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Holding Positions in the Government (Part 1)

The administration of the country is a complex responsibility that cannot be managed by just one leader. He certainly needs assistants in the form of ministers, state officers and administrators. As such, the need to appoint government officers is logical.

Working in the public sector and earning wages from the government is not an act that is despised by Islam. In fact, it is an honourable and a praiseworthy job as it is a service to the society and the country.

It only becomes an issue when a Muslim is involved in an administration governed by non-pious Muslims or one that is not fully based on Islam.

The issue that arises is that the involvement in such a government subjects one to an authority, which is not based on Islam. Besides that, it may expose one to practices that are not consistent with Islam, like implementing unIslamic policies and programs, whether on his own free will or otherwise. Hence, he may be taken as having conspired in disobedience to God, in contradiction to the command for Muslims who face acts of disobedience, to either change it with his hand, or his tongue, or at least hate it in his heart, and not to get involved with such disobedience. If that happens, one would have harmed not only oneself, but society as well.

This issue is related to the following issues discussed earlier:

  • The basis of our relationship with non-Muslims
  • Cooperating with non-Muslims
  • The concepts of Darul Islam and Darul Harbi
  • Staying in a country which does not implement Islamic laws
  • Dealing with authorities which do not judge by the laws of Allah

I have clarified all these issues and stated a just and balance stand on them. I will not repeat them. I only wish to stress that as these issues are related, it is necessary to understand the stand on those issues to fully comprehend my stand on this one.

Extremism on the Issue

Many has fallen in extremism on this issue by issuing ruling that those who are working with the unIslamic government are apostates or at least have committed grave sin.

The worse effect from holding this view is outright denial of the sanctity of the life. It becomes the justification for the killing of civil servants in combat operation.

At minimum, it prohibits Muslims from serving their country or society for common and universal good or engaging with the system for improvement.

Working in n Non-Islamic Government Ruled by Muslims or Non-Muslims

In the past, many ulama held positions, like being judges and muftis, in a non-pious government for the purpose of safeguarding the implementation of Islamic laws and the interest of the public at that time.

The ulama differ in their opinions on this subject. Their opinions may be classified into two;

a. The view that allows

This view is based on the following:

i. The Quran says, “(Yusuf) (Joseph) said: ‘Set me over the storehouses of the land: I will indeed guard them, as one that knows (their importance).” (The Quran, 12:55)

This verse is part of the story of prophet Yusuf (Joseph). He had just interpreted the king’s dream as predicting a long drought. After clearing himself of the slander heaped upon him and being released from prison, he offered himself to manage the Egyptian treasury to help face the drought that he predicted.

Ibn `Atiyyah said:

“Some of the interpreters stated that in this verse is [the indication of] permissibility for a virtuous person to work for an evil person, on the condition that he will be in charge of what he does and not be objected to. Hence, he will be able to reform and correct what he wills. However, if his deeds will be according to what the evildoer decides and wants, then it is not allowed for him to [take such position].” (See Ibn `Atiyyah, Al-Muharrar Al-Wajiz Fi Tafsir Al-Kitab Al-`Aziz, Ad-Dauhah, Qatr, 1398H, vol 8, pp 5-6.)

Az-Zamakhsyari said:

“Qatadah said this is evidence that it is allowed for a person to take position from an unjust ruler. The early Muslims would fill the positions and responsibilities of judges for the oppressors. If a prophet or a scholar knows that there is no way to rule by the command of Allah, or repel wrongdoing except by the establishment of a disbelieving ot impious king, he may support him.” (See Az-Zamakhsyari, Al-Kasyaf, Dar Al-Ma`rifah, Beirut, vol 2, p. 263.)

Al-Alusi said:

“In it is the evidence that it is mubah [permissible] for a person to praise himself, if it is true but he has not been recognised for it. He should ask for the position, if he is able to implement justice and the syariah, even though he is asking from an evil and disbelieving man. It may even be obligatory for him to ask for the position, if only by holding that position can the responsibility be fulfilled as an example, or if it was suitable for him only.” (See Al-Alusi, Ruh Al-Ma`ani, Dar Al-Kitab Al-`Ilmiah, Beirut, 1994, vol 13, p. 5.)

