This returns to the issue of enjoining the good and forbidding evil, which is a communal obligation (fard kifaya) and an essential duty in Islam. Based on the criteria outlined below, if the conditions of enjoining the good and forbidding evil are met, one must do so. Otherwise, one can be vague so as to avoid disputation of no benefit.
The Obligation and Importance
Allah Most High states, “And let there be amongst you a group inviting to virtue, commanding the good and forbidding evil—those indeed are the successful ones” (3:104).
And our Master Hudhayfa (Allah be pleased with him) relates that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “By the One in Whose hand is my soul, you must certainly command the good and forbid evil, or else a punishment from Him would soon be sent upon you, after which you would call upon Him yet your supplication (dua) would not be answered.” [Tirmidhi]
Other narrations state that the punishment for abandoning this obligation is sweeping and general, afflicting both the righteous and the corrupt. Ibn Allan comments that the punishment can manifest as “the tyranny of leaders, the dominion of enemies, and other forms of tribulation.” [Dalil al-Falihin Sharh Riyad al-Salihin]
Ya Latif – how unfortunately accurate for our times! And the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) swore by Allah when conveying this, and said that supplication itself is unanswered until the community returns to enjoining the good.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) also described that when the people of knowledge in previous communities stopped condemning the evils of their societies and kept on socializing with evildoers despite the wrongs, Allah turned the hearts of the community against one another and cursed them upon the tongue of their prophets (peace and blessings be upon them). [Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi]
And to get annoyed when corrected is itself a major sin. Our Master Ibn Masud (Allah be pleased with him) said, “Verily among the greatest of sins in the sight of Allah is for a person to be told, ‘Fear Allah,’ to which he responds, ‘Mind your own business!’” [Sunan Nasa’i]
Conditions of Incumbency
While it is a communal obligation, commanding the good and forbidding evil is incumbent only if the following conditions are met:
(1) Sound knowledge and understanding of the issue one is exhorting to. Scholars mention that anyone who takes up this obligation must know the different schools of thought on the issue at hand, such that his enjoining and forbidding only takes place with evils that are evil by scholarly consensus. This relates to clear matters that are generally known by the Muslims.
With respect to matters on which there is scholarly disagreement, although they cannot be forbidden per se, one can still offer counsel and advice (nasiha), which is often needed as certain positions are not appropriate or applicable in all circumstances.
(2) Gentleness and wisdom in one’s enjoining or forbidding. The sunna is to exhort in a manner that is general and discreet, so as to protect the feelings of the other party as much as possible. My teacher, for example, told me that if I am ever in a situation where someone else falls into backbiting, I should simply say, “Allah has prohibited us from backbiting.”
If, however, one crosses the limits or is excessive in their condemnation, the good they perform is less than their own evil.
(3) Clemency and steadfastness in the face of any difficulty one may encounter.
(4) That one feels reasonably sure that the other party will take heed and listen. That is, a condition of incumbency is that benefit is likely or expected. This condition (reasonable surety of benefit) is the opinion of Imam Bajuri, Imam Qarafi, Imam Haskafi, Allama Ibn Abidin and others.
Otherwise if one does not think they will listen, enjoining the good is recommended if there is a chance of benefit yet one is unsure. If benefit is unlikely, enjoining the good is permissible yet possibly disliked. And if one is certain that there would be no benefit, enjoining the good could be impermissible, as it might entail frivolous and useless speech and might worsen the situation (see condition 5 below).
The upshot is that one must consider the likely benefit of one’s exhortation, and if benefit is unlikely, then silence might prove more beneficial. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say the good or remain silent.” [Bukhari and Muslim]
If one does not enjoin the good or forbid evil, then one must try to change the subject so as to end the unlawful talk; if this is not possible, one must get up and leave.
(5) That one’s advice not lead to greater harm or worsen the situation, such as leading to more sin, more unlawful talk, or the other party’s outright disdain for the religion. In such cases it would be better — or at times obligatory — to remain silent, so as to choose the less harmful of two matters. Of course, one must still hate the wrong in one’s heart.
(6) Sound intention, which is to desire nothing except that the word of Allah Most High reign supreme. This is essential and often neglected, as many people exhort others in religious matters for the sake of their own egos or out of animosity towards the other party.
One’s motivation to correct others should also be out of sincere love and care for one’s brethren. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us that the basis of the entire religion is sincere and genuine concern for others (al-Din al-nasiha), and he also said, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” [Bukhari, Muslim]
In fact, in his renowned hadith collection Riyad al-Salihin, Imam Nawawi placed the chapter on “Enjoining the Good and Forbidding Evil” immediately after the chapter on “Sincere and Genuine Concern”.
As Imam Nahlawi states, “To conclude, there is a major catastrophe that one must be careful to avoid, namely: for the person of knowledge, when enjoining something, to perceive his own dignity due to his knowledge, and the other’s lowliness due to their ignorance. If this is one’s motivation, then this evil is itself much more vile than the evil he is forbidding. Truly, no one is safe from the plotting of Satan except one to whom Allah shows his own faults, and whose insight Allah opens by the light of true guidance.”
[Nahlawi, Durar Mubaha; Khadimi, Nabulsi/Birgivi, Shuruh al-Tariqa al-Muhammadiyya; Bajuri, Tuhfat al-Murid Sharh Jawharat al-Tawhid; Ibn Abidin/Haskafi, Radd al-Muhtar ala Durr al-Mukhtar]
And Allah knows best.