How to Emancipate Muslim States from the Plague of Autocracy and Despotism?

How to Emancipate Muslim States from the Plague of Autocracy and Despotism?


Till our present day, there are still some Islamic groups that consider democracy to be un-Islamic, and maintain the hatred of freedom as their tradition. They argue that ‘there is no freedom in Islam’ and claim that freedom is restricted by the rulings of Shari`ah (Islamic Law). This would make Islam a dreadful contrast to freedom, and takes place at a time when Muslim people are suffering from despotism to the extent that Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the leading figure of Islamic moderation, gives priority to the requirement of freedom over the application of Shari`ah. In his book “Min Fiqh Ad-Dawlah Fil Islam” [Fiqh of the State in Islam], Al-Qaradawi states, “The first battle of the Islamic awakening and the Islamic movement in our time is the battle for freedom. All sincere Muslims must unite to call for freedom and defend it, as it is indispensable and has no substitute.”

A Worrying and Alarming Islamic Discourse

Acting Hesitantly in Fully Recognizing the Principle of Citizenship

Women and Political Leadership

Non-Muslims and Political Leadership

The Muslim Ummah is the Guarantor

Sheikh Al-Qaradawi is in no need of being reminded, since he is more knowledgeable on this issue, that freedom is one of the main objectives of Shari`ah. However, Al-Qaradawi addresses the audience of the Islamic movement who have come to understand Shari`ah as a group of warnings, punishments, and restrictions on freedom. Hence, he addressed them in a language they can comprehend. This means that the culture of freedom needs to be deepened and propagated.

A Worrying and Alarming Islamic Discourse
The general tendency among the Islamic movement is to rush to embrace democracy, taking part in it when the despotic powers give them some space to do so. The bitter experiences that the Islamic movement underwent at the hands of despotic powers may be the greatest motivation for this engagement in a way that makes practice come before theory, as the progression of theoretical conviction proceeds slowly. 

However, the main problem at the present time does not lie in convincing Islamists about democracy, but in convincing despotic leaders. In most cases, this act is looked upon as a violation of the common norm to the extent that military rulers, who have no roots in their societies, frequently boast that they do not recognize Islamic movements, while these movements have large numbers of followers everywhere and were established even before these military rulers were born. There is no justification for this act except the logic of despotism and their feeling of personal ownership of the state and society.

Undoubtedly, current regimes and the international powers that support them remain the main obstacles to the yearnings of our Muslim Ummah to attain freedom and take part in the positive democratic trend which is spreading throughout the whole world today, with the exception of Arab countries. Some aspects of the Islamic discourse presented by the moderate Islamic movement – which is the core of our interest in this regard for it is the principal body of contemporary Islam upon which we pin our hopes – are still hesitant to proceed with freedom and democracy to the end, to say nothing of extremist movements. In addition, they are hesitant to entrust believers with complete confidence in connecting the destiny of the Islamic project with their consciousness and admitting that they are the sole possessors and source of power, instead of suspecting them, taking guardianship over them, and feeling fear for the Islamic project from them.

Acting Hesitantly in Fully Recognizing the Principle of Citizenship

The Madinah Constitution introduced an important precedent for the building of a state on the grounds of the principle of citizenship 

The principle of citizenship is considered the legal basis for the distribution of rights and duties, as well as equality before the law, irrespective of differences in religion, race, and schools of thought. There are many respectable Islamic circles within the moderate Islamic movement that are still hesitant to recognize secular parties within an Islamic state. In spite of the fact that the document of the Muslim Brotherhood in acknowledging diversity is an advanced step, it did not mention anything concrete in this respect. The heritage of the Muslim Ummah and its previous convictions are distinct from its counterparts regarding the issue of religious and sectarian acceptance.

Furthermore, at the time of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, the Madinah Constitution introduced an important precedent for the building of a state on the grounds of the principle of citizenship. This Constitution made a distinction between religion and citizenship, where it considered the Muhajirun (Emigrants from Makkah to Madinah) and the Ansar (Helpers, inhabitants of Madinah who supported the Prophet) and their followers as one nation to the exclusion of other people. It was the nation of belief.  It also considered the Jews, along with their various tribes, as one nation to the exclusion of other people. As such, the Constitution of Madinah combined both Muslims and Jews and described them as one nation to the exclusion of other people. It was the nation of politics on the basis of citizenship. Besides, the historical example of the Islamic state, which was based on the legality of conquest, collapsed and was replaced by national states on the grounds of equal participation in citizenship.

