Islam and Democracy: 
Perceptions and Misperceptions

Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

Courtesy: An abridged version of this article appeared in Message International, May 2002; it has also been serialized in The Independent Bangladesh, beginning on June 16, 2002
 


Islam continues to be at the center stage of the global community. Yet the Muslim world - nearly 1/5th of the world population - is currently in a dysfunctional state, caught between the modern as well as the mundane aspirations of life on one hand and a disconnect from the past glories and transcending values --beliefs that these people identify with, on the other.

Muslim world would like to progress past its problems without delinking from Islam. The western countries, currently dominating the world, supposedly prefer that the Muslim world move forward, too, but also delink itself from Islam except at the personal or spiritual level, and most definitely, not upset the current global status quo.

Western countries are mostly democratic and they claim that they would like to see the spread of democracy around the world. They consider democracy to be an indispensable modern ideal that, they contend, is quite conducive to attaining modern aspirations of life. The current superstructure of the world - defined in terms of the economic, political, military and technological power and the accompanying apparatus - definitely reflects the strength of democracy. Modern superpowers, such as the former Soviet Union, that did not adopt democracy, have collapsed.  Another major power, China, despite some economic success, offers a significantly lower standard of living than any western countries.

Democracy is identified as a cornerstone of western civilization and it is strongly prescribed for the rest of the world and humanity. Indeed, sometimes it is even promoted as a panacea. Discourses involving Islam, Muslim world and democracy are proliferating. But what really is the relationship between Islam and democracy? Are they even compatible?

It seems that there are four major groups with two broad agreements on this issue. The first group from among (often Islamophobic) non-Muslims and the second group from among Muslims (often westophobic) broadly agree - albeit for different reasons - that Islam and democracy are incompatible. The first group believes that Islam is inherently autocratic and it lacks the philosophical and historical basis for nurturing any viable democratic tradition. The second group believes that democracy is a corrupt, manipulated system of the West and theologically it is – in their view – inherently incompatible with Islam.

The other two groups also have a broad agreement on the opposite side. The first of these two groups include non-Muslims (individuals and institutions) who believe that Islam is quite compatible with democracy and, in the interest of global peace and prosperity the current dysfunctional state ought to be reframed on a democratic foundation. The last group represents Muslims who also concur with their counterparts among non-Muslims. These Muslims do not see any conflict between Islam and democracy. Some would even go further and argue that democracy is integral to the Islamic way of life. Thus, there are clusters of perceptions and misperceptions and this is only a humble and partial attempt to hopefully disentangle some of those.
 

The Mutual Phobia, Distrust and Antagonism

For a host of historical reasons, there is a deep mutual distrust and antagonism that now overshadow the relationship between Islam and the West. Once Islam was a global power and represented a vibrant, dynamic and towering civilization. It led the world in virtually every aspect. The West during that period was in medieval or dark age. The decline of the Muslim world and the rise of the West came about through a sustained and violent confrontation, the legacy of which still weighs heavily on the mutual relationship.

The rise of the west did not merely mean the breakdown of the Muslim world; it also emerged as a process of systematic subjugation of the same. Under the western colonial rule, a systematic campaign was undertaken not only to undermine the military and economic power of the Muslim world, but also its social, cultural and moral foundation. However, it would be unfair to blame the west for much of the problems of the Muslim world, because there were deep-rooted internal problems, the weight of which made the Muslim world very weak and vulnerable internally, and rather predictably, through confrontations with other powers, the Muslim world has crumbled.

If the future of the Muslim world and the West is to be independently changed, then the path unavoidably would be sustained confrontation. However, if the prevailing problems are viewed as mutually interdependent, there is a potential for partnership and collaboration. Religiously speaking, Islam teaches vying with each other in good causes. “To each is a goal to which Allah turns him; then strive together (as in a race) towards all that is good.” [2/al-Baqarah/148] Islam also exhorts seeking common grounds (for example, between Muslims and Ahl al-Kitab, i.e., the Christians and the Jews). “O People of the Book! come to common terms as between us and you”. [3/ale Imran/64]. Conscientious and sensible people, of course, would lean toward an approach based on cooperation and empathy than toward an approach based on needless confrontation. 

