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DEMOCRACY. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, new ways of thought began to emerge in theMiddle East, owing primarily to contact with European industry, communications, and political ideas and institutions. Although the new modes of thought did not represent a break with the Islamic past, there was a modern element in the thought of some Muslim thinkers and officials who learned about Western culture, and who believed that Muslims could increase their strength by adopting Western laws and institutions in a selective fashion. For some writers of this period the principles of social action are rational and change as society changes. Human society, they affirmed, is its own judge and master, and its own interest should reign supreme. The representative figure of this period is the Egyptian reformer Muhammad `Abduh (1848-1905), who disseminated his ideas through the periodical Al-mandr. His purpose was to strengthen the moral roots of Islamic society, by returning to the past, but by recognizing and accepting the need for change and by linking that change to the teachings of Islam. `Abduh believed that Islam can both adapt to change and also control that change. In short, `Abduh asserted that Islam could be the moral basis of a modern, progressive society. Thus `Abduh’s thought has a traditional Islamic basis, but at the same time it moves in the direction of new ideas about social and political organization.

From about 1900 until the early 1950s, two lines of thought coexisted in the Arab parts of theMiddle East. Supporters of the first advocated the principles of secularism and constitutional democracy. A main element in this school was a belief in representative government based on broad political participation. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman state this trend was carried further by leaders of political groups and national liberation movements; it seemed to have reached its logical end with the establishment of quasiconstitutional systems in a number of Arab countries on the model of Western-style democracies. However, experimenting with democracy did not prove a happy experience. Rigged elections, puppet governments, arbitrary arrests, and rubber-stamp parliaments raised serious doubts in many people’s minds about the ability of the Arabs to create and tolerate democratic institutions and practices.

Following a second line of thought were those who believed that Islamic law and institutions should be the basis of political and social organization, rejecting the principle that society should be regulated by secular norms. For most of those who subscribed to this view, the ideal was to live in the inherited Islamic world of thought and to preserve the continuity of the Islamic tradition. In many respects, this contrasts with the thought of the advocates of democratic reform, most of whom accepted Islam as a body of principles but believed that the secular norms of nationalism and liberal democracy were best suited for the reorganization of Arab society and politics.

Following the 1948 Palestine war and more specifically with the advent to power of revolutionary regimes in key Arab states (Egypt, Syria, and Iraq), the balance of political ideas tilted decisively in favor of the radicalism of the revolutionary state. The new ways of thought and action were embodied in a form of nationalism that acquired a content of social reform expressed in the idiom of Arab socialism, and a foreign-policy orientation expressed in the language of anticolonialism and positive neutrality. In the 1950s and 1960s, many secularists as well as Islamists were engaged in attempts to prove that Islam and socialism were compatible, and that the pursuit of Arab unity was more important than the pursuit of democracy and pluralism. In North Africa as well as in the Arab East, the principle of Arab unity held first place, on the grounds that socialism, freedom, and the liberation ofPalestinecould not be achieved except on its basis. This was a position clearly articulated by the representatives of Arab nationalism-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970), as well as such Ba`thist activists and intellectuals as the Syrian Michel Aflaq (1910-1989), the Palestinian `Abd Allah al-Rimawi, and the Jordanian Munif al-Razzaz.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the unrest generated by war and civil strife in some Arab countries, the failure of Arab governments to stand up to Israel, the rising discontent with socioeconomic performance, and the unchecked growth of the power of the state brought about a change in the scale of political life: there was a broader agenda of grievances, and a larger public for new ideas and rhetoric. The movement for a revival of Islam as the only valid basis for social and political life was perhaps the most significant aspect of this change.

The term “fundamentalist” is too narrow to be applicable to these movements. Fundamentalism has an explanatory value only if it is applied to specific aspects of a political movement or a religious doctrine. Islamic political movements have different, competing, and even conflicting ideas about life in society, and about how Muslims should interact with the outside world. These movements are not monolithic. On the contrary, they are an admixture of diverse religious and political groups, each with its own leadership and organization as well as its own social and political agenda. Not all of them are devoted to absolute truth, and not all are concerned with “essences” and “fundamentals.” Indeed, many have specific agendas that are not carved in stone, but rather adapt to changing conditions. [See Fundamentalism.]

