An interview with Jamal Badawi on Muslim participation in North American politics
RadioIslam.com conducted an interview with Dr. Jamal Badawi, a leading North American Islamic scholar, professor and author, on the issue of Muslims and electoral politics.
The interview was conducted by Itrath Syed and Samana Siddiqui.
SS: Assalamu alaikum wa Rahmatullah Br. Jamal
JB: Walaykum as Salam
SS: Welcome to RadioIslam.com. We're going to be discussing Muslims and the political process, something which is very relevant, especially in the United States with the presidential elections coming up in the fall, Insha Allah. My first question is should Muslims even participate in the voting and political process in general in North America?
JB: For the sake of clarification, I'd like first of all to say that Islam by its very nature is a complete, comprehensive system or way of life. I don't like the term that some people use, 'political Islam'. There is nothing called 'political Islam' there is Islam that includes politics, economics, social structure as part of its teaching. It's a complete way of living in that sense. That's one point.
Based on that, I must say that the issue of participation in the political process is contingent on at least three different situations I could think of. One is to participate in a Muslim country which is ruling according to the law of Allah and applying it in full. And by in full I mean not only in the matter of criminal law but in terms of economic justice, in terms of Shura, consultation on the political level. That would be one case. Obviously in that setting participation is a duty on every Muslim.
Second situation would be a Muslim country that does not rule according to the Islamic law, to the rule of Allah and in some cases may be even a secular country that is forcing secularism on it's Muslim population. That could be another difficult setting.
A third one which I suppose you might be focusing on in the context of Muslims in North America, is to participate in a country that is not Muslim and obviously of course does not apply the law of Allah, is it possible or not?
My answer to that basically, is that, while the Muslim population in North America is at least familiar that there are two views. There is no secret to that.
There are some people who oppose it and some even say it is unlawful, and there are those who say under some qualification it is permissible. But if I would put it very briefly, instead of just saying 'this opinion says that, this opinion says that', or dismiss one or the other, I'm always trying to look for the common ground that all Muslims should agree upon. That much I think, is summarized in the following two points.
One: if a Muslim believes that there is any human being who has the right to make laws other than Allah then obviously this is total divergence from the path of Islam.
Or any person who believes that secularism is superior to the law of Allah, he's violating the basic Quranic tenets (WA man ahsan min Allahi hukmun li qawmi yuminu) 'who is better in giving us the rule in judgment than Allah, Our Creator'. That's one issue that all Muslims should agree to.
The second point that if a person participates in an activity or process which is completely opposed to the foundations of Islam in its basic beliefs, then of course that would be also totally out.
I would just like to add one more observation on that second point. The danger we find is to adopt the way of thinking of the Kharijites, the Khawarij, who, whenever they had a small difference in nonessential aspects of Islam, like they call it Furu'u branches, they blew it out of proportion to make it a matter of Iman (faith) and Kufr (disbelief) and those who did not agree with them and their particular interpretation on this minor issue, they put it in the context of even diverging altogether from Islam.
Other than these two points, the discussion as to whether it is permissible or not, is an area where there is room for different interpretations. It falls within what the Muslim jurists call as Siyassah Sharaiyya which means just to look after the affairs and benefits of the Muslims which are subject to interpretation within the basic boundaries and rules of Islamic law.
SS: So based on what you're saying then, how does a Muslim find out what is Halal and Haram in terms of participating in the political process? When we're talking about methodology, how do we come to an understanding from a purely Islamic perspective based on the Quran and Sunnah.
JB: I think that's a very good question, I appreciate it because a lot of times people keep arguing about small details and magnify the differences without even being clear as to what methodology they are using to come up with this understanding. If you're asking about methodology, I'd say at least four points.
First of all, that all Muslims are supposed to agree on the primary authoritative sources of Islam and it is known there are two primary revelatory sources: the Quran, the Word of Allah, as well as the sound or authentic Hadiths of the Prophet salallahu alayhi WA Sallam (peace and blessings be upon him). This should be the foundation for all. That's one.
A second point is that even in the Quran and in authentic Hadiths, the Ulema or the scholars also make a distinction between things that are definitive or 'Qati' so clear, like for example, Muslims are supposed to pray or pay Zakah. There is no dispute, there is no room for a differing interpretation on one hand.
