Muslims in Britain and the Elections: What does the Shari‘ah say?

Muslims in Britain and the Elections: What does the Shari‘a say?

Shaykh Michael Mumisa

Muslim participation in the elections has become an issue of intense debate in Britain

between those calling for Muslims’ full participation in the voting process and those who

consider voting in a Western democracy as act of apostasy. A number of websites and

literature have been produced telling Muslims that if they vote they will be consigned to

the fire of hell. There is a great concern among some politicians and Muslim

organizations that some Muslims, particularly the youth and women, will decide not to

participate in the elections and thereby further marginalizing themselves. The voice of

those opposed to the elections is becoming louder and more aggressive. The general

consensus among some Muslim organizations and clerics is that those urging Muslims to

abstain from voting in the elections represent only a minority view. By dismissing a

growing number of voiceless Muslim youth as nothing but a small collection of poor

young men and women who have been influenced and brainwashed by fundamentalists,

the British media and Muslim organizations may be playing a very dangerous game. The

problem will simply not disappear and the number of disgruntled voices will only

continue to grow.

The approach often adopted by British Muslims when faced with a crisis is one

of defensive apologetics, aggressive public relations, and damage control. An army of

“community leaders” and clerics are called upon to explain to the wider British audience

that “Islam is a religion of peace”, “they are giving Islam a bad name”, “they are just a

minority”. The word “community” is then repeated a number of times to suggest that

there is a collective monolithic worldview against which these youth are deviating. What

I call “the myth of the community” is then reinforced as a group that shares the same

values, views, and beliefs. Thus, “community” becomes a term of exclusion and inclusion

whereby some members are included while others are excluded.

While this approach may have been successful in presenting a favorable image of

Islam to the ‘outsiders’, it has at the same time been alienating young Muslim men and

women who feel that the “community’s Islam” has failed to engage directly with the

primary texts and sources of Islam. When it comes to serious questions relating to how

specific verses of the Qur’an should be read and understood here and now, British

Muslims have not even began to scratch the surface. What the youth want is a kind of

“Biblical theology” of the Qur’an; a process whereby the Qur’an is interpreted and reinterpreted

in order to provide answers on how Muslims should participate alongside the

religious and cultural ‘other’ in solving society’s problems. There has been no serious

debate or discussion on specific verses dealing with Muslims’ relations with Jews,

Christians, Muslims’ social and political role in Britain, among other things.

It is this failure by mainstream British Muslims to engage in a serious intellectual

debate regarding the verses of the Qur’an and the traditions (hadith) of the Prophet

which has caused a large number of young Muslims to go and look for answers among

Muslim extremists who happen to be the only ones at the moment dealing directly with

the primary texts but from an extremist point of view. Thus, the battle of Islam against

extremism in Britain should not only focus on reclaiming the youth from extremist

organizations but also on reclaiming the Qur’an itself from ‘ideological interpretations’.

This can only be possible if Muslims feel confident and qualified enough to go beyond

ritualized Islam, metaphysical theorization, towards meaningful and self-assertive Islam.

What does the Shari‘a say about voting in Britain?

I would like to argue here that while I do not share the view that voting in Britain is

tantamount to apostasy, the question regarding Muslims’ participation in so-called non-

Islamic systems of government is not an isolated view but part of centuries of Islamic

political thought and theo-legal discourse. I would like to mention right at the outset that

there is no explicit textual evidence either from the Qur’an nor sunna (or imitatio

Muhammadi) that can be used to substantiate the view that Muslims in Britain should not

vote or that participating in voting is an act of apostasy.

