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November 5, 2014

Applying democracy in Muslim states: Facts, fears and future

By  Farooq Hassan

Can Islam and democracy coexist? To what extent are the principles of Islam and democracy compatible? What possibilities exist in Islamic thought to enhance the democratic process? What is the outlook for democracy in Muslim-majority states? What is the future of democracy in Muslim-majority states? Is democracy an-Islamic agenda? There are Muslim and Western writers whose hypothesis is that Islam and democracy cannot co-exist. Some Muslim militants have also resisted and rejected democracy and say that democracy is being fostered by the West with the intention and purpose to destroy Islamic values. The word “democracy” does not appear in the Qur'an but theroots of democracy are found in the Qur'an and Sunnah.1 Graham Fuller, a former U.S Foreign Service officer and the National Intelligence Council at the CIA said, “The word democracy does not appear in the Bible, the Old & Testaments, but in the Qur’an and the words of Prophet there is explicit recognition that one of the qualities of good governance is that the ruler must consult the people as to what is to be done”2Islam encourages man’s moral, social, spiritual, emotional and economic development. In the Qur’an (4:58) rulers are enjoined to treat people with kindness and justice and remove social, cultural, political, economic and health inequalities. According to many contemporary Muslim scholars the verses (3:159, 42:38) talk about shura (consultation) which can be the basis of democracy.The Quran advocates the welfare of mankind (29:45, 9:103, 22:29, 2:182, 2:216, 21:107) and justice (4:58, 5:2) and removing the hardships of the suffering of humanity (2:185).The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) encouraged mutual consultation and discussion on several matters. The practices of legal and political consultations are also manifested in the traditions of first four Khalifas. M. Khan, an Indian American Professor at the University of Delaware, claims that Muslim theorists have systematically demonstrated that Islam can co-exist with the democracy process.3Imam Feisal, a Kuwaiti American Muslim scholar, writes that the majority of Muslim scholars concluded that a representative democracy, which can determine the collective will of a people on a given matter, is the best contemporary method of determining God's will on the matter.4

Allah says (Q, 3:159) “And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern” Sayf al-din al-Amidi (d. 631/1233), an Iraqi Shafi'i Jurist, while explaining the verse writes that shura (consultation) is required in the matters which need Ijtihad,5 and ijtihad has to be done by shura(consultation).6 The verse (42:38) also indicates that matters of communal nature were to be decided through shura (consultation) with the community to whom the rulers are accountable. It may also mean that political matters of an Islamic State should be conducted in consultation with a legislative Assembly and other authorities be made accountable to the community. The Prophet (pbuh) said, “My community (ummah) will not agree on an error”.7 This hadith (Prophetic tradition) has also been reported in many collection of hadith with some variations in words but in the same sense, in its general application, it can be taken in consideration for the enhancement of the democratic process.  Imam Feisal writes that, "This hadith  leads to the conclusion that the collective will of human beings expresses what is right, and is therefore expressive of God's will".8 Larbi Sadiki, teacher at the University of Exeter, England while analyzing the current stagnation in the Muslim world and evolution in the past, comments that, “Like ijma,9 shura stopped being democratic. Instead of evolving into a popularly-based institution of consultation for the enactment of civic responsibilities, shura became a narrow-focused process between and within concentric circles of power. Thus, except for the first 39 years of Islam, since the beginning of the Madinan period in 622 and up to the reign of the last rightly guided Khalifah in 661, shura was absent from political rule”10

