This concise work, called Kitaab al-Amr bi’l-Ma`ruuf wa Nahyi `An al-Munkar (the Book of Commanding the Good and Forbidding Evil) was composed by the Islamic reformer of the 12th century hijra, Uthman ibn Muhammad ibn Uthman ibn Saalih, known as Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio. For a detailed history of the Shehu, I advise the reader to see the introduction to my commentary upon the Sawq al-Umma of the Shehu, which I named Tawq al-Lama wa Itmaam an-Ni`ama from the www.siiasi.org digital archive.
For our purposes here, the time in which the Shehu composed this text was around the year 1795 C.E. (1210 A.H.) at the age of forty-one. This was during the reign of Ya`qubu Dan Babari over the Hausa Gobir kingdom, when the Shehu was still residing in Degel. It was an auspicious period for the Shehu and his jamaat, because he had been given authorization by the previous ruler, Bawa Dan Gwazo in 1788 C.E. to call its people to Islam and to establish social reform. The social contract (mu`ahida) stipulated that:  allowance to call the people Allah;  not prevent anyone from answering the call of Islam;  social respect to everyone who Muslim attire;  the freeing of all political prisoners; and  to removal of all unjust taxes from your subjects. It was under this social contract, for more than twenty years, the Shehu was able to develope a network of students which stretched across the central Bilad as-Sudan, from as far as Djenne in present day Mali and Kutum in the lands of Dar Fur in present day Sudan.
By the year 1795 C.E., the Jamaat of the Shehu had morphed into a well-organized clerical network which resembled a ‘government’ within the seven prevailing Hausa states responsible for educating the people and bringing about social reform in these societies. Social reform (tajdeed) in Islam falls under the duty of ‘commanding good and forbidding evil’ (amr bi’l-ma`ruuf nahy `an’l-munkar). And it was for this reason the Shehu composed the text in order to instruct and guide his Jamaat in how to go about the responsibility of reforming society.
In his Ihya as-Sunna wa Ikhmad al-Bid`a, the Shehu said: “Most of the people are ignorant of the shari`a. Thus, it is incumbent that there be in every mosque and quarter in the town, a jurist (faqih) teaching the people their deen. Likewise in every village it is incumbent for every faqih who has completed his individual obligations (fard `ain) and is now devoted to the study of his collective obligations (fard kifaya) that he go out to the people neighboring on his town in order to teach them their deen and the obligations of their shari`a.” As result, the Shehu sent out missionaries throughout Hausaland and the surrounding regions to teach the people the obligations and prohibitions of the religion of Islam.
He composed the Kitaab al-Amr bi’l-Ma`ruuf wa Nahyi `An al-Munkar (the Book of Commanding the Good and Forbidding Evil) as a manual for those missionaries to stay within the bounds of teaching and instructing with kindness and to avoid harshness and force. The text was informed from Shaykh Muhammad ibn Yusef as-Sanusi’s commentary upon the al-Wusta in which the Shehu opens with almost the same wording where he said: “Commanding the good and forbidding evil are two obligations made so by the Book, the Sunna and the consensus (ijma`).”
The Shehu cited Qur’anic verses, sound prophetic traditions and the opinions of Sunni scholars from the first century of Islam until his time, demonstrating that commanding the good and forbidding evil were both individual and collective obligations upon the Umma of Muhammad, may Allah bless him and grant him peace.
The Shehu said: “Muslims in the first age and after that have always advocated commanding good and forbidding evil and have condemned the neglecting of that. More than one among the scholars of the Sunna have written specifically about this.” To corroborate this, the Shehu cited scholars from first century of Islam, such as Ibrahim ibn Yazid an-Nakhai` [d. 96 A.H.]; Imam Sahnun [240 A.H.] of the second century of Islam; Shaykh Ibn al-Hindi [d. 399 A.H.] of the third century of Islam; Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni [d. 478 A.H.] of the fourth century of Islam; Shaykh Abd’l-Haqq ibn Abd’r-Rahman al-Azidi [d. 581 A.H.] of the fifth century of Islam; Shaykh `Izz’d-Deen ibn Abd’s-Salaam [d. 660 A.H.] of the sixth century of Islam; Shaykh Ibn al-Hajj [d. 737 A.H.] of the seventh century of Islam; both Shaykh Muhammad ibn Yusef as-Sanusi [d. 895 A.H.] and Shaykh Ahmad Zarruq [d. 899 A.H.] of the eighth century of Islam; Shaykh Abd’l-Wahaab as-Sha`raani [d. 973 A.H.] of the ninth century of Islam; Shaykh al-Hassan ibn al-Mas`ud al-Yusi [d. 1102] of the tenth century of Islam; and Shaykh Shihab’d-Deen Ahmad an-Nafrawi [d. 1126] of the eleventh century of Islam.
All of these scholars from the first centuries of Islam until the time of the Shehu upheld the view that commanding the good and forbidding evil were two distinct obligations upon every Muslim who possessed knowledge of the obligations and prohibitions. The Shehu defined “commanding the good” as commanding or ordering what is obligatory (waajib); and “forbidding evil” as forbidding or prohibiting what is forbidden (haraam).
The Shehu asserted that commanding the good and forbidding evil were obligations incumbent upon the common Muslim as well as the scholars, in those matters of the religion that were well known to everyone, such as the obligations of prayer, alms, and fasting; and the prohibitions of consuming intoxicants, illicit sex, injustice and abandoning the obligations.
