Democracy in Islam: Myth or Reality
Paper presented at Law-Related Education, State Bar of Texas, Austin
February 6, 2004
Yasmeen Qadri, Ed.D.
Professor in Education
Director, Ed Consultations
The solutions to the many problems of the world are in our classrooms, and global peace can be best achieved by promoting the spirit of democracy in our schools. In the history of American education, schools have always been used as tools of reform, and the most important lessons of the 21st century (in addition to teaching the advancement of technology and science) would be to teach the skills of living in peace and harmony in the world. At the heart of democracy lies the ideals of equality, justice, and fairness for all; democracy is not a form of government or theory but rather a way of life. In no other time in the history of our nation have our democratic principles been put to the test than it is today; hence, it is more important to teach about democracy today!
As educators begin to focus on teaching the different forms
of government to our young citizens, the future leaders, it is vital that they
give a fair picture of democracy. The Muslim world and Islam today have been
distorted greatly, and one of the forms of distortion is the misinformation or
lack of information about Islamic history. It may surprise many to hear that
democracy has been at the cornerstone of Islam; unfortunately today this
information is covered by the debris of terrorism and fundamentalism, the wars
and destructions around the Muslim world and the
Although only 15% of the total Muslim population of the
world consists of Arabs, Islam and Arab have become synonymous after the recent
attacks of September 11, 2001. More focus has been laid on the area of
The last decade has brought political changes in several
Arab countries that “are now leading to democratization of one form or another.
Democratization of the political system occurred in
Unfortunately, Islam has been seen as a hindrance to
democracy and a threat to the west. The division of east and west have for long
been seen on opposite ends and against each other, be it cultures or
ideologies; Educating one’s self and others about the uniqueness and different
perspectives would help ease tensions between the western and eastern
countries. The next few years will be as important for democracy’s evolution as
for Islam’s. For two millennia democracy has taken root only in Western
cultures. One of the next major global challenges will be determining whether
democracy is adaptable to Eastern countries, including Islamic and Confucian
societies, and vice versa. This is a moment to encourage, rather than obstruct,
Islam’s expression in pluralist forms.” “The Islamic resurgence clearly
presents a challenge to the West. But it also provides enormous opportunity.”
(Robin Wright, 1995) A time for opportunity to also educate the students, both
Americans and Muslim-Americans about the truth about Islam and Democracy, and
that democracy in the
Democracy in Islam
Democracy is not new to Islam. The foundation of the first government in the history of Islam was laid on democracy. “That Muslims attach great significance to their organization as a political community can be seen in the fact that their calendar is dated neither from the birth nor the death of the Prophet, but from the establishment of the first Muslim policy in the city-state of Madinah in 622. Before Madinah was founded, the Arabs had no state to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” (Ahmad, 2003)
President Bush had rightly stated in his speech during the
20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy in
It should be clear to all that Islam-the faith of one-fifth
of humanity—is consistent with democratic rule. Democratic progress is found in
many predominantly Muslim countries—in
More than half of all the Muslims in the world live in freedom under democratically constituted governments. They succeed in democratic societies, not in spite of their faith, but because of it. A religion that demands individual moral accountability, and encourages the encounter of the individual with God, is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government.
President Bush further stated that the challenges that the Middle East is going through during the present times, whether it be poverty or the lack of rights for women, should not be misunderstood that this is due to Islam but it was the result of colonialism leading to the establishment of dictatorships. He emphasizes that “These are not the failures of a culture or a religion. These are the failures of political and economic doctrines.” He further states that any “working democracies always need time to develop—as did our own. We’ve taken a 200-year journey toward inclusion and justice—and this makes us patient and understanding as other nations are at different stages of this journey”.
There are certain important points to remember as one searches democracy in the history of Islam. The concept of democracy is present in the Qur’an as the Qur’an covers everyday life, including the political structure. Since Islam is a way of life, democracy fits in well with it – freedom of speech, religion, equality, are the rights of the people as long as they are well balanced.
Prophet Muhammad applied democratic principles in the
establishment of the Muslim community 1500 years ago. The two major principles
of democracy practiced during this time were: The concept of Bay’ah (voting)
where the Qur’an says that the “ruler cannot rule without the consent of the
people.” For example, Abu Bakr was the first elected Khalifa. He was
democratically elected in the same way the earlier
Also, lack of a single model of elections described in the Quran shows that the model is not intended to be one stagnant for all times but it should always have an element of shura or democracy.
The concept of the Shura (consultation) is very similar to the democratic principle of debate and agreement. It is the community as a whole, not an individual that owns or exercises power. In a chapter on Al-Shura the Qur’an describes Muslim societies as one in which individuals manage their affairs through consultation. Shura is similar to direct democracy and is considered as a personal duty, which no on can perform on behalf of another. Shura is obligatory on Muslims as the five daily prayers are; like prayers Muslims are urged to practice shura in their daily work, family lives, and community affairs. John Voll and John Esposito, 1995 in their article Islam Has Strong Democratic Traditions, emphasize on the Operational Concepts for Islamic Democracy. “Several Islamic concepts have a key role in the development of Islamic democracy: consultation (shura), consensus (ijma), and independent interpretive judgment (ijtihad).” These interpretations, like the “interpreted concepts such as citizens and parliament in the Western tradition, they have become crucial concepts for the articulation of Islamic democracy.” Thus, “Consultation, consensus, and independent judgment provide the basic concepts for understanding the relationship between Islam and democracy in the contemporary world, and an effective foundation to build an Islamic basis for democracy.”
