There is a lot of literature written on Islam and democracy where most of the authors and scholars argue that Islam is not compatible with modern-day democracy owing to the latter’s origin from the West, and differences between the two. But, this seems to be a myopic view as they focus, mostly, on differences only. If we analyze deeply, there are a number of fundamental areas that overlap one another, e.g. giving choice to the people to elect their representatives, accountability, rule of law, protection of minorities and provision of justice are the essence of both Islam and democracy. It is also important to note here that Islam is not a religion only; it’s a complete code of life and covers all aspects of human affairs whether social, political, economic or religious. In this write-up, an attempt has been made to explore whether democracy is compatible with Islam or not by highlighting the points of convergence and divergence in them. Besides, there will be an effort to dig out why democracy has low profile in Pakistan.
Democracy is a form of government in which people elect their representatives who, in turn, are responsible for formulating policies and implementing plans in the best interest of the people. One of the most prominent definitions of democracy is attributed to former President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who termed democracy as “government of the people, for the people, by the people”. An etymological analysis of the word ‘democracy’ suggests that it is derived from two Greek words: demos, meaning “the common people,” and kratos, meaning “rule”. So, in simple words, it means “rule of the common people” and it adequately complements the perfect definition given by Abraham Lincoln. Thus, democracy empowers people and gives them the authority to elect their representatives through the voting process.
However, to discuss whether democracy and Islam can complement each other, we need to go through the history of Islam and its principles. It is a known fact that Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth century AD. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) was the last messenger of Allah Almighty to all the worlds. He (ﷺ) invited people to the religion of Islam at a time when the Arabs were plunged into darkness. They used to kill each other on petty issues. Arrogance, obstinacy and ignorance were at their peak. The Arabs would consider a great shame if a baby girl was born, to them, to such an extent that they would commit infanticide and some also didn’t shy away from burying their daughters alive. Such despicable was the social status of the Arabs.
However, with the advent of Islam and the Holy Prophet (ﷺ), social, political, economic and religious status of the Arabs changed. He (ﷺ) did not approve of this inhuman practice and advised people not to be ashamed of giving birth to a baby girl. He (ﷺ) emphasized on the provision of rights as well as protection to women. In this regard, he (ﷺ) ordained, “Don’t treat your wives harshly, give them respect and love.” With preaching of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ), things started changing slowly, yet gradually, and Islam soon emerged as the second largest religion in the world.
If we look at commonalities between Islam and democracy, we find that both of them have almost similar principles and values; and both advocate tolerance, adaptability and adjustability, provision of justice, rule of law, consent and consultation, accountability and protection of minorities, and so on. However, there are some scholars and authors who opine that Islam and democracy are incompatible and they cannot go hand in hand. One such person is Tor. G. Jakobsen who writes in his seminal work ‘Islam and Democracy’ about the incompatibility in the following words:
“Unlike the Bible’s position in Christianity, the Quran is reckoned to be of direct divine origin. Believers in Islam have to obey not only God, but also Muhammad (ﷺ), His [last] messenger. The law of Sharia intervenes in both religious and secular life, including penal punishments and judicial matters, as well as the acts of worship and family life. Muslims are expected to accept the Quran as the word of God, and the Sharia as the regulator of society and daily life. One could argue that with a base of this kind, there is little room for the rights of citizens and freedom of expression, which are key features in the Western pluralistic model of democracy. Both civil liberties and political rights tend to be neglected in the vast majority of Muslim countries today.”
However, reality is starkly different because there are a number of Muslim countries, e.g. Turkey, Bangladesh, and others, that give democratic rights to their peoples more than the countries where a stricter version of Islam is practiced, e.g. Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to Westerners, the teachings of Quran and Shariah are opposite to the democratic ideals of the modern era because they limit free speech and impede women and minorities’ rights.
Unfortunately, there are some Muslims who call themselves scholars, but they consider that democracy is not conducive to Islam – their views seem divorced from actual Islamic teachings, though. They assert that democracy is a Western concept and it is “contrary to Islam because it gives the power of legislation to the people or to those who represent them (such as members of Parliament).” Based on that, legislative authority is given to someone other than Allah Almighty – to the people and their deputies – and what matters is not their consensus but the majority prevails. And, what the majority agree upon becomes law that is binding on the nation, even if it is contrary to common sense, religious teachings or reason. In various countries of the West, various pieces of legislation have been promulgated to allow vices like abortion, same-sex marriage, usury (riba), adultery and the drinking of alcohol, and so on. In fact, this system is at war with Islam and its followers.