And the things that are probabilistic, they're called 'al Thanni'. In other words, the texts that are clear, yes, are authentic, but may be subject to more than one interpretation. That is second. And in fact, in Islamic law, there is a whole area of this probabilistic type of interpretation in nonessential or basic things.
A third issue on methodology: that even when we differ or debate on the interpretation of the probabilistic text, there are certain requirements also. At least I could think of four.
One: that all parties should have the sincere intention to seek the truth. In other words not just quote text, that a person would be fully convinced of one idea and going backwards to the text of the Quran and Sunnah just to try to justify their position or to support one party or one group of people.
A second requirement: there are also certain essential rules of exegesis or interpretation, understanding of the language and its uses, the occasion of revelation of some verses or Ayat in the Quran or possibly some Ahadith to keep in mind that after all, we cannot isolate one text in the Quran and Hadith and build a theory on that because Quran explains itself and is explained by Sunnah, so you need a more comprehensive view of all the text that relate to one particular subject.
A third requirement in interpretation that there should be respect also of specialization. We do respect specialization in chemistry, physics, and everything else. Why can't we also respect specialization in the matter of Shariah, rules of Shariah, or interpretation that we refer to people who are more knowledgeable on that.
I would like to say in the very beginning that I'm not giving any Fatwa (Islamic legal ruling) or verdict but I am simply referring to the works which are done by very competent Islamic scholars on this subject.
For example, there was a publication by Al Majlis Al Shari'I al Ilmi, that's the, you might say, supreme Shariah council composed of specialized scholars in Lebanon. Dr. (Yusuf) Qaradawi, Dr. Manah el Qattan, Maulana Mawdudi, Kamel Bahnasaoui, Dr. Salah El Salb, there have several specialized scholars who examined that particular issue. As you will see later, that they all agreed with participation under certain circumstances so that's the third condition.
In other words, I'm just trying to avoid a situation where somebody who read a couple of books on Islam and he starts giving verdicts and accusing specialized and more learned scholars of not knowing what they are talking about. Respect of specialization.
The fourth aspect which I think is very important that all Muslims who are debating that issue, whatever opinion they adopt is fine, but the etiquette of differences should be there. And one of those etiquettes has been symbolized by Imam Shafi'i who very humbly said, 'my opinion is right, that could be proven wrong. And the other opinion is wrong, that may be proven to be right.' By that I mean, okay, if a person is more convinced of one argument or the other in matters where there is interpretations, that's fine.
But one should not belittle the other opinion or show any disrespect to other people who came up with a different opinion or follow a different opinion. And worst of all of course is to consider them deviant from Islam, worse even, that they are even outside of the boundaries of Islam altogether.
My final first point on this issue of methodology is a repeat of one thing that I also mentioned in the answer to the first question. That if indeed the participation in the political process in a non-Muslim setting means that one believes that there is any system superior to the system or teaching of Allah, then of course this is totally out.
So my conclusion is that since there is no definitive, direct, underline direct, text in the Quran and Sunnah that does not specifically answer the question of the setting here in North America, there are texts that could be interpreted to relate to that, then the issue is not really an issue of the foundation of faith, it is an issue, like I indicated earlier, of as Siyassa Shariah, it's a matter of running and conducting the affairs of the Muslim Ummah depending on the particular circumstances.
SS: So would you say there are some rules or some boundaries perhaps in Islamic jurisprudence which could help us find an answer to whether or not Muslims should participate in the political process in our context of a non-Muslim society?
Particularly, I mean those Muslims who object to participating, and scholars who object often argue that number one, not only is it a non-Islamic state but this non-Islamic state often makes policies and perpetrates policies against Muslims in other parts of the world. I think the sanctions on Iraq, for instance, in the case of the United States, is a very good example.
How can we reconcile, for example participating in the political process of a state which is enforcing a deadly embargo on fellow Muslims?
JB: Without going into detail listing this issue. These issues are covered, of course, in texts that deal with the so-called Usul al-Fiqh or the roots of Islamic law.
But just to get a sample of the broadness of Shariah that people sometimes apply ideas in a very narrow perspective that are much broader framework within which interpretations really should be made.
Example of this: there is no denial on the basis of the Quran and Sunnah that one has to weigh the harms or benefits just like when the Quran speaks about drinking or intoxication. Wa ith ma huma akbaru min naf ayma. There is benefit, there is harm, but the harm is greater than the benefit.
