Part XVIII: Islam and Democracy

Part XVIII: Islam and Democracy
by Abu Daoud
June 18, 2008

Presently there exists in a large and important Middle Eastern country an effort to introduce democratic government. Indeed many of the people express a desire for greater freedom, and one might think that this would go hand in hand with some form of representative democracy, wherein no one party has all power and sides are forced to compromise and accommodate differing view points.

What is missing from this calculation is the fact that Islam is religion plus, as I pointed out in Parts IV and V of this series. Not only does it come with a complete set of ritual and doctrinal elements, it also presents a complete economic model (coming soon to a city near you in the form of Islamic banking, which is growing robustly) and a fairly detailed political model that does not include elements or practices traditionally associated with democracy at all.

At the heart of the Islamic polity is the Caliphate. The Arabic verb khalafa means “he succeeded” or “came after”, so a caliph (khaliifa) is the successor in any given office or position. When we speak of an Islamic Caliphate we are talking about the person who succeeds Muhammad. The office has been around for a very long time and is subject to the creative permutations of history: at times there have been more than one caliph, the process for the selection of a caliphate has varied from appointment by tribal elders to hereditary succession to seizure by military coup. At times the caliph has been an extremely important, pious and influential person, at other times he was a debauched pawn of his generals. Also, caliphs have come from numerous ethnicities: Arab, Persian, Albanian, Turkish, Kurdish, Mongol, and so on. Some were Shi’a and some were Sunni. Their capitals ranged from Iberia to Arabia to Asia Minor then over to Southern Asia.

The original division between Sunni and Shi’a Islam was in fact regarding how the caliph should be chosen—by marriage into the Prophet’s family (Muhammad had no sons who survived into adulthood—a great dishonor in Arab culture) or by consultation of the leaders of the Islamic community. The caliphate was dissolved in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk who desired to found a secular nation in Asia Minor (Turkey), and the vast territories of the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire were transferred from Islamic Imperialism to the hands of European Imperialism.

In theory, the Caliph rules over all of the Umma (the Islamic Nation) and his authority respects no national boundaries (which in themselves are theoretically un-Islamic). By virtue of his inheriting the authority of Muhammad his power is at once religious and civil, spiritual and military. He is the one who has the authority to declare an offensive jihaad to aggregate lands and peoples into the Umma until, as Muhammad said, “all religion is for Allah.”

There are today efforts to reinstate the office of the Caliph, but this is probably a pipe-dream. No sovereign nation state will cede power to such a person. Also, the ethnic divisions among Muslims are extraordinarily strong and it is hard to see Nigerians and Albanians, Arabs and Persians, Sunnis and Shi’as agreeing on one person to hold the office. This is the case even for a solely Sunni Caliphate. But it is what it is: the official Islamic form of government and rule according to the sharii’a.

Democracy is, on the other hand, profoundly un-Islamic. The concept of conferring equal decision-making power on men and women, on rich and poor, on pious and wicked—it sounds as bizarre to many Muslims today as it did to Christians in the middle ages. In some ways democracy is in fact anti-Islamic, for Islam seeks to locate all power and authority in the hands of one person who represents the one god, just as Allah is unitarian in his person, so authority is unitarian in nature and is entrusted to one person. Moreover, the democratic impetus to divide power is related to the Christian concept that all humans have a nature corrupted by sin, thus making no one person capable of the unbearable load of absolute power. Compare this to Islam wherein Allah may, as he pleases, grant a person immunity to sin (as he has with the prophets), and wherein sin is understood as a lapse occasioned (probably) by ignorance.

If democracy were to succeed in the Arab Muslim world (something which I think over the long term is unlikely) it would entail a very strong suppression of the traditional Islamic voices who know very well that Islam and democracy have nothing in common. People mention countries like Malaysia and Turkey as examples that Islam and democracy can go hand in hand, but the coming decades will prove them wrong, if recent events are any indicator.


Anonymous said…
as salamu alaikum

as to your last comment re Democracy in Muslim countries would hurt the people - well, so do the current dictatorships!
I'm not saying "democracy" is the answer, but the current dictatorships are not, either.

And just a reminder: Even the U.S.A. was not set up as a "Democracy" wherein the majority force their views & opinions on the minority.
The U.S.A. was specifically set up as a Republic to avoid such violations of freedom & liberty.
Abu Daoud said…
Wa 3aeykum as salam, anonymous.

Thank you for the good insights. My point is that democracy in some very important ways contradicts Islam, not that Western civilization has to be just and fair. But that democracy CAN grow in the West, whereas in the soil of Islamic culture, it would harm Islamic identity.

Of course, less Islamic identity could actually be good for the people.

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