10 – Freedom of Chosing a System of Governance

Freedom in Chosing a System of Governance

In the name of Allah, the all-Beneficent, the all-Merciful.

Allah the all-Wise has said in His book:

الّذین یتّبعون الرّسول النّبىّ الامّىّ الّذی یجدونه مکتوبا عندهم فی التّوراة و الانجیل یامرهم بالمعروف و ینهاهم عن المنکر و یحلّ لهم الطّیّبات و یحرّم علیهم الخبائث و یضع عنهم اصرهم و الاغلال الّتی کانت علیهم

Those who follow the Apostle, the uninstructed prophet, whose mention they find written with them in the Torah and the Bible, who bids them to do what is right and forbids them from what is wrong, makes lawful to them all the good things and forbids them from all vicious things, and relieves them of their burdens and the shackles that were upon them … (Surah al-A’raaf, 157)


The discussion presented here is on political freedom in an Islamic system. Political freedom, told concisely, means that the individuals within an Islamic society have influence on the formation and direction of the political system of said society. It should not be that a certain class of society or a group or those affiliated to a particular race have the right and ability to take part in administering the country, while others have no such right. Political freedom means that all the individuals in a society, regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, racial and religious affiliations, are able to bring into existence the political system of the society and be influential within it. They are able to direct that political system towards what is desirable in their eyes. It is natural that when a difference of views and opinions arises in a society, the belief with more proponents – of course, in accordance with the principles and values accepted within that system – will be the view which will be followed and others must abide by. Even today, around the world, there are systems, countries, where only one group of people has the right to hold views on administrative issues of that society, to vote, to select. Others must comply to the current which this first group creates. Such as the fascist systems in the world, the racist regimes (such as the apartheid system in South Africa, the Zionist system, many of the reactionary systems, many of the kingships, and many of the systems which are run with a one-party system, such as the communist systems in the world. In the systems that I pointed out, everyone does not have the right to vote, to express their views, and to make decisions regarding the administrators of the society. In the Western systems, yes, there are elections and contests; however, in these systems too – as was pointed out in some of the previous discussions – the dominance of propaganda is an obstacle for all  individuals effectively being able to vote.

In Islam, the view of the people is given weight; the view of the people regarding the selection of a ruler and regarding what the ruler does has been deemed acceptable. That is why ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (as), even though he really considers himself as someone appointed by the prophet and who truly has the right of rulership, when it came to a point where the view and election of the people were in play, he relied upon the people’s opinion; he considered the people’s view to be valid.

Swearing allegiance is a condition for the legitimacy of the rule of a leader within the Islamic system. If there was a ruler to whom people have not given their allegiance, i.e. people did not accept him, that ruler will be confined to sitting in his house – practically, he will have no power. The legitimacy, authority, and governance is dependent upon the allegiance of the people, or, to put it better, the actualization of the rulership and government is dependent upon people’s allegiance.

After the murder of ‘Uthmān, when people came and gathered around the house of the Commander of the Faithful (as), he didn’t say to the people, ‘What authority do you have?’ or ‘What influence does your opinion have?’ He said: ‘Leave me and go after someone else.’[1] When he wanted to refuse the caliphate and rulership, he said to the people: leave me, go after someone else. It is your will, your wants, your selection that is determinative, and so turn away from me and go after someone else.

In the correspondence that Amir al Momineen (as) had with Mu‘āwiyah before the Battle of Ṣiffīn to reason with him, each one of them would bring an argument in their letters. Both Mu‘āwiyah would bring arguments to justify his political method, and also the Commander of the Faithful (as) would present his arguments. There, one of the sentences that the Commander of the Faithful (as) mentioned, and probably mentioned more than once, is: ‘Those people who had pledged allegiance to Abū Bakr and ‘Umar have pledged allegiance to me.’[2] Meaning, why do you stand against me and do not submit to my rule when the same people who had pledged allegiance with Abū Bakr and ‘Umar – –  have pledged allegiance to me. It was due to these people’s allegiance that you had accepted their caliphate This is equivalent to giving legitimacy to people’s opinion and their allegiance. This is an Islamic principle. Hence, allegiance is one of the principally accepted things. If one was selected as a caliph and the people did not pledge allegiance to him, then there was no obligation upon others to consider him as the caliph. Even in times when the caliphate was only the apparent face of things, such as in the time of Banī Ummayah and Banī ‘Abbās, getting allegiance from the people was considered necessary. Even when the rulership wants to rule the people in a bullying and tyrannical manner, they still make pledging allegiance incumbent upon the people, or they cheat in taking their allegiance – just like in the elections, the apparent and ceremonial elections, of the previous regime [of the Shah].

