The issue is often reduced to the question: Is Islam compatible with democracy? But this immediately begs a whole host of other questions. Whose Islam? Which Islam? Whose definition of democracy? The answer(s) have important policy ramifications for western governments.

 Islamists (Muslims radicals who believe Islam is a self-contained and all-encompassing ideology) claim that the way Muslims governed themselves in Mecca and Medina fourteen hundred years ago provide clear and adequate models for a specifically Islamic political theory and for Islamic political institutions. This is an attractive idea. But does it hold up to historical examination?

During the Prophet Muhammad's lifetime, the small Umma or community of Muslims was governed, like most desert tribes, through shura (consultation) and ijma (consensus), and held together by the moral authority of one man - Mohammad - who was both leader and conduit for a dialogue between individual Muslims and Allah. When, for example, men sought to exclude women from their counsels, the problem was resolved through revelation, interpreted to fit the circumstances by human agency, in this case Mohammad.

For the first thirty odd years after Mohammad's death (632 CE) the problem of how Muslims were to govern themselves was fudged. The first four Caliphs were original Companions of the Prophet, accepted for their personal virtues and leadership qualities. However, the principles and mechanisms of succession were not clearly laid down, and, therefore, after the death of Ali (Mohammad's son-in-law), succession routinely became the stuff of murder, intrigue and military conquest. Only the Shi'i (the partisans of Ali) maintained the concept of hereditary leadership flowing through the direct bloodline of the Prophet.

The Caliph was therefore to be chosen for his outstanding virtues as a Muslim. But this begs more questions than it answers. Who defines virtue? Is virtue necessarily a desirable quality in a political ruler? Who elects the Caliph? All the community? Or an elite chosen from amongst his peers? What happens if a leader departs from the Path of Virtue? Is the contract between Caliph and community to be dissolved? And how? By election or by coup?

Apologists claim an Islamic version of the Lockean contract between ruler and ruled. But this is at best implied. And is a ruler virtuous simply because he claims to implement the Sharia? More seriously, this "theory" offers no institutional model for peaceful political change. Parties are seen as divisive, the cause of unrest and disorder. Indeed, such has been the fear of fitna (chaos) that Muslim communities have usually preferred to accept authoritarian rule cloaked in the legitimacy of the Khaliphat rather than contemplate democracy and all the messiness it implies.

There was little serious rethinking about Islam as political theory until the twentieth century. Kamal Ataturk then simply abolished the Caliphate. But this scarcely answered the original question. An equally controversial, and more intriguing theory was offered by Ataturk's contemporary, the Egyptian Ali Abd al-Raziq. Al-Raziq argued that the Prophet did not in fact establish for all times a model for an Islamic state. He suggested that the various texts did not in and of themselves set out any definite system of government, merely general principles. Muslims must themselves invent effective forms of government on the basis of consent of the governed, not implementation of the Shari=ah. This has remained an intriguing but strictly minority view, easy to discredit with the label of westernization.

Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949 CE), leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, started from a very different premise: first make individual Muslims virtuous, then society, and hence the polity, will become Islamic and virtuous. There would be no need for alien institutions such as parties or state apparatus. There are two obvious objections: first, it is impractical: how is the community to be governed while undergoing what may be a very laborious transformation? Second, that it is based on a misreading of human nature: human beings do not become permanently better. A ruler or social culture can help bring out good qualities and keep in check the darker side of human nature, but not effect permanent improvement. This thesis is however extremely popular among today's Islamists, perhaps because it can never really be discredited. If the Message is not delivered, the fault must lie with the Messenger!

The influential Pakistani thinker Mawlana Maududi (d. 1979) also saw little of interest in Western theories of democracy. Maududi rejected the idea that the Umma can ever be sovereign. He was categoric: the very idea of popular sovereignty was blasphemous. It was an usurpation of God's will by human beings. Maududi argued that the only purpose of an Islamic state was to promote Islam, and that power can be exercised in God's name only by those who truly believe in Islam. A consultative assembly can only advise and consent, not exercise sovereignty or ultimate political control. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini updated and amplified on the traditional Shi'i doctrine of Velayat-i-faqih, the Guardian who stands in for God, protecting the realm of faith, of Dar-al-Islam against Dar-al-Harb, the threat from without.

These political theories are attractive, simple and populist. They are also long on moral exhortation, and very short on practical steps (institutions and mechanisms) that tolerate, let alone welcome different points of political view, or allow for peaceful political change; the ideas of al-Banna, Maududi, Khomeini and his fellow Iranian Ali-Shariati lend themselves far too easily to authoritarian rule. In short, they negate the very idea of democracy based on the Sovereignty of the People.

Contemporary Islamist thinkers, notably Hassan al-Turabi (Sudan) and Rachid Ghannoushi (Tunisia) have argued that Islam and democracy can be reconciled, but with some radical rethinking. Sovereignty can and must be vested in human beings, acting as God's representatives on Earth. An Islamic party has to accept the idea that it does not have a monopoly on virtue, that its Islamic program is essentially political, not divine, and can therefore be reversed, amended and rejected by the electorate. The model of an Islamic polity has to be de-linked from the Past. What worked in a small Arabian city will not necessarily work today; nor do the most pious and learned Muslims always make the best rulers.

Turabi also says that there is no contradiction between the idea of the state and the worldwide umma, just as there is no contradiction between belonging to a family and belonging to a congregation of believers. Ghannoushi has suggested that Muslims reintroduce the concept of Dar al-ahd (a non-Muslim territory in which there is a pact between Muslims and non-Muslims that each respect the other's right to pursue their own religion) to escape the dilemma they have created for themselves: how can one be a true Muslim in a non-Islamic state?

Ghannoushi argues that where Muslims are secure and free to pursue their religion there exists by definition a state of Dar al-Islam. Therefore, the full exercise of Islam does not require an Islamic state, organized along the lines of Medina. One can be a good Muslim in the fullest sense of the term in Britain or in the United States because the state gives Muslims the space and freedom to freely exercise their beliefs. For Ghannoushi an Islamic state is one which allows Muslims to live according to the principles of Islam. He then reverses the argument and says that in a state where Muslims form the majority, laws other than the Shari=ah must also be given equal weight. This is regrettably not the case in so-called Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran or Pakistan today.

In theory, both the orthodox and liberal arguments are valid. But Islam, in Medina and Mecca, was above all a practical religion, attempting to resolve everyday problems. While there are formidable orthodox objections to the idea that Islam is compatible with Popular Sovereignty, there are also valid intellectual arguments to suggest the two can be compatible. But this latter interpretation also implies that much of the baggage of the past fourteen hundred years can and must be cleared out of the way.

And this holds even more true for the tangle of ignorance, prejudice and distortion surrounding Muslim ideas about women, and about gender equality.

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