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A comparative approach to Islam and democracy

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Global Perspectives

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A comparative approach to Islam and democracy

Religion, particularly Islam, has become one of the most difficult subject areas to tackle in recent years. Contemporary culture, whether approached from the perspective of anthropology or theology, psychology or psychoanalysis, evaluates religion with empirical methods. On the one hand, religion is an inwardly experienced and felt phenomenon, one that, for the most part, is related to the permanent aspects of life. On the other hand, believers can see their religion as a philosophy, a set of rational principles, or mere mysticism. The difficulty increases in the case of Islam, for some Muslims and policy-makers consider and present it as a purely political, sociological, and economic ideology, rather than as a religion.

If we want to analyze religion, democracy, or any other system or philosophy accurately, we should focus on humanity and human life. From this perspective, religion in general, and Islam in particular, cannot be compared on the same basis with democracy or any other political, social, or economic system. Religion focuses primarily on the immutable aspects of life and existence, whereas political, social, and economic systems or ideologies concern only certain variable social aspects of our worldly life.

The aspects of life with which religion is primarily concerned are as valid today as they were at the dawn of humanity and will continue to be so in the future. Worldly systems change according to circumstances and so can be evaluated only according to their times. Belief in God, the hereafter, the prophets, the holy books, the angels, and divine destiny have nothing to do with changing times. Likewise, worship and morality's universal and unchanging standards have little to do with time and worldly life.

Therefore, when comparing religion or Islam with democracy, we must remember that democracy is a system that is being continually developed and revised. It also varies according to the places and circumstances where it is practiced. On the other hand, religion has established immutable principles related to faith, worship, and morality. Thus, only Islam's worldly aspects should be compared with democracy.

The main aim of Islam and its unchangeable dimensions affect its rules governing the changeable aspects of our lives. Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government or attempt to shape it. 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. If we approach the matter in this light and compare Islam with the modern liberal democracy of today, we will be better able to understand the position of Islam and democracy with respect to each other.

Democratic ideas stem from ancient times. Modern liberal democracy was born in the American (1776) and French Revolutions (1789-1799). In democratic societies, people govern themselves as opposed to being ruled by someone above. The individual has priority over the community in this type of political system, being free to determine how to live his or her own life. Individualism is not absolute, though. People achieve a better existence by living within a society and this requires that they adjust and limit their freedom according to the criteria of social life.

The Prophet says that all people are as equal as the teeth of a comb.[1] Islam does not discriminate based on race, color, age, nationality, or physical traits. The Prophet declared:

You are all from Adam, and Adam is from earth. O servants of God, be brothers [and sisters.]"[2]

Those who were born earlier, who have more wealth or power than others, or who belong to certain families or ethnic groups have no inherent right to rule others.

Islam also upholds the following fundamental principles:

  1. Power lies in truth, a repudiation of the common idea that truth relies upon power.
  2. Justice and the rule of law are essential.
  3. Freedom of belief and rights to life, personal property, reproduction, and health (both mental and physical) cannot be violated.
  4. The privacy and immunity of individual life must be maintained.
  5. No one can be convicted of a crime without evidence, or accused and punished for someone else's crime.
  6. An advisory system of administration is essential.

All rights are equally important, and the rights of the individual cannot be sacrificed for the sake of society. Islam considers a society to be composed of conscious individuals equipped with freewill and having responsibility toward both themselves and others. Islam goes a step further by adding a cosmic dimension. It sees humanity as the "motor" of history, contrary to the fatalistic approaches of some nineteenth century Western philosophies of history, such as dialectical materialism and historicism.[3] Just as the will and behavior of every individual determine the outcome of his or her life in this world and in the hereafter, a society's progress or decline is determined by the will, worldview, and lifestyle of its inhabitants. The Qur'an says:

God will not change the state of a people unless they change themselves (with respect to their beliefs, worldview, and lifestyle). (Ar-Rad 13:11)

In other words, each society holds the reins of its fate in its own hands. The prophetic tradition emphasizes this idea: "You will be ruled according to how you are."[4] This is the basic character and spirit of democracy; an idea which does not conflict with any Islamic principle.

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 systems are those that Islam assigns to society and classifies, in order of importance, as "absolutely necessary, relatively necessary, and commendable to carry out." The sacred text includes the following passages:

Establish, all of you, peace. (Al-Baqara 2:208)

Spend in the way of God and to the needy of the pure and good of what you have earned and of what We bring forth for you from the Earth. (Al-Baqara 2:267)

If some among your women are accused of indecency, you must have four witnesses (to prove it). (An-Nisa 4:15)

God commands you to give over the public trusts to the charge of those having the required qualities and to judge with justice when you judge people. (An-Nisa 4:58)

Observe justice as witnesses respectful for God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents and relatives. (An-Nisa 4:135)

If they (your enemies) incline to peace (when you are at war), you also incline to it. (Al-Anfal 8:61)

If a corrupt, sinful one brings you news (about others), investigate it so that you should not strike a people without knowing. (Al-Hujurat 49:6)

If two parties among the believers fight between themselves, reconcile them. (Al-Hujurat 49:9)

In short, the Qur'an addresses the whole community and assigns it almost all the duties entrusted to modern democratic systems.

