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The debate over whether democracy is an appropriate regime for Islam or not has never ended since the dawn of democracy. Many different opinions have been voiced by both Western and Islamic scholars on the issue. Although philosophers such as Said Halim Pasha, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Ali Suavi, and Namik Kemal, who lived in the final periods of the Ottoman Empire, took a significant stand against autocracy and supported constitutionalism, unfortunately, they could not manage to form a basis for the development of the idea of a democracy in the Islamic world. 

Main Opinions on the Subject

The opinions of Sayyid Qutb and Mawdudi, who were the pioneers of new political Islam that developed after the 1950s and 60s, had a great influence on the Islamic ulama (scholars) and Muslims. Throughout the later years, philosophers such as Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani, and Al-Maqdisi also opposed democracy. Similarly, a significant number of Islamic movements rejected democracy. In addition to these opinions in the Islamic world, Western researchers such as Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Ernest Gellner, Nathanael Smith, Charles Rowley, Daniel Pipes, and Samuel Huntington argued that democracy and Islam cannot be harmonized together. 

“Democracy cannot be the political system of the Muslims with regards to its philosophy and technique. However, the democratic mechanism can be used in accordance with the principles of Islam and its political theory until a better one is found.” (Yeni Safak, 29.5.2014) Some theologians like Hayrettin Karaman from Turkey, who is the owner of the quote above, approached the matter in a very pragmatist way and argued that democracy is the exact opposite of Islam in essence, and it could be utilized temporarily until a better political system is established by the Muslims. In other words, democracy is nothing more than a “useful tool” for the sake of reaching the objective. Therefore, it should be abandoned right after the objective is reached. 

On the other hand, there have been substantial voices from the West and Islamic world that defended democracy and claimed that Islam or the Muslims cannot have any problems with democracy. Individuals such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Mohammed al-Jabri, Malek Bennabi, Rached Ghannouchi, Hassan Al-Turabi, Abdolkarim Soroush, Fazlur Rahman Malik, Allal al-Fassi, Ibn Badis, Ahmad al-Raysuni, Abdul Wahab Al-Effendi also took sides with democracy. In addition, Western researchers such as Asef Bayat, John Louis Esposito, John Obert Voll, Abdou Filali-Ansary, Khaled Abou El Fadl also defended that Islam could be correlated with democracy.

Although there are some exceptions, we can state the following with a very general approach: Muslims who see and experience Western democracies and live in the Western world closely defend democracy, on the other hand, those who evaluate the matter from the Islamic world, live in countries where the democratic culture has not spread yet, and see the Western persecution and oppression of the Islamic world, reject democracy.

It cannot be said that there is a consensus on how to deal with this issue other than the presented opinions. Since everyone approaches the issue in terms of their own interpretation of democracy and Islam, many opposing views have been put forward. While some people mortify democracy by stating it is a ”Western invention” or “system of blasphemy, the others saw it as the most perfect system humanity could ever reach, thus sanctified, tabulated, idealized and universalized it as much as possible. Unfortunately, such extreme approaches do not allow democracy to be debated and developed properly.

It is revealed that the people who have a negative opinion about this matter generate the majority when the articles focusing on the relationship of democracy with Islam are examined. But in our opinion, this picture is far from reflecting the general approach of Muslims in this regard. Because the ones who bring forward the matter about whether democracy could comply with Islam or not are generally the ones who say “no”.  They take the pen to criticize democracy or draw attention to its deficiencies and contradictions. Probably, the demand for democracy in Muslim countries is not less than in other countries.

Religious Reasons for Opposing Democracy

The most important argument put forward by those who argue that democracy and Islam cannot be reconciled is the matter of sovereignty and legislative power. They strongly opposed democracies giving sovereignty to the people, claiming that sovereignty belongs only to Allah (SWT). In the same way, granting legislative power to parliament means that the provisions imposed by Allah (SWT) can be changed and falsified according to human will.

In addition to these, the fact that democracy came from the West, based on Western values such as individualism, freedom, and equality, and the fact that these values were found to be contrary to Islam caused it to be suspected or opposed. Unfortunately, a significant number of Muslims are skeptical about the values that have emerged and developed in the West. There is a prejudice in the minds that everything belonging to Western culture and civilization will be the opposite of divine revelation. Therefore, it is considered unnecessary to discuss and examine all aspects of democracy.

Some Muslim scholars, who do not realize the necessities of the era and the level reached by humanity, see freedom, which is an indispensable element of democracies, as leisureliness, idleness, and rambling, and approaches it as a superstitious sect; so they think that it will degenerate Muslims. Likewise, the concept of absolute freedom will lead to the normalization of all extremes, immorality, and marginalities in Muslim society. They also see and reject the acceptance of absolute equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, contrary to the “dhimmi (non-Muslims) law” reviewed in the classical fiqh books. Another reason for opposing democracy is the fact that it is based on pluralism. Opponents of democracy have argued that as a result of pluralism, truth and superstitious, right and wrong, good and evil would be mixed with each other. And this attitude contradicts with the essence of divine religion, which is the representative of the truth.

Another reason for the negative attitude towards democracy is the strict adherence to the traditional understanding of Islam, the classical doctrine, and the inability to interpret the universal message of Islam in accordance with the conditions of the time. The interpretation of Islam, which has been ongoing for centuries and influenced deeply into the intellectual world of Muslims, prevents them from adapting to the conditions of the changing world. Due to the fact that the Muslim thought has been subjected to serious stagnation and congestion for many centuries, and since the jurisprudence cannot be run properly; there is a fear of change and new interpretations suitable for the era that cannot be made. This leads to a strict, harsh, and bigoted understanding of Islam.

The radical, lasting and irresistible changes such as the complete disruption of the traditional order established for two or three centuries, the halting of the flow of tradition, the complete change of human concerns, the emergence of a brand new society and state model, unfortunately, do not mean anything to the opponents of democracy. Although the time, the biggest glossator as per Bediuzzaman’s approach, had already expressed its judgment, they still continue to resist this judgment.

It is possible to come across some modest arguments as well as some shallow, emotional and reactive approaches like these. For example, some oppose democracy with a simple logic such as “Is there democracy in the Quran and Sunnah?” or “Did they practice democracy in the time of Our Prophet (PBUH) and True Caliphs?” and sees democracy as “bid’ah” (innovation). And some others see democracy as a strictly laical, secular and anti-religious regime, calling it a “shirk system”,  “arousing order”, or “blasphemy regime”. It is also possible to come across bigoted ideas such as “What are you looking for in democracy that you cannot find in Islam?”.

It is clear that those who oppose democracy do not generally treat it as a political technique, a style of regime, or a means of political organization; on the contrary, it is worth recalling that they see democracy as a world view, an ideology that puts principles and values about the way individuals perceive the world, and even as a religion, and thus perceive it as a threat to Islam.

Political Reasons for Opposing Democracy

An important reason for the anti-democracy views in the Islamic world is Western imperialism and policy based on the absolute interests of Western states in international relations. The covert-overt colonialism activities of the countries that have been the flags of democracy for two-three centuries, the destruction they have caused in the Middle East with the claim of bringing democracy for the last half-century, and the support they have given to the dictators in Islamic countries have righteously caused the reaction of Muslims.

The fact that particularly the countries such as Turkey can not think of a democracy separate from secularism, their perception and imposition of secularism as an adverseness to religion caused the Muslims to be hostile towards democracy and approach this regime with suspicion. 

On the other hand, the political elites that hold power in the Islamic world are a serious obstacle to democracy. Due to the fact that they fear that they would lose their power and opportunities they hold when real democracy surfaces; they either oppose democracy openly or carry on with their tutelage under the so-called democracy and maintain their tyranny regime.

In addition to all these, it is necessary to state that the Islamic world has not fully experienced democracy, has not yet met its blessings and therefore has remained unaware of the rights and freedoms it can achieve through democracy. In other words, the lack of knowledge about the advantages of democracy is one of the reasons for the negative attitude taken against it.

Some of the uncertainties about democracy, some failures in practice, the deficiency of democracy as a system, the gaps and weaknesses are among the issues that the enemies of democracy frequently dwell on to reject it.

Another reason for the opposition to democracy is the understanding of politics and state that Muslim peoples have been accustomed to for centuries. The concept of eternal state and the desire to be ruled by authoritarian and powerful leaders make the individual insignificant before the state. The predominant “expectation of a savior” thought among Muslims often plays a role in legitimizing a one-man rule. The perception of an all-powerful state and the desire for a leader who can make an impact when he slams his fist on the table cause Muslims to stand on the side of authoritarian regimes, not democracy.

As it can be understood from all these explanations, in fact, the objections and problems about democracy do not originate from the religious doctrine itself; it is hidden in the way it is being perceived and interpretation, and then in the social, economic, and political conditions in which the Muslims are.

