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ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY:

THE ISSUE OF COMPATIBILITY

DUSTIN LEE INGRAM

A RESEARCH PAPER

Submitted to the Faculty of Philosophy & Religion


in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
BACHELOR OF ARTS
at Piedmont College

Demorest, Georgia
April, 2011
TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1. INTRODUCTION ......................................................................................................... 1

Chapter 2. THE QUR’AN: AN INTERPRETATION FOR DEMOCRACY................................. 5

Chapter 3. DEMOCRATIC IDEALS IN THE HADITH AND SUNNAH .................................. 12

Chapter 4. ISLAM, HUMAN DIGNITY, AND HUMAN RIGHTS ............................................ 21

Chapter 5. CONCLUSION ........................................................................................................... 29

BIBLIOGRAPHY ......................................................................................................................... 32

ii
CHAPTER 1

INTRODUCTION

In 2001, Freedom House, an international, non-governmental organization, released a

study concluding that the Muslim world consists of far fewer democracies than the rest of the

world. Freedom in the World 2001-2002 found that Muslim nations are more than three times

less likely to have a democracy than other nations.1

The democracy deficit in the Muslim world raises the question of whether or not Islam

and democracy are compatible. Scholarly debates have long covered this issue, and different

studies have reached conflicting conclusions.2

To approach this topic with fairness, a multi-dimensional analysis of the Muslim world is

required. An analysis of Islam must not be geographically limited to the Middle East or even

1
Freedom House, “New Study Details Islamic World’s Democracy Deficit,”
http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=70&release=101 (accessed on April 23,
2011).
2
Frederic Pryor, “Are Muslim Countries Less Democratic?” The Middle East Quarterly
14, no. 4 (Fall 2007), http://www.meforum.org/1763/are-muslim-countries-less-democratic
(accessed on March 10, 2011).

1
2

Arab boundaries, for the four countries with the highest Muslim populations are not Arab,3 and

Islam is a religion held by over a billion people across the globe.4

While not lacking an acknowledgment of the way the history of political Islam, socio-

cultural movements, and current affairs shape the Muslim world, the bulk of this paper will be

directed at deciphering the compatibility of Islam and democracy at the most fundamental level

by scrutinizing various interpretations of Islamic scripture and doctrine.

A fundamental analysis of this issue must be completed before Islamic tradition, history,

and current affairs are added as variables. Deciphering how the Qur’an, hadith, and sunnah

relate to democracy is the first step. Only after this is done can other, tangential factors be

subjected to scrutiny. The arguments presented in this paper will create a foundation based on

this type of fundamental analysis. The future of democracy and Islam will be primarily

dependent on arguments such as the ones presented in this paper.

To avoid confusion, it will be necessary to provide definitions of terms that will be used

frequently. The three terms in need of immediate defining are first, the Muslim world, second,

compatibility, and third, democracy. The specific definitions given will hold throughout this

paper.

The term Muslim world will refer to the grouping of all territories, not limited to the

Middle East or Arab world, that within their political boundaries have populations consisting of a

Muslim majority.

3
Ibid.
4
British Broadcasting Corporation, “Islam,”
http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/ataglance/glance.shtml (accessed on March 10,
2011).
3

The term compatibility, as defined by Princeton University’s online dictionary service,

means the “capability of existing or performing in harmonious or congenial combination.”5

Two definitions, supplied by Dictionary.com, are “able to exist together with something

else” and “consistent; congruous.”6

For this paper, the definition of compatibility, as supported by the previous two sources,

will mean the capability of existing together in a way that is non-contradictory and consistent

with the intrinsic nature of all in consideration.

For example, for Islam and democracy to be compatible, the two must be able to coexist

in a way that is first, consistent with an interpretation of Islamic scripture, commentary, or

fundamental doctrine, and second, consistent with the definition of democracy that will be given

for this paper.

The College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas defines democracy simply as “rule

by the people.”7 While this is an appropriate cornerstone for the definition needed by this paper,

it carries along with it a vast array of interpretations. Given the global expansion of culture,

thought, and economics found primarily in United States society, it would be most relevant to

provide a definition that best identifies what we have here in the West. A term most suited to

identify Western democracy is liberal democracy.

5
Wordnetweb.princeton.edu, s.v. “compatibility,”
http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=compatibility (accessed on March 10, 2011).
6
Dictionary.com, s.v. “compatibility,”
http://www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/compatibility (accessed on March 10, 2011).
7
The University of Texas, “Democracy and Citizenship,” s.v. “democracy,”
http://www.laits.utexas.edu/gov310/DC/glossary.html (accessed on March 11, 2011).
4

The College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas also offers a definition for this

term.

[A liberal democracy is] a democracy in which majoritarian decisions prevail in


many policy areas, subject to the restriction that those decisions may not breach
individuals’ liberties and rights, as spelled out in a constitution. Liberal
democracy is based on the philosophy of classical liberalism, melded with the
idea of popular sovereignty.8

But what liberties and rights are to be spelled out in a constitution? A final addition is

needed to make this definition appropriate. Again, due to the global influence of the West, it

would be most relevant to identify liberties and rights as the liberties and rights accepted by the

prevailing democracies of today. This would mean accepting the United Nations’ Universal

Declaration of Human Rights as the standard.9

Thus, the most suited definition of democracy is a constitutional government where

decisions of the majority prevail in policy as long as those decisions do not violate the United

Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The question stands: Are Islam and democracy compatible? To answer this question, an

analysis of Islamic scripture will be required. The Qur’an, hadith, and sunnah will be consulted.