Recognizing and understanding the mutual fear, distrust and antagonism are important because there is significant mutual stereotyping. The hatred of the west is matched by many Muslims who contend that anything western is bad or unIslamic. Similarly stereotypical, the new Western perspective of the “clash of civilizations” considers Islam as a sustained and powerful threat.

If such perception and approach of the west toward Islam are merely dictated by one-sided interest in maintaining the status quo in terms of the global domination, where the Muslim world is dysfunctional and marginalized, then the clash is inevitable and the problems related to instability, violence, or widespread human deprivations or humiliation are already knocking at the door of the west. The sensible path should be guided by mutual respect and empathy.  


Viewpoint #1: Islam and democracy are incompatible

Non-Muslims who argue that Islam and democracy are incompatible fall in two subcategories. One group feels this way to assert or underscore that democracy is a new, western value and institution. Some also are afraid that a democratic outfit of the Muslim world might undermine the current western domination. After all, these are barbaric and backward people. Modern ideas are unsuitable to them. These people are better suited for autocratic, repressive rules either under current despots or the western puppets. This group of non-Muslims suffers from acute Islamophobia based on their stereotypical understanding of Islam and prejudiced viewpoint of the western interest.  Some non-Muslim scholars such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, take a pessimistic scholarly view that historically the Muslim world has been under non-democratic rules for nearly fourteen centuries, going back to the period that ended with the Rightly Guided Caliphs, and thus a democratic culture has not been internally in existence in the Muslim world.  Also, from their perspective, they find little support in the scripture or ideology of Islam – as reflected in the Islamic history – to be optimistic.

The Muslims who agree with the above group that Islam and democracy are incompatible have a different reason. They basically find any idea or institution of western origin to be unpalatable. But going one step further, they argue that democracy and Islam are fundamentally incompatible because of the difference in the concept of sovereignty. According to them, in Islam sovereignty belongs to God alone. Human beings are mere executors of His Will. On the other hand, in democracy (or, to be precise, secular, western democracy), sovereignty belongs to people, which in the view of these Muslims constitutes shirk or polytheism. Many notable Muslim personalities, including Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi (in his earlier writings), have rejected the secular western democracy, at least at the philosophical level.  According to such perspective, “Islam, speaking from the view-point of political philosophy, is the very antithesis of secular Western democracy . . . [Islam] altogether repudiates the philosophy of popular sovereignty and rears its polity on the foundations of the sovereignty of God and the vicegerency (Khilafah) of man.” [Political Theory of Islam, in Khurshid Ahmad, ed. Islam: Its Meaning and Message (London: Islamic Council of Europe, 1976), pp. 159-161.]

Unfortunately, even though in his later life his view about the compatibility between Islamic political system and democracy was much more favorable and positive, what Maududi articulated earlier as a philosophical rejection of “secular western” democracy has been perceived or upheld by many Muslims and non-Muslims as rejection of democracy per se. It is not all too uncommon among Muslims, especially among revivalist Muslims, that Khilafat is what defines the Islamic political system, and they are not willing to trade or adjust Khilafat with democracy in any way.

Are Islam and democracy then incompatible? Well, the reality is that they are not. The above view of Muslims are na´ve and fallacious, and furthermore, to a great extent, shaped by a sort of dogmatic label-orientation.


Viewpoint #2: Islam and democracy are more than compatible!

There are many among non-Muslims (individuals and institutions) who see no conflict between Islam and democracy and they would like to see the Muslim world pursue a path of change and transformation toward democracy.

Robin Wright, a well-known American expert on the Middle East and the Muslim world writes: “neither Islam nor its culture is the major obstacle to political modernity”. [Islam and Liberal Democracy, Journal of Democracy, 1996, pp. 64-75].

In his magnum opus “Asian Drama”, Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal identified a set of “modernization ideals” that included democracy. In regard to religion in general and Islam in particular, he had this to say: “The basic doctrine of the old religions in the region – Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism – are not necessarily inimical to modernization. For example, Islamic, and less explicitly, Buddhist doctrines are advanced to support reforms along the lines of modernization ideals.” [p. 78] If democracy is intimately related to egalitarianism, he further comments: “Islam and Buddhism can provide support for one of the modernization ideals in particular: egalitarian reforms.” [p. 80]

Confronting the view of those who suggest the incompatibility, John O. Voll and John L. Esposito, two bridge-builders between Islam and the West articulate: “The Islamic heritage, in fact, contains concepts that provide a foundation for contemporary Muslims to develop authentically Islamic programs of democracy.”  

