Is Islam undemocratic?
In a TV show a senior editor of a well-known Indian daily threw a question at me, why Islam is so undemocratic? It spurred me to write this article. The question must be answered. Is Islam undemocratic by nature of its teachings?
Why no Muslim country has democratic set up? Almost all-Muslim countries are governed either by kings, sheikhs, military dictators or have semi-democratic set up? This is an important question, which must be satisfactorily answered. More important question in this respect is: Is Islam responsible for this state of affairs of Muslims? Can any religion be democratic or undemocratic? Or its followers make it so.
No religion, in my opinion, should be construed as democratic or undemocratic. Any religion is rooted in a social structure, not necessarily of its creation. A religion does give a vision of a new society transcending the given society but hardly succeeds in totally subverting the status quo. The new vision given by a religion succeeds or fails depending on how powerful are the vested interests controlling the society in which a religion is born. The stronger the vested interests the more difficult it is to change the status quo. Not only that new vested interests develop in the new society which comes into existence based on new vision. New vested interests developed in the Islamic society also, as we will see while dealing with the subject further. The Qur'anic teachings are highly supportive of democratic way of functioning. The Prophet (PBUH) himself was required by Allah to consult his companions on worldly matters [wa shawirhum i.e. consult them (your companions)].
Islam was born in a society in which there was no formal political structure or state machinery. It was essentially a tribal society without any ruler or formal state structure. It had no written laws, only tribal customs. Islam gave to that society not only a new vision more humane and guaranteeing freedom of conscience but also gave detailed laws both written and oral. The Prophet of Islam gave laws through his pronouncements, in addition to what was contained in the Qur'an. This new vision of a society was far from being authoritarian. The Prophet (PBUH) himself was essentially a true democrat in his behaviour. He never imposed his opinion on others except in matters of deen. He even discouraged his followers from asking many questions as his pronouncements will then become binding on them. He did not allow anyone to bow before him or even to stand up by way of respect when he entered the room.
He showed great respect for human dignity irrespective of a person's social status. His intention was to set up a society without any concept of social hierarchy. In those days it was really a revolutionary step. No society was without social hierarchy in those days. Even modern democracies have social hierarchy of their own. Modern democracies theoretically accord equal rights to all citizens but some citizens are more privileged than other citizens. The Islamic vision admitted of no such privileges. Even a black slave could claim same privileges as any other Muslim. It was not for nothing that the Prophet appointed a black liberated slave Bilal to be his moazzin (caller to the prayer), a high honour envied by many of his companions enjoying higher status in society. The Prophet did so to set an example. A truly democratic society should not only accord equal opportunities to all citizens and make them equal before law but should see that it is so in practice. In fact more privileged citizens are more equal than other less privileged citizens. While Islam tried to set up a society truly democratic in spirit, the Prophet of Islam practised this rigorously to set an example before others. He knew that some people will claim more privileges and tried to discourage them from doing so. He gave great importance to Ashab-e-Suffa who were quite poor and of 'low origin' socially speaking but were highly dedicated to the cause of Islam.
The Prophet himself never assumed any political powers. He was essentially a spiritual guide who commanded a tremendous respect. His concept of ummah was also an inclusive one. He included Jews, idol worshipers and Muslims init. He gave them full freedom to follow their respective faith without any constraint. This was also most modern democratic approach. They were accorded equal rights in all matters along with equal obligation to defend the city of Medina when attacked. In no sense they were unequal citizens in the Medinese society.
However, the Muslim states today treat non-Muslims as secondary citizens and deprive them of equal rights. The modern democratic society accords Muslims wherever they are in minority equal political rights. But Muslim countries, not all, but many, do not do so. It is not the question of reciprocation but of principle. Moreover the Prophet himself has set an example in this respect. He never gave any hint of treating non-Muslims as less privileged in any manner. Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani, a noted 'Alim from Darul 'Ulum Deoband, inferred from the Prophet's sunna that a composite nation state is in keeping with the teachings of Islam.