So the idea of weighing harms and benefits of any particular decision is a very legitimate rule of Shariah. To give a little bit more detail on that: what happened when one thing has to take place, in other words, you're given two choices. You have no third choice. One of them would bring more harm. The other would be harmful but the harm would be less.
Obviously, the sensible rules of Shariah here is to accept lesser harm to end a greater harm.
What happens if you have two choices, both of them are good, one of them would bring greater good than the other. Again you find that the rules of Shariah are very sensible. Obviously, you take the one that gives greater benefit. But then, you run into a situation where a decision might have something positive but something negative. How do you decide?
And there are also detailed rules of how to approach that. For example, if the benefit that's to be achieved is very minor as compared to the harm, get my point, then you don't necessarily take, adopt that particular benefit. You can sacrifice that benefit. You might purge a minimum harm in return for achieving greater benefit.
It's just like when you say 'okay if the government expropriates a house or something in order to expand a highway, there is harm, some harm that's being done but there is a huge benefit also that will be achieved.' So things are really controlled by very sensible frame of comparison. That's one.
Even a rule that should have been mentioned even before that, that the rules of Shariah, Islamic law, ultimately, are intended to achieve the benefit of people so long as there is no sin or deviation from the foundations of faith.
Muslim jurists, based again on the Quran and Sunnah, the Quran and Hadith, the teaching of the Prophet alayhis Salam (upon him be peace), they came up with the conclusion that there is hardly anything that is required by Islam or forbidden except that it falls within five broad objectives of Islam or Shariah. One is to safeguard faith. Second to safeguard life, third to safeguard mind, fourth to safeguard honor, and fifthly, to safeguard wealth or property.
So the bringing of benefit to people, in other words, to be religious doesn't mean that you live in a miserable state of affairs. Shariah also looks after even the mundane as well as the spiritual aspects of the life of individuals so this jal bull man fa'a as it is called, to bring benefit and to remove harm are actually guidelines in making any interpretation.
A third one which is very important I believe, like Dr. Qaradawi keeps emphasizing this, that we have also to understand the Fiqh or understanding of comparisons between priorities. In other words, at a certain point in time, a certain thing might take greater priority than the other. It is not enough to know the rule of Shariah. More important among the specialists is the skill as to how to apply those broad rules on a given situation. This is known in the Usul, the roots of Islamic law as isqatil hooqq isSharii' alal waqil amali. How do you apply a verdict or rule of Shariah in a particular situation in the context of a given situation.
I hope I did not sound to be too abstract in this respect but just to give you one simple example on that issue. I think that might exemplify some of those rules and bring it home.
One of the great scholars of Islam, actually many give him the title of Shaikh ul Islam Ibn Taymiyya rahim Allah (may Allah have mercy on him), while some people might consider him to be conservative on some issues, in fact he has been so open-minded to the point that he gave a verdict when he was asked.
He said suppose the enemies of Islam invade Muslim lands and rule according to their own law. In other words, they frustrate the application of Shariah, and they're ruling according to their own secular non-Islamic or maybe anti-Islamic type of laws. And then they go to a Muslim to serve as a judge. Should he accept the position or not? I would not tell you how Ibn Taymiyya answered that question, but I can tell you what some people today might say. What do you think they would say?
They would say how come? If he accepts, he would be a Kaffir. He would be outside of Islam. Why? Because he accepts to be the implementor, as a judge, of a law other than the law of Allah, knowingly. He should refuse.
But do you know what Ibn Taymiyya said? He said that he should accept. Do you know the reason he gave?
He said, all right, under the circumstances, the presence of a Muslim judge who fears Allah, even though he cannot control, of course, the law, that's beyond his ability, but his presence in his position, is more likely in comparative terms, to bring greater justice because you know any judge can use his own judicial discretion. There is some area of flexibility. He can use his judicial discretion to achieve the greatest amount of justice as compared to a non-Muslim or a person who does not believe in Shariah or does not fear Allah, he could be an oppressive judge following the system fully and wholeheartedly, who would even bring greater harm to people.
In fact, some scholars even refer to an interesting situation at the time of Prophet Joseph alayhis Salam (peace be upon him). You know Prophet Joseph was in Egypt. He was not a lawmaker yet he was the one even who offered to be in charge of the distribution of food supplies before the famine started.