In explaining some common western misperception, Graham E. Fuller (former Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA) writes: “Most western observers tend to look at the phenomenon of political Islam as if it were butterfly in a collection box, captured and skewered for eternity, or as a set of texts unbendingly prescribing a single path. This is why some scholars who examine its core writings proclaim Islam to be incompatible with democracy—as if any religion in its origins was about democracy at all.” [The Future of Political Islam in Foreign Affairs, Mar-April, 2002; pp. 48-60]

Turning to their own Islamic root and heritage, there are now a growing number of voices among Muslims who are convincingly making the case that Islam and democracy are not just compatible; rather, their association is inevitable, because Islamic political system is based on Shura (mutual consultation). Khaled Abou el-Fadl, Ziauddin Sardar, Rachid Ghannoushi, Hasan Turabi, Khurshid Ahmad, Fathi Osman and most notably, Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, are just to name a few among the contemporary Islamic scholars and intellectuals who are arduously working to move both the Muslim world and the West toward better mutual understanding in regard to the relationship between Islam and democracy .
 

The hangover from semantics and labels

All the pertinent discourses seem to hinge on labels that are stereotypically used by various sides.

Democracy can be defined as “government by the people; especially, rule of the majority; a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections; the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority; the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges”. [Merriam-Webster Dictionary]

The reality is that Islam is not only compatible with the above aspects that define or describe democracy, but also that those aspects are essential to Islam. If we can cut through the labels and semantics, we find that Islamic governance, when distilled from all the extraneous aspects, has at least three core features, based on the Qur’anic vision and guidance on one hand and the experience under the Prophet (s) and the Rightly Guided Caliphs on the other.  

a.    CONSTITUTIONAL: Islamic government is essentially a "constitutional" government, where constitution represents the agreement of the governed to govern by a defined and agreed upon framework of rights and duties. For Muslims, the source of the constitution is the Qur'an, the Sunnah, and anything deemed relevant, effective, but not inconsistent with Islam. No authority, except the governed, has the right to put away (abrogate) or change such a constitution. Thus, Islamic governance can’t be an autocratic, hereditary or military rule. Such a system of governance is egalitarian in nature, and egalitarianism is one of the hallmarks of Islam. It is also widely acknowledged that the beginning of the Islamic polity in Madinah was based on a constitutional foundation and pluralistic framework involving non-Muslims as well.

b.   PARTICIPATORY: An Islamic political system is participatory. From establishing the institutional structure of governance to operating it, the system is participatory. It means that the leadership and the policies will be conducted on the basis of full, gender-neutral participation of the governed through a popular electoral process. Muslims can use their creativity using the Islamic guidelines and human experience to date to institute, and continuously refine, their processes. This participatory aspect is the Islamic process of Shura (mutual consultation).

c.   ACCOUNTABLE: This is an essential corollary to a constitutional/participatory system. The leadership and the holders of authority are accountable to people within an Islamic framework. Islamic framework here means that all Muslims are accountable to Allah and his divine guidance. But that is more in a theological sense. The practical accountability relates to people. Thus, the Khulafa ar-Rashidoon were both Khalifatur Rasool (representative of the Messenger) as well as Khalifatul Muslimeen (representative of the Muslims).

This point needs further examination because a key and stubborn misperception of Muslims in regard to democracy is based on the notion that in Islam sovereignty belongs to God, while in democracy it belongs to people. This is a na´ve and erroneous notion or interpretation. God IS the true and ultimate Sovereign, but he has bestowed a level of freedom and responsibility upon the human beings in this world. God has decided not to function as the Sovereign in this world. He has blessed humanity with revelations and his essential guidance. Muslims are to shape and conduct their lives, individually and collectively, according to that guidance. But even though essentially this guidance is based on divine revelation, its interpretation and implementation are human.

Whether people will choose the path to heaven or hell is a human decision. Whether they will choose Islam or another path, it is a human decision. Whether people will choose to organize their lives based on Islam or not is a human decision. Whether Muslims would choose an Islamic form of governance or not is a human decision. It can be argued that for making wrong choices in this world, Muslims might be facing negative consequences in the life hereafter. But, still it is a matter of choice; there is no room for compulsion or imposition.

