by Mateen A. Khan
Islam and Muslims have a long history in America and are very much a part of the legacy of the United States. Muslims and non-Muslims have worked together, lived together, and played together. We have constructed institutions of peace and have even fought wars together. And so, we increasingly find ourselves having to form political and communal alliances. Often, this involves collaborating with groups whose values and teachings may be in direct opposition to Islamic morality. This article attempts to guide Muslim American leaders at all levels and the general Muslim public at-large in a direction which benefits the national interest and protects normative Islam.
Assessing the Situation Through Jurisprudence
Muslims, in general, and their leaders, in particular, need to be thinkers by assessing and re-assessing individual situations. We cannot be swept up in the euphoria of nationalism or anti-establishment rhetoric by simply following the masses or the words of a dynamic speaker. After the Prophet’s ﷺ migration, jurisprudence and state legislation were unified under his guidance and the guidance of several khulafā’ afterward. However, since this time, the two have been separated, and Islamic scholarship has been engaged in a process of risk management and defense of normative Islam. Our main priority as Muslims is to be able to believe, worship, and live our lives in a way that is pleasing to Allah. The Qur’an states rather clearly, “I only created humans and jinn so that they worship Me.” The Qur’anic exegetes have explained ‘worship’ as obedience to the Divine. Every Muslim by necessity believes the All-Wise has guided us solely for our benefit. The role of Islamic scholarship and leadership has been and continues to be charting a course that defends normative Islam through a constant harm-benefit analysis.
Whenever collaboration with another group is suggested, potential harm (mafsadah) and benefit (maṣlaḥah) is assessed through principles found in the Qur’an, Sunnah, and scholarly opinions. For this, we turn to the legal maxim of ‘the prevention of harms precedes the attainment of benefits’ (درء المفاسد اولى من جلب المصالح). This particular maxim is extrapolated among other things from the prophetic ḥadith, “If I forbid you to do something, then keep away from it. And if I order you to do something, then do as much as you can of it.” It is based on this maxim, for example, that Muslims are not permitted to make beneficial changes to their property that might cause harm to their neighbor.
We may find mafsadah in the form of oppression through institutional biases. Ẓulm, one of the classical Arabic terms for oppression, is defined as “to place a thing where it doesn’t belong.” It will be to give one something that isn’t his or her right or to withhold the legitimate right of another. Allah says, “Indeed, shirk is a great ẓulm.” In other words, giving another what is the Right of Allah (i.e. obedience and worship) when He alone has given you life, nourishment, etc. is a very great ẓulm. Oppression is not only forbidden in our relationship with Allah, but also with one another. In a ḥadīth qudsī, the Prophet ﷺ quoted Allah saying, “My servants, I have made oppression unlawful for Me and unlawful for you, so do not commit oppression against one another.” Repeatedly, the Qur’an associates oppression as a character trait of disbelief and not of Believers. If a harm is identified – for example, governmental discriminatory practices – then Muslims may rally against it using permissible means. We are not permitted to assist in it nor should we sit idle when we are capable of removing it.
In collaborating, we may find benefits in the form of increased security, peace, well-being, or most of all, freedom to practice our religion. Maṣlaḥah, in the Islamic terminology, refers to what provides benefit and is consistent with the objectives (maqāsid) of the Sharī`ah. These objectives are extracted from the totality of the Qur’an and Sunnah and refer to – in order of importance – protection of one’s Islam, life, intellect, progeny, and property. It is worth noting that these objectives and benefits are secondary to what is explicitly stated in the Qur’an and Sunnah, since they are extractions of divine text rather than explicit commands. For wisdoms and benefits that oppose the primary texts of the Shari‘ah are what the Noble Qur’an refers to as “desires” (al-ahwā’). Hence, maṣlaḥah is not determined by unlearned individuals or the masses, because “if the truth had followed their inclinations, the heavens and the earth and whoever is in them would have been ruined.” All this is to say that when the sharī`ah declares something as good, we take the necessary and legal steps to encourage it. When something is not mentioned in the primary texts (nuṣūṣ), – for example, securing voting rights for minorities – learned people may endorse it as a maṣlaḥah so the rest may fall behind it.
