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Islam and Politics ( 1 Oct 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Is Islam Incompatible with Democracy?



By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam

Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed) Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009

October 01, 2013.

-        ‘Yes’ if Islam is conflated with its historically derived Classical Sharia, frozen in time; and ‘No’ if it is conflated with the Qur’anic message.  

This follows up on the recent article ‘Islam and Democracy in the Current Context: Untapped Questions’ dated Sep. 24 by Zouhair El Aouni, and seeks to find an answer on the basis of the Qur’an and by exercise of Ijtihad.

The Classical Sharia of Islam is incompatible with Democracy

The Classical Sharia of Islam calls for unqualified obedience to the Caliph and proscribes any political dissent or freedom to express genuine grievances, let alone a virtually unqualified freedom of speech in modern democracy. It espouses a highly regimented and totalitarian society where the Muslim youth are not even permitted to sing, dance, listen to music, play a suitor and have fun in life. Besides, as expounded in an article referenced below [1], the “Classical Islamic Sharia is a repository of, among countless noble rulings, such notions as stoning to death for adultery, capital punishment for apostasy and blasphemy, punishment for homosexuality, slavery, discrimination and hatred against non-Muslims, demographic division of the world between the Muslims and non- Muslims, division of knowledge between Islamic and non-Islamic, temporary marriage, on the spot divorce, parental immunity against child abuse, gender disparity and so on, that are antithetic to the Qur’anic message as well as present day democratic values. Taking all these aspects into account, the Classical Sharia of Islam is simply and incontrovertibly incompatible with modern democracy.

Hence, if Islam is conflated with its Classical Sharia law, the answer to the captioned question is ‘No’. Accordingly, any effort to establish democracy without deconstructing the Classical Sharia of Islam will be as futile as trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Egypt’s recent political experience is a glaring proof of this mismatch. The masses who inaugurated the Spring Revolution aspired for a transition from autocratic rule to democracy, but the Islamist government that came to power through electoral victory upheld the Classical Sharia as the final interpreter of many of its legislations. As noted by Sultan Shahin, the Editor of this portal in his recent presentation at UN Human Rights council, 24th session, Cairo Declaration of Human Rights mentions Sharia 15 times and “is actually a determined effort to suppress human rights” – the bedrock of democracy [2]. The outcome is well known. The Sharia loaded democracy was rejected by the Egyptian aspirants of democracy and they revolted against it leading to a political somersault back to military rule and abolition of Sharia centric Islamist party. This may be regarded as history’s testimony to the incompatibility of the Classical Sharia with democracy. 

The truth is the Classical Sharia of Islam is historically derived and only represents the views and opinions of scholars and their interpretation of the Qur’anic message against the customs and traditions of their era. Therefore conflating Islam with its Classical Sharia law will be a gross mistake and its incompatibility with democracy does not imply the incompatibility of Islam with democracy. 

The Qur’an is Compatible with Democracy.

Islam must be identified with its primary scripture, the Qur’an, which has broad guidelines for all humanity for all times. The compatibility of Islam with democracy must be judged on the basis of the compatibility of the Qur’an with democratic principles and pluralism, and this is summarily expounded below:

1.       The Qur’an (verse 5:48) claims to be the Sharia (Shirah) or divine law (literally, the way to a watering-place) for the Muslims, and combines this with the liberating notion of ‘Minhaj,’ which literally means ‘an open way:’

“…We have made for everyone of you a (different) code and an open way (of action) (Shirah wa Minhaj)... so vie (with each other) in goodness (Fastabiq al Khayrat)…” (5:48).

Hence, the combined expression ‘Shirah wa Minhaj’ lends a flexibility, such as a herd of cattle has, to the notion of Sharia – it is not frozen in time. In other words, the divine Shariah of Islam is a dynamic system of law or code of life that is accommodative of change with time and progress of civilization - a pivotal principle that is compatible with modern democracy. 

The verse also acknowledges of the diversity in Sharia among the various faith communities, thereby espousing a pluralistic vision of humanity that is compatible with secular democracy.    

