First of all, we want to reveal how a person, who tries to compare democracy and Islam by putting them on different pans on a scale; sees democracy as an alternative for Islam, and therefore believes that defending democracy would harm Islam, could have an incomplete or distorted understanding of Islam.
The provisions of Islam are not limited to faith, worship, and moral issues. On the contrary, there are very important principles and fundamentals presented by Islam; from family life to commercial life; interpersonal relations to interstate relations; legal transactions to judicial procedures; rules of war and peace to regime.
However, although Qur’an and Sunnah provided detailed explanations of the principles of faith and worship, halal and forbidden, or moral values, and introduced elaborated arrangements, they did not follow the same method for the provisions of treatment; in general, it has contented itself with the provision of a number of general principles and fundamentals, and left a wide area for judicial opinion in order to determine the detailed provisions.
Undoubtedly, the manner and intensity of approaching the provisions about treatment are not the same. For example, when we look at Qur’an, it is seen that a wide coverage is given to the issues related to inheritance and family law. Similarly, in the verses and hadiths, important provisions were imposed for certain crimes and their punishments, means of proof, and proceedings. However, we cannot say the same about religious provisions concerning the regime and government. Islam orders Muslims to have an equitable government, and in order to achieve this, it also orders the duties to be entrusted to competent people and administrative matters to be resolved in consultation.
In fact, when we look at the legacy about fiqh (Islamic law) left to us by the Islamic jurists, we will see this legislation philosophy that we try to summarize. Because fiqh books first and foremost focused on worships, then family law, agreements, commercial relations, penalties, judiciary issues and gave wide coverage to these, but did not broach the basic political issues such as the gain, use, and limitation of power, and the issues related to the organization and governing of the state, which is reviewed under the name of Constitutional Law today, have not been the subject of fiqh books.
Certainly, studies focusing on this field exist. Muslim scholars reviewed political issues for different purposes and produced important works on politics. For example, many scholars added the “Imamate” section to the end of their books, Islamic scribes wrote “al-ahkam as-sultaniyyah” (provisions about governing), siyasat al-shariyya (authority about governing), and siyasatnama (political treatise), and Islamic philosophers such as Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina focused on different political theories.
When we take a closer look at these studies, we can say the following: The main purpose of imamate articles in Kalam books is to provide an answer to the method of “nas” (the words of Quran and Prophet (PBUH)) and “appointment” claimed by the Shia regarding the way the head of state takes office. The ulama emphasized whether the appointment of the head of state is obligatory or not, the way the head of state takes office, and the characteristics of the head of state.
The purpose of writing the political treatise is to make a general evaluation of the political system they live in, identify the causes of retrogression and corruption, and to advise the rulers on how to provide a fair and moral government. The writers of political treatise also focused on the attitude of the rulers, they tried to correct their missing and failing aspects, make the rulers forbear oppression, and made an effort for the establishment of a fair system. It is more appropriate to see these works as moral works that try to improve existing political practices rather than legal texts that establish binding provisions. And the works of Islamic philosophers under the influence of ancient Greek philosophy are very theoretical texts. Rather than identifying the religious provisions about ruling in terms of the nature of science they are engaged in, they have focused on theoretical and rationally different political theories and ruminated about the most ideal regime.
Among the works written in this field, the most important works dealing with different issues related to the regime and constitutional law are “al-ahkam as-sultaniyyah” (provisions about governing). However, although some provisions regarding the regime were focused on, most of these works constitute matters such as financial law, judicial organization, proceedings, punishments, and land law. And the provisions on constitutional and administrative law are very limited. These are generally based on the practices of the period of the four caliphs, rather than the nas. It is possible to see the impact of the social and political life of that period over the judicial opinion. Therefore, it is not correct to see all the relevant provisions as if they are strictly binding regulations at all times.
It should not be understood from our statements that we think these works are insignificant and unnecessary. On the contrary, they are full of very important ideas, advice, knowledge, and experience about statecraft and political opinion. The main reason we have made the explanations above is that the Quran and Sunnah did not introduce detailed regulations that are binding to state administration at all times. There is neither a specific form of state nor a form of government presented by Islam. The fact that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did not leave anyone to take charge of governing after him and that each of the four caliphs took the office of the caliphate in a separate manner can be accepted as evidence for this detail. Similarly, in the letters He (PBUH) sent to invite the kings to Islam, he assured them that they would remain on their throne and continue ruling if they accepted Islam.
The points expressed here are in harmony with the purpose of human existence and the fundamental objectives of religions. In the most basic sense, the main objective of human creation is to be able to worship Allah (SWT) as a servant properly and to treat people with compassion by freeing from the domination of desires and aspirations. Allah (SWT) showed the way to true servitude and good morality through the books and prophets He (SWT) sent. The following verse: “And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me” (Surah Adh-Dhariyat 51:56), and the following hadith: “I was sent to complete good morals” (Muvatta, Husnu’l-huluk, 1) refer to this.
