When it Comes to Elections, the Taliban Aren’t Very Good Students

by Jeffry Halverson*

In the run-up to today’s Afghan elections, the Taliban have been asserting that participation is un-Islamic.  But this infidel thinks these students (Talib translates as “student”) deserve an F.

A recent New York Times Op-Ed by Mirwais Ahmadzai, a program manager with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, reports the appearance of ominous “night letters” warning Afghan civilians not to participate in national elections. The letters reportedly give the following argument, as paraphrased by Ahmadzai, against voting:

The theological claim is that good Muslims are not allowed to seek any state position for themselves, and it is “haram” — forbidden — to cast a vote for anyone who chooses to do so.

The use of the term “theological” here is actually misleading, or at least inaccurate. Theology, or ilm al-kalam, involves the rational investigation and defensible articulation of the articles of belief (click here to see an example of real Sunni theology). The Taliban most certainly have religious convictions and espouse a certain dogmatic creed (aqidah). But  like most Islamists they adhere to school of thought in matters of belief that considers theology, as a rational project, to be blasphemous.

The peak of theological discourse in Islam occurred in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when Asharite scholars like al-Juwayni, al-Ghazali, and Ibn al-Khatib, were producing classic Sunni treatises (e.g. ar-Risala al-Qudsiyyah) and “refuting heretics.” In Sunni Islamic thought, the differences between theology (kalam), creed (aqidah), philosophy (falsafah), and jurisprudence (fiqh), are important.

I make this point not to be pedantic.  Rather, it is important to understand the Taliban’s claims not as “theology” (which the NY Times chose to do), but as jurisprudence.  Accordingly, let’s take a closer look at the Taliban’s explanation from a juridical standpoint.

Declaring an action, like seeking state office or voting, as haram (“forbidden”) is the function of a jurist (alim or faqih) who issues legal opinions. Sunni Islam standardized a methodology for such opinions (fatawa) in the 9th century. This achievement is traditionally credited to Imam Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, who died in Cairo in 820. This legal methodology is known as usul al-fiqh.

The process a jurist would undertake to formulate a ruling involves the following four steps:

  1. Consult the Qur’an – what does God’s Speech have to say on the subject?
  2. Consult the Hadith – If the Qur’an does not provide a conclusive answer, what do the traditions of God’s Messenger tell us?
  3. Assess Ijma (“consensus”) – Okay, I still don’t know the answer; do the ulama (scholars) or the community agree on an answer? Maybe the sahaba agreed?
  4. Undertake Qiyas (“analogical reasoning”) – Still no luck. Some folks disapprove of this step (e.g. Ibn Hazm), but since we can’t find a clear cut answer to the question, is there an analogous problem that has an answer we can look at?

Only if these four procedures fail to determine a definitive answer can the mujtahid be allowed to formulate an opinion to the best of his ability. Now that’s a simplified version of course, but it gives you an idea of what I’m about to do.

Step 1: Consult the Qur’an

The foundational postulate of the the Taliban argument is: “Good Muslims are not allowed to seek any state position for themselves.” The Qur’an has little guidance to offer on this issue. Islam had no explicit political role in society for the first thirteen years of its existence under Muhammad in Mecca (610-622 CE), so we won’t find much in the way of political content in the Meccan surahs (“chapters”). That means we can eliminate 85 of 114 surahs from the equation.

So now we’re left with 29. From those 29 Medinan surahs, these are two verses that seem relevant.  The first is:

If any do fail to judge by what God has revealed, then they are disbelievers. (5:44)

This verse was preceded by the passage: “It was We who revealed the Torah, therein was guidance and light; by its stand have been judged the Jews.” Verse 5:44 is followed later by this passage: “Let the People of the Gospel judge by what God has revealed therein; if any do fail to judge by what God has revealed they are rebels.” Clearly these passages deal with matters of orthopraxy, which are a major concern to Islam, just as they are to Orthodox Judaism. But they don’t have anything to do with “good Muslims” not seeking state positions.

What about this second Medinan surah?

Oh you who believe! Obey God, and obey the Messenger (Muhammad), and those charged with authority among you. If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer to God and His Messenger. (4:59)

This verse reiterates the role that Muhammad played as a judge in Medina, and the fact that he judged matters according to the content of the revelations (e.g. the Qur’an for the Muslims, the Torah for the Jews). But there is still nothing prohibiting good Muslims from seeking state office.

Indeed a “state” didn’t really exist during the time of Muhammad. It was more like a loose tribal confederacy centered around a city-state. In fact, if Muhammad is the perfect example of how Muslims should live their lives, and he was a judge and a “head of state” in Medina (as Islamists maintain), then shouldn’t Muslims also seek positions of authority to rule with justice and piety as the Messenger did? Isn’t that the Sunnah? But I’m getting ahead of myself.  On to…

Step 2:  Consult the Hadith

Sunni Muslims recognize six authentic or sahih collections of Hadith which were written and compiled in the 9th and 10th centuries (Muhammad died in the 7th c.). Each of these six collections consist of literally thousands of (previously) oral traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his closest companions. These books are the basis of what Muslims call the “Sunnah” (Muhammad’s exemplary behavior).