Some scholars comment and say there is no question that Joseph was occupying this high ministerial position in the state position of power under a system that was definitely contrary to the teaching of Allah. There's no question. He was ruling or taking authority and control in a system where he could not stop, for example, the Pharaoh and other chieftains from getting more than their fair share.
Yet, still, his fear of Allah, his wisdom and the position of power that he occupied enabled him to serve masses of people who otherwise could have starved from not doing that. That's basically the reasoning given by Shaykh ul Islam Ibn Taymiyya on this issue.
Just giving an example on the surface, superficially, it sounds like it's totally out and it's a matter of principle, you should never touch it, you should never get close to it but that's not how the learned scholars look at it. They have to look at it in a more comprehensive and more discerning manner.
SS: I understand that you said you did not want to give a Fatwa (Islamic legal verdict) of any sort but can you perhaps share your understanding, very briefly, going back to the original question, more specifically: a. should Muslims vote b. should Muslims run for political office and c. should they support candidates, Muslim or otherwise in the current political system in North American, in the US and Canada?
JB: On the first question I don't need to give verdict because many scholars, like the names I mentioned earlier, are of the opinion that if a person is doing that within the boundaries and the precautions that you can speak about then there is no harm if indeed it falls within these basic rules of Shariah. That the voting is likely to bring greater benefit or remove greater harm.
I'll just give you one specific example. Suppose you have two candidates for president, for example. Both of them might be not even sympathetic to just Muslim causes, suppose. In most cases that is actually the situation.
However, in terms of relative harm and benefit which is a rule of Shariah it may be the collective wisdom, for example, of Muslim voters that one of them would do even greater harm to Muslim causes than the other. Do you see what I mean?
Well in that case, obviously, the lesser of the two harms, i.e. electing or voting for someone who will do less harm to Muslims obviously would be much better than sitting on the sidelines and just criticizing both and doing nothing about it. Having no clout or no use of the Muslim voting power to minimize the harm that is being done to Muslims whether in North America or overseas.
By the way, it's not all a matter of overseas. Suppose two presidential candidates who are hostile, even, to Muslim candidates but one of them may be more inclined on the basis of the principles of democracy and American constitution to repeal the Secret Evidence Act which has terrorized many innocent people, for example, I'm just giving a practical example of the things that are current even in the news.
Is it better to try to remove some of that harm than just sitting there and being totally apathetic to what is going on? So yes, in terms of our best judgment, if that is beneficial, yes we can vote, no problem.
Your second question running for office, that's a little bit critical because if you run for an office, for example, you might be part of legislation which is not necessarily Islamic.
But that issue again has been addressed by learned scholars. Even though they address the issue in some Muslim countries, it is applicable as well here because as I mentioned earlier if you remember in the first question, I said the difference between participation in a country that applies Islam versus a Muslim country which is not applying Islam or not applying it fully, so that's somewhat similar to the situation we have and there are many Muslim countries which fall in that category.
And in fact the verdict that the scholars gave that, yes, it is possible for Muslims to run for political offices even in legislative assemblies like in Egypt, for example, when some of the Islamic leaders were nominated and elected like the late Shaykh Salah Abu Ismail, Raheem Allah and others. And they were elected in the Egyptian equivalent to parliament. Even though they were a minority. Even though we know of course what happened in this election that may not necessarily be representative of the populace, even though they knew that they will be in no position to change the situation.
But suffice as they understood to communicate the message of Islam, to present their argument, to remove any excuse for anyone who opposes the implementation of the law of Allah even though they did not necessarily succeed or may not necessarily succeed in doing this.
So that issue again is a matter of judgment. It's not Iman or belief or non-belief type of issue. It's an issue again of best judgment as to whether running is just for your own sake, for your own ego, or is it something that might serve some purpose even though you may not reach the ideal, that you're looking for.
And then your third question was on what, on support? Should Muslims support candidates?
Again if the support of that candidate would remove or lessen harms to Muslims or bring benefit, why not?
A practical down to earth example: you know the problem that many Muslim communities face when they apply for zoning or rezoning so that they can build an Islamic center or mosque? Now, we know that a great deal of decision-making power is in the hand of the aldermen, the people in the city council, okay.
