THE ROOTS OF DEMOCRACY IN ISLAM
Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour
Monday, December 16, 2002
National Endowment for Democracy
My thanks go to the National Endowment for Democracy for giving me this opportunity to practice my freedom of speech here without feeling fear, as I used to feel in Egypt. In Egypt, I was prejudiced by two main trends: the fanatics and the secularists. The fanatics accused me of being the enemy of the prophet Mohammed and the rejecter of his teachings, which they call Sunna. The secularists refused any discourse emanating from inside Islam, even if this discourse was against the fanatics, calling for justice, peace, human rights, religious tolerance, freedom and democracy. Now, thanks to the support of the National Endowment for Democracy, I can talk about democracy in Islam, without fear or shame. I will outline my presentation, the roots of democracy in Islam, in some pages to have enough time for discussion.
Between Islam and Muslims
In any language, any time, and any place, Islam means submission to the One God, the creator and peacefulness in dealing with people. To submit yourself to your God, this is your freedom of choice, and you will be responsible for this before God alone on the Day of Judgment. No one in this life has the authority to judge your faith.
To be peaceful in dealing with people—that is the meaning of Islam. If you are peaceful, you are Muslim, whatever your faith. To be an aggressor, a terrorist or a criminal is not to be a true Muslim. This is the core of Islam, which was revealed to all the prophets in all the divine holy messages, and finally revealed in Arabic language in the Quran, confirming previous holy revelations.
In his life, both as a prophet and as ruler of the Islamic state, Prophet Mohammed embodied and applied the Quranic values of peace, justice, freedom of belief and expression, and democracy. After his death, however, his powerful Arab tribe, the Quraysh, used the name of Islam to establish a mighty empire in Asia, Africa, and Europe that lasted more than six centuries.
In the Middle Ages, the Islamic concept of al-Shura, or consultation, which relates to modern conceptions of democracy, was abandoned, and Muslims adopted their own traditions. The strictest interpretation of Islam was revived in our time by the Al Wahabi doctrine, which established the fanatic trend in the Muslim world and gave Islam a notorious name. The Wahabis are against democracy, accusing it to be the rule of Satan. However, when we read the Quran, its code and idioms, we find out that democracy is very much a part of the Islamic faith, commandments, values, culture, and society.
The Islamic Society of Democracy
Islamic values refer to the high values of peace, human rights, freedom of speech and belief, justice and equality, and democracy. Any society that upholds and practices these values is an Islamic society. Because democracy is only one aspect of this society, we have to mention briefly the other aspects:
1. Equality between races and cultures:
God said in the Quran, “O people, we created all of you from the same male and female, and we made you into nations and tribes to recognize each other. The best among you is the most righteous. God is omniscient cognizant” [49:13]. So we are brothers and sisters from the same parents. God made us into different races and cultures to recognize each other, not to fight each other, to benefit from this plurality in this life. In this life God ordered us not to exalt ourselves, not to use the religion as a means of living and power. [53:32] [16:90 to 95].
2. Equality between men and women:
The Quran confirms this equality in creation and in responsibility in this life and in the hereafter [3:195] [4:124] [16:97] [40:40]. In the realm of marriage, the Quran states justice beside equality.
3. Equality between the different religions:
This is confirmed by two other Islamic values;: freedom of speech and belief, and peace. Accordingly, everyone has the right to believe or to disbelieve, to advocate his belief in a peaceful way without insulting anyone else’s belief or personality.
4. Human rights, and the balance between the society and the individual:
The Quran mentions five rights, and makes a unique balance between the society and the individual in this regard.
Everyone has an absolute right to justice. Justice is the mission of the holy divine messages from God [57:25] and the mission of the Islamic state [4:58], [42 :15], [2:282], [65: 2], [16:90]. Any society or state that upholds and practices justice in any time, place, or language is doing so in the true spirit of Islam.
b) Freedom of belief and speech:
Everyone has an absolute right to believe or not to believe [17:107], [18:29], [41: 40] and to advocate what he believes without insulting the others [6:108], [23:3], [28:55], [29: 46]. On the Day of Judgment, everyone will be questioned before God alone, according to his or her freedom of belief. The Islamic state has nothing to do in guiding people to the right path; it is a personal choice and responsibility [28:56], [10:108], [17:15], [27:92], [39:41], [3:20], [6:104].
