Islam; democracy; sovereignty; shura; ijma; tolerance; equality and justice; Shari’ah; Qur’an; prophet
3. Islam and Democracy in Western Scholarship
A number of scholars argue that Islam acts as a hindrance to democratic forms of government and/or democratic values and ideals (Fukuyama 1992; Huntington 1984, 1991, 1996a, 1996b; Lipset 1994; Lewis 1994, 1996, 1997, 2002, 2005; Pipes 1995, 2002; Kedourie 1994). These scholars argue for Islam’s incompatibility with democracy on the grounds that democracy requires openness, competition, pluralism, and a tolerance of diversity, whereas Islam encourages intellectual conformity and an uncritical acceptance of authority. They also stress that the Islamic tradition does not match with democratic ideals because it vests sovereignty in God, who is the sole source of political power and from whose divine law must emanate all regulations governing the community of believers (Tessler 2002). These scholars’ views, therefore, reflect the notion that an Islamic political order must culminate in totalitarianism (Lewis 1994; Choueiri 1996). Kedourie, for example, asserts:
The notion of popular sovereignty as the foundation of governmental legitimacy, the idea of representation, or elections, of popular suffrage, of political institutions being regulated by laws laid down by a parliamentary assembly, of these laws being guarded and upheld by an independent judiciary, the ideas of the secularity of the state, of society being composed of a multitude of self-activating groups and associations—all of these are profoundly alien to the Muslim political tradition.
4. Nineteenth-Century Islamic Revivalism Efforts
4.1. Rifa’ah Al-Tahtawi
4.2. Khayr Al-Din Al-Tunisi
Al-Tunisi’s (1810–1899) Aqwam al-Masalik Fi Ma’rifat Ahwal al-Mamalik (“The Most Straight Path to Knowing the Conditions of Nations”), authored in 1867, attracted unprecedented scholarly attention from both the East and the West (Kedourie 1980; Wasti 2000). The main objective of the book was to promote reform in the Islamic world. “While appealing to politicians and scholars of his time to seek all possible means in order to improve the status of the community [Muslim Ummah] and develop its civility, al-Tunisi warned the general Muslim public against shunning the experiences of other nations on the basis of the misconception that the writings, inventions, experiences or attitudes of non-Muslims should just be rejected or disregarded” (Tamimi 2007, p. 44). Arguing that Europe’s current status was an outgrowth of the accomplishments of medieval Islamic thinkers, he cautioned the Muslim Ummah that “there is no reason to reject or ignore something which is correct and demonstrable simply because it comes from others, especially if we had formerly possessed it and it had been taken from us, on the contrary, there is an obligation to restore it and put it to use” (Al-Tunisi 2002, p. 42; also quoted in (Browers 2004, p. 368)). He further says that civilization knows no frontiers, and though the value systems and cultures of Islam and Europe are different, there is no reason for them not to benefit from each other. Europe has been able to achieve its power by broadening the base of education, which is why education should be the start of any reform in Islamic countries, adds al-Tunisi (Wasti 2000). A devout Muslim, a man of extraordinary ability, and an erudite scholar of his time, al-Tunisi, who rose to become Chief Minister in Tunisia and later also Sadrazam (Grand Vizier) at the Sublime Porte, where he was known as Tunuslu Hayreddin Pasa (Wasti 2000), traced the reason for the decline of Islamic civilization and provided a pragmatic solution to the contemporary crisis of the Islamic world:
The decline of the Islamic power has little to do with religion [Islam] itself, but with an ossified and unimaginative approach to the religion [Islam] which showered glory on its true followers over the centuries and provided much inspiration to Europe itself … If the countries of Islam are to survive and not to be taken over by the European powers, they will have to fight Europe with its own weapons of rational thought, its institutions and its technology. It is necessary to learn from Europe, for which a certain amount of assimilation of technique is inevitable. However, a prerequisite is to be able to convince the masses of the ummah that such modernizing measures are not only unavoidable but also sanctioned by the dynamic principles of Islam and the canonical law.
4.3. Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani
For those governed by the republican government, it is a source of happiness and pride. Those governed by a republican form of government alone deserve to be called human; for a true human being is only subdued by a true law that is based on the foundations of justice and that is designed to govern man’s moves, actions, transactions and relations with others in a manner that elevates him to the pinnacle of true happiness.
Jamal al-din al-Afghani has had a massive intellectual and political influence in drawing the modern political agenda that is still more or less the backbone of intellectual and political reform. He was ready to think over and adopt into Islamic thought any new intellectual, political, or scientific knowledge that might trigger the progress of the Islamic nation … He was ready to adopt those institutions and systems that could serve the Islamic world and save it from its crisis.