Thus the Prophet's sunna is quite inspiring for Muslims in this respect. Unfortunately feudalising of Islam changed all this. Social hierarchy became the central principle of organisation of society and Muslims and non-Muslims both became subjects rather than citizens enjoying equal rights. We will throw more light on this as we proceed further. The institution of slavery also got reinforced though Islam had put so much emphasis on emancipating the slaves. The transcendent concept of Islam was to abolish slavery. Instead the status quo its concept of rigid social and political hierarchy remained in place. The alien values became part of Islamic society and were legitimised by invoking Islam.
A new society did begin to emerge in first few years of Islam. However, the process of emergence of this society did not last long. The Umayyads, who belonged to a clan within the tribe of Quraysh, managed to capture power and converted a proto-democratic society into a feudal hierarchical one. The Prophet had enjoyed an immense moral authority but he never converted it into formal political power. He was succeeded by four Caliphs referred to as rightly guided Caliphs as they, despite tremendous problems tried to follow the vision of Islam and always consulted Muslims before taking any important policy decision. Though formally it was not a democratic society in the sense modern societies are, it was democratic in spirit during the first thirty years of rightly guided caliphs.
However, during this period vested interests of different kinds began to emerge throwing the society into political turmoil and this turmoil resulted in assassination of 3rd and fourth caliphs (though the second caliph was also assassinated but by a slave labourer about a wage dispute). The causes of this political turmoil have been examined at great length by an Egyptian scholar Dr.Taha Husain in his book Al-Fitnat al-Kubra (The Great Insurrection). He throws light in great detail how the Muslim society was divided into various groups, Qurayshis, non-Qurayshis, Ansaris, non-Ansaris, Umayyads and non-Umayyads, Arabs, non-Arabs and so on.
Their political and economic interests clashed with each other and helped create great crisis in the early Islamic society. It was this crisis which not only resulted in civil war in which more than 100,000 Muslims died but also the Islamic vision of a just democratic society was destroyed. Hazrat Ali tried his best to restore this vision once again but did not succeed and political power ultimately went into the hands of Mu`awiyah, a shrewd ruler, who converted khilafah into a dynastic rule by appointing his son Yazid as his successor.
On account of these tumultuous social and political conditions the Umayyads succeeded in capturing power. They shifted the capital to Damascus in Syria formerly ruled by the Byzantine Empire and adopted Byzantine ways, which were thoroughly feudal. The Islamic society which was quite democratic in spirit became feudal and hierarchical through and through. Mu`awiyah had adopted Byzantinian royal ways and began to sit on throne and wear expensive clothes and constructed a palace for himself to live in and made courtiers to stand with folded hands before him when he was governor of Syria during Hazrat 'Umar's time. Hazrat 'Umar had even admonished him for adopting Byzantinian royal ways. However, he got away by saying that in this part it will not be possible to rule without adopting the Byzantinian ways. The people are used to those ways. Thus he legitimised his adoption of royal ways in flagrant contradiction to Islamic ways and Prophet's sunnah.
The only challenge came from the grandson of the Prophet who challenged the authority of Yazid who became the first ruler of Islamic world by virtue of feudal principle of succession rather than elective principle like the first four caliphs. When Imam Hasan took over as fifth Caliph after assassination of Hazrat Ali in Kufa his assumption of power was endorsed through bay`ah by all prominent Muslims of the time. No one hesitated to do so. But soon conspiracies began by Mu`awiyah to destabilise his rule and at last he agreed to abdicate in Mu`awiya's favour on certain conditions. One of the conditions was that he will not appoint his son as next caliph and leave the matter to Muslims to decide. Mu`awiya apparently agreed to this condition but ultimately nominated his son Yazid and this was beginning of what Maulana Maududi calls 'mulukiyyat' in his book Khilafat Aur Mulukiyyat.
