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“Prescribe What Is Right and Proscribe What Is Wrong” -A

July 8, 2021

“Prescribe What Is Right and Proscribe What Is Wrong” -a

In this part we propose to correct the fuqaha”s’ interpretation of the Book’s injunction ‘to prescribe what is right and to proscribe what is wrong’ ( al-amr bi’l-ma’ruf wa’l-nahy an al-munkar). In the hands of the jurists, this divine injunction has been turned into a slogan for the justification of dictatorial rule and autocratic government. We totally disagree with this abuse of the divine word, and we begin our own investigation with the study of the four binary pairs of terms whose complex meanings have been so carelessly treated by the fuqaha”:

  1. halal ↔ haram
  2. amr ↔ nahy
  3. samah ↔ man’
  4. hasan ↔ qabih

Deplorably, the fuqaha” have not paid much attention to how these pairs of terms differ from each other, with the disastrous result that halal is treated as synonymous to hasan (or mustahsan), and samah (or masmuh) as ‘what ought to be prescribed’ ( al-ma”mur bihi). Similarly, haram is seen as just another word for qabih (or mustaqbih) and man’ (or mamnu’), meaning ‘what ought to be proscribed’ ( al-munhi ‘anhu).

This careless conflation of terms made it only logical—by the power of synonymity—to link ‘what ought to be prescribed’ with things that are halal, samah, and hasan; and ‘what ought to be proscribed’ with things that are haram, man’, and qabih.

Such indiscriminate use of terms, as we will show, is detrimental to a correct understanding of Allah’s injunction ‘to prescribe what is right and to proscribe what is wrong’. We will discuss each term of this injunction separately and then finally propose a different understanding of it. Let us first quote the verses that contain the injunction:

Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity. (al Imran:104)

You are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in God… (al ‘Imran:110)

They believe in God and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong; and they hasten (in emulation) in (all) good works: they are in the ranks of the righteous. (al Imran:114)

The hypocrites, men and women, (have an understanding) with each other: they enjoin evil, and forbid what is just, and are close with their hands. (Tawba:67)

The believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil; they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His apostle. (Tawba:71)

(They are) those who, if We establish them in the land, establish regular prayer and give regular charity, enjoin the right and forbid wrong: with God rests the end (and decision) of (all) affairs. (hajj:41)

“O my son! Establish regular prayer, enjoin what is just, and forbid what is wrong; and bear with patient constancy whatever betide you; for this is firmness (of purpose) in (the conduct of) affairs. (Luqman:17)

…for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure); He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them… (A’raf:157)

The above verses quote the two terms ‘what is right’ and ‘what is wrong’ always in conjunction with each other. Other verses mention them separately, as in the following two examples:

For divorced women maintenance (should be provided) on a reasonable (scale) [bi’l-ma’ruf]. This is a duty on the righteous. (Baqara:241)

…for prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds [ al-munkar]; and remembrance of God is the greatest (thing in life) without doubt. And God knows the (deeds) that you do. (Ankabut:45)

Right and wrong is one of those pairs of binary opposition that the Book uses repeatedly in order to highlight clear and unambiguous contrast: e.g., day and night, heaven and earth, blind and seeing, even and odd, far and near, this world and the Next, Paradise and Hell, knowledge and ignorance, first and last, mortal and immortal, reward and punishment, and so on.

‘To Prescribe’ (al-amr)

The Arabic noun al-amr is derived from the regular verb amara which is polysemous. First, it expresses an order to act. The one who issues the order usually enjoys a higher status than the one to whom the order is directed, as in: ‘They said: “O Shu”aib! Does your prayer command you (ta”umuruk) that we leave off the worship which our fathers practiced”…’ (Hud:87), or ‘God does command you ( ya”umurukum) to render back your trusts to those to whom they are due; and when you judge between man and man, that you judge with justice…’ ( Al-Nisa”:58).

An amir, or military commander, is the one who issues his orders to the officers and soldiers who serve under him. A second meaning for al-amr is matter, business, or affair, as in: ‘It is no business ( al-amr) of yours whether Allah…’ (al Imran:128), or ‘…so pass over (their faults), and ask for (God’s) forgiveness for them; and consult them in affairs (alamr)…’ (al Imran:159). Al-immar is a pejorative term because it refers to a foolish or wicked act, for example: ‘Said Moses: “Have you scuttled it in order to drown those in it? Truly a strange thing (immran) have you done!”’

(Kahf:71). Al-amara means sign or token, and al-imara is the place (that is, an Emirate) where the Emir (Ar. al-amir) rules over his subjects.

Al-amr, in its many derivatives, occurs 248 times in the Book. In its meaning as ‘order’ it can be both prescriptive (‘do it!’) and proscriptive (‘do not do it’), thus containing internally a binary opposition (prescription ↔ proscription) as well as an external opposition, if understood prescriptively (‘do it’): an opposition to the proscriptive term al-nahy (‘do not do it!’). Such binary oppositions structure human conscious behavior. Both terms (prescription and proscription), as a pair of contrast, are dialectically linked to another pair of opposition, that is, obedience and disobedience, because obedience and disobedience need prescription and proscription in order to be meaningful, and need choice and deliberation in order to be legally and theologically relevant. It is obvious that if someone receives an order but does not want to fulfil it, his disobedience will vitiate the order.

If, however, he fulfils the order, he validates the order and expresses his obedience to the one who gives it. Adam and his wife were given the choice to either obey or disobey God’s proscription not to ‘…approach this tree…’ (Baqara:35). Iblis too had the choice and he also decided to disobey when he refused God’s prescription to ‘“…bow down to Adam”: They all bowed down except Iblis. He was one of the Jinns, and he broke the command of his Lord…’ (Kahf:50). We have, however, to acknowledge that there are different categories of orders and that the importance of an order depends on the status, power, and authority of the one who gives it.

Clearly, if Allah is the giver of an order, His orders will have a different authority than orders issued by human beings.

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