September 14, 2003

Democracy & Islam

Maryam of A Dervish's Dua has an post on pluralistic democracy in Islam. She writes

I find it noteworthy that the Prophet did not nominate a successor (leaving aside minority Shi'i claims for the moment). For me, this signals that Islam does not endorse a *specific* style of governance, be it tribal, dynastic, dictatorial, democratic etc. Rather the Qur'an and the sunnah contain within them both the underlying seeds for an Islamic ethic, *and* specific instructions for time-contextual problems. While as Muslims we should be aiming for achieving a society in which the underlying ethic is manifested, the reality is that human beings are fallible and require specific solutions to specific time-bound problems. In other words, the Qur'an addresses (not endorses) the reality of a tribal society with a patriarchal head but also provides movement towards more sophisticated forms of governance.

I can hear dim echoes of Tom Paine's work Common Sense, in which that inveterate atheist attacked the institution of monarchy by writing,

As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings. All anti-monarchial parts of scripture have been very smoothly glossed over in monarchial governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries which have their governments yet to form. 'Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's' is the scriptural doctrine of courts, yet it is no support of monarchial government, for the jews at that time were without a king, and in a state of vassalage to the Romans.

Near three thousand years passed away from the Mosaic account of the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king. Till then their form of government (except in extraordinary cases, where the Almighty interposed) was a kind of republic administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title but the Lords of Hosts. And when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of Kings, he need not wonder, that the Almighty, ever jealous of his honor, should disapprove of a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven.

I've read the Old Testament, and I'm not sure the books of Judges would be Paine's cup of tea as far as governance is concerned, but the argument was nevertheless an important one (and it's worth noting that Common Sense sold something like 100,000 copies within a year of its release -- not a bad print run at all).

Alija Izetbegovic made a similar argument in his Islamic Declaration (an uneven and in many places disappointing document, to be sure, and not quite Paine either):

Apart from affairs of property, Islam does not recognize any principle of inheritance, nor any power with absolute prerogative. To recognize the absolute power of Allah means an absolute denial of any other almighty power (Qu'ran, 7-3, 12-40). "Any submission of a creature which includes a lack of submission to the Creator is forbidden." (Muhammad, peace be upon him). In the history of the first, and perhaps only authentic Islamic order -- at the time of the first four Caliphs -- three key aspects of the republican principle of government may be seen, (1) an elective head of state, (2) the responsibility of the head of state towards the people and (3) the obligation of both to work on public affairs and social matters. The latter is explicitly supported by the Qu'ran (3-159, 42-38). The first four rulers in Islamic history were neither kings nor emporers. They were chosen by the people. The inherited caliphate was an abandonment of the electoral principle, a clearly defined Islamic political institution.

This seems to me to be a good starting point for arguing that representative democracy is not incompatible with, but rather a requirement of, Islam.

Posted by Ideofact at September 14, 2003 11:42 PM

Of course one is welcome to argue that representative democracy is a requirement of Islam but there's a preliminary question of competence, given the general tendency of folks (both inside and outside) to say that Islam doesn't recognize a separation between state and religion -- is this representative democracy to govern a state or the religious practice of Islam?

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at September 15, 2003 12:11 PM

Well, theoretically democracy does not require a separation of religion and state. For those interested in an interesting revivalist Islamic position on democracy in an 'Islamic' state, then Abdullah Saeed's paper on Rashid al-Ghannushi is a must read. (Although al-Ghannushi still requires the head of state to be Muslim). (Ref: "Rethinking citizenship rights of non-Muslims in an Islamic state: Rashid al-Ghannushi's contribution to the evolving debate", Islam & Christian Muslim Relations Abingdon, 1999.

The author gave me a copy and I have an electronic version. I am not sure how copyright laws work, but I think it's okay to say if someone wants to read it email me and I'll foward it on to you.

Posted by: Maryam at September 16, 2003 12:53 AM

That's a good question, and I'm not sure what the answer is. I think the first step, though, is doing away with tyranny; I can't say for certain whether religious pluralism would follow in its wake, but presumably someone making the argument Izetbegovic makes would also argue that there is no compulsion in religion.

Posted by: Bill at September 16, 2003 12:58 AM

The first four rulers in Islamic history were neither kings nor emporers. They were chosen by the people.

That's a very polemical assertion, though. Not even all Sunni historians agree with this (especially Tabari).

I personally shy away from drawing democratic inferences from religious authority models. I think that Islam is democratic, but in the sense that it encourages believers to excercise their reason, and seek knowledge (the famous "seek knowledge, even if in China" hadith of the Prophet comes to mind), and abide by their principles.

But religious authority and doctrine is by definition divine, and opening up that interpretation to a democratic debate becomes a debate on divinity itself. That's fine for theological and philosophical inquiry, but in terms of practical application leads to a weakening of the authority. Ultimately, religion becomes "merely" philosophy and is as easily discarded. But that is not the intended purpose of Islam.

Posted by: Aziz at September 16, 2003 03:47 PM

expanded commentary here...

Posted by: Aziz at September 16, 2003 03:59 PM


An aside: One of the oddities of Izetbegovic is the way he generally either discounts Shi'ism (for him, it seems like the main schism is between Sufis the orthodox Sunnis), or his occasional disdain for them. I noted (actually quoted) that Maryam offered a pace, Shi'ites in her discussion.

As to the question of weakening authority, I think that's rather the whole point. But the authority that has to be weakened is not the divine, but the human. I know you know all this better than I, but when you have Wahhabis running around smashing tombs and destroying Bosnian mosques that date to the Ottoman period and invoking divine authority for their depradations, you've got a serious problem -- humans standing in for the will of God.

A well-designed represtantive government, limited in its powers and subject to the ongoing will of the people through periodic elections, will have far less ability to usurp divine authority for itself.

Posted by: Bill at September 17, 2003 12:53 AM

A well-designed represtantive government, limited in its powers and subject to the ongoing will of the people through periodic elections, will have far less ability to usurp divine authority for itself.

agreed - example, America - I guess my post amounts to nit-picking to some degree, on whether "representative democracy" and "no tyranny" are necessarily equivalent concepts - and my own bias towards preferring representative democracy is non-subtle.

But my main interest is seeing discussions on Islam be broader. I do take some issue with many otherwise thoughtful and insightful points raised by scholars such as Izetbegovic because the driving thrust is to attempt social engineering within an Islamic context. I think that by excluding the Shi'a perspective, which almost all such efforts do, there is a rich vein of ideas that is simply left untapped. I just want to leave a little "post-it note" when I come across such discussions, to remind the non-muslim audience that excluding the Shi'a is a filter. And that content is non-negligible. I don't fault Maryam for excluding it - after all, no one can be an expert on everything, and if we all strove to be, no one would be able to blog, we would just be doing research all day! - but as a Shi'a voice, I don't want to let teh matter pass without at least some comment.

Posted by: Aziz at September 17, 2003 11:11 AM