11 – Freedom And The Right To Vote

Freedom and the Right to Vote

The topic that we have been exploring in this series is regarding Islamic freedoms, and we have reached the discussion on political freedoms in an Islamic society. Political freedoms in society includes the individuals’ right to vote in this manner that whether it be the ruler, the leader of the society, the guardian of the Islamic system, or its chief executors, in this system, they are all elected by the people without a particular group being an intermediary. It also includes the right for the people to direct society and determine fundamental policies of the Islamic system and similarly, some other principal activities. All of these are included under political freedoms.

When it is said that, in an Islamic system, people possess political freedoms, it means that they possess the right to vote in the affairs mentioned above, as well as they have the right to perform various political activities, publish printed matter and newspapers, form organisations and parties, hold political gatherings, express political thoughts and views. In a nutshell, they have the right to select their own political path within society.

In the previous article, the freedom regarding the right of election, that too the election of the head of the Islamic system who is called Imam or the leader or the ruler, was discussed to some extent, and the situation prevalent in non-Islamic societies in the past and the present was cursorily mentioned. There, we saw that the world that is a claimant of freedom and democracy today and recognises for its people the right to elect in the determination of their system and its leaders, came to these thoughts very late. Even when they gave this right to the people, they gave it in a defective form. As we previously mentioned, up until the beginning of this century, half of these societies, i.e. the women, did not possess the right to elect and did not possess any value in the political arena. Gradually, after the first international war (“world war”), women were given the right to elect, that too only in some countries and that too only for those above the age of thirty or thirty-five. Afterwards, during these recent past years, they concluded, the “western and democratic” world concluded that there should be a right to vote and right to elect for women from their youth – when they are eighteen to twenty years of age.

Additionally, if we were to analyse the right of election held by people in the western world, we will see that in reality these electors and voters also are under the dominance of a series of factors which are out of their control. And if we investigate carefully, we will see that in reality the right to vote and right to elect for the general public or majority of the people, whether they be men or women, does not exist even now in an enormous porion of the world. This is the condition of the democratic world! The world of despotic rules, those systems which are run in the model of Middle Age governments and reactionists, those countries in which elections are only for show and a very insignificant portion of the people participates in the elections (that too, they only participate due to temptations of material attractions and their like), or the world of communist systems, these all do not possess even that small degree of democracy and freedom to vote which exists today in the West. At the same time, when we turn to Islam, we see that Islam has designated for everyone the right to vote, right to elect, right to make decisions, right to express their views in political issues and matters of life. However, the type of freedom in Islam, the type of election of people in Islam is different than that which exists in today’s West, but this is freedom in its true sense. If we compare with precise standards, this freedom lies here not there. It is true that Islamic countries did not act upon the view and opinion of Islam, and even in those countries where there is a so-called democracy, so-called freedom, it is of the western type, not the Islamic type. However, the Islamic Republic takes pride in the fact that, in its constitution, the freedoms are given to the people, and that our method, the policy of the Islamic Republic – to the extent of our knowledge, ability, and experience – is that all the people should truly have the right to vote and elect, which we have displayed from the beginning of the Revolution till now. If one were to justly assess this matter with the help of criteria and standards, one would conclude that this has been executed very well.

If the issue of elections and the issue of voting, right to vote and to elect, if its Islamic form were to be properly explained, the discussion ought to be more expansive and detailed. Now, to the extent that is appropriate to the capacity of this setting, I will elaborate some more regarding some dimensions of this topic.

