Islam is compatible with democracy. It is rather the interests of rulers of Muslim countries which are not compatible with democracy, says Asghar Ali Engineer.
I was invited last week to Indonesia for a series of lectures by Asia Calling International Radio to speak on “Islam, democracy and nation state’. These days Indonesian intellectuals are rocked with questions we were faced with in the early fifties in India. Also, all over the Islamic world the question is being asked: Is Islam compatible with democracy and the nation state? In Indonesia too, the largest Islamic country in the world, radical Islamists have raised this debate. The progressive Islamic thinkers there are therefore seized with these questions.
In a Asia Calling talk show, where a number of prominent public figures and diplomats were present, these questions were raised by many. Also I spoke at Wahid Institute, founded by the former president of Indonesia and leading scholar of Islam Abdur Rachman Wahid, on the experiences of the Muslim minority in secular India. Indonesia, though the largest Muslim country in the world is still not an Islamic country but a Pancasila State. The doctrine of Pancasila was adopted during president Sukarno’s time.
But now Indonesia is under pressure to become an Islamic state where Shariah law would be the official law and religious minorities such as Christians and Buddhists and others would become second-class citizens. Still, it seems, Indonesian people are resisting this demand and are hence keen to know the experiences of secular countries such as India. Also what is the experience of nation building in South Asia including Pakistan and Bangladesh? I was also asked to speak on the concept of human rights in Islam as in a democratic country human rights have fundamental importance. Indonesia, the largest Islamic country, is also faced with this question as minorities are coming under attack and their human rights are being violated.
Of course it is not at all correct to say that Islam is incompatible to democracy, I said in my talk. This myth is being spread by the supporters of authoritarian regimes in the Islamic world. Kings, sheikhs and military dictators are spreading such ideas, and to them it doesn’t matter if Islam gets a bad name in the process. I firmly refuted this myth and maintained Islam does not come in the way of democracy; it is dictators and monarchs who come in its way.
We should remember, I said, that the Qur’an does not provide any concept of state but a concept of society. The Qur’an wants to establish a just society, and what other way could be better suited to establish a just society than a democratic society. Also the Qur’an emphasises the equality of all human beings and equal dignity for all despite different languages, colours and race and nationality. How can this be achieved except through a democratic society?
Authoritarian societies negate all these and hence are not democracies; but monarchies and dictatorships are un-Islamic, not democracies. During medieval ages, concepts such as equal dignity, gender equality and human rights were just non-existent, and hence monarchies were quite acceptable. No longer. The modern society is emphatic about human equality without any distinction, and human rights and gender equality are of great significance, and hence democracy is the only way out for the Qur’anic concept of a just society to be realised Some people, especially radical Islamic groups, do argue that the only just government could be through the institution of khilafah. Let me say that the institution of khilafah has not been sanctioned by the Qur’an. As pointed out above, the Qur’an does not recommend any form of government at all. The institution of khilafa was the result of an historical situation. It was not even a part of the Prophet’s (PBUH) Sunna.
That is why there were differences among Muslims about the question of succession. Even the most prominent companions of the Prophet (PBUH) were not sure about the mode of succession of the successor. Shias maintain that the Prophet (PBUH) appointed his cousin and son-in-law Ali to succeed him. But only the supporters of Ahl-e-bait agreed with this view and others gathered in Saqifa Banu Sa’ida to discuss the question of his successor. There too there was no unanimity and after la lot of suggestions and debate, Umar proposed the name of Abu Bakr and did bay’ah on his hand and others followed.
Then, there was no unanimity in electing the Caliph. Many said the Khalifah could be only from the tribe of Quraish of Mecca, and Ansar of Madina who were from other tribes such as Khazraj and Aus maintained that the caliph should be from among them as they had helped the Prophet (PBUH) in Madina. It was also suggested that two persons be elected one from Quraish and one from Ansars. But this viewpoint was also rejected and ultimately Abu Bakr of Quraish was elected.
Then it was said that there could be only one caliph at one time but this concept also proved to be fragile as when the Abbasid defeated Umayyads, one of Umayyad’s family fled to Spain and founded another empire there and at a time there came into existence two caliphs and when the Buwahids captured power and the caliph became merely a nominal head, the caliphate turned into a sultanate. The institution of the Caliphate also lasted only for 30 years and Mu’awiyah captured power without any sanction from Muslims as in the case of the first caliph, and what is more he nominated his own son Yazid against the wishes of all Muslims and against the wishes of prominent companions of the Prophet many of whom were then alive.
All this clearly shows that the institution of khilafah was a tentative historical construct, not the result of any divine injunction either based on Qur’an or Sunnah. Thus it cannot be argued that the institution of khilafah be restored and that is the only way out. Also, the institution of khilafah, whatever way it came into existence, was after all more democratic than monarchies or sheikhdoms and dictatorships, which have no sanction of any kind at all.
