Are Islam and Democracy Compatible?

Egyptian Protests

The protests in Tunisia and Egypt that led to the removal of the leaders of both countries have now spread to Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Iran. According to some commentators,  these protests reflect a relatively new push for democracy by the Arab peoples. In other words, the democracy that Western nations have enjoyed is now appearing in the Middle East. The implicit explanation for this “delay,” for some, is that most Arabs are Muslim and Islam is not compatible with democracy.

I would argue, however, that no religion is inherently incompatible with democracy and that there are historical markers that indicate that democractic principles (not always in their Western formulation that is so often taken as the only paradigm) existed early in Islamic history.

One example that is cited is the Islamic state that emerged in Medina during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. What is referred to as the Constitution of Medina established a society in which different communities (Muslims and non-Muslims) all consented  to live by a social contract that reflected their various interests.

A second example is the caliph, the political and social sucessor the Prophet Muhammad, who ideally was suppose to be elected by the people  and to hold public consultations. If the caliph did not adhere to the laws, he could be removed.

In the book Progressive Muslims, Ahmad Mousalli, a professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut, highlights that concepts like shura (consultation), ijma (consensus), hurriya (freedom), and al-huquuq al-shar`iyya (legitimate rights) are central in Islam and lead more towards democracy than authoritarianism. Moreover, justice and rejection of oppression are two themes that occupy an important role in Islamic thought, so authoritarian rule has no place.

The authoritarian regimes that have emerged in the Middle East are not a result of Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Rather, they are the consequence of historical events and relationships that have shaped the reality of Middle Eastern countries over the last two centuries at least. In Islam, there is a call to reject oppression and to make sure that leaders are just and accountable–that is democracy.

What are your reactions to the protests? Do you think Islam and democracy are incompatible? Do you think an Islamic democracy is an oxymoron? What is the role of religion in a democractic society? Please share your thoughts below.

7 thoughts on “Are Islam and Democracy Compatible?

  1. Let this be a lesson to all. If you are patient, even people at opposite ends of an ideological spectrum can come to some sort of agreement. Myself and MoLawn being prime examples.

    Democracy, as it exists today is not compatible with Islam for the very reasons stated in the article. concepts like shurah, ijma etc. do not exist in any real form in democracy. Democracy has allowed those with money to come to control the political system with disastrous results (the recent financial crisis for example where those who caused the problem were rewarded handsomely). money also controls the election process with the result that the electorate is told by the media what the issues are rather then the other way around.

    Another point is the knowledge of those making the decisions. I can barely manage to stay within a budget, but every election I am asked to cast my vote on what is more often than not economic issues so I, like most every one else am faced with either choosing a candidate with the best argument (a good economist may be a very poor debater) or the slickest campaign. once again, money comes into play.

    My favourite definition of democracy is 2 wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner.

    The Islamic political system is superior to democracy for the reasons stated in the article. any good thing that can be said about democracy exists in the Islamic system but Islam is superior because it has those systems in place which serve to negate the concentration of power in the hands of the elite, and also makes it more possible for people to change their economic situation via hard work. They call that “the american dream” more or less, but it’s not really american and in fact less and less possible in america due to the concentration of wealth in the top 10% or so, as well as an unfair taxation system.

    One thing that bothers me to no end when discussing democracy with people, especially those on the “right” is the tendency to equate democracy with capitalism, which is another system with inherent goodness which is in the Islamic system but also contains incredibly evil aspects which are totally un-Islamic. Another article perhaps.

  2. “The Islamic political system is superior to democracy…” Sure, sure. You can perhaps convince a lunatic.

  3. To the people who do not know any thing about Islam, please give yourself a chance or some time to know about Islam. Islam is the only religion in the world based on democracy, and the first to support women’s rights and all human rights. Please read about this and know that not all Muslims’ behaviors represent Islam .

    Have a nice Day

  4. ” Islam is the only religion in the world based on democracy, and the first to support women’s rights and all human rights.”

    What a joke!

    After taliban took over, the regime change was so violent that it sent shivers down the spine to the noooks and corners of the world! Women with jobs as teachers and government workers were turned into beggars overnight.

    Wow! I would love this kind of human rights when Islam takes over the world!

    and ofcourse your peace-loving Imams and Clerics would have made sure to hide all their dark methods by which they rise to power!

    Okay so pure Islam is just at war with “infidels” like India and Israel and the west?
    But wait? why was there a war between Iran and Iraq while Iran they are both Shia-majority countries? Why did the holy Sunni Saudi Arabia go to bed with British and the US army to fight their monopoly Gulf wars and PUT 100% blame of western civilization and Israel when they had to explain it to their eminence?
    There were palestinian Soldiers fighting against Iran. Iran has been the first to support the state of palestine and send Aid!

    So as a pure muslim, I must be ready to kill my own kith and kin if the Eminence tells me to. Wait that’s the job for men. All I must do is wear a burqaa, stay at home and Shut up!

    If you are right that Islamic world LOVES Cleric-takeover, the entire middle east should have stood behind Iran when the Shah was toppled over by the holy Eminience. How do you explain this hypocricy?

    Western democracy may be flawed but it is much better than a political ideology that starts with militancy and ends in anarchy.

    I am an Indian muslim woman. A Math professor. I come from a family of scholors and poets. My family has peacefully co-existed with Hindus and Christians for generations. I hate to see that go down the sh$tter because some cleric disagrees with western-style democracy. Sure, Indian democracy is flawed, but, I don’t see any major threat to my empowerment as a woman and a human being.

    Sorry! try selling your BS elsewhere!

  5. mam, with all due respect may be you think you are right about all what you have wrote…..lastly about you said you come from a family where scholars and poets prospered but sorry to say i havnt seen any thing in your above comment which seems so… answer is to your above comment is to please thoroughly study islamic history and do look for everything which above you just have said,by the way why dont you take your intelligence to the next level and say something about your caste system,your infidels and women bowing down to a sexual organ,what would you say about those who cant live with other communities riots of gujrat and else can prove,why dont you talk about your religion’s loopholes from which jainism and buddihism took birth,why dont you talk about those muslims who made your country progress too though i agree they are indians but you have to agree that they were not hindus e.g Abdul kalam,why dont you talk about those muslims who are the badshahs of your film and cinema industry,why dont you talk about those muslims who are working in your army and police to curb down the situation which is going worst and worst,shuuu,lastly mam why dont you talk about those movements which on the name of religion demanding to cut indias chest for independence,and ya most of muslims are your best police officers do check this out you’ll bamboozle sorry mam you are a litrary person i aint,i m from a middle class background a pakistani a secularist who want both the countries to accept each other and live nicely its just comments like yours make us divide not the ideologies,and what ever question i put forth to you i want to give there answer every cloud has a silver lining so dont think on them……..and m no body just a human which seeks for peace in all the world now its up to you what you call this muslim as thankx

  6. You know, I’m not a Muslim but I think you should first dig deep within the history of the Muslims. You should not stereotype Muslims; let not your personal bias overrule you. If you happen to read their holy Qur’an you would see how these people promote the attainment of peace. Many would claim that they are Muslims, but then they are not living by the teachings of Islam. People stop stereotyping.