Islamic parties gaining power in Muslim dominated countries like Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine and the social and political struggles (“Arab spring”) in Arab worlds has raised the question: Can Islam and democracy coexist? The question becomes genuine when one considers the political system in Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the regime in Afghanistan during Taliban . The authoritarian governments of these countries force their citizens to follow certain so called Islamic diktats, limits the rights of women and abrogate other types of freedom that exist in liberal democratic countries. There are many accepting and denying arguments on the question. This article is intended to argue that Islam is not against democracy. In fact, there are incidents and facts that support democratic values in Islam. To show that, I will start with defining basic things that should be understood when I say democracy and Islam. After that, I will focus on basic sources of Islam in order show values that are compatible with democracy. Last, I will mention some democratic and Islamic countries like Turkey which are practicing democracy.
When we discuss Islam and democracy, there are certain things that we have to keep in mind. Religion (for this paper Islam) has established immutable principles related to faith, worship and morality. While, democracy is a system that is being continually developed, revised and changes from place to place. Islam does not defines any kind of political system, rather it establishes fundamental principles that orient a ruler’s general character, leaving it to people to choose type and form of government .
Since there is no consensus definition of democracy, I have to mention what I mean by “democracy”. The main characteristics of democracy that I refer are:a governmentthat is accountable to its people, justice and the rule of law, equality before law, and freedom of political dissent. Some other important tenetsas defined by Robert Dahlarethe right to vote, free and fair election and freedom expression . Keeping these basic principles of democracy in mind, in the following paragraphs, I will write some Islamic principles that meant for rulers of any Muslim society.
The two main sources of Islam are Quran and Sunnah (the practices of Prophet Mohammed). Although Islam is not a political ideology these sources provide some core guidelines. In a hadith (words of Prophet Mohammed), it is narrated that the best of all martyrs is a person who stands up to an oppressive unjust ruler, demanding fairness and who, as a result, may lose his or her life .
The first socio-political treaty called Sahifat al-Muwada‘a(Peace or Reconciliation Paper) in Islam was drafted when Muslims of Makka migrated to Medina in 622 (Islamic calendar starts from this day), and where Mohammed became the new political leader of the city state. What is important is that this treaty acknowledged every tribe in Medina, recognized other religions, and described how relations should be conducted among tribal and religious groups .
For equality, the Prophet says that all people are as equal as the teeth of comb, and Islam does not discriminate based on race, color, age, nationality, or physical traits. Other fundamental principles in Islam are:
1. Power lies in truth, a repudiation of the common idea that truth relies upon power.
2. Justice and the rule of law are essential.
3. Freedom of belief and rights to life, personal property, reproduction, and health (both mental and physical) cannot be violated.
4. The privacy and immunity of individual life must be maintained.
5. No one can be convicted of a crime without evidence, or accused and punished for someone else’s crime.
6. An advisory system of administration is essential .
Two other major practices in Islam are shura (consultation) and bay’a (compensatory contract). In Islamic political thought, the shura refers to deliberations conducted with the aim of collecting and discussing different opinions on a particular subject in order to reach a decision . It is one of the practices for participating in decision making process which was recommended in Quran and decision making process of the Prophet. Bay’a is other type of political system, which can be described as contract between people and ruler. What makes the system important is people legitimizes the ruler as long as the ruler abides certain conditions such as social justice, distribution of wealth, military defense etc. . The bay’a system was practiced during the early age of Islam. For example, after death of the Prophet, the second successor of the Prophet and ruler Muslim of community Umar called on people to help him if he was not fair and just. A freed slave and revered Muslim, Salman of Persia, answered that if Umar became unfair, then the swords of people would reform him .
Some Muslims believe that “democracy” is a foreign concept that has been imposed by Western countries. For them, the concept democracy (like supremacy of constitution) denies the fundamental Islamic affirmation of the sovereignty of God and is, therefore, a form of idolatry. People supporting these views are less likely to participate in elections, public debates and stay away from media . But the important thing that we have to consider is the Islamic sources do not provide all details about government rules. Instead,the sources give wide space for human to decide issues without the violation of “God’s sovereignty”. For instance, the Prophet said that “[…] if you [army commanders] met the enemy and then they asked for [peace] talks [based] on God’s judgment [terms or conditions], then do not agree. Ask them for [peace] talks on you and your companion’s judgment [terms or conditions], because you never know if you will be able to meet God’s judgment regarding them or not.”. From this hadith it can be understood that, people cannot estimate what is “God’s judgment” on a particular issue, but they should apply what is just and fair based on their knowledge.
The question that arises is: If Islam says all above, then why are these values missing in some Muslim countries? My answer would be, not all Muslim countries are undemocratic. In the last few decades, most of the non-Arabic Muslim countriessuch as Turkey, Indonesia and countries in central Asia have started shifting to democratic system. Moreover, even in Arab countries, they have started some of the processes of democracy. So called “Arab spring” in these regions, forced some governments to do certain reforms in their government system and some are still struggling to overthrow authoritarian regime. Turkey is the best example with its Muslim democratic system since 2002. Secular government system, ruled by Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has roots in Islam, is achieving economic development combing Islam and democracy .
To sum up, although the idea of democracy emerged from non Islamic western countries, it can be applied for Muslim societies. The basic sources of Islam and early practices actually recommended values that are democratic. Only thing that should be done is, those basic sources of Islam should be interpreted as per the contemporary needs. I hope that, these fundamental principles of Islam, and recent changes and demands in Muslim world towards democracy will give birth to many Muslim democratic countries soon.
by: Otgonbayar Ajykyei
1. Mustafa Akyol, (in July 2011), “The Introduction chapter to Islam without Extremes A Muslim Case for Liberty”, thewhitepath.com/Islam-Without-Extremes-Introduction.pdf, Accessed on 10.02.2013
2. FethullahGülen, “A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy”, http://www.gulenmovement.us/a-comparative-approach-to-islam-and-democracy.html, Accessed on 10.02.2013
3. James Gould, (2006), “Islam and Democracy”, ITAC Presents, Volume 2006-1, http://www3.carleton.ca/cciss/res_docs/itac/gould_e.pdf, Accessed on 13.02.2013
4. Omar Ashour, “Democratic Islam? Assessing the Bases ofDemocracy in Islamic Political Thought”, http://www.mcgill.ca/files/mes/MJMES9Ashour.pdf, Accessed on 13.02.2013
5. John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, “Islam and Democracy”, http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2001-11/islam.html, Accessed on 13.02.2013
6. Vali Nasr, (2001), “The Rise of‘Muslim Democracy’”, http://www.journalofdemocracy.org › … › April 2005, Accessed on 13.02.2013