Imam Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani’s classical work of Islamic creed is considered the definitive statement on orthodox theology among Sunni Asharites and Maturidites. In it, he comments upon the incidents surrounding the appointment and selection of the Caliph by Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second ‘righteous successor’ to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In relation to Umar’s selection of six people to appoint the Caliph, Taftazani says:

…in consultation all of them took the place of one Imam.[1]

This collective leadership, a selected group of individuals from the community, set the precedent for collective and consultative rule, according to ‘orthodox’ scholarship. Islamic orthodoxy did not, and does not, necessitate despotic, autocratic, or theocratic ruling of people in God’s name.

This is why even conservative scholars of today, like Sheikh Wahbah Zuhayli, say that:

It is important to know that Islam did not lay down a specific form or shape for governance.[2]

In pre-modern times, Muslim scholars considered it both acceptable and necessary to engage with, and take political positions in, empires which would have been dominated by people of other religions who were opposed to Islam. As we have seen from Zamakhshari, this was done in order to safeguard justice and the interests of society. This is far from the political situation in which we live today, where political systems are religiously neutral and are not defined by belonging to a specific faith or denomination.

It has never been the case that Muslims require religious edicts to make it necessary to participate in wider society. Neither should it be the case now; the pragmatic and principled reasons for political participation are self-evident, especially with the development of some anti-Muslim forces in western societies today. This being the case, the spurious arguments of heterodox, deviant, extremists should not be considered as typical of Islamic thought. Nor should they be seen as reasonable religious arguments by Muslims seeking to live out their religion faithfully.

It is clear that the ideological considerations that inform the thinking and ‘jurisprudence’ of extremist groups did not exist in the thinking of classical Islamic jurists. The ‘ideological’ basis of ruling that leads to the self-contradictory verdicts issued by such groups is wholly different from the framework within which Islamic authorities delivered their religious edicts in the past. Rather than ideological aims, the classical Islamic authorities’ main considerations were protecting the freedom to practise the religion; protecting people’s interests and their wealth; and protecting the interests of society as a whole. This was the case whether it concerned joining the military, taking political office, supporting political leaders, or voting for them.

Scholars today apply the same criteria to the issues facing us now, whether it is financially or practically supporting political parties, candidates for elections or, governments. Whether the individuals are Muslims or not is not the deciding factor.

The example of the Muslims who migrated to the Christian Kingdom of Abyssinia at the request of the Prophet (pbuh) is exemplary in this regard.

The Prophet (pbuh) said about the Kingdom:

If you were to go to Abyssinia (it would be better for you), for the King will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country.[3]

They were told he was a ‘just’ king and he consulted them when making decrees to protect them,[4] they prayed for him to stay in power and even fought to defend this non-Muslim ruler.[5] Scholars like Imam Malik forbade forever, any form of jihad against such a country based upon prophetic hadith and the consensus of the scholars from the early generation – the Salaf.[6]

Separatism, isolation, and disenfranchising Muslims in the name of sectarian religious politics only benefits the extremists at both ends of the political world; extremists such as al-Qaeda and ISIL, and also those on the extreme right, with their bigoted anti-Muslim message of hatred.

T J Winter, one of the leading Muslim scholars in the West, quotes a leading eastern scholar:

In a lecture given in California by Shaykh ‘Abdullah bin Bayyah, one of the most distinguished Maliki scholars of Mauritania, Bin Bayyah told his American Muslim audience that ‘the relationship between Muslims living in this land is a relationship of peace and contractual agreement – of a treaty. This is a relationship of dialogue and a relationship of giving and taking […] It is absolutely essential that you respect the laws of the land that you are living in.’ The Shaykh proceeded to explain that the classical fiqh (rules of religious conduct) required conviviality and respect for non-Muslim neighbours, and allowed adaptations even of the fundamental religious rules, such as the timing of prayers,[7] to facilitate the integration of Islam in society and the work place.

T J Winter goes on to corroborate the point with lucid examples from European history. We would be well-served by using such examples as a guide for ourselves today:

Traditional Sunnism’s legal and theological capacity to allow conviviality and adaptation has, of course, been demonstrated in many historical contexts. From an almost unlimited list, examples might include the ancient Muslim communities in Poland and Lithuania, which became so solidly embedded in their Catholic surroundings that they produced two of Poland’s national heroes: Jalal al-Din, who supported the Grand Duke against the Teutonic knights at Tannenberg in 1421, and Marshall Joseph Piludski (d 1920), after whom one of the greatest city squares of Warsaw still takes its name.[8]

Muslims in the West are an essential part of the spiritual, intellectual, and political make-up of the society. Their heritage can provide ample guidance to steer them forwards, and also allow them to develop a discourse that is both true to the essential nature of Islam, and the values shared in western society by all the great faiths – indeed by all people of good-will.


[1] A Commentary on the Creed of Islam Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani on the Creed of Najm al-Din al-Nasafi translated by Earl Edgar Elder, Columbia Press, New York, 1950.

[2] Qidaya a-Fiqh wal-Fikr al-Muasir, p. 533.

[3] The Life of Muhammad a translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, A. Guillaume, Oxford University Press.

[4] ‘The Life of the Prophet Muhammad al-Sira al-Nabawiyya’, Ibn Kathir, vol. 2, Translated by Professor Trevor Le Gassick from the opening pages to p. 19.

[5] Kitab ul-Mabsut, vol. 5; Juz 10 chapter on marriage with the Ahl al-Harb (hostile territory) and entering such lands with an assurance of safety [amaan], Dar al-Fikr, Beirut, p. 1871.

[6] The saying of the prophet being: “Leave the Ethiopians in peace as long as they leave you alone”. Imam Malik when questioned about the narration said “People continue to avoid an attack on them”. See vol. 1, p. 456, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer – Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtasid – Ibn Rushd, Translated by Professor Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee.

[7] Sheikh Wahbah Zuhayli issues the same verdict quoting from Hanbali sources, Sheikh Mansur al-Buhuti, Kash-shaaf al-qinaa, vol. 2, pp. 3 to 7 and Imam Ibn Qudama in al-Mughni, vol. 2, pp. 273-282, Dar al-Manar, in his Qidaya fil-Fiqh wal-Fikr al-Muasir, p. 34.

[8] T. J. Winter, ‘British Muslim Identity – Past, problems, prospects’, The M.A.T. Papers.

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