Islam and Democracy

by Dr. Khalifa Abdul Hakim

What follows is an excerpt from Chapter 19 of The Prophet and His Message by Dr. Khalifa Abdul Hakim. We gratefully acknowledge and thank The Institute of Islamic Culture for permission to reproduce this.
THE things that concern man most vitally are the most difficult to define. Who has ever succeeded to offer a definition of religion that would satisfy all creeds and all sects and all philosophers of religion? The difficulty is not less in every single religion, great or small. The hundreds of Christian sects would define Christianity differently - everyone considering some one or more traits as essential constituents of it, while the others would regard them either un-Christian or of secondary importance. 

Islam is proverbially reputed to have seventy-two sects, though it would be difficult for any research scholar to count more than a dozen. Hinduism is a completely undefinable entity and it is now agreed, only for the sake of consensus, that whoever calls himself a Hindu is a Hindu, irrespective of his beliefs or practices. Besides the division of sects, individuals within the pale of the same creed have widely different views and angles of vision about what actually constitutes the essence of religion. 

I do not expect that the view of religion (or Islam in particular) as presented in this book would be universally accepted. However, I may substantiate it by the authority of the Qur'an and the Sunnah [the Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, p.b.u.h.]. My like-minded co-religionists would hold it to be true, but whoever cares to differ may interpret the same verses differently or quote others to contradict my interpretation. 

The subject of the relation of Islam to democracy would present further difficulties, because democracy seems to have become as undefinable as religion or love. From the beginning of democracy, in any part of the world, up to the present times, (when it almost seems to have taken the place of religion as an ideal or a way of life) opinions about its nature and value have been divergent and contradictory. 

Western political historians usually start with Greek democracies, paying special attention to Athenian democracy as a typical institution. Some lovers of Greek culture praise it as much today as Pericles did when he called it the high water mark of civilisation. But the most famous of the Greek political philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, considered it to be an irrational and disgraceful institution. The last one having the biggest world-conquering monarch as his glorious disciple. 

Let me quote a sentence from Aristotle's Politics (Book V, Ch. I, Sec. 2). He says: "Democracy arose from men's thinking that if they are equal in any respect, they are equal absolutely." He did not believe in any fundamental equality of mankind. He has asserted that Nature creates some human beings for slavery, and so slavery is a natural institution. The whole of Plato's' Republic is a monumental and elaborate thesis against Athenian democracy and the whole concept of democ racy in general. 

The teacher and the disciple desired the creation and perpetuation of a rigid caste system in which the majority of superficially free citizens should have nothing to do with the making of laws or the executive government. They too, like Aristotle, considered it just that the majority should consist of virtual or actual slaves. Plutarch says about Lycurgas that to a man who demanded the establishment of democracy in Sparta, he replied: "Go thou and first establish democracy in thy household." 

The broadest definition of democracy is that given by Abraham Lincoln, that "it is a government of the people, by the people and for the people," which Daniel Webster put in other words as the people's government made for the people, made by the people and answerable to the people. As I have said already, democracy has now in many ways taken the place of religion. It is inevitable, therefore, that like religion it should become vague and assume different shapes among different nations, due to [a] difference of temperament and history. The British are proud to have developed representative institutions; and the British Parliament is considered to be the mother of parliaments. But the Magna Carta which John was forced to sign was not a charter of rights for the people since a political entity did not exist. It was the landed aristocracy, the feudal barons, who wanted to share power with the king and the right to defend what they believed to be their rights or vested interests. The people received no protection against the exploitation and tyranny of the feudal lords. The British, during a long process of political evolution, curtailed and ultimately annihilated the power of the king, threatening to behead him if he was too refractory [insubordinate] and self-willed, but [the] aristocracy continued to be the actual ruling power till the recent emasculation of the House of Lords where the aristocrats with denuded power and pelf [derog. wealth] are allowed to debate but not to decide, just as the king is allowed to reign but not to rule. A century ago, during the time of Macaulay, the franchise was still very restricted and the common man wielded no effectual power. But he proudly said: "Our democracy was from an early period the most aristocratic and our aristocracy the most democratic." Like many of Macaulay's verdicts, the assertion is more rhetorical than historical. 