The principle of getting allegiance is an accepted principle. When all the people or the majority of them pledge allegiance to someone and actually accept him as the ruler, the others must submit to him. Probably, in this situation too, giving allegiance is not compulsory; [those who have not voted for someone as a ruler are not compelled to pledge allegiance to him]. I did not find time to research regarding this matter. Is it obligatory upon that minority who are opposed to the rulership or caliphate of this ruler to pledge allegiance to him or not? However, what is indisputable is that when the majority would elect someone for leadership and the caliphate, it was necessary for others to obey. When the Commander of the Faithful (as) was elected for the caliphate, and the people came in groups to pledge allegiance to him, some of the people did not pledge allegiance. He commanded for the heads and the prominent personalities of that group to be brought forward. He asked them as to why they didn’t pledge allegiance. He asked each one of them, and each answered. The reports do not indicate that the Commander of the Faithful (as) compelled any of them to pledge allegiance. Rather, he heard what they had to say. If they had any arguments against him, he disproved it, and released them, and then they left.

‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar was brought into his presence in the masjid. The Commander of the Faithful (as) asked him: Why didn’t you pledge allegiance? He responded: I am waiting for all to pledge allegiance, then I will pledge allegiance. He (as) said: Well, everyone has pledged allegiance; there are none who have not pledged allegiance except a very small number of people. He said: No, it must become clear for me. He brought forth excuses and pretexts. Mālik al-Ashtar was in the presence of the Commander of the Faithful (as). He said: O Commander of the Faithful! These people who have not pledged allegiance to you have not experienced your sword and whip, and they think that you will finish dealing with them only in courtesies. Allow me to strike the neck of this person who is the son of a caliph and a prominent personality. If I strike his neck due to refraining from pledging allegiance, then the others too will revaluate what they are doing. The Commander of the Faithful (as) smiled and said: No, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar was not a good-mannered individual in his childhood, and now he has grown old. Release him and let him leave. He (as) let him go, and he left and till the end, did not pledge allegiance. There were many who did not pledge allegiance to the Commander of the Faithful (as), but they were not subjugated for that. The majority of the people did pledge allegiance to him. However, if the one who has not pledged allegiance raises the banner of rebellion, fights and shows opposition – just as was the case in the Battle of Jamal, the Battle of Ṣiffīn, or the Battle of Nahrawān, then definitely the Islamic ruler is obligated to take action against them.

Thus, freedom in electing the leader and the caliph in the Islamic system was a clear matter, and all used to understand it and accept it. This very matter is reflected in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the conditions of a leader are listed, it mentions two ways for the leader to be elected. One of the ways is a decisive majority of the people, not half of the votes plus one or fifty-one per cent. Decisive majority means an amount before which the minority is insignificant. The person whom the decisive majority of the people elect for leadership is the leader. In the constitution, this has also been likened to the leadership of Imam Khomeini, the great and revered historic leader of this nation, whom the decisive majority of the people elected as leader and accepted that he be the leader of the society. This is one of the great distinctions of Islam. In the constitution, after the position of the leader, the other positions, the ones which have significant input, are also mentioned to be selected in the same way. The president, who is at the head of the system – at the head of the political system – and who is the head of the executive branch, is elected by the direct vote of the people. The representatives of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, which is the legislative branch and the main base of the Islamic Republic’s system, are elected by the direct vote of the people. The other positions and executors are also selected by people’s vote but mostly in an indirect way. Such as in the judicial branch of the system, the high judicial positions are selected by the leader, who himself is elected by the people. Or, the prime minister, who is selected by the President and the Islamic Consultative Assembly who are both elected by people. In reality, all the main administrative apparatuses of the country are formed through the votes and inclinations of the people, and the people have influence in them. Such an astonishing and great thing exists in Islam, which is reflected in the Islamic Republic of Iran in this form.

