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Two Muslims Discussing Democracy
Jan 1, 2003

The following is a conversation between two Muslims, Jamal, a democrat, and Jalal, who has suspicions about democracy.

Jalal: Let me begin first. Basing myself on the Islamic viewpoint, I argue that in an Islamic political regime, sovereignty can belong only to God. However, given that democracy means popular sovereignty, democracy is anti-Islamic.

Jamal: Your argument is based on your reductionist worldview. There is only right or wrong for you. Your world is black and white, and has no room for any gray area. Real life is fuzzier than your rigid opinions.

Contrary to your claim, God's ontological sovereignty and the people's political sovereignty are not contradictory. I believe that God, in His capacity as the ultimate Creator, created everything. Therefore, God is sovereign in the universe.

However, His creation in the material universe is different from His creation in social life. He has given each person the freedom of choice and free will; no other member or part of creation has these abilities. Given this, God can create something in social life even though it does not seem appropriate. For instance, He creates heroin and creates the people's actions when they use it. However, God does not like the people to use it. In other words, He orders them not to use it but does not force them not to use it. God provides the people with free will and thereby makes them responsible for own decisions.

So, God creates whatever happens. Therefore, electing a leader is ontologically a creation of God and cannot contradict His sovereignty, although we cannot know whether this is an appropriate election in His sight.

Jalal: I still think that any popular vote is incompatible with Islam. Think about the designations of Prophethood. God is the ultimate decision-maker Who chooses the Prophets, regardless of what the people think.

Jamal: Perfect example! Of course, the people cannot elect a Prophet through voting, because by definition a Prophet is God's messenger. Political leaders, however, are the people's representatives, not God's. Also, the Qur'an states that no Prophet will come after Prophet Muhammad. Thus, the people are free to elect their own leaders.

Furthermore, democracy based on popular sovereignty is an alternative to monarchy and oligarchy, not to God's sovereignty. Why don't you accept that monarchical and oligarchic sovereignties also contradict His sovereignty? Can you really claim that the various royal dynasties received their right to rule from God? Similarly, are the militaristic regimes the shadow of God upon Earth? I don't think so.

Jalal: Frankly, I never thought of that. But I'm still curious about what you would say if a man-made rule happens to contradict a Divine rule. In Islam, the Qur'an and the Hadith reflect God's commands and so are accepted as absolute truth. In a democracy, however, ideally the people have the absolute power and legitimacy to create the law.

Jamal: But there is no paradox here. First, Muslim populations normally do not support laws that contradict the Revelation. Second, the Qur'an or Hadith contain no concrete and fixed political principles. Politics deals with temporary and mundane issues, which are subject to change according to time and place. Thus, the people can pass laws that are compatible with the constant, general, and universal principles of Divine rule on one hand, and with changeable sociopolitical contexts on the other. Third, it is more likely that the sovereignty of dictators, dynasties, or oligarchies will contradict the Divine rule than the sovereignty of the people will.

Finally, democracy has different forms, such as direct and representative. In direct democracy, the people vote directly in referendums for almost every political issue. In representative democracy, however, politics is conducted by the people's representatives. Moreover, some representative democracies (e.g., the U.S.) have a Supreme (or Constitutional) Court to restrict law-making. In sum, possible contradictions between popular sovereignty and Divine rule can be minimized by creating institutions (e.g., a representative system and a Supreme Court) that include some Divine rules as pillars of the constitution.

Jalal: You try to show that democracy is compatible with Islam

Jamal: Moreover, I accept democracy as being more compatible with Islam than with non-democratic systems. The Prophet's statement that my community will never agree upon an error reveals that the people are the source of political legitimacy. Moreover, the fact that the four Rightly Guided Caliphs were elected shows that election is a more suitable political institution for Muslims than any monarchic or oligarchic alternatives, despite the fact that such elections may not necessarily be considered purely democratic according to modern standards.

Jalal: If everything is so smooth, why did classical Islamic thinkers oppose democracy?

Jamal: First, evaluating classical thinkers by modern paradigms is an anachronism. Historical ideas need to be examined in their historical contexts. Don't forget that until the French Revolution, monarchy was the dominant political institution. Second, many classical Islamic thinkers (e.g., al-Baqilani and al-Mawardi) generally emphasized the necessity of elections in determining a new caliph. They did not legitimize hereditary systems. Finally, the non-democratic components of classical thought are the results of historical sociopolitical contexts instead of the essence of the Islamic thought. Therefore, Islamic political thought can easily adapt, adopt, and legitimize democratic systems.

Jalal: If Islam and democracy are so compatible, why are so many Muslim countries non-democratic?

Jamal: As I have tried to demonstrate, Islam does not necessarily oppose democracy and is not the only cause of non-democratic regimes in the Muslim world. While discussing the lack of democracy in Muslim countries, one should consider such other factors as the economic, cultural, and international conditions that shape these countries' political systems.

Second, Islam can be interpreted from different political viewpoints. While Islam encourages obedience to the rulers (4:59), it also encourages resistance. For example, the Prophet said: The best jihad is to say the truth to a tyrant's face. Non-democratic Muslim rulers have their own interpretations of Islam, which have been shaped by their particular conditions. Therefore, their practices cannot represent Islam's theoretical principles and essentials and its relations with democracy.

Jalal: Sounds interesting. Are you saying that democracy is the only political system compatible with Islam?

Jamal: No. Muslims may have changeable opinions, although Islam has absolute and universal values. The essentials of Islam are unchangeable and eternal truths. Political ideas, however, depend upon circumstances. Thus they are not absolute and change along with the sociopolitical and economic transformations. For that reason, Muslims could accept multiple political arguments. At this point in time, I personally prefer democracy to other political systems. However, if another system proves to serve humanity better, I might favor that one.