Individuals are entitled to wealth so long as they are not minors or fools who may squander their wealth. In such cases, society must appoint a guardian to manage the wealth on behalf of those incapable of doing so themselves. Society must also look after such persons, give them a good life from his income, and supervise the guardians charged with looking after the wealth [4:5-6].
Society is expected to look after its poor. The poor are entitled to charity and to alms, collected by the state or given directly to the needy [9:60], [2:215], [17:26], [30: 38], [6:141], [51:19], [70:24].
At the same time, the Quran forbids the concentration of a society’s wealth in the hands of a few people [59:7] because it makes them control the power and the state. Such a concentration of wealth and power results in a class division pitting the hungry majority against the affluent few. The Quran considers this a sign of a society’s eventual self-destruction [17:16], [23:33], [21:13], [11 :116], [34:34], [34:23], [56:45], [23:64], [2:195].
Individuals have an absolute right to security. Society has to defend itself from external enemies and to protect its people. An Islamic state is a strong, peaceful state; it prepares its army to prevent enemies from attacking its borders; and it has to be strong in maintaining peace. At the same time, it has to punish any criminal who violates the peace.
e) The right of power:
Shura, or democracy, means assuming power. According to Islam, it is the society as a whole—not one person, like the Egyptian pharaoh in the time of Moses—that owns and exercises power. [43:51 to 54], [40:37], [28:38], [79: 24].
The fanatics, according to their concept of ‘Al Hakemiyah,’ or the governance, believe that the ruler in Islam obtains his political authority from God and that he will be responsible before God alone on the Day of Judgment.
Did Prophet Mohammed have the same authority from God when he was the ruler of the Islamic state of Al Madina? If so, we may say: He was the final prophet revealed by God, and no one has the privilege the final prophet had. But the fact is that Prophet Mohammed, as a leader, got his power and the authority not from God but from the people or the society, as is the case today in any democratic society.
The people around him gave him shelter after years of persecution in Mecca, and established a state for him to help him against his mighty tribe of Quraysh.
That is why God said to him: “And because of the mercy of God, you treated them with compassion. Had you been harsh and hardhearted, they would have broken away from you. Therefore, you shall pardon them, ask forgiveness for them, and consult them in the matter. Once you reach a decision, then carry it out, putting your trust in God. God loves those who trust in Him” [3:159]. God made his Messenger deal with them gently in order to obtain their loyalty. If Prophet Mohammed had not acted with compassion, his people would have abandoned him and he would have become homeless and helpless in front of his enemies. Because they were his source of power and authority, God made him gentle in dealing with them, ordered him to forgive them if they insulted him and to consult them in affairs of state.
Al-Shura, or consultation, is the Quranic expression of democracy. A religious commandment, it refers to the discussions and deliberation that take place at meetings (or Majalis). In these meetings, Prophet Mohammed taught the early Muslims the culture of democracy in Islam.
The Roots of Democratic Culture in Islam: The Culture of Power and Justice
A strong society is the one that maintains its power and rules itself by itself, through rulers that are servants of the people, accountable before them. This is the essence of a democratic society. A weak, helpless society, on the other hand, tends to produce dictators, because the people are passive, lazy, and inactive. The difference between a strong society and a weak society lies in culture: the culture of strength and struggle versus the culture of weakness and passivity. It may be difficult to make the weak society strong and democratic, because the necessary changes in culture may take a long time and bloody struggle to occur, as happened in the West. But Islam offers a peaceful path to democratic change. This peaceful path has three aspects:
1. Belief in the day of judgment
2. Belief in the divine predestination
3. Freedom of choice.
God created me and predestined for me four things: my birth (date, family, and shape), my death (date and place), his providential sustenance for me, and the crises that will take place in my life. In the hereafter, God will not question me concerning these four things.
In this life, no one can harm me or benefit me beyond these four inevitable predestinations. Beyond them, I have the freedom of choice to believe or not to believe, the freedom to be active in acts of good or evil, or the freedom to be inactive. It is up to me to be active or inactive. I will be responsible for my freedom of choice before God at the Day of Judgment, at which time I will placed either in hell or in heaven, according to my deeds in life. So I have to answer the eternal questions: Why am I here? What should I do to win the test of this life? According to Islam, the winner is one who believes in God and the Day of Judgment; who is active in good deeds; who upholds the high values of peace, justice, and freedom of choice; who fears God alone; and who submits to God alone, and not to any human being. This is the culture of strength, which is available to anyone and any society to uphold. This the culture that changed Muslims in the time of Prophet Mohammed and that created a strong democratic state among them.
