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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 11-12   16 October - 15 November 2012

in Contemporary Perspective


Professor A. R. Momin

Islam stipulates a set of normative principles and ideals to regulate individual and collective behavior as well as political, social and economic processes. Muslim thinkers such as Al-Mawardi, Al-Shatibi, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Qutayba, Al-Farabi and Shah Waliullah Dehlavi are of the unanimous opinion that the establishment of state is a necessity for the fulfillment of the collective needs of human beings and for the maintenance of order. One can draw a distinction between certain ideational and normative principles that have a close bearing on the state, on the one hand, and the structure and form of the state, on the other. While Islam lays down a set of principles and guidelines to regulate the state, it does not prescribe a specific or definitive form or structure of state or government.

The quintessential features of the Islamic state – described as imarat or khilafa in the classical sources – are as follows.

  • The Islamic state represents an institutional form of man’s vicegerency of God on earth.

  • The Islamic state is essentially a welfare state, whose basic function and responsibility is to ensure the security and wellbeing of its citizens and the protection of their legitimate rights, including the rights to life, physical and economic security, honour, justice, equality, freedom of conscience and participation in government.

  • The constitutional cornerstone of the Islamic state rests on the Islamic Shariah, which is derived from the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and the precepts and precedents of the Four Caliphs and the Companions.

  • The Islamic state is founded on the fundamental principles of equality, justice and the rule of law. The principles of equality and justice are taken to their logical conclusion in the stipulation that the head of the state has no immunity from criminal prosecution.

  • The judiciary is independent of the government and enjoys autonomy. It is expected to act as the custodian of the Shariah and to keep a vigilant eye on the conduct of the ruling dispensation. Muslim judges are required to implement the provisions of Islamic law (Shariah) without fear or favour, and in the discharge of his obligations they are accountable, not to the powers that be, but only to God. An independent judiciary played a crucial role in ensuring compliance with Islamic law on the part of the ruling establishment as well as the general public.

  • The head of the state is to be elected by popular mandate and not through hereditary succession.

  • The election of the head of the state and important matters relating to governance and administration are to be regulated through consultation (shura)

There is considerable flexibility in respect of the methodology for the election of the head of the state and the modus operandi of consultations. Following the passing away of the Prophet, the Companions gathered at the parapet of Banu Sa’ida in Madinah to deliberate on the issue of succession. There was some disagreement between the Ansar (Helpers), the native inhabitants of Madinah, and the Muhajirun (Immigrants) as both staked their respective claims to succession. Some from amongst the latter felt that Ali or Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib should be nominated as successor to the Prophet and as leader of the Muslim community on account of their kinship with the Prophet. However, the overwhelming majority of the Companions were of the opinion that the question of succession should be settled on the basis of consultation and popular vote rather than kinship. Subsequently, Abu Bakr was unanimously elected as leader of the community and as head of the Islamic state.

Before he breathed his last, Abu Bakr held consultations with the trusted and senior Companions and nominated Umar as his successor. His decision was unanimously approved by the Companions. When Umar was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt and was asked to nominate his successor, he thought it wise to appoint a seven-member committee to deliberate and decide about the issue of succession. The committee included Ali, Uthman, Sa’ad ibn abi Waqqas, Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Awf, Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, Talha ibn Ubaydullah and Abdullah ibn Umar. Caliph Umar instructed the committee not to consider his son Abdullah, who was included in the committee, as his successor. Most of the committee members were inclined in favour of either Ali or Uthman. Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Awf, who was a member of the committee, spent several days and nights in trying to find out whether people generally favoured Ali or Uthman. Ibn Kathir reports that he even consulted veiled women in this matter. Finally, the committee recommended Uthman’s name as Umar’s successor, which was approved by Umar and the Companions. Following the assassination of Uthman, the people rallied around Ali and elected him as the fourth caliph.

The Islamic conception of the state shares certain basic features with the democratic form of government. These include the decisive role of the general public in electing the head of the state, the rule of law and equality before the law, equal citizenship, democratic consultations and the involvement and participation of people in matters of governance and administration, and the accountability of the ruling class.