The same opinion was given by Al-Maududi, Sheikh Rashid Ghanusi, Sa`id Hawwa and Dr. Omar Al-Asyqar. (See Al-Maududi, Al-Hukumah Al-Islamiah, Ad-Dar As-Saudiyah, Jeddah, 1984, p. 65; Rachid Ghannouchi, “The Participation of Islamists in a Non-Islamic Government”, Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 95; Sa`id Hawwa, Al-Asas Fi At-Tafsir, Dar As-Salam, Cairo, 1985, vol 5, p. 1415; Omar Al-Asyqar, Hukum Al-Musyarakah Fi Al-Wazarah Wa Al-Majalis An-Niyabiyah, Dar An-Nafais, Oman, 1992, pp. 41-42.)

ii. The position of Najasyi (Negus), the king of Abbyssinia (Ethiopia).

The ulama believe that Najasyi (Negus), the king of Abbyssinia (Ethiopia), embraced Islam after getting to know a companion of Prophet Muhammad who migrated to there. He showed his inclination towards Islam immediately upon hearing Jakfar b. Abi Talib, a companion of the Prophet, explaining about it. When Abu Sufyan, a leader of Mecca’s people, asked him to repatriate Jakfar back to Mecca, Najasyi (Negus) turned down the request despite strong protests from his own court officials. (Ibn Katsir, Al-Bidayah Wa An-Nihayah, Maktabah Al-Ma`arif, Beirut, 1984, vol 3, p. 77.)

The evidence that Najasyi (Negus) was a Muslim can be deduced from Prophet Muhammad’s reaction when he heard about the king’s death. He said, “A pious man had died today. Stand and pray for your brother, Ashamah (the name of Najasyi).” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari)

Prophet Muhammad had described Najasyi (Negus) as a pious man and a brother to the believers. More importantly, if he was not a Muslim, Prophet Muhammad could not have commanded the prayers for him, as it is a last rite of honour specifically for Muslims.

It is very clear that Najasyi (Negus) had become a Muslim whilst he was the king of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Yet, he could not come out openly as a Muslim, nor could he implement the laws of Islam because of opposition from his people. He remained in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) as king to protect the Companions who migrated there, and to uphold the level of justice that he was able to. Even so, it did not hinder Prophet Muhammad from considering him a pious man. Prophet Muhammad’s statement demonstrates tacit support for Najasyi (Negus)’s actions.

Ibn Taimiyah said:

“And Najasyi (Negus) and people like him, are people who are happy in Heaven, even though they did not commit to the laws of Islam to the extent that they were not able to. Instead, they judged with the syariah to the extent that they were able to.” (Ibn Taimiyah, Majmu’ Fatawa, Matabi’ Ar-Riyadh, Riyadh, 1372H, vol 19, pp. 218-219.)

iii. The principle of safeguarding benefit and rejecting harm.

Amongst the main principles of the syariah, is to always safeguard benefits, or eliminate or reduce harm. From this principle, several Islamic legal maxims are derived such as:

“If you meet (have to choose between) two types of harm, then safeguard against the big harm by accepting the smaller one.”

“Dharurat (Emergencies) permit the prohibited.”

This means that if Muslims cannot get their basic rights, or cannot safeguard such rights, without doing the prohibited, then it is mubah to do the prohibited to the extent of the harm deflected.

“Opt for the biggest benefit and avoid the biggest harm.”

Based on this principle, if Muslims’ non-involvement in a government increases oppression instead of reducing harm, their involvement in it to reduce or eliminate the oppression is demanded by our religion. Muslims are enjoined to strive according to the level of their ability.

Islam permits a harmful act if the benefit from it outweighs its harm. For instance, even though there is an element of haram (prohibition) for righteous people in an unIslamic government, their presence generally may translates into a variety of greater benefits. Amongst them are: safeguarding the smooth running of the administration for the good of the public, keeping a check on misappropriation, preventing more positions from falling into the hands of immoral persons, and ensuring that good is not exterminated altogether from the institution.