4.4. Muhammad Abduh
Al-Afghani’s disciple and later colleague, Abduh (1849–1905) of Egypt, played a significant role in 19th-century Islamic revivalism. Abduh felt a pressing need for the reorientation of the Muslim society to meet the challenges of the time. Influenced by al-Afghani’s ideas, Abduh’s strategy involved a bottom-up approach, and he stressed the need for educational reform first to reorganize the society, and reconcile Islamic principles with modern ideas. He continued to invest his maximum effort to establish a modern Islamic education in place of a traditional mere job-oriented parochial education system in Egypt until his death. His bad experience of schooling in Egypt motivated him to study, apart from Islamic sciences, Western scholarship on sociology, ethics, history, philosophy, and education. Abduh became impressed with the liberal philosophy of modern Western scholars. He visited the English philosopher Herbert Spencer in England,2 and translated Spencer’s work on education from French into Arabic in order to benefit from Spencer’s views in drafting his plans for the reform of Muslim schools3 (Kaloti 1974). However, Abduh’s interest in Western knowledge was vehemently criticized by the contemporary traditional ulama (scholars) at al-Azhar. The ulama objected:
What kind of a sheikh is this who translates their writings and quotes from their philosophers and disputes with their learned men, who gives fatwas of a kind that no one of his predecessors even did, and takes part in benevolent societies and collects money for the poor and unfortunates?.
4.5. Muhammad Rashid Rida
Like his predecessors al-Afghani and Abduh, Rashid Rida (1865–1935) believed in the compatibility of Islam and reason, science, and modernity. He was a strong advocate who stressed returning to the original sources of Islam and the reinterpretation of the Qur’an to meet modern demands (Rida 2002). Rida constituted a bridge between the reformist ideas of al-Afghani and Abduh and revivalist thought of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab of Arabia. In his opinion, the reason for the backwardness of the Muslim Ummah lies in the loss of the truth of Islam by the Muslims. The autocratic rulers, he contends, have encouraged such loss. True Islam, Rida argues, involves two things—tawhid (the creed of monotheism) and shura (council) in matters of governance. However, the autocratic rulers, he laments, tried to make Muslims forget the second by encouraging them to abandon the first (Hourani 1983; Tamimi 2007). However, unlike Abd al-Wahhab, he was conscious of the impact of European modernity upon his fellow Muslims. Mostly influenced by his teacher Abduh, Rida did not suggest blindly rejecting the West, nor did he propose blindly following it. He equated shura in Islam with democracy in the West. He added that “learning how government should operate and replacing tyranny with a shura regime was the greatest benefit the people of the East gained from their interactions with Europeans, a benefit that might not had been achieved were it not for these interactions” (Shavit 2010, p. 351). Rida vehemently opposed the tyrannical rule. He edited a periodical called al-Manar that was extremely critical of the tyrannical regime of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, then the Ottoman sultan, and advocated for democratization. In 1907, he wrote in al-Manar: “Was not it the secret political societies which cleansed Europe of the tyranny of kings and popes, eliminated the governments of the nobility, and replaced them with republican and monarchic governments limited by laws and the supremacy of the members of the nation council [shura, i.e., parliament]?” (Tauber 1994, p. 196). His political ideas are reflected in his book Al-Khilafah (“The Caliphate”), in which he advocated for democracy in Islamic lands:
As for the socio-civic policy, Islam has laid its foundations and set forth its rules, and has sanctioned the exertion of opinion and the pursuit of ijtihad in matters related to it because it changes with time and place and develops as architecture and all other aspects of knowledge develop. Its foundations include the principles that authority belongs to the Ummah, that decision-making is through shura, that government is a form of republic, that the ruler should not be favored in a court of law to the layman—for he is only employed to implement Shari’ah and the will of the people, and that the purpose of this policy is to preserve religion and serve the interests of the public.
5. The Compatibility between Democracy and Islam
Unlike democracy, the Qur’an does not confer sovereignty upon people. Even in an absolute sense, human beings cannot be sovereign because they have plenty of shortcomings. People are politically sovereign, meaning that a government will be based on people’s consent, and will be sustained as long as the consent remains. Parliament being sovereign does not permit it free rein. There is a common saying about the British parliament that ‘the British parliament can do everything but make a woman a man and a man a woman.’ However, in practice, the power of the British parliament is not unrestricted. This represents a kind of restricted sovereignty, one that does not resemble the sovereignty of God. Professor Abdullah Jahangir, a noted Islamic scholar in Bangladesh, argues:
Sovereignty means ownership. This is simple that sovereign means owner. For example, I am the owner of this land which is true. I can erect building here, I can demolish it, I can make partition, and I can sell it. I have this ownership. Again, this land belongs to Allah. This is also true. And the fact is, according to Islam, with this land I can do many things, but I cannot make a brothel here. People’s ownership is limited; Allah’s ownership is the supreme over all other sovereigns. My ownership is worldly, and if I put it over Allah’s ownership, I will be offender to Allah. In the same vein, people are the owner of the country, it is a simple word. Those who say it is anti-Islamic to say people are sovereign and they are the source of all powers, I do not agree with them. Here by power, it does not mean power regarding storm-rain, or disease, it means the power of ministers, prime minister and above all state power. This power actually belongs to people. In Islam, power will be attained by the consent of the people. If in a society the chiefs of tribes consent and the mass people agree to it, it is ok, this is democracy. People’s participation and share is mandatory in Islam which is democracy. Therefore, people are the owner of the state, and people are the source of power is not contradictory to Islam. However, if anyone thinks this ownership means that anyone can do anything; can make a haram (prohibited) a halal(legitimate), and a halal a haram, then obviously it is anti-Islamic.4
The source of sovereignty is the ummah alone and not the caliph, because he is a trustee over matters of religion and in directing their affairs according to the Shari’ah. Thus, he derives his authority from them, and they have the duty to advise him and counsel him in case he errs. They also have the duty to remove him from the office to which he has been entrusted by their choice should they consider it to be necessary.