Though there is much to be said for democracy, democratic states around the world suffer from certain inherent limitations. In modern democracies, where the media play a highly influential role in moulding public opinion, people are often swayed by propaganda and misinformation, systematically disseminated by the media, political parties and vested interests. In a multiethnic democracy, such as India, people’s electoral preferences are often determined by extraneous considerations, such as caste, religion, community, language and other primordial affiliations and identifications. In addition, money and muscle power play an influential role in voting behavior and electoral politics. The electoral process is often manipulated by powerful politicians in cahoots with the police and the local administration. Since democracy is essentially a game of numbers, politicians who gain even a slender majority by hook or by crook manage to form the government.

In spite of its manifold limitations, democracy seems to be the most representative and desirable form of government, especially in the present context, and is certainly a preferable alternative to monarchy, dictatorship and communism. It is possible and desirable to combine the positive and time-tested features of democracy with the normative principles of Islamic Shariah and to restructure and reinvent it in accordance with the requirements of Muslim societies.

The Revolutionary Upsurge in the Arab World

An Islamic Perspective

Professor Mohsin Usmani
Dean, School of Arab Studies,
English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad

The Arab world in particular and the Islamic world in general are in the throes of an unprecedented revolutionary upheaval. The Muslim world is waking up from its slumber and indolence and is in hot pursuit of rulers who have been lackeys of Western powers and who have systematically denied their people their freedom and human rights. Large-scale protests and demonstrations have led to the overthrow of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The rulers of Tunisia and Yemen have taken refuge in Saudi Arabia, and Syria is poised to witness the dawn of a new era of freedom and emancipation. The cry for freedom is becoming increasingly louder in Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria and Morocco.

When Egypt was passing through a massive upheaval, the Saudi ulama and muftis issued an edict to the effect that it was illegitimate to rise in revolt against the government, adding that it was not permissible even to launch peaceful protests against the ruling establishment or to submit a protest memorandum to the authorities. They urged the Arab people to obey their rulers without any murmurs of protest. But their edict proved to be of no consequence in the face of the rising tide of massive protest rallies and marches across Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia and Jordan.

The widely respected Egyptian-born scholar Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, on the other hand, took an altogether different stand in respect of the Arab Spring, which bears testimony to his mature reflection and the acuity of his perception. He has unequivocally supported the revolutionary uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. His fatwa runs counter to that of the Saudi ulama and muftis. A Salafi scholar of Egypt, who has an ideological affinity with the Saudi ulama, was so incensed by Dr al-Qaradawi’s fatwa that he went to the ridiculous extent of legitimizing his killing on the grounds that his fatwa had sown the seeds of turmoil and chaos among Muslims.

It may be pointed out that the ulama and muftis in the Arab countries are generally not as free and independent in expressing their opinions and in upholding the truth as their counterparts in India. The ulama of Al Azhar University, for example, continued to support Hosni Mubarak and his autocratic regime till the end. Likewise, the Saudi ulama and muftis legitimized the rule of Hosni Mubarak and repudiated all revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world. It is unfortunate that the ulama in India have maintained a curious silence in respect of the revolutionary upsurge in the Arab countries. They seem to be oblivious of the possibility that their silence may be (mis)construed as tacit support for the oppressive rule of Arab dictators and autocrats. However, lately, some positive voices have been heard. Maulana Sayyid Jalaluddin Ansar Umari, head of Jama’at-e-Islami Hind, in an interview published in Da’wat on February 5, 2012, justified the revolutionary uprising in the Arab world. Likewise, Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani supported the popular movement for the overthrow of dictatorial regimes in the Arab world. While repudiating the fatwa of some Saudi scholars in respect of the Arab Spring, Maulana Rahmani drew attention to an important issue.

