Muslims, Trump, and Islamic Political Ethics

US Capitol - Washington, DC

With Joe Biden’s victory of Trump in the 2020 presidential elections, the vast majority of Muslims can breathe a sigh of relief that the most openly anti-Muslim president in US history has been defeated.  It is undeniable that Trump’s embrace of Birtherism – the charge that Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States – was not born in the United States and therefore not a true American helped stoke Islamophobia throughout President Obama’s term.  It is equally undeniable that Trump made Islamophobia a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, making ludicrous statements such as “I think Islam hates us,” inciting hatred against Muslim refugees from countries devastated in large part by the US-sponsored “global war on terror,” and finally, his infamous call to ban all immigration from Muslim countries. His disdain for Muslims, moreover, was not just a demagogic strategy to win votes: immediately upon assuming office, he issued an executive order banning immigration from thirteen predominantly Muslim countries, a ban colloquially known as “the Muslim Ban.” 

It is therefore surprising to hear reports that Trump won upwards of 35% of Muslim votes in the most recent election.  Of course, that means 64% of Muslims supported Biden, a level of support that, among religious voters, was matched only by American Jews who supported Biden at the slightly higher rate of 68%.  But, given Trump’s record, it is hard to imagine any Muslim supporting Trump.  The Muslim think tank, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, had already identified various factors that led some American Muslims to support Trump, including, internalized Islamophobia. I, however, am not so interested in why one-third of American Muslims might have chosen to support Trump (assuming the results of that exit poll are accurate) as much as I am interested in the conception of politics that lay behind their asserted justifications for supporting someone who is either a convinced anti-Muslim bigot, or a demagogue willing to stoke and exploit anti-Muslim bigotry to further his own personal ambitions.

64% of Muslims supported Biden, a level of support that, among religious voters, was matched only by American Jews who supported Biden at the slightly higher rate of 68%. 

Anecdotally I’ve heard Muslims set forth numerous explanations for why a vote for Trump made sense, ranging from the economy (particularly taxes), his support for traditional religious values, or his reinstatement of sanctions against Iran, combined with a general resignation in the face of an entrenched Islamophobia that leads some Muslims to believe that all one can hope for from politics is to obtain the best possible deal for one’s self. What these different justifications have in common is their conception of politics as a kind of private market, where candidates bid for citizens’ support in the form of political favors. It is this understanding of politics that I wish to challenge as being fundamentally contrary to Islamic political ethics.  

The content of Islamic political ethics, of course, originates in the Quran and the Sunna, but it is also found in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence.  Space constrains what can be said on this topic, but the Quran emphasizes numerous “political” virtues, such as consultation (shūrā, e.g. al-Shūrā, 42:38 ), altruism (īthāral-Ḥashr, 59:9), rational deliberation (naẓar), honesty in dealings with others (but especially with judges) (al-Baqara, 2:188), and the faithful and prompt discharge of one’s trusts (Āl ʿImrān, 3:75). It condemned Pharaoh for his tyranny and his penchant for setting one group of his people against another (al-Qaṣaṣ, 38:4), and commanded guardians of orphans to deal with their wards’ property only in the “most beautiful manner (al-aḥsan)” (al-Anʿām, 6:152 and al-Isrāʾ, 17:34), i.e., for the benefit of the orphan not the benefit of the guardian. 

The Sunna reinforced these principles and emphasized the duty of public servants to use their skills for the public good rather than their own private interests.  The Prophet (S), for example, is reported to have said, “Whoever is entrusted with authority over any affair of my community, and does not exert himself sincerely on their behalf (lam yajtahid wa lam yanṣaḥ lahum) shall never enter Paradise.” The Prophet (S) also is reported to have said, “Religion is sincerity (al-naṣīḥa). ‘We said, “To whom, Messenger of God?”’ He said, ‘To God, His Book, His messenger, to the leaders of the Muslims, and to everyone in the Muslim community (ʿāmmatihim).’”  

The Quran emphasizes numerous “political” virtues, such as consultation (shūrā, e.g. al-Shūrā, 42:38 ), altruism (īthāral-Ḥashr, 59:9), rational deliberation (naẓar), honesty in dealings with others (but especially with judges) (al-Baqara, 2:188), and the faithful and prompt discharge of one’s trusts (Āl ʿImrān, 3:75)

The opposite of good-faith, sincere judgment for the good of the community is self-serving decision-making. The Arabic term for self-serving decision-making is muḥāba, such as when a public official exercises his discretion to further his own private interest rather than the common good, including, by appointing unqualified persons to public offices because of their personal loyalty to the appointing official rather then their dispassionate commitment to the public good. One report has the Prophet (S) say the following, “God curses anyone who is given authority over any of the affairs of the Muslim community, and then appoints someone over them who is unqualified, for his own advantage.”  