However, When Yazid ascended the throne Imam Husain refused to endorse his assumption of power through bay`ah and decided to oppose his rule. There was conspiracy to assassinate him in Madina by Yazid's forces and hence he left Madina and went to Iraq in response to Kufan people to lead them in fight against the illegitimate rule of Yazid. However, the people of Kufa betrayed him as they had betrayed his illustrious father and brother. Imam Husain was besieged by Yazid's forces in Karbala and his mighty forces were no match for Imam Husain's handful of supporters who, like the Imam himself, were all martyred in Kerbala. Thus Islamic revolution came under the shadow of Umayyad counter-revolution. The Islamic values of democracy and justice were pushed aside and now dynastic rule and oppression ruled the roost. The Umayyads came to acquire a political clout and became most privileged people as against other Muslims. All believers were no more equal in practice though in theory they continued to be so.
The Islamic democracy as prevailed in the days of the Holy Prophet and the four caliphs could not be revived again. All succeeding regimes in the Arab as well as non-Arab world were dynastic and had nothing to do with elective principle. Islamic political culture got more and more feudalised. Perhaps it was historical necessity. There were feudal regimes all around and an attempt, howsoever earnest, to create a democratic political culture could not have succeeded in such a feudal universe. It could succeed in Arabia of the Prophet's time for two reasons, one spiritual and another material. The spiritual reason was the Prophet's sincerity and truthfulness (he was known as sadiq and amin i.e. truthful and trustworthy even before he proclaimed his revelatory message to the people of Mecca). His commitment to a just society ensuring human dignity was beyond any shadow of doubt.
The material reason was tribal nature of Arabian Peninsula where there was no agricultural production and canal system requiring a centralized rule and appropriation of surplus from peasantry. In fact both in Mecca and Madina no governmental machinery existed - no police force, no army, judiciary or bureaucracy of any kind at all. But when Islam spread to Byzantinian and Sassanid areas a rich agricultural civilisation existed there with a feudal political culture. And soon the centre of gravity of Islam shifted to these agriculturally rich areas and political Capitals were established in Damascus and Baghdad. Mecca and Madina became holy cities of Islam and retained only religious significance and politically lost out to agriculturally fertile areas with more revenue gathering potentialities.
Thus khilafah became merely symbolic and feudal dynastic rule became substantive in nature. The Muslim rulers symbolically assumed caliphal robes but did not adhere to its elective principle at all. Nor did they consult Muslims, like the earlier Caliphs while making policy decisions. Even their un-Islamic decisions were got endorsed by the 'Ulama either through coercion or inducement and if they refused they were severely persecuted. This is why Imam Ghazzali advises Muslims not to see the face of such rulers.
'The Islamic society thereafter never saw the return of early Caliphate period despite several attempts by idealists. Muslim society was thoroughly feudalised. Though the rulers in Islamic world often styled themselves as caliphs but in fact they were kings and emperors i.e. absolute rulers. These political developments also had its impact on Islamic jurisprudence in many ways. The `Ulama, who interpreted the Qur'an and hadith did so under the influence of feudal values. Many of them went against the spirit of Islam and justified the feudal hierarchy and monarchical system. The few who resisted were isolated and lost out. The `Ulama who sided with monarchy were often referred to as `Ulama-i-su' i.e. bad `Ulama but they wielded political clout.
The `Ulama with integrity and character could not save the early political structure of Islam though they had greater moral authority. The Islamic world was ruled by corrupt and power hungry monarchs and kings. The western imperialism in the nineteenth century could not make much difference as the imperialist powers reinforced these Muslim rulers for their own selfish interests. The Islamic society was so thoroughly feudalised that even during the imperialist rule no charismatic mass leader emerged on the scene in any Muslim country. Even Jamaluddin Afghani, a charismatic figure in the nineteenth century, had different priorities. He was more interested in pan-Islam and even wanted to take help from feudal monarchies like the Ottomans to overthrow the western imperialist powers from Islamic world. Thus rather than succeeding he became victim of conspiracies hatched by the Ottomans.
The Wafd party of Egypt did throw a limited democratic challenge to the British rule and thanks to this democratic movement Egypt has a semblance of democracy today. However, it is also far from real democracy. Jamal Abd al-Nasirhad a vision but he too centralised power in order to bring changes and reforms and that centralisation of power defeated that very purpose. His successors like Sadat did not have that vision either and became even more authoritarian.
