Democracy in the Arab world: the Islamic foundation

About the author
Mishal Al Sulami is the author of The West and Islam: Western Liberal Democracy versus the System of Shura (Routledge, 2003).

The analysis of democracy presented by Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton fully explains its appeal, and its growing influence in the world. Why, however, is the Arab world not adopting the democratic system? Is the problem related to internal factors, such as religion, or social order, or economic system, or is it linked to foreign influences and interventions, such as western political and fiscal support of Arab authoritarian regimes? I will address the religious factor, examining the possibility of an incompatibility between modern democracy and Islamic political order.

Mishal Al Sulami is responding to the openDemocracy article by Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton, “Democracy and openDemocracy"

Also in our debate on “Opening democracy”:

Roger Scruton, “Democracy or theocracy? A response to Barnett & Hilton”

John Dunn, “Getting democracy into focus”

Anatol Lieven, “Democratic failure: festering lilies smell worse than weeds”

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work in support of democracy and keep it free for all

It is important to compare democracy and its counterpart in Islam, Islamic political order (shura). There are two approaches to this comparison. The first sees Islam as a total way of life, whose teachings thus cover all aspects of Muslim existence, politics included – so defining Islam as both religion and state (din wa dawlah). This approach is adopted in much western literature, for example in John L Esposito & John O Voll’s Islam and Democracy (1996 ).

The second approach compares liberal democracy as a system of governance in the west with the Islamic political order (specifically the shura system) as a system of government in Islam. It emphasises that the state is only one aspect of Islam and that the Qur’an offers only very general guidelines with regard to Muslim public affairs. The Qur’an and the Prophet did not lay out any specific instructions or certain rules about the political system, but only general guidelines that can be interpreted according to Muslims’ circumstances in any given period. This approach is found in much Arabic literature.

I believe that the second approach is the right one, for two reasons.

First, it is much more accurate in describing the system of governance in Islam, which did not in fact create a new political system, but simply asserted and confirmed shura, already well-established in Arab tribes in the pre-Islamic period. Nor did Islam introduce imperative rules and procedures; rather it drew very general guidelines and left their details to be interpreted as Muslims see fit.

Second, it is logical to compare system with system rather than system with religion. We should not compare Islam (a comprehensive way of life) with democracy (merely a system of governance). It is more logical to compare religion with religion – Islam with Christianity or Judaism – and democracy with shura.

Democracy and Islamic political order

In this perspective, the scholarly literature reveals two different perceptions about the question of the compatibility of democracy with shura.

The first perception is that Islamic tradition and its basic tenets are incompatible with the basic premises of liberal democracy. Elie Kedourie argued (in Democracy and Arab Political Culture, 1992), that there is “a deep confusion in the Arab public mind, at least about the meaning of democracy” and that “the idea of democracy is quite alien to the mindset of Islam”. Underlying this argument are two controversial premises:

  • the spheres of politics and religion are separated in democracy, while they are inseparable in Islam (this is emphasised in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations (1996); thus, as long as Islam is involved in Muslim public affairs, and as long as it remains in the public realm, there is no possible compatibility or reconciliation between shura and democracy
  • any reconciliation between shura and democracy founders over the concept of sovereignty; while people are the real source of law and power in democracy, sovereignty for the Muslim means God’s sovereignty (as expressed through the shari’a). Shari’a (Islamic law) does not consist in the open contestation of ideas, deliberation, or communal consensus – it is divine law to be interpreted by the highest religious authority in the community

The second perception argues that the Islamic tradition is inherently democratic due to its derivation from shura, as well as its emphasis on ijtihad (independent judgment) and ijma’ (consensus). To quote John Esposito and James Piscatori, writing in the Middle East Journal (1991):

“…just as Islamic law is rescued from the charge of inflexibility by the right of jurists in certain circumstances to employ independent judgment and to secure agreement among themselves, Islamic political thought is rescued from the charge of autocracy by the need of rulers to consult widely and to govern on the basis of consensus.”

