By Maszlee Malik & Musa Mohd Nordin
COMMENT In embracing the spirit of the pivotal principles of Islam, the act of whistleblowing as a manifest of islah and amr ma’ruf nahy munkar has been part of the syariah imperatives, and a vital constituent of the Islamic political culture since the days of Prophet Muhammad.
There were numerous incidents during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad where the practice of whistleblowing was sanctioned.
Among them is a prophetic tradition as reported by one of his companions, Jabir bin Abdullah, who heard the prophet say: “Discussions are confidential (not subject to disclosure) except in three areas: “Shedding unlawful blood, unlawful cohabitation and unlawful accumulation of wealth.” (Narrated by Abu Dawud)
In another hadith, Zaid bin Khalid reported that Prophet Muhammad said: “Shall I not tell you who is the best of witnesses? The one who brings his testimony before being asked to do so, or tells his testimony when he is asked for it.” (Narrated by Malik).
It is evident from this tradition that the prophet was encouraging his ummah to blow the whistle voluntarily, as a moral obligation towards the maslahah, (public interest and benefits of the larger society).
If we look at it from the angle of amru bil maaruf (enjoining goodness) and wal nahy an al munkar (forbidding wrongdoing) or from the perspective of shahada (witness attestation), which is mandatory upon Muslims, then whistleblowing is a “duty” because the purpose of whistleblowing is the same as that of ‘enjoining goodness and forbidding wrongdoing’.
The civil and political administration of Prophet Muhammad (who as leader of the city state of Medina, was a showcase of competency, accountability and transparency. These were similarly applied to the administration of government revenue and expenditure in the provinces.
The oft-mentioned incident involving Ibn Lutaybiyah demonstrates this principle succinctly. Functioning as an amil (tax collector), he returned to Medina loaded with tax revenues, and asserted that a substantive portion of the revenue was given to him as tokens from certain people.
The prophet reminded him by saying: “What is wrong with the man whom we appointed as a tax collector and he said this is for you and that was given to me? If he stayed in his parent’s house, would something be given to him?” (Narrated by al-Bukhari)
On another occasion, the prophet was quoted as constantly reminding his companions by saying: “Whomsoever we appoint over an affair, we shall give him provision. What he takes after that is breach of trust.” (Narrated by Abu Daud)
The four rightly-guided caliphs, the successors of Prophet Muhammad continued the benchmarks of competency, accountability and transparency in their administration of the state.
Abu Bakr, the first caliph after the prophet, stressed the importance of accountability and the behaviour of individuals with authority in the community in his very first speech to the Muslim community after being elected as the caliph, saying: “Cooperate with me when I am right, but correct me when I commit error; obey me so long as I follow the commandments of Allah and His Prophet; but turn away from me when I deviate.” (Narrated by al-Hindi and Ibn Kathir).
His other companions often held him to account for his decisions and administration of the state.
This was also the position of Omar al-Khattab when he was elected to succeed Abu Bakr. In his maiden speech after being appointed as caliph, Omar stressed the need for accountability in his administration, and the rights of every empowered citizen.
It was reported that while Omar was once delivering the Friday sermon, an ordinary person rose and interrupted, saying: “O the leader of the believers, I won’t listen to your sermon until you explain how you came up with your long dress (the Arabian robe).”
Apparently, there was some distribution of fabric to the people and given the measure of distribution and the height of Omar; he could not have made a dress out of his share. So, a vigilant voice of egalitarianism unhesitatingly challenged Omar, the leader of a vast caliphate.
Omar’s son stood up and explained that he gave his share to his father, so that a dress could be made to fit Omar. The vigilant voice then expressed his approval and sat down, and Omar resumed his sermon (Ibn Qutaybah, 2002: 1/55).
Accountability of public administrators
Omar’s policy on accountability was not limited to the primitive style of verbal complaints and condemnation from the public. As for the public offices, he established a specific office to deal with the accountability of the public administrators.
The office was designed for the investigation of complaints against officers of the state that reached the caliph. When it was first established, Omar appointed Muhammad ibn Maslamah to take the responsibility of this ombudsman-like department.
In important cases, Omar would depute Muhammad to proceed to the location, investigate the charge and take action. Sometimes an inquiry commission was constituted to investigate the charge. Whenever the officers raised complaints against Muhammad, they were summoned to Madinah, and the case was heard by Caliph Omar himself.
The caliph also dismissed governors when the people complained against them. Among those dismissed was a companion of Prophet Muhammad (Saad Ibnu Abi Waqqas. In a later phase of Muslim history, a specially-designed office known as Diwan al-Mazalim was established to carry put this task, which today can be considered the classical version of the contemporary ombudsman.
Once, while delivering a sermon, Omar said: “My rights over public funds (the Baitul Mal) are similar to those of the guardians of an orphan. If well placed in life, I will not claim anything from it. In case of need, I shall draw only as much as it is constitutionally allowed for providing food.
“You have every right to question me about any improper accumulation of the revenue and bounty collections, improper utilisation of the treasury money, provision of the daily bread to all, border-security arrangements and harassment caused to any citizen.”
He was recorded by historians to have issued certificates, witnessed by a group of elders, to all duly appointed governors stipulating that a governor should not ride an expensive horse, eat white bread, wear any fine cloth or prevent the people’s needs (from being satisfied).