On the other hand, there are numerous Islamic scholars who think that Islam professes democratic values and principles. For instance, a noted religious scholar and a former Vice-Chancellor of the Islamic University of Swat, Dr Muhammd Farooq Khan, writes:
“The Holy Quran guides us in detail in those matters, which hardly alter with the change of time, like family affairs. All other matters that change a lot according to the circumstances have been left upon the free will of people to legislate accordingly. For these matters the Quran simply lays down some guiding principles. Politics is also one of such matters. We know that politics and statecraft are subject to change according to the temperament and culture of different societies. The human approach towards these matters also keeps changing with the passage of time.
According to the Quran, the ruler of an Islamic state has to be elected by the people. It means that a Muslim state should be a perfect democratic state. The Quran says:
“They (the Muslims) decide all their collective issues through mutual consultation.” (Al-Shura-32:38)
(Islam and the Muslim World, Farooq Khan 1995)
Furthermore, there are three basic principles of Islamic governance which have the essence of democracy. They are: Constitution, Consent and Consultation. To further elaborate on it, we can get the idea of governance and democratic norms and values from the following instances.
The Holy Prophet (ﷺ) concluded the Charter of Medina (Mithaq-e-Medina) with the Quraysh which is known as the first-ever written constitution of the world.
“After Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) migrated from Makkah to Medina in 622 CE, he (ﷺ) established the first Islamic state. For ten years, Prophet Muhammad was not only the leader of the emerging Muslim community in Arabia, but also the political head of the state of Medina. As the leader of Medina, Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) exercised jurisdiction over Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The legitimacy of his sovereignty over Medina was based on his status as the Prophet of Islam, as well as on the basis of the compact of Medina” How democratic! The ruler can only govern with the explicit written consent of all he would govern,” writes Dr Muqtedar Khan in his article “The Compact of Medina: A Constitutional Theory of the Islamic State”.
Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) did not rule over non Muslims without their consent; rather, it was due to the authority vested in him through the Charter of Medina; the authority to rule. It is also interesting to note that there were Jews who were also the constitutional partners in establishing the first Islamic state. The Charter, thus, highlights the significance of consent and cooperation for running the affairs of a state.
Secondly, at that time, a leader or the head of state was elected through the system of Bayah (pledge). The process of Bayah, or the pledge of allegiance, was an important institution that sought to formalise the consent of the governed. In those days, when a ruler failed to gain the consent of the ruled through a formal and direct process of pledging of allegiance, the ruler’s authority was not fully legitimised. This was an Arab custom that predates Islam, but, like many Arab customs, was incorporated within Islamic traditions. Just as Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) had done, the early Caliphs of Islam, too, practiced the process of Bayah after rudimentary forms of electoral colleges had nominated the Caliph, in order to legitimise the authority of the Caliph. However, in the present world, it is really hard to continue with Bayah process for electing leader(s). Therefore, replacing Bayah with ballots makes elections process easier and more feasible. Thus, it can be said that elections are neither a departure from Islamic principles nor are they un-islamic.
Last but not least is the Islamic principle of governance through consultation – Shura in Arabic. It plays a key role in Islamic system of governance. The Holy Prophet (ﷺ) said in this regard: “My Ummah will never agree upon error.” Through this, we can infer the democratic sense of Islam.
Islam and Democracy in Pakistan
After briefly discussing the compatibility between Islam and democracy, let’s analyze the situation of democracy in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. As for the questions ‘why there is low profile of democracy in Pakistan? Is it Islam that created problems for democracy or there are some other factors that create hurdles in the consolidation of democracy in Pakistan?’ it would be realistic to assert that it is not the religion (Islam) that impedes democracy. Since the inception of Pakistan, there has been a debate as to whether Pakistan should be a secular state or an Islamic one. But, unfortunately, military dictators and even civilian rulers in Pakistan played the religion card and used the name of Islam to pursue their own vested interests. But, it must be kept in mind that Islam is not a religion only; it is a complete code of life which covers all aspects of human conduct in social, political and economic spheres of life. And, it seems implausible to argue that Islam impedes the way of democracy in Pakistan. There are other reasons that have eclipsed the sun of democracy in Pakistan, i.e. the menace of corruption, politicians’ incompetency, military’s lust for power, docile judiciary, almost zero accountability and dearth of visionary and farsighted leadership.
To conclude the whole discussion, it is apt to say that most of the Islamic sources and traditions favour democracy for providing social justice, economic welfare, tolerance, religious freedom and a peaceful environment to the people. In this context, it seems wrong to assume that Islam is a barrier to democracy. It, in fact, facilitates and promotes it.
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