The Death of the Muhtasib: Commanding Good and Forbidding Evil in Modernity

Some mistakenly believe that commanding good and forbidding evil in Islam, i.e., al-‘amr bi-l-ma`ruf wa-l-nahi `an al-munkar (i.e., hisbah) can only be undertaken and enforced by state authorities. This view that the muhtasib (i.e., the one who commands good and forbids evil) could only be a state authorized agent is thoroughly disproven by explicit statements of many classical scholars including Ibn Taymiyya, al-Ghazali, Nawawi, and others.

But also, this view fundamentally misconstrues the nature of Islamic societies prior to the rise of modern nation-states. In context of modern nation-states, virtually all moral authority is vested in state institutions which make and enforce norms. But prior to the rise of centralized bureaucratic states, with their vast surveillance powers and muscular police forces, moral enforcement was spread across numerous parties: the religious scholars, their students, tribal chiefs, notable community figures, and the community itself.

All these individuals as well as the community as a whole took an active role in enforcing good and forbidding evil in different contexts. The very concept of al-ma`ruf, literally “the commonly known,” implies that everyone in the Islamic community theoretically should know what is good and right and should command it and is responsible for enforcing it within his spheres of authority and abiding by it. No specialized knowledge or ijtihad is needed. In fact, Imam Ghazali and others explicitly mention that ihtisab should not involve ijtihad on the part of the muhtasib. If ijtihad were required, the purported good would simply not be ma`ruf, in which case it would not be reasonable to expect people to know it and abide by it.

In contrast, the view that, in Muslim history, only state authorities or agents acting on behalf of a centralized government could enforce Islamic norms is a thoroughly modern notion and is simply false. In modern nation-states, centralized bureaucratic institutions legislate and police and judiciary institutions enforce legislation. But to think that these modern institutions organized and structured premodern societies in analogous ways is grossly anachronistic.

So what does this mean for the role of the muhtasib today?

To claim that wherever there is no legitimate Islamic state authority, there can be no ihtisab and hence no enforcement of Islamic norms belies a deep ignorance of the basics of the Islamic sciences.

To see this, consider the well-known hadith:

أَلاَ كُلُّكُمْ رَاعٍ وَكُلُّكُمْ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ فَالأَمِيرُ الَّذِي عَلَى النَّاسِ رَاعٍ وَهُوَ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ وَالرَّجُلُ رَاعٍ عَلَى أَهْلِ بَيْتِهِ وَهُوَ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْهُمْ وَالْمَرْأَةُ رَاعِيَةٌ عَلَى بَيْتِ بَعْلِهَا وَوَلَدِهِ وَهِيَ مَسْئُولَةٌ عَنْهُمْ وَالْعَبْدُ رَاعٍ عَلَى مَالِ سَيِّدِهِ وَهُوَ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْهُ أَلاَ فَكُلُّكُمْ رَاعٍ وَكُلُّكُمْ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ

“Beware. every one of you is a shepherd and every one is answerable with regard to his flock. The amir is a shepherd over the people and shall be questioned about them. A man is a guardian over the members of his family and shall be questioned about them. A woman is a guardian over the household of her husband and his children and shall be questioned about them. A slave is a guardian over the property of his master and shall be questioned about it. Beware, every one of you is a guardian and every one of you shall be questioned with regard to his trust.”

Imam Muslim tellingly includes this hadith in Kitab al-Imarah as do Abu Dawud and others.

The understanding was, of course, that the husband commands good and forbids evil for his family. He is al-muhtasib in that sense. The mother similarly. The slave similarly. The Prophet ﷺ draws a parallel between all these roles and that of the amir.

Now who today would say that the father is not responsible for al-‘amr bi-l-ma`ruf wa-l-nahi `an al-munkar for his family? How can he be the wali for his wife and children without that authority, without the ability to enforce? Without such authority, without being muhtasib, the father is nothing but a roommate or worse. (Of course, this is the kind of fatherhood modernists and feminists desire — the emasculated, powerless man.)

