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Published in the 16-28 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


Islam and democracy

The Milli Gazette Online

When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was on his deathbed, he was repeatedly prodded to nominate his successor but he refused to do so. This very act of not nominating a successor suggests in categoric terms that the Prophet wanted his successor to be elected by the community. Hazrat Abu Bakr was elected by the acknowledged leaders of the community in a process closest to the electoral college system though his succession was not entirely free of controversy as people supporting Hazrat Ali did not participate in this process as they felt Ali should have been the rightful successor. However, this aspect of non-participation does not mar the credibility of Abu Bakr's khilafat. Abu Bakr died a natural death after two years. However, before his death he nominated Hazrat Umar as his successor. This was clearly not democratic. Umar died after 10 years and he was followed by Hazrat Uthman who was elected by an advisory council which was itself a council of un-elected members, hence his mode of election too was undemocratic. After 12 years in power, Uthman was murdered. This led to a civil war which resulted in Hazrat Ali coming to power as the fourth caliph. After five years, he too was murdered. 

The nomination/election, tenure and termination of each caliph has lessons from which we could learn and on a broader canvas we can easily conclude that democratic means of succession are the best, though it too might not necessarily be perfect. Hence the need arises to intellectually study, discuss and debate what is the perfect form of governance suitable to a particular time and occasion and how we can blend democracy as we know and understand within Islamic principles and Sharia in order to make it universally acceptable and practicable for all Islamic states.

There is no doubt, democracy is the most natural and humane system of governance but can it be combined with Islamic principles to make it a perfectly acceptable and the only system of governance for Muslims all over the world? The answer has to be in the affirmative. This is because there is enough evidence to suggest in the Quran and by the conduct of Prophet Muhammad that Islam is entirely compatible with democracy. Principles of diversity are cited throughout the Quran. Islam is based on the values of justice, equality and shura (the Quranic principle of consulting the people in matters of governance). Further the Charter, or Constitution, of Madina, which Prophet Muhammad himself laid down, contains all aspects of pluralism. The Charter entered into with 14 non-Muslim groups (Jews, Christians and pagans besides Muslims) living in Madina laid down the principle of equality in all worldly matters.

It is natural for all people to desire that they have a say in how their society and country are run. I am sure this is how all Muslims too feel, but at the same it also remains a fact that with a Muslim's fundamental belief being that the Quran is a word of Allah, it will be impossible for Muslims to reconcile to democracy as it is known today unless they are convinced that the system of governance is compatible with Quran and certainly democracy per se is not in conflict with Islamic law or teachings.

It should not surprise any Muslim to know that when we talk of democracy and its suitability to the Islamic values, we will not be doing so in isolation. Many nations, like the Scandinavian countries for instance, have combined the principles of democracy with their own liberal and socialist ethos and the British have combined a Protestant theocracy with practical liberal democracy. 

Of course if you force people to choose between democracy and Islam, they will choose Islam but that is not the way it should be. The need is for us to first establish once and for all that democracy is compatible with Islam and what is on offer is the ideal answer. This is what I believe Prophet Muhammad had perceived at his deathbed when he died without naming his successor and made way for democracy to evolve itself while combining the Islamic principles and Sharia.

Now as for Sharia itself, there is a need for us to understand, what is Sharia? As we know, it is basically opinions of scholars who lived centuries ago and cannot be deemed as the last word because they are neither mentioned in the Quran nor are they associated with the sayings of the Prophet, hence they exist very much in the domain of reinterpretation, if need be. 

There is an impression in the non-Muslim countries that Islam is an intolerant religion and this impression to my mind has gained ground because of the narrow interpretation of Islamic laws or Sharia. The decay actually started some 500 years ago because that is around when religious scholars actually stopped reinterpreting Islamic laws and caused the naturally evolving process of an ideal form of governance to come to a halt. 

I believe the time has come for us to re-trigger this process back to life, initiate a fresh debate and include amongst others religious scholars, academicians, intellectuals, political thinkers and so on. It is important to understand that left only to religious scholars to interpret and apply Islamic laws for everything, they may not be able to do justice because they also need to understand the subject to which they wants to apply Sharia or Islamic laws. For instance, if he wants to apply Sharia to banking, he has to first understand banking and economy.


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