Muslim legal theorists and pragmatists have always agreed that the Qur’an is not

prescriptive in the sense that it provides detailed instructions on how laws should be

applied or executed in society. Instead, it tends to be general providing only general

principles and guidelines. The Muslim jurists such as Abu Hanifa, al-Shafi‘i, Ja‘afar al-

Sadiq, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Malik, to name just a few, developed a means of deducing the

law through a complex hermeneutical theory, whereby they were able to interpret the

Qur’an and sunna in as extensive a manner as was possible, thereby making the limited

legal verses of the Qur’an useful in providing answers to the new questions. Thus, the

hermeneutical journey of the Qur’an followed a path of thought that winds its way

through methodological debates that reflects hermeneutical notions developing with the

interaction between Islam and the praxis of the post-Muhammadi context and the

dialogue between these hermeneutical notions and the novel theological, social, and legal

questions that emerged after Muhammad. This is not the place to discuss, even at

rudimentary level, the development of Islamic legal theories and hermeneutics and their

application in modern society. I have discussed this topic extensively in my book

“Islamic Law: Theory & Interpretation” (Maryland, 2002) and my forthcoming book

“Law, Hermeneutics, and Social Change in Muslim Legal Theory: A Close-reading of al-

Shatibi’s al-Muwafaqat” (2005). For the purpose of my argument, I will only discuss how

the theories of maqasid (purpose of law in Islam), masalih (public interest), and kulliyyat alahkam

(general and universal principles of law) can be applied in our attempt to explain

why Muslims should vote in British elections. What is of particular interest to me is how

Muslim legal classicists such as the great Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (died. 1388) interpreted

these theories.

Perhaps what makes al-Shatibi’s theories unique and more relevant in

contemporary times is that they were developed in 8th century Andalusia when most of

the Muslim territories had come under Christian rule. After the fall of Muslim Spain to

Christian rule there was an exodus of Muslims from the conquered territories to the

Muslim lands and what was once a Muslim empire was declared an abode of war by

Muslim jurists (dar al-harb). Muslims started living as minorities under a non-Muslim

authority. A study of the legal questions posed to the Muslim jurists of that time helps to

understand the complex nature of this new situation for the Muslims.

In a collection of the legal verdicts of the Grenada scholars titled al-Hadiqat almustaqilla

al-nadrat fi al-fatawa al-çsadira ‘an ‘ulama’ gharnata (manuscript 1096. Cairo) we

read that scholars started debating whether those Muslims who had not migrated to

Muslim lands and had chosen to remain under Christian rule could be classified as

believers. In a letter sent to al-Shatibi, the question was posed whether it was

“permissible for the people of Andalusia (Muslims) to do business dealings with the

people from the abode of war in those items the scholars (in the past and in the Muslims

countries) prohibited, such as weapons, and other things, given the current situation in

which the Muslims are in need of basic commodities such as clothes, food, and other

things. Or is it that there is no difference between the situation on the people (Muslims)

of Andalusia and those living in Muslim lands? Can one make wax and then sell it to a perfume vendor knowing that he will in turn sell it to an unbeliever?” (see Ahmad Baba

al-Timbukti’s Nayl al-ibtihaj)

Therefore, Al-Shatibi’s methodology and approach to Islamic legal theories and

hermeneutics could develop taking into consideration the pluralistic and evolutionary

nature of society. The theories of maqasid al-shari‘a and masalih as interpreted by al-Shatibi

and other classical Muslim jurists can enable Muslims to remain true to their doctrine and

identity while at the same time taking part in a modern and pluralistic society. A theology

of relations between Islam and the religious ‘other’ can be developed from maqasid alshari’a

and masalih.

What sets al-Shatibi’s interpretation apart from his predecessors is that he

developed the theories by emphasising that the maqasid al-shari‘a and masalih could

override specific legal rulings. According to al-Shatibi, the verses revealed in Makka (or

before the Prophet’s migration to Madina) deal with the universal principles (kulliyyat) of

law which underlie the application of law within society. These general and universal

principle or the maqasid of law such as the notion of justice, morality and ethics, good

social conduct and relations, protection of an individual’s life and property, among

others, cannot be abrogated or revised. Specific legal rulings and injunctions (al-juziyyat)

were revealed in Madina (or after the Prophet’s migration from Makka) as an

interpretation of the universal and general principles. While abrogation in the specific

legal rulings occurred due to social change, such abrogation was not possible in universal

and fundamental principles of law since such principles are not bound by time and space.

