Taking part in governance within non-Muslim majority countries

It is well known that Tahrir and others say that taking part in governance within non-Muslim majority countries is haram.

This is in complete contrast to scholars from the four canonical schools of legal thought. Zamakhshari (Hanafi), Ibn Taymia (Hanbali), Qurtubi (Maliki), and Mawardi (Shafii) have all discussed this and stated its permissibility.

What should we make of the fact that all four Sunni schools apparently ‘missed’ the ‘definitive (qati) fact’ that it is ‘haram to participate in the political systems in non-Muslim majority countries? This is the implication of Tahrir’s claim that it is’ haram. They even go so far as to say that it is kufr. Well, if it is a matter of kufr and iman, then surely Tahrir have different conclusions about aqeedah (basic theology) from those of the four Sunni schools?

The Islamists give a commentary on a verse from Surah Yusuf in the Quran to make their point that participating in government is haram, and conclude that ‘judgement is for God alone’. As has been demonstrated, the same was misconstrued by the Khawawrij, but also by the likes of Qutb, Tahrir and other Islamists.

Once again, we see that the Islamists are at variance with some impressive forebears. Scholars from within the tradition cited the example of the Prophet Joseph (pbuh) from the very same chapter to disprove the claim, long before the Islamists themselves made it.

The story tells how the Prophet Joseph (pbuh) himself requested a position under a Pharaoh of a different religion to himself. The verse is:

He said: Make me responsible for the store houses in the Earth, verily I am trustworthy and knowledgable. [12: 55]

What did the previous scholars say about this verse? Imam Qurtubi comments:

Some of the people of knowledge said: In this verse there is what permits someone of nobler stature working for a flagrant sinner, or taking a position in a non-Muslim authority on condition that he is not merely satisfying the random desires and wishes of the fajir (flagrant transgressor), but rather he is performing what he is tasked to do according to his general discretion. Some said this was a special dispensation for Joseph, and is not permitted today. The first is what is correct if conditioned by what we have mentioned. God knows best.

(Qurtubi continues:) Mawardi said: If the master/ruler is a tyrant people have differed on the permissibility of taking a ruling position and are of two views: one group permitted it if he can act in accordance with the truth in what he has been entrusted with because Joseph was a ruler for Pharaoh. And consideration is for the person’s actions and not for the actions of others. The second group did not permit it… explaining that the Pharaoh was just and righteous unlike Moses’s Pharaoh… What is correct is that it is permitted absolutely (Mawardi)[1]

In this excerpt, Qurtubi mentions the opinion of Imam Mawardi in addition to his own view. Mawardi covered the subject of this verse in his extensive treatise on government, al-Ahkam al-Sultaniya wal-Wilayat al-Diniya. As Qurtubi reminds us, Mawardi emphatically states the absolute permissibility of participating in this type of government.[2] The irony of this is that Tahrir liberally quote Mawardi as supporting their view.

Imam Qurtubi explained that the chapter documenting the story of Joseph explains for us the fundamental aims of the Shariah and that the teachings of Islam are universal and not restricted to what is contained within the revelation. It is for him an indisputable axiom of Islam:

This is a principle (evidence) for the statement that the interests of the Shariah (masalih al-Shariah) are the preservation of religions (in the plural), lives, intellects, lineage and property. So everything that achieves something from these matters is an interest (maslaha); and everything that damages an interest being realized is a mafsada (corruption) and the opposite of a maslaha. And there is no dispute (khilaf) that the aim of the Shariah is to guide people to their worldly interests.[3]

Zamakhshari comments on the verse as follows:

If it is said: how can it be permitted to become a ruler under the authority of a non-Muslim, following him, being under his authority, and obedient to him? I reply: it has indeed been narrated from Mujahid that he became Muslim, but Qatada states (conversely) it is an evidence that it is permitted for someone to take a position of governance in a tyrannical authority. Indeed many of the salaf (early generation of pious Muslims) took up positions of judiciary from many transgressors! Indeed when a prophet or a scholar knows that there is no way to rule by the decrees of God, or to stop oppression, except by being established in authority through a non-Muslim king or a fasiq (a flagrant sinner) then he is to stand alongside and be prominent with him. Some have said (qeela – ie, though it is weak) that the King took counsel from him and did not disagree with him in anything.[4]

Ibn Taymia was asked a question regarding a worse situation, where someone in authority was a tyrant and an oppressor and usurped people’s wealth. Should someone who has some ability to influence the situation and make it less bad, leave office, or stay in power? His response was:

Such a man is like a guardian of orphans, a trustee of waqf (religious trust), a partner in commerce or any such individual who acts on behalf of others by virtue of his guardianship or by proxy: he is like them in their payment of some of the money of their principals of clients to an unjust ruler if this is the only way to serve the interests of their clients. This man will be doing right, not wrong, and what he gives the rulers includes what is given to tax collectors in real-estate tax and sales tax, as anyone who makes a transaction for himself or on behalf of others in these countries has to pay these taxes, and if he does not collect the tax, while he cannot see to the affairs of his subjects without it, the interests of his subjects, and his subjects themselves, will be harmed.

As for those who opine that such a situation should not be allowed to exist in order not to accept a little injustice, if they are followed by people, the injustice and corruption will certainly increase, for they are like travelers stopped by bandits: if they do not pacify the bandits with some of their money, the bandits will kill them and take all their money. If anyone says to these travelers, “It is illegal to give the bandits any of your money”, he means to keep that little money he is advising them not to pay, but if they follow his advice they will lose that little money and all their money as well. Nobody in his right mind would give such an advice, let alone that a religion ordain it, for Allah the Almighty sent down His Messengers to establish, attain public interests and eliminate and curb evils as much as possible.

If such a man who tries to collect as little tax as possible, and spares the people much more evil by so doing, and can do nothing else, leaves his offices, he will be succeeded by someone else who will collect all the tax and spare the people nothing. Such a man will be rewarded for what he does, and will not be punished (for that) in this world or in the Hereafter.

Such a man is like an orphan’s guardians and a waqf’s trustees who can do their duty only by payment of unjust tax imposed by the government, for if any of them abandons his job he will be replaced by someone who will aggravate the injustice. Therefore, their stay in office is permissible, and they will be committing no sin by paying such taxes. Their remaining in office may even be a duty (wajib) they have to discharge.[5]

He said in another text:

Civilisation is rooted in justice, and the consequences of oppression are devastating. Therefore, it is said that Allah aids the just state even if it is non-Muslim, yet withholds His help from the oppressive state even if it is Muslim.[6]


[1] Al-Jami al-Ahkam ul-Qur’an, part 9, vol. 5, p. 151, Imam Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Ansari al-Qurtubi Dar el-Fikr, Beirut Lebanon.

[2] For Mawardi’s own explanation of the issue see al-Ahkam al-Sultaniya wal-Wilayat al-Diniya, p. 145, Dar ul-Kitab al-Arabi Beirut, 1990, by Imam Abu’l Hasan bin Muhammad bin Habib al-Basri al-Baghdadi al-Mawardi.

[3] Al-Jami al-Ahkam ul-Qur’an, part 9, vol. 5, p. 143, Imam Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Ansari al-Qurtubi Dar el-Fikr, Beirut Lebanon.

[4] al-Kash-shaf, of Imam Muhammad bin Umar al-Zamakhshari, p. 482.

[5] ‘The Permissibility Of Assuming Public Office In An Unjust State, If The Occupant Would Alleviate Some Of The Injustice Or Curb Evil And Corruption’ from the Majmou al-Fatawa.

[6] Letters From Prison, p. 7, Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymia.

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