in category Politics

How do contemporary scholars of Islam view democracy?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
Modern Muslim scholars have disputed the notion of democracy. Some reject it, some accept it, whilst others differentiate between its form and content. Differences arise in the main based on how one understands and defines democracy – a term heavily contested in the social sciences.

Defining Democracy

Democracy is a highly contested term like most terms in the social sciences. The dictionary definition of the term is:

"the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves."

This, however, is insufficient as it is too imprecise for a substantive discussion. Most political theorists tend to consider the term in a lot more depth.

Positivist philosopher Karl Popper posed the question, "How can we achieve change in our society without violence?" For him, democracy was the system that would allow a government to be removed government without the spilling of blood. (Ralf Dahrendorf, After 1989: Morals, Revolution and Civil Society, p. 16)

However, this definition may be a little too restrictive (mani' in Islamic terminology), and perhaps laconic rather than simple. Its implications, however, are quite complex.

Others thinkers who tried to define it like Robert Dahl, Joseph Schumpeter, Ralf Dahrendorf, Philippe Schmitter amongst others where democracy was generally seen as the voice of the masses that define and create institutions, which in turn control the government and make it possible to change it without violence. In this sense, the demos, the people, is the sovereign that gives legitimacy to institutions of government and power.

Contemporary Muslim scholars have also disagreed significantly on how to define democracy, making it problematic to issue Islamic rulings on the notion.

Some considered it as:

حَكَمٌ يَعْزِلُ الِدينَ عَزْلًا كُلِيًا عَنْ شُؤُونِ الحُكْمِ، وَيَسْتَبْعِدُهُ عَنْهَا اِسْتِبْعَادًا تَامًا.
"A kind of ruling that totally separates Religion from the government, a mechanism totally rules out that Religion from the government." (Mahmud Shakir, Haqiat ad-Dimuqratyah, p. 12)

Whilst others defined it as:

الدِيمُقْرَاطِيَةَ لَيْسَتْ إِلَا تَقْدِيمًا لِلْشُورَى الإِسْلَامِيَة مَعَ أَدَوَاتِ لِلْتَعْبِيرِ عَنْ السُلْطَةِ.
"Democracy is nothing but a manifestation of the Islamic principle of Shura along with tools helps show authority." (Al-Ghunoshi, ad-Dimuqrattiyah wa Huquq al-Insan fi al-Islam, p. 62)

They all however agreed that were we hypothetically to include human sovereignty within the definition of democracy, there would be a problem - none would permit that.

Muslim Scholars and Democracy

A number of positions have developed amongst contemporary Muslim scholarship, due to the contested nature of democracy.

1. Democracy is Forbidden

Some scholars totally reject the notion of democracy arguing democracy gives humans sovereignty - whereas God is sovereign. The Quranic notion of 'Hakimyah' is categoric on this matter, namely, Allah is the sovereign, holding supreme authority, and the authority of human is delegated, subordinate and subservient to him.

They also argue democracy as a mechanism seeks to substitute the mechanisms of shari'ah law with human inspired alternatives, which is unacceptable.

This group of scholars cite a number of evidences, for example, Allah says:

فَلا وَرَبِّكَ لا يُؤْمِنُونَ حَتَّى يُحَكِّمُوكَ فِيمَا شَجَرَ بَيْنَهُمْ ثُمَّ لا يَجِدُوا فِي أَنفُسِهِمْ حَرَجاً مِّمَّا قَضَيْتَ وَيُسَلِّـمُوا تَسْلِيماً

"But no, by your Lord, they will not [truly] believe until they make you, [O Muhammad], judge concerning that over which they dispute among themselves and then find within themselves no discomfort from what you have judged and submit in [full, willing] submission." Surat an-Nisa' 4: 65.

Some from this group, mostly 'Salafis', argue such beliefs can be considered kufr (disbelief) which nullify one's Islam.

In this regards Sheikh Al-Sa'adi said:

فَلَا ثَمَّ إِلَا حُكْمَ اللهِ وَرَسُولِهِ أَوْ حُكْمَ الجَاهِلِيَةِ.

