There is a feeling amongst some quarters in the Muslim community here in the UK, and indeed the world at large, that it is kufr and thereby haram for Muslims to take part in elections where governing by Islamic law is not a possibility. This is a legitimate concern held by sincere people who have a deep love for the sacred law given to us by Allah (the Most High).
I empathise with this view as I myself used to claim that taking part in such a process was explicitly forbidden believing that voting was tantamount to supporting the act of non-divine legislation. However, it was only until I was introduced to a number of principles held by orthodox Sunni scholars that I realised that my previously held opinion appeared to ignore a number of tools that the shari’ah itself provides in order to operate in non-Muslim environments.
First of all, there is a principle agreed upon by the scholars of the past regarding minimisation of evil/mischief called taqleel al mafaasid. Where there is inevitable evil/harm in all options then it is not only permissible to opt for the least haram thing but may even be obligatory. The Qur’an tells us to “fear Allah as much as you are able”, and “Allah does not hold a person to account in more than he can bear.” Therefore, we are commended on doing the best that we possibly could in circumstances where the divine injunction could not be fulfilled in its entirety.
Ibn Taymiyyah declared scholarly consensus on taqleel al mafaasid stating: ‘the shari’ah was revealed for the attainment and perfection of al-masalih (benefits) and the prevention and reduction of al-mafasid (evils) – this means suppressing the lesser of two benefits in order to attain the better of the two, as well as acting in accordance with the lesser of two evils and harms whilst also suppressing the worst of the two.’ He also said, ‘it is not rational to merely know the good from the bad, but it is incumbent to know that which is best and that which is most evil. One must also know that the shari’ah is built upon the obtainment and perfection of al-masalih and the prevention and reduction of al-mafasid. Otherwise, the one who is unable to weigh-up committing an action or leaving it, against (Islamic) legal benefits and harms will inevitably abstain from obligatory acts and commit those that are impermissible.’ Similarly, Ibn Nujaym stated that if one is faced with two evils that cannot be avoided the individual is to turn away from the greater evil by committing the lesser one. Ibn Al Qayyim said, ‘…the (shar’ii) rule is to oppose the greater harm by considering the lesser one.’
A person would need to be an appropriately qualified jurist in order to be able to discern between two evils. The eminent companion, ‘Amr ibn Al ‘Aas, said, “A jurist is not one who knows the good from the bad, but instead the jurist is one who knows the better of two goods and the worst of two evils.”
Many scholars have commented on this noble principle when discussing the hadith “Whoever from you sees iniquity should seek to change it with his hands, and if he is unable to, he should change it with his tongue, and if he is unable to then he should at least feel it in his heart as that is the lowest level of faith.”
In his explanation of the hadith, Imam Nawawi quoted various scholars who elucidate on the principle of ‘diminishing harm’ via the context of this hadith. One of the scholars he quotes, Al Qadi Iyad, the prominent Maliki jurist, stated that if an individual believes that changing something with his hand will cause greater harm, such as either being killed or causing the death of another, then he should abstain from physical involvement, and such is the case with attempting to bring about change through one’s speech – this being the point of the hadith.
Commenting on the same hadith, Al Qadi Abu Bakr ibn Al ‘Arabi said that if it is possible to remove the evil by the tongue of the objector then he should do so, otherwise he should resort to the use of physical force. However, if it is not possible to remove this evil except by taking up arms then such a strategy should be abandoned given that the taking up of arms between people may eventually lead to widespread civil discord – a greater harm than letting the relatively lesser evil persist.
Other examples of the application of this principle are:
- Uprising against a Muslim ruler since it leads to widespread bloodshed which is worse than the ruler’s oppression. Scholars state that even if the ruler becomes an apostate and it is likely that trying to remove him from office by force will cause greater tribulation, then he is not to be fought against.
- When the Prophet (peace be upon him) conquered Makkah, he wanted to rebuild the Ka’bah based upon the foundations set by Abraham, but refrained from doing so based on the discord it would cause.
- The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) refraining from killing or harming the chief of the Hypocrites, Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Sulul, as people would have accused the noble Messenger (peace be upon him) of killing his own followers.
- The Prophet(peace be upon him) would refrain on sentencing soldiers until the army had returned since their punishment would have driven them to join the opposition and potentially leak information to the enemy.
A later example of diminishing harm is when the Tartars invaded Muslim lands and Ibn Taymiyyah gave a verdict to refrain from stopping the Tartars from drinking alcohol (despite the obligation of forbidding this evil) since their drunken state would prevent them from slaughtering people and raping women. Another example is where Imam Al Nawawi allowed recourse to non-Islamic law in the case of there being no other alternative to attain justice. None of this should be surprising given that no one would ever assert that if a serious crime occurred to a Muslim and there was no way of getting some form of justice except by taking the matter through a non-shari’ah system then this would be seeking a ruling of taghoot (non-divine legislation/judgement). Does this means that freeing Babar Ahmad or Aafia Siddiqui by going through Western secular courts is an act of apostasy and the families of these people are also apostates as they sought the ruling of other than Allah? Such an assertion is of course ridiculous. What if the house of a Muslim was burgled with the police later catching the burglar, would we have the charges dropped as this would mean taking the matter to taghoot?
It is clear to see that this level of involvement with the criminal justice system of a non-shari’ah governed country involves much more participation when compared with people putting a cross on a piece of paper to go into a ballot box. None of these actions imply that one is giving preference to man-made legislation and law over the shari’ah. The shari’ah provides us with many principles dealing with inevitabilities. It is inevitable that a non-Muslim, at least for the foreseeable future, will become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. If there was an Islamic party then it would be an act of kufr for Muslims vote for a secular party instead. But where there isn’t such a scenario, if minimisation of harm/evil could occur by voting for the candidate most friendly towards legitimate Muslim interests then this is clearly allowed and perhaps even obligatory. Again, when a person votes, there is nothing to suggest that he is for democracy or that he even agrees with the party of the candidate. This is understood even by non-Muslims who themselves may be disillusioned with their own system but vote anyway. So the argument which states that a person voting is buying into the democratic system is a false one especially as one could argue that by holding citizenship of a country you have agreed to be governed by man-made laws when you could have migrated to a country where there is more of the shari’ah being implemented.
Even Allah (the Most High) differentiates between disbelievers (who represent various degrees of evil) in this life and the Hereafter. Abu Talib (the Prophet’s uncle) will only have his feet in the Fire whereas the Hypocrites will be flung into the lowest pit of hell. The Companions rejoiced at the defeat of the Persians at the hands of the Romans during the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him). This shows that lobbying a non-Muslim or being pleased at his victory (over other non-Muslims) is fully in line with al wala’ wal bara’ (allegiance and disavowal) as allegiance is based on how close a person is to imaan (Islamic faith).
Most (if not all) renowned contemporary scholars from varying groups and movements have stated that taking part in elections is allowed, subject to the conditions discussed above. As for the discussion concerning how useful it is to vote or who to vote for, then this is not the scope of this argument. The purpose here was simply to deal with the misconception that allowing Muslims to express their concerns and interests by taking part in this year’s election is an act of compromising a fundamental tenet of Islam.
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