If in any particular situation, position or person, the benefit accruing is bigger than the harm that has to be shouldered or that result, then the ruling is, it is mubah (permissible) to work for a non-Islamic government.

Al-`Iz b. Abdul Salam said:

“If the disbelievers overtake a large country, and the position of judge is given to one who can look after the needs of the Muslims masses, it seems apparent that he should fulfill that post in order to bring about general good and repel comprehensive evil. Given the mercy of the Lawgiver and His care for the needs of His servant, it is far-fetched to think that the general benefits would be given up and general evil would be allowed to prevail simply due to the capable person having to give up some aspect of the completeness of his character by not taking such a position. This is far-fetched indeed.” (See Al-`Iz b. Abdul Salam, Qawa`id Al-Ahkam Fi Masalih Al-Anam, Dar Al-Kutub Al-`Ilmiah, Beirut, vol 1, p. 75.)

Similarly, Ibn Taimiyah issued the fatwa of mubah (permissibility) for this sort of problem. He said:

“Praise be to Allah, yes (mubah) if he tries to implement justice and eliminate oppression according to his ability, and if his taking up the position is better for the Muslims than if the position were to be given to someone else, and if his authority over the area is better than the authority of another. Indeed, it is mubah (permissible) for him to remain in his position and there is no sin for him. In fact, it is preferred that he remains in that position rather than leave it.” (Ibn Taimiyah, Majmu’ Al-Fatawa, vol 30, p. 357.)

Ibn Taimiyah believed that prophet Yusuf (Joseph) faced the same situation when he worked for the government of the Egyptian king:

“Yusuf (Joseph) was not able to do all that he wished to accomplish of what he found in the religion of Allah, because the Egyptians would not respond positively. But he did what could be done, with justice and ihsan (best conduct) and so gained honourable treatment for the believers and his family from the King, something that he could not have done without holding such a position. All these are encompassed in Allah’s revelation; ‘Heed God (taqwa) to the level that you are able to.’” (Ibn Taimiyah, Majmu` Fatawa, vol 20, p. 54.)

It is also argued that whether it is sinful or not to hold a public position in such situations depends on the actions of the appointed person, and not on the vice of the evil king.

This means when a person is appointed by a non-Islamic government, he is not liable for wrongdoings committed by the government. A person does not carry the sin of another, as the Quran says, “….no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another.”(The Quran, 53:38)

An appointment by a corrupt king does not means that the appointed person is equally corrupt. He is only regarded as corrupt if he abuses his position, commits disobedience to God and neglects his responsibilities.

In facing disobedience whilst holding a position, if one is not able to eliminate the disobedience, he should at least hate it, as mentioned in a hadith (Prophetic tradition)….. to be continued.

(Adaptation from Seminar Paper 2 presented in Convention of Ulama organised by The Singapore Association of Muslim Scholars and Religious Teachers (PERGAS) on 13 – 14 September 2003 which was written by and presented by me. Details analysis of the topic can also be referred to Dr. Abdul Rahman b.Mu`alla Al-Luwaihiq, Religious Extremism In the Life Of Contemporary Muslims, translated by Jamaal Al-Din M. Zarabozo, Al-Basheer, 2001, pp. 579-86)

About Muhammad Haniff Hassan

Muhammad Haniff Bin Hassan is a Fellow. He holds a PhD and M.Sc. in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (previously known as the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies), Nanyang Technological University. He received his early education in Aljunied Islamic School. He then continued his tertiary education at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, National University of Malaysia, with honours in Syar`iah and Civil law. Mr. Haniff is also active in social activities as a member of the Islamic Religious Council Appeal Board, HSBC Insurance Islamic Advisory Board from 2000 to 2014, Association of Islamic Religious Teachers and Scholars of Singapore (PERGAS) and Management Committee of Al-Irsyad Islamic School. He writes extensively in Berita Harian (a local Malay newspaper) and has also published articles in The Straits Times. He has published six books in his name, co-authored a monograph and helped publish two books for PERGAS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. His personal website in Malay is at www.haniff.sg

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