For this reason, there is no evidence that justifies fearing for Islam from diversity and freedom in general. In fact, all the disasters, which have afflicted Islam and Muslims, resulted from the absence of both freedom and diversity. If there is a true danger that we should worry about for the future of Islam, it is intellectual stagnation and the despotism of Muslim rulers. As for freedom, it is a boon, bliss, and one of the major objectives of Shari`ah. The absence of freedom would lead to the absence of people’s humanity and Islam would become subject to the gravest of all perils. How could Islamists ask governing political parties, the majority of which are secular parties, to recognize them while they are still unwilling to recognize them in return?


Some people have gone too far in their restriction of women’s rights, to the extent of depriving the community and the Islamic movement of their participation in the political process 

This is a kind of dualism which cannot be justified or approved by any means. The powers of the Muslim Ummah will inevitably carry on exchanging denial and suppression, instead of exchanging recognition, communication, and authority. It has never been proven that the State of Madinah rejected any group on the grounds of difference in religion or difference in politics. This act is a branch of the Islamic principle that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ nor, with greater reason, in politics. Hence, it is possible for Islamic parties, in their various trends, to be established in the Islamic state as long as they are loyal to it and adhere to peace. In this way, such parties can contribute to building the interstate and interfaith communication project. Allah (Exalted and Glorified be He) says, (O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah are the most pious…) (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Women and Political Leadership
It is widely considered that Islam’s restriction of women’s political leadership is one of the most firmly established rulings and religious matters in Islam. However, the whole issue belongs – as it is the case with most of the affairs of politics and governance – to the field of juristic interests and managing life affairs. Some people have gone too far in their restriction of women’s rights, to the extent of depriving the community and the Islamic movement of their participation in the political process, both as a voter and as a candidate to be elected. It is not strange in this regard to mention the story of the Kuwaiti women’s struggle to obtain the right of political participation, and the resistance of the Islamic movement in allowing this participation. However, this issue was solved through a royal decree, which ordained their participation in elections. Yet, the main Islamic movement, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, has acknowledged the political participation of women in all posts and leadership positions except the post of head of state.

This conforms to traditional Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence), which forbade women from assuming the greatest guardianship, namely becoming head of state, on the grounds of the hadith which reads, “A People ruled by a woman will never prosper.” However, this hadith does not have one meaning, as they wished it to have. Rather, it swings – as Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghazali pointed out – between being informative about the lack of prosperity of the Persians, and giving glad tidings for the prosperity of Muslims. In this context, it can be considered a description of an emergent incident related to Chosroes’s daughter, and involving a juristic ruling. So how could this hadith, which deprives one half of the Muslim community from its rights and duty of participation in the public political process, be approved and become acceptable as a rule in constitutional Fiqh? Such a rule recognizes conclusive texts that acknowledged the principle of equality, such as the texts related to enjoying good and forbidding evil. Allah (Exalted and Glorified be He) says, (And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another; they enjoin the right and forbid the wrong) (At-Tawbah 9:71). There are many other Qur’anic verses to the same effect.

If we take it for granted that the above-mentioned hadith has only one meaning regarding forbidding women from assuming the highest political post, then it must also be pointed out that this post has now completely vanished, and has been replaced by emirates and limited national leaderships. The state has turned, in modern times, into an institution ruled by laws and systems that prevent autocracy and that have turned the presidency into little more than a symbolic institution. As such, political decisions according to the law must be taken by the majority, and after consultation with the governing council.

