By Jonathan Brown who is the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and he is the Associate Director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding.
For many, politics is a dirty word. This is understandable. At its best, it often requires compromising principles. At its worst, it perverts them altogether. But politics has also always been inevitable. At its simplest, it is about coordinating cooperation on some basic task, like bringing down a woolly mammoth or building a waterwheel. At its most abstract, it is about negotiating competing interests via the gradated registers of the language of power, from subtle rhetoric and swaying emotion all the way to the jarring and always uncinematic reality of violence. In the context of a diverse society like the United States, politics is the realm of identifying commonalities and dealing with differences.
In a recent discussion with some American Muslim scholars, politics was on everyone’s mind. This is no surprise, as the pressures on the American Muslim community have never been greater, from self-admitted enemies calling for our expulsion to potential allies offering aid. Knowing how to position oneself in regards to these forces is difficult to say the least. And knowing how to deal with how other Muslims position themselves is no easier.
One of the things I’ve noticed over the last few years is that Muslims in the West need more sophisticated instruments to help them navigate questions of political engagement and disagreement within our community. In an effort to help improve this paucity, I’ve come up with a set of maxims that I think could be helpful. They represent my own thoughts alone, and to the extent that others find them useful, I am happy to offer them.
I chose the medium of maxims (qawāʿid) because they have long been the tools that Muslim scholars have used as guides in weighing priorities. I’ve listed them below, along with English translations. Then I’ve provided examples for how I see them working along with justifications for them from the Islamic tradition.
Three Maxims for Political Engagement
1. There is nothing wrong with proximity to power (sultan) if it is presented with the truth and if the general good expected outweighs any expected harm.
لا بأس بالقرب من السلطان إذا وجِّه بالحق و تجاوز ما توقّع من المصالح العامّة ما توقّع من مفاسد.
- Scholar/Community Leader X is invited to meet with Governor Y. There is nothing wrong with X meeting with Y if 1) X honesty confronts Y with the truth on whatever matter arises; and 2) the general good that can reasonably be expected from such engagement outweighs the harms that can reasonably be expected (Note: the good must be general and not just the personal benefit of X).
- Scholar/Community Leader X is invited to serve on government task force Y. There is nothing wrong with X serving on this provided that 1) X represents truth and justice consistently on this task force; and 2) that the general good that can be reasonably expected to proceed from this task force outweighs the reasonably expected harms.
- Scholar X is asked by the government of the non-existent but real sounding kingdom of the Toolistan to serve on a commission to help combat religious extremism. It is well known that the Toolistani government considers any Muslim who prays five times a day to be an extremist and actively lobbies other countries to adopt this view. Scholar X considers accepting a seat on the commission in order to try and steer Toolistani policies in a better direction. But X ultimately decides not to, seeing that what little impact X might have on Toolistan’s firm policies will be outweighed by the legitimacy that X’s presence on the commission will lend to it as well as by the reasonably expected harm to X’s reputation, since X will likely be seen as a tool of Toolistani politics by Muslims around the world.
Justification for this Maxim:
The hesitancy of Muslim scholars to associate with rulers or the state is well known. The famous tafsir scholar, jurist and historian Tabari (d. 923 CE) returned trays of silver sent to him as a gift by the Abbasid caliph. Bukhari (d. 870) was expelled from his hometown of Bukhara for refusing to serve as the tutor for the ruler’s son. But, just as often, Muslim scholars have willingly engaged with rulers and served at every level of government. The famous Hanafi jurist and Hadith scholar Tahawi (d. 932) served as a notary in the court in Fustat (later Cairo), countless leading scholars served as judges, and one of the best studies on the disagreement amongst the Sunni schools of law was written by Ibn Hubayra (d. 1165), whose day job was the grand vizier of the Abbasid caliphate. As the great scholar of Yemen, Shawkani (d. 1824) noted, “It is not possible to fix the number of scholars who had dealings (yattasilu) with the rulers of just one century, let alone in several centuries across the world.”1 From the time of the Companions and Successors, learned and pious Muslims have dealt with their rulers by serving as governors, judges and advisors, merely as businessmen and women with contracts to provide the state with services or at the very least as payers of tax and sometimes the recipients of stipends.