Lastly, the relationship between Islam and human rights will be analyzed to further weigh

arguments to reach a conclusion.

8
Ibid., s.v. “liberal democracy.”
9
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml (accessed on March 13, 2011).
CHAPTER 2

THE QUR’AN: AN INTERPRETATION FOR DEMOCRACY

To explore the possible compatibility of Islam and democracy, it will be necessary to

refer to the sacred scriptures of Islam. This will include a look into the Qur’an, which is the

central, authoritative, and holy text for all Muslims.1 While other chapters will focus on the

hadith, which consists of commentaries based on the sayings and actions of the Prophet

Muhammad,2 and the sunnah, which refers to the actions and sayings of the Prophet as recorded

in the hadith,3 it is important to note that only the Qur’an serves as the indisputable, holy text of

Islam.4

Before creating arguments based on interpretations of Qur’anic passages and other sets of

scripture, one thing must be acknowledged. The moment a word is read, heard, or otherwise

taken in through the senses, interpretation of the word will occur. The following arguments are

established on the premise that interpretation is both inevitable and acceptable. This paper seeks

to establish an interpretation of the scriptures of Islam, not the interpretation. The intended

1
Majid Fakhry, An Interpretation of the Qur’an (New York: New York University Press,
2000), 1.
2
John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2002), 183, s.v. “Hadith.”
3
Ibid., 187, s.v. “Sunnah.”
4
Ibid., 13-14.

5
6

implications are to spur healthy conversations about the different ways scripture relates to the

issue of the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

In Arabic, the initial revelations found in the Qur’an were allegedly communicated to the

Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Other revelations came to the Prophet at different

times. After Muhammad’s death, the revelations of the Prophet, along with other information

about the Prophet, were compiled into the text identified as the Qur’an. The Qur’an consists of

114 surahs, or chapters, which are divided into ayats, or verses.5

Steven Hofmann, in his article Islam and Democracy: Micro-Level Indications of

Compatibility, notes criticism that the Qur’an may serve as a barrier between Islam and

democracy. The lack of democratic political systems in the Muslim world may be a sign of this;

however, others claim that the sacred text is “open to interpretation and have suggested that

Islamic scripture, sunnah, and hadith may be able to serve as a ‘blueprint’ for the construction of

democracy.”6

Surah 42:38 of the Qur’an offers support for this argument. The surah, identified as Ash-

Shura, or consultation, reads as follows: “And those who answer their Lord, and perform the

prayer—their affair being a counsel among themselves, and of what we provide them with, they

spend.”7

5
Fakhry, 1-2.
6
Steven Ryan Hofmann, Islam and Democracy: Micro-Level Indications of
Compatibility, http://cps.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/37/6/652 (accessed on March 24,
2011), 655.
7
Fakhry, 42:38, 491.
7

This ayat shows the importance of consultation. While still open to interpretation, this

ayat seems to note that individuals ought to, in some way or another, collaborate.8 It does not set

requirements for an institutionalized council. It may be argued that consultation can be a

practice adopted by all believers and not the council of the ulema, a word which refers to the

religious scholars of Islam.9

In the article Islam and Democracy, John Esposito and John Voll further emphasize the

importance of this Qur’anic passage on the development of democracy in the Muslim world:

In the Qur’an, the righteous are described as those people who, among other
things, manage their affairs through mutual consultation, or shura. This is
expanded through traditions of the Prophet and the sayings and actions of the
early leaders of the Muslim community to mean that it is obligatory for Muslims
in managing their political affairs to engage in mutual consultation.10

Esposito and Voll continue to point out that prominent leaders within the Islamic faith

have endorsed the notion of popular consultation. This includes the support of Ayatollah Baqir

al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shi’i Muslim who stated that populations “have a general right to dispose of

their affairs on the basis of the principle of consultation.”11

Also mentioned is Mohammad Khatami’s agreement with the previous statement. The

former President of Iran held that “people play a fundamental role in bringing a government to

8
John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy,
http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2001-11/islam.html (accessed on March 14, 2011), 3.
9
Esposito, 188, s.v. “Ulama.”
10
Esposito and Voll, 3.
11
Ibid.
8

power, in supervising the government, and possibly the replacement of the government without

any tension and problems.”12

Another argument for the compatibility of Islam and democracy is based on the second

surah of the Qur’an, which is entitled Al-Baq’arah. An ayat from this surah reads as follows:

“When your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am placing a deputy on the earth,’ they said ‘will you

place one who will make mischief in it and shed blood, while we sing your praise and glorify

your sanctity?’ He said, ‘I know what you do not know.’”13

God has referred to Adam as a deputy. The word deputy could be an English translation

of the Arabic word for steward or caliph.14 This passage has a direct link to the following

passage, which can be found in the sixth surah of the Qur’an: “And it is He who made you

successors on Earth, and raised some of you above others in rank, so as to test you regarding

what He has given you.”15

In this passage, Muhammad is instructed to remind humankind that each individual has

been made a caliph, or steward, of the earth. If this is true, then all of humankind, individual by

individual, bears the responsibility of the caliphate or stewardship.16

Esposito and Voll state that the terms caliph and caliphate have come to mean different

things than they did in the Qur’an.17 The contemporary definitions of these terms can be

12
Ibid.
13
Fakhry, 2:30, 9.
14
Esposito and Voll, 3.
15
Fakhry, 6:165, 149.
16
Esposito and Voll, 3.
9

criticized through an acknowledgment of the history of Islamic political development. By

providing this history, the original and contemporary definitions can be accurately compared.

The history of the establishment of the caliphate is widely available in a multitude of

sources. The source selected for the purpose of outlining this history is Peter Mandaville’s

Global Political Islam.18

When Muhammad and his followers began sharing his revelations with the people of

Mecca, they were subjected to persecution and harsh opposition. At this time, life in Mecca, by

Muhammad’s standards, was corrupt and vile. After being invited to Yathrib, the Prophet and

his followers relocated. Thereafter, the settlement of Yathrib was renamed Medinah.

Muhammad soon became recognized as a political official. Using his position as a prophet and

political leader, Muhammad eventually gained control over most of central Arabia. The Prophet

died in 632 C.E.

As the indisputable political leader of all Muslims during his lifetime, the
Prophet’s death marked the first time the Muslim community had to settle
questions of political leadership and the conduct of public affairs. . . . While
Muhammad was alive, correct and authentic Islam was always immediately
available, embodied in the Prophet’s conduct. His death thus also marks the
beginning of Muslim politics in the sense of debate and contestation between
multiple different interpretations of the religion.19

There were two prominent sides of the debate on who should succeed the Prophet in

political duties. The first group, which would eventually be identified as the Shi’i branch of

Islam, argued that the successor of Muhammad must be of blood relation to the Prophet. This

17
Ibid.
18
Peter Mandaville, Global Political Islam (New York: Routledge, 2007), 25-29.
19
Ibid., 28.
10

group advocated that Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, should succeed the Prophet. To justify this,

the group called attention to sayings attributed to Muhammad. Allegedly, Muhammad had

called for Ali to be his successor.

Another group disputed the above claim. This group, which would eventually evolve

into the Sunni branch of Islam, believed that in order to justify the naming of a successor, a

consensus among the community’s senior figures would be necessary. This group won out on

the debate. Thus, Abu Bakr, a friend and original Companion of Muhammad, was chosen to be

the first caliph, or successor. This created the political establishment of the caliphate, which

endured for some 1,300 years until its abolition in 1924 by Turk Mustapha Kemal. Mandaville

comments on the caliphate when he claims that

[f]irst. . . . [n]owhere in the Qur’an or hadith is anything like an institutionalized


caliphate mentioned; and second, that throughout history, the caliphate, more
often than not, was maintained and legitimized primarily through force and by
threat of discord should it fall, rather than in terms of its intrinsic good.20

Esposito and Voll offer further support for the argument at hand:

In the Qur’an, the Arabic words for caliph (khalifah) and caliphate (khilafah) have
a different meaning. These terms in the Qur’an have the more general meaning of
steward and stewardship or trustee and trusteeship. In this way, Adam, as the first
human, is identified as God’s caliph or steward on earth (2:30). Muhammad is
instructed to remind humans that God made them the caliphs (stewards or
trustees) of the earth (6:165). In this way, in the Qur’an, the term caliphate refers
to the broad responsibilities of humans to be the stewards of God’s creation.21

If one is to accept this argument, he or she must also accept that the contemporary

understanding of the terms caliph and caliphate is a product of history and interpretation in a

post-Muhammad world. Even more, he or she must also accept that the Qur’an’s identification

20
Ibid., 51.
21
Esposito and Voll, 3.
11

of the term successor or caliph does not necessarily equate to an institutionalized position or

council. Above all, he or she must accept that interpretation of the word caliph is open to debate.

Esposito and Voll note that Ismail al-Faruqi, a Palestinian scholar, accepts the

aforementioned argument. Esposito and Voll speak for and quote the scholar when they write

that

[t]he concept of the caliphate involved responsibilities for all humans, in all
dimensions of life, but especially the political: “Rightly, Muslims understand
khilafah as directly political. . . . Islam requires that every Muslim be politicized
(i.e., awakened, organized, and mobilized).”22

If, conceptually, the term caliphate demands responsibility from all individuals, and

Islam requires its followers to be knowledgeable of political matters, then the argument that an

interpretation of the Qur’an can allow for the compatibility of Islam and democracy is

strengthened.