"There is no rule except the rule of Allah and His Messenger (saw), or otherwise the {non-Muslim} pre-Islamic rule." (Al-Sa'di, Tafseer al-Kareem al-Rahman, p. 235.)

Whilst Mahmud Shakir argues:

إِنَ لَفْظَ "مُسْلِمْ" وَلَفْظَ "دِيمُقْرَاطِي" لَا يَجْتَمِعَانِ فِي حَقِ شَخْصٍ وَاحِدٍ أَبَدًا

The term Muslim and democratic cannot never go together with the same person.) (Mahmud Shakir, Haqiat ad-Dimuqratyah, pp. 12.)

2. Democracy is Permitted

Another group of scholars including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Rachid al-Ghonoshi, and Hasan at-Turabi, saw in democracy a practical example of not Islamic notion of shura (consultation), considered a cornerstone of governance in Islam. For them this was the most significant and important aspect of democracy, the Tunisian scholar Rachid al-Ghunoshi stating:

"Democracy is nothing but a manifestation of the Islamic principle of Shura along with tools to show authority." (Al-Ghunoshi, ibid)

They believed people have the right to choose a righteous and just ruler along with the right to dismiss an oppressor ruler. For instance, in the matter of Pharaoh, God says:

فَاسْتَخَف قَوْمَهُ فَأَطَاعُوهُ إِنَهُمْ كَانُوا قَومًا فَاسِقِين.

So, he bluffed his people and they obeyed him. Indeed, they were [themselves] a people defiantly disobedient [of Allah]. (Qur'an al-Zukhruf 43: 54)

It was narrated on the authority of Abdullah b. Amr that the Prophet (saw) said:

إِذَا رَأَيْتَ أُمَتِي تَهَابُ أََنْ تَقُولَ لِلْظَالِمِ: يَا ظَالِمُ فَقَدْ تُودَعُ مِنْهُمْ.

If you find my Ummah fears to say to the oppressor: 'O oppressor,' then say farewell to them. (Sound Marfu' hadith in Musnad Ahmed, 6521, at-Tirmizi fi al-'Ilal, 716. Considered Sahih by al-Hakim and others.)

However, their definition of democracy is not sensible nor reflective of the reality, as the term democracy is not only distinct from but wider than the notion of consultation.

3. Democracy's form is permitted, and content is forbidden.

Another group of scholars like Dr Muhammad Dya' ar-Rys divided democracy into two parts: form and content, to provide a more detailed analysis.

They argued if democracy is supposed to mean people would rule themselves, allowed to permit what is consensually prohibited, or prohibit what is consensually permitted, this is unacceptable as Islam does not offer humans absolute authority - they are restricted by Islamic legislation.

Democracy's forms however which identify a set of political mechanisms for the ruling, such as elections, accountability or advising along with other developed political forms of the ruling are acceptable, as they are non-ideological means to an end, in harmony with the Shari'ah rules and principles.

Critical Assessment:

There is a significant difference between ideas that Islam does not condemn and ideas that Islam legislates. Whilst Islam may not condemn many ideas, it does not mean they are all acceptable.

Ideas that are ideologically or morally neutral can be adopted - given the prophetic (saw) approval of the date palm tree cross-pollination the Medinites used to do or the adoption of trench warfare from Persian military tactics as per the prophetic saying:

أَنْتُمْ أَعْلَمُ بِأَمْرِ دُنْيَاكُمْ
"you have better knowledge (of a technical skill) in the affairs of the world." (Sahih Muslim, 2363)

Ideological or moral/value-based ideas, however, are a problem. Notions like democracy, nationalism, socialism, capitalism, individualism, consumerism, justice, right, wrong, duties etc. are ideological in nature, directed by worldviews to determine how society should be organised and regulated. These compete against Islamic notions determining its worldview and vision of society.

This would suggest we need to first see if the ideas are ideological or value-laden, and if they are, we need to be more cautious as they may not be condemned explicitly by the sharia, implicitly they compete with the Islamic worldview and approach to organizing society.

