In the Name of Allah, Most Kind, Most Merciful
Islam and Politics Part 2: Is political engagement prohibited, permissible or necessary? (VIDEO HERE)
Is engagement in politics prohibited, permissible or necessary in Islam? What does the Qur’an say about our responsibilities to the world? Why did Shiism have a period where political engagement was prohibited?
In part one we introduced the series by looking at how the Qur’an relates the responsibilities of a Muslim society and how it can practically affect a non Muslim society. This leads us to ask what is the foundation of Islamic political thinking which this part focuses on.
The purposes of creation
The first point is that building good governance and infrastructure in which people can thrive is one of the reasons for creation. The Qur’an and Ahadith detail several reasons for our purpose, of which this is one. Let us review some of these purposes and note how some of them relate directly to the need of political participation:
1) Purpose is to serve God (وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ (51:56) And I have not created the jinn and mankind except that they may serve Me.
2) A purpose is love of Ahl al-Bayt (a). In the Event of Kisaa (refer to commentaries of verse 33:33) the angel Gibrael states that Allah (swt) said, “I have not created the skies, the earth, the moon or the sun except for the love of the five underneath the cloak” meaning the Prophet Muhammad (s), his daughter Lady Fatima (a), Imam Ali (a) and Imam’s Hassan (a) and Hussain (a).
3) Purpose of Isti’maar (Cultivation) وَإِلَى ثَمُودَ أَخَاهُمْ صَالِحًا قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ اعْبُدُواْ اللّهَ مَا لَكُم مِّنْ إِلَـهٍ غَيْرُهُ هُوَ أَنشَأَكُم مِّنَ الأَرْضِ وَاسْتَعْمَرَكُمْ فِيهَا
(11:61) And to [the tribe of] Thamud [We sent] their brother Salih. He said: “O my people! Worship God [alone]: you have no deity other than Him. He brought you into being out of the earth, and made you thrive thereon.
The third purpose of creation is for us to cultivate and progress our civilisation. Thriving here means something positive; something of benefit. In the Islamic sense if you cultivate something harmful, it does not fulfil the goal of cultivation and so it does not count. Of course when cultivating civilisation, this needs regulations and policies which would be the responsibility of a just government. This is why the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (s) states, “One hour of a Just Ruler is better than 70 years of the Worshipper” because his impact in cultivating the earth can produce so much positive progression.
4) Purpose of Istikhlaaf (stewardship) وَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَكُمْ خَلاَئِفَ الأَرْضِ وَرَفَعَ بَعْضَكُمْ فَوْقَ بَعْضٍ دَرَجَاتٍ لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَا آتَاكُمْ(6:165)
For, He it is who has made you inherit the earth, and has raised some of you by degrees above others, so that He might try you by means of what He has bestowed upon you.
The fourth purpose of creation is stewardship. Specific stewardship is reserved for those appointed Caliphs of Allah (swt) however, general stewardship is for all mankind to be responsible for the planet and what is within their capacity to be a shepard over.
This stewardship is divided into two: Care for that which came before you and responsibility toward those who will come after you. Those before you will have performed their Isti’maar and cultivated civilisation; we are obliged to protect and develop it further. If it has reached us in a poor state, we are obliged to improve it. This may be roads, healthcare systems or the environment, for example. If it reaches us having being improved, we are also prohibited from damaging it as per the verse “Do not corrupt the earth after its reformation.” As for that which we are leaving behind, we are responsible to leave for the forthcoming generations a world which is healthy, safe and productive for them.
In this way we are the link between what came previously and what is to come which also requires standards and laws which are put in place by government and policy makers.
What is Siyasah in Islam? Siyasah modern Arabic means politics however, its root and original meaning sheds great light on why it is translated today as such and what its applications are.
Originally Siyasah meant to train a horse. Training wild horses is especially difficult – much like training a human being or even a nation of human beings. Training the horse may be done through violence, for example, or gentleness. Both will have their effects, short, medium and long term just like it would upon a community. In this sense, Siyasah is about training a community for it to develop and prosper, taking them from their negative states to enlightenment, or in the Islamic sense from darkness into light.
Why did Shi’i scholars prohibit political engagement in the 17th to 19th centuries?
During the Akhbari-Usuli debates of the 15th to 17th centuries, the Safavid state adopted Shiism as its religion. However much oppression and corruption was performed in the name of Shiism. With the intellectual victory of Usuliism came a stark departure from Akhbari practises including a prohibition in political engagement owing the fears that the religion may continue to be used for abusive purposes. This prohibition remained until a series of incidents which brought a new thinking as to the relationship between Shiism and political theory.
a) The tobacco revolution of Ayatollah Shirazi
b) The Iraqi constitutional crises
c) The Islamic revolution of Iran
d) The attempted Islamic revolutions in IraqI
n the previous centuries Shiism has withdrawn itself from study and produce of national law or policy; this left a vacuum in which other ideologies spread and could govern in, especially during the era of the flourishing of nation states. However, as Shii scholars came more into contact with the need to re-engage the political landscape they referred to narrations such as the following
Hasan Ibn Husain Anbari narrates: Over a period of fourteen years I kept writing letters to Imam Ridha (peace be upon him), seeking permission from him to allow me to work within the administrative setup of the ruler (of the city).
Since the Imam (peace be upon him) never replied, I, in my final letter, wrote: I fear oppression and persecution. Those working with the Sultan say: “You are of the Shiites and this is why you do not co-operate with us and are evasive.”
In reply, the Imam (peace be upon him) said: From your letter I sense that you fear for your life. You are aware that if you are placed in a (high and) responsible position, you can adhere to and act upon the teachings and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his holy progeny); this would cause your subordinates to also follow the dictates of your faith.
If you happen to come across instances whereby you have to deal with poor and indigent Mu’minin, ensure that you exhibit consideration, toleration and forbearance towards them!
And since you would now be working with them, it would be deemed that you are one of them, (and thus) you would have to strive hard to perform God-pleasing deeds, since these deeds would then serve to compensate your co-operation with the illegal ruling apparatus.
However, if you are unable to act in this manner, then it is not permissible for you to take up this employment.
With this came a number of books written on Shii political theory such as
a) Politics: The very heart of Islam by Ayatollah Syed Sadiq as-Shirazi
b) Aspects of Political Theory of Ayatollah Syed Mohammed Hussaini Shirazi
c) Islamic Government by Imam Khomeini
d) Studies of Wilayah al-Faqih by Ayatollah Muntadheri
e) Imam Ali and Islamic Political Theory by Muhammad Rayshari
f) Qiyadatul Islami by Ayatollah Syed Taqi al-Modarresi
This shows that across the spectrum of Maraji’ and scholars a movement from prohibition of participation to an emphasis and obligation toward political awareness and engagement.