    The question before us is whether Muslims are under an obligation to obey their rulers under all circumstances. It needs to be clarified that Islam enjoins upon Muslims to obey their rulers, but not autocratic and oppressive rulers. Therefore, a clear distinction needs to be drawn between a ruler who is elected by Muslims (who is technically known as khalifah or amir), and an autocratic despot who imposes his rule upon people. Muslim jurists have described two types of government: one which is founded on justice and other cherished Islamic principles (al-imarat al-adila), and the other which is based on oppression and injustice (al-imarat al-qahira). Muslims are obliged to obey a government that is founded on Islamic principles, but not one which is rooted in oppression and injustice.

The opinion of Saudi scholars and muftis, which is tilted in favour of autocratic and corrupt Arab rulers and weighs heavily against popular uprisings in the Arab world, is unacceptable in terms of Islamic principles and precepts as well as on rational grounds. It is mentioned in “Radd al-Muhtar,” an authoritative text of Islamic jurisprudence, that if a ruler unleashes atrocities on a group or a section of society and if that group rises in revolt against the ruler in order to defend its legitimate rights, it will not be charged with treason or insurgency. Furthermore, under such circumstances, it will not be permissible for the rank and file of Muslims to support the ruler, because this will be tantamount to complicity in injustice and oppression. This legal precept lends credence to the stand taken by Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi in respect of the Arab uprisings. The autocratic rulers of Syria and Libya can by no stretch of imagination be regarded as khalifah in the Islamic sense, nor can they be considered worthy of obedience.

One of the Prophet’s Hadith urges Muslims to obey their rulers, whether they are righteous or otherwise. But this precept applies to the ruler of a state which is founded on Islamic principles. Unfortunately, such a state is conspicuous by its absence today. A Muslim state is unworthy of being called an Islamic state unless it has been erected on the foundations of Islamic political, economic and social institutions. If a Muslim state is bereft of such institutions, it cannot legitimately be called an Islamic state, even if the head of the state happens to be Muslim.

The meticulous manner in which the Saudi government is looking after of the holy precincts of Makkah and Madinah, the steps it has taken to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Hajj pilgrims and its contribution to the furtherance of Islamic causes are indeed commendable. However, it should be pointed out that the existing political system in Saudi Arabia represents not the Islamic caliphate but monarchy, which has no legitimate place in Islam. Saudi Arabia needs to move in a direction whereby the existing system of hereditary kingship will be ultimately replaced by a truly Islamic state founded on democratic principles. A genuinely Islamic state can be founded only through popular mandate and according to the principles of democratic governance and consultation. The precepts and precedents of the Four Righteously Guided Caliphs should serve as a source of inspiration and guidance for us.

The ruling dispensation in Saudi Arabia is well advised to pay heed to the legitimate grievances of its people and to make sincere efforts to redress them. Saudi Arabia’s close ties with the United States are a cause of deep resentment in the country as well as across the Muslim world. Therefore, Saudi Arabia needs to rethink its bonds and linkages with the US. The Saudi ulama can play a highly effective role in preparing the ground for the establishment of a truly Islamic state. This is possible only if they abandon sycophancy and gather courage to proclaim the truth without fear or favour.

(Excerpted from the author’s Urdu booklet “Arab Dunya men Inqilabat” (2011)

A Supplementary Rejoinder: Professor A. R. Momin

The fatwa of Saudi ulama and muftis condemning the popular uprising in the Arab world, on the grounds that these uprisings run counter to the Quranic injunction to ‘obey the rulers,’ is retrogressive and shortsighted and is fraught with dangerous implications and consequences. It oversimplifies and misrepresents the Islamic perspective on state and society, the responsibility of the ruling class, and the role and agency of the masses. The meaning and import of the Quranic injunction ‘Obey God, and obey the Apostle, and those charged with authority among you’ (4:59) should be considered not literally and in isolation or abstraction but contextually. And the context is provided by the recorded statements and precepts of the Prophet, the precedents of his Companions, especially the first four caliphs, and the opinions of Muslim jurists.

