Islam and democracy

Islam and democracy

Islamic democracy refers to two kinds of democratic states that can be recognized in the Islamic countries. The basis of this distinction has to do with how comprehensively Islam is incorporated into the affairs of the state.[1]

  1. A democratic state which recognizes Islam as state religion, such as Malaysia, Algeria, or Maldives are examples of Islamic Democracy. Some religious values are incorporated into public life, but Islam is not the only source of law.
  2. A democratic state which endeavours to institute Sharia. It is also called as Islamist democracy.[1] Islamist democracy offers more comprehensive inclusion of Islam into the affairs of the state. States like Iran are firm proponents of this form.[1]

On democracies with religious law, see religious democracy.

The concepts of liberalism and democratic participation were already present in the medieval Islamic world.[2][3][4] Azizah Y. al-Hibri, for example, argues that Medina during Muhammad's time was an early example of a democratic state but that the development of democracy in the Islamic world eventually came to a halt following to the Sunni–Shia split.[5]


Sunni viewpoint

A study by Monash University professor Sayed Khatab discussed the compatibility of Islam and democracy. His book Democracy in Islam, (Routledge 2007) is a challenge to extremism. This book is also a significant contribution to the UNESCO program of intercultural relations. He outlined that the democratic ideal of a "government by the people" is compatible with the notion of an Islamic democracy. Deliberations of the Caliphates were not[citation needed] democratic in the modern sense (rather, decision-making power lay with a council of notables or clan patriarchs), they show that some appeals to popular consent are permissible (though not necessarily required) within Islam.[6] (see also: Shura).

In the early Islamic Caliphate, the head of state, the Caliph, had a position based on the notion of a successor to Muhammad's political authority, who, according to Sunnis, were ideally elected by the people or their representatives,[7] as was the case for the election of Uthman and Ali as Caliph. After the Rashidun Caliphs, later Caliphates during the Islamic Golden Age had a lesser degree of democratic participation, but since "no one was superior to anyone else except on the basis of piety and virtue" in Islam, and following the example of Muhammad, later Islamic rulers often held public consultations with the people in their affairs.[8]

The power of the Caliph (or later, the Sultan) was restricted by the scholarly class, the Ulema, a group regarded as the guardians of the law. Since the law came from the legal scholars, this prevented the Caliph from dictating legal results. Laws were decided based on the Ijma (consensus) of the Ummah (community), which was most often represented by the legal scholars.[9] In order to qualify as a legal scholar, it was required that they obtain a doctorate known as the ijazat attadris wa 'l-ifttd ("license to teach and issue legal opinions") from a Madrasah.[10] In many ways, classical Islamic law functioned like a constitutional law.[9]

Democratic religious pluralism also existed in classical Islamic law, as the religious laws and courts of other religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism, were usually accommodated within the Islamic legal framework, as seen in the early Caliphate, Al-Andalus, Islamic India, and the Ottoman Millet system.[11][12]

Much debate occurs on the subject of which Islamic traditions are fixed principles, and which are subject to democratic change, or other forms of modification in view of changing circumstances. Some Muslims allude to an "Islamic" style of democracy which would recognize such distinctions.[13] Another sensitive issue involves the status of monarchs and other leaders, the degree of loyalty which Muslims owe such people, and what to do in case of a conflicting loyalties (e.g., if a monarch disagrees with an imam).

Shi'a viewpoint

According to the Shi'a understanding, Muhammad named as his successor (as leader, with Muhammad being the final prophet), his son-in-law Ali. Therefore the first three of the four "Rightly Guided" Caliphs recognized by Sunnis ('Ali being the fourth), are considered usurpers, notwithstanding their having been "elected" through some sort of conciliar deliberation (which the Shia do not accept as a representative of the Muslim society of that time). The largest Shi'a grouping — the Twelvers branch — recognizes a series of Twelve Imams, the last of which (Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Hidden Imam) is still alive and the Shi'a are waiting for his reappearance. Since the revolution in Iran, Twelver Shi'a political thought has been dominated by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Imam Khomeini argued that in the absence of the Hidden Imam and other divinely-appointed figures (in whom ultimate political authority rests), Muslims have not only the right, but also the obligation, to establish an "Islamic state."[14] To that end they must turn to scholars of Islamic law (fiqh) who are qualified to interpret the Qur'an and the writings of the imams. Khomeini distinguishes between Conventional Fiqh and Dynamic Fiqh, which he believes to also be necessary.

Khomeini divides the Islamic commandments or Ahkam into three branches:

  • the primary commandments (Persian: حكم اوليه)
  • the secondary commandments (Persian: حكم ثانويه) and
  • the state commandments (Persian: حكم حكومتي).

