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Islam and Democracy: A Historical Perspective

We as human beings are potentially the most honorable creation on earth. God Almighty created human being meticulously, breathing in His own soul/spirit (Ruh) into every one of us and dedicated all the other unlimited blessings on earth to us. [1] God Almighty proclaimed us humans as Ashraf-ul-Makhluqat spiritually [2](being the noblest and most evolved of all creation. Our expressions are potentially to be superb transcendence of our self-actualization, our thought and actions as Insan-e- Kamil (as a perfect human being individually and collectively as a universal humanity). There is a potential recipe for all of us to reach our fullest human potential. [3]

We can all work on correcting our own flaws embodying the divine characteristics that we innately possess. This doctrine also makes clear that we can never rest on our achievements, because there are many improvements that we must make to our own character if we want to reflect all the divine qualities. The doctrine of ‘Insan al-Kamil’ is an inspiring concept that should serve as a guide and encourage awareness of our potentials and the best that we can achieve in this life in every realm.

Conventional democracy has had roots in social ideals of ancient Athens and moral visions of Hebrew and Muslim prophetic teachings. Democratic process as an evolving ideal despite historic decline over the past centuries is still bestowed with intrinsic and extraordinary transformative capacity for the betterment to this day.

It is our purpose to stay abreast and explore our moral, social, environmental and our inner belief systems for maintaining a healthier democracy despite the fact that liberal democracy’s deficits and flaws have been creeping in with vengeance more and more over the recent decades. Many in the East and West have been watchful in raising ongoing voices for reformation, improvements and overhauling of democracy. [4]

Though the masses of humanity throughout the ages have lived in comparative ignorance of the spiritual realities of human life, spiritual humanists have naturally appeared the world over during different centuries, in different parts of the world and in different cultures. They have all shared two main characteristics: views of certain universal values and virtues of being human and certain principles of effective communication. This should not be surprising as science too became universal, as did inquisitive and constructive ideals of well-informed personalities searching for knowledge with appropriate scientific methods to discover the same truth, and same principles of communication, regardless of the times in which they had appeared.

There have been prophetic teachings; there have been ancient philosophers, thinkers and unique educators in human history. We must bring together today’s leaders, teachers and innovators whose works are at the cutting edge of where our purpose and actions are to land globally in politics, science, psychology, business, organizational and leadership development, and personal, social and global transformation.

Speaking of democracy over the world in today’s ever faltering environment, the higher ideals of humanistic concepts of human participation are the sole answers– a universal path to spiritual democracy as an answer to declining democracy is bound to become a wave of the future.

Here, I will earnestly try to uncover and reveal the historic perspective in the Islamic tradition as there have always been various principles, concepts and values – and we are to pay the closest attention to these concepts and their practical applications:
The concepts that are regarded as the key operational components of true democracy are and have been inherent in spiritual humanistic context -and provide us effective foundational stones for describing democracy and its origin in Islamic history (not unlike other spiritual traditions) as a spiritual democracy with inherent values of and higher ideal of democracy. Spiritual democracy is to embrace a notion of God in nature, a simple way of saying that we all come from God. Thus, Spiritual democracy is the simple recognition of God in each person’s nature-a true and profound democratic notion. As we all come from nature, we are all carrying divinity. Therefore spiritual democracy is the science of God that must become a necessity to begin and end with nature – and this means our inner and outer nature. Just as the human body without the spirit (Ruh) is dead, so too democracy superficially without a democratic internal consciousness, without being a “Democratic Spirituality,” would be a dead body politics.

Accepting eventually the practical idea of spiritual democracy is the sole answer, to our greatest predicament today of dying conventional democracy, realizing the oneness of humanity with the universe and all its forces. Spiritual democracy is an idea whose time has come. There certainly has been this rare but intrinsic capacity for the renewal that opens up conventional democracy to converse with our human spirituality. We can thus commence injecting spirituality, slowly but surely, into conventional democracy transforming it to a desperately needed universal path of spiritual democracy at this point in human history. In my view this will bring about a life-promoting change in doddering democracies around the globe. [5]

In the Islamic context, it does not mean that the word ’democracy‘ was a Qura’nic word or a term explained in the Qur‘an or in the Sunnah. It certainly means, however, that the positive’ principles, features and values of democracy are certainly and inherently compatible with the Islamic teachings that are based on the Qur‘an and the Sunnah and above all an actual and practical model of the prophet’s spiritual democratic state of Medina in the 7th Century A.D (622-632) with a pluralistic constitution subsequently cemented by first four caliphs (632-661).

