(This article is extracted, with some editing, from Moderation in Islam in the Context of Malay Muslim Community in Singapore, by Pergas, 2004.)
Bai`ah means a pledge of obedience. Bai`ah is an established practice in Islam. Allah Almighty says:
“Behold, all who pledge their allegiance to thee pledge their allegiance to God: the hand of God is over their hands. Hence, he who breaks his oath, breaks it only to his own hurt; whereas he who remains true to what he has pledged unto God, on him will He bestow a reward supreme.” (The Holy Quran, 48:10)
It was reported in a hadith that Ibn Umar said;
“When we gave our bai`ah to Prophet Muhammad on the basis of to listen and obey, he said to us ‘on what you are capable of’.” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari & Muslim)
Bai`ah is a common practice in various Islamic groups. It is not limited to politically oriented groups but also in Sufi groups, which are known as tariqat.
This issue is relevant to the concept of wasatiyah because it is also practiced by many extremist groups. While, originally, there is no extremism at all in practicing bai`ah but it is used as psychological tool to maintain loyalty from members of extremist groups.
Many of the members also felt psychologically trapped by the bai`ah that they have given to the leaders. They fear that by leaving the group or disobeying the orders, they have committed grave sin and it will incur them the wrath of Allah because the pledge that they have made in His name. They also fear of being labeled as traitor or betrayer.
In was reported in the White Paper released by Ministry of Home Affairs on the arrest on JI operatives in Singapore
“Mystical manipulation was used to commits its members by having them take the bai`ah and pledging their allegiance to the JI leader and Amir [leader]. The pledge was a powerful compliance generating mechanism….. To ensure that members remained committed and did not blow the whistle on JI, the leaders employed social psychological concept of escalation of commitment. Hence, although a few members had misgivings about their reconnaissance missions, they felt they could not withdraw as they were already “in too deep”.”
It is well known that ISIS also practices bai`ah. No groups or individuals will be accepted as full member of ISIS except after giving bai`ah to its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
It is, on this context, providing proper explanation on bai`ah with the objective of putting it in a correct perspective so as to expose the abuse and to assist ordinary Muslims to fall into the trap or any members of extremist group escape from the trap becomes important.
Bai`ah in Islam may be classified into two;
- Bai`ah Kubra (major), that is, bai`ah to an officially appointed leader in a Muslim country.
- Bai`ah Sughra (minor) that is, bai`ah to unite and promise to carry out a responsibility or practice together.
“Umaimah binti Raqiqah said ‘I came to Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) with other women. We offered bai`ah to him upon Islam. We said ‘O, Rasulullah! We declare our bai`ah to you that we will not associate Allah with another, we will not steal, we will not commit adultery, we will not kill our children and we will not fabricate stories that we created between our two hands and legs, we will not disobey you in matters that are ma’aruf’. Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) said ‘According to your capacity and ability’…” (Narrated by Malik & At-Turmuzi)
Sheikh Waliyullah Al-Dahlawi in his lectures on this hadith, said;
“This contains evidence that the bai`ah is not restricted to simply accepting the position of caliph.”
However, bai`ah as commanded, has three conditions as follows: 
- It is done on matters which are syari’ii (in accordance with the syariah).
- It is done to fulfil a need, which has been ascertained to be real.
- It does not contradict, oppose or replace bai`ah kubra, if present.
The rule on bai`ah sughra is only mandub (recommended) in strengthening a resolution to do good together in line with the practice of the Prophet.
For those who gave bai`ah sughra, it is obligatory for them to fulfil the promise of the bai`ah as long as it does not contradict the syariah and the conditions mentioned above. This is because Allah Almighty says:
“O you who have attained to faith! Be true to your covenants!” (The Holy Quran, 5:1)
Prophet Muhammad also said:
“Muslims are tied to the conditions (they agreed to) except for conditions that make haram as halal, or halal as haram.”(Narrated by Al-Turmuzi, Ibn Majah & Abu Daud)
It is sinful to break a promise for without valid syariah reason. Therefore it is obligatory for anyone who wishes to give bai`ah in any situation, to consider it carefully and not treat it as a simple matter.
