June 2, 2011

Reconciling Democracy and Islam

Muzaffar K Awan, M.D.

Cover Image: Fethullah Gulen on democracy and Islam
‘Allamah Iqbal’s (b. 1877 d. 1938) and Fethullah Gülen’s (b.1938) ideas about democracy in the Islamic context are very similar. ‘Allamah Iqbal had indeed made a proposal of spiritual democracy to the ummah in his “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” in his 6th lecture in 1930. We find that many Islamic scholars of today have accepted the idea of democracy and Islam being compatible. Iqbal indeed did not like the idea of importing the Western democratic system and transplanting it as such in the Islamic world because of its extreme secular stance. He still suggested in his writings that there was no alternative to democracy in the Muslim World. Iqbal observed that if the foundations of democracy were to rest upon spiritual and moral values, it would be the best political system for the world. He wrote in the “The New Era” July 28th, 1917 issue: “Democracy was born in Europe from economic renaissance that took place in most of its societies. But democracy in the Islamic context is not to be developed from the idea of economic advancement alone; it is also a spiritual principle that comes from the fact that every individual is a source of power whose potentialities are to be developed through virtue and character.”

‘Allamah Iqbal further stated that a universal democratic system is to be established on the principles of freedom, equality, tolerance and justice. Therefore the principles of democratic rules are to be reconciled to the fundamental aspects of Islam.

Gülen argues that democracy in spite of its shortcomings is now the only viable political system, and people should strive to modernize and consolidate democratic institutions in order to build a society where individual rights and freedoms are respected and protected, where equal opportunity for all is more than a dream. According to Gülen, mankind has not yet designed a better governing system than democracy.1

Like Iqbal, Gülen also maintains that as a political and governing system, democracy is, at present, the only alternative left in the world. However, in his understanding democracy, in its current shape, is not an ideal that has been reached but a method and an ongoing process “that is being continually developed and revised”.2

He argues that “it’s a process of no return that must develop and mature. Democracy one day will attain a very high level. But we have to wait for the interpretation of time”.3 Gülen powerfully states that:

Democracy has developed over time. Just as it has gone through many different stages, it will continue to go through further stages in the future to improve itself. Along the way, it will be shaped into a more humane and just system, one based on righteousness and reality. If human beings are considered as a whole, without disregarding the spiritual dimension of their existence and their spiritual needs, and without forgetting that human life is not limited to this mortal life and that all people have a great craving for eternity, democracy could reach its peak of perfection and bring even more happiness to humanity. Islamic principles of equality, tolerance, and justice can help it do just that.4

Gülen does not see a contradiction between “Islamic administration” and “democracy”:

As Islam holds individuals and societies responsible for their own fate, people must be responsible for governing themselves. The Qur’an addresses society with such phrases as: “O people!” and “O believers!” The duties entrusted to modern democratic system are those that Islam refers to society and classifies, in order of importance, as “absolutely necessary, relatively necessary, and commendable to carry out.” People cooperate with one another in sharing these duties and establishing the essential foundations necessary to perform them. The government is composed of all of these foundations. Thus, Islam recommends a government based on a social contract. People elect the administrators, and establish a council to debate issues. Also, the society as a whole participates in auditing the administration.5

Islam, for Gülen, is not a political project to be implemented from top-down. It is a repository of discourse and practices for the evolution of a just and ethical civic society. He strongly states that:

Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government. Instead, Islam establishes fundamental principles that orient a government’s general character, leaving it to the people to choose the type and form of government according to time and circumstances.6

Because he is critical of the abuse of Islam in politics, he constantly criticizes discourses, rhetoric, practices and policies of the “political Islam”.