Whether removing a harm or obtaining a benefit, our primary intent as Muslims is Allah’s Pleasure. Today in America, we live with non-Muslims while fulfilling all the rights due to them as neighbors. We work and engage in business with them while refraining from impermissible jobs and transactions as dictated by our religion. We share infrastructure, drinking water, and permissible foods. Islam allows all of this. While reminiscing one day, the Prophet ﷺ spoke of the Pact of the Virtuous (Hilf al-Fuḍūl). He praised the Pact and announced that had the same situation – an agreement enjoining a common maṣlaḥah shared with non-Muslims – come up today, he would join it readily. Not only is there no issue with Muslims joining non-Muslims for shared causes such as eradicating poverty or establishing safe havens for abused women, but it may also be recommended or a communal obligation based on the situation.
The contention lies when due to our small numbers, weaknesses, and other deficiencies, Muslim Americans often find themselves in need of collaborating with other groups who may hold ideas antithetical to Islamic morality. Groups may exist primarily to further another belief or lifestyle considered sinful by Islamic standards. Can we collaborate with them? If so, what are the conditions? Before we get into this discussion further, it behooves us to first review the Islamic injunction against helping another in sin.
Near the end of the second ayah of Surah al-Mā’idah, Allah states, “Rather, help one another to virtuousness, and to the fear of Allah. And do not help one another to sin and to aggression.” From the first part of the quoted line, we may work with people to assist in virtuousness, but the latter part strongly warns against assisting in sin. Muslims not only refrain themselves from sin, but also cannot assist another in it. As the Prophet ﷺ mentioned in an authentic hadith, “The one who directs towards sin is as the one who commits it.” Conversely, this statement supports a weaker narration, “The one who directs towards good is as the one who does it.” Even stronger words have been attributed to the Prophet ﷺ that on the day of Judgment, a caller will declare, “Where are the sinners, those who followed them, and those who assisted them?” Such that even those who assisted by bringing them pens and ink will be gathered with them in an iron box and thrown into Hell.
With this in mind, we can now turn towards prophetic history, in which we find many analogous examples of Muslims collaborating with non-Muslims. I would like to highlight four of them:
- In the Makkan period of the Prophet’s ﷺ life, he and the early Muslims underwent extraordinary hardships including torture at the hands of Makkan polytheists. For a time, a unilateral trade embargo was instituted against the Muslims. The Muslims, when able, continued to trade with the same non-Muslims that oppressed them and made trips together to other areas to trade with other non-Muslim tribes.
- Upon migrating to Madinah, the Prophet ﷺ formed a constitution with the Madinan Jews. The charter outlined how they were to live in one community as neighbors. They traded with one another, fulfilled each other’s rights, and shared a common infrastructure.
- With the treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah, the Prophet ﷺ made an agreement with the non-Muslim Makkans including issues about trade, extradition, and visitation.
We see in these instances that the Prophet ﷺ made agreements with the Makkan polytheists and Madinan Jews despite each group adopting elements of disbelief and un-Islamic morality. Through these joint activities, they warded off a greater harm that would have occurred by total segregation and isolation.
- Another example occurred during the Battle of Uhud. The Muslims set out from Madinah with one thousand men. Among them were the Hypocrites who would flee later under the leadership of `Abdullah ibn `Ubayy. The Prophet ﷺ, when setting out from Madinah, knew that among his soldiers were Hypocrites. Yet, he allowed them to accompany the Believers to remove a greater harm – the attack from the Makkan polytheists.
In these situations, the Muslims and non-Muslims agreed to fulfill shared goals, and in doing so, the two groups worked more in parallel than together. The Muslims did not intend to assist them in those things that were antithetical to Muslim beliefs although that may have happened as an unintended consequence. When sufficient need arises, Muslim American scholars in conjunction with other experts may recommend collaborating with non-Muslim groups – even those advocating un-Islamic beliefs and morality – with an important condition: the safeguarding of people’s Islam.
