Are ‘Islamic’ political parties ordained in the Quran?

In the later 20th century, some Muslim groupings have advocated that there is a need to establish ‘Islamic’ political parties and that to establish such parties is an Islamic legal obligation in the same way as praying and charity are legal obligations (wajib). Since it is seen as an obligation, those not participating in the activities of such political parties are seen as blameworthy and negligent of the Shariah rules.

Aside from the religious jurisprudential problems with this argument, there is also an intellectual problem. That is, the whole notion of political parties is relatively modern and this itself rules out the possibility that establishing such parties is a religious obligation: how can something that wasn’t in existence at the time of the Prophet (pbuh) be the definite subject of a Quranic verse? Still more far-fetched is the claim that establishing ‘Islamic’ political parties is an obligation of similar standing to the ritual worships such as prayer. If one considers that political parties emerge from the modern nation state and also considers the vehement opposition of groups such as Tahrir to the idea of a nation state in the first place, one begins to see the inherent contradiction in their thought processes.

From a jurisprudential and religious perspective, this view is held only by a few groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and controversial recent figures such as Mawdudi.[1] Before these types of political groupings came into existence there was no comparable demand to establish them, and there is not a single classical jurist who held it an obligation to establish an Islamic political grouping or party.[2]

It is no surprise that no such political party existed in the early period of Islam or at any time in Islamic history. There is not one example of a party established on the basis of the Quranic verse cited as a justification for political parties:

Let there arise from among you a group of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining al-maruf (good) and forbidding al-munkar (wrongdoing). And it is they who are the successful. [3: 104]

There were different interpretations of this verse among the classical jurists and Quran commentators. There were some who said that it was an individual duty on each and every Muslim to ‘promote good in society’ and work against wrong. Most, however, said that if only a portion of the population did this, then that is sufficient and not all individuals are obliged to. Thus the burden of duty is on the community as a whole rather than the individual. Imam al-Jassas,[3] Imam Qurtubi,[4] and Imam al-Tabari[5] are all of this latter view.

Imam al-Jassas, the famous Hanafi scholar, comments on the verse as follows:

God has obliged the enjoining of good and forbidding of evil, that it is a communal obligation (fard kifayah) and not a duty on every individual. If some people perform this then the sin falls from the rest…. others have taken the view that it is a duty upon every individual, individually.[6]

Imam Abu Jafar al-Tabari, one of the earliest commentators on the Quran, says:

[As to God’s words] ‘Let there arise from among you, O believers, an ummah’ [this means] at least a group of the ummah… [As to] ‘calling to the religion of Muhammad and struggling with all effort… and they will be successful’ [this means] they will have paradise.[7]

There is no third opinion mentioned in the classical sources in relation to this verse. No obligation to form an Islamic political party, or even the idea of an Islamic political party, has ever been mentioned. This is in spite of Tahrir’s erroneous claim that this was precisely Imam al-Tabari’s position – namely that there was a duty to establish political parties. It is clear from the quote above that this is not the case. Saying that there should be at least some people that are undertaking to ‘enjoin good and forbid wrong’ cannot be likened to forming a modern political party so easily.

To conclude this section, it is safe to say that the Islamist political parties such as Hizb ut-Tahrir are alone in their view that the verse relates to establishing political parties.

Having established this, we may note that the only real precedent in Islamic history for a political group is the Khawarij,[8] an extremist faction that existed in early Muslim history and which has many parallels with groups such as ISIL and Tahrir.[9] Like their latter-day relatives, the Khawarij adopted the slogan ‘no judgement except God’s judgement’ and declared all the rulers of their day as being outside the pale of Islam (kuffar). They also believed they had the duty to remove these rulers by force or through militant activities if necessary. This last aspect is likewise one of the defining characteristics of terrorist groups like ISIL and neo-Kharijite groups like Tahrir. Betraying their modernist origins once again is the point that Tahrir make about ‘governments’ being ‘kufr’. Not even the Khawarij made this point because, contrary to what the Islamists say of that time, there was no such thing as a ‘government system’ for them to deride.