In conclusion, the words of South Asian Islamist Leader Abu al-Ala Mawdudi, as quoted

by Esposito and Voll, sum up this chapter:

The authority of the caliphate is bestowed on the entire group of people, the
community as a whole. . . . Such a society carries the responsibility of the
caliphate as a whole and each one of its individuals shares the Divine Caliphate.
This is the point where democracy begins in Islam. Every person in an Islamic
society enjoys the rights and powers of the caliphate of God and in this respect all
individuals are equal.23

22
Ibid., 4.
23
Ibid.
CHAPTER 3

DEMOCRATIC IDEALS IN THE HADITH AND SUNNAH

In Islam and Democracy: Micro-Level Indications of Compatibility, Steven Hofmann

states his belief that Islam and democracy are compatible. He argues that compatibility can exist

on a foundation created by the Qur’an, hadith, and sunnah.1 As the previous chapter defends, the

Qur’an may be interpreted in ways that suggest Islam is not inherently anti-democratic.

Historical developments and political movements have influenced Islam, and this fact must not

be ignored; however, it is possible to backtrack through history and argue, on the basis of the

Qur’an, that future democratic development is not out of the question. Similarly, the hadith and

sunnah can be assets for constructing an argument for the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

In order to construct an argument on firm footing, the origin, development, and

contemporary relevance of the hadith and sunnah must be explained. This information is widely

available in a multitude of sources. Two sources have been selected for the purpose of outlining

1
Steven Ryan Hofmann, Islam and Democracy: Micro-Level Indications of
Compatibility, http://cps.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/37/6/652 (accessed on March 24,
2011), 655.

12
13

this information, namely John L. Esposito’s What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam,2 and

John A. Williams’ Islam.3

Second only to the Qur’an in regard to scriptural importance is the hadith. The hadith

consists of commentaries about the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and those in

his closest company. Collecting the hadith began with the early Muslim community. After

Muhammad’s death, his Companions anxiously sought to preserve the words he stated and

actions he carried out. It took centuries for the hadith to be gathered. There are multiple

collections.4

Two collections hold prominence in Islam. These two collections were compiled by ib

al-Hajjaj and Ismail al-Bukhari. The Sunni branch of Islam, with which the majority of Muslims

affiliate themselves, values these two collections; however, not all hadith collections are

accepted by all Muslims, just as Williams notes when he states that

There are vast numbers of hadiths which are admitted by Muslim scholars to be
spurious. Even among those accepted by the Medieval scholars, there are many
which the modernists would reject. No absolute canon of hadith has ever been
established; certain compilers are recognized as more trustworthy than others, and
some sects and schools accept hadiths not accepted by others.5

The authenticity of the hadith came into question soon after the traditions of the Prophet

began undergoing preservation. A science of criticism was developed. Most importantly,

legitimate hadith collections carried along with them a chain of transmission, which is a concept

2
John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2002), 12-14.
3
John Alden Williams, Islam (New York: George Braziller, 1962), 57-59 and 88-90.
4
Esposito, 13.
5
Williams, 57.
14

identified as sanad. Each transmitter of the hadith would be listed, and the most authentic chains

could be traced back to Muhammad or one of his Companions. The honesty of the transmitters

would also be investigated through methods such as comparison.

Esposito comments on the use of comparison as a means to criticize the hadith:

A second method of hadith criticism focused on the content of the hadith rather
than just the chain of transmitters. Those who examined the content attempted to
verify that the hadith was consistent with both the Quran and other hadith on a
similar topic. In cases were two hadith conflict, religious scholars use the Quran
as the final authority with respect to content, regardless of who the transmitter
was.6

Regardless of which hadith collection is accepted or rejected, collectively, they consist of

valuable information. This includes a large amount of early Islamic history and a look into the

Prophet’s moral conduct.7

The sunnah, noted in an earlier chapter as the Prophet’s sayings and actions as recorded

in the hadith, provides safe ground for assumptions related to what Muhammad may have said or

seen as acceptable had a contemporary issue been brought up in his time.8 The sunnah is a

valuable source when it comes to modeling a life after Muhammad’s.

What Esposito and Williams have implied here is that regardless of authenticity, the

hadith are still valuable, and the sunnah was still been transmitted. Due to these points, the

hadith and sunnah can justifiably be used to continue the construction of an argument that

supports the idea that democratic development is widely possible in the Muslim world.

6
Esposito, 14.
7
Williams, 58.
8
Ibid., 88.
15

From the hadith and sunnah, the concept of ijma`, or consensus, has been used to develop

and clarify Islamic law. Historically, the ijma` was garnered by the opinions of the religious

scholars. In Global Political Islam, Peter Mandaville sheds light on a different perspective of the

concept than was accepted by history.

The “consensus” of the leading scholars of the age is also considered a relatively
safe grounding point for legal deliberation. The Qur’an exhorts Muslims to
decide matters on the basis of the community’s ijma—i.e. investing this notion
with significant democratic potential. In practice, however, it came to refer only
to the consensus of the learned jurisconsults.9

Here, Mandaville argues that ijma`, in practice, does not necessarily equate with the

concept of ijma` as described by the Qur’an. This shows a separation between the community of

Muslims, known as the ummah, and the learned jurisconsults, known as the ulema.