Therefore, the aim of Islam is to build a moral and clean society composed of individuals who have gained a second nature with Islam rather than bringing a certain state system from above. The form of the established ruling mechanism was transferred to individuals who reached a certain maturity through Islamic education. They are obliged to establish the fairest and the most appropriate system for social affairs by means of consultation. The fact that Islam is a universal religion that appeals to all times and places and a human being sent to earth as a caliph necessitate this.
Unfortunately, Islamic discourse has been over-politicized although the Quran and the Sunnah do not emphasize much on the regime and the ulama confined their scientific efforts to issues related to individuals and society rather than politics. In particular, political Islamists and some radical groups emerging in the name of Islam have reduced the universal and encircling message of Islam to a regime project. In fact, according to some imaginary fictions they created in their minds and their aim to conquer the state, it can be said that they abuse religion and turn it into an ideology in order to rule the people.
If we look at the bitter experiences and heavy shocks and traumas the Islamic world has experienced in the last two or three centuries, it will be seen that the requests and demands of political Islamists about politics and state are on good grounds. But here’s the issue that concerns us; the emergence of the demand for an ”Islamic state”, the evaluation of religious issues through the spectacle of politics, acting as if there is a consistent political theory developed by Islam pose a great obstacle in terms of understanding Islam correctly and evaluating the modern-day political regimes with regards to Islam.
Political attitudes such as putting Islam as an alternative to democracy, deeming democracy contrary to Islam, claiming that an Islamic regime is superior to democracy are the results of these incomplete or incorrect evaluations about Islam. It is not possible to get somewhere by making comparisons and evaluations by putting Islam on one side and democracy on the other side.
Because there is no alternative form of government put forward by Islam against democracy. Those who oppose democracy in the name of Islam cannot propose a convincing alternative form of government. It is not possible to reach a conclusion with the following idea: “Let’s destroy the existing one, then we can decide what to do”. This type of approach will only lead to anarchy and chaos. Finally, it should be noted that the method of comparing Islam, which is a divine religion based on revelation, civilization, and culture, with democracy which is a political regime is not correct.
Because, since comparing two completely different entities (existence) with each other is wrong, there will not be any accurate results. It should not be forgotten that such a comparison would mean the identification of religion with pure power, and thus would lead to the misunderstanding of religion. Because the provisions about politics constitute a very small part of religion. Therefore, the idea of ”either Islam or democracy” is not correct. It’s quite possible for both of them to coexist and reconcile.
The Relationship Between Islam and Democracy in the Grip of Ideals and Realities
One important mistake made by the people who oppose democracy is the way they break Islam’s connection from the actual reality and portray it as an utopia that is to be reached and stands outside the realities. Their discourses and objectives are based on highly idealized imaginary Islamic fictions. However, the ideas brought forward in the name of Islam without understanding the spirit of the time and ignoring the social conditions will bring more negative results than positive. The following words of our Prophet (PBUH) is a very good example about taking the realities into consideration: “”Were your people not close to the Pre-Islamic period of ignorance, I would have demolished the Ka’ba and would have rebuilt it on its original foundations laid by Abraham (for Quraish had curtailed its building), and I would have built a back door (too).” (Sahih al-Bukhari Volume 2, Book 26, Number 655)
Nowadays, most of the discussions about the relationship between democracy and Islam are quite theoretical. Therefore, although very exquisite analyzes and seminal criticisms are made, many of these are not applicable ideas in terms of social and political conditions. Unfortunately, the idealization of the Asr-ı Saadet (Golden Age) and the period ‘Four Caliphs’ disconnected from history and facts does not contribute to the improvement of existing political structures. Because it is impossible to establish social and political structures with the theories put forward in a place where social acceptances, customs and concepts, and culture and civilization are ignored.
Many of them present an “Islamic form of regime” based on first-period practices and the nas, and they try to explain its superiority over democracy. But the same people cannot make satisfactory explanations about how this form of government, where political participation is essential, was replaced by the heirdom system and totalitarianism after the four caliphs. Moreover, they do not have satisfactory explanations and remedies about the ongoing regimes of autocracy, violation of rights, restrictions, oppression and persecution in the Islamic world. It is easy to make some theoretical inferences by looking at the nas. The difficult part is to adopt the obtained provisions to the social realities they live in or to provide an action plan for the Muslims in order for them to follow.
Unfortunately, as we have been getting closer to the present day, the bond between religion and life has gradually weakened and fiqh has been pushed out of life. Islamic identity was severely wounded, sensitivities were eroded, and historical consciousness was lynched. The Islamic world of today, which has lost its direction and trajectory, is experiencing a creepy crisis of civilization and a period of dark interregnum. The Muslim imagination, which has moved away from its epistemology, values, and historical roots, has been seriously injured. Many Muslims lost their way in the face of the materialist, positivist, and rationalist philosophy of the West. The remaining Muslims today are experiencing serious anxiety in education, economy, politics etc.