Modus and Method

Unfortunately, the debates between Muslims both around democracy and the relationship between democracy and Islam are quite superficial, prejudiced and ideological. It is not clear who understands which concept. There is a complete conceptual confusion. Since the topic is popular, everyone feels the need to write something about it. However, when we look at the articles on the subject, it is visible that there are serious uncertainty and ignorance regarding both democracy and Islam. Everyone approaches the issue in terms of their own cultural world and ideology. There are serious prejudices, memorization, and some fictitious worries and fears. Convictions and beliefs are influential on ideas. In the absence of sufficient information and encompassing point of view on this matter, it is not possible to make in-depth discussions and put forward qualified studies at a scientific and academic level.

While some people try to confine Islam to the individual sphere, others argue that all the problems that Muslims are exposed to can be solved by returning back to Islam. Similarly, while others perceive democracy as a universal phenomenon beyond cultures and times, others see it as a distorted ideology that corrupts people, society, politics, and religion. It’s really hard to make any progress with the presence of so many different views that are totally opposite. Those who approach the relationship between democracy and Islam in such a rigid and harsh manner neither have any knowledge of the enormous corpus of democracy in the West nor any in-depth perception of Islam.

The fear of religion in general influences and directs the discussions of Islamophobia in particular. Those who write on these matters cannot freely express their ideas. There’s serious community pressure. People fear that religion will restrict their freedom and interfere with their lives. If we look at some experiences in recent history and today, they are not totally wrong with their fears.

There are serious memorizations, presuppositions and even taboos about the relationship of religion with state and politics. It’s not easy to break down these taboos. Some people who see themselves as liberal, laical, or secular are closed for open and free discussions about certain matters of Islam. On one hand, there are religious bigots, who see democracy as “shirk” or “bid’ah”, and on the other, secular bigots who refrain from chanting the name of democracy together. The reality of the Church, where the West has long experienced and could not manage to forget the pain, is very influential in the discussions about the relationship between religion and politics. In addition, the orientalist literature still largely determines the opinions of the West about Islam. All of these form an important obstacle for Muslims to confront democracy.

In spite of all these difficulties, primarily, the approach and the method should be determined properly if democracy is to be considered from an Islamic point of view. First of all, both democracy as a governing mechanism and the basic values that keep this mechanism alive must be well known. It is not enough to know religious sciences only in order to understand democracy; the data of political and social sciences should also be used and characteristic features of modernity, which has marked the time we live, must be covered properly. It is not possible to make progress with cursory comments on this subject.

In this respect, first of all, democracy must be well-known and understood with its history, theory, practical applications, different types, systems and values, ideal and objectives, strengths and weaknesses; to clarify the basic features that distinguish democracy from theocratic, monarchic and totalitarian governments; the minimum social, economic, cultural and political requirements for the implementation of democracy in a society must be determined. In addition, there is a need to analyze the necessity and requirements that reveal objective realities such as the rule of law, separation of powers, parliamentary system, constitutionalism activities, and modern state, which are integrated or closely related to democracy.

All of these are the first stage of the work in order to put forward the relationship between democracy and Islam correctly. The other aspect of the issue is the correct understanding of Islam and holistic knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah. To be more specific, the relationship between Islam and politics should be considered before the relationship of Islam with democracy, or rather the nature of the elements and principles of governance and their place in Islamic provisions should be known. Religious constants and variables should be determined correctly. It is necessary to have knowledge about methods and evidence such as customary, affairs, juristic preference, and prohibitions which give flexibility and vastness to Islamic law.

Likewise, it should be considered how the scholars of fiqh consider certain facts and realities that occur in different periods under the name of mischief, public problems, need, or necessity which cannot be avoided, and how they affect the jurisprudence activities and activate some licenses. Moreover, it is very important to consider the breadth of application of concepts such as provisions-prohibitions, charity-evil, good-malicious, correction-disclosure, and justice-persecution commanded or prohibited in the verses and hadiths.

In addition to all these, in order to realize the legal gaps among the nas (provisions) left on purpose; to be able to see the breadth of the permissible; to understand the immenseness of prophetic statements such as “You have better knowledge in the affairs of the world”; to be able to interpret the nas and understand why the ruling is left to the people for the incidents which are not included in the nas are very important towards having a grasp of the spirit of Islamic law. In case the main characteristic of Islamic thought is not known and sociological realities are not taken into consideration, Islam will be replaced by dogmas. Islam cannot be interpreted in accordance with the spirit of the time when Islamic law, which has a very flexible and dynamic structure, would be replaced by a stereotyped and rigid understanding.

For this reason, we will first try to draw a general framework about democracy, and then we will focus on the relationship between Islam and democracy from different perspectives.

To be continued…

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Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.


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