References to the notion of ijma` are vastly acknowledged by the Muslim community and

scholars. These references are noted in a multitude of different Internet sources, including blogs,

forum threads, and informative websites. At least online, there seems to be an agreement among

Muslims of which references are valid. Due to widespread agreement found on the Internet, as

well as an exhaustive search leading to no unified source, the references listed in blogs, forum

threads, and informative websites have been compared and accepted as legitimate. One of these

websites has been selected as a source for five references to the concept of ijma`. These five

references will be appropriately noted. Two references to the concept of ijma` are supported by

more definitive sources. These two sources will also be appropriately noted. Overall, the basis

for the concept of ijma` can be found in various collections of hadith.

9
Peter Mandaville, Global Political Islam (New York: Routledge, 2007), 35.
16

The first reference is as follows: “You have to follow the congregation, for verily Allah

will not make the largest group of Muhammad’s community agree on error.”10

Congregation can be interpreted to mean the ummah, or community of believers. If this

is true, then this passage would indeed be a shining light for the compatibility of democracy in

the Muslim world. This reference puts emphasis on following the consensus of the majority.

This argument implies a few different things. For instance, if it is impossible for Allah to

make the largest group of Muhammad’s community fail, then democracy would be necessary. In

the purist sense, majority decisions would be required. This is supported by the possibility of the

word congregation meaning the ummah.

How can popular sovereignty exist when sovereignty belongs to Allah? This question

can be answered by stating that sovereignty of the people is sovereignty of Allah. Allah is

sovereign through the ijma` of the ummah.

This is further illustrated by the following reference to the concept of ijma`: “Allah’s

hand is over the group, and whoever dissents from them departs to hell.”11

This could be interpreted to refer to collectivism, which is a notion that would be more

aligned with a government system based on communism; however, another analysis is possible.

This analysis suggests that Allah guides democracy. For example, if one were to disagree with a

decision made through ijma`, he or she would not necessarily stray from or rebel against that

10
Saufia, Ahadith on Staying with the Majority,
http://www.sunniforum.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-15167.html (accessed on April 14,
2011).
11
Ibid.
17

decision. Respect for and adherence to the democratic process is still possible, especially when

majority decisions within the community are considered to be flawless.

Another reference to the concept of ijma` supports this argument: “The difference in

opinion in the community is a mercy, and their agreement is a proof.”12

This ideal stands in many Western societies. For example, consider the following

hypothetical situation. Elections are to be held for public office. One may passionately support

a specific candidate, allocate funds and time to help the candidate’s campaign succeed, and

eventually vote for the candidate in a general election. Unfortunately for the enthusiastic

supporter, the mentioned candidate loses the election. The supporter, while not in agreement

with the outcome of the election, is expected to respect the decision of the majority, given that

the majority is well-informed. The importance of a well-informed public will be noted in later

paragraphs.

To supplement the argument that disagreement can exist within democracy, another

reference to the notion of ijma` is provided: “Shaytan is a wolf like the wolf that preys on sheep,

taking the isolated and the stray among them; therefore, avoid factionalism and keep to the

congregation and the collective and the masjid.”13

Keeping to the congregation could mean adhering to democratic ideals and processes. In

order for this to be effective, there must be a well-informed public. This is noted by another

12
Hofmann, 655.
13
Saufia.
18

reference to the concept of ijma`: “And were you to obey most people on earth, they will lead

you away from the Path of Allah. They follow nothing but conjecture, and they only lie.”14

To avoid this, the public must be educated. A well-informed public is necessary for an

ijma` of the ummah to be effective. If people are not well-informed, then they are more

vulnerable to deception. In Islamic Law: Theory & Interpretation, Michael Mumisa expounds

on the importance, as well as the possibility, of a well-informed public when it comes to reaching

consensus.

We no longer have the excuses that early communities of ijma` had to advocate an
exclusivist ijma` because of the benefits of globalization. Rapid developments in
communications technology, transport and information which bring the remotest
parts of the world within easy reach makes it possible for the people of Zimbabwe
to participate in an ijma` that is taking place in another part of the world.15

Furthermore, to reiterate from the previous chapter, Esposito and Voll support the idea of

an informed ummah. The quotation will be reiterated. “Rightly, Muslims understand khilafah as

directly political. . . . Islam requires that every Muslim be politicized (i.e., awakened, organized,

and mobilized).”16

This should settle the argument that democracy, and not collectivism, can be used as a

means to reconcile popular sovereignty and the sovereignty of Allah.

14
Majid Fakhry, An Interpretation of the Qur’an (New York: New York University Press,
2000), 6:116, 142.
15
Michael Mumisa, Islamic Law: Theory & Interpretation (Beltsville, MD: Amana
Publications, 2002), 86-87.
16
John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy,
http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2001-11/islam.html (accessed on march 14, 2011), 4.
19

In addition, another reference to the notion of ijma` does not call for the ijma` of the

ulema. It states that “that what the Muslims consider good, Allah considers good.”17

The plural use of Muslims points to understanding ijma` as the consensus of the ummah.

This reference, as well as previous references in this chapter, constructs an even stronger

argument against the institutionalized caliphate than that found in the previous chapter.