One of the issues is that in Islam the way to determine the ruler and the guardian (walī) is not just election, rather we have two ways for the determination of the ruler. This is as per the view of the Shias in the issue of selection of the ruler and the one vested with authority (walī al-Amr). The Sunni brothers’ view differs from ours to some extent. One of the ways that we say, they do not accept, and some ways are accepted by them are not agreed upon by Shia scholars. One way is Divine appointment. Pay attention that ‘appointment’ in Islam and Shi’ism is not an appointment done by individuals. Nobody, no ruler, even that ruler who himself is appointed by God, has the right to appoint a ruler. The appointment by the Prophet (s) or an Imam (a) is valid only as much as it depicts the appointment by God. This is one way. As per our belief, the Noble Prophet (s) appointed the Imam after himself, and the Commander of the Faithful (a) appointed the series of the infallible Imamate, which is the period of twelve Shia Imams. Determination of the one vested with authority was done through ‘appointment’. When this appointment takes place, what role does allegiance and acceptance play is another discussion, which is a subtle one, and may partially get clarified in the continuation of my discussion here.

Another way is the way of election. Where can an election take place? It is in one of two places. The first of which is where there exists no appointment, such as during the period of occultation. In the time of occultation, nobody is appointed by God; rather, some criteria have been specified for who should be the ruler. The general appointment of the jurisprudents (Fuqahā) is actually the specification of criteria by the infallible Imams (a). In the texts of their narrations and rulings, they have specified standards and criteria for an Islamic ruler. Within the framework of these standards and criteria, the people elect the imam and choose him. Thus, one place for elections is where no appointment exists, where there is no place for an appointment, such as the period of occultation.

The other place for election is in a situation where even though there exists an appointment, it has not been acted upon, such as the period of the caliphate of the Commander of the Faithful (a), who as per his own belief and that of his supporters and followers was designated by the Prophet (s) who in turn had appointed him through the command of God. But in historical reality, this appointment was not accepted and was not acted upon. Then, it came to a point in time where people came and approached the Commander of the Faithful (a). They insisted and requested him to accept the caliphate, and nearly by the consensus of the people, the Commander of the Faithful (a) was elected for the caliphate and the position of authority. This too is one of the situations where the election of the people is valid. That is why, as you saw in the narrations I presented in the previous article, the Commander of the Faithful (a), for asserting the right of his caliphate, refers to people approaching him, to acceptance by the people, to the allegiance of the people, to the fact that people asked him and requested him and pledged allegiance to him; he refers to these things. If these were not correct reasonings, if according to the view of the Commander of the Faithful himself these were not valid, he (a) would not have said these things to his adversaries. Even if they were valid in their eyes, he (a) would not have said to the people to go after someone else, to elect someone else. He would not have said, because you elected me, because you insisted, I am accepting the caliphate. Therefore, in Islam, for the election of the people, for their choice, for their submission to one in authority, a decisive and true validity has been granted in such a situation.

Another point is that the election, as was indicated before, is not valid unconditionally. If people come together and elect someone who does not fit Godly standards and criteria, this election is not valid. This reverts back to the difference between an Islamic view of governance and the non-Islamic and Western view. In the Western democracies in which they believe in the people’s right to vote, they believe that there is no higher interest beyond the wants and will of the people [on the basis of which their election is considered valid, rather they believe that the election by the people in itself is good]. Islam does not grant people the right to govern intrinsically or essentially. The right to govern belongs to God. The one who can devise laws for human beings is God. The one who specifies the standards for implementation of the law is God. The owner of people’s affairs is none but God.

So, there is a series of principles, standards and criteria in Islam whose framework is something that gives validity to the right of vote of the people. If people elect someone outside of this framework and far from those standards and criteria, then this election has no validity. Suppose people go after a leader who is a transgressor, unbeliever, and far from Islamic criteria, such an election is not sanctioned from the Islamic point of view. Even if the people have a consensus for him, Islam does not consider it as an Islamic rulership, even if the people are all Muslim. They must go after someone who is just, who is pious, who is knowledgeable, who has necessary insight, who has the conditions for rulership. In short, it is within the framework of Islamic conditions that the election acquires validity. If, from among two, three, or ten candidates who have the necessary conditions, people elect one, then it is valid.