How many different and diametrically opposed systems have claimed to be democratic in recent history? I had au opportunity of discussing the suppression of democracy with Dr Schacht when he was removed by Hitler from the control of finance. At that time he could not dare to denounce the Nazis and, supporting the system, he said that the Jews were suppressed (he did not acknowledge persecution) in the name of German democracy and Hitler was elected by an overwhelming free democratic vote. On the other hand, Communism claimed to be [a] real democracy run by workers and peasants who have little power in a capitalist regime. 

The Western democracies collectively have assumed the dignified title of the "free world" implying that the communist world is an enslaved world where people are equal only in the sense of enjoying equality of rightlessness [lack of rights]. The Italian Fascists also believed themselves to be true democrats wielding power for the glory of the people. France, during the French Revolution, raised the slogan of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, and then Napoleon, the Caesar of Caesars, was the outcome of it. After that, having lost her political hegemony [supremacy]. 

In Europe, France started or intensified her colonial ventures, defeated in many regions by the British, but still holding fast to the rest. Having been defeated, debased and ousted from a part of Indo-China and retaining the rest by the support of the so-called free democracies, France entered on a campaign of genocide in Algeria claiming Algeria to be French because of the exploiting French minority there. This is her practical application of the creed of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality which sounded even better than Abraham Lincoln's "government of the people, by the people and for the people". The Union of South Africa too, is a part of the so-called free world. It took [an] active part in defeating Hitler's Nazism and Mussolini's Fascism, but is actively and violently engaged in preaching and practising the creed of racial segregation and disenfranchisement of the native population and the coloured people within its realm. This too is democracy. Democracy, O Democracy, what crimes are committed in thy name! 

Democracy, through its long and chequered history, has assumed many forms and shall in all probability assume many more forms in the future. We have to discuss here democracy in relation to the religion of Islam. Muslims in general believe Islam to be a democratic creed, but it is a curious phenomenon that neither Arabic nor any other Muslim language has any word that could be called an exact equivalent of the word 'democracy.' The word Jamhnr'iyat derived from Jamhur, meaning 'the people,' is a twentieth-century translation which is now adopted in many Muslim languages. The Socialist Party in Iran is called Tudeh Party; the original meaning of tudeh is a mass or a heap. The movement claiming to be the protagonist of the masses adopted the word tudeh, meaning mass. When even the word did not exist, the presumption is that democracy, as understood in the West, neither existed in ideology nor as an institution. 

Dealing with Islam, the question is not difficult to answer. According to the Islamic faith, sovereignty belongs to God and not to the people either as a whole or as a majority. As God is the Creator and the Law-giver of the universe, so all authority in human affairs ultimately vests [is vested] in God. The phrase 'sovereignty of the people' would be considered heretical or blasphemous. Whoever rules among the Ummah [community] rules only by delegated authority. 

The real problem is to whom this sovereignty or authority is delegated. If there were an organised Church in Islam, with a hierarchy of ordained priests, this body would claim to be the viceregent of God on earth. as the Catholic Church holds power in the name of Christ with an infallible pontiff at the apex of the ecclesiastical pyramid deriving his infallibility directly from Jesus himself. It is as if Jesus himself were the executive head of the institution. But as original Islam abolished monarchy and feudalism by abolishing primogeniture [an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son], so it categorically abolished priesthood. The Prophet handed over the preservation, propagation and implementation of the faith to the entire community of the faithful advising them to choose their leader from among themselves on the basis of all-round fitness, irrespective of tribe, race or wealth. He said; "Follow your leader even if he is a negro with tangled hair." 

It should be kept in mind that in this book we are dealing with Islam and not with the types of States and societies in which Muslims have lived through these [last] fourteen centuries. Islam should not be confused with the social or political organisation of various Muslim communities (or nations) in different epochs and different climes. As Christianity, as lived through the ages, should not be identified with the original outlook of Jesus, or [for] what he desired humanity to be. 