Ibn Mas’ud, a companion of the Prophet, states that “Whatever Muslims deem good, it is good in the sight of God, and whatever they deem bad, it is bad in the sight of God”.11 There are three interpretations to the word "Muslims" used  in this statement, it means companions of the Prophet, qualified jurists, and Muslims in general. The first interpretation takes the immediate context of the report into consideration as it was addressed to the companions of the Prophet. Such interpretation refers to the view of ijma as the consensus of the companions exclusively. According to the second interpretation, ijma is not limited to the consensus of the companions but is extended to include that of qualified jurists of any period of time. The third interpretation refers to the collective agreement of Muslims both learned and lay; here it will refer to ‘urf or common custom. Regardless of the authenticity of this report, it remains important because of the prominent role it played in the development of an extensive juristic discourse on both ijma and urf”.12 Muhammad b. Ali ash-Shawkani(d.1250/1834), a Yemeni sunni scholar, states that the majority of ulama do not accept the statement (agreement) of lay Muslim whether in favor or against because they do not have in depth knowledge of Shari'a.13 According to Rashid Rida (d.1935 CE), a Syrian born sunni reformer and faithful disciple of Muhammad Abdu(d. 1905 C.E), there is a clear distinction between ruling on matters of belief and worship on the one hand and practical worldly affairs on the other. The former are fixed and unchangeable while the latter are to be considered in the light of the changing times, places, and customs. He emphasizes the importance of exercising ijtihad especially on new issues for which the classical law books give no answer.14 The fuqaha(plural of faqih, specialist in Islamic Jurisprudence) have religious responsibility to guide the community in changing social context.


What is Shari’a? The New Encyclopedia of Judaism states that"Judaism is a religion of Halakhah, Islam is a religion of Shari'a both words denoting the same thing, namely a God-given Law minutely regulating all aspects of a believer's life: Law, worship, ethics, social behavior."15Imam Feisalwrites that, Shari'a consists of the roughly150 to 500 Qura'nic verses(ayat al-ahkam),that prescribe or prohibit behavior, and the roughly 1,200 to 1,500 hadiths of the Prophet(ahadith al-ahkam) that also command or prohibit. They constitute the basis of all Islamic law. The origin of Jewish law, Halacha, though it predates Shar'ia, also lies in a body of divine ordinance, the 613 mitzvot, or commandments in the Torah:365 prescriptions and 248 prohibitions.16

Shari’a provides a framework for an Islamic democratic State in the modern world, but principles which have been laid down are mostly neglected in public policy, opinion and decision making and the legal ruling process in a contemporary  Muslim context. This behavior resulted in value crises in Muslim societies such as contradictions between sacred texts and the practices of people, no checks and balances, and lack of good governance. Abu Hamid, Muhammad b. Muhammad , al Tusi,  al-Ghazali (d.505/1111), a medieval Shafi'i theologian, sufi, and juristwrites, “The very objective of Shari’a is to promote the welfare of the people which lies in safeguarding their faith, their lives, their intellect, their posterity, and their wealth. Whatever ensures the safeguarding of these five serve public interest and is desirable.”17al-Ghazali provided the ground of systematic works on Maslaha (public interest or social good) of humanity in all their affairs, after him Ibrahim b. Musa, Abu Ishaq al-Shatabi (d.790/1388), an Andalusian Maliki jurist  also established the work in his masterpiece book al-Muwafaqat fi usul al-Sharia. Muhammad b. Abu Bakr, Ibn al-Qayyim Jawziyyah (d.751/1350), a Syrian Hanbali theologian, and jurist writes, “The basis of Shari’a is wisdom and welfare of the people in this world as well as the hereafter. This welfare lies in complete justice, mercy, well- being and wisdom. Anything that departs from justice to oppression, from mercy to harshness, from welfare to misery and from wisdom to folly, has nothing to do with Shari’a.”18