Roots of Democracy in the Islamic Faith
Islam states that there is no god but One God, the creator of the universe. Democracy is an aspect of Islam, while dictatorship contradicts it. The tyrant acts like God, making the people submit to him and punishing them if they do not. The tyrant is never accountable to his people. The Muslim tyrant puts himself higher than the prophet Mohammed, who was democratic in his dealings with others. In this way, the Muslim tyrant indirectly claims the status of a god beside the One God. Moreover, dictatorship is also opposed to justice, which is the basic aim of all the divine messages of God. Justice is the basic foundation of Islamic laws. This means that democracy, taken as an aspect of justice, is a central part of the Islamic faith and should be considered one of Islam’s ritual commandments.
Democracy in Islamic Ritual: Commandments
In a sura, or chapter, named Al-Shura, or democracy, the Quran describes Muslim society as one in which individuals respond to their Lord, observe their prayers, whose affairs are by consultation among them, and from whose provisions they donate (42:38).
In this verse, the commandment of shura, or consultation, appears between the two famous commandments of prayer and charity (salat and zakat). Like every ritual commandment in Islam, shura is a personal duty, which no one can perform on behalf of another. Put another way, no one can represent anyone but himself. Shura represents the kind of direct democracy in which all the people participate in the meetings held to discuss community affairs. In addition, Muslims are urged to practice shura in their work and family lives, much like they are exhorted to pray five times a day.
The chapter on shura was revealed in Mecca, where Muslims were persecuted by the Quraysh tribe but continued to hold secret meetings in the home of Al Arkam in the spirit of shura. And they continued to practice it publicly in their new state of Al Madina.
Yet the tradition of attending open meetings with the prophet and discussing their affairs was a new one for the inhabitants of Al Madina. Some of them left the meetings with or without excuse. Because it is a ritual commandment in Islam, God strongly warned Muslims that He would punish them in this life and in the hereafter if they abandoned their meetings.[24:62-to 64]
The Difficulties of Applying Democracy in the Time of Prophet Mohammed
Some Muslims in the democratic meetings crossed the line by insulting the Prophet (33:69-70), outmatching him, raising their voices over his voice, speaking loudly in his face (49:1-2), entering his house without his permission, and making no difference between the mosque where the meetings were held and the house of the prophet (33:53). God blamed them and told them that they were in need of discipline because democracy did not mean that kind of disorder.
The hypocrites were the elders of Al Madina and its richest people before the coming of Islam. They had to accept Islam in order to protect their wealth and prestige and in order to conspire against the new state that gave them absolute freedom of belief and speech. The democratic meetings were their means to plot. The hypocrites controlled the meetings and directed them toward their own interests. Because the Muslim masses obeyed the Quran and attended the meetings, the hypocrites became the minority. Finally, the hypocrites lost their respect because they refused to defend Al Madina. They even tried to help the enemy, but the defenders of the faith had more influence than they did. Those defenders practiced democracy even in times of war.
Democracy in Times of War
1. Battle of Badr
After persecution and continuous attacks from the Quraysh, Muslims were given permission to defend themselves and to retaliate. The Quraysh confiscated their assets and stocks of trade caravans. So the prophet and his small army marched to attack the trade caravan of Quraysh in order to regain some of the Muslim money. The caravan changed its route and a large number of Quraysh troops came to attack the Muslims. The prophet held a meeting in which a few men refused to face the larger Quraysh army. They argued with the prophet, but the majority decided to fight on. The minority accepted this decision. The Quran said, “And verily, a party among the believers dislike it. Disputing with you in the truth after it was made manifested, as if they were driven to death, while they were looking.” (8:5-6).
2. Battle of Ohod
The next year, the Quraysh came to destroy Al Madina, and the Muslims held a meeting to discuss the situation. The majority decided to march out of the city to fight the enemy near the mountain of Ohod. The hypocrites, however, preferred to stay back and face the enemy from within the city. The Muslims were defeated in this battle. In their meeting, the hypocrites blamed the prophet, saying, “Did we have any part in the affair?” “ If we had had any say in the matter, none of us would have been killed.” And, “If only they had obeyed us, they would not have been killed” (3:154–68). The hypocrites had refused to fight, but they also had the right to participate in meetings and voice their opposition to the strategies of those who had fought and suffered defeat.
