I believe it is a religious and moral obligation for American Muslims to carefully consider their position during the Presidential election, in order to vote for the candidate that will be most favorable towards Muslims. This is a stance with support amongst even the most conservative scholars in the Muslim world, as well as our Islamic legal tradition, and the Qur’an and Sunnah.
There is certainly increased Muslim interest in this election; however, it remains to be seen whether this interest will translate into increased voter turnout. The incessant attacks on Muslims and Islam by certain candidates has meant that this is no longer a purely political campaign. Rather, it is about the ongoing positive role Muslims and Islam can play in America.
Many American Muslim leaders and Imams are forced to remain neutral on US elections, because of electoral rules around non-profit organizations, including mosques. And a lack of political literacy among some Muslims means that they may be tempted to vote for a third party candidate. But this may result in the election of a candidate who is bad for the Muslim community.
Muslims represent an important – and potentially powerful – swing vote. In 2000, George W. Bush won Florida with only 537 votes. Many Florida Muslims did not vote and yet several others voted for Ralph Nader, the third party candidate and the equivalent of today’s Jill Stein.
Social change is an important part of Islamic teaching. Allah tells us in the Qur’an:
‘You are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah’.
So Muslims’ sense of being ‘the best of peoples’ (or even just the best of citizens) is conditional on us having a social conscience, and using it to improve our communities and our countries. In a democratic society, this means that awareness of – and some kind of participation in – elections is essential.
Apathy is not an appropriate Islamic response. Societal reform and progressive change are significant parts of the Sunnah. For example, the Prophet’s message of racial equality and social harmony is something that we should contemplate in this election, and ask ourselves who the best candidate is to uphold those values.
And democratic values are supported by the Qur’anic doctrine of shura, when Allah tells us that the believers’ affairs “are run by shura (consultation) among them”. Dr. Allama Iqbal, the spiritual father of Pakistan, concluded that “the basic (political) principle established by the Holy Qur’an is that of elections”. These democratic values are not just a modern-day interpretation: many of Islam’s early Caliphs were voted in through elections, and this democratic approach is recognized by many varied Muslim thinkers and Imams.
Even the most traditional and conservative scholars in Saudi Arabia agree with this approach of voting for the most favorable candidate, even if neither of them are ideal, or even Muslims. In a fatwa, Shaykh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid ruled that: “The interests of Islam require Muslims to vote so as to ward off the greater evil and to reduce harmful effects, such as where…one of [the candidates] is less hostile towards Muslims than the other, and Muslims’ votes will have an impact on the outcome of the election.”
So it is incumbent on Muslims to assess each candidate, as well as understand the voting system, to ensure that the most favorable leader (from the available options) is voted in. Al-Munajjid supports this with the policies of the early Muslim Ummah, under the guidance of the Prophet: “The Muslims rejoiced when the Romans defeated the Persians, as did the Muslims in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) when the Negus defeated those who had challenged his authority. This is well known from history.” It is not a specifically modern-day situation for Muslims to have to support a non-Muslim leadership for the benefit of the Ummah.
Similar to Shaykh Al-Munajjid, Shaykh Muhammad ibn Uthaymeen, another internationally renowned (and very traditionalistic) Saudi scholar ruled that: “I think that [participation in] elections is obligatory; we should appoint the one who we think is good, because if the good people abstain, who will take their place? Evil people will take their place.” Muslims must follow their conscience in deciding who the ‘evil’ candidate is – for Muslims, and for America. Particularly in swing states, many Muslims will understandably resist the temptation of not voting, or voting for a third party – both these options could enable the most ‘evil’ candidate to win.
This does not mean that the least ‘evil’ candidate is seen as a perfect leader by America’s Muslims. I am sure that many American Muslims will be voting, as indicated by the scholars above, purely in the pragmatic interests of their communities and their nation.
It remains to be seen whether enough unity can be created around a single candidate for a ‘Muslim lobby’ to emerge in Washington, to guarantee the community has a clear political voice in future.
Relating Shaykh Ibn Uthaymeen’s fatwa to the November 8th vote, I believe many American Muslims will vote simply to protect themselves and their country. This is an established principle of Islamic jurisprudence, in the same way that a starving person is obliged to eat un-slaughtered meat. It does not mean that he is endorsing eating un-slaughtered meat; he is endorsing the difference between these options which, in this case, is saving his life.
America needs to save its civic life. And with Islamophobic attacks on the rise, American Muslims need to save their lives.
Imam Jihad Turk is President of Bayan Claremont, a graduate school designed to educate Muslim scholars and religious leaders. He previously served as the Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, the oldest and largest mosque in the Los Angeles area.