With the rise of Islamic political movements in the 1970s and 1980s, different writers and activists formulated different ideas about social and political organization. We shall deal in a general way with two of themthe liberal Islamic and the conservative Islamic perspectives-because they are broadly representative of certain attitudes and positions with respect to the notion of democracy; however, the reader should not impose a false unity on the ideas of all those who subscribe to one or the other perspective.

Liberal Islamic View. Advocates of the liberal view were influenced by Muhammad `Abduh. The thrust of this view, essentially `Abduh’s, is that Islam the religion does not conflict with a secular perspective. In matters of religious doctrine, the role of Islam is to cleanse the soul and guide the believers to their creator. On worldly matters, however, `Abduh asserts that Islam’s position is a secular one (Muhammad al-Nuwayhi, “Al-din waazamat al-tatawwur al-hadari fil-watan al-`Arabi” [Religion and the Problem of Civilizational Development in the Arab World], Al-adab, May 1974, pp. 79-86). Thus, according to `Abduh and to those who adopted his view, Islam encourages Muslims to establish their government on the basis of modern reasoning, and on the basis of the rules of government that have been tested and proven by the experience of nations.

Three concepts are central to the liberal Islamic view: shura (consultation), al-maslahah (public interests), and `adl (justice). There are disagreements among Muslim scholars with regard to shura, but in essence they all agree, on the basis of Qur’anic verses, that God instructed the Prophet to consult with his advisers, even those whose advice had led to defeat in battle. They also agree that good Muslims consult with each other in the course of conducting their affairs. Some observers consider this principle of “mutual consultation” to be a basis for the election of representative leaders and government institutions, as in the case of Western democracies. Fatwas (scholarly opinions), it is further argued, have allowed and will continue to allow different systems of government to legitimize their authority in the name of Islam.

The concept of al-maslahah, though not fully discussed in the writings of liberal Muslim thinkers, means doing what is good for the people and avoiding what is injurious to their interest. A critical issue here is the extent to which the people can be involved in determining what is good and what is not good for them. Theoretically speaking, this can be resolved through “mutual consultation” through the representative organs of the state. But regardless of the extent of consultation, a just rule is a sine qua non for the promotion of public interest. In this regard, Islamic political leaders are considered to be just insofar as they follow policies that are consistent with the public interest as defined through shura, and insofar as they do not inflict any unnecessary hardship on their people. [See Maslahah. ]

Also critical to the emergence and proper functioning of a democratic system is tolerance for pluralism. With respect to this, liberal Islamic thinkers argue that the Qur’an allows for political and religious diversity. Among the often-cited Qur’anic verses is 2.256, Id ikraha fi al-din (“there is no compulsion in religion”). This is interpreted to indicate the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims in civic rights and duties. There is inequality in matters of faith, but this is something that should be left to God. Human beings are not entitled to pass judgment on other people’s religious beliefs. According to the liberals, in dealing with worldly matters the challenge is to enter social transactions and relations on a basis that allows for adaptation to changing conditions. This requires a secular view and a secular way of fife. This view and this way of life can be consistent with the religious doctrine of Islam, which is in essence the purest form of worship.

Another liberal view that fits into this category was expounded by the Egyptian thinker Muhammad `Imarah. Starting from the assumption that Islam distinguishes between religious matters on the one hand and worldly matters on the other-a distinction which, he says, is not based on separation (fall) but rather on the distinctiveness (tamyiz) of spheres-`Imarah proceeds to argue that Islam is far from being a theocracy. As far as the lay character of political authority is concerned, `Imarah says that it is legitimate insofar as it rests on shura, selection, and public accountability. This does not entail, however, separation of state from religion, because Islam can be realized only through actual practice. `Imarah’s conclusion is that the two spheres of political and religious authority should coexist, but they should not be unified in one structure.

