Political quietism in Islam

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In the context of political aspects of Islam, the term political quietism has been used for the religiously motivated withdrawal from political affairs, or skepticism that mere mortals can establish true Islamic government. As such it would be the opposite of political Islam, which holds that religion (Islam) and politics are inseparable. It has also been used to describe Muslims who believe that Muslims should support Islamic government, but that it is "forbidden to rebel against a ruler";[1][2] and Muslims who support Islamic government at the right time in the future when, (depending on the sect of Muslim), a consensus of scholars[3] or twelfth imam call for it.[4] The Sunni of Saudi Arabia[5] and Salafi[6][3] are sometimes described as having "quietist" and "radical" wings.[7]


Some analysts have argued that "Islamic political culture promotes political quietism" specially when faced with autocracy or absolute leadership or monarchy or caliphate [8] and cite a "famous Islamic admonition: `Better one hundred years of the Sultan's tyranny than one year of people's tyranny over each other.`"[9] Other scripture providing grounding for quietism in Islam includes the ayat `Obey God, obey his Prophet and obey those among you who hold authority`(Q4:59) [10] and the hadith: `Obey him who holds authority over you, even if he be a mutilated Ethiopian slave`[11][12] Other "commonly cited" but not scriptural sayings among Sunni jurists and theologians that encourage acceptance over resistance include "whose power prevails must be obeyed," and "the world can live with tyranny but not with anarchy".[13]

Saud al-Sarhan in his 'Political Quietism in Islam: Sunni and Shi’i Practice and Thought' states that in medieval times in back drop of power of Muslim empire supremos became absolute and being quiet became virtue of ideal citizens, genre of Nasihat and advice literature started thriving.[14] According to al-Sarhan goal of advice literature then in those times was to help preserve political authority as part of pragmatic quiet activity.[14] al-Sarhan further states that authorships 12th century Persian authorship while epitomizing political activism on one hand very much gave into the divinely sanctioned absolutism of the caliphs on other hand.[14] Strategy through advice literature was subtle expression of political activism calling for equitable and sound governance within four corners of religious diktats while continuation of pragmatic obedience to authority in power.[14]

According to scholar Bernard Lewis, quietism is contrasted with "activist" Islam.

There are in particular two political traditions, one of which might be called quietist, the other activist. The arguments in favour of both are based, as are most early Islamic arguments, on the Holy Book and on the actions and sayings of the Prophet. The quietist tradition obviously rests on the Prophet as sovereign, as judge and statesman. But before the Prophet became a head of state, he was a rebel. Before he traveled from Mecca to Medina, where he became sovereign, he was an opponent of the existing order. He led an opposition against the pagan oligarchy of Mecca and at a certain point went into exile and formed what in modern language might be called a "government in exile," with which finally he was able to return in triumph to his birthplace and establish the Islamic state in Mecca...The Prophet as rebel has provided a sort of paradigm of revolution—opposition and rejection, withdrawal and departure, exile and return. Time and time again movements of opposition in Islamic history tried to repeat this pattern.[15]

Quietism among Salafists[edit]

Contrasting Salafi quietists to the Jihadists of the Islamic State, journalist Graeme Wood notes that while both believe that God’s law is the only law and are "committed" to expanding Dar al-Islam (the land of Islam), Salafi quietists share other quietist Muslims' concern about disunity in the Muslims' community. Wood quotes a Salafi preacher as saying: “The Prophet said: as long as the ruler does not enter into clear kufr [disbelief], give him general obedience,” even if he is a sinner. Classic “books of creed” all warn against causing social upheaval.[3] Wood describes these quietists as believing "Muslims should direct their energies toward perfecting their personal life, including prayer, ritual, and hygiene," rather than jihad and conquest. He compares the "inordinate amount of time" spent on debating issues such as the proper length of trousers and whether beards may be trimmed in some areas, to ultra-Orthodox Jews who "debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as 'rending cloth'?)"[3] Sidney Jones of ICG report that (quietist) Salafism is not political activism and may be more of a barrier to the expansion of jihadist activities than a facilitator.[6]

Scholar Joas Wagemakers describes Salafist Quietists as focusing "on the propagation of their message (da'wah) through lessons, sermons and other missionary activities and stay away from politics and violence, which they leave to the ruler.” [16][17] Another scholar—Quintan Wiktorowicz—uses the term “purist,” to describe Salafists who sound similar (according to Jacob Olidort) to what Wagemakers describes as quietist: “they emphasize a focus on nonviolent methods of propagation, purification and education. They view politics as a diversion that encourages deviancy.”[18]

Scholar Jacob Olidort describes Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999) as "the most prominent quietist Salafist of the last century". His slogan "later in life" was: “the best policy is to stay out of politics.”[19] His students include "Madkhalis" — who are "absolute" in their quietism urging their followers to "observe strict obedience to Muslim rulers and silence on political matters"—but also very un-quietist jihadis.[19] (Olidort argues that Quietist is "an inadequate label to describe the ambitions of Albani and his followers".)[20]