Thus in Turkey, his native country, Gülen, while encouraging everybody to participate in elections and to vote, never spells out any one particular party or candidate. He gives the guidelines, such as honesty, being truly democratic, being suitable for the job, the socio-political conditions and so on. In any party, one could find such candidates. At the end of the day, if every voter behaves in this manner, all the elected will be in tune with Gülen’s ideals, regardless of the party affiliation. Most importantly, as he does not categorically affiliate with any of the parties, they will always be hopeful and will try to earn his sympathy. Moreover, his supra-party discourse will easily attract everybody from all walks of life.

Regarding an Islamic state, it is obvious that he is in favor of a bottom-up approach and his desire is to transform individual (as did ‘Allamah Iqbal) as an ideal that cannot be fulfilled by force or from the top.7

As noted above, he advocates an Anatolian-Islam or Anatolian-Sufism that puts an emphasis on tolerance and Turkish modernity as an alternative to Saudi or Iranian versions or images, emphasizing that this discourse of Islam is not in contradiction with the modern world. His discourse represents a kind of “moderate Islam”; even though he strongly rejects such a definition as in his view Islam (based on the Qur’an and Sunnah) is already moderate.

True Islam engages others and searches for common grounds through shared universal values such as justice, freedom, peace, rule of law, human rights, and democracy.

However, on the issue of Islam and democracy, one should remember that the former is a divine and heavenly religion, while the latter is a form of government developed by humans.

Democracy itself is not a unified system of government; it should not be presented without an affiliation. In many cases, another term, such as social, Islamic, liberal, Christian, or radical is added as a prefix. One form of democracy labeled as such may not be considered by the other as democracy.

Generally speaking democracy is frequently mentioned in its unaffiliated form, ignoring the plural nature of democracies. In the Muslim World, there are those who speak of Islam as tantamount to politics, which is, in fact, only one of the many perceptions of Islam. Such perceptions have resulted in varied positions on the subject of reconciliation of Islam and democracy. Islam and democracy are not to be seen as being opposites, it is evident that they may differ in important ways.

According to one of these conceptualizations, Islam is both a religion and a political system. It has expressed itself in all fields of life, including the individual, family, social, economical and political spheres. From this angle, to confine Islam to only faith and prayer is to narrow the field of its interactions and its interpenetrations. Many ideas have been developed from this perspective; and more recently these have often caused Islam to be perceived as an ideology. According to some critics, such an approach made Islam merely one of many political ideologies.

The vision of Islam as an ideology is totally against the spirit of Islam that promotes the rule of law and openly rejects oppression against any segment of society. This spirit also promotes actions for the betterment of society in accordance with the view of the majority. Majority of those who follow a balanced /moderate view of Islam believe that it is much better to consider real Islam compatible and complementary to democracy instead of thinking of Islam as an ideology. Such an Islam will play a more important role in the Muslim world through enriching local forms of democracy and extending it in such a way that helps humans develop an understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds. Iqbal and Gülen both believed that Islam would enrich democracy in answering the deeper needs of humans, such as spiritual satisfaction, which cannot be fulfilled except through the remembrance of the Eternal One.

There are those who pronounce, in the name of religion, that Islam and democracy cannot be reconciled. This perception of mutual incompatibility extends to some pro-democracy groups as well. The argument that is presented is based on the idea that the religion of Islam is based on the rule of God, while democracy is based on the view of humans, which opposes it. Again in Iqbal’s and Gülen’s understanding, however, there is another idea that has become a victim of such a superficial comparison between Islam and democracy. The phrase, “sovereignty belongs to the nation unconditionally,” does not mean that sovereignty has been taken away from God and given to humans. On the contrary, it means that sovereignty is entrusted to humans by God, that is to say, it has been taken from individual oppressors and dictators and given to the community members. To a certain extent, the era of the rightly-guided Caliphs of Islam illustrates the application of this norm of democracy. Cosmologically speaking, there is no doubt that God is the sovereign of everything in the universe. Our thoughts and plans are always under the controlling power of such an Omnipotent. However, this does not mean that we have no will, inclination or choice. Humans are free to make choices in their personal lives. They are also free to make choices with regard to their social and political actions. Some may hold different types of elections to choose lawmakers and executives. There is not only one way to hold an election; as we can see, this was true even during the time of the Prophet of Islam, and during the time of the Four rightly guided Caliphs. The election of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr (rta), was different from that of the second Caliph, ‘Umar (rta), and Uthman’s (rta)election was different from that of ‘Ali (rta), the fourth Caliph. Only God knows the right method of election.