Also, in the case of electing a caliph, tribal experience of the time was used, as the successor to a tribal chief was elected by the members of the tribe. There was no concept of one-man one vote at the time. In the institution of modern democracy, ‘one man one vote’ is the tried and tested method for electing public representatives. New historical experience has resulted in new methods of election. There should be no hesitation in accepting and assimilating new experiences. During the period of Khilafat, many institutions were readily borrowed from the Roman and Sassanid empires such as the practice of keeping salary registers for soldiers from Iran. Earlier, only the share in the loot was given to those taking part in the fight.
Sharia laws and democracy
Another question which is raised by Islamists is the imposition of Shariah law. They argue that in a democracy, there are man-made (human made) laws and Shariah law is divine law, and this cannot be allowed in an Islamic state as only Shariah law should be enforced. This is also an erroneous concept. Shariah laws can be divided into two categories: ‘ibadat and mu’amalat (i.e. laws pertaining to salah, saum, haj etc. which are part of ‘ibadat).
Then the laws pertaining to mu’amalat which include relations between human beings and human beings. Laws about mu’amalat cannot be permanent. Of course no changes can be made as far as Shariah laws concerning ‘ibadat are concerned, but as for mu’amalat laws, these cannot be permanent and Parliament should be empowered to make laws in those respects. All modern democracies allow people to pursue their respective religions and do not interfere in their religious affairs. In all secular democracies also, the right to religion is a fundamental right.
Also, as far as ‘ibadat is concerned, it does not require enforcement by any state but its importance lies in its voluntary nature. ‘Ibadat pertains to one’s heart and soul and real ‘ibadat is that which is done most sincerely and from the core of one’s heart. It cannot be enforced. And it will cease to be ‘ibadat if it is enforced by a state machinery. This is what the Qur’an also maintains when it says there is no compulsion in matters of religion.
Thus no Islamic state is required even to enforce provisions of the Shariah. An Islamic state again would mean the majority of Muslim sects who live in that country would enjoy real freedom and those Muslims who belong to other sects would be persecuted. We see this right in the beginning of Islamic history. The Abbasids initially subscribed to the doctrine of createdness of the Qur’an and all those who rejected this doctrine were severely persecuted. Even eminent Imams such as Abu Hanifa were flogged for rejecting this doctrine.
In modern Islamic states too we see this phenomenon. In Saudi Arabia, only Wahabi Muslims enjoy real freedom of religion Those who do not subscribe to this doctrine are persecuted or do not enjoy freedom like Wahabis to practice their religion. Similarly, the Shias are persecuted in Sunni-majority states and Sunnis in Shiah-majority states. In Iraq, a Sunni minority dominated and persecuted Shias and in Syria, the Alawi minority dominates over the Sunni majority as it wields political power.
Real freedom of religion is possible only in a democratic state where all enjoy equal rights irrespective of caste, creed and colour. Large numbers of Muslims today live as minorities in secular democratic states in various Asian, African and Western countries and enjoy the right to freely practise their religion. Thus it is not correct to maintain that you need an Islamic state to practise Islam freely.
Every democratic state permits Shariah laws pertaining to personal laws covering marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance. In secular India too, Muslims are completely free to practise these laws. Indian Muslims refuse any reform to their laws and the state does not insist on that – though in many Muslim countries these laws have been reformed.
Hudud and democracy
Now the question about criminal laws – whether it would be permitted in a secular democratic state. The answer is certainly no. In India, the British abolished Islamic criminal laws in 19th century and enforced a criminal code drafted by their parliament. The Muslim ulama agreed to the abolition of the Islamic code and agreed to the enforcement of the common criminal code. Today, in the modern world. many Muslim majority countries have also taken similar steps. Criminal punishments are largely contextual. In tribal Arab society, certain punishments were thought to be more effective and hence they were recommended. The main purpose was to prevent crime and nature, and the extent of punishment can certainly change. Also, there is provision for the tazir punishment in Islam and the rulers did enforce tazir punishments. So it is not a matter of principle whether hudud laws are enforced or not. The main thing is to curb crime.
Thus it would be seen that a secular and democratic state is equally good as long as it permits Muslims to practice their religion. It is also important to note that the Indian Ulama voluntarily opted for a secular state as opposed to an Islamic state in the form of Pakistan in 1947 when India was divided. They vigorously opposed the creation of a separate Muslim country and preferred to have a secular democratic and multi-religious, multi-cultural country. And who knew Islam better than the Ulama of Darul Ulum Deoband.
An Islamic state itself, as pointed out before, is a historical construct and not a Qur’anic concept and hence it is in no way obligatory for Muslims to set up an Islamic state. Those who argue in favour of an Islamic state cannot produce any argument from the Qur’an and Sunna. In every country there are certain forces who adopt majoritarian aggressive postures and want their religion to be associated with the affairs of the state. In India, for example, a section of Hindus want India to become Hindu Rashtra (i.e. Hindu nation) but secular Hindus resist that demand.
In any religious state, all citizens of different religious persuasions cannot enjoy equal rights – and no modern state can allow this. The very essence of modern polity is that all citizens irrespective of their religion should enjoy equal rights. Maulana Maududi of Jamat-e-Islami of Pakistan had argued that no non-Muslim can become head of the state or prime minister of Pakistan. He or she cannot even hold any key post in the government. Sure, in secular states as well no person from minority religions will find it easy to become head of the state but theoretically it is not ruled out. In India, a Sikh, a non-Hindu, became a prime minister and three Muslims could become president of the country.