An example of how the interpretation of Islam in a society will be influenced by

masalih (public interest) and maqasid (the purpose of law) is given by the famous classical

theologian and theorist Ibn Taymiyya who is widely considered as the father of

conservative Islam. His student Ibn Qayyim narrates that Ibn Taymiyya once said: “I was

passing with some of my friends in the days of the Tartars, and saw a group of them

[Tartars] who were drinking alcohol. One of my friends wanted to reprimand them, but

I prevented him from doing so and said, Allah has prohibited strong drinks as they divert

people from Allah and offering daily prayers, but strong drinks have diverted these

people from committing murder, capturing children and plundering, so leave them

alone.” (see Ibn Qayyim’s I‘lam al-muwaqqi‘in )

Thus, drinking alcohol, although haram (prohibited) under the Shari‘a, in this case

it was overlooked both as masalih (public interest) and the need of the time in order to

save the people from murder and plunder and creating chaos in the society. Under

Islamic law, the universal and fundamental principles are the spirit and the intention of

the Law-giver (qasd al-Shari‘) and will always override the specific legal rulings and other

interpretations of law that are seen to be at odds with the spirit of the law. It is safe to

say that according to this theory, the purpose of law in Islam is not necessarily to follow

the letter of the law or to establish a theocracy and Islamic state, but to fulfil a higher

goal and greater purpose (maqasid) of establishing a moral and just society. Whatever

method can be used to reach this goal is considered “Islamically correct”. If it is also

possible to achieve this goal without having to apply Islamic laws, then suspending such

laws is also considered “Islamically correct”. If voting in the elections ensures that

Muslims are able to live in peace and freedom, then it becomes a general obligation (fard

kifaya) to vote for that party that best serves their interests (masalih).

The three main arguments which have been advanced by those against voting in

Britain are (a) none of the political parties contesting the elections represented the

aspirations of the Muslims, (b) Muslims cannot support any party which espouses only

some policies that are Islamically applicable, and (c) instead of voting Muslims should

fight towards the establishment of an Islamic state or caliphate.

The first argument is certainly not unique. It has been made by many individuals

and Muslim organisations that believe that the government has not delivered on its

promises. There is no doubt that there are Muslims who are disillusioned with the

current state of affairs, and hold the current government responsible for what they

perceive to be a deterioration in school standards, health care, safety and security, job

opportunities, moral values, the war on Iraq, among other things. The reluctance or

hesitancy of some Muslims to vote, or indeed their desire to vote for an “opposition”

party, can be understood from this point of view.

The second argument is highly debatable. While the British system does allow practices which are at variance with Islamic norms and values, this does not negate the

permissibility of participation in the system, provided that the following conditions are

met :

1. the state is committed to the establishment of peace and justice.

2. the system guarantees freedom of religion.

3. the system allows for participation of all citizens in decision-making.

The British system meets these demands. Therefore, participating in the political system

is both legitimate and desirable.

While Muslims are entitled to oppose any measure which they consider to be immoral,

the definition of morality should not be confined to issues such as abortion on demand,

gay rights, gambling, among others, but should be broadened to include issues of

housing, water, health care, economic and social justice, education and employment.

These are recognised by Islam as fundamental and universal rights (kulliyat) and maqasid

(purpose of law is Islam) to be enjoyed by every citizen. Muslims should have absolutely

no hesitation in supporting initiatives to fulfill these fundamental rights; in fact, they

should be actively involved with government, as well as in Non-Governmental

Organisations promoting these and other related rights.