Islam, as taught in the Qur'an, and preached and practised by the Prophet; and a short time afterwards by those on whom his mantel [shadow?] fell, very soon lost its idealism by what may be called a counterrevolution. It became diluted with Arab imperialism which spoilt a good deal of its original egalitarian ideology. When wealth undreamt of by the dwellers of the desert poured in, it accumulated in the hands of a minority [and] all the economic ills and moral weaknesses followed in its wake. From Mu'awiyah onwards, who converted the democratic republic of Islam into a hereditary monarchy, the self-styled successors of the Prophet, assuming the dignified title of Khalifahs, combined in themselves the powers a Caesar and a Pope. The whole wealth of an extensive realm became their private purse. 

Courtiers and aristocracy sprang up so much so that they began to prefer the accumulation of taxes to the propagation of faith. Revenue collectors reported to an exceptionally pious Khalifah, 'Umar ibn 'Abdul 'Aziz, that the revenues of the realm were declining and all was not well with the State exchequer because those who became Muslims did not pay the poll tax. He said that the State should be pleased because it was not the aim of Islam to collect taxes but to propagate the faith. 

Such a man among the later Khalifahs was an exception. The ruling junta got rid of him by poisoning [him]. Theology, with [a] few honourable exceptions, became the handmaiden of monarchical power. Nobody raised a voice against these Caesars who sat in the seat of a Prophet who lived in a mud hut, swept his floor, mended his shoes and milked his goats, living for days together on a handful of dates with or without a cup of camel's milk. 

The Prophet has said: 

"Henceforth there shall be no Caesars and God hates most the man who is called an emperor or king of kings." 

How could the world believe that there was anything democratic in Islam when the common man had no say in the working of the State and had no power to assert his rights? Among the people only a nostalgic memory was left of the type of State and society which was brought into being by the implementation of Islam for about three decades. They called this shortlived experiment Khilafat Rashidah, the rightly-guided Caliphate, implying thereby that the rulers that followed were misguided. The glory of Harun al-Rashid, the magnificence of Sulaiman the Magnificent, and the splendour of Shah Jahan who sat in the jewelled Peacock Throne, costing half the revenue of his entire kingdom, was not the glory of Islam or the furtherance of its ideology but quite the opposite of it. 

Let us summarise the type of State and society which Islam envisaged as an ideal pattern and which it tried to realise within the limitation of an early era, and the reliefs which it was based upon: 

(1) Sovereignty belongs to God alone Whose chief attributes are Wisdom, Justice and Love. He desires human beings to assimilate these attributes in their thoughts, words and deeds. 

(2) Though ultimately God moulds destinies, He has endowed man with free-will so that he may freely attune his will to the will and purpose of God. 

(3) In matters of faith, God has compelled nobody to believe; the ways of righteousness and their opposites have been clearly indicated. Anyone may believe or disbelieve and bear the consequences. There must not be any compulsion, in the matter of faith. An imposed faith is no faith at all. Everybody should be free to follow his own way of life, either because of personal preference or because of his belonging to a community, provided his conduct is not subversive of fundamental morality or disruptive of the peace of the realm or does not trespass on the legitimate freedom of others. 

(4) An Islamic State is not theocratic but ideological. The rights and duties of its citizens shall be determined by the extent to which they identify themselves with this ideology. 

(5) Non-Muslims can live peacefully as citizens of a Muslim realm. They are free to not take part in the defence of the State, and in lieu of this exemption pay a poll tax which shall entitle them to complete protection of life, property and liberty in the practice of their faith. If they are prepared to defend the realm as loyal citizens, they shall be exempt from this tax. 

(6) There shall be no racial discrimination within a Muslim realm. People become high or low only because of their character. 

(7) All avenues of economic exploitation must be blocked so that wealth does not circulate only in the hands of the few. 

(8) A person shall be free to earn as much as he can by legitimate means, without exploitation or fraud. But wealth, even legitimately acquired beyond a certain minimum, shall be subject to a tax on capital. This shall be an inalienable part of a Muslim polity [state]. 

(9) Women shall enjoy an independent economic status. All their inherited wealth and their personal earnings shall be their own property which they can dispose of as they please. 

(10) A truly Islamic State cannot be a monarchical state. It must be a democratic republic in which the president is elected by a free vote of the community on the basis of his capacity and character. 

(11) It is incumbent on the ruler to have a council of advisers and consultants for purposes of legislation or major decisions. They shall be chosen on grounds of their wisdom, experience and integrity. The mode of their selection is left to circumstances. In matters not pertaining to faith, non-Muslims are not debarred from consultation. 