Another point is that in narrations and Islamic sources we come across expressions like ‘people of solution and conclusion’ or in some narrations the expression of ‘muhājir and anṣār’ [as those who make decisions regarding the ruler]. In those times, the election by the general public was not practical. If the caliph were to sit in Madinah or in Kūfah, doing nothing and the affairs all were to stand delayed until in the farthest corners of the Islamic world elections are held, and people speak, and their opinions are taken, and then some people support him and some people oppose him, people of one city accept and people of another city say no, we do not accept this person, we accept that other so and so person, and then if they were to count these votes and bring its results to Kūfah or Madinah, it would probably take a year or many years. The affairs of the Muslims would not allow such a delay. Today, through the facilities that exist, all these things take place in a period of a few days. Therefore, we can say that today the election of the people themselves without the intermediary of any other factor or element is valid. Another form that exists is the election by the group of individuals elected by the people, which is the Assembly of Experts (Majlis-i Khubrigān) in our constitution. As per our constitution, people elect the individuals who are the Assembly of Experts. The members of the Assembly of Experts, as an institution of the Islamic Republic, not just for one day or a particular period of time, but continuously, keep conducting their analysis, study, research and fact-finding regarding individuals and candidates for being the leader. They research regarding facts and rulings, they continue to do these things until they reach a conclusion. These individuals elected by people who are the Assembly of Experts are always ready to declare their view regarding the leader of the Muslims and the one vested with authority. This too is a kind of general election.

Therefore, the issue of election by the general public, even though through one intermediary which is a group of elected individuals by them, i.e. the Assembly of Experts, is something that is practical today while it was not practical before. So, if we take ‘people of solution and conclusion’ to mean this very Assembly of Experts, then it is practical today also. But if we take ‘people of solution and conclusion’ to not mean the elected individuals by people and the Assembly of Experts, and if we say that they are some people from among the elders who have more insight who sit in a corner and make decisions instead of the people, there is no argument for supporting such a thing today.

I will mention a few narrations which have been recorded in this regard so that it becomes clear how important the people’s right to vote and people’s election is in the view of Islam. If anybody gives any other view than this with regards to Islam, then he has indeed been unjust to Islam.

One of them is a narration of the Commander of the Faithful (a) which has been narrated in the renowned book of Sulaym ibn Qays al-Hilālī. There, it has been narrated that the Commander of the Faithful (a) said:

و الواجب فی حکم الله و حکم الاسلام علی المسلمین بعد ما یموت امامهم او یقتل ان لا یعملوا عملا و لا یحدثوا حدثا و لا یقدّموا یدا و لا رجلا و لا یبدئوا بشیء قبل ان یختاروا لانفسهم اماما[1]

“It is obligatory by the command of God and the command of Islam on the Muslims, that when their leader dies or is killed, that they do nothing, they should not begin any initiative, they should not perform any big or small task, they should not invest in any work, before they choose for themselves a leader.”

Here, the matter of ‘ikhtiyār’, i.e. selection, of the ruler for the Islamic society, the head of the Islamic ummah and Islamic country has been introduced as an obligation upon the ummah, that too as an obligation so important that people should make it precede all other works, give it preference over all other works and take the initiative to fulfil it. Then, the conditions of that head of the country and of the Islamic system are mentioned in the continuity of the narration until its end. In this narration, the expression used was ‘ikhtiyār’, i.e. election and choosing.

Another narration, which is also from the Commander of the Faithful (a), says that on that day when the people pledged allegiance to him, which was a Friday, he (a) came to the masjid. A large mass of people were gathered in the masjid of Madinah, and the Commander of the Faithful (a) said to the people in a loud voice:

ایّها النّاس… انّ هذا امرکم لیس لاحد فیه حقّ الّا من امّرتم[2]

“O people! … This is your affair; nobody has any right in this matter [i.e. in caliphate and rulership] except someone to whom you give rulership.”