This did not mean that all these scholars found the political sphere appealing. They mostly assumed that it was an oppressive cesspool of corruption and perfidy. But the state was a necessity.2 It was needed to provide the basic law and order without which life is impossible, and it organized critical infrastructure for life according to the Shariah, such as courts and the administration of trusts. It was thus impossible for all scholars to avoid interacting with the world of the ‘sultan.’
Taken as a whole, the position of Muslim scholars regarding interaction with the sultan and the state has been as flexible as possible and only minimally restrictive. As another respected Yemeni scholar, Ibn al-Amir al-San’ani (d. 1768), wrote, “The only thing prohibited by agreement and consensus is mixing with oppressors in order to assist them in their oppression,” whether this is done by the tongue, the pen or merely by the scholar’s silent affirmation of the ruler’s misdeeds.3 In a Hadith found in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), the Prophet states, “You will have rulers over you, but do not aid them in their injustice or believe their lies. Indeed, whoever aids them in their injustice or believes their lies will not reach me at the Fount [on the Day of Judgment].”4
San’ani notes the risk that scholars run in approaching the ruler. He tells how he had seen many scholars go to the palace with the noble intention of advising the ruler and speaking truth to power only to become tools of his oppressive rule. It was because of this, he explains, that the pious early generations of Muslims “used to learn how to avoid the thresholds of the ruler like they learned a sura of the Quran.”5
There is a strong element of moral and spiritual habituation in San’ani’s warning, reminding us of what Muslim scholars have always known and always taught: that we are what we become accustomed to, that good conduct must be learned through practice, and that exposure to corruption eventually corrupts you. “Knowledge,” the Prophet said, “only comes through the process of learning. And prudence only comes through engaging in prudent behavior.”6 The modern manifestation of this phenomenon is the siren song of ‘I’ll change things from the inside.’ We all know how the song goes: ‘If I join X, then I can work on things from the inside. Now I’m part of X, I’ll just keep my mouth shut till I get a little higher up, then I’ll really be able to change things. Now I’m higher up, but if I get to the top, I’ll REALLY be able to change things, so I won’t rock the boat….” But the problem is that, once you’ve kept quite and compromised for so long, this becomes who you are. You’re no longer the person who wanted to speak the truth, you’re a compromised cog in the system you had first hoped to change.
2. The presumption is that mere attendance does not entail approval unless it is preceded by a specific claim or announcement.
الأصل أن مجرَّد المجالسة لا تستلزم الموافقة إلا إذا سُبقت بدعوى خاصّ.
- Muslim X appears on a panel along with Muslim Y. Merely sharing the stage does not mean that X agrees with Y or affirms all that Y believes or does, unless it has been announced that everyone appearing on the panel affirms all that Y believes or does.
- The President of a country announces a conference to define the boundaries of orthodox Islam and invites scholars from around the world to participate. Mere presence or participation in this conference does not entail that a scholar agrees with the policies of the President, with any of the other scholars there or with any proclamation that the President issues as the conclusion of the conference. (Now I know this is bound to be a controversial example! See justification right below).
- The king of the nonexistent but real sounding state of Squawkistan, who presided over the torture and murder of countless innocents, has died. Dignitaries and scholars from around the world are invited to attend his funeral. In this case, attending the funeral can be presumed to indicate approval of the king and his conduct, since such a special ceremony is clearly understood to honor a person.
- The non-existent but real sounding state of Extremia, which literally invented violent religious extremism, plans a conference on ‘The Role of Extremia in Fostering Interfaith Dialogue.’ Scholar X is invited to attend but chooses not to, since the conference title clearly implies that Extremia has made a substantive contribution to interfaith dialogue, so attending it would strongly suggest support for that premise.
We know from the Quran that the prophet Yusuf worked as the treasurer of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and this did not entail that he endorsed all the Pharaoh’s policies or religious beliefs (Quran 12:55). The caliph Ali bin Abi Talib agreed to negotiate with Mu’awiya’s party in the First Civil War, and it was the heretical conclusion of the Kharijites that this meant that Ali was second guessing a matter that God had already decreed (namely that Ali was the rightful ruler).7 Finally, it’s an established principle in Sunni creed that it is permissible to pray behind a Muslim leader whether he is righteous or sinful and oppressive.8 So if working for, negotiating with or praying behind a sinful, questionable or reprehensible figure does not entail approval of their conduct or beliefs, then merely participating in some event with them or under their aegis should not be presumed to either.