Furthermore, Muslim opponents of participation will have to learn to accept that

it is not in the nature of a secular state to define issues of social morality, nor to enforce

any particular standard of moral and ethical behaviour on its citizens. The responsibility

is upon individuals and communities to ensure that they safeguard their religious values

and that they do not become victims of what they consider to be social vices. They

should focus their energies on constructive means of maintaining and promoting these

values at the level of civil society rather than on attempting to compel the state to adopt


Muslims will have no advantage in isolating themselves from the mainstream of

political life and becoming a marginalised community. They must commit themselves to

a system of cultural and religious pluralism within which they are free to assert their

religious freedom. While maintaining their specific religious identity in the Western

democratic order, they must remain conscious of their British identity.

The debate engendered by extremist groups and their clerics, I venture to

suggest, can in fact be seen in a positive light. It should provide a platform for Muslim

theologians and Islamic legal theorists to debate important questions in relation to the

role of Muslims in the broader British society, their approach to secular democracy, and

their national/cultural identity. Through this process, it may indirectly help Muslims to

focus on their future role and involvement in national life.

The interaction of Islam and the praxis of the British socio-political and cultural

context have led to a civil war of ideas within Islam in Britain. It has caused a radical

division between the so-called “progressive” elements schooled only in the secular

sciences at Western universities while lacking even rudimentary knowledge of the

classical Islamic sciences, and the “conservative” or “traditional” elements educated in

the traditional universities and seminaries in the Middle East or Indo-Pakistan subcontinent

and have not been equipped with the knowledge of contemporary humanities

and social sciences.

The secular educated Muslim “experts” have only succeeded in scratching the

surface of a complicated and highly sophisticated Islamic discourse in their media

contributions and appearances. This has continued to frustrate the youth and other

intelligent Muslims who are searching for sophisticated answers based on the primary

sources of Islam. In order to maintain the link with the Islamic traditional legacy (turath),

the traditionalists’ response has been a condemnation of any attempt to recast and reinterpret

Islam from a contemporary perspective and have considered such an exercise a

serious departure from orthodoxy and orthopraxy. While this attitude has been

successful in preserving ritualised Islam and Muslims’ symbols of cultural nationalism

(“Asian” cultures), it has failed in providing answers to a number of contemporary

questions. The primary Muslim concern cannot be mere survival of an old tradition

(turath) – Islam as a museum that displays once meaningful deposits – but the

actualisation of a challenging message for a contemporary generation.

The future of Islam in Britain rests upon the emergence of a generation of young

scholars who are schooled in both the classical Islamic disciplines and contemporary

humanities and social sciences. A reader of the Qur’an who grew outside of Islamic life,

who is attending a secular university, is more likely to see the Qur’an as a collection of

conflicting theological claims than is a reader who grew up with frequent participation in

worship, who has access to the classical sciences of Islam. Lack of knowledge of the

English is not the problem as suggested by the Muslim organisations in Britain and the

Home Office. The problem is much more complex than that; it is one of methodology

and approach. Traditional Islamic seminaries should stop producing graduates who are

only able to function as Mosque Imams teaching ritualised Islam. The dominance of the

modern Western idiom is such that the scholar of Islam (the ‘alim) must now conduct

not merely a traditional discourse, but also a discourse cognisant of modernity.

Since the Muslim of today is very often exposed to contemporary disciplines, and

thereby exposed and possibly co-opted by their associated worldviews and assumptions,

it becomes imperative to address contemporary issues that are associated with the

Western disciplines. Islamic scholarship can no longer ignore the host of other worldviews,

religious or secular, with which it competes for the attention of contemporary

human beings. To wish for Islamic disciplines which have no connection to the West is

to forget that because of colonialism, globalisation, and migration, the Muslim is all too

often caught up in images, concepts, and paradigms quite alien to classical and medieval

Muslim scholarship.

Muslim organisations and groups in Britain should promote a serious intellectual

debate that focuses on the primary sources and texts of Islam as points of reference.

Such a debate will provide the platform to those who would otherwise have resorted to

extreme measures in order to be heard.

April 2005


Comments are closed.