Consider again Mandaville’s words:

First. . . [n]owhere in the Qur’an or hadith is anything like an institutionalized


caliphate mentioned; and second. . . throughout history, the caliphate, more often
than not, was maintained and legitimized primarily through force and by threat of
discord should it fall, rather than in terms of its intrinsic good.18

If the majority will not agree upon error, and the quotation above is accepted as true, then

the idea of an institutionalized caliphate is on even shakier ground than before. If the institution

is maintained by force and fear-mongering, then there must have been people who disagreed

with the idea of the caliphate. Whether or not a majority disapproved of the caliphate is

unknown; however, it is still important to note the possibility and likelihood that, at times, the

institutionalized caliph did not receive majority approval.

If, first, Islam allows for people to disagree with majority decisions without rebelling or

disrespecting them, second, Islam requires the ummah to be politicized and informed, and third,

the ummah can be identified as the rightful body to reach an ijma`, then it could be effectively

argued that Islam and democracy are compatible.

The information in this chapter stands as a defense that the hadith and sunnah can be

interpreted in ways that allow for the coexistence of Islam and democracy. Concepts such as

17
Saufia.
18
Mandaville, 51.
20

ijma` may serve as cornerstones for the future development of democracy within the Muslim

world.
CHAPTER 4

ISLAM, HUMAN DIGNITY, AND HUMAN RIGHTS

In Islam’s Predicament with Modernity: Religious Reform and Cultural Change, Bassam

Tibi writes that “[g]lobally, the Islamic world heads the violators of human rights.”1 He

continues to comment on the Arab Human Development Report 20022 by writing that “the hard

facts indicate that the prevailing cultural patterns of Islamic civilization are not supportive of the

promotion either of democracy or of individual human rights.”3 The objective of this paper is

not to answer why this is the case, but instead, it is aimed at recognizing that the status quo is not

the only option.

In the first chapter, democracy was defined as a constitutional government where

decisions of the majority prevail in policy as long as those decisions do not violate the United

Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.4 The second and third chapters addressed the

issue of the Qur’an, hadith, and sunnah allowing for the development of popular sovereignty.

1
Bassam Tibi, Islam’s Predicament with Modernity: Religious Reform and Cultural
Change (New York: Routledge, 2009), 28.
2
United Nations, Arab Human Development Report 2002, http://www.arab-
hdr.org/publications/other/ahdr/ahdr2002e.pdf (accessed on April 16, 2011).
3
Tibi, 45.
4
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml (accessed on March 11, 2011).

21
22

The issue of whether or not the Muslim world can accept a standard of human rights deserves the

same method of scrutiny.

The issue of human rights and Islam is addressed after the issue of popular sovereignty

and Islam for two reasons. The first reason is illustrated by Tibi when he writes that “individual

human rights can be introduced successfully and thrive only if they are supported by a cultural

underpinning that ensures that they will strike local-cultural and civilizational roots.”5

While it is important to point out that the current state of affairs in the Muslim world is a

product of complex social, political, and economic developments, few of which are addressed in

this paper, it should also be noted that until an argument for the compatibility of Islam and

democracy is formulated on the core of Islam, meaning the Qur’an, hadith, and sunnah,

democratization and the acceptance of human rights will be difficult, if not impossible, to

achieve.

The second reason is that popular sovereignty is necessary to meet the standards set in the

United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for Article 21 states that “[e]veryone

has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen

representatives. . . . The will of the people shall be the basis of authority of government. . . .”6

In light of arguments presented above, it is clear that an interpretation allowing for the

compatibility of Islam and democracy exists. Now that these grounds have been established, the

emergence of a new cultural underpinning can be seen on the horizon. This, coupled with the

5
Tibi, 132.
6
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
23

acceptance of Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, clears the way for the

relationship of Islam and human rights to enter into the equation.

For this topic, discussion of the notion of human rights without an acknowledgment of

the concept of human dignity would be improper. Sirajul Islam places emphasis on human

dignity in his article Human Dignity and Human Rights. He states that the “[d]ignity of Human

being is an essential concept in the society as well as the morality, because through it the quality

and honour of the people can be determined, and from the sense of dignity the concept of Human

rights can also be measured.”7

In Human Rights in Islam, Fathi Osman notes that the Qur’an puts special emphasis on

the dignity of all beings.8 He points to surah 17 of the Qur’an. “We have honoured the

Children of Adam and carried them on land and sea, provided them with good things and

preferred them greatly of many of those We have created.”9

Here, the Qur’an states that Allah places humankind at the apex of all creation. Before

Muhammad’s revelatory encounters, this dignity was unrecognized in the region. To paraphrase

Islam, before Islam emerged in the Arabian peninsula, people behaved as animals. Class warfare

was prevalent, and apathy and racism allowed for discrimination. The struggle between inferior

and superior classes was a predominant issue. Many people in the inferior classes were servants

to people in the superior classes. Freedom and dignity did not exist in the lives of the lower class

7
Sirajul Islam, Human Dignity and Human Rights,
http://www.crvp.org/conf/Istanbul/abstracts/Sirajul%20Islam.htm (accessed on April 11, 2011).
8
Fathi Osman, Human Rights in Islam, http://www.hrusa.org/advocacy/community-
faith/islam1.shtm (accessed on April 11, 2011).
9
Majid Fakhry, An Interpretation of the Qur’an (New York: New York University Press,
2000), 17:70, 284.
24

people, and the labor classes were especially victimized in this respect. Women were treated as

commodities of pleasure, and many of the young girls were held as concubines by people within

the higher classes. When Islam emerged, the Prophet Muhammad condemned the

aforementioned evils. Thus, dignity and honor began to develop within the society.10

Through the denunciation of the mentioned social realities of the time, the importance of

dignity in Islam was revealed. Oppression of the inferior classes was seen as unacceptable to

Muhammad. Moreover, each Muslim carries the responsibility of protecting the dignity of every

human being. Oppression plays a role that is contrary to the will of Allah, and acting against

oppression is a religious obligation for Muslims.11 This is a foundation for human rights.

Osman notes that no one person can place him- or herself above another in terms of

dignity.12 He uses the fourth surah of the Qur’an to support this point.

O people, fear your Lord Who created you from a single soul, and from it He
created its mate, and from both He scattered abroad many men and women; and
fear Allah in Whose Name you appeal to one another, and invoke family
relationships. Surely Allah is a Watcher over you.13

Osman also acknowledges surah 49 of the Qur’an.14 This surah illustrates the equality

of all humans and is complementary of the previous ayat. Surah 49:13 reads as follows: “O

mankind, We have created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you

10
Islam.
11
Osman.
12
Ibid.
13
Fakhry, 4:1, 80.
14
Osman.
25

might come to know one another. Surely the noblest of you in Allah’s Sight is the most pious.

Allah indeed is All-Knowing, All-Informed.”15

The previous ayats show that clearly, individuals are equal in the eyes of Allah, for all

humans were created from a single soul and carry equal dignity. Here, the Qur’an does not

discriminate against age, race, gender, or socio-economic class. Moreover, respect for and

protection of the individual’s rights and dignity directly meet the standards set by the first four

articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.16 This also sets the stage for other

standards to be met.

Now that the issue of Islam and individual human rights and dignity has been addressed,

other prominent concerns may be brought to the forefront.

For this paper, the Muslim world is defined as the grouping of all territories, not limited

to the Middle East or Arab world, that within their political boundaries have populations

consisting of a Muslim majority. This definition does not suggest that Muslim majority nations

have entirely Muslim populations. How are Muslims to treat those who practice religions other

than Islam? This question poses a valid concern; however, as Osman notes17, the Qur’an

addresses the question explicitly when it states that there were

[people] who were driven out of their homes unjustly, merely for their saying:
“Our Lord is Allah.” Had Allah not repelled some people by others, surely
monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, wherein the Name of Allah is
mentioned frequently, would have been demolished. Indeed, Allah will support
whoever supports Him. Allah is surely Strong and Mighty.18
15
Fakhry, 49:13, 524.
16
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
17
Osman.
18
Fakhry, 22:40, 336.
26

Even more explicit is the 256th ayat of the second surah of the Qur’an. It states that

“[t]here is no compulsion in religion; true guidance has become distinct from error. Thus, he

who disbelieves in the Devil and believes in Allah grasps the firmest handle that will never

break. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.”19

Thus, the issue of religious pluralism has been addressed, and Article 18 of the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights is compatible with the requirements of Islam, for it states that

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right
includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in
community, with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief
in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.20

In What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, John L. Esposito notes another concern.21

This concern is related to Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states

that “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or

punishment.”22

Esposito writes that two forms of punishment exist in Islam. These are hudud, which

refers to punishments for specific crimes as outlined in the Qur’an, and tazir, which are

punishments assigned by a qadi, or judge.23

19
Ibid., 2:256.
20
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
21
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
21
John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2002), 149.
22
United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
23
Esposito, 149.
27

Hudud punishments are applied to those who practice sexuality outside of marriage,

falsely accuse people of unchaste acts, steal, and/or consume alcohol. The punishments for these

crimes are harsh and include flogging, stoning, and amputation.24

Esposito explains why these harsh punishments are prescribed:

Crimes punishable by hudud are considered attacks against the established social
order, threatening the cohesion and morality of the Muslim community. Adultery
and fornication violate the order of marriage and the legal means for the
procreation of children; theft violates the protection of property that is the right of
every member of the community; the consumption of alcohol can lead to acts of
aggression or immorality; and false accusations of unchastity. . . are acts of
dishonesty that damage the reputations of innocent people.25

Esposito continues to point out that Muslims in support of these punishments provide

different arguments for their positions. One argument is that in areas lacking law and order,

strict laws and punishments must be implemented if good conduct is to exist. Another argument

is that knowledge of such a strict code will deter crimes from happening.26

In the present, women are more-often subjected to harsh punishment than men. This is

not justified by the Qur’an, as the sacred text calls for equal punishment, regardless of gender.27

In concluding his writing on hudud, Esposito writes that

Muslim reformers and critics have argued that implementation of the hudud can
occur only in a society that enjoys a high degree of economic and social justice
and not in societies where poverty, high unemployment, and lack of education
may drive people to commit crimes of theft. Others argue that hudud
punishments were appropriate within the historical and social contexts in which