Democracy does not mean to deviate from Islam, but the Majority of Muslims are unaware about the nature of democratic values and its fruits for them and positive effects on future generation, they are looking towards the Ulama for clear theological guidance for its validation. One of the critiques is that democracy’s value of referring to man-made laws (waz’i) and by giving humans the capacity to declare what is socially legitimate and illegitimate; encroaches upon the exclusive privilege of Allah (God) to promote laws. S. Ayman writes that, “God’s will, as contained in the divine revelation, is referred to as the supreme criterion against which human actions are to be evaluated. No jurist, however, can claim absolute knowledge of God’s will in every case, especially cases for which the primary sources do not give clear direction. This may sound like a conundrum; while the law is supposed to be grounded in God’s will, there is no guarantee that God’s will can be objectively located or determined on every occasions”.19Democracy in Japan is different from Germany and in Germany from the USA. Theorists are still trying to search for the meaning of true democracy. At the time of crises of its meaning Muslims can take advantages of it and within their own theological framework can bring about social and democratic reforms which are common in Islamic and Universal values, such as the equality of people, the accountability of leaders, respect of diversity, and justice at social, political, economic levels etc.  If Muslims do not pay close attention to internal reforms, then Western-inspired political and legal reforms will take place in the vacuum.  Islam focuses on finding solutions to the problems and challenges faced by the local and global Muslim communities. Renewal and reforms within the framework of Shari’a might be a way of reconciliation among Muslim scholars of different sects. Democracy cannot be imposed by externals but it can be emerged from within the society. Muslim society can easily be motivated for societal reforms through faith. Louay Safi, a member of the board of directors of the Washington D.C. based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID)while talking on democracy  rightly said that it can only happen through Islam, making the faith not only compatible but essential for the democratization of Muslim societies.20At the time of the invasion of the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the concept of Jihad was highlighted in every corner of the World. In contemporary situations of stagnation in Muslim societies, the concept   of Ijtihad can be promoted which can also be a powerful tool for a transformation in contemporary Middle Eastern Muslim societies and the rest of the Muslim world. Through dialogue and intellectual exchange among the experts of Islam and Modern Jurisprudence it is possible to identify the common boundaries’ in Islamic and Western democracy that can be helpful for future understanding. 

The place of democracy can be re-investigated in the books which focus on objectives of Shari’a. While constructing any legal ruling, the jurist is bound to realize the objectives of the Lawgiver intended in the commandment. A thorough study of the notions of the good (ma’ruf),public interest (maslaha), custom (urf), and human habit (adah), which indicate how jurists negotiated the localization of Shar’ia in the variety of contexts in different regions,21 it can be helpful to bridge the gap between the past and present and to improve understanding on current issues like democracy.  Islam has the capacity to meet the challenges of the time but Muslim jurists also have to play a vital role in this regard. Jurists in the past, due to their ability to think and give juristic opinion on realistic grounds in challenging times, contributed a lot. They interpreted the Shari’a in the light of the needs and realities of their time.22There are a few verses of the Qur’an and hadith which are known as qat’i al dalalah where understanding of expression is absolute, such as the knowledge of God which cannot be changed in a different place and time. It is also reflected from the Prophetic traditions in which he left the decisions up to the people such as on  the occasion  of the Battle of Ahzab (Trench), the Prophet  approved the proposal of Salman, a Persian companion,  to dig a long, deep and wide trench to defend the town against the invaders. It is not mandatory to every Muslim Army Chief to do the same in the case of an invasion on them.  

Allah says (Q, 10:44) “Verily, God does not do the least wrong unto men, but it is men who wrong themselves.” Allah says (13:11) in the Qur’an, “Verily, God does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves; and when God wills people to suffer evil (in consequence of their own evil deeds), there is none who could avert it: for they have none who could protect them from Him.”The Prophet Muhammad formed a balanced community (ummatn wasatn, Qur'an 2:143), guaranteed every individual citizen, man and woman, Muslim and non-Muslim equal rights, and trained his companions to deal with any difficult problems or situations easily that may come in the future. Early Islamic heritage is full of guidance for interpretations (truq al-adillah) for future legislations, which unfortunately is unread by Muslims and needs to be re-explored to avoid western-inspired reforms. Knowledge of the objectives of Shari’a is essential for the issuance of a fatwa (juristic opinion) on any issue. Clarity of ideas and values are also essential for guiding the community and exploration of the new ways of dealing with the emerging key issues like modernity and democracy in the 21st century. Knowledge of Islamic and modern Jurisprudence with Juristic wisdom and vision can bring about a positive social and democratic change in the Muslim world. Seemingly conflicting texts of the Qur’an and hadith related to current issues like democracy can also be reconciled through Ijtihad.  The democratic system is not a complete and perfect form of government due to a number of reasons. One is that power and authority is given through vote to individuals regardless of their qualifications and is based upon man-made social and political ideas instead of Allah’s (God’s). There are also similarities and contrasts between Islamic and Western concepts of democracy. Democracy is neither mandatory (wajib) nor prohibited (haram) but it can be allowed (mubah) for Muslim communities, therefore; at least a democratic way of government which is not contradictory with Islamic values can be adopted partially as an initiative in Muslim countries. The main purpose of Shari’a is welfare and well-being of the people through rule of law, poverty alleviation, equal opportunities on merit, no discriminatory treatment to the people of other creeds, a vibrant free press and media, free from all kinds of oppression, tyranny and exploitation,an independent judiciary which is essential for the administration of justice in an Islamic State, and enhancement of human resources through physical, mental, psychological, spiritual health and education. 