The jurists subsumed these various political virtues under the concept of integrity, ʿadāla. Integrity was an obligatory condition for every public office, with most jurist agreeing that it was required both at the time of appointment, and for the office holder to continue in his position. In other words, no one could be validly appointed to public office unless he possessed integrity at the time of appointment and did nothing to impugn his integrity after taking office.  While private morality was a component of integrity, it did not exhaust it.  Honesty in dealings, fairness, and trustworthiness were crucial components of integrity as the jurists understood this concept.  When ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb asked about a man’s integrity for purposes of admitting his testimony in a lawsuit, and someone declared him trustworthy, ʿUmar asked that man whether he ever had done business with the prospective witness in the market, travelled with him on a lengthy journey, or had been embroiled with him in a legal dispute. It was these kinds of interactions that were relevant to discover the truth about this man’s character.  When the would-be character witness said he had not, ʿUmar reportedly said, “You are ignorant about this man’s character. Your ‘knowledge,’ I think, is that you might have seen him raise his head and lower it in the mosque.”  Another report attributed to ʿUmar quoted him as saying “Look not to a man’s prayer or his fasting [to know whether he has integrity], but look to his truthfulness when he speaks, whether he faithfully discharges his trusts, and his self-restraint when he is angered.”

It doesn’t take a scholar of Islamic law to know that Donald Trump does not come close to meeting the requirement of integrity that Islam deems a condition to holding any public office. His businesses repeatedly went into bankruptcy, and although bankruptcy can be a legitimate tool for a business that is temporarily struggling, Trump repeatedly exploited bankruptcy law to extort favorable terms from his lenders when he threated to saddle them with greater losses if they did not cooperate. It is no surprise, therefore, that Wall Street banks largely ceaseddoing business with him. But Trump did not only cheat large, Wall Street banks, a group that might not earn a lot of sympathy from the public; he also cheated scores of contractors who worked on his various projects, to the tune of millions of dollars. While failure in business is no sin, the Prophet (S) taught us that the refusal to pay debts when they are due, even one has the means to do so, is sinful.  To this one might also add the fact that the Department of Justice, during the administration of a president hardly known known for his “wokeness,” Richard Nixon, sued him for racially discriminatory business practices. Furthermore, he credibly stands accused of income tax fraud and inheritance tax fraud, and the improper use of his own charity’s funds, something that has led the State of New York to shut it down.  

It doesn’t take a scholar of Islamic law to know that Donald Trump does not come close to meeting the requirement of integrity that Islam deems a condition to holding any public office.

Trump’s dishonesty in business extends to his public life, where his capacity to lie is truly epic; it would take a book to document adequately all his lies, even if this book were limited to his four years as president. But his dishonesty is not only quantitatively different from other politicians, it is qualitatively different, often intersecting with crude racism. He was at the forefront of those calling for the conviction and even the execution of the so-called “Central Park Five.” Even when they were exonerated, Trump refused to admit his error and denounced the City of New York’s settlement with these young men who spent much of their lives in jail unjustly, based in large part on the hysteria that figures like Trump stirred up. Trump launched his path to the presidency with a lie, becoming one of the most prominent advocates of “birtherism,” the false claim that President Obama was not born in Hawaii, but somewhere overseas, and seasoned it with anti-Mexican racism and anti-Muslim bigotry.  

Trump not only lacks the moral integrity to serve in a public office from the Islamic perspective, he lacks the substantive moral disposition – the capacity to act in an other-regarding way (nuṣḥ or naṣīḥa) – that is required to occupy a position of public trust.  Public officials in Islamic law are trustees or fiduciaries (walī (s.)/awliyāʾ (pl.)), and therefore they are under a duty always to further the interest of those under their care.  The Muslim jurists, in determining the duty of public officials, pointed to the Quran’s verses about the duties of an orphan’s guardian, specifically, al-Anʿām, 6:152 and al-Isrāʾ, 17:34, both of which state, “And approach not the orphan’s property except in the fairest (al-aḥsan) manner.”  Indeed, the Quran even encourages trustees, if they are wealthy, to refrain from reimbursing themselves for their services, but if they are needy, to take no more than what they need (al-Nisāʾ, 4:6).  Accordingly, Muslim jurists prohibited trustees from profiting personally from the property that was entrusted to their care.  Trump, however, from the beginning of his campaign and throughout his four years in office, made clear that his view of politics was “transactional,” and he did not shy away from personally profiting from his time in office. 

Worse than his crude abuse of power in the pursuit of private financial gain, Trump’s racist policies recall the Quran’s description of Pharaoh: “Indeed, Pharaoh raised himself in the land, and divided its people into groups, abasing some of them . . .” (al-Qaṣaṣ, 28:4). His disregard for the law, and his regular penchant of dividing Americans into insiders and outsiders, render him the opposite of the Islamic ideal of a politician.  Al-Ghazālī, one of the greatest medieval Muslim scholars, identified politics as the highest and most noble secular craft because its aim is to establish harmony among the diverse members of the polity, thereby securing the welfare of all.  Trump’s politics, from the moment he launched his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists,” and calling for a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the US, represents the precise opposite of the values that Islamic politics seeks to cultivate.   

Trump’s disregard for the law, and his regular penchant of dividing Americans into insiders and outsiders, render him the opposite of the Islamic ideal of a politician.  

