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By: Dr. Mumtaz Ahmad

Professor of Political Science at Hampton University, at Hampton, Virginia. 

Recent discourse on Islam in Western academic and media circles has raised serious doubts about the compatibility of Islam and democracy.(1)

In this regard, Islamic revivalist movements have been found especially lacking in their commitment to the ideals of democratic pluralism.(2)

Our purpose in this essay is to examine the relationship between Islam and democracy more closely by focusing our discussion on three pertinent questions: How do Islamists view democracy? What has been their actual conduct in relation to democratic institutions and processes? Finally, under what circumstances would Islamists find democratic political process acceptable, and under what conditions would they deem it uncongenial for their Islamic goals?

In view of the divergent theories and practices within Islamic movements and regimes in regard to the issues of Islam, democracy and the state, it is difficult to formulate a consensus Islamic position on the specifics of an Islamic polity. We will therefore focus our remarks primarily on the ideas of those Islamists who represent mainstream Islamic movements and are regarded as major theoreticians of contemporary Islamic resurgence. Included in this group are Abul Ala Maududi (d. 1979), the founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami Pakistan; Hasan al Bana (d. 1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries; Abbasi Madani of the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria; Rachid Ghannoushi of the al-Nahda Movement of Tunis; and Dr. Hasan al-Turabi of the Islamic National Front of Sudan.(3)

In the interest of brevity, what is presented here is a condensed and synthesized version of their views on the relationship between Islam and democratic practices.

The Islamist's view of politics and state rests on their fundamental premise that Islam is not a "religion" in the sense in which we speak of Christianity and Hinduism today, i.e., a code of religious beliefs and doctrines, a mode of spiritual orientation, or a set of some outward rituals. Islam is a complete way of life; it covers the entire spectrum of human activities. Islam means total commitment and subordination of all aspects of life - individual, social, economic, political, international - to God. Hence, Islam is both religion and politics, church and state, joined in a single goal of serving God and implementing His commandments. 

Thus, unlike the 'ulama, who have accepted effective separation between religious authority and the secular power of the state, the Islamists reject this duality as un-Islamic and want to reinstate the pristine unity of religion and politics by reviving the Prophetic model of the Islamic state. They believe that Islam cannot be implemented in a comprehensive manner without the power of the state; the Qur'anic obligation for all Muslims to "promote good and eliminate evil" cannot be realized without the coercive resources of the state. Hence, according to Islamists, establishment of an Islamic state is not something recommendatory or optional; it is a fundamental obligation for all Muslims.(4)

There seems to have emerged a general agreement among mainstream Islamists that democracy is the spirit of the Islamic governmental system, even though they reject the philosophical assumption of Western democracy that sovereignty rests with the people. They maintain that the majority's voice can constitute the basis for legitimate exercise of political authority in an Islamic state only if it recognizes and remains within the perimeters of God's political and legal sovereignty. God's sovereignty is understood to have been represented in the Shari`ah, a systematic code of moral-legal imperatives derived from the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Islamists also argue that since the Qur'an commands Muslims to conduct their collective affairs through mutual consultation (shura) and grants the privilege of God's vicegerency (khalifa) to the entire Muslim community rather than to a single individual or a specific group or class of people, the selection of a Muslim ruler must be based on the free will of the Muslim masses.(5)

Several conclusions can be drawn from this formulation of Islamists. First, in congruence with their concept of popular vicegerency, Islamists reject the institution of kingship and monarchy as un-Islamic. Maududi's Caliphate and Monarchy and Khomeini's Islamic Government constitute the most devastating critiques and condemnations of monarchic and absolutist rule from an Islamic perspective in modern Islam.(6)

Their rejection of the hereditary and absolutist rule has become more vocal and aggressive since the Iranian revolution. Their anti-monarchical position was further strengthened during the 1991 Gulf War when Muslim monarchs and emirs were seen collaborating with the Western powers to decimate a fellow Muslim country.(7)

Second, Islamists, and especially the mainstream Sunni Islamic movements, do not also approve theocracy or rule by the clergy, who would exercise political power on behalf of God. In Sunni Islam, no one can speak for God; it is the consensus of the community at large as reflected in freely expressed public opinion that will determine what the will of God is in a specific case. Maududi describes the Islamic government as "theodemocracy" and "nomocracy," or the rule of law, rather than as a rule of self-appointed spokesman of God. The Shi'ite political theory, on the other hand, can be considered closer to theocracy. According to Khomeini, Islamic leadership is crystallized and embodied in infallible apostles and imams (religiopolitical guides) who are appointed by God. He further maintains that during the occultation of the twelfth imam, religiopolitical leadership of the Muslim community will be exercised by qualified jurists. This he describes as Vilayat-Faqih (governance by Jurists). In both religious and sociopolitical affairs, the relations of the people with the jurists are defined by the concept of taqlid (imitation), that is, following the infallible imam appointed by God. It is on the basis of this formulation that in the post-Khomeini Islamic Republic of Iran a committee of five jurists who, collectively, represent the hidden imam, can overrule any government policy or law legislated by the elected parliament if they deem it un-Islamic.(8

