Can Muslims Take Non-Muslims as Leaders?

By webadmin on 12:36 pm Sep 12, 2012
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Abdul Qowi Bastian

On the first day of Ramadan, two friends — one a member of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), another a member of Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Joko Widodo’s campaign team — and I were discussing the results of the July Jakarta election in a public library in Menteng, Central Jakarta.

Although named the official winners of the first round of the Jakarta gubernatorial race, the Solo mayor and his running mate, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, still face an uphill battle.



Worried about “dirty” strategies that could be used by their opponent in the runoff election, my friend who’s a member of the Jokowi campaign team asked me if there was a verse in the Holy Koran that allows Muslims to choose non-Muslims as their leader. Not knowing the answer, I shrugged.



He said he wanted to look for the verse to back his candidate, Ahok, who is of Chinese ethnicity and a Christian. He believes Islam tolerates Muslims befriending non-believers. 



The aim is to later “infiltrate” Muslim clerics in Jakarta by spreading these messages during Idul Fitri, when large numbers of Muslims gathered in place of worships listening to post-Ramadan sermons. Both my PDI-P friend and I objected to the idea, arguing politics shouldn’t sink that low.



The conversation took place before the king of dangdut, Rhoma Irama, controversially called on Muslims to vote for Muslims during a sermon. It was before Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo sat among devotees at Al-Muttaqin mosque, where a preacher delivering his sermon proclaimed, “Muslims must pick a leader of the same faith.”



The idea of using such low tactics to reach the desired goals perched on both sides. The difference is one retreated, the other went on with it.



Sullying Idul Fitri



Idul Fitri is a holy time when Muslims celebrate the past month of fasting from worldly desires. Allowing dirty campaigns into a public sphere like a mosque is out of the question. 

Sadly, during Idul Fitri prayer at a local mosque in Sunter, North Jakarta, last month, the preacher quoted a verse from the Koran that said Muslims should not choose non-Muslims to be their leaders.

As I was sitting in the mosque and listening to the khutba (or sermon), I reached into my trouser’s pocket and pulled out my iPhone. According to my iQuran app, the verse cited by the preacher (QS 5:51) says:

“O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.”

From the iQuran version, clearly the verse makes no reference to a leader. So, I approached the preacher after the prayer session adjourned and asked for a clarification.

He told me the original word used, “awliya,” translates to leader or master. But, from the solid proof I had in my hand, I insisted that it said “friend,” not “leader.”

Our conversation didn’t go anywhere, so I rushed home and consulted Al-Lubab, a tafsir (interpretation) book, written by former religious affairs minister and renowned cleric Quraish Shihab.

In the book, Quraish doesn’t translate “awliya” to leader, but to faithful friend (“kawan yang dapat dipercaya”) instead.

In his interpretation, Quraish elaborated it to what I think is the most important point in this debacle: That Islam allows Muslims to deal kindly and justly with non-Muslims as long as they are kind and courteous.

Supporting this argument, another verse (QS 60:9) in the Koran says:

“Allah only forbids you with regard to those who fight you for your faith, and drive you out of your homes and support others in driving you out, from turning to them for protection (or taking them as wali). Those who seek their protection they are indeed wrongdoers.”

Quick Internet searches lead to this: In Sunni Islam, “awliya” is generally short for “waliulah” or friend of God. Shiite Muslims, on the other hand, believe the term means the one vested with the “authority of God.” And this is the fundamental part where Sunni and Shiites diverge.

Shiites reject Sunni’s interpretation that Muslims may not take non-Muslims as a friend, whereas they interpret the verse as to not allow Jews and Christians to act as “authorities” over Muslims.

Not to mention Prophet Muhammad’s kindness and mercy to non-Muslims. Muhammad, in his lifetime, was kind to the pagans in Mecca and fought them only when they fought him.

The Koran Should Be Read in Context

Just last week, I encountered another similar topic during the Friday prayer sermon at a mosque next to my office building in Gatot Subroto, South Jakarta. This time, the preacher cited another verse that carried the same message:

“O you who believe! Do not take for intimate friends from among others than your own people; they do not fall short of inflicting loss upon you; they love what distresses you; vehement hatred has already appeared from out of their mouths, and what their breasts conceal is greater still; indeed, we have made the communications clear to you, if you will understand” (QS 3: 118).

Unwilling to deal with the same propaganda twice, I approached the preacher and asked for clarifications. Again.

He said “awliya” has varied meanings. “It could be ‘intimate friends’ or ‘master,’” he said.

Armed with my research, I proceeded to ask him another question: “But sura’ Al Mumtahinah verse 9 says that Allah only forbids us from taking non-Muslims as a friend — or a leader, for that matter — in exceptional circumstances, such as when they attack us or wrong us.”

To which he replied: “No, it doesn’t say so. Do not make allies with those who are not from your group affiliation.”

“Even if they do no harm toward us?”

“Yes. Muslims should only choose among ourselves.”

“What about Muslims in countries where they’re the minority group, and no Muslim political leaders are running for position?”

“It’s better to not use their political right than to have to vote for non-Muslims.”

‘Leaders,’ ‘friends,’ whatever the correct translation is, it’s unwise to take these verses at face value. The noble Koran is God’s divine words and there is a reason behind the revelation of the Koran and every verse in it. And one must look at them contextually.