Islamic democracy and a democratic Islamic polity


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Modern types of elections are actually not a departure from Islamic principles and traditions or anti-Islamic.

Modern types of elections are not far from Islamic principles (Illustrated by Batoul Chamas; Al Mayadeen English)

To speak about Islamic traditions, culture, and history, the question of democracy within the Islamic political and social milieu rose at different levels. On the one hand, the majority of Western academic researchers decisively claim that democracy (of Western type) is not applicable to Islamic culture and political practice. However, many researchers and academicians from the MENA region think that Islamic democracy exists in reality despite the possibility of not fitting in full within the framework of the Western type of liberal democracy. We have to keep in mind that Western democratic values are, in fact, founded on Judeo-Christian values while Islamic democracy is based on Islamic law – the Divine Sharia.  

It is true that Islamists or Muslim fundamentalists (as counterparts of Judeo-Christian fundamentalists) are struggling to bring at least the most essential Islamic values to be recognized within the political and social systems of their countries. It is true from Morocco to Iran and from Turkey to Sudan. Several types of Muslim fundamentalists are running with many different models of political practice founded on Islamic religious values (like Christian fundamentalists doing the same based on Judeo-Christian values in their societies). In fact, it can be observed that there are three categories of Muslim fundamentalists according to their final political goals: 1) Those who are seeking to found Islamic states in countries populated by Muslim majority like Egypt, Pakistan, or Tunisia; 2) Those who are fighting to establish a global Caliphate as in Syria or/and Iraq; and 3) Those who are wishing to break away from non-Muslim majority’s countries/territories like Kashmir or ex-Yugoslavia (in the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo). Nevertheless, the focal assumption of all these political movements is the same: Islamic foundation and sources create the framework for political governance and social order/relations to be included in the establishment of an Islamic state in any form.

It became a matter of fact that after 2013 when the government of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt forcibly collapsed due to the military coup d’état (sponsored by “Israel” and the USA), Muslim fundamentalists assumed the mantle of democracy calling for democratizing and opposing (pro-Western and Western-sponsored) national authoritarian governmental authorities within the MENA region. It has to be noticed that Islamic philosophers of state claim that one of the essential Quranic principles of “enjoin good and forbid evil” has to be Islamic justification for the foundation of an ideological Muslim state based on Sharia. They claim that what is good and what is evil is already promulgated by the Sharia and, therefore, the Islamic state has to be based on this law. Even though it is very disputable to claim that the Holy Qur’ān calls for the creation of the state, the very fact is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims believe in it.

Nevertheless, Islam is certainly going to continue to play a significant role in both state politics and public policy at least for the reason that the majority of the Muslim population of all denominations around the world believe that Islam requires political activity as part of religious practice. However, during the last several decades, the ideas of Islamic democracy and a democratic Islamic polity emerged based on democratic theory, on the one hand, and Islamic religious political tradition, on the other.

The Holy Qur’ān and Sunnah (the Prophetic traditions) are the cardinal sources of Islamic political thought and political administration, which promulgate three focal features of Islamic governance: constitution (foundation), consultation (discussion), and consensus (agreement). All Islamic believers who are fighting to realize the Sharia in the practical life of politics cannot avoid implementing the traditions of the Prophet followed by the application of the three focal features of Islamic governance. However, they are usually giving narrow definitions of both Sharia and Sunnah.

The historical development of Islamic political thought is very much based on the constitution of Medina adopted by Prophet Muhammad. It is known that after the Prophet left Mecca for Medina in 622, he established the first Islamic state. For the next decade, the Prophet was both the leader of a growing number of Muslim believers within the peninsula of Arabia and the political head of the Islamic state of Medina. In practice, being the leader of Medina, the Prophet had in his hands the jurisdiction over both inhabitants of the city – Muslims and non-Muslims. It has to be noticed that the political legitimacy of his administrative power over the city of Medina was founded firstly on his leading status as the Prophet of Islam and secondly on the grounds of Medina’s constitution (administrative rules of the city and its social life). 

Muhammad, as the Prophet of God (Allah in Arabic), obtained total administration over all Islamic believers by divine decree. However, he did not administer Medina’s non-Muslim inhabitants on a divine basis due to him being the messenger of Allah, rather, he ruled in practice over them by virtue founded on Medina’s constitution (in fact, a contract) that was agreed upon by three groups of Medina’s population: 1) the Muhajirun – Islamic believers from Mecca; 2) the Ansar – authentic Muslims of Medina; and 3) the Yahud – some smaller Jewish tribes who have been living inside and in the vicinity of the city of Medina. Therefore, some Jews, in fact, became the legislative partners in the making of the administrative rules of the first state founded on Islamic values. 