In Sunni Islam, on the other hand, it is the consensus of the community that is the final arbiter in public affairs, and the concept of a veto power exercised by the clergy has no theological and legal basis.(9)

Third, Islamists are also of the view that it is not the structure of an Islamic state that should constitute the focal point in constructing an Islamic polity; what really matters is the question of its functions, goals and objectives. The specific structural arrangements and institutional features of one Islamic state may differ from another due to differences in material conditions, but their guiding principles and values must reflect those enunciated in the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet.(10

Hence, an Islamic state can be unitary or federal, parliamentary or presidential, unicameral or bicameral, depending on the specific needs and circumstances of a given Islamic society.

Fourth, although the Islamists' concept of an Islamic state remains all-encompassing - some would describe it as absolutist since the state seeks to govern and control all aspects of social life - they also emphasize that the methods of governance of the state should not be authoritarian and arbitrary. Islamists suggest several institutional and procedural mechanisms to ensure popular participation, accountability of rulers, protection of civil liberties and the rule of law. The head of the state and government would be elected for a fixed term through free elections based on universal adult franchise. Similarly, members of the Shura (parliament) would also be elected by the people. The Islamic state would be based on the principle of the distribution of power among the three branches of the state: the executive, legislature, and judiciary. The Islamic state would ensure the functioning of an independent judiciary and no one, including the head of the state, would be above law.(11

The leaders of the Islamic movements in Pakistan, Malaysia, and North Africa (especially Rachid Ghannoushi of the Tunisian Al-Nahda Movement) define the governmental structure of an Islamic state in terms no different from a Westminster-type parliamentary democracy: universal adult franchise, periodic elections, guaranteed human rights, civil liberties, equal political and religious rights of minorities, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, procedural justice, and multiple political parties. This pluralistic and democratic vision of an Islamic polity has recently found an explicit and profound articulation in the writings and speeches of Rachid Ghannoushi of Tunisia, Professor Khurshid Ahmad of Pakistan Najmuddin Erbakan of Turkey, and Anwar Ibrahim, the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia.(12)

We have already mentioned a fundamental difference between the Western Islamist's concept of democracy: the sovereignty of the people vs. the sovereignty of God or the Shari`ah. Another philosophical difference relates to the question of the ends of politics. The predominant position in Western thought is that of liberal individualism, according to which politics is the prototype of a free market process - a kind of political version of the "economic man" model. As David Schuman has noted, the Western democratic model considers all outcomes of political struggles as equally legitimate; the definition of "good" keeps changing and whatever comes out of the free clash of competing interests and ideas is good and legitimate.

The Islamists obviously cannot and do not subscribe to this view of politics and political process. Since Islamists define their mission in terms of resacralization of polity, economy and society, politics for them is a means to establish a just social order as defined by the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet. Hence, all outcomes are not equally legitimate; only those outcomes are legitimate which conform to and are sanctioned by Shari`ah or are shown to serve the cause of the Shari`ah.

The Islamists have not only wrestled with the theoretical questions of the role and place of democracy within the framework of Shari`ah, they have also incorporated democratic practices and institutions in their policies, demands and praxis. The Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Turkish, Malaysian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan Islamists have already accepted the Islamic legitimacy of popular elections, the electoral process, the multiplicity of political parties and even the authority of the popularly-elected parliament to legislate not only on socio-economic matters but also on Islamic doctrinal issues. Islamists in Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey and Malaysia have been actively participating in the electoral processes of their respective countries and through their presence in legislative bodies have been pushing their Islamic agenda through coalition-building.(13

Even on the issue of a woman holding political office in an Islamic government, Islamists seem to have revised their earlier position. The Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan endorsed the candidacy of Miss Fatima Jinnah in the 1964 presidential election and accepted Ms. Benazir Bhutto's Premiership in 1988 and 1993 "in good faith." The Jamaat-i-Islami of Bangladesh also endorsed the Prime Ministership of Begum Khalida Zia, thus accepting the Islamic legitimacy of a woman ruler of a Muslim state.

Despite the Islamist's acceptance of modern democratic practices and institutions, however, a crucial question remains: is their acceptance of democracy substantive or instrumental? If the establishment of an Islamic state or the enforcement of the Shari`ah is the ultimate and the only legitimate goal of their political activities, can we then say that democracy is only one way to achieve power and implement this ultimate goal and that other (non-democratic) ways and means are equally legitimate and acceptable? The answer of the Pakistani, Malaysian, Tunisian and Egyptian mainstream Islamists of today is an emphatic no. According to Maududi, whose writings have had great impact on the hearts and minds of Muslim youth in countries of South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Islamic movements must operate within the legal and constitutional frameworks of their respective societies and should use only peaceful and democratic means to educate, mobilize and prepare people for an Islamic change. He denounced the change of political leadership through agitational politics, coups d'etat, revolutions and assassinations; he described these violent means not only as unjustifiable in Islamic terms but also as detrimental to the prospects for a lasting Islamic change. To quote Maududi: "Both the ends and means must be clean, commendable and based on majority consensus in order that a healthy, peaceful and harmonious Islamic order can take shape."(14)

A case in point is the Islamic movement of Turkey, the Refah Party of Najmuddin Erbakan which recently formed the first ever Islamic government since the end of the Caliphate. The Refah Party has been a target of state oppression since the 1970's. As a prime manifestation of "political Islam" in Turkey, Refah has changed its name many times during the past thirty years because of periodic bans on its activities. Established as the Milli Nizam Party in 1970 by Najmuddin Erbakan, it was banned in 1971 following the military intervention in March 1971 on the ground that it wanted to restore theocratic order in Turkey. In 1972, Erbakan revived it under the name of the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamat Party). It was banned once again following another military take-over in September 1980. Erbakan and other party leaders were tried in a military court for having conspired against the secular state and were given prison terms.

Before it was declared illegal in 1980, the Milli Selamat Party took part in 1973 and 1977 parliamentary elections and obtained 11.8 percent and 8.6 percent of the popular votes with 48 and 24 parliamentary seats, respectively. In 1973 elections, it emerged as the third largest parliamentary group. It is also important to note that because of the peculiar parliamentary arithmetic of the 1970ís, the Milli Selamat Party played a key role in all coalition governments during the decade.(15)

In 1991 elections, the Refah Party - the successor to the Milli Selamat Party - polled 17 percent of the popular vote and secured 62 seats in parliament. When the Refah Party won a plurality in 1995 elections with more than 21 percent of the popular vote, one could hear the alarm bells in Western capitals as if a new and totally unknown dark force had descended on Ankara. The Western media conveniently ignored the fact that Erbakan had been the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey in the past and that his party had played an important role in earlier coalition governments ranging from center-left to center-right parties.

The Refah Party has accepted and operated within a secular constitutional framework and pluralist democratic process, trying at the same time to increase the influence of Islam in Turkish society and public policies.(16

The Refah and its predecessors have been in the forefront of the struggle to "pressure the democratic consensus" and the competitive party system in Turkey. Even the harshest critics of Erbakan have acknowledged the fact that when Turkey was embroiled in vicious political violence and terrorist activities during the late 1970's, "it goes to the credit of NSP [National Salvation Party] that it did not take part in political violence." In fact, Najmuddin Erbakan "kept channels of communication and dialogue open with other parties when such dialogue between the two major parties was almost non-existent."(17)

The Refah Party of Turkey thus represents a prime example of an Islamic movement which has accepted and practiced democratic methods, demonstrated clearly its ability to govern in a pluralistic context, join coalitions with other parties, form political alliances, make compromises, accept defeat and act as a "loyal opposition," and act responsibly in victory.

In conclusion, it may also be pointed out that if democracy has to take roots in Muslim Societies, it will have to seek legitimacy from Islam, otherwise it will remain an alien idea. Democratic movements in Muslim societies that are based primarily on secular liberalism will have little, if any, prospects of reaching the Muslim masses. The West's fascination with secular elites in the Muslim world - perhaps as a counter force to check the Islamists - is based on two false assumptions: the popular support base of secular liberals, and their commitment to the ideals and practices of democracy and liberalism.

Developments in the Islamic world since the Iranian revolution of 1979 have clearly demonstrated that secularism has no future as far as the Muslim masses are concerned. As for the commitment of the Muslim secular elites to democracy, liberalism, and pluralism, one has only to look at the recent performance of the three most important segments of secular elites in the Muslim world: (1) the military and the higher bureaucracy, (2) the institutional intellectuals, and (3) the emerging Muslim bourgeoisie. We all know the military's commitment to democracy and liberalism from the experience of Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, and more recently, of Algeria. Secondly, majority of the institutional intellectuals - the Pan-Arab secular nationalists of yesteryears - were the ones who were closely associated with, and apologists for, socialist dictators of various colors. Until very recently, these intellectuals were an integral part of the oppressive state apparatus in all its versions(18)- Arab nationalist, Nasserist, Ba'athist, socialist. They may have converted to the doctrine of free market and capitalist economy after the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union but their political alternatives are far from liberalism, democracy and pluralism.

As for the emerging bourgeoisie and the MUMPS (Muslim Upwardly Mobile Professionals) - the product of infitah (openness) in Egypt and elsewhere - their modernism remains essentially what Marshall Hodgson once described as "technicalist"(19): 

it is consumeristic - capitalist type of modernism with its fascination with modern technological gadgets and toys. As Professor Leonard Binder has suggested, without a "vigorous Islamic liberalism," political liberalism will not succeed in the Middle East, despite the emergence of bourgeois states.(20

It is obvious, therefore, that Islamists are the only important segment of Muslim societies who are agitating for openness of their respective political systems, and for democratization.