(12) There shall be no special class of priests in an Islamic society, though persons leading [a] better religious life and possessing [a] better knowledge of religious affairs have a legitimate claim to honour. They shall enjoy no special privileges, legal or economic. 

(13) There shall be perfect equality of opportunity and equality before [the] law. The law shall make no distinction between a Muslim and a non-Muslim either in civil or [in] criminal cases. Every citizen shall have the right to seek a judicial decision - even against the head of the state. 

There were many instances of this in early Islam. The Khalifah 'Umar appeared in the Court as a party in a suit and the judge stood up as a matter of respect, at which the Khalifah said that he had started with an unjust act honouring one party more than the other; how could the other party have confidence in his sense of justice? 

(14) The judiciary was made independent of the executive. In periods of monarchical absolutism, when the judiciary began to be influenced by the men in power, the great jurist Imam Abu Hanifah preferred to be whipped and sent to prison [rather] than accept the post of a judge. He was imbued with the original spirit of Islam which desired uncorrupted justice between man and man. "Do not refrain from justice even if it goes against you" (Qur'an 4:136); "Let not the hostility of a party tend to make you unjust towards it." 

These are the fundamentals of an Islamic constitution that are unalterable. No ruler or no majority possesses any right to tamper with them or alter them. This is eternal Islam rooted in the ideals of a God-centred humanity. 

An Islamic democracy could differ in its pattern from some of the modern democracies. It is un-Islamic that parliamentary government should run on a party basis."My party, right or wrong," is morally as vicious as "My country, right or wrong." Once a haughty imperialist British viceroy of India had the audacity to say in a public utterance that Indians are liars. Chesterton, the famous British author, hearing this, said that the atmosphere in India must be chokingly false [in] that a party politician like Curzon should feel the stink of it, because a party politician's life is based on hypocrisy and falsehood. The chief aim in party politics is not the welfare of the state or the weal of the commonwealth, but to strengthen the position of the party or weaken the position of its opponents. When a party gets into power by [either] fair or foul means, it very often forgets all the promises and does the very same things against which it raised a hue and cry and accused the opponents. The reductio ad absurdum [reduction to absurdity] of this system is the French Chamber of Deputies, which makes it impossible to have a stable government even for a few months. Every day persons and parties come together or separate to dislodge others. No division on the basis of principles is involved. 

Government of the people and by the people has led logically to adult franchise [voice] even in nations where the majority are illiterate and utterly incapable of understanding the complicated economic and political issues of modern life. This kind of political democracy was demanded and furthered by exploiting [the] bourgeoisie in every country who were certain of getting the votes of helpless workers and peasants and dependent women. 

People must have equality of opportunity and equality before [the] law, but equality before [the] law does not necessarily mean equality of wisdom and capacity to make laws. As Socrates said in Plato's Republic, it is curious that one would not entrust the work of making shoes to one who has not spent a good part of his life in acquiring this skill, but legislation and political decisions are considered to be safe in the hands of those who do not know the elements of statecraft and are devoid of the knowledge of human nature and human destiny. And how right Aristotle was in observing what we have quoted already that democracy means that if people are equal in some respects, they are equal in all respects! 

Surely Islam enjoins that good government must be government by consultation, but the vital question is 'who are the persons entitled to be consulted and how are they to be chosen?' How could you expert a crowd of illiterate and exploited people to choose, properly and freely, a person to represent them solely on the basis of wisdom and integrity? Could a poor man who has no money for an expensive electioneering campaign ever hope to get into a modern legislature? 

The extension of franchise should go hand in hand with the extension of a right type of education and economic freedom of the common man whether he is a wage earner or a peasant. Even when these conditions are realised, representatives should be chosen on the basis of knowledge and integrity; the possession of wealth playing no part in it. 

Some nations experimented with democracy in the past and many more are experimenting with it in the present. It is not difficult to understand why it has so general an appeal. It appeals to the common man because it appeals to his sense of dignity and self-respect making him feel that, in however a humble way, he too counts. He appreciates the idea that everyone is to count as one and nobody more than one. [Immanuel] Kant defined the ethical imperative as meaning that every human being is to be treated as an end in himself and not as a means for the furtherance of ends [that are] extraneous to him. 