The administrative rules of Muhammad’s Medina after 622 were both a legal constitution and a social contract upon the political and social life, which soon became an obligation for all Islamic believers within the region of MENA. However, it has to be noted that a social contract (a model of the relations between the state and citizens) was historically developed by two English political thinkers: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Nevertheless, such a contract was an imaginary agreement between the citizens of the state and the state authorities. However, the people of the state are free and, in principle, are not obliged to follow any rules of law as they are formally proclaimed to be essentially sovereign individuals. Nevertheless, by “signing” the social contract with the state authorities (a phenomenon described by Erich Fromm in his book Escape from Freedom, first published in 1941), the citizens of the state surrender their personal sovereignty (independence) to a collective body called the state.

The agreement of Medina from the time of the Prophet manifests in a constitutional form that means a superior legal act of the society. The constitution is either a document or an agreement that frames the conditions of the social contract according to which a society is founded and functioning. Medina’s agreement served, in essence, as a constitutional function as it was the constitutive document for the first Islamic state – very similar to what about Th. Hobbes and J. Lock were writing concerning the phenomenon of social contract between the people (citizens) and authority (state). Therefore, it can be concluded that Medina’s agreement was both a social contract and a constitution, but, at the same time, it has to be clearly recognized that this agreement by itself cannot serve as a modern constitution for the reason it is a historically speaking specific document (from the 7th century AD compared to the first modern constitutions from the end of the 18th century) and above all very limited in its scope. Nevertheless, the agreement is serving as a focal principle to be followed by all of those who want to establish a state founded on the original Islamic political principles and social values.

Consensus is a pillar of Islamic democracy and a democratic Islamic polity and is founded on the historical basis of Islam just like a constitution. In other words, consensus was an important principle of Medina’s constitution/agreement as the Prophet administered the city-state of Medina by virtue of the consensus of all its inhabitants. The Prophet was, in fact, invited to administer the city, and his political authority of administration was included in the social contract with the inhabitants. In short, Medina’s agreement promulgated the principle of consensus and cooperation for the political and social administration of the city-state of Medina.

The process of the pledging of allegiance (bay’ah) was a significant institution of the authorization of the administration. The purpose was to formalize the consensus of the administered (inhabitants). This institution existed in many societies. If a ruler failed to gain the consent of those to be ruled by him/her via a formal and direct process of pledging of allegiance, the ruler’s authority was not fully legitimized. However, behind this process of consent, there was, in fact, the policy of consensus or agreement between two sides: the authority and the citizens. In the Arab case, that was an old custom existing before Islam but it became, like many other customs, incorporated into Islamic traditions. The process of bay’ah after the Prophet was practiced by the early Caliphs of Islam, too, after rudimentary forms of electoral colleges had nominated the Caliph for the very purpose of legitimizing the Caliph’s power and authority over society. 

Nevertheless, in political societies like a state with a huge number of citizens, the process of nomination founded on elections is basically a modern version of an old tradition of Arab bay’ah. In other words, replacing the traditional institution of bay’ah with elections (ballots) can make the process of pledging allegiance simplified and universal, and, therefore, modern types of elections are actually not a departure from Islamic principles and traditions or anti-Islamic. Finally, the Holy Qur’ān recognizes the authority of those who have been chosen as leaders and extends divine legitimacy to those who have legitimate authority.

The third and last focal principle of Islamic authority is consultation (Shura). This concept of Shura became in the eyes of many Islamic scholars crucial evidence for the democratic foundations of Islamic politics. For them, democracy and Shura are synonyms. The Quranic instruction for consultation is interpreted by Muslim scholars in two ways: as advisory or mandatory, but in any case, it remains a divine sanction to be respected in some way. For those Muslims who are advocating democracy, this divine instruction is mandatory to be respected by all but those Muslims who have a fear of (Western) democratic traditions interpreting this divine instruction as just suggestions but not a strict order and, therefore, it is not obliged to be respected by all Islamic believers. The first group argues that even the Prophet left a significant tradition of the importance of collective and democratic decision-making practice through consultations, i.e., discussions. They claim that as a result, consultive authority is the preferred governmental form within the Islamic political traditions.

In conclusion, both Islamic sources and Islamic traditions offer enough evidence that is favorable for democracy to be the power for delivering the products of the authority founded on Islamic teachings like social justice, economic welfare, or religious freedom. Islam as religion, in fact, can be and in some cases is a facilitator of democracy, tolerance, and justice and not an obstacle to democratic processes. Finally, democracy is inherent to both Islamic values and Islamic historical experience.    

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