This last includes all commandments which relate to public affairs, such as constitutions, social security, insurance, bank, labour law, taxation, elections, congress etc. Some of these codes may not strictly or implicitly pointed out in the Qur'an and generally in the Sunnah, but should not violate any of the two, unless there's a collision of rules in which the more important one is given preference (an apparent, but not inherent, violation of a rule). Therefore, Khomeini emphasized that the (elected) Islamic state has absolute right (Persian: ولايت مطلقه) to enact state commandments, even if it (appears as if it) violates the primary or secondary commandments of Islam. This should happen when a more important primary or secondary commandment is in danger because of some limitations.

For example an (elected) Islamic state can ratify (according to some constitutions) mandatory insurance of employees to all employers being Muslim or not even if it violates mutual consent between them. This shows the compatibility of Islam with modern forms of social codes for present and future life,[15] as various countries and nations may have different kinds of constitutions now and will may have new ones in future.[16]

Philosophical viewpoint

The early Islamic philosopher, Al-Farabi (c. 872-950), in one of his most notable works Al-Madina al-Fadila, theorized an ideal Islamic state which he compared to Plato's The Republic.[17] Al-Farabi departed from the Platonic view in that he regarded the ideal state to be ruled by the prophet-imam, instead of the philosopher king envisaged by Plato. Al-Farabi argued that the ideal state was the city-state of Medina when it was governed by Muhammad as its head of state, as he was in direct communion with God whose law was revealed to him. In the absence of the prophet-imam, Al-Farabi considered democracy as the closest to the ideal state, regarding the republican order of the Rashidun Caliphate as an example within early Muslim history. However, he also maintained that it was from democracy that imperfect states emerged, noting how the republican order of the early Islamic Caliphate of the Rashidun caliphs was later replaced by a form of government resembling a monarchy under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties.[18]

A thousand years later, the modern Islamic philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), also viewed the early Islamic Caliphate as being compatible with democracy. He "welcomed the formation of popularly elected legislative assemblies" in the Muslim world as a "return to the original purity of Islam." He argued that Islam had the "germs of an economic and democratic organization of society", but that this growth was stunted by the expansive Muslim conquests, which established the Caliphate as a great Islamic empire but led to political Islamic ideals being "repaganized" and the early Muslims losing sight of the "most important potentialities of their faith."[19]


"Today, two groups prevent the genuine reform movement seeking religious democracy: One group consists of those who think the less freedom a society enjoys, the stronger religion will be. They oppose the democratic process. The second is the group including those who believe that religion should be put aside from the scene of life in order to establish democracy and freedom."[20]

Two major arguments against the possibility of a democratic Islamic state are as follow:

  • The Secularist argument is that democracy requires that the people be sovereign and that religion and state be separated. Without this separation there can be no freedom from tyranny. This does not apply however when people themselves choose Islam as the 'religion of the state'.[citation needed] In democratic terms, this is not inherently different from ratifying non-Islamic rules.[citation needed]
  • The Legalist argument is that, democracy may be accepted in a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. society but it can never enjoy a general acceptance in an Islamic society, because non-Muslim societies do not have Sharia, the comprehensive system of life to which its adherents should be committed. In this view anything outside of the rigid, but pervasive, interpretation of the Sharia is rejected and the absolute sovereignty of God prevails such that there is no role, but interpretation, for the sovereignty of people in the ethics of the state. Mohammed Omar and his followers never made any claims that the Islamic State of Afghanistan was any sort of democracy, while the leaders of Iran do (they call it 'mardomsalarie dini', which means 'religious democracy').

Some matters which may cause friction include appeasing anti-democratic Islamists, non-Muslim religious minorities, the role of Islam in state education (especially with regard to Sunni and Shia traditions), women's rights (see: Islamic feminist movement). This is further complicated by the deriving of punishments from Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, where, as in other legal systems, precedent assists the judiciary to come to a decision. Since the judiciary is not independent of a system of religious codes that are essentially the teachings of the Life of Mohammed and that all understanding of Allah and the world is fixed therein and is not subject to human understanding outside of the inspired wisdom of Mohammed, Islam itself has been hampered from developing new ideas.[21]

In addition, while some Islamic democracies ban alcohol outright, as it is against the religion, other governments allow the individual to choose whether to transgress Islam themselves. In these instances, while the act will be considered wrong by Muslims, the penalty is seen to be a spiritual not a worldly one.