People cooperate with one another by sharing these duties and establishing the essential foundations necessary to perform them. The government is composed of all of these basic elements. Thus, Islam recommends a government based on a social contract. People elect the administrators and establish a council to debate common issues. Also, the society as a whole participates in auditing the administration. During the rule of the first four caliphs (632-661) in particular, the fundamental principles of government mentioned above—including free elections—were fully observed. The political system was transformed into a sultanate after the death of Ali, the fourth caliph, due to internal conflicts and the global conditions at that time. Unlike the caliphate, power in the sultanate was passed down through the sultan's family. However, even though free elections were no longer held, societies maintained other principles that are found at the core of liberal democracy of today.

Islam is an inclusive religion. It is based on the belief in one God as the Creator, Lord, Sustainer, and Administrator of the universe. Islam is the religion of the whole universe. That is, the entire universe obeys the laws laid down by God; everything in the universe is "Muslim" and obeys God by submitting to His laws. Even a person who refuses to believe in God or who follows another religion has to be a Muslim perforce as far as bodily existence is concerned. Our entire life, from the embryonic stage to the body's dissolution into dust after death, every tissue of the muscles, and every limb of the body follows the course prescribed for each by God's laws. Thus, in Islam, God, nature, and humanity are neither remote from one another nor are they alien to one another. It is God who makes Himself known to humanity through nature and humanity itself, and nature and humanity are two books (of creation) through which each word of God is made known. This leads humankind to look upon everything as belonging to the same Lord, to whom it itself belongs, and therefore regarding nothing in the universe as being alien. His sympathy, love, and service do not remain confined to the people of a particular race, color, or ethnicity. The Prophet summed this up with the command, "O servants of God, be brothers (and sisters)!"

A separate but equally important point is that Islam recognizes all religions that came before it. It accepts all the prophets and books sent to different peoples in different epochs of history. Not only does it accept them, but it also regards belief in them as an essential principle of being Muslim. In this way, it acknowledges the basic unity of all religions. A Muslim is at the same time a true follower of Abraham, Moses, David, all the other Hebrew prophets and Jesus. This belief explains why both Christians and Jews enjoyed their religious rights under the rule of Islamic governments throughout history.

The Islamic social system seeks to form a virtuous society and thereby gain God's approval. It recognizes right, not force, as the foundation of social life. Hostility is unacceptable. Relationships must be based on belief, love, mutual respect, assistance, and understanding instead of conflict and the pursuit of personal interests. Social education encourages people to pursue lofty ideals and to strive for perfection, not just to run after their own desires. Justified calls for unity and virtues create mutual support and solidarity, and belief secures brotherhood and sisterhood. Encouraging the soul to attain perfection brings happiness in both worlds.

Democracy has developed over time. Just as it has gone through many different stages in the past, it will continue to evolve and improve in the future. 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 the peak of perfection and bring even more happiness to humanity. Islamic principles of equality, tolerance, and justice can help it do just this.

* This article originally appeared in SAIS Review, 21:2 (Summer-Fall 2001):133-38.
[1] Abu Shuja' Shirawayh ibn Shahrdar al-Daylami, Al-Firdaws bi-Ma'thur al-Khitab [The Heavenly Garden Made Up of the Selections from the Prophet's Addresses], Beirut, 1986, Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiya, 4:300.
[2] For the second part of the hadith see the sections "Nikah" (marriage Contract) in Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari, ed., al-Jami' al-Sahih [A Collection of the Prophet's Authentic Traditions], Istanbul: al-Maktabat al-Islamiya, n.d., ch. 45; "Birr wa Sila" (Goodness and Visiting the Relatives) in Imam Abu Husayn Muslim ibn Hajjaj, ed., al-Jami' al-Sahih, op. cit., ch. 23; and for the first part see "Tafsir" (The Qur'anic Commentary) and "Manaqib" (The Virtues of the Prophet and His Companions) in Abu 'Isa Muhammad ibn 'Isa al-Tirmidhi, al-Jami' al-Sahih, Beirut, Dar al Ihya al-Turath al-'Arabi, n.d., chs. 49 and 74, respectively. The original text in Arabic does not include the word "sisters" in the command. However, the masculine form used refers to both men and women, as is the rule in many languages. An equivalent in English would be "humankind," which refers to both men and women. By saying "O servants of God," the Prophet also means women, because both men and women are equally servants of God.
[3] See Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, trans. Sabri Orman, Istanbul, Insan Yayinlari, 1985.
[4] 'Ala al-Din 'Ali al-Muttaqi al-Hindi, Kanz al-'Ummal fi Sunan al-Aqwal wa al-Af'al [A Treasure of the Laborers for the Sake of the Prophet's Sayings and Deeds], Beirut, Mu'assasat al-Risala, 1985, 6:89.