The first constitution during the prophet’s life was the
Charter of Medina which was drawn by Prophet Muhammad 500-600 years before the
Magna Carta. It laid out a federal role over the tribes. It was a pact signed
by the Prophet and the main non-Muslim tribes – some pagans and Christians, but
mostly Jews. This charter became a way of life for the citizens of
a) Right to equality before law. It established equality,
where it said all citizens of
b) Due process of law. One may not punish someone by guilt association.
c) Minority Rights. The charter forbids giving any advantage to someone influential in executing punishments.
d) Freedom of speech. People were free to provide consultation and criticism to the extent that free discussion was encouraged through ijtihad (interpretation of the Quran).
e) Bill of Rights. Hilf ul Fudool or a covenant was signed by Prophet Muhammad to protect those who are weak and to make sure that business dealings were conducted in all fairness.
f) Right to vote. Women as a minority had the right to vote
and women of
g) Socio-economic structure was developed to maintain equality through zakat (charity) system where 2.5% of the total savings had to pay to help the needy and improve the standard of living for all.
h) Right to religious freedom. Where the Jewish tribes were allowed to live according to their own rules and were not required to follow the rules of Islam. “Christian minorities in Muslim society have always had access to wine (which they need for their sacrament), despite the fact that Islamic law prohibits.” Thus, there was respect for diversity in religions and cultures as the Quran mentions, “We have made you into nations and tribes so that ye may understand each other and not despise each other. Verily the most honored among you is one that is most righteous.” Prophet Muhammad posed no religious test in the Medina Covenant. The Jews and Christians have held high positions in Muslim governments. While the “American restriction is one of geography, the Islamic restriction is one of declared commitment to the source of the law.” True, anyone “can alter his or her religion but no one can alter his or her place of birth.” (Ahmad, 2003)
Causes for the decline of democracy after the Prophet
1. Differences arose among successors of the Prophet. (The Prophet did not assign a successor during his lifetime but left it to the people to decide their leader, thus setting an example – Sunnah).
2. People who were not pious took power and rulers went against the Islamic doctrine and “politics began to suppress religions, rather than religion suppressing politics”.
3. Long history of colonialism was prevalent around the Muslim world where colonial powers chose weak leader who acted more as puppets than true leaders. “European colonial rule and postindependence governments headed by military officers, ex-military men, and monarchs have contributed to a legacy in which political participation and the building of democratic institutions are of little concern.” (Esposito, 1994).
4. Colonialism also led to the reform in the education system where Arabic and Quran were eradicated from the schools. Thus people lacked the knowledge of the Quran and were denied to engage in ijtihad (process of interpreting the Quran).
5. Lack of knowledge from the Quran and Sunnah led to misleading information that was more cultural than religious. (Women began to be oppressed, rulers became dictators, and inequality and corruption soon became the rule of the land).
6. The misconception that Islam is against democracy has its
roots in the history of Muslim dictators who did not want to awaken the people
to the truth about Islam. (Mughuls in
7. Lack of successful democracies today has made it even harder for the Muslim countries to return to the true democratic and Islamic governments of the past. (www.islam-democracy.org)
Although the concept of democracy is not introduced to the
Muslims by the west, the west will be given credit for bringing its
‘renaissance’ be it in the
Voll and Esposito have rightly stated that the global
dynamics of democratization reflect the dramatic changes of the present. True,
throughout the world—including the Western democracies-the effort to create
more effective democratic structures continues apace and the Muslim countries
are not an exception. “Movements like an-Nahda in
For more information or questions please visit the websites and other resources documented as references.
(http://usinfo.state.gov and www.islam-democracy.org).
The presenter is neither a scholar of Islam nor an expert in forms of government and democracy. For detailed information on Islam and Democracy please refer to the original sources in the History of Islam.
Ahmad, Imad-ad-Dean (1997). “On the American Constitution from the Perspective of the Quran and the Madinah Covenant.” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences Volume 20, Summer/Fall 2003 Numbers 3 & 4.
Esposito, John L. (1994). “Political Islam: Beyond the Green Menace” Current History, Inc.
Khan, Wahiduddin (2002). “The Concept of Democracy in Islam.” http://ww.jammu-kashmir.com/insights/insight20021219a.htm l.
Kim, Eun Joo, Assistant News Editor. “Jellema lecture offers new perspective of Islam.”
Mansour, Subhy A. (2002) “The Roots of Democracy in Islam.” Summary of Remarks by Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour. December 16, 2002.
Sachedina, Abdulaziz (2003) “Why Democracy and Why Now?”
Address by Abdulaziz Sachedina,
Winters Paul (1995) Islam: Opposing Viewpoints “Islam Has Strong Democratic Traditions” from Islam’s Democratic Essence by John O. Voll and John L. Esposito, originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, September 1994. p. 111-120, and The Islamic World Needs Secularism by Asad Abukhalil, originally printed in Harvard International Review, vol.15, no.2 (Winter 1992/93)
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