Moreover, the group Hizb ut-Tahrir has published a book titled "democracy is a system of kufr" (i.e. unfaith, denial of the teachings of the Islam) that strengthens the view that Islam and democracy are incompatible.[22] .Although there are many politicla parties in muslim countries which would disagree with that assertion

Islamic democracy in practice

Legal scholar L. Ali Khan argues that Islam is fully compatible with democracy. In his book, A Theory of Universal Democracy, Khan provides a critique of liberal democracy and secularism. He presents the concept of "fusion state" in which religion and state are fused. There are no contradictions in God's universe, says Khan. Contradictions represent the limited knowledge that human beings have. According to the Qur'an and the Sunnah, Muslims are fully capable of preserving spirituality and self-rule.[23]

Furthermore, counter arguments to these points assert that this attitude presuppose democracy as a static system which only embraces a particular type of social and cultural system, namely that of the post-Christian West. See: constitutional theocracy.

Muslim democrats, including Ahmad Moussalli (professor of political science at the American University of Beirut), argue that concepts in the Qur'an point towards some form of democracy, or at least away from despotism. These concepts include shura (consultation), ijma (consensus), al-hurriyya (freedom), al-huqquq al-shar'iyya (legitimate rights). For example shura (Aal `Imran 3:159, Ash-Shura 42:38) may include electing leaders to represent and govern on the community’s behalf. Government by the people is not therefore necessarily incompatible with the rule of Islam, whilst it has also been argued that rule by a religious authority is not the same as rule by a representative of Allah. This viewpoint, however, is disputed by more traditional Muslims. Moussalli argues that despotic Islamic governments have abused the Qur'anic concepts for their own ends: "For instance, shura, a doctrine that demands the participation of society in running the affairs of its government, became in reality a doctrine that was manipulated by political and religious elites to secure their economic, social and political interests at the expense of other segments of society," (In Progressive Muslims 2003).

A further argument against Islamic democracy in practice, is that some democratic governments in Islamic states are not homegrown, but imposed by the West, such as the one in Afghanistan and the nascent post-Baathist regime in Iraq.[24]

As of 2010, U.S.-based organization Freedom House considers Indonesia and Mali as the only Muslim-majority countries that are fully-fledged free electoral democracies.[25]


Pakistan started off as an example of the first category, but has moved towards a more religiously conservative state during Zia-ul-Haq's Islamization in the 1980s. Since then, the relation of state and religion fluctuates with the party in power, though frequent military coups have halted its democratic evolution.

Middle East

Waltz writes that transformations to democracy seemed on the whole to pass by the Islamic Middle East at a time when such transformations were a central theme in other parts of the world, although she does note that, of late, the increasing number of elections being held in the region indicates some form of adoption of democratic traditions.[26] There are several ideas on the relationship between Islam in the Middle East and democracy. Writing on The Guardian website,[27] Brian Whitaker, the paper's Middle East editor, argued that there were four major obstacles to democracy in the region: the Imperial legacy, oil wealth, the Arab–Israeli conflict and militant or "backward-looking" Islam.

The imperial legacy includes the borders of the modern states themselves and the existence of significant minorities within the states. Acknowledgment of these differences is frequently suppressed usually in the cause of "national unity" and sometimes to obscure the fact that minority elite is controlling the country. Brian Whitaker argues that this leads to the formation of political parties on ethnic, religious or regional divisions, rather than over policy differences. Voting therefore becomes an assertion of one's identity rather than a real choice.

The problem with oil and the wealth it generates is that the states' rulers have the wealth to remain in power, as they can pay off or repress most potential opponents. Brian Whitaker argues that as there is no need for taxation there is less pressure for representation. Furthermore, Western governments require a stable source of oil and are therefore more prone to maintain the status quo, rather than push for reforms which may lead to periods of instability. This can be linked into political economy explanations for the occurrence of authoritarian regimes and lack of democracy in the Middle East, particularly the prevalence of rentier states in the Middle East.[28] A consequence of the lack of taxation that Whitaker talks of in such rentier economies is an inactive civil society. As civil society is seen to be an integral part of democracy it raises doubts over the feasibility of democracy developing in the Middle East in such situations.[29]

Whitaker's third point is that the ArabIsraeli conflict serves as a unifying factor for the countries of the Arab League, and also serves as an excuse for repression by Middle Eastern governments. For example, in March 2004 Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon's leading Shia cleric, is reported as saying "We have emergency laws, we have control by the security agencies, we have stagnation of opposition parties, we have the appropriation of political rights - all this in the name of the Arab-Israeli conflict". The West, especially the USA, is also seen as a supporter of Israel, and so it and its institutions, including democracy, are seen by many Muslims as suspect. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a lecturer in Islamic law at the University of California comments "modernity, despite its much scientific advancement, reached Muslims packaged in the ugliness of disempowerment and alienation."

