Is democracy compatible with Islam? Can Muslims coexist faithfully within a democratic paradigm? Is democracy hostile to the Islamic faith and vice-versa?
Often times, we have heard that some Muslims declare that democracy is un-Islamic. They consider democracy as a foreign political model that is against the teachings of Islam. They reject democracy as a legitimate concept of governance for Muslims. They argue that Islam has its own unique political system and model that is well defined and structured. Therefore, Muslims do not need democracy.
However, is it true? In understanding the concept of democracy and its compatibility with Islam, we need to unpack the common assumptions on the so-called inherent incompatibility of Islam and democracy.
Unpacking the Assumptions
The main premise for outright rejections or reservations by some segments of the Muslim scholars towards democracy is on their epistemological understanding of the term ‘democracy’. They maintain their theological and theoretical objections to the validity of democracy in the parlance of Islamic faith due to the idea of demo kratia (sovereignty to the people) wherein Islam God is The Sovereign. Others may also reject democracy on the basis that it is inherently a western, secular and irreligious model of governance that seeks to undermine faith. However, in reality, there are many nuances that need to be carefully considered. In practice, democracy can manifest in various form and models to suit the context of the society, ranging from liberal to illiberal democracies.
Democracy is also not a unified concept. What is central to the idea of democracy is the focus of governance on the people. Abraham Lincoln outlined this in his famous speech where he defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The minimalist understanding of democracy is such that it accords the authority for the people to elect and/or choose their representatives to be in government, generally through elections.
Democratic Values in Islamic Tradition
The concepts of bay’ah (declaration of public allegiance) and shura (mutual consultation) in medieval Islamic political thought are often cited as potential classical doctrine for the development of Muslim democratic thoughts in the modern society.
The enduring values of Islamic teachings such as freedom (huriyyah) and justice (adl), and respect for diversity that Prophet Muhammad promoted are essentially in line with the ethos of democracy.
One of the salient messages of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad was the importance of recognising rights to human beings. He emphasized the notion of human dignity and rights. It was an important aspect of his preachings to the Makkah Quraish where aristocracy had created an imbalance social system with the absence of liberty, freedom and human dignity. Slavery was rampant, women were denied rights, female infanticides were widespread and men of prowess were bestowed with excessive control and authority. The coming of Islam in Arabia set a precedent, where women were bestowed with rights of their own, and they are not the property of anyone, neither their fathers nor of their husbands. At the same time, it also acknowledged the different belief systems of others, where it seek to establish harmonious coexistence.
Prophet Muhammad also established a social compact known as the Sahifah Madinah (Covenant of Medina) upon his arrival in Madinah. Acknowledging the existence of plural societies in Madinah, the Covenant was established to ensure that all ethnic, tribal and religious groups are accorded with respective rights as members of the Madinah society. The Covenant essentially laid the conceptual framework of how to live in a plural society. The Covenant (Sahifah Madinah) recognized diverse affiliations and did not demand any conversion. The principles of justice, equality, and equal dignity for all the signatories, whether Jewish or Muslim, Madinah natives or immigrants from Mecca, Aws, or Khazraj were mentioned in it.
Beyond promoting freedom, justice and respect for diversity, Prophet Muhammad also introduced the practice of shura (mutual consultation). The Prophet exercised shura before making his decision on several matters. During the battle of Khandaq, the Prophet had called for a meeting to discuss war strategy with his Companions. Several deliberations had taken place, and finally the idea proposed by Salman al-Farisi, a former slave from Persia to dig trench was taken after the Companions and the Prophet agreed to it. In the battle of Uhud, the Prophet’s proposal to stay inside Medina and wait for the enemy to attack was rejected by many of his Companions. After several deliberations, the Prophet’s idea was not accepted, instead the proposal by his several of Companions to go out of Madinah was popularly accepted and agreed. Significantly, this shows the process of deliberate consultations is inherently part of the practice of governance in Islam.
The Prophet demonstrated to us that he preferred to listen to the views and suggestions of his Companions who were part of his military personnel’s and ministers. In fact, the Companions in many instances had voiced disagreements with the Prophet’s personal views that were not based on any direct revelations. In doing so, the Prophet had cultivated a culture of critical thinking and consultations amongst his Companions.