A Hadith, reported by Bukhari, states: “It is incumbent upon a Muslim to obey the state or government, whether he likes its rulings and legal provisions or not. However, he is bound by this allegiance only insofar as he is not ordered to defy or violate the principles and provisions of Islamic Shariah. If a ruler issues an order that is in contravention of the Shariah, Muslims are not obliged to obey him.” (Kanz al-Ummal by Ali al-Muttaqi, Vol. 5, Hadith 2282). Another well-known Hadith states: “The most sublime form of jihad is a (fearless) pronouncement of truth before a tyrannical ruler.” When Abu Bakr was elected caliph, he said in his public speech, “Until I issue an order that contravenes the principles and precepts (stipulated by God and the Apostle), you are obliged to obey me. If I issue orders that go against the Shariah, you are not bound to obey me.”

During the second century of the Islamic era, the rulers of the Umayyad dynasty unleashed a reign of terror and oppression, causing immense hardships to people. Faced with this situation, the ulama and jurists pondered over the question whether people should patiently bear with injustice and oppression while making peaceful efforts, at the same time, to bring about a change in the situation, or whether they should launch an armed rebellion against the oppressive ruling dispensation. Imam Malik and Imam Awzai held that an armed uprising would not be advisable or legitimate because it would lead to strife and bloodshed. On the other hand, Imam Zayd ibn Ali and Imam Abu Hanifah argued that, when when all peaceful methods of setting things right turn out to be futile, an armed uprising would be justified. They based their reasoning on a Hadith which states, “If one of you happens to witness a wrongful action, he should try to change it (for the better) with his hands. If he is unable to do so, he should raise his voice against it. If he is unable to do even this much, he should harbour feelings of dislike and resentment against it in his heart, and this would be the weakest part of faith.”

Imam Zayd ibn Ali launched an armed insurrection against the Umayyad rulers. Imam Abu Hanifah justified his action and supported his move. Unfortunately Imam Zayd ibn Ali was betrayed and forsaken by his people and was executed in 120 AH. In 145 AH, Muhammad ibn Abdullah alias “Nafs Zakiyyah” and his brother Ibrahim waged an armed revolt against the Abbasid rulers. Imam Abu Hanifah extended his open support to the rebellion and urged people to support them.

An ‘Embedded’ Fatwa

The afore-mentioned fatwa of Saudi scholars and muftis represents an example of what may be dubbed as an ‘embedded legal opinion.’ The ulama, jurists and muftis of the early centuries of the Islamic era were known for the integrity of their character, for their fearlessness and courage of conviction even in the face of trials and tribulations, and for the independence of their opinions. With the passage of time, some from amongst men of learning abandoned the illustrious legacy of their forebears, thanks to the temptations of money and worldly comforts, power, fame and proximity to the ruling establishment. They tailored their legal opinions to the preferences and tastes of the powers that be, rather than the dictates of the Shariah. This represented a sad turning point in the intellectual and cultural history of Islam.

There are many instances of ‘embedded’ scholarship and expertise in the recent past and in present times. During the colonial era, many ‘embedded’ anthropologists, who owed access to tribal societies in Africa and Asia and who shared the racist ideology of the colonial powers, presented a one-sided, Eurocentric picture of these societies. During World War II, many Western sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists worked for colonial governments. There are many instances of what has been described as ‘academic colonialism’ in the history of the social sciences in the West. More recently, the ulama of Al Azhar University shamelessly supported Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt and tyrannical regime.

More often than not, the Saudi ulama and muftis have voiced the ideological and political proclivities of the ruling establishment. One may therefore be justified in speaking of a ‘politics of fatwas.’ The afore-mentioned fatwa is symptomatic of a growing chasm and a war of nerves between the puritans and hardliners, represented by the Salafis, and moderates, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party. The short-sighted fatwas of Saudi ulama and muftis are stoking the fires of fundamentalism, intolerance and aggressiveness in many parts of the Muslim world. This sorry state of affairs, which is largely caused by an aggressive narrow-mindedness, excessive ideological self-righteousness and political myopia, is fraught with dangers and runs the risk of fragmenting and polarizing the worldwide ummah.