One of the wisest features of the Sunni tradition is that it recognizes that our world is one of many, many shades, not black and white. Neither ideas nor individuals are mathematical integers, and relationships are not equal signs. Just because people commit sins doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God (insisting that grave sinners couldn’t really believe in God was the Kharijites’ heresy). Just because someone might be totally wrong on one point doesn’t mean they are totally wrong on all points. And just because you have a blood-boilingly rancorous dispute with someone doesn’t mean you can’t also pray beside them at Juma prayer.9
Along similar lines, there is a realistic need for a presumption that attendance or participation does not entail agreement. If meeting anyone, appearing in public with them, being seen with them, co-signing a petition with them, etc., were always assumed to mean that you agreed with them, then it would be impossible for human beings to engage in any interactions without being held responsible for supporting anyone they interacted with. Basic communication and public life would become unmanageable.
Now, this does not mean that participation or attendance never entails support or agreement. Two of the examples above show situations in which they do. But without some clear indication that participation indicates support, the presumption should be that it does not. In some respects, this maxim actually falls under the first maxim above. In effect, arguing that mere participation does not entail agreement means that such alleged agreement cannot automatically be considered a harm when weighing the expected harms and benefits of proximity to power.
3. There is nothing wrong with a lack of passion for a cause or even with not taking any position provided that neither of these harms the cause.
لا بأس بقلّة الحماسة لمهمّة أو التوقّف فيها ما لم يضُرّاها.
- An organization that advocates for that a certain cause issues an announcement: Any Muslim scholar who does not make a public commitment to that cause will be placed on list of ‘haters of that cause’. Is this legitimate? No, because failing to take an affirmative stand on an issue cannot be faulted provided it does no affirmative harm.
- The government of a country has announced that it will cease a certain, widely reviled policy if every Muslim organization in the country signs on to this decision. Every Muslim organization signs except one. Is it fair to hold this organization responsible for not involving itself in the matter? Yes. The fact that it alone holds the power to make or break the decision means that its choice not to sign substantially harms the cause.
The main justification for this maxim comes from nature, not from Islam’s scripture. Human beings do not have the capacity to devote equal energy or concentration to an infinite number of issues. Hence, choosing not to involve oneself in a certain cause should not be considered blameworthy. There is some precedent for this in the Prophet’s Sunna. As shown in Hadiths in the Sahihayn, the Prophet allowed Bedouin tribes who converted to Islam to continue to live in their ancestral regions and not move to Medina to join in collective fighting efforts. They were still Muslims in good standing, though they would also receive no share of the spoils of war.10
And God knows best.
1. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Shawkānī, “Rafʿ al-asāṭīn fī ḥukm al-ittiṣāl bi’l-salāṭīn,” in Majmūʿ fīhi sabaʿ rasā’il li’l-imām al-muḥaqqiq Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī, ed. Muḥammad al-Ṣaghīr Muqaṭṭirī (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 2004), 451.
2. See, for example, Ovamir Anjum, Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 126.
3. Muḥammad b. al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī, “Izālat al-tuhama mā yajūzu wa yaḥrumu min mukhālaṭat al-ẓalama,” in Majmūʿ fīhi sabaʿ rasā’il, 201-203; al-Shawkānī, 439-40.
4. Musnad Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal, #27861 in Meknes numbering.
5. Al-Ṣanʿānī, 214-5.
6. Innamā al-ʿilm bi’l-taʿallum wa’l-ḥilm bi’l-taḥallum; This Hadith was narrated by al-Ṭabarānī in his Muʿjam al-awsaṭ, ed. Ṭāriq b. ʿAwaḍ Allāh al-Ḥusaynī, 10 vols. (Cairo: Dar al-Ḥaramayn, 1415/1995), 3:118. The section of ‘Innamā al-ʿilm bi’l-taʿallum’ is in Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-ʿilm, bāb al-ʿilm qabla al-qawl wa’l-ʿamal.
7. Patricia Crone and Fritz Zimmermann, The Epistle of Sālim ibn Dhakwān (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 93-4.
8. See Imam al-Ṭaḥāwī, The Creed of Imam al-Ṭaḥāwī, trans. Hamza Yusuf (n.p.: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), 68.
9. For an example of this, see Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-fitan, bāb 19.
10. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: kitāb al-fitan, bāb al-taʿarrub fī al-fitna; Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim: kitāb al-imāra, bāb taḥrīm rujūʿ al-muhājir ilā istīṭān waṭahihi.