‘To enjoin good and forbid evil’ – A phrase most Muslims are familiar with and the banner under which any ‘haraam’ police* operate. But, despite it being such a widespread belief and saying, do we really understand what it means?
We know it is mentioned in the Qur’an as a characteristic of the believers and so, something we should all work for. One example is Surah At-Tawba (verse 71):
وَالْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتُ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَاء بَعْضٍ يَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلاَةَ وَيُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَاةَ وَيُطِيعُونَ اللّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ أُوْلَـئِكَ سَيَرْحَمُهُمُ اللّهُ إِنَّ اللّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
AND [as for] the believers, both men and women, they are the supporters of one another – They enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and are constant in prayer, and pay zakah and obey God and His Apostle. It is they upon whom God will bestow His mercy. Verily, God is Almighty, Wise!
I have highlighted the specific words in Arabic. They are nearly always translated as they have been above – that ‘they enjoin that which is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong’.
However, if we look at the actual Arabic instead of the translations most ‘scholars’ propagate, the word ‘ma’roof’ means ‘known’ and ‘munkar’ is its opposite – ‘unknown/strange’.
There is evidence of this in the Qur’an and for the sake of brevity, I will give you just a couple of examples:
إِذْ دَخَلُوا عَلَيْهِ فَقَالُوا سَلَامًا قَالَ سَلَامٌ قَوْمٌ مُّنكَرُونَ
When those [heavenly messengers] came unto him and bade him peace, he answered, [And upon you be] peace! – [saying to himself,] They are strangers.
(Ad-Dhariyaat, verse 25)
This verse is about the Prophet Ibrahim when the angels visited him. The word ‘munkaroon’ describes them because they were unknown to him, NOT that they were ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. The same word cannot mean completely different things.
With regards to the definition of ‘ma’roof’, the following verses from Surah Al-A’raaf make it clear for us:
وَإِن تَدْعُوهُمْ إِلَى الْهُدَى لاَ يَسْمَعُواْ وَتَرَاهُمْ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَيْكَ وَهُمْ لاَ يُبْصِرُونَ
And if you call them to guidance, they hear not and you will see them looking at you, yet they see not. (198)
خُذِ الْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِض عَنِ الْجَـهِلِينَ
Pardon them and order Al-‘Urf and turn away from the ignorant. (199)
These verses are directed to the Prophet Muhammad (sallAllahu alayhi wa sallam) and he was told to pardon these people and order them with the ‘urf’. ‘Urf’ is from the same root in Arabic as ‘ma’roof’. Was he told to simply order them to ‘do good’ (as many claim it means) or something more specific? It is obvious what is meant here is all that is encompassed by the religion even if we ignore the fact that linguistically ‘ma’roof’ means ‘that which is known’.
Looking into this really brings into focus why first hand knowledge of the religion is so important. Your religion defines your destination in the next life and so, is too important to leave in the hands of others. Allah orders us to enjoin that which is the actual religion and to forbid that which is unknown (i.e. innovations or additions to the religion). It’s really quite simple – Just stick to the religion according to the evidence.
* Muslims who go around policing the religion of others by pointing out which of their actions, according to their views, are ‘haraam’/wrong.