The main objective in all cases is to work on fulfilling the common interest, regardless of gender. In addition, the interest of the Muslim Ummah does not depend on the gender of the ruler but on his ability to achieve justice, which is the main objective of Shari`ah-based policies. Where justice exists is where Allah’s Law is found. In spite of the fact that Abul  A`la Al-Mawdudi was not one of those who supported women’s participation in parliamentary leadership or assuming the post of head of state, he found himself with the dilemma of choosing between two candidates, one male and the other female. As Al-Mawdudi considered the female candidate to be more suitable for the post, he therefore chose her. Allah (Exalted and Glorified be He) says, (And the male is not like the female…)(Al `Imran, 3:36) This verse was a kind of entertainment for Maryam’s mother, who was expecting a male, but instead gave birth to a daughter. When she felt sad, she received divine assurance to console and inform her that the female whom she gave birth to was better than the male that she had wished for. (Quoted from Tafsir At-Tahrir Wa At-Tanwir )



This controversy reminds me of a relevant incident. Once I was in Pakistan to take part in a conference organized by Al-Jama’ah Al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic Party), when Benazir Bhutto was in government and Nawaz Sharif was in opposition. Nawaz Sharif attended the conference, and it was not long before a leaflet was distributed to conference participants, who were from all over the Muslim world. The leaflet included a Fatwa (legal opinion), which forbade women from assuming the highest political post while taking as evidence the above-mentioned hadith, and everyone was asked to sign it. When I received this leaflet, I refused to sign it. I felt greatly cheated by this professional politician who wanted to make use of what little he knew about our culture. Then, I began asking my brethren, saying, “What are the main features that you would like to see in your leaders? Is it not true that justice is present among you according to Shari`ah? If you are certain of their justice and righteousness, then you can investigate other subsidiary features, such as gender, color, and tribe.”

Non-Muslims and Political Leadership
This is one of the problems that caused controversy within Islamist circles, especially in their relation with non-Muslim citizens, when the Muslim Brotherhood raised it among the contents of a draft document for consultation to establish a political party where they were reserved on the issue of non-Muslims assuming the post of head of state. Despite the fact that many Arab constitutions make Islam one of its conditions when assuming the post of head of state without opposition or uproar, the Muslim Brotherhood’s adoption of the same stance was met with a wide wave of protest. The Muslin Brotherhood are not innovators in this matter, but are mere followers of the known ruling in the main Islamic references on Shari`ah-based policy. I am of the view that they did not properly appreciate the set of circumstances surrounding them, especially given the fact that the whole issue is a mere hypothesis. The current state of affairs in Egypt is very far from allowing any Copt to assume the post of head of state, even if the Muslim Brotherhood was to support it.

The Copts in Egypt find extreme difficulty to even become members of the People’s Assembly, except by direct appointment of a limited number of Copts by the President. In addition, the Egyptian ruling party does not accept the nomination of Copts on its lists, as their opportunities for success in the political arena are almost nil. How then is it the case when the post of head of state is still under the grip of the army? This makes the controversy surrounding this issue purely theoretical, and part of the campaign that targets the Muslim Brotherhood in order to warn people about them and incite public opinion against them. Hence, it would be much better if the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t allow their enemies to benefit from this opportunity, by keeping silent in this regard, as such an issue is a form of what Ash-Shatibi considered to be ‘engaging in what is useless’. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood should abide by this condition without alluding to the fact that it is a constitutional prerequisite.

If we assumed the existence of a Coptic citizen who enjoys wide popularity and great national fame that makes him qualified to assume such a post, and then actually wins this post through fair elections, this would not be considered a national disaster or a religious wrongdoing. The Muslim Ummah is safeguarded against deviation when they have freedom of choice. Egypt has witnessed Coptic leaders in the past with a high degree of patriotism and popularity, such as Makram Ebeid. In addition, some of Hasan Al-Banna’s advisers and close friends were Copts.


The project of the Islamic as well as the democratic movements in general is to emancipate all states from the plague of autocracy and despotism 

Likewise, Syria has witnessed the rule of a Christian Prime Minister, Faris Al-Khuri, who was known for his good performance and excellent relations with Islam and Islamists. He did not lay the country in ruins, but left behind a good legacy. If only those revolutionary Muslims who succeeded him in power would follow his course!

So, why should we move with such controversy when searching for the fittest, the most qualified, and fairest?! Allah (Exalted and Glorified be He) says, ((Joseph) said: Set me over the storehouses of the land. Lo! I am a skilled custodian.) (Yusuf 12:55) Allah (Exalted be He) also says, (O my father! Hire him! Verily, the best of men for you to hire is the strong, the trustworthy.) (Al-Qasas 28:26). Hence, the project of the Islamic as well as the democratic movements in general is to emancipate all states from the plague of autocracy and despotism, whatever the kind and level of the nominee’s religiosity and righteousness.

