What is the place of democracy in the religion of Islam? What is democracy? How does Islam view democracy?

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What is the place of democracy in the religion of Islam? What is democracy? How does Islam view democracy?
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Dear Brother / Sister,

It is observed that the topic of Islam and democracy has become a prominent one amongst today’s matters of debate at various platforms. To put it clearly, it is quite difficult to say that the comparison of Islam and democracy is made accurately. 

It is necessary to emphasize, at the very beginning of such a subject, that Islam is a divine religion which aims at the happiness of humankind both in this world and in the hereafter, and that democracy is a regime that people invented based on their own intellect, will and knowledge. 

The main reason of this emphasis is to state that it is incorrect to present these two notions as if they are opposite to each other or they are alternative to each other or as two notions that entirely square with each other. 

Therefore, it is essential to evaluate Islam as a religion within its own category and democracy as a regime in its own category. It is an obligation to compare the contents of these notions through an objective point of view, without dwelling merely on the notions. 

At this point, the most important issue agreed upon by the majority of Islamic theologians is this: There is not a regime that is clearly named and that people are ordered to follow in the Quran. However, there are universal principles that teach responsibilities of those who govern and those who are governed, in both the Quran and the Prophet’s applications. 

It is possible to develop a model of regime in accordance with needs of the time, cultural structure of people, political conditions, possibilities and hardships brought by time and geographical features in any part of the world. 

An indispensable and determining element of democracy is the fact that people participate in governing and elect their governors with their own free will. When examined carefully, it is seen that the Prophet – with the title of best executive of Islam – employed the institution of “BAY’AH” (allegiance) which literally means “to accept, to assent to”. Bay’ah can be defined as “people’s voting in order to state their commitment to the governor”, which is the equivalent of voting in elections today. Bay’ah is also defined as “the contract that men and women sign in order to accept their duty and responsibility for their administrator.” (1) 

The application of Bay’ah that was started by the Prophet continued by undergoing some structural differences until the era of the Ottomans. 

When taken from this point of view, it is understood that Islamic teachings are a lot parallel with today’s democratic election system in the issue of determining administrators. This similarity also exists in the issue of every individual’s voting with their own free will. 

It is because bay’ah taken with any kind of force is invalid. Hazrat Umar said: “If anyone attempts to be the president or to make anyone else the president without conferring with Muslims, kill him unless he gives up.” (2) 

Eliminating any kind of attempts which aim at disturbing social peace and which originate from tyranny and injustice is just one of the responsibilities that Islam assigns to everyone.

The most important virtues that Islam deems necessary for administrators to have are providing equality, justice and individual legal privacy for everyone. If democracy is not a system that manipulates people but a regime that guarantees people’s basic rights and freedoms and promises to meet people’s demands, it is meaningless to mention any problem between Islam and democracy in this sense. 

It is because there is not a disagreement between the two in terms of protecting these rights. Furthermore, while ordering that individual rights be protected on the one hand, Islam refers to social sensitivity and wants social spirit to be kept alive on the other hand. Therefore, each responsibility assigned to individuals has an aspect which is related to social life. 

Parliament that is elected by people and works as a decision-making mechanism which decides in the name of people is one of the most important facilities which should be emphasised. The very equivalent of this institution in Islamic literature is the institution of “SHURA” which can be translated as advisory committee.  

The Quran explains that things planned to be done must be determined at the end of negotiations in these two different verses: 

“...so pass over (Their faults), and ask for (God's) forgiveness for them; and consult them in affairs (of moment).” (3) 

“Those ... who (conduct) their affairs by mutual Consultation; who spend out of what We bestow on them for Sustenance.” (4) 

The principle of pluralism, which is mentioned among the qualities of democracy has been formulated with these verses in the Quran, because negotiation between individuals is one of the most important indications of pluralism. The phrase “consult them in affairs” has been understood as not a suggestion but a command that has to be followed by Islamic scholars.(5) 

Governing structure adopted by Islam, as it is based on consultation-negotiation, differs from “autocracy”, which is based on the dictatorship of one person, from “theocracy”, which is based on the governing of a person who claims to have a divine attribute, from “oligarchy”, which is based on domination of a superior minority, and from “demagogy” in which persons govern according to their own wills. (6) 

Islamic consultation-negotiation system necessitates that everyone’s opinion be asked – regardless of their being minority or majority – ; however, it also requires that the opinion which is worth adopting be chosen not as a result of how many people side with it, but as a result of deep and objective intellectual analysis. (7) 