3. Battle of Allies
After that, the Quraysh gathered the biggest army of the time to destroy Al Medina. At their meeting, the Muslims decided to dig a trench around Al Madina to protect it. Everyone present vowed in the name of God never to flee. But at the time of the siege, the hypocrites fled the battle (33:9–25). In fact, they joined forces with the enemy (59:11–24) (4:141) and conspired to put an end to the democratic meetings (58:5–8) (33:9–25). Ultimately, however, they lost their influence and prestige. The hypocrites used democracy to destroy it, but in the end, democracy brought about their own ruin by exposing their acts and deeds.
The Process of Democracy in Islam
Islamic democracy is a ritual commandment. Direct democracy, in which every person represents himself or herself, involves decisions made by the majority and applied by all Muslims. So long as it is peaceful in its dealings, the opposition has total freedom of belief and expression. The accountability is another aspect. The prophet used to be insulted as a leader, and the Quran blamed those insulting him when they exceeded their limits.
Democracy also means accountability. A true Islamic society rules itself by itself through executives who are accountable to their society. The Quran calls these executives “Olo Al Amr,” meaning “those of the affairs.” They are mentioned twice in the Quran:
1) In 4:58-59, God orders Muslims to obey the executives in their capacity as God’s messengers. This means that the ultimate obedience is to God and to His message, which is one of peace, freedom, justice, and human rights. If a ruler abandons these values, no one should obey him or her.
2) In 4:83, the Quran clearly identifies “those of the affairs.” They were people who were experts in their fields. Some of them were experts in the field of security and were by the side of the prophet in times of war. This means that they were not presidents, but rather, experts who helped the prophet.
Prophet Mohammed was the leader of that Islamic state and wanted to teach the people how to govern themselves. That is why he did not appoint anyone to be the leader or ruler after him. But after his death, the Quraysh changed everything step by step. Eventually, the democratic Islamic state became an empire ruled by a dictator under the sons of the elder of Qurasyh, the previous enemy of Islam.
Can Muslims Apply Democracy Now?
1. Just a Dream?
It is easy to say that applying democracy in the Muslim world requires complex reform. This reform begins with the amendment of the constitution and legislations to pave the way for a new state of justice, human rights, and local administration for the provinces. The reform would necessitate political, economic, social, cultural, and religious changes that contribute to an environment of democracy. The current communication and information revolution may help in facilitating such a democratic change, but for now, it is still a dream for the better part of the Muslim world.
2. Aspects of Actual Life
Actual political and social life in the Muslim world is terrible. Inside the regimes, dictators control all aspects of life, terrorizing a people in awe of the state. The army is used to ensure the security of the dictator and his elders, along with the legislation, judicial system, media, education, economics, and the official religious and cultural authorities.
B. The fanatic trend
The dictators need the religious opposition to some degree in order to scare the people and prolong martial law. Their rationale is “We are bad, but they are the worse, so who do you want in power?” In reality, the religious fanatics are the worst of the lot. The current dictators may kill or imprison dissidents for political reasons, but the religious dictatorship kills, stones, and amputates all its enemies and dooms them to hell. The danger of the fanatic trend is not in its secret or public organizations, but in its religious culture, which claims the name of Islam. This culture is sponsored by the regimes and their official religious leaders and foundations.
Between the dictatorships and their religious opposition there lies a weak, vulnerable, secular opposition adopting the Western discourse, which alienates them even more.
Outside these dictatorships, there is the international community represented mainly by the United Nations and the United States.
C. The UN Policy
The United Nations represents governments, not people, and so every dictator has his seat in the UN as the representative of his state and people, even though he may be the real enemy of his people. That makes the UN and its foundations unable to support democracy in the third world unless the United States directs the UN to act against those dictators who are its enemy.
D. U.S. policy endangers the United States itself
The United States and its foreign policy are - in part- responsible for the turmoil in the Middle East.
Under the motto of fighting the communists in the Islamic world, and specifically in Afghanistan, the U.S. sponsored the fanatic Wahabi culture, which produced Osama bin Laden and terrorist organizations all over the world.