In addition to those six, there are other collections, such as the 8th century collection of Imam Malik called al-Muwatta (“the beaten path”), but they don’t carry juridical weight the way the authentic books do. There’s a lot to consider here (thus the existence of scholars trained in the science of Hadith). Regarding our juridical investigation, here are a few Hadiths related to politics:

From Sahih Muslim:

It has been narrated on the authority of Ibn Abbas that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upoh him) said: One who dislikes a thing done by his ruler (amir) should be patient over it, for anyone from the people who withdraws (his obedience) from the government, even to the extent of a handspan and died in that conditions, would die the death of one belonging to the days of jahilliyya.

The above tradition from the revered collection of Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj doesn’t say anything about “good Muslims” not seeking state offices. But it does say that Muslims who rebel against their governments will die like pagans. Well, aren’t the Taliban fighting against the Karzai government? Perhaps their “scholars” don’t have this book in their collection.

We also find this in Sahih Muslim:

‘Urwa b. Zubair reported that Hisham b. Hakim found a person (the ruler of Hims) who had been detaining some Nabateans in connection with the dues of Jizya. He said: What is this? I heard Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: Allah would torment those persons who torment people in the world.

Again, there’s nothing here prohibiting people from holding political office. But this Hadith does admonish rulers who do not treat their subjects well. Has anyone else seen the video footage of Taliban “police” beating women with clubs for showing too much ankle beneath their tent-like burqas? Let’s keeping going.

From Sunan Abu Dawud:

Narrated Al-Miqdam ibn Ma’dikarib: The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) struck him on his shoulders and then said: You will attain success, Qudaym, if you die without having been a ruler, a secretary, or a chief.

Could this be the smoking gun? This tradition has the Prophet telling a man named Qudaym that he’ll have success if he stays out of politics (at least that’s how I read it). But he’s addressing a particular individual – was he giving some personal advice based on his own experiences? Or was he making a prophetic premonition of some kind? Or was he politely telling Qudaym that he’d be a terrible ruler? The Hadith doesn’t provide enough contextual material for us to know for sure.

Let’s look at another Hadith to try and clarify things, Book 19, Number 2966, Narrated Umar ibn AbdulAziz:

When Abu Bakr was made ruler he administered it as the Prophet (peace be upon him) had done in his lifetime till he passed on. Then when Umar ibn al-Khattab was made ruler he administered it as they had done till he passed on…

This Hadith, which actually discusses inheriting a plot of land, reminds us that the Prophet’s closest companions, Abu Bakr and Umar, were both selected as rulers, specifically caliphs, over the “Islamic state.” Both are revered as sahaba among Sunni Muslims making them essentially beyond reproach. Even if we understand the previous Hadith to mean that holding political office dooms one to failure (which probably means Hellfire), then obviously such a mistake cannot apply to the honored sahaba of the Messenger. In fact, Abu Bakr accepted the position of caliph (khalifah) after a council (shura) of community elders selected him. Was he doing something forbidden when he accepted? And the council of elders? Certainly not. As I said, Abu Bakr is beyond reproach in Sunni Islam (it’s a different story in Shi’ite Islam).

Step 3: Assess Ijma

There are so many Hadiths to examine and so little time. So let us be conservative and conclude that they provide conflicting advice.  In that case we examine the principle of consensus. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world, including ulama (scholars), who see no problem with seeking state office and participating in elections. Even many Islamists accept this, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, or even Hamas in Gaza, among many others.  The Taliban themselves were rulers of the Afghan state a few years back.  So I think we can conclusively acknowledge a consensus among Muslims that seeking state positions is permissible.  And anyway, aren’t military coups and armed insurgencies examples of “seeking state positions”? I think I’m jumping to step four again, so let’s just get right to it.

Step 4: Undertake Qiyas

Qiyas is analogical reasoning. I’m going to approach this in an unconventional way. Traditionally, one would use qiyas to look for an analogous precedent in other legal rulings. But I want to take a look at Islamic history instead because it will be far more fruitful. Islam has never been known to embrace monasticism and reject the world of politics and material goods. On the contrary, the Qur’an explicitly forbids monasticism and calls on Muslims to strive to establish a social order based on justice and equity rooted in the “revealed law.”

Muhammad’s closest followers seemed to take this to heart, because after he died in 632 C.E. they went to war with each other over who would rule the Islamic empire. For example, at the “Battle of the Camel” in 656 C.E., Muhammad’s wife Aisha (the daughter of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr) led an army with Talha and al-Zubayr (two of the Prophet’s best companions) against Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet and the fourth Caliph according to the traditional Sunni formula of the “Four Rightly Guided Caliphs.” When Ali won, he later went to war with Mu’awiyyah of the Umayyad clan. Then in 680 C.E. Muhammad’s grandson Husayn (the son of Ali) rallied his supporters and claimed his right to rule only to be killed in a lopsided battle at Karbala against the army of Mu’awiyyah’s son, Yazid. I’ve only scratched the surface here, but needless to say, the companions (sahaba) of Muhammad seemed to be very interested in seeking state office. Were they sinners? No, they were sahaba!

In conclusion, a proper application of usul al-fiqh shows that there is nothing un-Islamic about seeking office or participating in the election of rulers.  These Taliban “rulings” are al-bida (innovations) of  uneducated tribesmen who seem to know less about Islam than an American kafir.

*Jeffry Halverson is a CSC Postdoctoral Research Associate who holds a Ph.D. in Islamic studies.  His book, entitled Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam , will be published in 2010.