Especially the Prophet and the caliphs who governed after him deemed consultation very important, and were the prominent executives of the Quranic command “consult them with their affairs.” Therefore, Ibn Taymiyya says: “Administrators cannot be exempt from consultation, because Allah commanded His Prophet to do it.” (8) 

One conspicious feature of the Prophet’s consultation with his Companions is that he was asked if his decision was a Quranic command or his own opinion when a decision was made. If it was a Quranic command, it would be followed, for it is bounding – and if it was the Prophet’s own opinion, the Companions would tell the Prophet about their own ideas. The most attention-grabbing examples of the Prophet’s idea of consultation are issues such as on what conditions captives of the Battle of Badr would be freed, how the call to the prayer (adhan) would be practiced and how Madina should be defended during the Battle of the Trench (Handaq). 

The most important point that should be taken into consideration while consulting is with whom to consult. What Abbasi governor Ma’mun advised his son about consultation and negotiation sheds light on this issue. He says: “Regarding affairs about which you have got doubts, consult the experienced, sedulous and merciful old men’s opinions; because they have experienced a lot and witnessed all ups and downs and lucky and unlucky events of time. Even though their words might be bitter, accept and tolerate them. Do not include cowardly, greedy, supercilious, dishonest and stubborn people in the consultation committee.” (9) 

It is obvious that Islamic world failed to agree on many institutions that were developed based on the West. And democracy is one of them. While some claim that democracy and Islam totally disagree without basing their ideas on any scientific and intellectual reason, others try to explain that there is a total agreement between the two. 

The most reasonable thing for everyone who wishes to and aims at contributing to the happiness of the individuals and communities is seeking ways of benefiting from Islam’s universal values as a religion and democracy’s basic rights and freedoms as a governing mechanism, without being influenced by concepts. 

Whatever they might be called, Islam has no objection to the efforts for people’s peace and happiness. 

“Adopting democracy can be considered not as “legalizing” the West, but as a real re-discovery. Although Western democracy and Islam have some differences in practice, they can benefit from each other taking the similarities in their aims into consideration. Of course, this benefit is possible, as Hassan Turabi puts it, “if Westerners (can) allow democracy to give birth to a Muslim child”, because the notion of “Islamic democracy” is still a cursed one for many people in the West.” (10) 

In conclusion, it cannot be claimed that Islamic principles entirely agree with democracy’s principles. However, if we think independently from the religion, democracy is still the one, amongst other regimes, which can be adapted to Islam’s general rules most easily. 

By the way, it is true that Islamic scholars are in search of a solution to this issue. Actually, democracy is a system that Muslims are inevitably in and are influenced by. Muslims, who have to question their lives’ appropriateness to Islam all the time, have felt the obligation to search for a solution about democracy by which they are inevitably influenced. 

Debates carried out in accordance with the Quran’s information are seen not as an objection to democracy but an advocacy of democracy which is redefined.  

There are many different definitions and practices of democracy in the world. At this point, Islamic world has to understand and interpret Islam correctly on the one hand and has to define democracy within this interpretation on the other hand. This can contribute to forming a mid-point where Islam and democracy meet. 

(1) Yusuf Kerimoğlu, İslam Ansiklopedisi, Şamil Yayınevi, bey’at item

(2) Muhammed Rawwas Qa'l-aji, Mawsuat al-Fiqh Umar b. al-Hattab, 1401/1981, 103.

(3) Aal-i Imran : 3/159

(4) ash-Shura : 95/38

(5) Fakhraddin ar-Razi, Mafatihu'l-Ghayb, Cairo 1934-62, IX, 76; Nawavi, Sharhu'l Muslim, Cairo 1347-49/1929-30, IV, 76.

(6) Izzuddin at-Tamimi, ash-Shura bayna'l-Asalah wa'l-Muasira, Amman 1405/1985, p. 27-28.

(7) Ma'ruf ad-Dawalibi, İslâm'da Devlet ve İktidar (trns. Mehmed S. Hatipoğlu), İstanbul 1985, p. 55.

(8) Ibn Taymiyya, as-Siyasatu'sh Shar'iyya (in Majmu al-Fatawa), Riyad 1381-86, XXVIIl, 386, 387

(9) Mefail Hızlı, İslam Ansiklopedisi, Şamil Yayınları, istişare md.

(10) see Mevlüt UYANIK, İslam ve Demokrasi, -Muhammed Abid el-Cabiri Örneği-.

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