Islam & Democracy

Most people believe that Islamic political theory is anti-democratic, ie it does not allow for rule by the people. This is not true at all. In fact, in Islamic jurisprudence rulers are only considered legitimate provided they have the consent of those they govern. However the notions that underpin Islamic democracy are very different from the ideas that form the conceptual basis of Western political democracy.

An understanding of what democracy actually means in the context of Islam shows firstly that the countries in the Middle East that claim to be Islamic fall well short of the Islamic ideal. An understanding may also provide pointers as to how ‘spreading democracy’ in the Arabic world can be achieved …..

….. editorial by Paul D Kennedy

Religion and politics have been inextricably mixed in Islam since Prophet Mohammed began his mission in what is now the western province of Saudi Arabia in the early 7th century. The Arabs of that time were polytheists, their lives were tribally based and each tribe had its own god or gods. Thus one of the functions of religion was to act as a badge of identity – a man’s religion, ie the stone idol he worshipped, clearly indicated the tribe to which he belonged.

To transcend the tribal nature of religion, the Prophet created the concept of the Islamic Umma or community, a non-tribal entity which was both a religious community and a political organism that bound the tribes together. Prophet Mohammed ended up founding both a new religion and a new political state.

The Quran (the Islamic bible) states that the purpose of the Umma is to develop the virtues that enrich human life and eradicate the evils that debase it. Thus the Islamic Umma has a purpose that extends well beyond mere political administration.

Two basic tenets of Islam have shaped Islamic political thought. These are: that God endowed man with a moral sense and free will; and that morally correct behav­iour is achieved by following God’s Law (the Sheria) as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.

The Sheria, which is described in some detail in the Quran, is a series of rules governing all aspects of human behaviour, everything from individual actions and social relations to politics, human rights and war. As a set of guidelines to proper living, it certainly extends deeper into everyday life than the prescriptions of other religions – Islam, for example, requires a person to wash after sexual intercourse – and Muslims believe that only the Sheria provides the principles upon which human life and its organisation may be based.

Muslims also believe that all persons are obliged to follow the Sheria in everything they do. This obligation is expressed in the concept of Khilafa or deputyship: An individual is God’s deputy or vice-regent on earth and must exercise divine authority in this world within the limits set by God; this concept is analogous to the concept of trusteeship in common law legal systems. When a human being dies, he or she, as a caliph, deputy or trustee, is accountable to God for his or her stewardship, a notion familiar to Roman Catholic Thomists.

Khilafa is a personal obligation imposed by God on every person, and political theory in Islam is founded on the idea that each individual, male or female, is equally responsible to God under Khilafa for the extent to which he or she personally adheres to God’s Law, the Sheria. The agency which runs the Umma – the Caliphate – does so on behalf of its members and derives its authority from the individuals who delegate to it the authority they each have under Khilafa. This is the democratic underpinning of Islam.

Because the head of state (Caliph) is exercising authority on behalf of the people, it is obvious that the caliph must be selected by the people. He or she – there is nothing in the Quran that says a woman cannot be a head of state – is accountable to both God and the people who elected him or her. He or she is also required to govern in accordance with the Sheria and on the advice of a shura, an advisory council; because the shura is making decisions on behalf of the people, it too must be elected by the people. Thus the free election of heads of state, government ministers, advisors and legislatures is crucial for a country that claims to be truly Islamic.

Because an individual delegates his or her authority to the government, that authority is revocable and every citizen has both the right and a religious duty to examine and criticise their government’s performance. When the people lose confidence in how a government is carrying out the requirements of the caliphate on their behalf they are obliged to withdraw their authority and that government must step down. In other words, in Islam a government’s legitimacy depends on the continuing consent of its people, which is what democracy, rule by the people, is all about.

Western and Islamic notions of democracy however are essentially different. To summarize:

  • The idea that the people are sovereign is the basis of Western democracy, whereas Islamic democracy is based on the idea that the people are caliphs or deputies of a sovereign God.
  • In Western democracies the government is expected to fulfill the will of the people; in Islam the government has to fulfill the Will of God on behalf of the people.
  • In the former the people make their own laws; in the latter the law is ordained by God and particular man-made rules (or regulations) must conform to this Law.
  • In the West, democracy is a kind of absolute human authority, but in Islam democracy is subservient to Divine Law and the people may only exercise their authority accordingly.

These differences are probably irreconcilable intellectually. Both forms of democracy however provide for rule on behalf of and with the consent of the people, so convergence may be possible in practice. The first big question is:

Where are the states that actually conform to the democratic ideal of Islam?

The short surprising answer is: there’s nary a one that conforms fully.