Throughout the history of civilisation, the majority of individuals in a nation or an empire were treated merely as a means to promote the end of a monarchy or an oligarchy or a plutocracy. The governments of the past were devices for maintaining in perpetuity the place and position of certain privileged classes. The democratic ideal is to devise a machinery for protecting the rights of the people, and the ultimate extinction of all privileged classes. A democrat rightly believes that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people and the system of state and society should be such as makes it possible for every human being to achieve whatever worth he is capable of achieving. The democratic idea is a religious idea in so far as its starting point is the postulate that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain natural rights; and for the protection of these natural rights, all men are to be treated as equal. 

The world must be made safe for democracy if humanity as a whole has to develop the eternal intrinsic values of human life, which a theistic religion believes to originate in the nature of God. Implementation of these values may change but in themselves they arc eternal. This verse o. the Qur'an supports this conviction: "The nature of God, on which He moulded the nature of man ; the laws of God's creation, are inalterable - this is the right religion." (Qur'an 30:30)

Again, the democratic ideal may be compared with religion in this respect that, like religion, so much human perversity and collective egoism of classes and vested interests masquerade in the garb of democracy. Perverse forms of religion have rightly been blamed for the worst types of tyranny. Crusades and unholy wars were waged in the name of God. But all the perversities and aberrations of religion have not made the genuinely religious man despair of it. 

Theistic religion offers the highest kind of idealism, which alone can guarantee the spiritual advance of man, making him approximate more and more to the image of God and realise that nature which is rooted in the Divine. Cynics as well as lovers of mankind have looked with horror at some of the things done in the name of democracy. 

Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, says that a perfect democracy is the most shameless thing in the world, and Benjamin Disraeli called a representative government a fatal drollery [joke]. Even a spiritual writer like Emerson looked at perverted democracy as a government of bullies tempered by editors. The Conservative Dean of St Paul, W.R. Inge, who as a good Christian should have believed that Christ established the eternal value of every individual, notes with satisfaction that the democracy of the ballot box has few worshippers any longer except in America. Longfellow called envy the vice of republics; and Bertrand Russell, himself a socialist, has endorsed it by saying that envy is the basis of democracy (The Conquest of Happiness, p. 83). 

If religious as well as secular thinkers continue to decry [criticize] democracy, what is the alternative that they propose? Unfortunately, there is no other alternative which, on the whole, would produce more good than any democratic system. Benevolent monarchy or wise dictatorship, that could escape the intoxication of power, could achieve beneficial results in a shorter period in comparison with hesitant and slow-footed democracies. But you cannot have a succession of benevolent monarchs to which the history of all monarchies bears evidence. As to dictatorship, it is always established by ruthless violence and cannot continue without it. The ideal of Socrates and Plato of kings becoming philosophers, or philosophers becoming kings, is only a pattern in heaven. 

The Islamic democratic pattern of a republic of free citizens could not last very long because power intoxicated Arab imperialism gave it a fatal blow. Imperialism and democracy cannot go together and any alliance between them is superficial, transient and hypocritical. Islam's original vision, which the best Muslim minds have never ceased to cherish even under most adverse circumstances, was democratic. 

The Prophet as the recipient of revelation, and as an exemplar in the embodiment of what he taught, had an exalted and privileged position, but he did not consider himself to be above [the] law. He told his beloved daughter that she should bear in mind that if she stole anything she would receive the same dire punishment as any common thief. He never built a palace or even a middle class house for himself. He identified himself with the poorest citizen of the realm - neither eating nor dressing better than the humble folk. He left no material legacy for his family for he possessed nothing. His illustrious saintly successor testified after the death of the Prophet that he had heard him say that the prophets inherit nothing and nobody inherits anything from them. They are only entitled to the use of things without any claim of ownership. 

Jesus had the same attitude towards material goods and considered it a great impediment in spiritual life that a soul should be encumbered with unnecessary wealth. Jesus was perfectly right in his observation that it would be more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. (It is said that a very small window in the city gate through which a person could pass in a bent position with great difficulty was called the eye of the needle because of its extreme narrowness.) 