What happens when the society and leadership faces a conflict? For example, if the majority of the society does not want to uphold Islam, the leadership cannot coerce the society into what it does not want. There is no compulsion or coercion in Islam. Coercion never delivers sustainable results, and the foundation of Islam cannot be based on coercion. God IS the sovereign from the viewpoint of Islamic reality, but not from practical standpoint. When our decisions are to be made based on Ijtihad (and we could be wrong), where our constitution and policies would be formulated through human consultation (and we can err), when our judicial system would be guided by the revealed guidance, yet, based on the evidence presented, there would be chance for an innocent to get convicted and a guilty to go free, God is not acting as a sovereign in this world. To think like that is not to show due and full respect to the very freedom and responsibility that God has entrusted us with.

 

Indeed, thinking like this leaves room for big abuse, as someone or some institution declares that God is the sovereign, and then they impose their own rule or whims in the name of the sovereign. History is full of such abuses, where Shariah has been enforced or allowed for the people, but some powerful or privileged people remained above the Shariah. Even if one person remains above such Shariah, that is not true rule of law or Shariah at all.

Thus, based on the above core features, it is important to recognize that Islam is incompatible with monarchy, military rule, dictatorship, or any other type of authoritarian political system. Islam envisions a constitutional, participatory, and accountable system of governance. This is the Islamic concept of Khilafat. However, we need to be less concerned about terminology, label or semantics than substance.

In its fundamental character based on those core features, there is no conflict between democracy and Islamic political system, except that in an Islamic political system people cannot call themselves Islamic while themselves being in conflict with Islam. That is why Muslims should not shun democracy in a general sense as conflicting with Islam; rather, they should welcome it. , As Dr. Fathi Osman, one of the leading Muslim intellectuals of our time, remarked: “democracy is the best application of Shura."  

This issue of Islam and democracy is important not just for Muslims, but also for the west. As Esposito argues, democracy in the west is arguably not a model of perfection at the end of history; rather, a reconceptualization of democracy is viewed as a continuous imperative. “[S]ince we are not at the end of history and the United States has not yet solved all of the problems of survival in a heterogeneous world, it is as important for us to continually adapt to changing conditions as it is for Muslims.”  Esposito's well-articulated views are based on a common-ground-seeking approach, not on a sophomoric “us vs. them”, or “good vs. evil”. Rather, Esposito contends, we ALL have something to benefit from each other in light of our human experience.

The challenges ahead

The Muslims who consider Islam and democracy to be incompatible need to discard their biased position based on misperceptions. In addition, those who consider these to be compatible need to jettison their apologetic approach. If Muslims find adequate convergence between Islam and democracy, it is not because some or many scholars – Muslims or non-Muslims – think so and that they would like us to tread the path of democracy. Rather, Islamic governance – a constitutional, participatory and accountable form – is essentially based on the consent of the people or those who are governed, and thus democratic. The benefits of accumulated human experience are important to us Muslims as well. However, our interest in Islamic governance, based on people’s consent, is not and should not be because the west wants us to follow them or because we need to modernize ourselves; rather, because we need to cherish and uphold consent-based governance, founded on the core principles and values of Islam.

Muslims must also recognize the historical fact that for nearly fourteen centuries the system of governance, though progressive and dynamic compared to the other contemporary societies and civilizations of the time, has been based not on what is popularly described as Khilafat. Since the time to Muawiya, the Khilafat turned into Mulukiyaah (hereditary monarchy). That was an important turning point, because this replacement of Khilafat with Mulukiyyah was actually a “counter-revolution” against the revolution of the Prophet Muhammad. The political legacy that followed and on the basis of which has evolved our current dysfunctional state is rooted in that counter-revolution, not the revolution of the Prophet and the legacy of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs. One may find things to disagree about some of the thoughts of Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, but his characterization of this crucial turning point as a “counter-revolution” is an important contribution toward understanding the hereditary political institutions in the Muslim world that stands in contradiction to the vision and values of the Qur’an and the legacy and heritage of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Caliphs.