Divisions within Salafist thought[edit]

Modern Salafi movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in the 1920s, co-opted the Sufi tradition of ‘uzla' or retreat from worldly affairs and political quietism as a form of "soft jihad" against fellow Muslims. Sayyid Qutb, a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a highly influential Islamist thinker, was the first to articulate these anathemizing principles in his magnum opus Fī ẓilāl al-Qurʾān (In the shade of the Qurʾān) and his 1966 manifesto Maʿālim fīl-ṭarīq (Milestones), which lead to his execution by the Egyptian government.[21] Other Salafi movements in the Middle East and across the Muslim world adopted many of his principles. According to Qutb, the Muslim community has been "extinct for a few centuries" and reverted to Jahilliyah (the pre-Islamic age of ignorance) because those who call themselves Muslims have failed to follow "the laws of God”. [22] In order to restore Islam, bring back its days of glory, and free the Muslims from the clasps of ignorance, he proposed the shunning of society, establishing a vanguard modeled after the early Muslims, preaching, and bracing oneself for poverty or even death, as preparation for jihad against and overthrow of "Jahilliyah" government/society.[23] Unsurprisingly, this fanatical ideology was denounced by many prominent Muslim scholars as well as other members of the Brotherhood like Yusuf al-Qaradawi because none of the documented discourse on reclusion and quietism or the early Muslim ascetics ever implied any takfir or anathemizing of those whom they were shunning, nor were they doing it to cause rifts and divisions within the umma. The early Muslims practiced and prescribed reclusion and quietism as a form of personal piety and to mitigate harm to their communities. Furthermore, critics have noted that this Qutbist/Salafi-Jihadist approach contradicts the divine command of unity, “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided” (Qur’an 3:103).

Quietism among Sufis[edit]

The ethics of some of Prophet Muhammad's companions, who became paradigms of what can be called an early Sunni isolationism, were later adopted by Muslim ascetical groups, who would be later known as Sufis.[24] However, unlike the early companions, who demarcated reclusion from un-Islamic practices such as monasticism and cleared it from any suggestion of divisiveness, there were those amongst the Sufis who regarded “ascetic seclusion alone as the means of attaining goodness.”[24] In addition, some of the companions interpreted these prophetic and Qur’anic recommendations figuratively. Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (750-869 CE), a Sunni jurist and one of the great early authors of Sufism, discusses a report attributed to the companion and first caliph Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq where the latter defines ‘uzla or retreat in the bodily sense as a synonym for monasticism.[25] Al-Tirmidhi makes a rhetorical body shunning/heart-shunning dichotomy between Christians and Jews, who shunned the world with their bodies, and Muslims, who shunned the world with their hearts in order to conquer their egos.[26] This resulted in a debate within the Sufi movement about what form asceticism should take, with enlightened Sufis arguing in favour of shunning the world with one’s heart, since morality is to be conceived in a social context and the true saint should be the one who participates in the social and economic life of the society.[24] After the death of Prophet Muhammad and the assassinations of the rightly guided caliphs, Sufis deemed attempts at perfecting this world useless and thus “took the Qur’anic concept of tawakkul (reliance on God) and developed it into political quietism.” [24] This meant that they resigned all their affairs to the will of God in the face of an unjust and corrupt world.

Javad Nurbakhsh writing at nimatullahi.org web site states: "In sufi practice, quietism and seclusion – sitting in isolation, occupying oneself day and night in devotions – are condemned." Sufis should have "active professional lives", and be in "service to the creation", i.e. be actively serving in the world giving "generously to aid others". However, in the past some Sufi masters have "retired from mainstream society in order to avoid harassment by mobs incited by hostile clerics who had branded all sufis as unbelievers and heretics." [27]

On the other hand, Inayat Khan published on wahiduddin.net states "Sufism is the ancient school of wisdom, of quietism, and it has been the origin of many cults of a mystical and philosophical nature."[28] Scholar Nikki Keddie also states that traditionally Sufis were "generally noted more for political quietism than for activism found in the sects".[29][30]

Quietism in mainstream Sunni Islam[edit]

Egyptian mufti Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy gave an interview in 1988 arguing (among other things) that the traditional Islamic duty of hisbah (forbidding wrong and commanding right) when administered by "the hand" (instead of by word or silently) in the larger society, was reserved for authorities. Otherwise there would be anarchy, as was the case in Lebanon.[31]

Quietism among Shia[edit]

In Twelver Shia Islam, religious leaders who have been described as "quietist" include;

Their stance is not a strict withdrawal from politics but that "true `Islamic government`" cannot be established until the return of twelfth Imam. Until this time Muslims must "search for the best form of government," advising rulers to ensure that "laws inimical to sharia" are not implemented.[4] However, others (for example, Ali al-Sistani) advise a pluralistic, democratic system of government until the return of the Mahdi. Their “quietism” is justified by the notion that humans are prone to errors or corruption, therefore no mortal human can ever establish a just, Islamic rule on Earth. Therefore, many of them oppose the Iranian “non-quietist” concept of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist.

