It seems like a tiresome debate that even today, some (albeit very few) people argue that it is haram to vote (at all), or vote in a ‘non-Muslim system of governance’. There is no doubt that the vast majority of Muslims and the ulama regard voting as an important and recommended act of citizenship, if not a mandatory (wajib) action. This must be our starting point, even if we are to engage in a discussion to look at the counter arguments that may advocate abstention from voting.
Aside from reminding ourselves of the need and importance of voting, it is also worth saying that Muslim leaders and charities need to provide mature guidance that doesn’t bleed into simplistic partisanship. Our religion has to be bigger than any one political party and rise above partisan concerns, respecting the genuine diversity amongst Muslims about the key issues of the day. It is only natural that as Muslim settle and become part of this country, that diversity will organically settle across the political spectrum, despite the origins of an immigrant community.
So back to the objections. The most vocal opponents of voting have been the Jihadi groups, Hizb al-Tahrir and some of the extreme Salafi movements. (Although it is interesting to note that Hizb al-Tahrir did in fact enter the electoral process in 1954 and 1956.) The reasons for opposition seems to be that somehow voting constitutes a form of polytheism (shirk billah), (by interfering with God’s authority to rule), as God, not the consensus of people, is apparently the ultimate source of legalisation and sovereignty (hakimiyyah) rests with God.
There is also the argument that if a political system is ‘non-Islamic’, then one cannot share in the ruling of the system; that rule by other than God’s revelations would be tantamount to wrongdoing (fisq), injustice (zulm), or even disbelief (kufr). This argument is not restricted to the state level, but is also used in the context of, for example, a university student union.
Shaykh Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia views such ideas as the misunderstanding of both voting (democracy) and Islam. Shaykh Rachid clarifies that the sovereignty of God cannot mean that God comes to earth to rule. On the contrary, the sovereignty of God implies the ‘the rule of law’, a cornerstone of modern democratic states. For him, the idea of submitting oneself to the sovereignty of God is actually a liberating one; to remove the possibility of despotism, the totalitarian and arbitrary rule of another human being.
The maxim (qa’idah) of fiqh, “if you cannot change a situation in its entirety then you should not leave it in its entirety” is important here. Secondly, another maxim, “choosing the lesser of two evils” is also cited by Muslim scholars, as well as the case of the Prophet Yusuf (as) ruling in Egypt within a non-Muslim system. Scholars also mention the Negus of Abyssinia ruling by Christian laws and Imam Ibn Taymiyah states regarding this:
“We know definitely that he could not implement the law of the Qur’an in his community because his people would not have permitted him to. Despite that, the Negus and all those who are similar to him found their way to the pleasure of God in eternity although they could not abide by the laws of Islam, and could only rule using that which could be implemented in the given circumstances.”
A further argument is mentioned by scholars as being the Hilf al-Fudul (the Virtuous Pact), to which the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be on him) was party. And also the fact that the Caliph Umar ibn Abdul Aziz found himself in a situation in which he was ruling over the Muslims as a monarch. A situation that befell him by right of inheritance and not one that he agreed with morally. However, he tried his best to make whatever changes he could, rather than abdicate it altogether.
Perhaps the clearest contemporary statement for voting comes from a fatwa of Shaykh Taha Jabir al-Alwani in the US:
“...it is the duty of American Muslims to participate constructively in the political process, if only to protect their rights, and give support to views and causes they favor. Their participation may also improve the quality of information disseminated about Islam. We call this participation a “duty” because we do not consider it merely a “right” that can be abandoned or a “permission” which can be ignored.”
Related to the subject of voting, people sometimes ask, if Muslims can live outside ‘dar al-Islam’ and take up citizenship of a non-Muslim state? The simple answer from the scholars is an emphatic: yes!
The concept of dar al-Islam and the other related descriptions of space such as dar al-harb or dar al-kufr were deduced through scholarly opinion and not directly from the Islamic texts. As all such human endeavours they are subject to change and replacement as the circumstances change. Many of today’s scholars have challenged these notions and have argued that they are no longer relevant. Close examination of the older scholarly views show that factors such as security, protection of ones faith & intellect and protection of one’s property & family were seen as the paramount reasons for the prohibition of living outside dar al-Islam. In the modern age when there is no single area that can be called dar al-Islam and you can find that some Muslims have to seek asylum in western nations for their safety and religious freedom – it seems irrelevant to even debate the issue. Furthermore, scholars have talked of citizenship being a contract between an individual and the state and have emphasised its legality. Voting is the manifestation and duty associated with that legal, binding contract.
We can fulfil this duty by being confident, upright individuals, good family members, fully engaged in society and by living our religious and spiritual values to the full, so that we are an example to others. Islam is not a religion of isolation and Muslims would see if they view their teachings seriously and comprehensively that its basic purpose is to create justice and peace between people. The private values that people posses must influence our public behaviour and social justice is a paramount concern. And we also need to look beyond our own needs and rights, which are important, to realise our role is to be of service (khidmah) to all the people around us, our people.
A more detailed coverage of these discussions around voting can be found in a booklet published here: http://ibrahimfoundation.com/IbrahimFoundation_PoliticalParticipation