Of course, the condition of the current world’s possibilities in interactions and communications and the difference between the current era and past periods, are things which bring about certain differences in the specifics and circumstances of this issue, which are not the subject of the discussion here. What is important here is that in the right to vote and elect – political freedom in its largest and most influential form, has no restrictions. Women too have voted and do give vote in the same way and possess their part of this general freedom. The youth are the same; even those children who have come of age are the same. Different races are not considered different; various religious denominations are not regarded as different. The right to vote in the Islamic Republic is not exclusive to Muslims, not exclusive to a group of Muslims, or a particular denomination; it is for all. Voting for the Islamic Consultative Assembly, meaning legislation, is not exclusive to Muslims. Non-Muslims also elect candidates and possess the right to vote. There was no distinction at the advent of Islam, and there is no distinction in the Islamic Republic either. It is interesting that Europe and the Western World, the world of democracy, who expressed all this offensive reproach towards Islam, adopted these issues and these principles very late on. The right to vote for women was not there in the Europe till the beginning of this very century in which we live. And in fact, the right to vote did not exist at all for many European societies, even after the Renaissance and the industrial and scientific movement in Europe. After the French Revolution in the late seventeenth century, gradually, the right to vote and elect was given to the workers and labourers, meaning the people, the masses, the individuals of the society. And then, gradually, in some parts of Europe, the votes were cast. In some European countries and in America, women were given the right to vote after the First World War. Until 1918, the end of the First World War, in America, which makes claims regarding freedom, defending rights of women, etc., and in Europe, women were not given the right to vote. Even after 1918 when women were given the right, it was given only to women above the age of thirty. In the period between the two World Wars, in many European countries, such as France and Italy, and in Japan, women had no right to vote. Before 1940, in Latin America, there was no country in which women had the right to vote. And in those places where women were given the right to vote, it was given to women above the age of thirty. Then, after some time, it was given to those who are above twenty-one years, and recently, in these past ten years, in some countries of the world they brought it down to eighteen years of age. But, in the Islamic Republic, coming of age is considered as the criterion, meaning that, in the sixteenth year of age, when fifteen years have finished, the right to vote is there for everyone; anybody can vote. While in Europe and America, in the industrial world of the West, who have all these claims regarding human freedom, freedom of rights, free-thinking, women affairs, etc., the youth of eighteen, nineteen and twenty years of age were not given the right to vote for long periods in their history. Until these past recent years, they were not given any attention to. But, Islam is not so. Islam respects them, pays attention to them. They are gradually getting closer to the view of Islam.

An advanced way of thinking, which is very modern and defendable, exists in the Islamic system regarding the right to vote and political activities. Of course, political activities are not limited to the right to vote, but it is the largest and most important of them.

To summarise, among the different kinds of freedoms which we have discussed until now, this is one of the main ones. Political freedoms, the right to vote, the right to elect, the right to perform political activities, the right to strive in political affairs, these are the things which were prevalent in Islamic societies from old times. Islam brought them. However, the dominance of reactionary apparatuses became an obstacle against these Islamic rulings being acted upon in Islamic countries. Just as today, in many Islamic countries, they are unfortunately not acted upon. In some of the Islamic countries in which these issues exist, rights are given in a manner imitating Europe, not in an Islamic manner, which is far better than the European and Western methodology. But, in the Islamic Republic, we have returned to the Islamic manner which we found to be clearer, more advanced, more defendable, and stronger than that which exists elsewhere in the world today.


[1] Nahj al-Balāgah, Sermon 92: دعونی و التمسوا غیری

[2] Nahj al-Balāgah, Letter 6: انّه بایعنی القوم الّذین بایعوا ابابکر و عمر

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