And who would say that the mother is not responsible for al-‘amr bi-l-ma`ruf wa-l-nahi `an al-munkar for her children? Does she not have the right, nay, the duty to discipline her children and command them to do good and abstain from wrong? Without such authority, the mother is nothing but a housekeeper. (Of course, this is the kind of motherhood modernists and feminists desire — the feckless mother who reserves her power and energy first and foremost for her career, i.e., corporate entities.)

Now, does being a muhtasib mean one is a harsh tyrant? No, of course not. Just like a wise teacher knows when to be strict and when to be lenient, the muhtasib also acts with wisdom and care. Yet, he remains an authority who enforces norms of behavior within his sphere of authority. And this kind of enforcement can be meted by various means. The famous hadith mentions changing things with one’s hand, tongue, or heart. Similarly, the muhtasib uses different means to coerce the right outcome (uh oh, hopefully the word “coerce” didn’t trigger anyone). And all that is his Islamic duty.

Another common objection raised in these discussions: Can an authority figure, e.g., father, mother, teacher, etc., commit injustice and abuse power? Yes, of course. But that does not invalidate the fact that fathers, mothers, teachers, etc., should have the ability to enforce norms. Even in context of the nation-state, police authorities and lawmakers very often abuse their power and act unjustly. No one claims that this means that the police and legislative bodies should be abolished or that they should be stripped of their authority!

Again, I am not denying that hisbah in general has important conditions and requirements. Some of these requirements are common sense. For example, one cannot do ihtisab where one has no authority. This cannot be emphasized enough. A Muslim off the street cannot walk through a grocery store and start destroying wine bottles, for example. But that does not take anything away from the fact that such a Muslim must act with wisdom and forbearance in being a muhtasib in his own spheres of influence.

It is the distinct lack of ihtisab that has been the source of so many problems in our world today. We need to do our part to revive it.


To read more on this subject, I recommend:

The Impossible State by Wael Hallaq

Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought by Michael Cook


This post is in reference to this Facebook status:

Hisbah, i.e., commanding good and forbidding evil, has important conditions, but having an ijazah or being an `alim is…

Posted by Daniel Haqiqatjou on Monday, October 30, 2017

MuslimSkeptic Needs Your Support!
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Muslim Theist

Great post Daniel. I’d add one more thing – that the hisaab begins with the self before any other person. Amr bil ma’roof and nahee ‘an al-munkar must be done towards the self more sternly than with another. If you are not taking yourself into account regularly, you will fall into hypocrisy while calling others out. (That being said, hypocrisy is preferred over public sin, so even private sinners should speak against that same sin that they do being done in public.)

The Holy Prophet (S) said to Abu Dharr:

فى وصية ابى ذر قال النبى صلى الله عليه وآله: على العاقل ان يكون له ساعات: ساعة يناجى فيها ربه وساعة يحاسب فيها نفسه وساعة يتفكر فيما صنع الله عز وجل اليه.
“Upon the person of intellect is to reserve certain times: an hour in which he privately calls upon his Lord, an hour for auditing his soul (yuhasibu nafsah lit. he calls his soul into account), and an hour for reflecting upon what Allah ‘aza wa jal has planned for him.”

Unfortunately in today’s world we are content with the excuses we tell ourselves, but are unforgivingly harsh with others.

Anonymous Muslim

Jazakum Allah Khayran for this blog post on this very important concept!

One comment: The Impossible State by Wael B. Hallaq is indeed a very important work and everyone will benefit greatly from it, but Michael Cook’s book has some deficient points that one should be aware of as explained in this review by al-Durar al-Sunniyah: Part 1: Part 2:

Mohammed Moustafa

As Salaam Alakum

Dear Daniel,

Are you aware of any translations of Al-Ghazali’s tract on commanding right and forbidding wrong in English as well as any other exceptional resources by Muslim scholars detailing this duty in English?