In the name of stability, the U.S. helps its autocratic allies remain in power. They in turn use U.S. aid to subjugate their people and direct public anger away from their own corruption and tyranny and toward the U.S. instead. Their political culture is the “complex of the American conspiracy” against Islam and the Arabs. Crises of all kind are explained as an American conspiracy against the people. This culture of conspiracy prevents any hope of reform from within, while at the same time tarnishing the U.S. image and making it the first enemy to be fought. Because it is impossible to defeat the United States in a conventional war, terrorists resort to killing civilian Americans instead. This is their reaction to the complexity of conspiracy. The collapse of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians fuels Arab rage toward America, which is accused of being in support of Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. Finally, it makes the U.S. the battlefield of the third world war that has begun after 9/11.
3. Positive Aspects
This is the sad reality of political life in the Middle East and North Africa, but the picture as a whole has some positive aspects:-
A. The strength of the fanatic trend is also its weakness:
The fanatic religious trend is active and effective, but its mighty power obscures these reasons for weakness:
1. It is a reaction to dictatorship and corruption, not an action in itself, which means that when political reform occurs, it will lose its motivation and power;
2. It draws its culture from medieval tradition, meaning that it is out of step with our time, and will become irrelevant when subjected to modern conceptions of human rights, civil society, and democracy;
3. It derives its power by invoking the name of Islam, whereas in fact, its culture and manner contradict Islam. It uses this power to protect its ideology and to confiscate Islamic values. In any free society, the fanatics will be exposed as criminals and will lose their connection to Islam.
B. The majority are ready for reform
Most Muslims are under 40 years of age. Most of them are educated, deprived, confused, and eager to get rid of those individuals who are confusing Islam with fanaticism. They believe in Islam as a religion of peace, freedom, and justice. They are acquainted with their corrupt regimes and are in touch with the modern world by modern systems of communication and information. They are ready to understand, and even move in the direction of reform, but the terrorist regimes are curbing them.
C. Today’s dictators are losing absolute control over their people
Today’s terrorist regimes do not have the same control as the dictators of the 20th century. Globalization has destroyed the iron wall that the old dictators used to build around their people in order to control them and keep them away from the free world outside their country.
D. The role of the international community
Pro-democracy groups in the West are making an effort to help promote a culture of civil society in the developing world, and the NED is at the forefront of these organizations.
E. Dictators are out of step with modern society
The 21st century will be the century of human rights and NGOs, meaning that sooner or later, the dictatorships that currently exist around the world will disappear, because they do not belong in our time.
4. How to Reform
The question is when and how? Dictatorships may disappear after several decades of bloodshed or, they may disappear quickly and peacefully. How they disappear will depend on the attitude and policies of the United Nations and the United States.
A. The role of the United Nations
The United Nations has changed its attitude toward some parts of the world due to the influence of the United States, but it needs to change its policy and principles to match the culture of the 21st century.
The United Nations must reconsider the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. In the past, this principle safeguarded the independence of weak states against powerful states. Now it serves to entrench the hegemony of few dictators over their people. In autocratic regimes, sovereignty does not belong to the people but to one man who subjugates the people. As a result of this tyranny and oppression, elements within the opposition are motivated to commit acts of terrorism against the world, endangering world security. Accordingly, the UN’s charter should be more effective in protecting its covenants in support of human rights.
Specifically, the United Nations must facilitate the peaceful democratic transition of the third world by introducing new international legislation that would:
1. compel dictators to safeguard human rights and transparency;
2. enable the UN to supervise elections within these regimes;
3. protect activists working on behalf of human rights, democracy, and civil society;
4. create an international court of justice that holds accountable any dictator and his cronies who commit torture, persecution, and election-rigging.
All of this could be tackled by the UN with the help of the United States.
B. The role of the U.S.
The U.S. has a central role to play in this mission not only because it is the world’s sole superpower, but also because of its own war against terrorism after 9/11.
The U.S. has to:
1. uphold justice in its foreign policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict, applying the UN’s solutions and establishing a Palestinian state;
2. direct it aid-not to the regimes, but to social and political NGOs in the fields of development and reform under its continuous supervision;
3. reach a compromise with its dictator-friends to initiate a peaceful democratic transition that guarantees the lives and some fortune of those ex-rulers in a secure exile, allowing interim governments to oversee the process of reform.
This is the only way to save millions of lives inside and outside the United States in this century.