Accountability of the ruler to the masses is reflected in the inaugural address of Abu Bakr. While assuming the charges of caliph, he is reported to have said:
O people! Behold me charged with the cares of government, I am not the best among you; I need all your advice and all your help. If I do well support me; if I mistake, counsel me. To tell the truth to a person commissioned to rule is faithful allegiance; to conceal it, is treason. In my sight, the powerful and the weak are alike; and to both I wish to render justice. As I obey God and his Prophet, obey me; if I neglect the laws of God and the Prophet, I have no more right to your obedience.
It is often argued that women in Islam are not treated equally with men as far as marriage, the dissolution of marriage, and inheritance are concerned. Although forced marriages are occasionally practiced in Muslim societies, Islamic social laws require the consent of both bride and bridegroom to validate a marriage (Hannan 2010). In Bangladesh, Professor Abdullah Jahangir holds, “marriages are commonly arranged with the consent of the intending spouses. Forced marriages are occasionally held particularly in the rural areas and the poorer families.” Islamic laws do not allow a wife to repudiate her husband unilaterally unless this is allowed in the marriage contract. The wife can only demand a divorce; if her request is not met, she can go to the court to terminate the marriage (Anderson 1976). Professor Ataur Rahman Miazi of Dhaka University, interviewed by the authors at Dhaka on 15 May 2014, argues that
The Shari’ah is primarily concerned about the order and stability of the society. From the Islamic perspective, men are the guardians of women, the heads of families. The women are a motherly nation; by nature, they are generally more compassionate, tender-hearted and emotional than their male counterparts. Revolving around a trivial issue in the conjugal life, these qualities may contribute to the disintegration of marriage leading to a multitude of broken-families which would eventually and adversely affect the society.7
According to the Islamic law of inheritance, a male heir receives twice the share a female heir (Schacht 1964). This exhibits gender discrimination. However, “if the whole system of Islam is considered,” Professor Abdullah Jahangir argues, “the law is perceived as just, not discriminatory towards women.” He elaborates:
Islam has assigned male with all kinds of responsibility to take care of family. In the Islamic economic system, a woman has no financial responsibility. Even if she is a millionaire, her clothing will be provided by her husband. If her husband is dead, she is responsible for taking care of herself. The man is responsible for all matters—looking after and taking care of parents, wives and children, maintaining social relationship, and so forth. On the other hand, a woman has the right to property of her parents and husband, and she also receives bride price from her husband, but she shoulders no responsibility to spend a single penny. Thus, if we make a balance sheet of this responsibility and right, we will see Islam has given a woman more share than that of a man. Islam is, in fact, more concerned about equity than mere equality.8
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Although Spencer was at that time an old man and had given up meeting people, he was induced by Wilfred Blunt, the English poet and writer, to consent to a meeting with Abduh, who went to England for that purpose.
Earlier Muhammad Abduh learned French with a view to having firsthand knowledge of Western science published in French.
Prof. Abdullah Jahangir of Islamic University, Kushtia, Bangladesh, in an interview with the authors at his home (Jhenaidah) on 2 April 2014.
Abu Bakr was instructed by the Prophet to lead the prayer while the latter fell ill. Abu Bakr led the prayer 17 times when the Prophet was still alive, and once the Prophet even performed his prayer under the leadership of Abu Bakr (Husain 2002).
Noted jurist Yakub also notes that when apostasy causes social discord, impinges on the rights of Muslims to practice their religion, and threatens their unity of the ummah, then it is treated as an act of sedition to be given the severest penalties (Yakub 2004).
Islam encourages marriage but discourages divorce. When a marriage is in danger, couples are advised to pursue all possible remedies to rebuild the relationship. Divorce is allowed as a last option, but it is highly discouraged. The Prophet said that “of all lawful acts, divorce is the most detestable to Allah” (Cited in (Nazeem 2001, p. 202)).
The authors interviewed him at his home (Jhenaidah) on 2 April 2014.
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