Our problem at the present time lies with our severe and tough male rulers, who would be more kind with us if they were females. In addition, if these rulers were affiliated to a Muslim minority, they would be more hesitant to suppress us for fear that they may be accused of doing so to subdue our religion. It may be for this reason that the successors of colonialism were more crushing and subduing than the colonialists themselves.

It may be for this reason too that the Khawarij preferred the leadership of the non-Qurashite so it would be easy for them to dethrone him. Furthermore, Nigeria’s Muslim generals were tougher with their people than the Christian civil ruler who succeeded them in democracy. The axioms of the Shari`ah-based policy have reported in the past that Allah (Exalted and Glorified be He) will grant victory to the just nation even if it is non-Muslim, and will not grant victory to the unjust nation even if it is Muslim. Hence, the main objective of leadership is the fulfillment of justice, efficiency, bringing about the interests of the people, and the prevention of harm to citizens. When we get away from the fury of controversy into the real state of affairs, we will immediately discover that indulging in such an issue is useless.

We therefore have to confront our real problems and take up our positions on the battlefield, not outside the battlefield. The battle of the Muslim Ummah today lies with despotism, division, international sovereignty, and despots and their heirs. Hence, you should remain on the battlefield. The real state of affairs witnesses the escape of believers from Muslim countries, which are ruled by unjust Muslims to non-Muslim countries, which are governed by those who express the will of their people. Since the opposite is not true, then you have to be alert!

In fact, the incidents we confront are very complicated and cannot be resolved by autocratic thought. The Islamists of Sudan found themselves under the yoke of the real state of affairs. Hence, they were obliged, in order to keep the unity of their homeland, to give concessions that seem to be momentous. Among these concessions are recognizing the right of self-determination for the inhabitants of the South, sharing power with them, submitting to the principle of citizenship as the basis of civil rights and the assumption of official posts. This results in giving non-Muslims the right to assume any post, including the post of head of state. So, why should we then move only under the yoke of necessity? Why do we not understand the requirements of our world and, hence, benefit from them and make use of them, instead of continuing to run after them?

The Muslim Ummah is the Guarantor
Among the reservations of some Islamists concerning democracy is accepting the will of the people through polls, as stated in the draft of the Muslim Brotherhood’s program. They suggested the establishment of a board from amongst senior Muslim scholars, to be in-charge of giving counsel to the People’s Assembly in all religious affairs without making their opinion obligatory upon the Assembly. However, counter-propaganda has interpreted the suggestion in the worst way by recalling the example of the ‘Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists’ and associating it with this suggestion. In light of this accusation, the program of the Muslim Brotherhood was read in a way that defaced all the important reform aspects which it suggested.

In this sense, it may be that the Arabic proverb ‘Baraqish plunged herself into misfortune’ can be applied to the presenters of this suggestion because of what they offered their opponents, who are waiting for opportunities to defame them, make people fear them, and present them as the ones who pounce upon the gains of a new community and want to give its reigns back to the clergy.

Again, the Muslim Brotherhood did not need to justify the agreement of laws with a constitution stipulating that Shari`ah is the primary source of legislation. Hence, consigning the task to an elected constitutional assembly or to the State Council, along with its efficient and experienced judges, would guarantee this task is carried out in a much better way than can be done by Azharite Sheikhs working in an ailing institution that was subjected to severe marginalization until it became, along with its sheikhdom, a source of scorn. 

It would have been more beneficial to spend that effort in saving the guardians of freedom such as the press, and the fairness of elections, as this would leave no space for despotism or the creation of institutions that are not of the people’s will.  Thus, there would be no reason to worry about Islam from the elected members who express the will of their Ummah. The real peril comes from the Pharaoh-like and Korah-like leaders. One of the priority issues of Prophet Muhammad was to release people from the shackles that bind them. Allah (Exalted and Glorified be He) says, (… He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them) (Al-A`raf 7:157)

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi is head of the Al-Nahda Islamic movement of Tunis and is one of the most important Islamic thinkers today. After obtaining political asylum, he has resided in Britain. He is considered one of the more pragmatic Islamic leaders and supporters of coexistence and cooperation among cultures.