Human rights and the Qur’an
Another objection raised by many Islamists is that in secular democratic states, human rights are sacred and the very concept of human rights is un-Islamic. This is also not in keeping with the Qur’anic teachings. Firstly, most of the Islamic countries with few exceptions have signed the UN Human Rights Declaration. Some countries did not sign the declaration – their objection was that one who renounces Islam cannot be put to death as freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of human rights.
But as pointed out above, the Qur’an itself upholds the right to freedom of religion and the Qur’an pronounced it well before the modern world realised its significance. It is very strange that now some Muslims are in contradistinction to a Qur’anic principle, of which they should have been justly proud, and reject the doctrine of freedom of religion as modern, western and, hence, unacceptable. The Shariah rule that one who renounces Islam should be given the death sentence is highly controversial and there is no unanimity on this among Muslim jurists. Maulana Aslam Jairajpuri, for example, disagrees with it and advances several arguments from the Qur’an and the Sunna to show that the death punishment for renouncing Islam is not justified.
In fact, freedom and faith go together. One cannot genuinely believe in any religion unless one is completely free to accept or reject it. If one is forced to accept a religion, one cannot accept it with one’s heart and soul. One may accept it outwardly but in heart and soul may resent it. It is precisely for this psychological reason that the Qur’an made the principle of freedom of religion so important. The Shariah provision for the death sentence was more for sedition than for renouncing religion. It was feared that a Muslim living in an Islamic state, if he or she renounces Islam, may join hands with the enemy and conspire against the Islamic state. The punishment for sedition in much of the world is death.
The fear of sedition was genuine because Muslim states were surrounded by Christian states and there was direct political – though not religious – confrontation between the two. Hence if someone renounced Islam, there was genuine fear that he may help the Christian states. The crusades were well known from the 11th to the 13th century. That period of confrontation between Muslims and Christians was most intense. Thus, the death punishment for renouncing Islam made sense during that period. This context must be kept in mind – but in the long run the Qur’anic doctrine of freedom of religion must be upheld.
As for other principles of human rights, even the most orthodox Muslim cannot object to them. For example, equality of all human beings is central to Qur’anic teachings too. Human dignity is sacred in Islam as well. Gender equality is also clearly enunciated in the Qur’an. Moreover, woman has been given equal rights for contracting marriage while husband and wife have been described as each other’s garment. All these are enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia which did not sign the Declaration did not object to these provisions.
Democracy beneficial to Muslims
Those who argue that the implementation of Shariah is an obligation for an Islamic state should understand that the Shariah evolved gradually and there was a great deal of differences among Muslim jurists on many issues. Thus, the Shariah, as one Islamic scholar Prof. Muhammad Mujeeb maintained, is a human approach to divine injunctions. That is an apt description of Shariah laws as evolved by many eminent jurists during the first four centuries of Islam.
The great Urdu poet Iqbal from the Indian sub-continent also maintained that every generation of Muslims should be entitled to rethink Shariah issues and in a Muslim-majority country, Parliament will be the right forum to do so. He also maintained that ijtihad is the dynamic principle in Islam and ijtihad becomes necessary in changed conditions in modern society. Thus, a democratic society with an elected parliament would be a better institutional arrangement for making the Shariah more relevant to our contemporary world. Many new issues have arisen which need the use of ijtihad urgently.
And where Muslims are a minority and live in a secular democratic state, they should evolve their own forums to bring about necessary changes. Today more Muslims live in minority situations than in majority situations and hence they would have to evolve their own institutions to do ijtihad with the cooperation of ulama and modern scholars. No secular democratic state can stop them from attempting these creative changes in their laws. All this has to be done within the framework of Islam. No changes can be brought outside this framework if they are to be accepted by Muslims at large.
To accept the democratic state would be far more beneficial to Muslims and would enable Muslims to practise their religion faithfully and fearlessly than in so-called Islamic states, where sectarianism and fundamentalism prevail. A democratic state is a much better guarantee of genuine freedom of religion than a state based on any religion. This seems to be contradictory but is in fact true.
Thus, we must properly educate the Muslim masses and prepare them for the acceptance of democracy in the Islamic world. They should be made aware that those who oppose democracy in the name of Islam are really serving certain vested interests rather than Islam. The Islamic world is still reeling under the impact of feudal and medieval forces who serve their own interests in the name of Islam. Islam is compatible with democracy. It is rather the interests of rulers of Muslim countries which are not compatible with democracy.
Indonesia, I said in my lectures, has achieved democracy after a long spell under dictatorship and it must be protected at any cost, and all religious minorities also should be guaranteed full freedom to follow their respective religions. Tolerance of differences is an important principle of democracy, and due tolerance should be shown to all different religious opinions too. It will not violate any Islamic principle at all.
Ashgar Ali Engineer is associated with the Institute of Islamic Studies in Mumbai, India
Source: Islam and Modern Age, September 2008
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