- October 4, 2007
Home Thought on Islam and Democracy
When talking about the the nature of “good”, I refer to the Quran, where we are told that our Prophet, peace be upon him, has come to make good things halal and bad things haram. It also tells that God has made many good things haram for the Jews, and also tells us that God does not order people to do evil things. All these indicate that the Quran teaches us that the categoryof Good is inherent in things.
Thus if someone comes and says that God orders men to obey their rulers blindly or to commit or submit to injustice, we can confidently say he or she is mistaken, for God has told us that He has forbidden Himself from committing injustice and made it haram for humankind.
The inability of some people to understand what is meant by the “equality of the believers” is due to a lack of familiarity with some basic texts. If you look at Muslim and al-Bukhari, you could see a hadith about the believers being all equal, in solidarity with each other, and the leasts among them can offer protection on their behalf (yas”a bi-dhimmatihim adnahum). This is what I mean with equality and collective responsibility. The idea that one person (a Khalifah) is “more equal” than the rest and the embodiment of right and Islmaic teachings contradicts this. It is the community as a whole which does not agree on an error, but individuals, especially rulers, are prone to error. That is why Abu-Barkr has asked for correction from the people.
Democracy as a term referred to the rule of the many, as opposed to the rule of one (monarchy) the elite (aristocracy) the rich (plutarchy) or the few (oligarchy). (There a few additional characterisations of democracy I will not trouble you with here). Since all Muslims are equal in the eyes of God and in Islamic law, Islamic rule is one in which all Mulsims participate equally. It is thus the rule of the many, or the people (demos), in this case the Mulsim people. And since the people are Muslim, and since the Prophet, peace be upon him told us that the umma does not agree on error, this type of rule is essentially Islamic and correct. It is natural that the rule of the Mulsim peopel will be according to Sharia. If they do not rule according to Sharia, they are not Mulsims and they do not concern us here. However, the Mulsims who fought in the Battle of the Camel or Siffin were not fighting about the rule of Sharia, since they all accepted it. The question for Muslims today as it was then, how do we resolve our differences?
Do we go to war (which is in a way a “democratic” option, as people choose freely which side to fight on, and the greater number usually wins) or by some other peaceful mechanism, such as voting or arbitration? Umar has created the rudiments of a consultative council when he nominated six men to choose his successor. Had Muslims agreed such a device, we would have probably avoided Siffin, al-Jamal and the murder of Uthman.
I think many people misunderstand the Khilafa system, which was not one man rule. All the Muslims in Madinah were acutally members of the ruling system, since most of them attended the Mosque where important decisions were debated and announced. Any individual, man or womna, could have objected to the Khalifa”s decision, and the latter would have either to convince them or change it, as Umar did in the case of dowry.
The Khulafa did indeed invent a lot of things (including the institution of Khilafah itself, which was not based on any specific text) and other things such as Diwan, and did pass laws (such as Umar”s rule on Kharaj) but only after consultation with the leading figures in the community. And they were right to do so, since the insitutions they set up conformed to the spirit of Islam and benefited the community. It is also our duty to use our heads and see how best the spirit of Islam could be translated in our times.
Most of what we do or say is interpretation. Some people just seem to believe that theirs is more correct than other. And that istheir right, as Shafi”i said. But if you go on to say that what your interpretation is God”s definitive ruling, then you are equating your opinion (or whims) with God”s word, and that is shirk. There was no typing mistake in what I have written, for if a human being, calls himself a Khalifah or imam or anything else and says that all the orders he gives are from God, then he is a liar first, and those who follow him commit shirk. Any human ruler can only say what Abu-Bakr and Umar said: this is my view. If you think I am right, help me.
The first element of rule by Shari”a is to recognise the authority of the umma (and not a particualr group within it, since we have no priesthood in Islam). And this is what we mean when say Shari”a rule is a form of democracy. The claim that democracy is by necessity permissive and encourages vice is inaccurate, since the spread of corruption under dictatorship is always worse. If the Muslim umma is empowered to rule itself, it will only permit what God permits. But if all the umma is corrupt, then what is a ruler goign to do about it, no matter how virtuous he may be? Also equating democracy with oppressing other people is irrelevant, since repression can also come from dictators. Ferdinand and Isabella who persecuted the Muslims and drove them out of Spain were no democrats. Neither was Stalin.
As far as I know, no new revelation has come down since then (certaily not at Khilafah.com) to give any man the authority to say that his words are the abolute truth. We have thus to use our reason and make our own judgements. Any one who says Islam has taken every decision for us is mistaken. We have to take most of our decisions ourselves. Look for example at the recent Gulf war. There were very senior ulama who quoted Islamic texts to justify American presence in the Gulf, and other ulama who contradicted them. Each claims divine authority for their fatwa. Who is to judge these judges? The umma as a whole of course. And does the umma know full well who is right and who is not?
I have read the argumetns of some people for a strange Islamic system of dictatorship. These are neither supported by text nor history. While they argue that God is the Sovereign in the Islamic system, what we are served with is the so-called Khalifa and “his aides” who become are the sovereigns! Islamic texts, by contrast, vest authority in the community as a whole. The relevant verses in the Quran are addressed to the community as a whole. The way the community should discharge these responsibilities are left to its discretion. Since God Almighty has not chosen to take this right away from the community, those who want to do this usurp not the community”s prerogarive, but God”s. We have here shirk and the deification of the alleged Khalifa who acts as God on earth. This is against both Islam and reason.
No human ruler is infallible. And if some human could approach infallibility, it was the Prophet, peace be upon him. But the Prophet was ordered to consult his followers. And consultation did not mean just listening, but accepting the emerging consensus or the view of the majority, as happened in teh battle of Uhud,, to which the verse specifically refers, even though in this case the decision of eth majority appeared to have been wrong.
The allegation that Islam is unique and does not coincide with any human system is a gross misunderstanding of Islam. The central ethical command in Islam is to rule according to justice and fairness. Fairness was not defined, because it was left to common sense to determine what is fair. How come that if a sytem was developed (such as democracy) which embodies fairness, not this be the very essence of Islam?
Wisdom, as the Prophet said, is the believer”s lost property. Wherever he finds it, he should grab it. In Surat al-Ma”idah, we are told that God sent a bird to teach Adam”s son how to bury his dead brother. If the believer is expected to learn from animals, does he have to be so dumb that he could not learn from the experience and discoveries of other human beings, whether in teh field of chemistry or politics?
The democratic system of rule, as it has emerged in the modern world, is the best system of rule yet invented by man. It approaches the ideal Islamic system practiced during the Khilafa Rashida.
It is also the only system which conforms to the basic principle of the equality of all the believers and their collective responsiblity in front of God. The dictatorship advocated by some misguided groups not only violates this principle of equality, making one man stand above all, but it also violated the fundamental Islamic principles of tawheed, since it introduces an elemetn of shirk, making one man (or a clique) arrogate to himself the authroity of God the Sovereign.