Thus, as far as these two spheres are concerned, distinction and not separation, coexistence and not overlapping, are the framework within which political organization should take place. In this scheme of things, political authority should be vested in the people who are responsible for organizing their political order in accordance with the requirements of their times, but within the framework of the principles of Islam. For `Imarah, unifying the temporal and religious authorities is not only un-Islamic; it is also tyrannical, primarily because it deprives the people of their right to be involved in the organization of their political life. Conservative Islamic View. In considering this per- spective, we may begin with the Muslim Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb (19o6-1966), who was a leading member of the Society of Muslim Brothers and whose writings have become very popular since his execution by the Egyptian authorities in 1966. Qutb condemns the Arab nation-state systems as un-Islamic and as part of what he calls the modern jahiliyah, a term that originally denoted the period prior to the emergence of Islam in the seventh century. For Qutb, many prevailing aspects of modern life, including Western institutions and beliefs, are evil and therefore inconsistent with Islam, except for modern science and technology. Qutb believes in the superiority of the Islamic system. He also believes that the comprehensiveness and universality of Islam make it good for all peoples, regardless of place and time.

On the basis of this belief, Qutb asserts that the Islamic political order is an eternal system. The foundation of this system rests on three pillars: justice on the part of rulers; obedience on the part of followers; and consultation between leaders and followers. The shari`ah is the source of all rules, both worldly and nonworldly. For Qutb, a just political and social order based on the Qur’an and the sunnah will lead to the implementation. of the shari `ah and will thus fulfill the main goal of Islam, which is the establishment of the Islamic state. Thus the main value is not democracy but the implementation of the shari `ah. Further, the political system that can claim Islamic legitimacy is the one that enforces the shari `ah, whether it is a monarchy, a republic, or any other form of government.

Another representative of this perspective is Hasan alTurabi (b. 1932), a leading contemporary Islamic thinker as well as the primary ideologist of the Sudanese Islamic National Front, the main pillar of the Sudanese government; he argues that any political or social system must be based on tawhid (unification). The concept of tawhid means the unification of all Muslims as a fulfilment of the rabbaniyah (lordship) of God. Shard and tawhid should go hand in hand. Shard is needed to interpret the shari `ah and to deal with constitutional, legal, social, and economic matters. Al-Turabi distinguishes between the connotations of shard and those of Western-style democracy. For him shard represents the ultimate sovereignty of God as embodied in the Qur’an; democracy, on the other hand, connotes the ultimate sovereignty of the people. [See Tawhid.]

According to al-Turabi, liberal democratic systems are flawed for two reasons. First, they are based on factional interests and therefore cannot promote real political equality, unity, and freedom. Because wealth, and therefore power, are concentrated in a few hands, ultimate authority lies with a small elite. Second, liberal democracies are based on human reason, and regardless of how much human reason tries to perfect the political and social order, it still suffers from the limitations that God has imposed on humans.

Thus, for al-Turabi, Islam has a unique advantage in that it postulates the divinely-ordained unity of political shard and tawhid. This unity guarantees against tyranny because it resolves ideological conflicts and unifies Muslim actions. It also leads to `aqd al-bay’ah (contract of allegiance) between the people and their ruler. The origin of this `aqd is ijmd’ (consensus) through political shard. Al-Turabi believes that by following this course Muslims will be able to create a democratic system free from the flaws of liberal democracies. This system will be able to deliver the Islamic ummah from jahiliyah, and will provide through shard a vehicle of participation and adaptation to change, as well as a mechanism for the realization of true political equality.

These Islamic notions of democracy and life in society are informative not only about the thinkers who articulated them but also about the time when they were presented. One may argue that even though these thinkers influenced the minds of others, none of them produced a comprehensive and sophisticated theory about political and social organization. One may also argue that none of the liberal Islamic thinkers has made a satisfactory effort to make liberal principles applicable in any systematic way to the conditions of Islamic social life.

To some extent, however, one finds in these Islamic ideas the two distinct, though not necessarily conflicting, elements of modernity and tradition that echo the thoughts of nineteenth-century Islamic writers. What is perhaps most significant about them is that they show the point at which certain ideas about political organization have entered contemporary Arab intellectual discourse. They also show the attempts of certain thinkers to restructure Islamic society and politics, either on the basis of an inherited Islamic past, or on the basis of a half-argued theory of liberal norms.

[See also the biographies of `Abduh, Qutb, and Turabi]


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Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/democracy/

  • writerPosted On: November 6, 2012
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