Islam is a practical religion, so it does not prescribe for all such a spiritualised ideal existence in which nobody should own anything. This is only the characteristic of those who have reached a very high state which is beyond the common run of humanity. But this ideal condition defines the direction in which the principle of social justice should move. People should not sit on unnecessary wealth, however acquired. The have-nots have a right to share it. Does not all humanitarian socialism tend towards it, not curbing the initiative of earning as much as one can by legitimate motives? It enjoins to devise a system in which wealth as the life-blood of the social organism should circulate in every part of it. Concentration in any one organ would injure the greedy self centred organ besides having a deleterious effect on the whole organism. 

There is a verse in the Qur'an in which a question put to the Prophet is answered in only one pregnant word which sums up the whole ideology of socialism: "They ask you what they should give away (for charity or common wefare); tell them they should part with whatever is 'surplus' " (Qur'an 2:219). The "surplus" is the answer of the Qur'an. Socialistic States are now devising all possible means to take away these surpluses by heavy progressive taxation amounting almost to confiscation when wealth reaches a very high level, and by death duties. They are moving in the direction of the Qur'an. The conservative Dean Inge is indignant about it because it would impoverish British aristocracy and make it impossible for them to maintain their magnificent country houses. He calls it the robbing of an innocent minority by a predatory majority of do-nothing have-nots. 

Islam could not give an eternally valid chart of the details of execution and implementation but did give in unmistakable terms the fundamentals of a humanitarian democracy. True Islam in action could harbour no privileged classes and would not tolerate any type of hereditary monarchy. The hereditary principle is bad for the State and does not hold good even in the realm of the spirit. Even a prophet may have a degenerate son and ignoble progeny. There could be no hereditary apostolic succession. Nobody in the Islamic State would have the audacity to proclaim, like Louis XIV, "I am the State."

Islam recognises neither kings nor their divine right. Feudalism or big landlordism also could not develop in a polity which is truly Islamic. As already stated, the law of primogeniture was the bedrock on which feudalism of castles and serfs was based. The Islamic law of inheritance definitely prohibits it. Even if a person has acquired large tracts of land by legitimates means (which is very seldom) they shall be cut up in small peasant proprietorships within one or two generations. And if surpluses are heavily taxed, capitalism, in the old sense, shall have no legs to stand upon. 

In an ideal Islamic State there could be no kings, no feudal lords and no capitalists with a plethora of wealth. It will be a society of good middle-class people who are the backbone of every healthy society. 

Shall it differ very much from a Communist State of the Russian type? The answer is yes, for the following reasons: 

(1) It derives the fundamentals of life from the great spiritual leaders of humanity who taught that the ideals of human life are spiritual and Divine. 

(2) It shall not subscribe to the creed of dialectical or historical materialism, which for Communism, is the only eternal truth, if it believes at all in any eternal truth. 

(3) It shall be based on the firm belief in the liberty and dignity of the individual. The State is not an end but a means for promoting the maximum welfare of the individual. As the Qur'an says: "You shall be responsible to God as individuals." The personal and private life of every individual must be secure. 

(4) This necessitates absolute freedom of conscience which the Qur'an proclaims to the world in the emphatic injunction that there shall be no compulsion about religious beliefs and practices (2:256). No one shall enjoy any privilege or suffer any disability because of belonging to any particular group. There shall be no ruling party enjoying any special privilege or power. 

(5) Religious communities shall enjoy the maximum of freedom to the extent that, apart from the general laws of the realm necessary for the common weal - general security and protection of fundamental rights of the individual - they shall have the right to be governed by their personal laws. The Qur'an and the Prophet granted that right to all religious communities which cannot be taken away by any legislation. 

There are only two points of agreement between Communism and Islam. Both are against racial discrimination and both desire to do away with economic systems that tend to concentrate wealth in a few hands. One vital question remains to be answered which arises necessarily out of the relation of Islam to democracy and that is: 'How far is an Islamic society free to make laws for itself if a comprehensive code is already prescribed?' 

The Prophet and His Message, by Dr. Khalifa Abdul Hakim, Published by the Institute of Islamic Culture, 2 Club Road, Lahore, Pakistan ©1987