This repression by Arab rulers has led to the growth of radical Islamic movements, as they believe that the institution of an Islamic theocracy will lead to a more just society. However, these groups tend to be very intolerant of alternative views, including the ideas of democracy. Many Muslims who argue that Islam and democracy are compatible live in the West, and are therefore seen as "contaminated" by non-Islamic ideas.[27]

Orientalist scholars offer another viewpoint on the relationship between Islam and democratisation in the Middle East. They argue that the compatibility is simply not there between secular democracy and Arab-Islamic culture in the Middle East which has a strong history of undemocratic beliefs and authoritarian power structures.[29] Kedourie, a well known Orientalist scholar, said for example: "to hold simultaneously ideas which are not easily reconcilable argues, then, a deep confusion in the Arab public mind, at least about the meaning of democracy. The confusion is, however, understandable since the idea of democracy is quite alien to the mind-set of Islam."[30] A view similar to this that understands Islam and democracy to be incompatible because of seemingly irreconcilable differences between Sharia and democratic ideals is also held by some Islamists. However, within Islam there are ideas held by some that believe Islam and democracy in some form are indeed compatible due to the existence of the concept of Shura (meaning consultation) in the Qur’an. Views such as this have been expressed by various thinkers and political activists in the Middle East.[31] They continue to be the subject of controversy, e.g. at the second Dubai Debates, which debated the question "Can Arab and Islamic values be reconciled with democracy?" [32]



The idea and concept of Islamic democracy has been accepted by many Iranian clerics, scholars and intellectuals.[20][33][34][35][36] The most notable of those who have accepted the theory of Islamic Democracy is probably Iran's Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who mentions Islamic Democracy as "Mardomsalarie Dini" in his speeches.

There are also other Iranian scholars who oppose or at least criticise the concept of Islamic democracy. Among the most popular of them are Ayatollah Makarim al-Shirazi[37] who have written: "If not referring to the people votes would result in accusations of tyranny then it is allowed to accept people vote as a secondary commandment."[38] Also Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi has more or less the same viewpoint.

On the other hand, clergy like Yousefi Eshkevari believe that: The obligatory religious commandments in public domain not necessarily imply recognition of religious state. These obligations can be interpreted as the power of Muslims' religious conscience and applying that through civil society.[39] These clergies strictly reject the concept of Islamic state regardless of being democratic or not. They also believe no relationship between Islam and democracy at all, opposing the interpretation of clergy like Ayatollah Makarim al-Shirazi from Islamic state. But they do not mention how legal laws as an example can not be implemented using civil societies and how to administer a country relying on conscience only.


Some Iranians, including Mohammad Khatami, categorize the Islamic republic of Iran as a kind of religious democracy.[40] They maintain that Ayatollah Khomeini held the same view as well and that's why he strongly chose "Jomhoorie Eslami" (Islamic Republic) over "Hokoomate Eslami" (Islamic State).

Other maintain that not only is the Islamic Republic of Iran undemocratic (see Politics of Iran) but that Khomeini himself opposed the principle of democracy in his book Hokumat-e Islami: Wilayat al-Faqih, where he denied the need for any legislative body saying, "no one has the right to legislate ... except ... the Divine Legislator", and during the Islamic Revolution, when he told Iranians, "Do not use this term, 'democratic.' That is the Western style."[41] (Although it is in contrast with his commandment to Bazargan (see Iranian Revolution). It is a subject of lively debate among pro-Islamic Iranian intelligentsia. Also they maintain that Iran's sharia courts, the Islamic Revolutionary Court, blasphemy laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Mutaween (religious police) violate the principles of democratic governance.[42] However, it should be understood that when a democracy is accepted to be Islamic by people, the law of Islam becomes the democratically ratified law of that country. Iranians have ratified the constitution in which the principle rules are explicitly mentioned as the rules of Islam to which other rules should conform.


Islamic democracy entered into mainstream politics after the government and the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace deal establishing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. A political party (Union of Muslim Democrats of the Philippines) was established in order to allow Muslims to participate further in the democratic system. This party became the ruling party of that region. Currently, the party has merged with a major party of the nation Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats, a political party incorporating elements of both Christian and Islamic democracy.

Islamic democratic parties

The following political parties have been described as Islamic democratic.