This is just one example of Omar showcasing the practise of transparency where a ruler, as well as the state officers, should have nothing to hide from the public and are open to scrutiny of their usage of public funds.
Another example of accountability and public airing of grievances practised during the period of the rightly-guided caliphs can be found in the famous letter written by the fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, to the governor of Egypt, Malik al-Ashtar, as recorded in the compilation of Ali’s letters and sermons, ‘Nahjul Balaghah’.
In his advice to the governor, Ali asserts: “Out of your hours of work, fix a time for the complainants and for those who want to approach you with their grievances. During this time, you should do no other work but hear them and pay attention to their complaints and grievances.
‘Let them speak unreservedly’
“For this purpose, you must arrange public audience for them; during this audience, for the sake of Allah, treat them with kindness, courtesy and respect. Do not let your army and police be in the audience hall at such times so that those who have grievances against your regime may speak to you freely, unreservedly and without fear.”
All of these examples illustrate the importance and critical role of whistleblowing as another facet of ensuring competency, accountability and transparency in upholding justice and good governance.
Whistleblowing has always been an integral component of the Islamic political culture, strongly rooted in the ontological awareness since the very beginning.
Furthermore, Muslim scholars, both the past and present, have been very prolific in their writings on topics related to accountability and the practice of mazalim and hisbah (public inquiry).
Among the most famous was ‘al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah’, the magnum opus of al-Mawardi (al-Mawardi, 1995), in which he dealt with both the topics of mazalim and hisbah extensively. Another classical scholar, Ibn Taimiyah, also authored a book titled ‘Hisbah’, in which he discussed hisbah as a pertinent responsibility of every Muslim individual and also as an obligation upon Muslim rulers (Ibn Taimiyah, 1985).
Al-Ghazali, in the same token, dealt with the issue of accountability of a ruler and his officers in his celebrated ‘Nasehat al-Mulk’, which was his advice to the son of a sultan during his time. However, it was the prominent vizier and scholar, Nizamul Muluk, who smartly deliberated these topics in a very normative meaning in his illustrious treatise, ‘Siyasat Nameh’.
These deductive analogies, based on sound evidence from authentic religious texts, illustrate the nobility and righteousness of genuine acts of whistleblowing to encourage and promote competency, accountability and transparency in our societies.
Even though there is no direct reference to modern day whistleblowing per se, the principles it embraces implies that whistleblowing is part and parcel of a comprehensive scheme of good governance to achieve the highest goal of Islamic polity in order to ensure justice with fairness and mercy within the parameters of maqasid al-syariah.
Moreover, the practice of whistleblowing is also considered an act of worship. According to Yusuf Al-Qaradawy, “…whenever a Muslim follows up good intentions with a permissible action, his action becomes an act of worship.” Ulama should back whistleblowers
The increasing acts of genuine whistleblowing, which we witness today, mean that all is not well with the state of trustworthiness and integrity of our political governance.
The courageous acts of the few who have stood up against the establishment to expose the wrongdoings of individuals in public office and the gross abuse of public funds are exemplary acts of piety in the pursuit of good governance to attain the well-being of society.
Regrettably, this noble cause is being led by a politician and non-scholars instead of an ‘apolitical’ or non-partisan entity or individuals. Civil society, free from the clutches of partisan politics, should ideally be leading this whistleblowing initiative.
We would dare add that Islamic-based organisations and Muslim scholars, because of their ontological awareness, ought to be spearheading this citizen’s watchdog initiative to guard and protect against waste and loss of public funds and abuses of public office.
However, disappointingly, many of our Islamic scholars (ulama), whom we had expected to be at the forefront of such righteous efforts in the realm of civil and political governance, are engrossed with ‘red herring’ issues that in many cases only serve to polarise further the multi-racial and multi-religious make-up of Malaysian society.
The failure of the ulama to spearhead such an initiative would send a wrong signal to the lay Muslims, and convince them that whistleblowing is alien to the corpus of Islamic belief.
We hope that this distinguished and honourable endeavour will bring a new chapter and in essence, a new hope in the endless episodes of the struggle to uphold democracy and good governance in our beloved country, Malaysia. As a consequence, we hope these efforts will evolve a more competent, accountable and transparent political governance.
Undoubtedly, there have been whistleblowing actions taken by our good citizens in the past. The current effort takes the whistleblowing initiative to a higher level of public engagement.
The ‘National Oversight and Whistleblowers Centre’ is a very laudable effort to galvanise and institutionalise this endeavour, thus making whistleblowing more structured, guided and professional.
We sincerely and unreservedly urge all civic-minded citizens of Malaysia, regardless of race, religion and political affiliations, to support this excellent whistleblowing initiative. Above all, we strongly encourage the Muslim community, religious scholars (ulama) and Islamic organisations to embrace this civil society initiative in our shared quest of attaining competency, accountability, transparency, good governance and citizen well-being.
We strongly believe that all these qualities are indisputably syariah imperatives and pivotal pillars of the Islamic political norms that all Muslims should aspire to achieve.
Yesterday: Whistleblowing: A syariah imperative
MASZLEE MALIK is with Universiti Islam Antarabangsa, while MUSA MOHD NORDIN is with the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF).