By Moaz Nair
January 24, 2019
Malaysia is a multicultural and multi-confessional country whose official religion is Islam. The country’s constitution allows Muslims and non-Muslims to be represented in Parliament for harmonious governance. There is no rule as agreed on in the constitution stipulating that a Muslim cannot vote for a non-Muslim representative or vice- versa. It is this judicious system that has made democracy work in the country.
Under the constitution, while Islam is the official religion, followers of other beliefs are allowed to practise their faiths without hindrance. The elected government, on its part, comprises leaders from various religious and racial backgrounds, without religion encroaching into worldly state affairs.
Unfortunately, some local clerics have fallen into the pit of fixation and fanaticism for the sake of political gain. They do not hesitate to give speeches based on their own interpretation of religion, that “Muslims cannot choose a non-Muslim leader”. This is unacceptable when it comes to state matters in our democracy.
It may be religiously correct when related solely to matters of faith, but not when it involves state matters. Obviously, the state cannot appoint a non-Muslim to look into the religious affairs of Muslims – the appointment of a mufti, for instance.
Quoting verses from the holy book and interpreting them according to their whims to justify their decree for political expediency may not always be right. It has been recognised by Islamic scholars that even though sacred texts contain holy words, their interpretation and application are human acts that can be debated and transmuted in an inclusive manner. These give-and-take dynamics were found even in the earliest days of Islamic civilisation. In choosing a leader to deal with state matters, it’s espoused in Islam that the person should have the trust and capability to deal with the tasks given to him or her.
Unfortunately, this discourse on the “divine and the human” seems embroiled in confusion among some clerics, which has resulted in religion usurping or rescinding the wisdom of the people. They seem to promulgate intolerance of others in a multi-religious society, and this could even lead to supreme authorisation.
In this age of democracy, we should not be faced with the dilemma of whether a Muslim is allowed to choose a leader who is not a Muslim. Neither should it be the other way around – whether non-Muslims are allowed to choose a Muslim as their leader.
People of a single race or religion should not dictate who should lead the country. In a democracy, we have the right to choose the candidate whom we believe is best qualified for the post.
For Muslim thinkers, Islam is seen as compatible with modern secular democracies. Clerics who think otherwise are not keeping up with modern times and the reality of the world we live in today. These clerics feel that they are bound by the Al-Maidah verse 5:51 of the Quran that, according to their interpretation, “forbids Muslims to associate with or vote for non-Muslims”. And they argue that “there is no precedence of choosing a non-Muslim leader” during the Caliph era.
However, they stop short at that to confuse the masses. They fail to convince the people that many Muslims at the time, especially those originally from Medina, had strong bonds with people from non-Muslim tribes, dating back even before Islam as well as during the Khilafah rule.
“Allah does not forbid you from showing kindness and dealing justly with those who have not fought you due to your faith or driven you out of your homes. Allah loves those who deal justly. Allah only forbids you from those people that fought you because of your faith, drove you out of your homes and helped in your expulsion, that you take them as intimate associates. And whosoever takes them as intimate associates, then it is they who are the wrongdoers.” (Quran, 60:8-9)
This verse should set the tone for how we see verse 5:51, which has often been misused to claim that Islam orders Muslims not to have any sort of good relations with non-Muslims at all, an interpretation which is refuted by the above verse in the Quran.
Scholars have argued over this interpretation of the verse, saying the verse was revealed and was only applicable during the time of wars and enemies, when the non-Muslims tried to suppress the Muslims. This is never the case in the present context where Muslims and non-Muslims are not at war with each other.
Don’t Be Reclusive In Thought
In the present democracy, there is a separation between state and religion in a country like Malaysia, for instance. The state in general does not have the authority to intervene in religious matters, unlike the caliphs and Islamic leaders of the past. In fact, the concept of “state” did not even exist in the seventh century. They were the least sophisticated as they had only loosely knit tribal forms of administration until the advent of the Ottoman Empire (c. 1299 –1920).
In Malaysia, religion comes under the authority of individual state rulers. At the federal level, the government only provides a governing body on religious affairs under an appointed minister who, in this case, has to be Muslim. Jakim was thus established in 1997, but even this measure was an afterthought, implemented when leaders saw the unending controversies miring the religious teachings in the country. The leaders of all these religious bodies are appointed from among Muslims.
Muslims should be wise enough not to be in reclusive in thought when confronted by skewed clerics. Supporting non-Muslim candidates in a democracy where there is a separation of state and religion cannot be considered a wrong act for Muslims. Historical precedence based on isolated events of the past does not hold water in the context of modern democracy.
In fact, in Islam there is no absolute model for political rule. The Islamic form of government depends on the circumstances. Government, according to Islam, will be decided by the circumstances. According to Islam, a political form is not a part of belief. They are separate entities. This is where some obsessive clerics are confused in their approach to Islam. It is always the prevailing situation that will determine the type of political form that has to be adopted. This is what democracy is.
In Islamic history, the modest administrative form adopted after the Prophet was based on khilafah. It was not an absolute form, though. Later on, the dynastic model of administration was adopted. The models set by other Prophets are also an Islamic model. This is because the Quran accepts all messengers as models as mentioned in the Quran (6:90): “Those [the previous prophets] were the people whom God guided. Follow their guidance then and say, I ask no reward for this from you: it is only a reminder for all mankind.”
The Democratic Model Of Today
Following this principle, the democratic model of today is also an accepted model in Islam. This is supported by the following verse of the Quran: “… and their affairs are by counsel among themselves” (42:38). According to these precedents, if voters elect a non-Muslim leader it would be considered a right choice according to Islam. In the Malaysian context, there is no prohibition on elected Muslim and non-Muslim leaders who are not adversaries in the social and political sense having mutual consultation and working in tandem for the people and the betterment of the nation.
It would not be regarded as a wrongful choice or a sin for Muslims to work with or choose leaders from among the non-Muslims. Hopefully, those clerics in PAS will stop distorting the message of Islam to confuse the people just to seek political power. In fact, this act of theirs is debauchery and against Islam.
In Islam, political form is not related to belief. For instance, the government does not have a set form as does a religious ritual, such as steps and ways to perform the Haj or prayers. Governance is related to circumstances or practical insights that are flexible and can vary with time and according to the wishes of the people. It’s the quests for real-world intuitions that will decide the form of government to be adopted in a democracy. The values adopted by leaders and in governance, however, can indirectly be consonant with the universal values found in Islam as well as other religions, such as being knowledgeable, competent, honest and trustworthy.