However, no one can force another to follow his example in giving bai`ah, nor can one threaten others who refuse to do it that they will die in jahiliyah.
For those who gave their bai`ah and later break it without valid syariah reason, they have committed a sin, but they are not out of the religion and that action will not be punished with Hell. Neither are they considered out of the Muslim ummah.
No obedience in committing evil
Bai`ah given to da’wah and other groups, will be meaningless if the group end up deviating from the teachings of Islam.
Bai`ah given to any individual must not include obedience to what is not ma’aruf (good) in Islam as Prophet Muhammad said;
“There is no obedience in committing transgressions to Allah. Verily, obedience is only for matters that are ma’aruf (good).”(Narrated by Al-Bukhari & Muslim)
Bai’ah given to leaders of groups practising da’wah and Sufism is similar to those given to leaders in other matters. The obedience is only in doing good and not in committing transgressions.
Such bai`ah does not make any particular leader an infallible source of truth. Whether the words which emanates from such a leader may be accepted as the truth, has to be assessed based on evidence from the Holy Quran and the Sunnah, and not because they came from the leader himself. Treating a leader to whom bai’ah was given, as an indisputable source of truth, is fanaticism and an extremism that should be condemned.
If after giving his bai`ah, a person finds better alternative than what he has promised in his bai`ah, or comes across a group that is better, or meets a leader who is more pious, he is encouraged to opt for the better alternative and give up the present bai’ah. This is based on this verse in the Holy Quran;
“And do not allow your oaths in the name of God to become an obstacle to virtue and God-consciousness and the promotion of peace between men: for God is all-hearing, all-knowing.” (The Holy Quran, 2:224)
Prophet Muhammad said;
“O, Abdul Rahman! Do not ask for a position of leadership. Verily if you are given the position because of your request, you will be left alone to deal with it. If you are given a position that you did not ask for, you will be assisted. If you give a pledge, and a better one comes along, take the better one, and your earlier pledge will be kaffarah (forgiven).” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari)
Although Islam allows it, it should be done politely by asking permission from the party to whom the earlier bai’ah had been given, before moving on to the better bai`ah.
Ministry of Home Affairs (2003), The White Paper: The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrest and the Threat of Terrorism, Singapore, p. 16.
Cited by Abdul Rahman b. Mualaa Al-Luwaihiq Al-Mutairi (transl. by Jamal Al-Din M. Zarabozo) (2001), Religious Extremism in the Life of Contemporary Muslims, Denver: Al-Basheer Publications, p. 230. See Waliyullah Ad-Dahlawi (1403H), Al-Musawwa Syarh Al-Muwatta’, Beirut: Dar Al-Kutub Al-`Ilmiah, vol 2, p. 217.
Ibid, p. 232.
There are similar hadith or those that discuss the same matter. See Sa`id Hawwa (1992), Al-Asas Fi As-Sunnah (Al-`Aqaid Al-Islamiah), Cairo: Dar Al-Salam, vol 3, pp. 1599-1605.
One who leaves bai`ah that contains the pledge (wallahi, billahi, tallahi) the kaffarah (penalty) is, as mentioned by Allah Almighty, “God will not take you to task for oaths which you may have uttered without thought, but He will take you to task for oaths which you have sworn in earnest. Thus, the breaking of an oath must be atoned for by feeding ten needy persons with more or less the same food as you are wont to give to your own families, or by clothing them, or by freeing a human being from bondage; and he who has not the wherewithal shall fast for three days [instead]. This shall be the atonement for your oaths whenever you have sworn [and broken them]. But be mindful of your oaths!’ Thus God makes clear unto you His messages, so that you might have cause to be grateful. ” (The Holy Quran, 5:89)