See also[edit]




  1. ^ Lacroix, Stéphane. "Saudi Arabia's Muslim Brotherhood predicament". Washington Post. Retrieved 20 March 2014. some clerics, like Nasir al-Umar, stuck to pure religious rhetoric, arguing that it is `forbidden to rebel against a Muslim ruler`
  2. ^ Abdul-Wahid, Abu Khadeejah (2019-09-25). "Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamā'ah believe that rebellion against the rulers is forbidden". Abu Khadeejah : أبو خديجة. Retrieved 2020-04-10.
  3. ^ a b c d Wood, Graeme (March 2015). "What ISIS Really Wants". The Atlantic. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  4. ^ a b The New Republic, "The New Democrats" by Abbas Milani, July 15, 2009 (may not be available for free online)
  5. ^ Wagemakers, Joas (2012). "The Enduring Legacy of the Second Saudi State: Quietist and Radical Wahhabi Contestations Ofal-Walāʾ Wa-L-Barāʾ". International Journal of Middle East Studies. 44: 93–110. doi:10.1017/S0020743811001267. Retrieved 14 December 2014. ... the collapse of the second Saudi state (1824–91) and the lessons that both quietist and radical Wahhabi scholars have drawn from that episode.
  6. ^ a b Jones, Sidney (September 2004). "Indonesia Backgrounder: Why Salafism and Terrorism Mostly Don't Mix". International Crisis Group. Archived from the original on 5 January 2016. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  7. ^ "Fighting jihadism: The fatal attraction of IS - Qantara.de". Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World. Retrieved 2020-04-10.
  8. ^ al-Sarhan, Saud (2019-12-26). Political Quietism in Islam: Sunni and Shi'i Practice and Thought. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1-83860-765-4.
  9. ^ Nabli, Mustapha K.; Humphreys, Charles; Banerji, Arup (2003). Better governance for development in the Middle East and North Africa. MENA Report. World Bank Publications. pp. 203–4. ISBN 9780821356357. Retrieved 27 May 2020.
  10. ^ Q4:59, 50+ translations, islamawakened.com
  11. ^ Weinsinck, A. J., Concordance Et Indices De LA Tradition Musulmane: Les Six Livres, Le Musnad D'Al-Darimi, Le Muwatta'De Malik, Le Musnad De Ahmad Ibn Hanbal , vol.1, p.327
  12. ^ Lewis, Islam And The West c1993: p.161
  13. ^ Lewis, Islam And The West c1993: p.164-5
  14. ^ a b c d al-Sarhan, Saud (2019-12-26). Political Quietism in Islam: Sunni and Shi'i Practice and Thought. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1-83860-765-4.
  15. ^ Islamic Revolution By Bernard Lewis, nybooks.com, Volume 34, Number 21 & 22 · January 21, 1988
  16. ^ Joas Wagemakers, “A Terrorist Organization that Never Was: The Jordanian ‘Bay‘at al-Imam’ Group,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 68, No. 1, Winter 2014, 59–75, 64
  17. ^ Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 9.
  18. ^ Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 29, 2006, 207–239, 208.
  19. ^ a b Olidor, Jacob (2015). The Politics of "Quietist" Salafism (PDF). Brookings Institution. p. 4.
  20. ^ Olidor, Jacob (2015). The Politics of "Quietist" Salafism (PDF). Brookings Institution. pp. 4–5.
  21. ^ Gibril Haddad, “Quietism and End-Time Reclusion in the Qurʾān and Hadith: Al-Nābulusī and His Book Takmīl Al-Nuʿūt within the ʿuzla Genre,” Islamic Sciences 15, no. 2 (2017): pp. 108-109)
  22. ^ Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Islamic Book Service, 2018), 11, 19.
  23. ^ Sayyid Qutb, Milestones, 16, 20.
  24. ^ a b c d Hamid, "Ethics of Early Muslim Ascetics", AJISS 2001: p. 101
  25. ^ Al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, Nawādir al-uṣūl fī maʿrifat aḥādīth al-Rasūl, ed. Tawfīq Takla, 2nd ed., 7 vols. (Damascus: Dār al-Nawādir, 1432/2011)
  26. ^ Ibid.
  27. ^ Nurbakhsh, Javad. "Sufism Today". Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  28. ^ Khan, Inayat. "The Spiritual Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan. Volume VIIIa - Sufi Teachings. SUFISM". wahiduddin.net. Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  29. ^ Keddie, Nikki, "Symbol and sincerity in Islam" Studia Islamica 19, 27-63
  30. ^ Black, Antony (2011) [2001]. The History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present. Edinburgh University Press. p. 134. ISBN 9780748688784. Retrieved 11 October 2016.
  31. ^ Cook, Michael (2003). Forbidding Wrong in Islam, an Introduction. Cambridge University Press. p. 119.