2.       As a universal fount of guidance, the Qur’an does not engage across historical and present-day legal, political and civilisational issues. Understandably, it leaves humans to evolve and constantly resolve them with the progress of civilization. Hence, it does not spell out any specific details regarding any facet of human activity or civilization. Statecraft or organisation and structure of a government is no exception. However, its emphasis on justice, equality, tolerance, social welfare, and its priority on peace and security for all people provide the ground rules for establishing a just, harmonious, egalitarian and pluralistic society which is emblematic of a welfare oriented democracy.

3.       The Qur’an encapsulates a set of universal juristic notions - notably, rational logic (Fiqh), application of reason (‘Aql), cogitation (Tadabbur), reflection (Fikr), analogical deduction (Qiyas) consensus of the scholar/ community (Ijma / Jama‘a), custom and practice of the community (‘Urf), and community good (Islah, Khair). These principles are no different from those engaged by doctors of law in today’s secular democracy, and this commonality of fundamental principles renders the Qur’an and democracy inter-compatible to a great extent.

4.       The Qur’an calls for consultation in running the affairs of the community (3:159, 42:38) and in important family matters (2:233) – a priori in secular democracy.

These Qur’anic illustrations clearly indicate the compatibility of the Qur’an with modern democratic principles. However, a Qur’anic model of democracy may incorporate a few critical clauses or caveats and delete others from the present day expansive political discourses – for obviously no one can claim that the present day Western model of democracy represents the ultimate in human political achievement.

This leaves the fundamental question of ultimate sovereignty – a separation between religion and state: the state governed by people’s representatives without any mandatory requirement to comply with any religious edicts. The Qur’an offers the following perspectives on the issue:   

i. As humans are given freedom of choice, people’s representatives in a democratic state remain free to uphold their religious values in the legislative process. Thus, a democratic system of governance does not exclude religious values per se, but devolves it on the elected representatives as their personal choice or onus. To put it another way, any mandatory acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and religious prescriptions will detract from the Qur’anic principle of freedom of choice. Thus, their omission in secular/ democratic narratives or separation of Church from the state is compatible with the Qur’an.      

ii. In the divine scheme, man is appointed God’s deputy (Khalifah) on earth and a recipient of some of Divine spirit (15:29, 32:7-9, 38:72). Therefore, all noble works of man have their origin in God, and human accomplishments in all fields including jurisprudence and governance of a state are nothing but a manifestation of God’s Mercy and Grace, and the sovereignty of God remains uncontested regardless of its explicit reference or otherwise. Each American currency note (numbering billions) and coins (running in trillions) proclaim the nation’s trust in God and countless people all over the world consciously or unconsciously remember God in their own ways. Hence, any claim that a democratic system denies the sovereignty of God is untenable.

iii. The Qur’an’s acknowledgment of the diversity in Sharia (5:48) and its repeated exhortations to humanity to get to know each other (49:13), vie with each other in goodness (5:48 above, 2:148) calls for a secular character of governance in the present day multi-religious world, with each electoral representative informing the legislative process by his/ her own religious experience. Formally connecting religion with legislative process can create confusion as religions are subject to interpretation and are interpreted out of their historical context that inevitably renders them retrogressive and divisive and therefore incompatible with pluralistic democracy. Besides, any religion, Islam no exception can be subject to divergent interpretations and combining statecraft and religion in today’s globalized and secular world will be like mixing oil with water.         

Conclusion: If Islam is conflated with the Qur’an, as it must, then it is compatible with secular democracy and pluralism. But if Islam is conflated with the Classical Sharia of Islam, frozen in time, Islam is incompatible with democracy and pluralism.


Classical Islamic Law (Islamic Sharia Law) is NOT a Word of God!


Do Not Entertain Any Defamation of Islam Resolution Until Islam Is Protected From Defamation by Jihadi Literature in the Islamic World First, Sultan Shahin Asks UN Human Rights Council


Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.