Democracy is certainly not an immutable form of governing. Looking at the history of its development, one can see blunders which are followed by corrections and improvements. Some have even spoken of thirty types of democracy. Due to ongoing changes and evolution of democracy, some have looked at this system with reluctance. The Muslim world has not always viewed democracy with great enthusiasm. The lack of enthusiasm, the despotic rulers in the Islamic world who see democracy as a threat to their despotism, presented yet another obstacle to democracy in Muslim nations.

Islam actually links democracy to the core Islamic value of justice and thus human rights and freedom. In the light of Islam, justice is an absolute and not a relative value. It must be adhered to in all cases and under all circumstances, against enemies as well as with friends – with friends, magnanimity; with enemies, tolerance. Even if the banner of Islam is held high and its teachings adhered to but justice is not achieved, the message is emptied of content; and the means have failed to achieve the ends.

The slogans of freedom and justice are popular in the current era. However, justice is not the name of any clearly-defined activity; it can serve as an adjective for many activities and is a very abstract and difficult subject. A powerful, and mental effort is required if someone is to use it correctly. We have smaller concepts, such as freedom that are easily understood.

A great deal more can be said about justice. It is an important ethical and political concept. Ethics and politics are closely related and their relation is through the concept of justice, and justice heads the lists of ethical concepts and the political concepts that become intimately intertwined. That is why justice has been discussed so much from Plato’s time to the present day. In order to make sense out of the concept of justice, and to make it clearer, as they say these days, to put it into action, we should use a principle that exists in all the world’s cultures, “Do unto others as you would like done to you.” This expression definitely points to one of the most important aspects of justice, not to say its essence and substance. At least it has very few negative aspects: If you don’t want to have your freedoms limited, then don’t limit the freedoms of others; if you don’t want to be tortured, then don’t torture others; if you don’t want others to insult you for any reason, then don’t insult others. Justice has clearer practical connotations and it can’t be interpreted in just any remote way. This expression exists in all the cultures of the world.

It’s appropriate at this point to comprehend whether justice can be realized at all without democracy. After all, justice also has to be observed in the distribution of power. Justice doesn’t just apply to economic resources. We can’t say that justice should be observed in the distribution of economic resources but power should remain the monopoly of the elite.

This is certainly true. In fact, democracy is the political face of justice. Justice has several faces: an economic face; a judicial face; and at least one political face. Of course, it has an inner face too; i.e. moderation within one’s being. This was the justice that was most emphasized by our ‘ulema in the past. Put more simply, we need both internal freedom and external freedom. This is the point Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi was making when he said: “O kings, we’ve killed the enemy without/but a more evil enemy resides within.”

In order to arrive at this inner justice, people in the past believed that if the ruler is just, he will extend this justice over society and over every single individual, and will bring them into the orbit of this justice. But the theories about justice that have emerged over the past two, three centuries, and the political conduct of rulers, whether just or unjust, have shown that it does not suffice for the ruler to be just. We need to look for another method and that method came to be known as “democracy”. It says: “Let there be a separation of powers. Let there be a strong judiciary. Let the people’s votes play a part in choosing rulers.” Democracy can be summarized in three steps: installing rulers, criticizing rulers and dismissing rulers. When the people can trek these three steps, we can say that we have achieved political justice.

And since these steps can’t be taken without freedom, then justice hinges on freedom.

