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Forbidding Wrong in Islam: An Introduction by Michael Cook (review)

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 6, Number 4, Autumn 2013
pp. 492-499 | 10.1353/isl.2013.0035

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Forbidding Wrong in Islam by M. Cook is a comparative survey of Muslim scholars’ views on a major moral concept in the Muslim faith, with the last two chapters extending this survey beyond Islam to include other religious traditions and Western culture, respectively. A condensed version of his larger monograph titled Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought, the work under review consists of thirteen chapters and is arranged thematically in contrast to the larger work, which is arranged according to the views of Muslim sects on the topic. Although this work is meant for non-specialists, the author makes the helpful suggestion that the condensed version suffices for the larger monograph since everything of significance is covered in the condensed version, save if a reader wishes to concentrate on the formulations of a specific school, in which case the larger work would prove more useful.

The author states that the purpose of the book is to make the analyses of Muslim scholars on the obligatory duty of commanding right and forbidding wrong available in English, and in a concise and readable form. Considering that the larger monograph – which was the result of a decade and a half of research – is comprised of seven hundred pages, several thousand footnotes, and over fifty pages devoted to the bibliography, the work under review – which does not exceed two hundred pages – is certainly concise and readable. The plentiful use of colourful anecdotes to help explain concepts and to serve as examples throughout the text further augments the readability of the work as well as makes it very interesting.

The first chapter briefly discusses three preliminary matters, these being: (i) the various terms used by Muslim scholars to refer to this duty, which brings to light a couple of additional terms by which this duty was referred to, these being taghyir al-munkar (righting wrong) and al-hisbah, in addition to the well-known phrase by which it is popularly known, which is al-amr bi al-ma‘ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al-munkar, (ii) the sectarian political, legal and theological affiliations of the scholars whose writings are drawn from in this study; and finally (iii) the main types of works in which this duty is discussed. In this chapter the author draws the reader’s attention to an interesting observation found in early exegeses on the Qur’an (since the well-known phrase by which this duty is known is Qur’anic) where its scope is severely restricted to merely affirming monotheism and prophethood, and forbidding polytheism and the denial of prophethood. This is in contrast to the extensive scope this duty enjoys in discussions in later centuries!

The second chapter then discusses four questions regarding this duty, and the various complexities that each raises as well as the perspectives in light of which these questions are approached, discussed, debated, and understood by Muslim scholars belonging to various sects. These questions are: (i) who needs to forbid wrong; (ii) to whom it needs to be done; (iii) what needs to be forbidden; and finally (iv) why wrongs need to be forbidden.

The third chapter goes on to discuss the question of ‘how to forbid wrong’ and this is done in light of a famous Prophetic report, frequently cited by scholars. Known as the ‘three modes tradition’, it teaches that forbidding wrong begins with the hand, then the tongue, and finally with the heart. The author considers the de-escalatory approach to forbidding wrong in this tradition peculiar, writing that common-sense would dictate an escalatory approach as gentler means proved futile, and notes that despite the de-escalatory approach suggested in the Prophetic tradition, Muslim scholars regularly think of this question in an escalatory approach with the Imamis particularly concerned with explaining and attempting a reconciliation between the two opposing approaches. He himself adopts an escalatory approach in order to discuss the three modes, beginning with the ‘tongue’, which he deems to be a natural instrument with which to start forbidding wrong, as evidenced also by a study of the accounts of the practice of this duty among Muslims that appears in a later chapter, and then proceeds to the ‘hand...

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