First of all, it should be known that Islam calls for justice and abhors oppression and injustice, particularly if done against the people for whom one is responsible. Therefore, the ruler is enjoined to fulfill his duties and establish justice among people. The first among the seven categories to whom Allah will give shade on the Day of Judgment, where will be no shade but His, is a just ruler. On the contrary, a Muslim ruler who fails to fulfill his obligations and even oppresses Muslims is doomed to an awful destiny in the Hereafter.
However, in removing the oppression and evil of an unjust ruler, Muslims should be keen not to give way to greater evil and corruption. Therefore, the issue of overthrowing an oppressive ruler should be decided after a thorough study and calculations of the advantages and disadvantages in order not to lead to a greater evil, which should be avoided according to Shari`ah.
Elaborating on this issue, Dr. Ahmad Sa`eed Hawwa, professor of Islamic Jurisprudence at Jordan University, states the following: “The issue of rebelling against an oppressive ruler is to be decided after an accurate study of Shari`ah priorities. Muslim scholars in the past stated that this can be allowed if there is preponderance of probability that the oppressive ruler can be overthrown without inflicting greater harm. This is based on a well-established rule in Islam: “Fending off smaller harm must not result in creating a greater harm.” Likewise there is a rule: “Resort should be to the lesser of the two evils.” Only if these conditions are met and these rules and cautions are taken into consideration, then it is obligatory to embark upon overthrowing an oppressive ruler or agent; otherwise Muslims should bear patiently, doing their best to lessen the effects of his oppression and evil.”
Dr. Mahmoud `Akkam, professor of Shari`ah at Syria University, also states the following: “A Muslim is allowed to rebel against an oppressive ruler in only one case, that is when they notice apparent, explicit disbelief in him. This is because a disbeliever cannot be given the oath of allegiance as a leader for Muslims, and this is an agreed upon Islamic principle that no Muslim scholar has disputed. Almighty Allah says: “Let not the believers take disbelievers for their friends in preference to believers. Whoso doeth that hath no connection with Allah…” (Al `Imran: 28) He also says: “…and Allah will not give the disbelievers any way (of success) against the believers.” (An-Nisa’: 141)
Al-Bukhari and Muslim reported on the authority of `Ubadah ibn As-Samit who said: “The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) called us and we took the oath of allegiance to him. Among the injunctions he made binding upon us was: Listening and obedience (to the ruler) in our pleasure and displeasure, in our adversity and prosperity, even when somebody is given preference over us, avoiding to dispute the delegation of powers to a man duly invested with them (Obedience shall be accorded to him in all circumstances) except when you have clear signs of his disbelief in (or disobedience to) Allah (that could be used as a conscientious justification for non-compliance with his orders), and telling the truth in whatever position we be without fearing in the matter of Allah the reproach of the reproacher.”
However, if the ruler remains a Muslim (and he did not show or display any act of disbelief) but he is oppressive and transgresses against people’s rights, then Muslim scholars have two opinions in this regard:
1. That it is permissible to rebel against him;
2. It is not permissible to rebel against him and Muslims should bear the oppression patiently. And this is the opinion of the majority of Muslims in general. Each of these two groups has provided proofs in support of its viewpoint. However, the proponents of the second opinion gave weight to their opinion by considering the objectives of Shari`ah and by applying the juristic maxim that resort should be to the lesser of the two evils. This is because bearing the injustice of the ruler patiently will protect against the greater evil resulting from rebelling against him represented in mass bloodshed, loss of wealth, and different violations, not to mention giving the enemies of Islam an opportunity to attain their goals in Muslim lands. However, it is permissible for Ahl al-Hall wal-`Aqd (a group of honest, wise, experienced and righteous people who possess the right to elect or remove a ruler) to overthrow the oppressive ruler and choose another one if they are almost sure that this will not lead to extended or greater evil.
Moreover, obeying a ruler in any matter that is explicitly forbidden by Islam is not allowed, but rulers must be obeyed in anything beyond forbidden matters. Also, Muslims should enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil in a very wise way that leads to the removal of evil, not its increase, and they should be patient and steadfast in fulfilling this duty (enjoining the good and forbidding the evil), and this of course requires sacrifice and perseverance. Almighty Allah says: “…and enjoin kindness and forbid iniquity, and persevere whatever may befall thee. Lo! that is of the steadfast heart of things.” (Luqman: 17)”