Here again, you see that the Commander of the Faithful (a) is saying, not in a position of arguing against the enemy, not in a position of debate and discussion, not in a position of accepting adversary’s arguments, but to his own people, to those who accept him, have pledged allegiance to him, to those who requested for him to rule and to whom he can put forward anything explicitly, to them he (a) says that nobody has any right except the one to whom you give rulership. However, it is clear, as was mentioned before, that this is in the situation where the Divine appointment is not accepted by the people. The appointment of the Commander of the Faithful (a), who was appointed by God through the Prophet (s), was not acted upon. Now that it has not been acted upon, there exists no way for choosing someone, except people making someone a ruler and electing him.

In another narration, which is also narrated from the Commander of the Faithful (a), he (a) says in a letter to his friends that the Noble Prophet (s) issued a command, took a promise from me in this manner:

فان ولّوک فی عافیة و اجمعوا علیک بالرّضا فقم بامرهم[3]

“If the people come to you in peace and have consensus on you with satisfaction, then take on their affairs.”

Here the Prophet (s) says: O ‘Alī, if the ummah reaches a consensus upon you and they come to you and request you and no problem arises – pay attention to this fact that there exists some important interests which even supercede this matter, such as the unity of the Islamic world, the unity of the Islamic ummah in a situation where not having unity endangers the very foundations of Islam as was the case during the time of the Commander of the Faithful (a) – given that there be general welfare and no problem arises, no tumult, no disunity gets formed, no internal war breaks out, in this situation, if people came to you and requested you, then at that time, stand up to take up their work, to take up the reins of their affairs.

From these narrations and many other narrations that exist, even though some of them are doubtful in terms of their chain of narrators, from the whole collection of them, it can be completely understood that the preference of Islam is that where there is no Divine appointment, or the Divine appointment has not been acted upon, there exists only one way: election by the people. Here, people have been given the right to vote, the right to elect. There is no difference among them, as was mentioned before. Men and women are not differentiated; women too have the right to the same extent as men, young individuals have the right to the same extent as elder ones having more experience. The only age limit is puberty, just as is the case in our law. We allow a young individual who finishes his fifteen years to participate in the election of the president and the members of the legislative assembly. Even in the elections of the leader, which requires a vast majority of people to participate, interfere, and give their views, this right exists for all the people. Where in the world today is it like this? Even today, despite all these claims regarding human freedom, human rights, and political freedoms, despite all these claims that especially the Western world has in these regards, in no place in the world is something like this being acted upon. It is not there even in their laws. In their laws, they do not allow youth of fifteen years of age to enter the arena of voting and to elect someone. This kind of a situation exists only in the world of Islam and in Islamic rulings, and this is that very political freedom with regards to elections.

I would like to emphasise more, as I had mentioned before, that this does not negate that decisive and agreed-upon view of the Shia which says that the infallible caliph, the infallible Imam is not considered valid except through Divine appointment which takes place through the Prophet (s) or the previous infallible Imam (a). This is not incompatible with that, rather they are the same. This is the continuation of that. The election of the people is not a horizontal substitute to the Divine appointment. When God appoints someone, and it is possible to act upon it, and it is acted upon, there, election has no place. But, at the time when it is not acted upon, such as the early history of Islam as was mentioned, there, election acquires validity. The election of people in the time of occultation, such as our time, is an election in a situation when there is no Divine appointment, and is therefore valid as well.


[1] Sulaym ibn Qays al-Hilālī, Kitāb Sulaym ibn Qays al-Hilālī, Volume 2, ed. Muḥammad Anṣārī Zanjānī Khu’aynī (Qom: al-Hādī, 1405 A.H., First print), 752, Noor Software CD-ROM.

[2] Muḥammad Bāqir Majlisī, Biḥār al-Anwār, Volume 32 (Beirut: Dār Iḥyā’ al-Turāth al-‘Arabī, 1403 A.H., Second print), 8, Noor Software CD-ROM.

[3] ‘Alī ibn Mūsā ibn Ṭāwūs, Kashf al-Muḥjah li Thamarat al-Mahjah, ed. Muḥammad Ḥasūn (Qom: Bustān-i Kitāb, 1375 Iranian Calendar, Second print), 248, Noor Software CD-ROM.

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