Now, for example, many of those candidates have been hostile to Muslims and there are other candidates who are reasonable, decent, they may not be Muslims even, but they are reasonable, fair and decent people who support the right of people to build their places of worship as a principle.
Voting for them and supporting them in elections is not necessarily an agreement with everything that the law, by way of laws and regulations. But at least it would be for that particular, limited purpose.
So in any of these three categories, I cannot claim to say that there is any agreement among all scholars that there is a definite no or a definite yes. But it is a matter of judgment so we can say yes, it is open for debate.
SS: So in the case of those who, for example, those scholars who are of the opinion that it is permissible to at least participate in a political system which is not 100 percent Islamic, what kind of risks should Muslims be watching out for?
What are some things they should be considering, areas of caution, for instance, that need to be examined before Muslims decide to participate in politics, whether it's by voting or running for office or any other kind of political involvement?
JB: Actually more than one scholar who even gave their opinion that it is possible to participate, they did also address those precautions. So that's different from people who just say 'all right, since it's permissible, there is no qualifiers.'
Actually they were quite cautious and one of those risks that you're asking about is to get so involved in the political process to the point that it affects your work and your activity as a Muslim.
The Muslim's main concern is to establish Deen (Islamic way of life) on earth so there is a broader perspective, one should never forget that bigger picture.
By that, I mean if someone spends all of his time or her time for the support of political candidates and getting into party machinery to the point that there is hardly any time for any other Islamic work.
And secondly, in some situations, the risk is that there could be some, not debate or honest difference of opinion, but split within the Muslim community on the local or other levels just on the issue of (whether) to participate or not to participate and I do believe that the Islamic manners of debate and differing in opinion and clarification and referring to the scholars could lessen this kind of split or argument that could arise, so instead of Muslims being united and facing the challenges, they turn against each other, whether we participate or not. That's one risk.
A third risk is that to participate, obviously, may not necessarily be the ideal situation but that could be tolerated on the basis of the rules we discussed before.
But there is fear also that you get into a process of gradual concession after concession after concession and compromise. Well, to compromise on something in terms of benefit or something which is not very essential might be understandable but the fear here is to keep pushing, making compromises on something that really Muslims should draw a line (on). So there has to be a bottom line.
And the Quran actually warns us, 'waddu laou tudhinu kama yubhiyuna' as we find in Surah al Qalam for example, that some of the unbelievers were wishing that the Prophet would be relaxed a little on the matter of belief so they find also excuse for that. So this is something that we have to keep in mind, that the line should be drawn as to what would be the bottom line beyond which a Muslim can never give any more compromise.
In conclusion, really, if I want to sum it up, again many scholars have spoken to this to emphasize again, number one, Muslims who are involved in the political process should never forget that they are people of Dawa (invitation to Islam), the people of invitation of all of mankind to the message of Allah subhana wa ta'ala.
And any argument, any position they take, whether it's election or voting or support must be weighed according to the scale or the criteria of Shariah and on the basis of not just partisan kind of argument but on the basis of real competent scholars and people who can really give an opinion, even though they might differ themselves, but at least it should be based on profound knowledge .
Secondly, that for other Muslim groups or parties, for all parties actually, not one or other, for all of them, they should be very careful not to judge their brothers and sisters with just a primitive or preliminary, superficial, hasty judgment and make accusations against them that is not necessarily to be justified. They could be good intentioned. There could be a foundation, whether you agree with it or not, that attitude really should be avoided.
And finally, we cannot also blame those who are spending more effort because of their specialization or their competence and understanding how the system operates.
We cannot blame them that if they keep at least their minimum obligations as Duaah (callers to Islam) that they are not doing this or not doing that because of course, these are some areas where duties have to be distributed. So there could be complementary roles played by Muslims with a minimum which all of them have to keep in mind.
SS: Is there anything you would like to add Br. Jamal?
JB: I think at least in terms of basics we seem to have covered that in fact, Insha Allah, I'm scheduled to speak on that issue in some more detail in the New England conference that's coming up in early October where I go into more detail of the specific evidences or arguments from the Quran and Sunnah given by both views you might say on participation which would be of interest of course, we didn't have time in a short program like that to get into that but other than that I think that seems to be the basic outline.
SS: Jazak Allahu Khayran.
SS: Assalamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah.
JB: Walaykum as Salam wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu.
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