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.