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Published: Tuesday September 10, 2013 MYT 8:19:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday September 10, 2013 MYT 8:20:42 AM

Islam and democracy

To understand this discourse, one needs to know the point of divergence between Islam and democracy and how certain practices in democracy may not be acceptable to Islam.

THE discourse on Islam and democracy has always been vibrant, whether it is in the Muslim world or even among scholars and practitioners of the democracy in the West.

The reason behind this is that Islam, as a religion, has some basic principles that might not be compatible to the sets of idealisms pursued by democracy. However, in order to understand this discussion, one needs to know the point of divergence between Islam and democracy and can practices in democracy be acceptable in Islam?

Basically, there are three perspectives on the relationship between Islam and democracy.

First, there are those who reject democracy outrightly, claiming that democracy and its secular nature are actually legacies of western imperialism on Muslims states.

Second, there are groups that embrace democracy in its entirety, believing that religion should remain outside the political sphere.

Finally, there are those who differentiate democracy as a political mechanism for forming legitimate governments from it being a set of values and principles for individuals to hold on to.

Modern democracy is a political reality that besieges most free nations today. It has evolved through history since the ancient Greek period, resurfaced in importance and modernised during the revolutions in America, Britain and France and further post-modernised through periods of world wars and the new world order.

Democracy also has many forms ranging from parliamentary, federalism and America’s very own. Some may be particular in its process and forms but many modern democracies today are very concerned about the fundamentals of democratic principles: sovereignty of the people, individual liberty and equality.

Leon P. Baradat, in his book, Political Ideologies: Their Origins and Impact, categorises these as process democrats and principles democrats. Baradat explains that process democrats view democracy as a form of decision-making and the rule of majority.

They claim that there is no real philosophy or theory of democracy. Principle democrats on the other hand, argue that democracy has a strong theoretical foundation and the procedure or process of democracy is secondary to the philosophical objectives of democracy.

In Islam, politics remains in the realms of the religion. This reflects the exact feature of the religion as a way of life that encompasses all areas of human interactions including his/her interaction with Allah the Almighty and his/her interaction with fellow human beings.

Therefore, politics in Islam must meet the objectives of the Shari’ah (Maqasid Shari’ah) which includes the preservation of the religion, life, mind, offspring and property.

In analysing the correlation between Islam and politics, Allal Al-Fassi explains that: “The general higher objective of Islamic Law is to populate and civilise the earth and preserve the order of peaceful coexistence therein; to ensure the earth ongoing well-being and usefulness through the piety of those who have been placed there as God’s vicegerents; to ensure that people conduct themselves justly, with moral probity and with integrity in thought and action, and that they reform that which needs reform on earth, tap its resources, and plan for the good of all.”

Several Islamic scholars believe that the essence of democratic process is actually compatible with Islamic principles. Prof Khurshid Ahmad, in his take on Islam and democracy, argues that Muslims should understand democracy as “rights of a people to self-determination and self-fulfillment” and this is in line with Islam. Meanwhile, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi firmly states:

“The tools and guarantees created by democracy are as close as can ever be to the realisation of the political principles brought to this earth by Islam to put a leash on the ambitions and whims of rulers.”

It is further agreed by many contemporary Islamic scholars that democratic tools and principles of elections, consultations, consensus and independent reasoning are also central in Islam.

The acceptance of democracy in Islam has largely been on its basis as a political process and form of political system. Islamic scholars see no problem in recognising the term democracy in this specific Islamic viewpoint. Even principles of equality, justice and human dignity are not alien to Islam.

However, the most important element that should surround this relationship between Islam and democracy is the understanding of the Tawhidic framework that ultimate sovereignty only belongs to God and the roles of human beings as His khalifah (vicegerents) on earth.

Realising this point of departure on the principles of liberalism, secularism and people sovereignty in democracy from the absolute sovereignty of God in Islam, how then can Islam position itself in modern democracy today?

One thing for sure, Muslims must realise that democracy is a mechanism, not a destination and not even a destiny. Although it is a political reality especially in those areas of the Muslim world that were once colonies of Western imperialists, there must be boundaries to the acceptance of this reality.

Throughout history, we have seen failures of democratic governments which brought about discussions on new forms of democracy, hence indicating that countries have freedom to determine democratic practices suitable to them. Even western democracy was born out of the polemics and conflicts that plagued the western world.

Therefore, on positioning Islam in democracy of the Muslim world today, Muslims must be critical enough to adopt the democratic principles that would best suit the conditions, history and heritage of the Muslim world.

On the other hand, Muslims’ acceptance of democracy as a tool for effective participatory in politics and means for governance must be acknowledged and respected.

Weaknesses and failure of democracy that we see happening in some parts of the Muslim world today are not about the compatibility between Islam and democracy but more about those who destroy the system under the pretext of democratic rights and liberties.

> Enizahura Abdul Aziz is Senior Research Officer at Ikim’s Centre for Study of Shari’ah, Law and Politics. The views expressed here are entirely the author’s own.

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