The Shehu clarified that commanding the good and forbidding evil were not specific responsibilities of the government, nor were they depended upon the appearance of the Awaited Imam al-Mahdi, as some of the shi`a claim. However, in those matters of the religion which require ijtihad (independent judgment), that there is no way for the common people to command or forbid. This is the same in those matters of the religion about which the scholars of Islam differ, there is no way to command one juristic opinion over another or to forbid one juristic opinion over another.
The social contract which the Shehu was given by the Gobir government in 1788 C.E. gave his jamaat some limited power to command the good and forbid evil. The success of the Shehu and his Jamaat in reforming the Central Bilad as-Sudan was so positive that a famous Hausa song illustrating the success of the Jamaat commanding good and forbidding evil became widespread:
“Verily a cloud has settled on Allah’s earth
A cloud so dense that escape from it is impossible.
Everywhere between Kordofan and Gobir
And the cities of the Kindin (Tuareg)
Are the settlements of the dogs of the Fulani
Worshipping Allah in all their dwelling places
In reforming all districts and provinces
Ready for the future bliss
So in this year of 1214 they are following their beneficent theories
As though it were time to set the world in order by preaching.”
The Shehu clearly stipulated that commanding the good and forbidding evil could in certain circumstances lead to conflict and social strife. In such conditions the scholars asserted that in Islamic societies it was better to remain silent if speaking out would likely lead to warfare. However, in societies that are non-Muslim, the scholars asserted that it is better to command the good and forbid evil, even if it results in being punished, sanctioned, or killed. This last point is significant because it was exactly this challenge which the Shehu and his Jamaat encountered in 1798, just two years after composing the Kitaab al-Amr bi’l-Ma`ruuf wa Nahyi `An al-Munkar. The ruler of Gobir at that time, Ya`qubu Dan Babari, who acknowledged and maintained the social contract (mu`ahida) which was arranged for the Shehu and his Jamaat, died. In his place ruled his brother, Nafata Dan Babari, who immediately repealed all the resolutions of the social contract between the Gobir kingdom and the Shehu’s community. They were afraid of the growth and popularity of the Shehu’s community and feared that the Muslims would eventually win over the hearts of the subjects.
Sultan Muhammad Bello, explains in his Infaq al-Maysur: “When those after them conceived that the Shehu would not cease his mission, that he increased daily in distinction and discretion and the common people continued to enter the deen of Allah in large numbers – the rulers began to fear him regarding their own affairs. This was because their affairs were diametrically opposed to what the Shehu was trying to implement in most issues. Indeed their authority was contrary to the rules of the shari`a. This is because they only took from their worship what was necessary to clean up their act and conceal their misdeeds. They performed the outer form of the prayer, fasting and zakat and even pronounced the words of the shahadatayn, but without adhering to the prerequisites of what they had testified to. The system of rule, which they implemented, was a system they had accumulated from their ancestors who openly pronounced Islam but did not act on it themselves. The majority of their governmental authority conflicted with the Book, the Sunna and the consensus of the Muslim community as is well known. In addition to this they were deceived by ideas and actions, which only emerged from those who disbelieve. So of course, the manifestation of the deen and the establishment of the shari`a was not in keeping with their aims and objectives. For this reason they mustered their schemes in order to instigate war between them and the Shehu and his jama`at. They were convinced that the government belonged to them since they saw that the supporters of the Shehu were too oppressed to fight them. After deliberation they all agreed to penalize the disciples of the Shehu who invited others to Allah by preventing them from giving sermons. The rulers ordered everyone to return back to the pagan religion of his father and grandfather. Nothing frightened us except the sanctions of the ruler of Gobir, Nafata, which amounted to three:  no one was to preach to the people except the Shehu;  no one was to adhere to the religion of Islam except those who had inherited the religion from their fathers. Those who did inherit Islam were to return to the religion of their fathers and grandfathers. And  no one was to wear the turban and women were forbidden from covering their breast with their head wraps. These sanctions were posted in all the markets places. These were a part of the steps which the ruler took in punishing us.”
Thus, the commanding of good and forbidding evil always leads to an encounter with government powers. The ability to command the good and forbid evil can never be truly accomplished without autonomy, self-determination and lawful sovereign authority. It is for this reason the Shehu ends his Kitaab al-Amr bi’l-Ma`ruuf wa Nahyi `An al-Munkar with the following words from Shaykh as-Sanusi which could only be a political forecast for the government he was yet to establish: “Being that having the power to establish the good, commanding it, giving assistance to the truth, giving assistance to its people, eradicating falsehood, and holding to the truth in a complete manner; completely depends upon the appointing of an Imam of the Muslims, who is Muslim, sane, male, holding firmly to uprightness, efficient of opinion, firmly established in tenacity and courage, described with strength of knowledge in the foundations of the religion and its branches, not budging during controversial dilemmas and not being astonished when matters are extremely dark; it is then obligatory by Divine law upon the Muslims to put forward one who has these attributes, or someone who has as much of the attributes as possible; and to avoid appointing anyone who is devoid of these attributes.”
It was in 1803 C.E., some eight years after composing the Kitaab al-Amr bi’l-Ma`ruuf wa Nahyi `An al-Munkar (the Book of Commanding the Good and Forbidding Evil) that the Shehu and his Jamaat did just that. They made the hijra from under the political jurisdiction of the Gobir kingdom, and then appointed Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio as the Amir al-Mu’mineen of what became the Sokoto Caliphate; where they were able to complete the dispensation of commanding the good and forbidding evil by establishing a Dome of Islam in the central Bilad as-Sudan.
Shaykh Muhammad Shareef bin Farid
Friday, 17th Rabi`a Thani, 1444 [11/11/2022]