The claim that the Islamic tradition and its main tenets are entirely in contradiction to the main assumptions of democracy is therefore far from established. The seeds of democracy were already present in the Islamic heritage. Many examples can be cited:

  • the critical approach to shura; Islam is against despotic rule
  • social justice; Islam legislated zakah (obligatory charity) as one of its fundamental pillars and urged Muslims to pay saddaqah (voluntary charity) to the needy, in order to prevent a deep rift between the rich and the poor in the Muslim community
  • the establishment of bait al-mal (the treasury) to finance the community’s needs
  • the electoral process (‘Umar bin al-Khattab, the second Rightly Guided Caliph, set up the first electoral process in Muslim history in the 7th century to choose his successor
  • the concept of al-Bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) which is understood as a social contract between the ruler and the ruled
  • the right of the people to criticise an unjust ruler; this stems from the doctrine of al-‘amr bil-ma’ruf wa al-nahi an al-munkar (the duty of the believers to enjoin good and forbid evil)

As for the notion that the realms of religion and politics are inseparable in Islam, it can be argued that democracy is not anti-religious and therefore the exclusion of religion from the political sphere is not a precondition of democracy. Lahouari Addi’s essay “Political Islam and Democracy: the case of Algeria” (in Axel Hadenius, ed., Democracy’s Victory and Crisis, 1997) makes this point clear:

“In many democratic countries, religious symbolism is strongly present in the political sphere. Religion is compatible with democracy when the former does not regard itself as the legitimate holder of power, for democracy is not atheistic, and it does not demand that its citizens be so either. Democracy is areligious.”

In addressing the question of the irreconcilability of the concept of sovereignty in liberal democracies and in shura, it can also be argued that sovereignty rests with the people in both systems. As Abdelfattah Mourou has said: “laws come from God, but sovereignty is that of people”. People introduce and legislate laws within limits set by the general norms and values of shari’a. There is room for open discussion and deliberation within these general norms and values. Legislation is therefore the responsibility of the people. The claim that shari’a is to be interpreted only by the highest religious authority in the community can be challenged; shari’a can be open to interpretation by the whole community of Muslims. Abu A’la Maududi (the founder of Jama’at-iIslami, the Islamic League) has argued that the Islamic state:

“…is not ruled by any particular religious class but by the whole community of Muslims including the rank and file. The entire Muslim population runs the state in accordance with the Book of God and the practice of His prophet.”

Democracy and Muslim religious scholars

A further point relates to the current role of the ‘ulama (Muslim religious scholars) – who have a huge influence over Muslim societies – in supporting and promoting democracy. The attitude of the ‘ulama towards democracy is still weak, if not ambivalent. This ambivalence reflects the bad experience of modern Muslim societies with democratic western governments, which colonised Muslim societies in the 19th and 20th centuries under the pretext of spreading democracy, modernity, and civilisation. Thus, democracy is understood as a symbol of western colonisation, with all that this meant by way of killing, injustice, corruption, and the theft of resources. It should be made clear that the refusal of democracy is not directed at democracy itself but at the project which it represents.

Here the role of the ‘ulama is significant in changing the hearts and minds of Muslims towards democracy. I suggest two approaches, which the ‘ulama should follow in promoting democracy among Muslims:

  • they should clearly separate the two concepts of democracy and colonialism, explaining to the people that they are not necessarily correlative, and urging them to accept the former and reject the latter
  • the ‘ulama and Islamic thinkers should do more research on democracy itself, studying its values, principles, mechanisms and institutions and comparing them with their counterparts in Islamic political order

Three points must be taken into consideration in the comparison process:

  • democracy is not a religion or an ideology (like communism) that introduces itself as an alternative to religion; it is merely a system of governance
  • both systems are in agreement on two fundamental points: rejection of despotic rule and the view that legitimacy stems from the consent of the people
  • they are also agreed on other important principles and institutions mentioned in their list of democratic virtues by Barnett & Hilton – such as sovereignty, majority rule, rule of law, human rights and civil liberties, representation, elections, pluralism, political participation, the separation of powers and the need for procedures ensuring the peaceful transfer of power

As far as I am aware, my book, The West and Islam: Western Liberal Democracy versus the System of Shura (2003) is the first to treat shura as “a comprehensive system of government” in modern times both analysing its main elements in detail and comparing them to their counterparts in democracy. Muslims need more such studies to push the debate beyond the present level of discussion, to the point where the seeming conflict between Islam and democracy can be exposed for the illusion that it is.