For a start, the Quran only refers to a single Umma. Islamic jurists (who combine the roles of theologian and lawyer) have great difficulty in accepting the nation state as a legitimate form of political organization, though in the Middle East they do not usually, for reasons of personal caution, publicly express their reservations in this matter. But even if the nation state is accepted as legitimate in Islam, there is no single state in the Middle East that meets the Islamic criteria of democratic legitimacy more than partly, though some, such as Kuwait, come reasonably close to doing so.

The equality of moral responsibility among Muslims contained in the concept of Khilafa thoroughly undermines the religious legitimacy of many governments that claim to be Islamic, notable the current regime in Iran. A ‘guardian council’ composed of learned Islamic jurists that oversee the organs of state to ensure that their decisions and actions accord with the Sheria may be allowable. But a ‘guardian council’ that decides who may or may not stand for election has no basis in Islamic political theory – because the Quran puts the onus for choosing the rulers to whom authority will be delegated under Khilafa firmly on the individuals who make up the Umma. Wilayet al-Faqeeh, rule by the most learned, was an innovation introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini in order to justify and maintain his leadership of the revolution he was spearheading against the Shah of Iran in the 1970s.

Suffrage is not universal in many self-styled Islamic states. Until it recently instituted a very limited form of male voting in municipal elections, Saudi Arabia did not allow its citizens to have any say at all in the selection of its government or legislature or advisory councils. Other states in the Arabian region limit the right to vote to males. Others, such as Kuwait, have male and female suffrage but deny members of security forces, of both genders, the right to vote.

In addition, in most of the countries on the Arab side of the Arabian Gulf the right to vote is limited to voting for the legislature and not for the government which is appointed by hereditary rulers. In the few countries that do allow full voting rights, ie where both men and women may vote for both the government and the legislature, voting is always suspended when the vote appears to be going the wrong way, such as happened in the mid-1990s in Algeria.

Several countries, whose citizens are overwhelmingly Muslim, do not allow women to vote or stand for election. The women of these countries are thereby prevented from carrying out their obligations under Khilafa, which is totally unacceptable in Islam because doing so is a religious duty.

The four main countries in the Islamic world that do give women political rights to the same extent as men, ie, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, are non-Arab. This indicates clearly that the restrictions on women’s political rights in the Arab world reflect Arabic culture and not an Islamic viewpoint.

Traditionalists in the Middle East view women as being significantly lower than men. Though the Prophet’s novel concept of a worldwide Umma destroyed the tribal nature of religion, it failed to undermine the tribal nature of Arab society and since the collapse of the Arab empires a millennium ago the pre-Islamic tribal structures have resurrected themselves very successfully. They remain very strong even today.

Muslim Arabs, especially Sunnis, had conjoined orthodox Islam with their tribal view of existence by embracing those parts of Islam that concur with their tribal view-point and ignoring or downgrading those parts of Islam that clash with tribal culture. Of course this self-serving interpretation of Islam is not confined to the Arab world.

Indeed it is found the world-over and all persons, societies and cultures tend to mould a religion to suit their own ends or pick and choose among the precepts they will follow – for example, the wide-spread use of artificial birth-control in countries that are overwhelmingly Catholic indicates clearly indicates that many Catholics choose not to follow those rules of the Church which they find inconvenient.

There is more, a lot more, to Islamic democracy that I have discussed above. I hope I have shown that Islamic politics is in fact democratic at its core, though Islamic democracy has never been fully implemented in practice.

The second big question is:

How may democracy – on the Western liberal model – be best spread in the Middle East?

Arabs are proud and always refuse to be bullied, so it will never be possible to spread democracy with bombs and bullets. However they are great lovers of discourse. In addition, the educational systems throughout the Islamic world ensure that all Muslim children gain a deep awareness and appreciation of the basic doctrines of their faith. They know that a leader is only owed ta’a (obedience) provided he is ‘adil (just) and what their duties are as individuals under Khilafa. So the answer is to fight fire with fire.

The tools are available – satellite TV covers the Middle East and South Asia – and the propaganda can be written easily. A media campaign exposing the Islamic nature of democracy and how the current political establishments in the region diverge from legitimate Islamic political organisation will lead to people-power revolutions throughout the Arab world. The trend is already beginning, as can be seen in the recent granting of full political rights to women in Kuwait and innovative elections in Bahrain and the UAE.

But what if Islamic democracy is established? It will still be a far cry from the Western liberal democracy in which the individual, not God, is sovereign. But only initially.

Once Islamic democracy has been established, the desire for economic development and a richer, more rewarding life will tend to make people more liberal, and Islamic democracy will in practice begin converging towards Western notions that centre on the importance of the individual – people will vote for those who promise them the best quality of life.

As their culture develops and they become more liberal they will choose, as ever, those aspects of religious morality they find useful and ignore those parts that conflict with their changing view of the world.


© Paul D Kennedy, December 2007

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