The word "sunnah" which literally means way, path, or patern-was juristically restrected to the normative example of the Prophet, which is meant to provide elaboration on the primary Qur'anic revelation.

Margot Patterson.(2003). Islamic Terrorism does not reflect Islam,  in Islamic Fundamentalism, ed. Auriana Ojeda New York: Thomson Gall p.62

M. A. Muqtadar Khan.(2009)Islamic Governance and Democracy in Islam and Democratization in Asia edt. Shiping Hua. New York: Cambria Press p.16 & 24

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.(2012). Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America New York: Free Press p164

The Arabic term ijtihad means “the utmost effort an individual can put forth in an activity.” In a legal sense, it refers to independent reasoning, a scholar's careful and complete use of mental abilities to find a solution to a legal problem. During the early years of Islamic society, when religious law was being formulated, qualified jurists practiced a type of ijtihad, known as ra'y. In cases where the Qur'an and Sunnah did not provide clear guidelines for a decision, jurists used ra'y to render legal decisions that were intended to serve the interests of the Muslim community.  see

Al-Aamidi, Sayf al-Din, Abu al-Hassan Ali b. Abi Ali. (1996). al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam. Beruit: Darul Fikr Vol.3 pp.140-141

al-Tirmidi, Abu Eisa Muhammad Ibn Eisa.  Jama Tirmidi, Abwabul  fitan,  hadith 2167

 Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America New  p.164

Ijma, as a legal principle, referred only to the consensus of the qualified Jurists, whose considered opinions were essential for establishing legal normativity in case of  a clear  indication was missing in either the Qur'an or the Sunnah. see Shabana Ayman .(2010). Custom in Islamic Law and Legal Theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan p.57

Larbi Sadiki. (2004). The Search for Arab Democracy. London: Hurst & Company p.83

Shabana Ayman .(2010). Custom in Islamic Law and Legal Theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan p.53

This report has been classified as mawquf, a report whose chain of transmitters reaches only to a companion, and the link between the companion and the Prophet is unverified. Therefore, the report is considered, in all probability, a saying of Ibn Mas’ud himself rather than of the Prophet.


Al-Shawkani, Muhammad b. Ali.(n/g). Irshad al-Fuhul ela Tahqeeq al-Haq min ilm al-Usul. Cairo: Darul Kutubi Vol.1 p.337

Custom in Islamic Law and Legal Theory  p.41,

The New Encyclopedia of Judaism. (2002), ed. Geoffrey Wigoder.  New York: New York University Press p. 401

 Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America p.51

Nasr interprets there are some 350 legal Quranic verses, or what Western law calls juris corpussee Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2004)The Heart of Islam : Enduring Values for Humanity New York: HarperSanFrancisco p.120

Al- Ghazali, Abu Hamid, Muhammad b. Muhammad.(1987). Al Mustasfa Min ilm al Usul .Karachi: Idaratul Quran, Vol. 1, p. 140.

 Jawzi, Ibn Al Qayyim, Muhammaad b.  Abi Bakr.(1977)., Alamul Mwqqiein an Rabbil Alamin.  Beirut: Darul Fikr, Vol. 3, p. 4.

Custom in Islamic Law and Legal Theory p.46 Can Islam and Democracy Coexist? Brian Handworkfor National Geographic News accessed on October 29,2013.

Nasr writes that  'urf or adah, meaning human custom or habit, is considered valid in the Shari'ah itself if such a custom or habit does not contradict or contravene the Shari'ah.  see Seyyed Hossein Nasr. (2004). The Heart of Islam : Enduring Values for Humanity New York: Harper SanFrancisco p. 121

 Muhammad Hashim Kamali.(2009). Shari’ah Law An Introduction, England: Oxford Oneword  p.99

Farooq Hassan, Ph.D. was Fulbright Postdoctoral Visiting Researcher at ACMCU Georgetown University Washington D.C. He is also Senior Fellow of American Institute of International Studies (AIIS)