There is also a constructive role to be played by the non-Muslim world. Whenever Muslims find such convergence with democracy, those among the non-Muslims who care about democracy should desist the characterization that now Muslims are modernizing themselves and deviating from Islam. Such characterization only serves to legitimize and reinforce the radicals and the traditionalists, and their radical/traditional interpretations. Moreover, there is no short-cut to a presumably monolithic, mature democracy. As Graham Fuller writes: “[M]odern liberal governance is more likely to take root through organically evolving liberal Islamist trends at the grassroot level than from imported Western modules of “instant democracy”. Fuller admonishes his fellow westerners: “Non-Muslims should understand that democratic values are latent in Islamic thought if one wants to look for them, and that it would not be more natural and organic for the Muslim world to derive contemporary liberal practices from its own sources than to import them wholesale from foreign cultures.” [ibid.]

On another front, a mutual challenge has to be met. Muslims need to converge toward a consensus that they would settle for only constitutional, participatory and accountable form of government (call it democracy or anything you like). Non-Muslims, especially the West, also need to realize that, just like the West or Islam is not monolithic, so is not democracy. If they would like to see a new world where all people seek and value constitutional, participatory and accountable form of governance, then, once again, the substance is what matters, not label or semantics.

Lastly, even though the West regularly sermonizes the rest of the world about the virtue of democracy, the West – or the dominant powers of the West – fundamentally remains an obstacle against the emergence of democracy in the Muslim world, because the current global domination is more compatible and safer with autocratic or despotic rulers – some of which are puppets of the West and some are kept cornered or marginalized by the West. This Western power block is not willing to trust any rise of Islam, even if the Muslims believe in and uphold a constitutional, participatory, and accountable form of government.

Muslims still have a sacred and a historical duty to rise up to a dual challenge. Internally, they must persevere to establish a system of governance that is Islamic (and thus democratic). They must also rise up to challenge the Western hegemony that only sermonizes about democracy, but actually works against any genuine democratic transformation in the Muslim world.

If, in a problem-solving manner and in accordance with the guidance of Islam, Muslims desire to be effective in dealing with the issues that deeply affect them, they need to have the unshakable conviction that despite their current dismal condition, their role is not merely to work out their own problems, but also they do have something valuable to offer to the humanity and the West in balancing the extremities of the modern times. Indeed, the West could not have been what it is today without critical contributions from the Islamic civilization as more than just a bridge-builder. While the West may not readily acknowledge it, Muslims must not forget this historical fact when assessing their present situation and taking stock of their potentials and responsibilities.

While some can’t get over their preoccupation with the “clash of civilization” paradigm, especially in the context of Islam and the West, there are conscientious western scholars who look forward to a new phase of relationship between Islam and the West: “If ever the opposition of the great societies of the East and west is to be replaced by cooperation, the mediation of Islam is an indispensable condition." [H.A.R. Gibb, WHITHER ISLAM, p. 379] Muslims also need to realize their historic responsibility in this regard.  

****
Since its publication, this article has been cited in the following works:

  1. Robert Slatt, Jr. The Compatibility of Islam and Democracy [a term paper submitted at Fairmont State University, May 2006]

  2. Colonel Stephen R. Schwalbe. "Democracy in Iraq," Air & Space Power Journal, Feb. 25, 2005.

  3. Abid Ullah Jan. The End of Democracy [Pragmatic Publishing, 2003] Bibliography

  4. Maleeha Aslam, The Process and Impact of Ideologization of Islam in Pakistan, MPhil Dissertation, University of Cambridge, UK, 2003

  5. Christine A. Kelly. "Islam and Democracy: Oil and Water?" [Term paper at Seattle University; June 3, 2003]

  6. Antony T. Sullivan. "The West, Islam, and the Democratic Imperative," Studies in Contemporary Islam, Volume 4 Number 1 Spring 2002, pp. 1-26


Hit Counter

HOME
Index of my writings
Have you visited my site on Kazi Nazrul Islam?
Genocide 1971 Page?
Hadith Humor Page?

Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy
Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy
Is Islam compatible with democracy? Is Islam compatible with democracy
Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy
Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy
Is Islam compatible with democracy? Is Islam compatible with democracy
Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy
Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy
Is Islam compatible with democracy? Is Islam compatible with democracy
Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy
Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy
Is Islam compatible with democracy? Is Islam compatible with democracy
Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy Islam and democracy
Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy Islam democracy
Is Islam compatible with democracy? Is Islam compatible with democracy