Forbidding Wrong in Islam: An Introduction

Forbidding Wrong in Islam: An Introduction

Forbidding Wrong in Islam: An Introduction

Forbidding Wrong in Islam: An Introduction


Michael Cook's classic study, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge, 2001), reflected upon the Islamic injunction to forbid wrongdoing. This book is a short, accessible survey of the same material. Using Islamic history to illustrate his argument, Cook unravels the complexities of the subject by demonstrating how the past informs the present. At the book's core is an important message about the values of Islamic traditions and their relevance in the modern world.


This chapter is mainly concerned to answer three basic questions about the duty of forbidding wrong: who has to do it, to whom, and about what? Once we have dealt with these elementary questions, we can go on in later chapters to more advanced issues, ranging from the techniques for forbidding wrong to the limits placed on them by considerations of privacy. But before we tackle our three basic questions, we have to start by briefly disposing of a more fundamental one: why should there be a duty to forbid wrong?

1 Why?

The reason this question will not detain us long is that the Muslim scholars had a simple and straightforward answer to it: God had imposed the duty, and had made His will known through explicit statements in both Koran and tradition. (Sometimes this is backed up by reference to consensus (ijmā ), but we can leave this aside.) a considerable range of Koranic verses and traditions were cited in this connection, but one particular verse, and, among the Sunnīs, one particular tradition, have pride of place. We have already met both.

The verse is Q3:104: 'Let there be one community (umma) of you, calling to good, and commanding right and forbidding wrong; those are the prosperers.' in the wider context of the passage, 'you' refers to 'those who believe' (Q3:102), so that it is natural to take God to be addressing the Muslims in general. At the same time the language–'let there be'–is unambiguously prescriptive. So the obvious reading of the verse is indeed that God is imposing a duty on the Muslims, and this is how it was universally understood. the only thing that is a little obscure is the precise relationship between the 'community' God mentions here and the believers at large: are all Muslims to belong to this community that forbids wrong, or just some of them? We need not bother with this ambiguity here; but it attracted the attention of the scholars, and we will find ourselves coming back to it in the next section.

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