Political Opposition in Islam
By Ahmet Kurucan
March 29, 2015
The headline “Political opposition in Islam” is wrong. It should really be “Political opposition in the history of Islam.”
I have always opposed categorical titles for political, economic, military and legal comments based on historical examples and cases in Islam. What I opposed in these titles was the reference to Islam in the discussion. My argument goes as follows: Islam is the name of a religion; by virtue of being in this category, it is thus all about the content of the Quran and the binding Hadiths from the Prophet Muhammad as well as his practices. Whatever remains outside this definition is not religion, but interpretation of the religion. No matter who does the interpretation, the case remains or should remain the same.
Under this approach, reference to Islamic sociology or Islamic economy is just wrong. Likewise, any title referring to the state in Islam or political opposition in Islam is also wrong because what is discussed under such a title reflects the views, suggestions and analyses of the writer or the author based on his/her own observations, knowledge and experiences. For this reason, it is proper to use titles referring to the history of Islam instead of Islam itself in cases where commentary and a personal approach are involved.
As you may see, there is a huge difference between these two. But when these comments are presented as if they rely on the proper definition of Islam to those who are unable to discern this difference, they may assume that what they have as a commentary or personal view is Islam itself. Bigotry naturally comes out of this approach and anything that opposes them is criticized; those who raise this opposition are strongly condemned, and sometimes even accused of heresy.
After this brief introduction, we may ask the following question: Are there legitimate grounds for political opposition in Islam? Yes, there are and they are limited to the binding Quran and hadith norms for which I tried to offer a general framework. When it comes to the history of Islam, starting from the era of the Righteous Caliphs, the opposition exhibited in every period in this history has had its own form based on the political, economic, military and cultural conditions of the time. And the name of this opposition is not Islamic opposition, but opposition in the history of Islam. Or if a more specific era is covered, then reference should be made to opposition in the era of the Umayyads, etc.
So what are the bases of political opposition in Islam? Based on the Quran and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad, whose actions guide us in interpreting the Quran, we could focus on two major elements: consultation and the promotion of good deeds. There are two verses in Quran that emphasize the importance of consultation: “And those who have responded to their Lord and established prayer and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves, and from what We have provided them, they spend.” (42:38) This verse refers to consultation as the main form of dealing with world affairs. The other reads: “So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter.” (3:159) In this verse, the Prophet Muhammad is directly addressed.
When we look at these two verses, relaying on the Prophet's practices and the context of the verses, we see that, in every matter, the views of the ruled are forwarded to the rulers. It does not matter whether or not these views are in line with those of the administrative mechanisms because the goal is to attain what is right and good. Promoting good deeds is enshrined in the verse that reads: “And let there [arise] from you a nation inviting to [all that is] good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, and those will be the successful.” (3:104)
Verses on Consultation and the Promotion of Good Deeds
If we analyze these two verses on consultation and the promotion of good deeds with respect to their relevance to state administration, we cannot possibly argue that what is referred to in these two verses is objections raised by a few people. We are not talking about managing a company or taking care of familial relations. Instead, we are talking about a comprehensive state system and how it should be administered given that it affects the lives of the entire nation and the future of our children. We should note that there are some interesting analyses suggesting that consultation should be implemented by a parliament and the promotion of good deeds by a judicial system authorized to implement sanctions in a parliamentary system.
Let me repeat what I said because of its importance: Consultation and the promotion of good deeds should be incorporated into the political system and institutional design because what Islam provides is general principles and norms. The implementation of the norms or principles is done by the will of the people. What has been done in our history is this, nothing else. But implementation of the norms has been unsuccessful most of the time.
Is declaring this process unsuccessful an exaggeration? I do not think it is. You will also join me if you see what has been happening in our country over the last few years. Let me ask a simple question: How many people and institutions act in line with the content of the hadith suggesting that the most virtuous jihad is to raise a voice against a brutal ruler for the sake of attaining the truth? Maybe a few. And because their numbers are so few, we boast about and suffice with the reaction of the companions of the Prophet who said to Caliph Omar, "If you become crooked, we will set you straight with our swords." But there is also more. At a time when the caliphate was evolving into a sultanate, a hadith suggesting that the people should obey the ruler even if he is an oppressor was fabricated. Even the warnings against the misdeeds of state administrations were criticized and ruled out to silence opponents. Patience, referred to in the hadiths as half of the religion, has been misinterpreted to promote submission to the rulers, as if the Prophet Muhammad had never stood against injustice in his whole life.
The right thing to do is to create an institutional mechanism where objections and criticisms would be raised to draw attention to what has been done wrong without causing safety problems and turmoil. Such a system is an indispensable part of participatory democracy and is in conformity with the fundamental values of Islam.
As the government does its job, the independent checking mechanisms should also be allowed to do their job; at the same time, individuals and civil society groups will be able to express their views on different matters. This is their right and duty as well.
Does the type of opposition I refer to in this piece bear relevance to civil disobedience? Yes, it does. But I will discuss that in another piece.
Dr. Ahmet Kurucan is a theologian.