Our Islam is our most important possession. It is the cause of revelation and the source of our connection with Allah. Its protection is the highest objective. So much so that when the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions were unable to safeguard their deen, Allah commanded them, “O My servants who have believed, indeed My earth is spacious, so worship only Me.” They were given the order to leave their beloved hometown of Makkah. We find in each instance of Muslim collaboration with non-Muslims, Allah and His Messenger ﷺ made clear the distinction between a path of guidance and one that displeases Allah. For example, after the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah, Allah reaffirmed Islam as the truth, “It is He who sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to manifest it over all religion.” Similarly, after the Battle of Uhud, He said, “And what struck you on the day the two armies met was by permission of Allah that He might make evident the Believers. And that He might make evident those who are Hypocrites.” The purpose of the distinction is to safeguard our religion by pointing out our differences. Collaboration at the expense of one’s religion will be impermissible without taking steps to safeguard it. If there is a risk of altering or losing Islamic beliefs, then clarification must be made. Interestingly (and perhaps a subject of another article) this is not only true when collaborating with groups whose primary agenda is antithetical to Islamic beliefs, but also during mundane life-activities when Muslims are the dominated minority.
How do we safeguard our Islam?
- Gain Knowledge. One must learn the basic, necessary knowledge about Islam, its tenets, rulings, wisdoms, and guidance. A relationship with people of knowledge is key to fostering one’s religion and filling in knowledge gaps when coming across new challenges. “Ask the people of knowledge if you don’t know” and, “The cure to ignorance is to ask” are just a hint as to the vast amount of Islamic texts on this subject.
- Keep company with the pious. Just as important as knowledge is companionship with the pious since the hadiths equate our religion with the religion of our companions. The Qur’an states about un-Islamic companionship, “And whoever among you takes them as an intimate friend, he is one of them.” Islam has been passed from Prophet ﷺ to Companions and so on among the pious. Connect yourself to that lineage.
- Love Islam. Stemming from the first two is an apparent Islamic identity through the love of Islam. Muslims need to be comfortable with their identity without feeling as if they must hide. Even more, their love for Islam should surpass anything else. Otherwise, indiscriminating friendship and partnership with non-Muslim organizations can garble one’s beliefs placing their very Islam at risk. Whether individually or communally, identity tells others who you are and your religion, what you stand for or against.
- Know what is Islamic and what isn’t. A very important condition, which applies to Muslim leaders especially when working with groups with beliefs antithetical to Islam, is that those who take on the role of making decisions for and leading the Muslim public also take on the responsibility of warning them of the dangers in that decision by distinguishing what is Islamic and what is not. Foremost in this responsibility, is the danger to each Muslim American’s Islam. For example, if a need arises such that we form a coalition with LGBTQIA groups, it is imperative that everyone be aware the coalition is one of achieving a shared goal and that their morality is antithetical to our divinely-mandated morality. Yes, this might place us in the precarious position of defending their human and civil rights while simultaneously vocalizing their lifestyle as a sin that draws Allah’s displeasure. We have a duty to both. This is an essential safeguard to protect the Islam of the Muslim public and future generations.
Additionally, working with non-Muslim groups in not a permission to work un-Islamically. We may not commit the harām hoping for a benefit. At times, our leadership may leave something preferable (mustaḥabb) or allowable (mubāḥ) as the Prophet ﷺ had expressed near the end of his life. He said to his beloved wife, “O `Ā’ishah! Were your nation not close to the pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance, I would have had the Ka`bah demolished and would have included in it the portion which had been left.” He ﷺ left a preferable action (to include the left-out portion) to avoid a harm (confusion among the Quraysh). That being said, in general, we must still abide by the guidance and necessary dictates of the Sharī`ah. When the direction of the Qiblah was changed, the Prophet ﷺ was concerned about what the Jews would say about it. Allah counseled him saying, “So if you were to follow their desires after what has come to you of knowledge, indeed, you would then be among the wrongdoers.” Avoiding a perceived harm (the statements of the Jews) is not permission to engage in the impermissible (not fulfilling Allah’s command). The Prophet ﷺ is reported to have said, “A death in the obedience of Allah is better than life spent in the disobedience of Allah.”