Therefore, those who will work on the relationship between Islam and democracy should raise their heads from the pages of the books and at least take a look at the general conditions of Muslims and the general course of the world. Today, the results of a comparison of human rights, fundamental rights and freedoms, education level, welfare, development etc between the Western countries and Islamic countries are quite obvious. Unfortunately, Islamic countries dominated by totalitarian regimes are entirely full of human rights violations. The level of education is very low. Unemployment, poverty, and even hunger are among the main problems. Disputes, conflicts, civil wars, and power struggles persist. The value of a human being is not known. The values such as love, tolerance, respect to the others, and culture of living together, which also constitutes the essence of Islam, has been replaced by rudeness, harshness, and exclusion. Unfortunately, there is not much that Muslims produce and add value to the world. As they are not interested in the common problems of the world and humanity, their solutions to global issues are very limited.
In Islamic geography, individuals can easily be sacrificed for the divine purposes of the state. Although the main duty of the state rulers is to protect the fundamental rights of the people such as life, property, religion, and honor, the rulers themselves often become the biggest threat. In such countries, state power makes itself felt in all areas of life so much that there is almost no space for private and civic life. It becomes impossible to remove a dictator who seized power. Even if the person who took over the power is not a dictator at first, the structure of the political system, the perceptions and opinions of the public about the state and the rulers are enough to make him a dictator in a very short time.
The picture in Western countries, which are governed by democracy, is quite different. The West provided a comfortable and prosperous life to its people thanks to democracy and democratic values. Moral values such as respect, courtesy, and caring for people has already become a culture. For this reason, Western people enjoy freedom under the wings of democracy. The democratic environment where different ideas are respected and the general atmosphere where the security of life and property is assured have revived the spirit of enterprise and developed intelligence and capabilities. This brought about scientific and technological developments, production and industrialization. Therefore, the development in social and political life was followed by economic development. In the same way, Western states have provided their citizens with important opportunities to live humanely thanks to the solid system they have established in fields such as politics, law, and education.
Therefore, such real facts must be taken into consideration when making comments on the subject. Western states owe much of their development and progress to democracy and freedom. The main responsibility for the lagging of the Islamic geography belongs to the tyrannical and despotic rulers who drops on society and politics like a nightmare.
Discourses and actions such as “We will bring a better Islamic regime than democracy” will only manage to change the color and pattern of the existing autocracy in a geography where Islamic values, culture, and people are corrupted and all different elements try to live together. The autocracy applied for the sake of nationalism according to some, irreligiousness according to others, and the dominance of their ideology according to some others will continue to exist under the cover of religion. The experience of Islamic countries and political Islamists in recent years is the greatest witness to this fact.
For this reason, Muslims should stop engaging in a number of theories, utopias that cannot be realized and are not even accepted by the majority of Muslims; instead, they should understand that the only way out for them is more freedom, more human rights, and more democracy.
If they realize this, it will not be difficult to interpret democracy in accordance with Islam and Muslim societies. As a matter of fact, Islamic jurists have seen even the heirdom system as legitimate under difficult conditions. Some jurists even expressed that obedience is mandatory to the tyrannical rulers who seized power through oppression. Of course, these are not the ideal provisions envisaged by Quran and Sunnah; rather, they are imperative provisions presented to prevent further loss of life and property at a push. It is a fact that the theory of anything cannot be carried into practice. Because that’s where the human element comes in. And where there are human beings, the errors and defects always exist.
Last but not least, in today’s world where democracy is as important and as indisputable as possible, it is absolutely necessary to consider how opposing it can be perceived in terms of non-Muslim societies and states, and how such an attitude will affect the viewpoints about Islam. Nowadays, under whatever name and for whatever reason, opposing democracy has become synonymous with autocracy and totalitarianism. Therefore, there is no doubt that such an attitude would demonstrate Islam as a repressive and coercive religion.
In his book “Muhakemat”, Bediuzzaman draws attention to an important truth: “Whoever denies and rejects a truth that is fixed with definite evidence such as the roundness of the world for the sake of protecting the religion, he commits a great felony and treason to the religion.” (p. 41). Even if the roundness of the world is not based on certain evidence, there is widespread belief and unshakable trust in the world of humanity regarding the correctness of democracy. Democracy is now seen as an ideal to be achieved, such as justice, morality, and honesty. A person who tries to stand against it in the name of religion will harm the religion and will defile its image. Because his attitude will make Islam look like a pro-dictatorial religion.
For this reason, it is essential for Muslims, who have been struggling under the reign of dictators for centuries and writhing under the oppression of tyrannical regimes, to put aside fighting with democracy and being hostile against it in order to see their real enemies, and to use their power and energy in the direction of destroying autocracy.
To be continued…
Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Studies and Religious Studies.