This ideal period did not last beyond four decades’ time in early Islamic foundational history. Under the Umayyad, Abbasids and the Ottomans, the Saffavids and Mughals, all were Empires unfortunately becoming hereditary monarchies that had failed to follow the rightful prophetic and universal path with total neglect of original model of city-state of Medina that was meant for the emancipation of all of humankind.

Allama Iqbal had an abiding interest in the growth and development of the human individual personality and collective integration, which were to flourish and prosper only in a spiritual atmosphere where there would be no fear except God. He as a great philosopher and spiritual humanist, desired that permanent spiritual values should form the cornerstone of every political system in the world, whether it was a Presidential or a Parliamentary democracy. The political and sociological propensities upon which the modern ideal of spiritual democracy is being established and the assets upon which the healthy democratic system in any modern society depends are naturally and intrinsically compatible with Islam and the universal humanistic path. History confirms Islamic dynamic system, its principles and its praxis were and are still able to facilitate/integrate society‘s political life; and this is not due to any new discovery or new ideas, but as per its original norms and prescriptive directions. The purpose of Pakistan’s creation in 1947 envisioned by its founding fathers Allama Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah was indeed re-imagination of a spiritual democratic and welfare state of Medina in the modern times.

The relationship between Islam and politics had been an important theme even during those empirical rulerships and the subsequent several centuries. Since the final decades of the 20th century to the recent, ―religious resurgence and ―democracy have been two of the major developments.

Further more, the debates over the democratization process in the Muslim societies, its definition and fundamentals, as well as its impact on governments with domestic and foreign policies has ―continued for a long time. It has acquired a further impetus in the most recent years; this debate has now highly intensified since this early 21st century. In the discourse of Islam and democracy relationship, a question as to how democracy is not only compatible but also intrinsic to Islamic original tradition becoming the most crucial today?

Democracy today is becoming a wider and higher concept with qualifications and values: (i) towards the individual self, (ii) towards the collective civil society, and (iii) towards combination of the sociopolitical conditions that are necessary for universal peace, international relations and the formation and development of the welfare of individuals and society universally. In other words, it means two things: (a) that the Islamic heritage already contains key concepts and values that are the foundation of Islamic perceptions of spiritual democracy and (b) its positive features and values, e.g., the rule of law, government responsibility, accountability, the general welfare, freedom, justice, equality, human rights, etc. being compatible with true Islamic teachings.

The political order in the Muslim world and the west has to be based on the concepts of spiritual democracy as explored by Iqbal and many other scholars in the east and west. Iqbal’s “Perfect Man” in his philosophy of Khudi at the highest level of self-actualization attains a spiritual power. The absorption of the Divine attributes brings the Perfect Man closer to the Creator. So the self-hood concepts of Iqbal and Whitman attain the highest goals by becoming innately related to God, making possible a union of the temporal and the eternal. We then know that the world has been created for us and we are for the world.

According to Iqbalian philosophy of Khudi mentioned briefly here [5], Tawhid (human unity), Shura (mutual consultation), vicegerency (every human as a co-creator on earth to improve the world for and on behalf of the Creator, to improve, to apply the universal order and recommendations of God among people, animals and non-living things), Ijma (consensus of the community), Ijtihad (independent reasoning or independent interpretive judgment) and the constitution of Medina – are all the Principles which were derived from holy Qur`an and Sunnah – interpreted not only as a source of constitutionalism, democratizing reform, but also of pluralism as well. The constitution was the ―first written Constitution of spiritual democracy in the history of constitutional rule.

In these critical times of divisive politics and challenges of distorted populisms not only in the Muslim world but also in global context, we are witnessing that the very foundations of democracy are being eroded. In order to restore and improve the democratic principles needed for any society that stands for dignity and justice for everyone, I have briefly explored here the need to reaffirm the highest values and spiritual underpinnings of a truly democratic society. Not only does democracy need to be maintained throughout the world, it must be re-evaluated in the context of the twenty-first century to ensure a radically inclusive process that works in service to the good of the whole of the humanity. It is time to put our collective purpose and concerted actions to work in order to evolve a robust democratic system that will give us leadership imbued with altruism and vision for the future stability of humanity and the planet earth.

[2]-Indeed Allah has created the human in the best of forms. (Surah Teen v.4)
[3]http://www.dr.library.brocku.ca/bitstream/handle/10464/1383/Brock_Zwanzig_ Rebekah_2008.pdf?sequence=1


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Muzaffar K Awan MD is a Pakistani-American physician who has lived in the USA for over 40 years. He practices medicine in Allen Park, Detroit Metropolitan area of Michigan. He has had keen interests in the enlightenment thought and practice of moderate Islam, East-West intellectual exchanges and interfaith dialogues. He is an amateur writer and has written numerous articles in International and Pakistani magazines and newspapers.

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