Voting is polytheism?

I've been meaning to put something down that discusses democracy, shirk, the political engagement of Muslims in the UK, and so on. Given that the British General Elections are around the corner (12th December), once again anything I do now will be somewhat reductive. However, this is an ongoing and broad topic, and one I hope to fully address at some point. (The problem is that there doesn't seem to exist, as far as I'm aware, an entire narrative offering complete education on this topic, so everything always comes across in scattered tidbits that continues the confusion).

However, some have felt that there is some benefit in making the following brief points about the voting-is-shirk rhetoric, so here it is:

The idea that voting is shirk/kufr is theologically absurd. Some will say, “I respect the view but…/You have a right to that view but...” however there's nothing to respect from an ignorant position: it is devoid of shar’i knowledge, context, the Qur'an, the sunnah, and the insights of a thousand years of theological enquiry - let alone the nefarious implications of mass takfir. As a friend pointed out recently, the biggest problem with all the debates surrounding voting and engaging with people who think they have a shar'i argument is that they tend to premise their arguments on ideas that are used without clear parameters, like 'man-made law', hakimiyyah (God's sovereignty), al hukm bi ghair ma anzallallah (judgement by other than revelation), al Islam yaʿlu wa la yuʿla (Islam overcomes), etc. "Its just sloganeering, and how can one have a meaningful uṣūli discussion with someone who sloganeers??"

“You can’t vote for man-made law.”

Aside from the fact that the substance of this statement is paradigmatically nonsensical, it isn’t empirically correct (and the fact that dissenters fail to recognise this basic premise makes most discussions on voting very difficult to have). Even if we accept simplistic jargon like 'man-made law’, those who vote in upcoming elections won’t be voting for ‘man-made law’, it’s simply not an option on the table. Nobody is asking “which would you like, man-made law or God-law?” This ‘man-made law’ is already a given; instead you're being asked: “Of the representatives standing in your area, which one would you prefer and think would best serve your needs, given that there needs to be one, whether you participate or not?” To vote in these elections is to express a preference between unavoidable outcomes (one of the candidates is going to be elected). It's not the free choice of appointing someone.

Now as for whether, then, voicing your needs is shirk (an act of polytheism), please consider the following which is presented in six simplified steps for the sake of a structured and coherent presentation of the situation:

  1. We choose to live in a plural society made up of diverse people, those of different faiths and those of none, those of various cultures and backgrounds, people of differing ideas and ideological inclinations.
  2. Living together, there are collective decisions that need to be made affecting all citizens, and those decisions should be in the best interests of the people. We believe the shari'ah speaks to human interests, others have their own views. We live tolerantly, with basic civil rights in place that allow all citizens to pursue their conception of good in a way that doesn't impose on others. We seek to engage others constructively to convince them of a better way (shar'i values).
  3. Given the plural setting (which we’ve chosen to live in), decisions should rationally maintain everyone's economic and social welfare, and allow us to pursue a godly conception of the good life, without forcing it on others.
  4. Given that decisions have to be made, and will be made, all citizens are asked to voice who they would think would most represent their general interests.
  5. This bureaucracy is a form of decision-making for diverse groups of people who choose to live together (with a set of common values/interests that binds them together, alongside tolerance and respect.)
  6. Those who don't like it: Are they saying not to make decisions, or that we ought to allow decisions be made on our behalf and tacitly accept it by continuing to live by those decisions?

Now, if you don’t like the idea that in a plural society people get involved in collective decision making, where diverse voices will be heard, and the majority will take precedence (without curtailing key rights of the minority), then you've clearly decided to live in the wrong place. If you somehow hold this to be shirk, then you must necessarily conclude that you too are a mushrik for consciously continuing to be a member of such a decision making system. If you believe it is morally correct to impose the entirety of your views on the majority, and by force if needs be, then you are an extremist and have missed key parts of the Qur'an. And if you’d like to get on a plane destined for the “Muslim lands”, then bon voyage and I sincerely hope you the very best, although I doubt you’ll find it anywhere as good as you currently have it, all things considered.

Some argue that political engagement is disbelief in God and that we should stay away from voting until "God's laws" are implemented. They tend to be those with very little knowledge about God's laws, and how Islamic law, legal theory and political philosophy works, both in theory and practice. But let us, for the sake of argument, entertain this assertion. So what do we do in the interim? Sit on our hands and let others decide what should and shouldn’t happen to us/affect us? Consider this point (as one of many):

The Christian Negus of Abyssinia, to whom the early Sahabah fled, later on accepted the prophethood and mission of the prophet Muhammad. The Negus accepted Islam and called his people to it, but they rejected. So now, as a Muslim king of a non-Muslim country what did he do? Did he coerce everyone like some genocidal maniac? Did he simply stop ruling, and stop all decision making for his land? Did he simply renounce the throne and say ‘this is shirk and kufr’? Between his conversion and death there wasn’t a legislative vacuum - he continued to rule over the people as he had been doing and remained doing as much good as he could within the system that existed. (For those who disagree I'd advise reading Ibn Taymiyyah - a scholar they tend hold as authoritative - on al-Najashi). When the Negus died the Prophet said: “Go out and pray for a brother of yours who died in another land.” (al-Bukhari) In fact, the only people that had something negative to say about the Negus were the hypocrites who said of the Prophet, “Look at that man! He prays for a Christian Ethiopian infidel whom he has never seen before nor follows his religion.”

For many, much of this is common sense, and I commend you all for using it. The conversation on voting and shirk has many avenues that can be addressed in order to shut it down (this post being a very very simple one) and far more than a short article could suitably explore. But I'd like to point out that the knowledge is there, the revelatory guidance is there, and the historical accounts are there. The Prophet warned us about being fooled by the ruwaybidah: foolish, imbecilic, contemptible juveniles who speak ignorantly on the affairs of the people (as the Prophet put it). The Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm said quite insightfully, in light of this hadith, that "there is nothing more harmful to knowledge and its people than those who enter into it, yet are not from it. They are ignorant, but think they are knowledgeable. They cause corruption assuming they are rectifying matters."

Across the board, you will find that those who hark on with such theological inaccuracies and mistruths, completely disregarding implicit and explicit ayat and hadith, who think that being a (social or otherwise) media personality stands in for years of study, research and scholarly engagement, and tend to be those who do little for Islam. Their religious identity isn’t about God, but a political identity and a facile show of machismo and sloganeering. Their entire narrative, even far beyond politics and voting, is usually premised on doing nothing and they consistently call on all others to be the same.

The interests of ubudiyyah and all those things that facilitate it is what we must be committed to. Whilst there are certainly sincere but mistaken individuals (those whom I will always have time for), beware of the sectarian self-interested:

There are people whose views on the life of this world may please you, he even calls on God to witness what is in his heart, yet he is the bitterest of opponents.

Qur'an 2:204

If you plan to vote, then you may do so confidently. If you're in doubt about its permissibility, there isn't a reason to be - may God guide us all to what is true and benefits godly interests.