Before we explore the relationship between Islam and democracy, it is important to understand what exactly the idea of democracy entails because too often the notion of democracy is confused with Western culture and society. As such, analysts often dismiss the compatibility of Islam with democracy, arguing that Islam and secularism are opposite forces, that rule of God is not compatible with rule of man, and that Muslim culture lacks the liberal social attitudes necessary for free, democratic societies to exist.
Arguments that dismiss the notion of an Islamic democracy presuppose that democracy is a non-fluid system that only embraces a particular type of social and cultural vision. However, democracy, like Islam, is a fluid system that has the ability to adapt to various societies and cultures because it is built on certain universally acceptable ideas.
So, what is democracy? In its dictionary definition, democracy is “government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.” As such, elections that express popular consent, freedom of political and social mobilization, and equality of all citizens under the rule of law become essential components of a healthy, functioning democracy.
Those who argue against the compatibility of Islam and democracy usually begin by saying that a democracy gives sovereignty or power of rule to the people, while Islam gives sovereignty or power of rule to God, which would not allow for a “government by the people.” In other words, these skeptics believe that the opposite of democracy in relation to a religious political system must be theocracy, meaning the rule of God on earth by a religious authority or class. However, this argument presupposes that there is a single religious authority or class within the Islamic tradition that has special access to God’s will and therefore has the right and power to impose divine will on the land. This is where the argument fails in relation to Islam, because the Islamic tradition, at least in the majority Sunni teaching, does not recognize a pope-like figure, nor does it preach the establishment of a religious class that has special access to divine will.
In fact, to the contrary, it can be argued that the Qur’an warns against the establishment of a religious class. The Qur’an says that past religious communities took their religious leaders [for their lords beside God] (At-Tawbah 9:31) and accuses many in the religious class of Jews and Christians of stealing people’s wealth and turning people [away from the path of God] (At-Tawbah 9:34). Furthermore, Muslims believe that after Prophet Muhammad there is no one who has direct access to God’s will, and therefore no one person or group has the legitimacy or authority to claim a pope- or priesthood-like status in the Muslim community. As such, Islam’s political system is not a theocracy.
There is no doubt that an Islamic political system would be bound by the laws, principles, and spirit of the Qur’an and Sunnah, which would serve as the overarching sources of a constitution in an Islamic state. Furthermore, violating or going directly against any sacred teaching of Islam could not be tolerated in an Islamic political system, for doing so would be going against the sources of the constitution. So, in this sense God is recognized as the sole giver of law.
However, implementing the laws of God, as articulated in the Qur’an and Sunnah, necessitates the role of man who is given the position of God’s vicegerent or representative on earth (Al-Baqarah 2:30) because of his superior intellect, ability to acquire knowledge, and ability to exercise free will. All of these God-given qualities enable man not only to implement sacred law, but also to interpret sacred law and derive from sacred sources the wise principles that form the basis of new laws needed for an ever-changing world with new ethical and moral complexities.
As such, the Islamic political system does not entail a struggle or competition for power between God and man. Rather, God and man function with a unified purpose to bring social benefit and civilization-enhancing laws to the world. Simply put, God is the giver of law in Whom sole authority rests, while man, as a collective body, interprets and implements these laws as God’s representatives on earth. As such, the democratic ideal of a “government by the people” is compatible with the Qur’anic understanding of man’s role on earth, and therefore compatible with the notion of an Islamic democracy. It is important to remember, however, that just as man’s ability to govern is shaped and limited by the founding constitution in a secular democracy, the sacred sources of Islam shape and limit man’s ability to govern within an Islamic democracy.
Now, if a government is by the people, then it only makes sense that the people choose or elect those who will govern on their behalf. Is the notion of elections compatible with Islamic teachings? The answer to this question can be found in the Qur’an’s insistence on using shura, or mutual consultation, in deciding communal affairs (Aal `Imran 3:159, Ash-Shura 42:38), which would include choosing, or if you will, electing leaders to represent and govern on the community’s behalf.
Interestingly, a model exists in Islamic history for Muslims in using mutual consultation as a process of selecting a new leader. When Prophet Muhammad was on his deathbed, many of his Companions urged him to name a successor who would lead the community, but the Prophet refused to do so—a clear indication that he wanted the next leader to be chosen through mutual consultation rather than be imposed upon the community. As such, when the Prophet passed away, the most pressing issue for the community was to choose its next leader. Three Companions were nominated to take the post of khalifah (caliph) and in the end, the Prophet’s closest Companion, Abu Bakr, was chosen to be the community’s new leader. Abu Bakr and his three successors, known collectively as the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, were also chosen in a similar fashion that reflected popular consent. So the idea of choosing a leader in accordance with popular will is certainly not a new idea in the Islamic tradition. As such, the notion of elections is compatible with the idea of an Islamic democracy.
Accountability of Government
However, electing leaders to govern is not enough. Holding those who govern accountable is also an essential principle of democracy if government by the people is to work. First, the Qur’anic teaching of mutual consultation does not end in selecting leaders but forms an essential part of governance in which leaders must conduct their affairs in a non-dictatorial manner. Second, leaders are not left to govern based on their own whims and desires; rather their governance must be in accordance with the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah (An-Nisaa’ 4:59), which form the Islamic State’s constitution. Third, the Qur’an mandates that leaders pay back their trusts to those entitled to it (An-Nisaa’ 4:58), meaning that leaders are responsible to the citizens of the land.
Both Abu Bakr and `Umar ibn Al-Khattab, second caliph of Islam, reflected this notion of accountability in their inaugural addresses when they said to their community, “If I follow the right path, follow me. If I deviate from the right path, correct me so that we are not led astray.” So certainly the role and responsibility of the people within a society extends far beyond choosing a leader within the Islamic political system.
Equality and Freedom
The final two pieces to the puzzle of forming a functioning democracy are the essential notions of equality and freedom in society, without which a people cannot truly govern themselves.
The Qur’an says what means [O humankind, we created you from a male and a female, and We made you races and tribes for you to get to know each other] (Al-Hujurat 49:13). In another verse, the Qur’an says what means [And among the signs of God is the … diversity of your languages and colors] (Ar-Rum 30:22). These verses and many more make human equality in society and before God an essential teaching of the Qur’an and a core characteristic of an Islamic ethos. As such, any Islamic political system would necessitate the respect for equality and diversity of all men and women.
We are all born free, which makes freedom our destiny. This is reflected strongly in the Qur’an’s understanding of human free will, which distinguishes man from the rest of God’s creation. The notion of free will necessitates freedom of choice, and this is why the Qur’an so emphatically states [There is no compulsion in religion] (Al-Baqarah 2:256). The Qur’an also encourages the free formation and mobilization of social and political groups when it says [And let there be a people among you who invite to good and enjoin what is fair, and forbid what is wrong] (Aal `Imran 3:104).
Of course freedom, just as in any other functioning society, is not absolute. There are moral, ethical, and spiritual guidelines for what a society can and cannot tolerate as part of freedom. Islam does teach a rather conservative morality on most issues ranging from modesty laws to business transaction laws, especially in comparison to Western cultural trends. But if the universality of democracy and its fluidity are true, then it must be able embrace Islam’s value system, which itself is based on universal truths and social benefit for humanity.