A Protest in the Prophet’s Mosque
A powerful event of peaceful protest happened two weeks ago (April 28) in Saudi Arabia at the Prophet’s mosque – something not seen in Medina for over fourteen hundred years. A visiting delegation of Pakistani politicians, including Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and two Ministers from the recently installed government, were greeted by repeated chants by worshippers of “chor,” which in English translates as “thief”. Did Prime Minister Sharif, who is out on bail on multiple criminal charges for alleged financial improprieties, visit the holy places to burnish his religious bona fides to a citizenry back home? If that was the case, the optics of what happened has had the opposite effect. The images of the protest have been relayed and amplified with commentary and gone viral on social media. For adherents of the Islamic faith, being called a “thief” near the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad is a profound jolt. It has been interpreted by many as signifying that these politicians were not worthy of traversing such sacred terrain.
As was expected, the Saudi authorities who brook no dissent are incensed by the protests. Politically, one can understand the Saudi’s concern. Protests of “chor” against Pakistani officials if left unchecked could blossom to protests against Saudi governance or human rights violations. The Medina police have since arrested five suspects for “abusing and insulting” the Pakistani Ministers. The spokesperson for the police remarked the actions of the protesters is against Islam and “contradict the sanctity of the place.” The protest took place a distance from the Prophet’s grave. Islamic scholars, all the way back to the Caliph Omar and the Prophet’s wife Ayesha instructed Muslims not to raise one’s voice next to the Prophet’s grave. Understandably, political discourse and protests in the mosque even far from the grave of the Prophet would undermine the worship of other pilgrims. Given the crowds, time, manner, and place restrictions on protest is needed. But the notion that no protests are permitted in Islam or that political discourse never took place in the Prophet’s mosque is incorrect. The efforts of smart phones and citizen reporting of the incident offers a monumental teaching teachable moment for Muslims and others about the correct Islamic conception of democracy, freedom of speech and accountability of government officials for malfeasance.
Saudi and “Freedom” of Speech
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There is a litany of prophetic examples that illustrate the Saudi view of freedom of speech and protest, like so much of their brand of Islam, is the antithesis of Islamic scriptures and prophetic practice. Islamic scriptures is replete with calls on every Muslim to enjoin good and forbid wrong. Muslims unanimously agree that the Prophet proclaimed that speaking against an unjust ruler is the highest form of sacrifice in the path of God. Muslims also unanimously concur that the Prophet said when you see a wrong, change it with your hand. If you cannot change it with your hand, then speak against the wrong. And if you cannot change the wrong with your words, then despise that wrong in your heart but that is the lowest level of faith.
There are many examples of freedom of speech and protest in the Prophet’s mosque, or during the pilgrimage during the life of the Prophet and the four immediate successors of the Prophet , who Sunni Islam unanimously proclaims as the four noble or rightly guided Caliphs. The latter’s instructions and examples represent sources of Islamic law. Here are a few illustrations.
The Prophet was once delivering a speech and a man interrupted the Prophet and inquired about the unlawful detention of his neighbor. The man rose two more times and asked the same question. Thereafter, the Prophet asked the police officer to release the man’s neighbor. The incident is instructive at several levels. First, it occurred in the Prophet’s mosque. Second, it was the Prophet that was being interrupted. Third, the Prophet did not say that the interruption disrespected him or his mosque. Fourth, the Prophet recognized the validity of someone concerned about injustice and raising the concern publicly.
On assuming office after he was selected leader of the state after the Prophet’s death, Abu Bakr , the first noble Caliph, addressed the community and remarked, “You have made me your leader, although I am in no way superior to you. Co-operate with me when I do right; correct me when I err.” He also said, “Turn away from me when I deviate.” Abu Bakr admonished the community that if he errs and departs from ethical principles, which by definition preclude corruption, immorality, and injustice, the community has an obligation to speak truth to power.
Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Sultan recently asked the Saudi population to accept austerity measures whilst personally spending about half a billion United States dollars on a supposed Salvador Mundi painting of Christ, which turned out to be a fake. Islamic tenets demand that the public must hold leaders accountable for their actions. Caliph Abu Bakr stated, “[T]o tell the truth to a person commissioned to rule is faithful allegiance; to conceal it is treason.”