I can imagine a Muslim supporter of Trump respond by saying, “We know that Trump is wicked, but all politics is wicked, and Biden and the Democrats are corrupt too, so why shouldn’t I support the candidate who is most likely to support what’s good for me?”  But this misconstrues our duty as Muslims, even in non-ideal circumstances. But before we consider what Islam requires of us in non-ideal circumstances, consider that Muslim jurists imposed on the electors (ahl al-ḥall wa’l-ʿaqd) the duty to select the most qualified candidate in view of the law’s requirements and the circumstances of the time because of their role as trustees for the community. As voters, at least from an Islamic perspective, we are required to exercise our vote to further what we sincerely believe to be the public interest, not our own private good.  Even granting for the sake of argument that Biden and the Democrats are corrupt, that does not excuse our duty to determine which of the candidates is closer to Islamic ideals.  Islamic law and ethics are not binary, meaning, that even in situations where necessity precludes its application fully, we are still required to apply as much of it as we can.  This notion is expressed in two principles of Islamic law: “necessity is limited by the extent of the necessity (but no more) (al-ḍarūra tuqaddar bi-qadarihā),” and “even if the entirety of the law cannot be fulfilled, what remains of its ends should not be discarded (mā lā yudrak kulluhu lā yutrak julluhu).”

There is no doubt that many Americans, Muslims included, have many reasons to be skeptical of Biden and the Democrats. Perhaps Muslims have even more reason to be skeptical of Biden and the Democrats than others.  But there is an important difference between Trump and Biden: our disagreements with Biden are properly political, meaning, they arise out of different conceptions of the public good, and different judgments about how to weigh various trade-offs in circumstances where it is impossible to achieve all aims simultaneously. In this respect, the decisions of Biden and the Democrats reflect the necessarily tragic nature of the compromises politics requires. But Trump destroys the possibility of political judgment by conflating political judgment with unvarnished self-interest.  

The integrity of the public domain, as the 14th century Andalusian Muslim jurist Abū Isḥāq al-Shāṭibī pointed out, depends on the categorical exclusion of the self-interested logic of the market place from political and legal decisions; indeed, he argues that permitting self-interest to infiltrate decision making in public institutions would destroy the very foundations of Islam, because the other-regarding nature of public offices is a fundamental prerequisite for justice to exist. Whatever disagreements we may have with some items in Biden’s agenda, or the agenda of the Democratic Party, these are genuinely political disagreements, disagreements we must be willing to accept as members of a democratic society. But what Trumpism offers is something radically different: not political judgment, but the logic of the marketplace, where profitable transactions, without regard to abstract principles of justice, are the guiding light of politics, a stance that inevitably empowers the rich and powerful to exploit the weak. For us Muslims, however, much, if not all, of the point of government is to protect the weak from the depredations of the rich and powerful, not empower them to exploit them more effectively. 

It is disheartening to learn that many Muslims have adopted Trump’s transactional view of politics. Islam, however, provides us with a set of political ideals and conceptions of political virtues that demand from us that we exercise our rights as citizens, particular when choosing our leaders, to do so always in consideration of the public good, not simply what is good for us as individuals.  That is the meaning of nuṣḥ and the irrevocable duty to consider everyone’s welfare when exercising power, in accordance with the Prophet’s statement, that religion is to wish well “for . . . the leaders of the Muslim community and everyone in the Muslim community.” Our first political duty as Muslims and as citizens of the United States is to protect its character as a democracy under law, and that means, no matter how advantageous it might be to us personally, to never support a candidate who threatens to undermine the very existence of the United States as a constitutional republic under law.

Mohammad H. Fadel is a Full Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, which he joined in January 2006. Professor Fadel wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on legal process in medieval Islamic law while at the University of Chicago and received his JD from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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1 Comment

  • S says:

    I am a law student, and so I welcome your posts here. Disagree with you on the Bostock one, and may comment on that after finals, but agree with you here–to some extent.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the substance of this post, but such words are wasted on most Muslims who voted for Trump. If they actually possessed moral acumen and a willingness to look at Trump & his supporters honestly, they wouldn’t have voted for him in the first place.

    I have known some “Muslim” Trump supporters (I have since cut them out of my life, and I think social–but not religious–ostracization from the rest of the community is the right response). They didn’t just “adopt[] Trump’s transactional view of politics”. They were transactional people to begin with. They wouldn’t have given much thought to any of the Quranic verses and other Islamic concepts you refer to here in any other context either. At best, they were people whose religion was nothing but a label they adopted and some movements they sometimes performed every Friday.

    I understand the factors favoring a conciliatory tone towards them, and a framing of the issue that considers them to be otherwise decent people who are merely unfamiliar with what Islam requires and asks of us. I don’t think they outweigh the very obvious moral flaws signaled by a vote for Trump.

    Furthermore, these aren’t all people who merely set aside Trump’s deficiencies. Many of them actively believe fake news going around on Facebook. They cite stories and sources that are obviously fake to justify their support of him. They have an unwillingness to discern between truth and falsehood (“CNN is biased too, so why not believe this, etc”). I do not think merely conveying Islamic precepts to them could possibly have any effect upon such moral rot.

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