There is a consensus that Islam promotes the principle of shura, however, there is no consensus it promotes the notion of democracy which is quite different. It can be argued that democracy incorporates the principle of shura, where consultation occurs amongst the rulers and between the rulers and their people, so Islam neither condemns nor contradicts this. However, democracy is a complex term that is a composite of a number of value-laden notions, that include consultation, but also accountability, elections, legislation, sovereignty, freedom and so on. The issue of democracy should be broken down to understand how Islam stands on the composite term and not just on a part of it.

Thus, it can be seen that there are:

1. Ideas in democracy that are commanded by Islam:

Islam obliged notions such as justice, consultation and people's right to select their ruler.

For example, Abu Bakr after being selected he said to people:

أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ فَإِنِّي قَدْ وُلِّيتُ عَلَيْكُمْ وَلَسْتُ بِخَيْرِكُمْ، فَإِنْ أَحْسَنْتُ فَأَعِينُونِي، وَإِنْ أَسَأْتُ فَقَوِّمُونِي
"You've elected me to be your first Caliph, and I'm not the best of you. If I do well, help me, and if I do wrong, redress me." (Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, Vol. 8, p. 89)

2. Ideas in democracy that are rejected by Islam:

In Islamic law, God is sovereign and the lawmaker; where God permits humans to legislate, it is highly regulated areas and it is not permitted to contradict Allah's law. Muslims are required to accept God's commandments as correct and for their welfare both in this life and the next even if they find difficulties in acceptance. So, if Muslims created a law that contradicted the consensus on Islamic Law, such laws must be rejected.

As Abu Bakr said:

أَطِيعُونِي مَا أَطَعْت الله وَرَسُوله فَإِذا عصيت الله وَرَسُوله فَلَا طَاعَة لى عَلَيْكُم
"Obey me as long as I obey Allah [God] and his Prophet. In case I disobey God and his Prophet, I have no right to obedience from you." (Ibid, Vol. 9, p. 415)

3. Ideas in democracy about which Islam is ambivalent:

This would include the salaries the people wish to allow for their rulers, their expense allowances and so on.

The Prophet (saw) said:

إنَّ اللَّهَ تَعَالَى فَرَضَ فَرَائِضَ فَلَا تُضَيِّعُوهَا، وَحَدَّ حُدُودًا فَلَا تَعْتَدُوهَا، وَحَرَّمَ أَشْيَاءَ فَلَا تَنْتَهِكُوهَا، وَسَكَتَ عَنْ أَشْيَاءَ رَحْمَةً لَكُمْ غَيْرَ نِسْيَانٍ فَلَا تَبْحَثُوا عَنْهَا".

Verily Allah Ta'ala has laid down religious obligations (fara'id), so do not neglect them; and He has set limits, so do not overstep them; and He has forbidden some things, so do not violate them; and He has remained silent about some things, out of compassion for you, not forgetfulness — so do not seek after them. (A sound hadith narrated by ad-Daraqutnee and others, 40 Hadith of al-Nawawi, 30)

This means Allah has left some issues for us to decide, with the caveat we should not contradict Islamic law or its aims.


Democracy is a human construct and that contains issues. Depending on how it is defined will determine how it is seen in Islam. It can be seen as a mechanism that can be adopted, developed and improved upon if the selection of rulers, holding them to account and consultation are the main focus. It is prohibited if sovereignty or secularism (marginalization of God from power) is at its core or adopted.

Either way, democracy is not the end of the human story as the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in the 90s nor is it some final solution for our worldly problems. Rather, it is at best just one step of a human journey towards justice, freedom and goodness.

What is of importance is that revelation should guide us in deciding how we organise government and its associated institutions and processes. We should not be uncritically adopting solutions from other ideological traditions.

There is no doubt that Islam has clarified major milestones of such journey, but Islam also left humans to deal with issues in accordance with their time, place, and welfare. Islam came to free Human minds in order to bring out our creative potential power in accordance with the Devine Law.


Ralf Dahrendorf, After 1989: Morals, Revolution and Civil Society
Mahmud Shakir, Haqiat ad-Dimuqratyah
Al-Ghunoshi, ad-Dimuqrattiyah wa Huquq al-Insan fi al-Islam
Al-Sa'di, Tafseer al-Kareem al-Rahman
Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah

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