New Age Islam
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Islamic Ideology ( 13 Jun 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Democracy in Islam: No incompatibility; indeed prophet Mohammad heralded a remarkable historical revolution in the business of governance that came to be known as democracy

By Manzurul Haque

For good reason or bad, the world community represented by the West, thinks that ‘democracy is incompatible with Islam or vice-versa’.  But I would like to think that the couching of this question in these words does a disservice to the cause of democracy, by foreclosing understanding on the part of the world community, and action on the part of the Muslims.

It is a well-known fact that Islamic social order started with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who was himself not from any royal family. The major and important regions of the world had, till then, known kingship as the only form of government, and so the Islamic government of Medina, was indeed a breakthrough;  and therefore it deserved to be given due recognition in the pages of history. That the succession of the prophet, in the matters of the realm, was no easy challenge, and as the events proved, the aftermath was bloody. The departure of the prophet from the scene had the potential to deal a death-blow to the entire edifice of Islam, but the wisdom of the prophet had made it possible to avert that same. Muslims of the time, by and large understood his preference for the future leadership all the way down the line.   The institution of Khilafat was a revolutionary step in that time-period, and helped to consolidate the nascent religious and social order in a big and effective way. If the proof of pudding lies in eating, then the proof of the success of Islam was provided in subsequent centuries by its standing as the dominant social force of the world.  It cannot be denied that the institution of Khilafat over the first four Khalifas, was by and large democratic, according to the prevailing standards, (and it certainly did not follow the royal lineage), although admittedly there was no voting machine installed for their elections. But I am sure our friends in the West will be inclined to condone this procedural aberration by recalling the various stages through which democracy has evolved in their own societies. So, when the Western leaders and thinkers talk of the incompatibility of Islam with democracy, the Muslims feel cheated of the recognition due to their prophet for heralding (quite apart from the religious ideology of Islam), a remarkable historical revolution in the business of governance. 

But whatever, this is only one side of the coin. The fact remains that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and even in this twenty-first century, Muslims have become visibly marked for failing to bring about democratic changes in their societies like the rest of the world. At the same time however it would be grossly inadequate to label this failure to Islam, for two reasons. One, this is historically inaccurate in view of the early experience of Islam, but more important is the second reason. Instead of promoting democracy amongst Muslims, this view aims to hit the ideology of Islam and so the cause of democracy is failed by diverting the attention elsewhere. The discussions of democratic changes, movements, and formulations have to be divorced from the blame-game and have to focus on analyses of the specific social situations, sympathy of other democratic forces, and deep understanding of the problems that come in the evolution of democracy in respective Muslim societies. It has to be understood that all Muslims are not paragons of virtue and if some of them do not hesitate to subvert the religion of Islam to meet their vested interests, there is no reason to believe that those some of them will not subvert democracy.  In these murky situations un-thoughtful bringing in of Islam and Islamic history for learned critical discourse is the greatest disservice to the cause of humanity as also to the cause of democracy.

The idea of writing all this is not to flaunt the merits of Islamic form of government etc, but to advance the cause of democracy in Muslim societies with the good-will of the democratic forces of the rest of the world. It is possible that our analysis will trample upon the toes of some thinkers of a different genre but we would like to make an earnest appeal for trust in a fellow human being.  Islam is a theistic religious order, with clarity of the concept of monotheism, while it also admits of a degree of monism to help blend men with men and men with God.  There is reason to believe that a society such as this, can practice democracy and meet the democratic aspirations of its people.

I am sure the most vocal champions of democracy will concede that every democracy operates within a limit for which methods have been put in place. For example any democracy, even with the full support of its elected representatives and in a fit of extreme generosity or fatigue, cannot shut shop and hand over the government to a dictator or to communist rebels. Except for the British Parliament, there is no legislature in the world that has unfettered powers. But even in the case of British Parliament, the ever vigilant and highly evolved British community of a rather small size will surely act as a bulwark against the Parliament, if and when need arises, although we hope it never does, because we appreciate the achievements of the Western Anglo-Saxon civilization, which has contributed greatly to modern world civilization and which we believe to be contributing greatly in future too. 

I think, within the democratic societies of the Muslim communities; which have travelled thus far in the company of Islam, the paramount need to preserve the Islamic values needs to be recognized, as a legitimate need, and so putting in place some checks and balances in the polity’s Constitution to this effect, should not raise eyebrows elsewhere. Everybody in the east, west, north and south must ponder as to why is there such extreme urgency to see Islam deprived of its protective cover, at the earliest possible opportunity? Is there some bias in it and is it healthy to carry such bias, and if at all such bias is there and is perceived by the Muslims to be there, then will it not arouse in them a reaction that could easily be avoided in the larger interest of democracy and well-being of a common man. Our argument is not to suggest that it might be happening but if there is slightest chance of its happening, then there is reason to avoid such biases.

We have in the shape of an experiment, the case of Iran. One great objection of the West is that this is no way to have democracy. But the objection is misplaced. The problem I think is with the Guardian Council, but actually the focus should be more on electoral reforms. The Guardian Council is accepted by the Muslims as a whole in so far as they protect the essential features of an Islamic society. This matter is deeply embedded in the hearts of the Muslims and I only wish non-Muslim brethren understood this. Secondly this love for Islam is certainly not directed against non-Muslims. If the legitimacy of this function of the Guardian Council is accepted, then accepting the legitimacy of the structure would not be a problem. If these fundamental questions of legitimacy are not raised, then we can attend to more urgent needs of further democratization of the Iranian society, including redefining of its national goals. It is one’s wish that Western powers led by USA understood the true nature of things so that the focus of Muslims could go to the question of acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran. Muslims have a great case to argue within themselves not to go for nuclear weapons, but rather to work for nuclear disarmament as offered by the US.

Then the other experiment was of Talibans in Afghanistan. Few people in the West know that Talibans are not the Sunni equivalent of Islamic Republic of Iran. Even we, as Sunnis know that Talibans were Frankensteins that got made for various reasons.  The true equivalent in Sunni Islam is the various Islamic parties led by scholarly Muslims whose program of governance is not very dissimilar from the Iranian’s.   But the reason for lack of success of these Islamic parties is their having been outsmarted by the clever kings, the clever dictators, and the clever civil leaders. However with the failings of all these clever people, the chances for the success of these Islamic democratic parties are getting brighter in the Sunni world.  The only thing that is holding them back is their inability to connect with the masses because of their inhibition to make bold statements on the various crying issues of the Muslim society. The weaknesses of these parties emerge from their inability to handle ‘ijtihad’ so far, which in turn fails to give rise to the desired level of political activism, necessary to catch the imagination of masses. At the same time it goes without saying that this one is a purely domestic exercise and the West can do pretty little in these matters except to get away from the entirely unnecessary feeling or fear that these Islamic democrats will have a visceral hatred for the West. Certainly they will not, under the influence of the enlightened Muslims. So instead of hindering these Islamic democratic movements, the West could co-opt with them as partners. I think the world will benefit in more ways than one, from the shaking of the hands of the West, representing the world community, with Islam.