Democracy and Islam

Based on what I have learned and researched throughout this course on Islam and Democracy, which include four examples of arguments regarding Islamic principles which illustrate the compatibility of Islam and Democracy and these include are the Islamic principles of Consultation (shura), the Quranic injunction:”there shall be no compulsion of religion” found in Sura (verse) 256, Pluralism in law and practice ( the dhimmi system), and Independent reasoning about faith (ijtihad). However, in class we also discussed arguments against this compatibility of Islam and Democracy which include Liberal Social Ontology(methodological individualism), the Communitarian critique of Liberal Social Ontology, Rise of identity (anti-liberal) politics, and the differences with regards to Islam’s acceptance of Public-Private distinction of the role of religion in politics in Islam and Liberal Democracy..

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Firstly, the Islamic principle of consultation (shura) is an example that Muslim intellectuals such as Abdu argue exemplifies the compatibility of Islam and Democracy. This principle is based the idea that the ruler should consult the leader of the community and the community of believers (the umma) had the duty to obey the ruler, Muslim Writer Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) who identified traditional concepts of Islamic thought with modern Europe through his exemplification of the Islamic principle of Shura being equal to a parliamentary democracy. Abduh identified this political rule with a limited constitutional monarchy.

In addition to, the Quranic injunction “there shall be no compulsion of religion” found in Sura (verse) 256 is argued by Tanzanian Muslim Author Abdulaziz Sachedina (1942-Present) and Tunisian Muslim Author Rashid Ghannouchi (1941-Present) to support the compatibility of Islam and Democracy. Sachedina argues that no one can separate one’s personal individual relationship with the divine as mentioned by Verse 256 of the Quran and Ghannouchi argues that God’s will revealed in Islamic law implies human rights and this verse illustrates elements of religious and democratic pluralism which can be found in Islam. As an Islamic concept Ghannouchi connects this with Human rights.

Although, some people argue that the Sharia does not provide for religious pluralism, some Muslim writers and thinkers argue the Islamic principle of (the dhimmi system) which illustrates the ideals that Pluralism in law and practice illustrates Islam’s compatibility with Democracy. Historically, dhimmis were known as non-muslims who enjoyed mutual rights and protections as non-Muslims living under Muslim rule and paid a Jizya or poll tax in exchange for living under Muslim rule during the Early Caliphates of the 7th-15th century.

Tunisian Muslim Writer, Politician, and Thinker Rashid Ghannouchi (1941-present) is the founder and spiritual leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party and he argues for the compatibility of Islam with Democracy through his advocacy for harmonizing Pluralism, Islam, and Democracy through his school of thought and his writings. In addition to, Ghannouchi argues historically the dhimmi system is an Islamic principle that allows for the compatibility of Islam and Democracy and allows for both democracy and pluralism to exist in Muslim societies because it is a principle in Islam which allows for non believers and believers of the faith to be able to coexist with mutual rights in Muslim society.

Similarly, another example of Islamic principle that I would like to discuss is Ijtihad which means Independent reasoning about faith. Muslim Intellectual Muhammad Abduh emphasized on Legitimate sphere ijtihad, of human judgment based in accordance with certain principles based on the the community’s interest. Abduh discusses how Ijtihad allowed for human interpretation of the faith based on the community’s interests through the notion of when a text is clear nothing is said, but if a text illustrates something that is not clear, then it is left up to the communitys interests on how to interpret the text. In such cases, Abduh illustrates traditional rules and interpretations are not sacred, but rather human customs and because the Quran and Hadith laid down mostly general principles, Abduh argues that the Sharia leaves it up to men to apply these principles to all the circumstances of life.

However, arguments against the compatibility of Islam and Democracy include Liberal ethical individualism which is based on how Individuals should be free to choose and pursue their own conceptions of the good life (Liberal Ethics) and emphasizes on the individual over the community. Another example in support of incompatibility we discussed in class is the communitarian critique of liberal social ontology in which the communitarian argument is that ”liberal democracies breed citizens whose individualistic, self-focused views and behavior are destructive of community”. While on the other hand, one aspect of Islam is that the collective trumps the individual as opposed to the communitarian argument on individualistic nature of Liberal Democracies. Another argument against the compatibility of Islam and Democracy is the rise of identity anti-liberal politics which includes no presumption of a plurality of individuals, but rather the argument that there are no sovereign individuals, but only “bearers” of different “identities” because human beings are argued to be tribal by nature and anti-liberal politics argues that liberal democracy asks individuals to suppress these impulses of identity. This conflicts with the unity of the Umma claimed under the community based aspect of Islam which emphasizes on the Umma as a single Muslim community. Another example, to argue for this incompatibility is the role of Islam in the Public-Private distinction in the role of religion in politics in liberal democracy because some versions of Islam will not “respect” public-private distinction and because some of its adherents want to see its strictures and regulations enacted in every corner of daily life and this challenges the public-private distinction which is essential when it comes to the separation of church and state in a Liberal Democracy.

Concluding, what I learned from this exercise, and the arguments which illustrate support for either the compatibility and incompatibility of Islam and Democracy is that this is a very diverse topic and that an intersection between the topic of Islam and Democracy encompasses many aspects with regards to politics, religion, and culture. I ask myself again, Are Islam and Democracy compatible? Based on all the arguments presented, yes I do see Democracy being compatible with Islam in the sense that religious pluralism was a part of historical Muslim society and that elements of Liberal Democracy can be found within the Quranic texts to support both religious and political pluralism, but I think the relationship between political and religious authorities in Muslim societies whose combination of power has led to a rise in inequality and authoritarianism in contemporary Muslim societies and these along with the wide plethora of social power, control, and influence by the Ulama (religious authorities) have over the majority of Muslims illustrates an impediment that I anticipate will be difficult to achieve when it comes to bridging the gap between Islam and Democracy and in order to lead the way for both Religious and Democratic Pluralism to thrive in Contemporary Muslim societies.

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