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Islamic Democracy: Is Democracy Compatible with Islam?

The debate over the compatibility of Islam and democracy has reemerged. There have been several events throughout the Islamic world that have renewed people’s interest in the debate. Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has rolled back the country’s hard-won democracy.

As a result, experts have raised questions about the success of Arab Spring. The Taliban government in Afghanistan has completed a year since it took over. They have not held any elections and there are no signs they will allow for any democracy in Afghanistan.

Further, despite Joe Biden’s campaign rhetoric against the authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia, he recently visited Saudi. Biden met Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) without any mention of democracy. Biden wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post explaining why he was visiting Saudi Arabia.

America seems to have accepted that Saudi rulers are not going to change. Therefore, the US seeks to promote its interest in the autocratic regime in Saudi. One wonders, what happens to America’s promotion of democracy when it comes to the Middle East? America likes to be known as the promoter of democracy. However, in the Middle East and various other regions, it prefers autocratic regimes. In the case of the Middle East, perhaps the West thinks that democracy is not compatible with Islam. However, it is not entirely true. Islam is inherently democratic.

The Middle East and Democracy?

A consensus is emerging among experts that the primary inhibiting factor of democratization in the Middle East is the “resource curse”. However, some people still chose to blame Islam for being inconsistent with democracy because most Middle East countries are Muslim majority and autocratic. More to the point, , it is well-known that the bulk of Midde Eastern leaders are more answerable to foreign powers, e.g. the U.S., than to their own masses, and value the “legitimacy” that comes from foreign acceptance more than which results from their people’s acceptance.

No one is gainsaying the fact that dictators of Muslim majority countries exploit Islam to justify their autocratic rule. However, their justification must not be extended to claim that democracy itself is inconsistent with Islam.

Iqbal’s Islamic Democracy

Dr Mohammad Iqbal, a renowned Islamic political thinker, came up with the argument that democracy is not only thoroughly consistent with Islam but is also an important aspect of it. Iqbal argued for an Islamic democracy. He argued that the Islamic democracy would not only face up to but also address the challenges of Western democracy.

For Iqbal, democracy was how it ought to be and not how it is in the West.

In his opinion, democracy provided more space to accommodate the wishes and aspirations of most of the people. If the principles of Islam are applied to the Western democracy, it can become more democratic. Iqbal was aware that democracy cannot solve all modern problems. However, he believed that it could be refined to at least to overcome some of these problems. He wrote:   democratic government has attendant difficulties but these are difficulties which human experience elsewhere shows to be surmountable”.

Loyalty to God, not to Thrones

In connecting democracy and Islam, Iqbal rejected the idea of the separation of religion and state. Laying out his vision of Islamic democracy, he based it on two important legal tools in Islam – Ijtihad and Ijma. Iqbal describes Ijtihad as “to exert with a view to form an independent judgment on a legal question”. While Ijma means a consensus on a legal opinion.

Ijma, in Iqbal’s opinion, is “perhaps the most important legal notion in Islam. It could be transformed into a permanent legislative institution. Since Ijtihad “vigorously asserts the right of private judgement”, it would be fitting to transfer the power of Ijtihad to a legislative assembly which until now remained in the individual representatives of different schools.

To avoid any kind of mistakes on the questions of legal opinion, this assembly would be guided by a committee of learned men called Ulema. These elected representatives had no authority, but they were just interpreters of divine revelations.

Also, since Islam doesn’t accept any authority, Iqbal argued that Tawhid, which roughly translates to the oneness of God and forms the bedrock of monotheism, lets Muslims free. The principle o demands “loyalty to God, not to thrones”. It lets “man develop all the possibilities of his nature by allowing him as much freedom as practicable”.

Further, this legislature would only be bound by a minimal set of rules. Therefore, people will do most of the decision-making. Through Ijtihad and Ijma, Iqbal proposed that Muslims could one day govern themselves free from theological constraints. Iqbal further held that the legal order had to reflect the will of the popular. It should mirror itself in society. It had to adopt current values and principles as long as they accommodated the constitutional limitations of Tawhid and the finality of prophethood.

Equity, not Equality

Iqbal also suggested equity instead of equality in his vision for Islamic democracy. In coparcenary in Islam, a sister gets half of what a brother gets. While defending this position, Iqbal argued that this difference was not because Islam considers women inferior. It is due to the social position that the women in Islam occupy. Since a woman gets dower money from her husband and the responsibility to maintain her is wholly on the husband, it was equitable that she only gets a half in inheritance.

It is important to take note of this argument. While Western democracy treats everyone equally, everyone does not start at the same point, nor does everyone occupy the same social status in society. Iqbal argued on similar lines when he pointed out that democracy in the West had not brought any change and rulers were exploiting people in the name of democracy. It was up for grabs and people with power had seized it, becoming the same old exploitation disguised as democracy.

It was this quest to liberate democracy from centralizing and hegemonic tendencies that led Iqbal to put forward his vision of Islamic democracy.

The antidote to Nationalism?

Since the fundamental principles in Islam are Tawhid and finality of prophethood, these liberate Islamic democracy from problems of territoriality or ethnicity. Further, it has just one Caliph, who is again not some authority but only an interpreter. Therefore, Islamic democracy establishes a global country in which the terms of nationality and race are only for reference.

As such, Islamic democracy introduces a new order which could well serve as an antidote to nationalism and could “furnish a model for the final combination of humanity”. This is important because, since the dawn of the modern democratic era in the late 19th century, democracy has expressed itself through nation-states and national parliaments. But this arrangement is now under assault from both above and below. Such a system puts national interests first while global issues take a back seat.

Nation-states have failed to resolve global issues like climate change and nuclear threat that pose an existential threat to the planet. In this light, the new order proposed by Iqbal through Islamic democracy deserves attention and could well address the challenges of globalization.

Conclusion

With the caveats of Tawhid and the finality of prophethood, Iqbal laid out a concrete democratic model of Islamic democracy. Based on the legal tools provided by Islam, this could provide for a more democratic society than that of the West which could provide people with the greatest freedom possible. After all, it does not have any authority but only interpreters; it does not seek allegiance to a state or a nation but to God.