In expanding the classical concept shura in the modern world, Muslim thinker, Fazlur Rahman explains that the classical doctrine of consultation should go beyond understanding consultation as the process of one person, the ruler, asking subordinates for advice; in fact, the Quran calls for “mutual advice through mutual discussions on an equal footing”¹. He argues that those who deny democratic principles for the Muslim community “are wittingly or unwittingly guilty of rendering Islam null and void.”²
The importance of consultation as a part of Islamic systems of the rule is widely recognized in modern scholarship. A Muslim scholar who wrote numerous books on Islam and Polity, Muhammad Hamidullah places consultation in a generally accepted framework, he highlights that,
“The importance and utility of consultation cannot be too greatly emphasized. The Quran commands the Muslims, again and again, to take their decisions after consultation, whether in a public matter or a private one . . . the Quran does not prescribe hard and fast methods. The number, the form of election, the duration of representation, etc., are left to the discretion of the leaders of every age and every country. What is important is that one should be surrounded by representative personalities, enjoying the confidence of those whom they represent and possessing integrity of character.”³
In addition to the classical concept of shura, the practice of bay’ah (declaration of public allegiance) in choosing or appointing the political successor in Islamic tradition draws parallel to the practice of representative democracy in the modern world. In the Sunni narrative, the Prophet did not name or appoint any clear successor. Abu Bakar r.a., the first Caliph of the Muslim world was chosen through deliberations by senior companions, in today's term probably by senior statesmen or inner political circle. They then plead their allegiance to him publicly in what is known as the bay’ah. Abu Bakar r.a. then named Umar r.a. as his successor, but his appointment was later confirmed and rectified through the bay'ah process. Umar r.a. nominated several names including Uthman’s name for the succession of the Caliph’s office prior to his death. Uthman r.a. was appointed through a process in modern times called the ‘electoral college’. His appointment received the public allegiance of the people.
The four successive leaders of the Muslim world continue to preserve the ethos of governance laid down by Prophet Muhammad. They governed by emphasizing on the notion of justice, freedom and accountability. The political governance was also expanded during the time of these Companions, with ministries established to provide a more systematic governing system to the office of the ruler. 4
During the era of the Abbasid Dynasty, Diwan al-Mazalim was introduced. Diwan al-Mazalim functioned like modern day’s Ombudsman or Public Feedback Unit. Its role was to examine complaints brought by anyone against public officials. A senior judge responsible for examining the grievances headed the institution. This feature of classical Islamic governance further demonstrates how Islam can be compatible with democracy.
Islam & Democracy
Broadly speaking, Muslims can henceforth coexist within a democratic paradigm. The Quran and Sunnah did not prescribe any specific or detailed political model; therefore the model of polity for the Muslims can take various forms and evolve over time. Ultimately, it is up to the Muslim community to determine the kind of political system and model that suits their time. Inherently, Islam laid down foundational values of governance, and this includes the principle of freedom, justice and accountability. The classical concepts of shura and bay’ah can be manifested in today’s electoral democracy.
In a study surveying 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide and published in the book entitled “Who Speaks for Islam?” written by John Esposito and Dahlia Mogahed, it was revealed that Muslims admire Western practices of freedom of speech, political freedom and liberty. However they acknowledge that they do not favor wholesale adoption of Western model of democracy. Instead, many of them opt for a model of governance in which religious principles and democratic values coexist.
Beyond their quest for democracy, Muslims are also expected to be active citizens participating in the political process of their nations. After all, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. reminded us that, “the best of you are those who contribute to other human beings”. Muslims are reminded to be a society is contributive to the society-at-large. Ideally, Muslims should be active participants in the democratic process and play their part in contributing to the common good.
Throughout the political history of the Muslim world, there has never been a successful attempt to determine a monolithic interpretation of a legitimate political system and model. Proponents of democratic Islam highlight the historical precedence of shura, bay’ah and the Islamic values of freedom, justice and accountability as the classical reference for the compatibility of the Islamic faith with the ethos of modern democracy.
The notion of nation-state, globalization and cosmopolitanism ultimately call for Muslims to find our place of existence in the modern world, while staying faithful to the enduring values of Islam. This is obviously possible, judging by years of Muslims living in various nation-states, with significant numbers living as minorities’ communities in several democracies globally. After all, absolute imitation of the medieval model of Islamic polity is not the ultimate aim for successive generations of the Muslim community. It is not about the historical realization of the classical system, but the preservation of the values that can be manifested in various systems across time and space. Democracy is definitely a model and system where these values can be upheld. It is a political system that enables us to live an ethical life, establish mutual respect and recognition of diversity. This is part of the Islamic ethos.
1 Fazlur Rahman, "The Principle of Shura and the Role of the Ummah in Islam," in Mumtaz Ahmad, ed., State, Politics, and Islam (Indianapolis, Ind.: American Trust Publications, 1986), 90-91, 95.
2 Fazlur Rahman, "The Principle of Shura and the Role of the Ummah in Islam," in Mumtaz Ahmad, ed., State, Politics, and Islam (Indianapolis, Ind.: American Trust Publications, 1986), 90-91, 95.
3 Muhammad Hamidullah, Introduction to Islam (Gary, Ind.: International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations, 1970), 116-17.
4 Abdul Rashid Moten, Political Science: An Islamic Perspective. (London: Macmillan Press. 1996), 92