Waiting for an Arab Spring of Ideas


DURING a recent visit to the United States, I was asked by intellectuals and journalists: Were we misled, during the Arab awakening, into thinking that Muslims could actually embrace democratic ideals? The short answer is no. Participants in the recent violent demonstrations over an Islamophobic video were a tiny minority. Their violence was unacceptable. They do not represent the millions of Muslims who have taken to the streets since 2010 in a disciplined, nonviolent manner to bring down dictatorships.TARIQ RAMADAN Many Americans were nonetheless shocked by the chaos and bloodshed across Muslim countries, believing that they had come generously to the aid of the Arab peoples during the uprisings. But Arabs, and Muslims in general, have a longer memory and a broader view. Their mistrust is fueled by America’s decades-long support for dictators who accommodated its economic and security interests; by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; by the humiliating treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay; and by America’s seemingly permanent and unconditional support for Israel.

The United States and its European allies would be well advised to examine why Muslims are seething. Withdrawing from Afghanistan, respecting United Nations resolutions and treaty obligations with regard to Palestine, calling back the killer drones and winding up the “war on terror” would be excellent places to start. However, the time has come to stop blaming the West for the colonialism and imperialism of the past. Muslim-majority societies must jettison their historic posture as victims and accept that they are empowered actors, as millions of Arabs demonstrated last year by coming out into the streets and changing the course of history.

The timeworn dichotomy of “Islam versus the West” is giving way to an era of multipolar relations. The world’s economic center of gravity is shifting eastward. But the growing prominence of China, India and Russia, and of emerging powers like Brazil, South Africa and Turkey, does not automatically guarantee more justice and more democracy. Some Muslims are too quick to rejoice at the decline of American power. They seem unaware that what might replace it could well lead to a regression in social and human rights and to new forms of international dependency.

The Arab peoples, like those throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, cannot, and do not want to, disregard the cultural and religious traditions that have long defined and nurtured them. As they pursue values like freedom, justice, equality, autonomy and pluralism, and new models of democracy and of international relations, they need to draw on Islamic traditions. Islam can be a fertile ground for political creativity — and not an obstacle to progress, as Orientalist thinkers in the West have so often claimed.

The Arab world, and Muslim-majority societies, need not only political uprisings, but also a thoroughgoing intellectual revolution from within that will open the door to economic change; to spiritual, religious, cultural and artistic liberation; and to the empowerment of women. The task is not an easy one. A struggle for political and religious authority is taking place in these societies. There are deep divisions among Sunnis — traditionalists, secularists, reformers, Sufi mystics — and also between Sunnis and Shiites.

At the moment, Arab thought has been hindered by a barren ideological construct that pits secularists against Islamists, making it impossible for either to indulge in in-depth reflection about the intellectual limitations that afflict both of them.

Westernized secular elites, for all their talk of democracy and human rights, often are carrying over former colonial agendas and are deeply disconnected from the people they claim to represent. Or if they aren’t — like some grass-roots movements on the left — their influence is marginal at best. Some have collaborated with dictators, accepted cronyism or benefited from official corruption. Others have remained close to the inner circles of the military (as in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Iraq). By standing against any overlapping of religion and politics, they have put forward a vision of democratization that is incoherent and disconnected from Islamic memories and traditions.

The Islamists have legitimacy, having paid a heavy price in opposing dictatorships for decades. They have made electoral gains in Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia by adapting to the shifts in power brought about by the protesters and cyberactivists. Yet they are facing contradictory expectations: they must remain faithful to their Islamic credentials while facing foreign pressure with regard to democratic processes, economic policies and relations with Israel. No figure embodies these contradictions more than Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new president, who tried last week to forcefully rebut President Obama’s absolute defense of free speech at the United Nations. But calling for limits on offensive speech is no solution. We don’t need more laws. We need courageous scholars and intellectuals who are willing to discuss topics their fellow Muslims don’t want to hear: their failings, their tendency to play the victim, the need to take responsibility for their actions. Only that sort of leadership will halt the tide of religious populism and emotionally driven blindness of the masses.