Jamal al-Din al-Asnawi describes the nature of the Khawarij perfectly:

Al-Khawarij: Those who permit the slaying of Muslims, and the taking of their wealth and families, based merely upon their interpretation and their apparent evidence (shubha). To us, they are transgressors (fussaq); though not to themselves.

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[1] Abu al-A’la al-Mawdudi mentioned the following in his book ‘Islamic concepts regarding religion and state’ under the chapter on: The obligation of enjoning the ma’roof and forbidding the munkar; “What is apparant from the partative in the ayah; ‘And let there arise out of you a group inviting to all that is khair (Islam).’ It does not mean that the Muslims are ordered to have a group that will undertake the obligation of da’wah to Islam, enjoining the ma’roof and forbidding the munkar, whilst it is not an obligation on the rest of the Muslims to undertake this task in origin. Rather its meaning is the obligation that the Ummah should not be at any time without -at least- one group that will guard the light coming from the lamp of truth and goodness, and struggle against the darkness of evil and dangers of falsehood. When no such group exists amongst the Muslims, then it is impossible for the Ummah to be saved from the curse and severe punishment of Allah (swt), let alone be the best Ummah brought forth for mankind.” This is the only reference provided with an actual quotation by HT for the formation of political parties or “groups” being necessary religiously. This is quoted by the senior HT member and ideologue Ahmed Mahmoud in his book Dawa ilal-Islam – ‘The Call to Islam’. An extract of the translation can be found at http://islamicsystem.blogspot.com/2006_08_01_archive.html

[2] This should not be confused with the political differences that led to the creation of different political groupings and sects e.g. the early schism between groups later known as Shia and Sunni, which do not base themselves upon reading this verse nor describe themselves as a political party. Though in origin the term ‘Shia Ali’, did refer to those supporting Ali ibn Abu Talib, the son in-law of the Prophet’s candidacy for Caliphate.

[3] Imam Abu Bakr Ahmed bin Ali al-Razi al-Jassas al-Hanafi died in 980 CE, and is one of the foremost legal commentators of the Qur’an and belongs to the Hanafi madhab.

[4] Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Al-Qurtubi or Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Abu Bakr al-Ansari al-Qurtubi (1214 – 1273).

[5] Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838-923) is the first to compile a commentary of the Qur’an and is considered one of the most thorough in relating the opinions of the early Muslim jurists. As such his commentary has weight among Muslim scholars and masses alike.

[6] ‘Chapter on the duty to enjoin the good and forbid the evil’ ‘Ahkam al-Qur’an’, vol. 2,  p. 29, Dar al-Turath al-Arabi Beirut.

[7] Tafsir al-Tabari min Jami al-Bayan an-Tawil il-Qur’an, vol. 2, p. 300, 1994, Mu’assas al-Risala.

[8] Sheikh Abdal-Hakim Murad (T. J. Winter) says about them: “The other great dissident movement in early Islam was that of the Kharijites, literally, the seceders, so-called because they seceded from the army of the Caliph Ali when he agreed to settle his dispute with Muawiyah through arbitration. Calling out the Quranic slogan, “Judgement is only God’s”, they fought bitterly against Ali and his army which included many of the leading Companions, until, in the year 38, Imam Ali defeated them at the Battle of Nahrawan, where some ten thousand of them perished.”

He gives the following references in the footnote to the above point:

The Kharijites represent a tendency which has reappeared in some circles in recent years. Divided into many factions, their principles were never fully codified. They were textualist, puritanical and anti-intellectual, rejected the condition of Quraishite birth for their Imam, and declared everyone outside their grouping to be kafir. For some interesting accounts, see M. Kafafi, ‘The Rise of Kharijism’, Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Egypt, XIV (1952), 29-48; Ibn Hazm, al-Fisal fi’l-milal wa’l-nihal (Cairo, 1320), IV, 188-92; Brahim Zerouki, L’Imamat de Tahart: premier etat musulman du Maghreb (Paris, 1987).

Understanding the Four Madhabs at http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/newmadhh.htm#11

[9] Imam Ahmad, Ibn Mājah, and al-Hākim recorded a hadīth from Ibn Abī Awfá, and Ahmad and al-Hākim also recorded it from Abū Umāmah that the Prophet said: “The Khawārij are the dogs of Hell.”

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