As a group, we must ask some hard questions as to who represents us. Beyond expertise in their field and enthusiasm for activism, our representatives must have some basic working knowledge of normative Islam. They will be actively forming relationships with fellow Americans and groups with Islamically divergent beliefs and practices. Will they lean towards ideas against well-established Islamic tenets? Will their own beliefs be affected such that they are rendered unfit to guide the Muslim public? For example, if a Muslim is not firm in his or her religion such that s/he can withstand the proselytizing efforts of evangelicals or atheists, it will not be permissible for him or her to work with them. This responsibility is not for everyone. Both Islamic scholars and activists need to be aware of the limits of their knowledge and develop a humility to acquiesce to experts in other areas.
Islam encourages Muslims to live and cooperate with non-Muslims. We are one nation, and we share a land, governance, and a future. We should extend a hand to work together on shared values and goals. In times of need, when differences exist between us and other groups that are antithetical or even directly oppositional to our morality, we may still work alongside one another as long as we safeguard our religious moralities. “Sufficient need” should be assessed jointly between properly trained Islamic scholars and various leaders of the relevant fields involved. Inter-Islamic cooperation is necessary before intra-organizational cooperation can be fruitful. In fulfilling our responsibility to Muslim and non-Muslim Americans, we can never lose sight that our accomplishment lies in obedience to the Creator.
The success of Muslims lies in Allah’s Pleasure even if they be in bondage. If we gain power and act to displease Allah, then what is the difference between our governance and that of Fir`awn’s? Rather, worry about pleasing Him and connecting with Him. Be committed to Islam and its guidance. You’ve tried following those false idols for some time. Now, bow down before Your Lord, ask about your needs, and see what happens! (paraphrased from Shaykh Ashraf `Ali Thanwi)
 Normative Islam refers to the tenets of belief and practice representing the majority of Islamic scholarship since the Prophet ﷺ. Many narrations attributed to the Prophet ﷺ, the salaf al-ṣāliḥīn, and scholarly consensus indicate that the path of divine guidance is the path of the majority.
 Mohammed, A.M. Muslims In Non-Muslim Lands: A Legal Study with Applications, p. 125-128.
 Surah al-Dhāriyāt: 56
 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: 7288, Ṣaḥīḥ li Muslim: 1337b. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 Lisān al-`Arab
 Surah Luqmān: 13
 Saḥīḥ al-Muslim: 2577a. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 `Umdah al-Qārī: 12/290, Dār al-Ihyā’ al-Turāth al-`Arabī
 Al-Muwāfaqāt lī al-Shāṭibī, Kitāb al-Maqāsid
 Usūl al-Iftā wa Ādābuhu lī Muftī Taqī Uthmānī, Chapter on Maqāsid al-Sharī`ah
 Surah al-Mu’minūn: 71
 `Umdah al-Qārī: 12/290, Dār al-Ihyā’ al-Turāth al-`Arabī
 Sunan al-Tirmidhī: 2670. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 Rūh al-Ma`ānī under Surah al-Qasas: 17
 Surah al-Ankabūt: 56
 Surah al-Fatḥ: 28
 Surah Aal-Imrān: 166-7
 Surah al-Naḥl: 43, Surah al-Anbiyā’: 7
 Sunan Abū Dāwūd: 337. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 Sunan al-Tirmidhī: 2378. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 Surah al-Ma’idah: 51
 Rahmānī, K.S. Samāhī Baḥth wa Naẓr. Apr 2012. P. 67-68.
 Shafi, M. Maariful Quran. Surah al-Ma’idah: 51.
 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1586. Retrieved from Sunnah.com. When the Ka`bah was last rebuilt by the Quraysh, they left out a portion (ḥaṭīm) from the rest of the building. The Prophet ﷺ indicated here that he thought of rebuilding the Ka`bah and including this portion in the building.
 Sharḥ al-Nawawī `ala al-Sāḥīḥ li Muslim, Book of Hajj, Chapter on Demolishing the Ka`bah and Rebuilding It. Also, Ahsan al-Fatāwa of Mufti Rashīd Ahmad, Vol. 6, Pg. 38-39.
 Surah al-Baqarah: 145
 Majma` al-Zawā’id: 5/241
 Al-Ifādāt al-Yawmiyyah: 5/168-9