall we be destroyed even though there are pious people among us?’ He replied: ‘Yes, when the wicked increase.’[10]

Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (may Allah be pleased with him) said, according to a sound narration in Sunan Abī Dāwūd, Sunan Ibn Mājah and Sunan al-Nasā’ī:

‘O people! Surely you recite this āyah: “O you who believe! Take care of your own souls. No harm can come to you from one who is astray when you are guided aright” (Qur’an, 5:44). But surely, I [also] heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say, “Surely, when people see a wrong-doer and do not take him by the hand [to attempt to stop his evil], Allah will soon punish all of them.”[11]

In a sound narration, Ḥudhayfah bin al-Yamān (may Allah be pleased with him) relayed that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life, you will either enjoin good and forbid evil or Allah will certainly soon send His punishment upon you. Then you will make supplication, but it will not be accepted.’[12] Imam ꜤAlī bin Abī Ṭālib (may Allah ennoble his face) narrated similarly that those who desist from enjoining good and forbidding evil will have the worst of the people placed over them as authorities; then, they will supplicate to Allah without being answered.[13]

It is said that surely Allah the Most High revealed to YūshaꜤ bin Nūn (Joshua, peace be upon him):

‘“Surely, I will send destruction on 40,000 of the best of your people, and 70,000 of the worst of them.”

[Yūsha said]: “O my Lord! These are the worst, but what about the best?”

The Most High replied: “Surely they were not angry with [those who incurred] My anger, and they confided in them and drank with them.”’[14]

The issue of social justice activism has spiritual import, and consequences attached to it. When a community includes people devoted to the enjoining good and forbidding evil in society, Divine blessings are extended to that community, as they are for other acts of worship, and they are assisted with Allah’s permission. Likewise, when a community ignores this endeavour and individuals abandon this religious responsibility, then just as in the negligence of other duties, severe consequences will eventually reach that community. Judgments in the Hereafter will be made of individuals according to the limitless wisdom of Allah (Mighty and Sublime) and His knowledge of their capacities.

Imam Dawud Walid is currently the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI),and a member of the Imams Council of Michigan.


[1] Muslim, hadith 49.

[2] Al-Bukhārī, Muḥammad. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (Riyadh: Dar al-Hazm, 2015), hadith 6952.

[3] Al-Sijistānī, Abū Dāwūd. Sunan Abī Dāwūd (Damascus: Al-Risalah al-‘Alamiyyah, 2008), hadith 4344; Tirmidhī, hadith 2174.

[4] Al-Nasā’ī, hadith 4209.

[5] Ḥabīb Abdullah bin Ḥusayn bin Tahir, was from the Ba’Alawi lineage, and was a chief ShāfiꜤī scholar in Yemen who lived from 1191-1272 AH.

[6] Ba’Alawi, al-Ḥabīb ‘Abd Allāh ibn Ḥusayn. MajmūꜤ al-Ḥabīb ꜤAbdillāh bin Ḥusayn bin Ṭāhir BāꜤalawī (Beirut: Dar al-Hawi, 2008), p.282.

[7] Ḥabīb Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Haddar, a descendant of the Prophet ﷺ from the Ba’Alawi lineage, was a scholar in ShāfiꜤī jurisprudence, hadith, Islamic spirituality and poetry, who lived from 1340-1418 AH.

[8] Al-Haddar, Muhammad. The Quest for Virtuous Character (Western Cape: Dar al-Turath al-Islami, 2016), p.44.

[9] Al-Jīlānī, ꜤAbd al-Qādir. Al-Ghunyah al-Ṭālib li Tārīq al-Ḥaqq (Istanbul: Markaz Jiylani li al-Buhuth al-‘Ilmiyyah wa al-Taba’ wa al-Nashr, 2022), v.1, p.259. Scholars debate the authenticity of this text given that there exist multiple manuscripts which differ in length and substance, including some objectionable wording that falsely assigns corporeality to the Divine.

[10] Bukhārī, hadith 3346; Muslim, hadith 2880.

[11] Abū Dāwūd, hadith 4338; Ibn Mājah, Muḥammad. Sunan ibn Mājah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2022), hadith 3252; al-Nasā’ī, hadith 3531.

[12] Tirmidhī, hadith 2169.

[13] Ibn ꜤAlī, Zayd. Musnad al-Imām Zayd (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1999), p.374.

[14] Al-Jīlānī, Al-Ghunyah al-Ṭālib li Tārīq al-Ḥaqq, v.1, pp.259-260.

Help us reach more people and raise more awareness by sharing this page