In order for the people to be able to choose, they must be free. In order to criticize, they must be free. In order to be able to dismiss, they must be free. People who are captives cannot do this; nor would it have any value if they did. People who are autonomous can exercise their will and their reason to install a ruler and dismiss a ruler. And when we speak in this context of installing, criticizing and dismissing, it means hiring someone; i.e. not just making someone a delegate, but hiring them, paying them, giving them duties and saying that if you don’t perform your duties, we’ll send you packing.

In this sense, justice and freedom become interdependent. As Abdulkarim Soroush has said this in many of his writings and speeches8: freedom is a subdivision of justice. If justice is to be realized, then freedom too must definitely be realized because freedom is a component of justice. Freedom is not a rival or an alternative to justice, contrary to what some people have suggested. This is really a false notion. Freedom is a component of justice. When there’s no freedom, justice hasn’t been realized, and when justice is fully realized, then freedom will definitely be realized. One of the definitions of justice is that we must give all rights their due and freedom is a right. Hence if you want to respect all rights, you must unavoidably also attend to freedom and respect it too.

Freedom is one of the most important components of justice. In the past, when there were debates about inner spiritual justice, freedom was considered an important part of inner justice. When we speak about social justice, freedom is one of its components. Rumi says: “Since the Prophet guided us freely/ prophets bequeath us freedom.” In truth, prophets came to give us freedom. Of course, we know that Rumi was not talking about political freedom in the modern sense. He was speaking about that inner freedom. But note that he uses the word “freedom”. Rumi is someone who believed that inner justice and equilibrium were the highest order of perfection for human beings. Yet, when he wants to speak about the various aspects of prophethood, he deems freedom and liberation to be its most important aspect. Hence, whether it is within the self or in the external world, in society, freedom is the strong component of justice and we must strive for it. And freedom is not an abstract concept; it has clear consequences in society, and if you prevent them, you can easily be criticized and challenged to explain why you didn’t give freedom its due.

We must aim for democracy of just outcomes and not simply procedures. This position clearly precludes the uncritical imitations of the West. We must balance our appreciation for the nuts and bolts of Western democracies with a discriminating sense of their limitations, particularly in terms of the unjust outcomes that even the most advanced democracies tolerate. We must pay attention to the destruction of values and culture by unbridled consumerism and the unacceptable disparities in material circumstances and life chances that characterize all of the Western democracies including the United States.

Today we have before us the greatest challenges—to help breakdown the walls between the East and the West, between the North and the South, between Muslims and Christians, between all religions, all civilizations and all cultures, and to bridge the great divide and recognize our common humanity and common values. Certainly, the interactions of Islam and the modern world does not mean clash of civilizations. The Islamic world committed to the vision of contemporary universal civilization on the globe and crowned with the ideal interpretations of Islam, democracy and secularism is bound to bring about reconciliation and integration.

For the past several centuries, the Muslim world has been experiencing a severe crisis. The current pronounced political, ideological, and religious polarizations in the world have unfortunately been posing an increasingly serious threat to the international peace and security. Enlightened Muslim intellectuals in the likes of Iqbal and Gülen have offered some valuable suggestions and solutions to those seeking a way out.

  1. For details, please see, Yilmaz, Ihsan, Muslim laws, politics and society in modern nation-states (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), chapter 8.
  2. Gülen, Fethullah, A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy, SAIS Review, Volume XXI, No. 2 Summer-Fall 2001, pp. 133-138, 134.
  3. Unal and Williams, op. cit., 150.
  4. Ibid., 137.
  5. Gülen, A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy , op. cit., 135-136.
  6. Ibid., 134.
  7. Altınoğlu, Ebru, Fethullah Gülen’s Perception of State and Society (Istanbul: Bosphorus University, 1999), 102.
  8. ‘Ali Asghar Seyyedabadi; An interview with Abdulkarim Soroush: Democracy, Justice, Fundamentalism and Religious Intellectualism, December, 12, 2005. http://www.drsoroush.com/ 
Published on monthly Renaissance journal, August 2006 issue

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