Dynasty vs Khilaafah
Abu Bakr recognized the equality of society, which is replete in the sayings of the Prophet . The legitimacy of Abu Bakr’s leadership was not derived from dynastic rule. The subsequent three Caliphs were also selected through a process of mutual consultation, which arguably represented the first implementation of a rudimentary democracy; rule by consensus as opposed to coercion. It was also a rejection of hereditary leadership. On his deathbed, the second Caliph, Omar , asked for a consultative committee of the leading personalities of the time to choose his successor. Omar was absolutely emphatic that his successor could not be his son, thus eschewing dynastic rule.
Neither the Prophet (considered by Muslims as the greatest personality that lived), nor the Caliphs gave the state their family name. The Saudi state is named after the ruling family and constitutes an absolutist, dynastic, and family-centered government, the members of whom have amassed enormous wealth. The Royal family treat the resources and treasury as their private piggy bank. Caliph Abu Bakr warned his officials against making state appointments based on nepotism or leaders enriching themselves. On assuming the office of Caliph, Abu Bakr asked his daughter to take stock of his assets so that a determination can be made at the end whether he had been enriched in office. This might be the earliest recorded instance of a leader concerned about corruption and providing a self-imposed check against corruption.
Limits to Obedience
Like his predecessor, the second Caliph, Omar , instructed the Muslim community that no leader should be obeyed if he acts against the tenets of the faith. Omar remarked that the community has rights over him and must be able to enforce those rights. Omar took meticulous measures to ensure that political power was not an entrée to richness. For example, Omar asked every officer he appointed to take a pledge that they would live simply and eat simply. Those that breached the rule were reported by the citizenry and were sanctioned. A detailed inventory of the assets of the officials was prepared at the time of their appointment and reassessed at the end of their tenure. The officials had to account for any increases in their assets.
The Saudi monarchy and the sycophant clerics on the government payroll distort material aspects of Islam to justify and fortify the survival of the Al Saud dynasty. They demand absolute obedience to a ruler. This is an inversion of Islamic teachings and contradict historical examples concerning issues of justice, morality, and corruption being addressed in the Prophet’s mosque or during the pilgrimage.
The Caliph Omar was confronted in public in the Prophet’s mosque and in the streets by ordinary people who raised concerns about inappropriate behavior by government officials. Omar protected the right of a person that once interrupted his speech, and is reported to have said “if the people do not give me good advice they are useless and if I do not listen to it, I am useless.” On another occasion, Omar asked the assembly what would they do if he, Omar , strayed from the straight path? A man stood up and responded he would confront Omar and even suggested he would take up arms against him. Omar replied, “praise be to God that among my people are present men who could put me on the straight part if I deviated from it.”
A Distortion of Islam
The Saudis demand the pilgrimage and visits to the holy mosques be conducted as an exclusive exercise of rituals and individual spirituality – a reflection and strengthening of the individual’s relationship with God in a morally blind manner. The Prophet and the Caliphs conducted political and military meetings in the Prophet’s mosque. The Caliphs Omar and Uthman required their senior government officials come to Mecca at the time of the annual pilgrimage and people were encouraged to voice any complaints they might have had against any official. Omar is known to have taken action against aberrant government officials during these occasions.
The Saudi rulers distort the comprehensive Islamic injunction of enjoining good and forbidding evil, and turn it on its head to preclude any questioning of their rule. In doing so, they offer an obtuse and destructive assault on absolute principles of justice, ethics, morality, and good governance, which in Islam cannot be derogated from.
The protest in Medina in the last week of Ramadan did not happen next to the Prophet’s grave, which would be problematic. Not since the time of the noble Caliphs have we seen this sort of peaceful rebuke of public officials, albeit not Saudi, in the first Muslim capital. The protest offers Muslims an opportunity for self-reflection beyond the positivist diet fed by absolute dictators that they are owed unquestionable obedience by virtue of their hold on power. The Caliphs Abu Bakr and Omar rebuked an inert or indifferent citizenry, and ordered them to hold their leaders publicly accountable. The Prophet and the noble Caliphs would not countenance illegitimate or dynastic rule, profligacy, corruption, authoritarianism, human rights violations, the slaughter of civilians in Yemen, or Saudi support for repression in Egypt and Palestine. The obligation to enjoin good and forbid evil requires every Muslim to talk out against these abuses. The concept of Deen -that Islam is an all-encompassing way of life- requires the rejection of Saudi and other brands of Islam that pigeonhole Islam as sanitized rituals, devoid of moral, ethical and political dimensions.
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