The entire Arab world lacks any mass leader of any calibre as the authoritarian rulers use highly repressive policies and do not allow any such leader to emerge. What is more disturbing is that the `Ulama in these countries are supporting the ruling establishment and using Islam to legitimise the authoritarian rule. Any movement for human rights is condemned as western conspiracy against Islam though human dignity and freedom of conscience is central to the teachings of the Qur'an. Iran has been holding regular elections but there too the orthodox `Ulama have their stranglehold over judiciary and without free judiciary democracy remains nominal. Khatami's supporters who are reformists are being persecuted and many papers with reformist orientation are being shut down by the orthodox judiciary in Iran. They are undergoing harrowing times.
Malaysia too has limited democracy and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed dubs human rights as a western conspiracy. There is no real democratic freedom in Malaysia. Malaysia is semi-democratic semi-authoritarian political set up. Indonesia remained for long under military rule and has now come under democratic spell but is undergoing a great political turmoil. It will take quite some time for democracy to stabilise as powerful vested interests are out to sabotage it to re-establish their dictatorship.
It is thus social and economic conditions, which are more responsible for lack of democracy in the Islamic world and not Islamic teachings. However, the Muslim intellectuals must reflect seriously on the question as to why still Muslim countries have not been able to usher in true democracy despite the claim that Islam is most democratic in spirit. Without democratising the Muslim world no worthwhile changes can be ushered in. Absence of democracy means subjugation of Muslim masses, and modern reforms will not be possible without ushering in democratic governance.
And democratic governance is not possible without ensuring freedom of conscience, which does not exist in any Muslim country worth the name. Any independence of thinking even in secular matters is violently suppressed. The Islamic shari`ah is sought to be enforced mechanically, completely overlooking its real spirit of justice and human dignity. The principle of ijtihad is also discouraged by the `Ulama under the pretext there is no one having that qualification.
The Islamic shari`ah was compiled in a different social and political environs and most of the inferences were drawn by the `Ulama in their own socio-political conditions and hence needs to be reformulated. The inferences drawn by the `Ulama or fuqaha' cannot be treated as divine. The expert jurists and modern lawyers need to come together to change some of the shari`ah laws in the sphere of what is called mu`amalat (i.e. interpersonal relations). The very foundational principle of democracy is, as pointed out above, freedom of conscience and freedom of conscience is not possible without re-thinking issues of mu`amalat which also include relations between the two sexes. The shari`ah laws, as they obtain today, are heavily loaded against women, and sexual equality is an integral part of a democratic culture. Some of the Muslim countries do not permit women to vote in the name of Islam.
The overall approach of the Qur'an is of sexual equality but the shari`ah reflects the medieval ethos and women are at a disadvantage. If democracy is ushered in, in Muslim countries women's issues will become quite central. Women's movements are strong even today in those Muslim countries, which have some semblance of democracy. Women scholars and activists would like to re-think issues in shari`ah and evolve a new gender just culture in Muslim societies.
Many Muslim countries have substantial non-Muslim populations. In a democratic governance it is necessary but not enough to ensure freedom of religion. The non-Muslims should also be ensured equal democratic and political rights. Muslim minorities enjoy equal political rights in several of non-Muslim or secular countries. This must be ensured to non-Muslims in Muslim countries not for the sake of reciprocation but on principle. However, in most of the Muslim countries even Muslims do not enjoy democratic rights, let alone non-Muslims. Separate electorate, if it exists in any country, should also be done away with. It breeds discriminatory practices. There should be a joint electorate for all Muslims or non-Muslims.
Lastly, respect for human rights is highly necessary in a democratic political culture. Without a human rights culture there cannot be a truly democratic culture. Muslim intellectuals should ceaselessly strive to ensure human rights for all citizens in Islamic countries. It is this human rights culture which will strengthen democratic forces and do away with feudal culture which privileges some people over others.