Who are the people called ulul-amr? How should obedience to ulul-amr be?

The Details of the Question

Who are the people called ulul-amr? How should obedience to ulul-amr be?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

“O ye who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if ye do believe in Allah and the Last Day: That is best, and most suitable for final determination.”(an-Nisa, 4/59)

“But no, by the Lord, they can have no (real) Faith, until they make thee judge in all disputes between them, and find in their souls no resistance against Thy decisions, but accept them with the fullest conviction.” (an-Nisa, 4/65)

“All who obey Allah and the apostle are in the company of those on whom is the Grace of Allah,- of the prophets (who teach), the sincere (lovers of Truth), the witnesses (who testify), and the Righteous (who do good): Ah! What a beautiful fellowship! Such is the bounty from Allah. And sufficient is it that Allah knoweth all.” (an-Nisa, 4/69, 70)

The main topic of the verses above is obedience. Obedience, which means “to obey, to surrender, to fulfill an order” is one of the basic concepts and institutions that establish the Islamic life system with social, political, legal and ethical dimensions. From this point of view, obedience is used after the concepts of trust and justice, which are of the same nature; and the verses mentioning the consequences that those who do not obey orders will face like “munafiqs (hypocrites) and fasiqs (sinners)” in the world and the hereafter are also included.

Obedience to Allah means “to obey His orders and wills in the Quran and the words and deeds of His messenger expressing His message”. Obedience to the Messenger of Allah is, first of all, acting in compliance with the Quran and Sunnah, which he conveyed to us. However, the conjunction “and” is not regarded as sufficient here and the order “obey” is also repeated for “the Messenger of Allah”, which shows that obedience is beyond acting in compliance with the message of the revelation, which is the Quran, and that obedience includes all of his deeds serving as a model and fulfilling all orders. The Companions fulfilled all of the orders and wishes of the Messenger of Allah with the consciousness of “obedience to him is a religious duty” except “his orders that he said were not religious or binding or his orders that they understood to be so”; when they did so, they based their deeds on the verses and hadiths about obedience, the purpose of the Messenger of Allah being sent, the duties given to him and the verses and hadiths that mentioned him as a model.

The phrase “and ulul-amr...” (those charged with authority) is used without repeating the order“obey”, which indicates that they are not like Allah and His Messenger in terms of the obligation of obedience and that they cannot be obeyed unless their orders are legitimate (in compliance with the instruction of Allah). The following hadiths explain this rule clearly: “It is not permissible to obey to anyone if the order is not in compliance with the order of Allah.” “Only legitimate orders are obeyed.” “The order which is regarded as disobedience to Allah is not obeyed.”

Once, the Prophet gave a team a military duty and appointed Abdullah bin Hudhafa as the commander of the team. Abdullah got very angry for some reason during this duty and ordered his soldiers to collect wood, make a fire and enter the fire. The soldiers who received this order hesitated. Some of them wanted to enter the fire saying,“it is necessary to obey the commander (ulul-amr)” while others prevented them saying,“the obedience depends on whether the order is legitimate or not” adding, “We joined the Prophet by escaping from fire.” While they were discussing like that, the fire went out. When the returned, they informed the Messenger of Allah about it. He said,“If they had entered the fire, they would not have been saved from it until the Day of Judgment. Obedience is due when the order is legitimate.”

Ulul-amr means "the owners of command/order, those who have the authority to give orders and those who are in this position, chiefs". There are various understandings and narrations about who they are as follows: "the president, the administrators and commanders whom the president or the community authorized" and "scholars". Since the phrase in the verse is “...obey those charged with authority among you”, it is understood that they are certain people and owners of authority, that they are chosen or appointed from among Muslims (believers) and that it is Allah's command and requirement of the religion to obey them related to their legitimate commands.

The religion of Islam wants the people who have some properties and attributes both in public life and in private life to be obeyed and their commands to be fulfilled. These people are the president, the head of the family, the commander, the parents, and the scholars compared to those who do not know; and all of them are included in the concept of ulul-amr. The ulul-amr in public life is determined by election and by the allegiance of the ummah like the caliph - the high-ranking officers appointed by the caliph also become ulul-amr indirectly determined by the ummah - they attain this authority due to their superior qualities. These superior qualities are "Islam, knowledge (ilm) and justice".