The National Transitional Council in Libya, which has no officially recognized political parties, has also expressed its intention of leading the country from authoritarianism into a civil, democratic state in which sharia will be the main source of legislation.[43]

See also

Islam and politics:


  1. ^ a b c Ghadbian, Najib (6 May 2006), "Democracy or Self-Interest?", Harvard International Review,, retrieved 19 Oct 2011 
  2. ^ Judge Weeramantry, Christopher G. (1997), Justice Without Frontiers, Brill Publishers, pp. 134–5, ISBN 9041102418 
  3. ^ Sullivan, Antony T. (January–February 1997), "Istanbul Conference Traces Islamic Roots of Western Law, Society", Washington Report on Middle East Affairs: 36,, retrieved 2008-02-29 
  4. ^ Lenn Evan Goodman (2003), Islamic Humanism, p. 155, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195135806.
  5. ^ al-Hibri, Azizah Y. (1998-1999), "Islamic and American Constitutional Law: Borrowing Possibilities or a History of Borrowing", University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 1 (3): 492–527 [507–25] 
  6. ^ Sohaib N. Sultan, Forming an Islamic Democracy
  7. ^ Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (2004), vol. 1, p. 116-123.
  8. ^ Judge Weeramantry, Christopher G. (1997), Justice Without Frontiers, Brill Publishers, pp. 135, ISBN 9041102418 
  9. ^ a b Noah Feldman (March 16, 2008). "Why Shariah?". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-05. 
  10. ^ Makdisi, George (April–June 1989), "Scholasticism and Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West", Journal of the American Oriental Society 109 (2): 175–182 [175–77] 
  11. ^ Judge Weeramantry, Christopher G. (1997), Justice Without Frontiers, Brill Publishers, pp. 138, ISBN 9041102418 
  12. ^ Sachedina, Abdulaziz Abdulhussein (2001), The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195139917 
  13. ^ The Muslim News
  14. ^
  15. ^ 1904063187 : 9781904063186:Theory of Religious Democracy
  16. ^ :: ::. -> Magazines -> Islamic Government Dead link
  17. ^ Arabic and Islamic Natural Philosophy and Natural Science, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  18. ^ Ronald Bontekoe, Mariėtta Tigranovna Stepaniants (1997), Justice and Democracy, University of Hawaii Press, p. 251, ISBN 0824819268 
  19. ^ Ronald Bontekoe, Mariėtta Tigranovna Stepaniants (1997), Justice and Democracy, University of Hawaii Press, p. 253, ISBN 0824819268 
  20. ^ a b WorldWide Religious News-President Says Democracy Conforms With Religion in Iran
  21. ^ Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Reason, pp. 20-24 (Random House, 2005)
  22. ^ democracy is a system of kufr
  23. ^ See abstract
  24. ^ - US influence in Iraq constitution ‘excessive’
  25. ^ Map of Freedom in the World, 2009 Edition at Freedom House website
  26. ^ Waltz, S.E., 1995, Human Rights & Reform: Changing the Face of North African Politics, London, University of California Press Ltd
  27. ^ a b Beware instant democracy
  28. ^ Beblawi, H., 1990, The Rentier State in the Arab World, in Luciani, G., The Arab State, London, Routledge
  29. ^ a b Weiffen, B., 2004, The Cultural-Economic Syndrome: Impediments to Democracy in the Middle East,
  30. ^ Kedourie, E., 1994, Democracy and Arab Political Culture, London, Frank Cass & Co Ltd, page 1
  31. ^ Esposito, J. & Voll, J.,2001, Islam and Democracy, Humanities, Volume 22, Issue 6
  32. ^ [1]
  33. ^ Official Website of Seyyed Mohammad Khatami |
  34. ^ AbdolKarim Soroush:: عبدالکريم سروش
  35. ^ The Office of the Supreme Leader, Sayyid Ali Khamenei
  36. ^ Dead link
  37. ^ Makarim al-Shirazi
  38. ^ انوار الفقاهه- كتاب البيع - ج 1 ص 516
  39. ^ Dead link
  40. ^ Envoy: Religious democracy materialized by Islamic Revolution - Irna
  41. ^ Bakhash, Shaul, The Reign of the Ayatollahs, p.73
  42. ^ Khatami Clashes with Reformist Students at Tehran University
  43. ^ "Libyan rebels pledge democracy based on moderate Islam". DI-VE. 13 September 2011. Retrieved 13 September 2011. 


  • Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri (eds.) 2002 Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush, Oxford University Press
  • Omid Safi (ed.) 2003 Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism, Oneworld
  • Azzam S. Tamimi 2001 Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism, Oxford University Press
  • Khan L. Ali 2003 A Theory of Universal Democracy, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers
  • Khatab, Sayed & G.Bouma, Democracy in Islam, Routledge 2007

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