24
Ibid., 149-150.
25
Ibid.
26
Ibid., 150.
27
Ibid.
28

they originated but are inappropriate today and that the underlying religious
principles and values need to find new expression in modernizing societies.28

The notion of human rights, as noted in this chapter, is repeatedly mentioned in the

Qur’an. The Muslim community is required to protect the rights of all humankind. Although in

some areas of the world, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may not be respected or

adhered to, the religion of Islam does not reject the establishment of human rights listed in the

document. Islam sums this up in his article:

But it is a matter of great regret that the Muslims of the various corners have
deviated. . . from [Islam’s] basic teachings. They are frequently violating human
rights for personal gain. As a reaction. . . some independent thinkers, egalitarian
Muslims, and non-governmental organizations have raised their voices to
implement and improve human rights in Muslim countries.29

This chapter serves as an argument that the Muslim world has strong potential to accept

the United Nations’ standard of human rights known as the Universal Declaration of Human

Rights, and as a result, there is huge potential for the global compatibility of Islam and

democracy.

28
Ibid., 150-151.
29
Islam.
CHAPTER 5

CONCLUSION

Are Islam and democracy compatible? Previously, this paper pointed out that the Muslim

world falls behind the rest of the world in terms of democratization. Recent history tells us of

terrorist controlled states in the Middle East1 and the beating of Muslim women by their

husbands in the name of religion.2 Given this information, as well as conclusive information

from studies such as the Arab Human Development Report 2002 and Freedom in the World

2001-2002, it would seem as though the answer to the question presented by this paper is that

Islam and democracy are not compatible.

But then, the Qur’an is consulted. The hadith and sunnah are consulted. The origin and

meaning of Arabic words, such as ijma ` and caliphate, are unlocked. Through an analysis of

what the core of Islam says about democracy, human dignity, and human rights, interpretations

can be discovered that suggest Islam and democracy are indeed compatible.

This paper does not dispute the fact that many conditions found within the Muslim world

are far from democratic realities, but is this because of the religion of Islam, or are there other

1
Nazareth College, “History of the Taliban,” http://www-
pub.naz.edu:9000/~aamghar6/History%20of%20the%20Taliban.htm (accessed on April 24,
2011).
2
Willis E. Elliott, Wife-Beating, Wife-Beheading and the Qur’an,
http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/willis_e_elliott/2009/02/wife-
beating_approved_is_islam.html (accessed on April 24, 2011).

29
30

factors to blame? A quotation from Bassam Tibi’s Islam’s Predicament with Modernity:

Religious Reform and Cultural Change ties the thesis of this paper together. When

writing about the possibility of abandoning human-made burdens created in the name of Allah,

he states that

real Islam has always been a product of history and humans are involved in
creating it. Real Islam is the product of Muslims themselves. The reality is
neither a reflection of divine scripture nor a deviation from what they think is
right. It follows that Islam is always that which Muslims make of it and that
historical, man-made Islam is not divine, despite all the efforts of the ulema to
invoke God in it.3

If this claim is true, then it must also be true that people have the right to not only accept

interpretations of scripture that are not necessarily traditional, but also, people play the role of

applying new interpretations of scripture to their everyday lives.

I have also argued in this paper that interpretation is both allowed and necessary, and that

the current realities of the time may guide those interpretations into application.

We see this today, as the relationship between Islam and democracy is experiencing the

beginnings of some sort of reformation. In 2009, many Persian clerics denounced the authority

and legitimacy of the Ayatollah in Iran.4 Democratic movements and a demand for human rights

are being heard from nations such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and other Muslim nations across the

globe.5

3
Bassam Tibi, Islam’s Predicament with Modernity: Religious Reform and Cultural
Change (New York: Routledge, 2009), 40.
4
Michael Slackman, Clerical Leaders Defy Ayatollah on Iran Election,
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/world/middleeast/05iran.html (accessed on April 24, 2011).
5
Ian MacRae, Pro-democratic Movement and Violence Sweeping Middle East and North
Africa, http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/7786724/prodemocratic_movement_and
_violence.html (accessed on April 24, 2011).
31

In Islam and Democracy: Micro-Level Indications of Compatibility, Steven Hofmann

sums it up by stating that

descriptions of Islam as a monolithic force that severely hinders the development


of democracy seem to focus on interpretations of the Koran, sunna, and hadith
conducive to authoritarianism and seem to disregard cases of democratic Islamic
movements and Islamic political parties that adhere to democratic political
processes.6

I have argued that Islam and democracy are compatible. The Qur’an, hadith, and sunnah

have been used to support this point. Regardless of the Muslim world’s lack of democratic

governments, the core of Islam can be interpreted as suggesting that there is a potential path

toward widespread democratic development in Muslim majority nations.

It is my hope that this potential will be acknowledged by Muslims across the globe, and

that each and every Muslim will recognize and protect the dignity that belongs to each,

individual human.

6
Steven Ryan Hofmann, Islam and Democracy: Micro-Level Indications of
Compatibility, http://cps.sagepub.com/content/37/6/652.abstract (accessed on March 24, 2011),
656.
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