Those who do not know are obliged to consult the people who are Muslims, who are just, who have high ethics and who are scholars, ask fatwa from them and act in accordance with the answers they receive. The administrators are also obliged to ask those who know - about the issues that they do not know. From this point of view, the ulul-amr in the first place is "the scholars" and the ulul-amr in the second place is "the administrators, chiefs and commanders".

Differing in (disagreeing about) something

“Differing in (disagreeing about) something” cannot take place between Allah and His believers, nor between the Messenger of Allah and his ummah.

Then, the ummah (administrators, subjects of the state, scholars, those who ask, etc.) remains; when there is a disagreement among the ummah in this context, the issue needs to be taken to Allah and His Messenger.

The only authority in this disagreement between the subjects of the state and ulul-amr is Allah and His Messenger because ulul-amr is also a party of the disagreement; that is, the institutions that will produce solutions in the light of the main resources of religion - as it will be explained shortly afterwards.

If ulul-amr is not one of the parties of the disagreement, it is natural for him to step in based on the adopted administrative style and within the framework of his authority to settle the issue; however, ulul-amr is not independent of Allah and His Messenger in his deeds.

Taking the issue to Allah necessitates referring to the Quran and taking it to the Messenger necessitates referring to the Sunnah.

If there are solutions and decrees about the disagreement in these two resources, it is binding for the whole ummah and the disagreement is settled by acting accordingly.

The solution in these two resources is not always directly relevant to the issue. Not all of the solutions to all the disputes that will arise until the Doomsday are found in the Book and Sunnah in detail. However, there are principles, signs, indications, examples and precedents that shed light on the solution of all disputes. Finding solutions and making judgments by making use of them is called ijtihad. Ijtihad is the name of the method and effort of solving unknown things, ambiguous issues and disputes by referring to the Book and the Sunnah; it was taught to the Companions by the Messenger of Allah and later generations wrote its method by taking it from them, used and improved it.

"The sentence structure in the form of “if you differ in anything among yourselves...” in the verse expresses generality.

Accordingly, anything that is disputable in the life of the believers will be solved by the Quran and the Sunnah, in other words, the solution will be sought by referring to these two resources. Only Allah is both the judge (hakim) and the deity (the one who is worshipped). If these attributes and authorities that belong to Allah are accepted for another authority or person in the same sense, it is polytheism and the name of this authority and person in the Quran is taghut (transgressor) as it is mentioned in verse 60 of an-Nisa.

Once, there was a disagreement between Zubayr b. Awwam and his neighbor of the garden due to water. They applied to the Prophet (pbuh). The Prophet said, "O Zubayr! After you water your garden, let the water so that your neighbor will water his garden." The neighbor implied that the Prophet (pbuh) took sides for Zubayr. (He probably thought this decree was for reconciliation, not a decree of the religion.) Thereupon, the Prophet was not pleased with the attitude of the complainant and told Zubayr to use his normal right.

Accordingly, true believers must have two basic qualities:

a) When a disagreement occurs, to appoint the Messenger of Allah as the judge and apply to him for the decree.

b) When the Prophet (pbuh) has made a judgment, to admit it, to believe that it is just and not to try to oppose. To apply to the Messenger of Allah for his decree, which means the decree of the religion of Allah and to adopt it heartily is a sign of belief; however, it is not a sign of unbelief or hypocrisy to feel sorry upon hearing a decree that is not in accordance with one’s interest and that is not what one expects as long as he believes that the decree is just and fair.

According to what Shawkani reported from the hadith scholars like Tabarani and Ziya al-Maqdisi, a Companion came to the Messenger of Allah and expressed his concern, which made the world a narrow place for him as follows:

“O Messenger of Allah! I love you more than my own soul and my children. I remember you at home and come to see you at once and look at your face because I cannot put up with your longing. I thought about your death and my death. I have realized that when you die and enter Paradise, you will be in high ranks peculiar to prophets. I am worried that I will not be able to see you in Paradise.”

Before Hz. Prophet answered him, Jibril arrived and revealed that verse stating with whom those who obey Allah and His Messenger will be in Paradise:

“All who obey Allah and the apostle are in the company of those on whom is the Grace of Allah,- of the prophets (who teach), the sincere (lovers of Truth), the witnesses (who testify), and the Righteous (who do good): Ah! what a beautiful fellowship!” (An-Nisa, 4/69)


Hayrettin Karaman (Prof. Dr.)

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