While the example of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., is interesting, it cannot be a reference for the entire Middle East. Turkey has a unique history; its challenges are not the same as those of the Arab world. The Arab Islamists, even as they celebrate their electoral successes, may well be entering a far more sensitive period of their history. They may lose the Islamic credibility they had as opposition forces, or be obliged to change and adapt so much that their political program is abandoned. Winning might be the beginning of losing. Meanwhile, Salafi and Wahhabi groups with literalist interpretations of Islam have become more visible and politicized over the last five years. Having for decades refused political participation — equating democracy with kufr (rejection of Islam) — they are now slowly engaging in politics.

Some of these groups (known as Salafi jihadists) have turned to violent radicalism. Others, financed by Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf oil monarchies like Qatar and Bahrain — supposed allies of the United States — have entered mainstream politics, where they promote a religious, anti-democratic populism that plays on emotions, demonizes the West (especially America) and actively undermines the struggle for democratic reform. There is a danger that the model of Afghanistan — where in the 1980s the Taliban, supported by the Saudi and American governments, became the main force of resistance to Russian domination — may be repeating itself.

There can be no true democracy in the Middle East without a profound restructuring of economic priorities, which in turn can come about only by combating corruption, limiting the prerogatives of the military, and, above all, reconsidering economic relations with other countries and the gross inequalities of wealth and income within Muslim countries. The emergence of a dynamic civil society is a precondition of success. Concern for free and critical thought must take the form of educational policies to build schools and universities, revise outdated curriculums and enable women to study, work and become financially independent.

The Arab world has shaken itself out of its lethargy after decades of apparent resignation and silence. But the uprisings do not yet amount to a revolution. The Arab world must confront its historical demons and tackle its infirmities and its contradictions: when it turns to the task, the awakening will truly have begun.

Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University.

(Source: The New York Times, September 30, 2012)

Islam and Democracy: A Debate

Islam Can Lead in Either Direction

Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is on Twitter.

“I come not to bring peace, but a sword,” said Jesus, according to the Gospels. The same sources tell us Jesus advocated “turning the other cheek.” Religions are replete with multiple narratives and several interpretations of almost every facet of a faith. Islam is no different: it is a religion concerned with salvation, not a political ideology competing with capitalism and democracy.

The prophet Muhammad bequeathed to us no fixed system of government, but taught Muslims the importance of justice and equality, and of eliminating corruption and bringing rulers to account. The Koran commands Muslims to decide on matters with “shura” or consultation, and Arabs brought to Islam the conceit of a “bai’ah” or allegiance. Early Muslim scholars referred to these ideas as governing with consent, and creating a contract with the governed.

Progressives look to Islam and see a call to democracy. But conservative Muslims reject popular sovereignty as a Western import. Fast forward to our times: Leading Islamist reformers like Rachid al-Ghannouchi in Tunisia draw on those teachings to argue that democracy best serves these principles. In Turkey, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has gone one step further and lectured the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt on the importance of secularism in maintaining democracy and guaranteeing religious freedom for all.

Just as these relatively progressive voices draw on Islam to shape their societies in the direction of democracy, religious conservatives argue that Islam forbids democracy. Only this week in Tunisia I was told by young Salafists that democracy means rule of the people, and that Islam believes in government for God alone. Sovereignty does not belong to the people. In their literalism, the Tunisians cited Saudi clerics like Ibn Baz and Ibn Uthaymeen as their inspiration for rejecting democracy as something Western.

Essentially, Islam is what Muslims make it. Without doubt, there are tensions between Western-style democracy and contemporary Muslim sensitivities on freedom of speech and incorporating complete gender parity within a human rights framework. Several important Arab nations are writing their constitutions, and are on a journey toward democracy. We will see how far they can travel. But with greater pressure, incentives, engagement, aid, trade and dialogue, we can help steer them closer toward something resembling Turkey, and away from Pakistan, Iran or others.

What Islam Says, and Doesn’t Say

Omid Safi, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of "Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters" and the editor of "Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism."

Modern nation states utilize political models that were unanticipated in any of our premodern scriptures. It is anachronistic to ask whether “Islam” endorses constitutionalism or democracy. Islam as such does not proscribe any one particular system of government. (Of course “Islam” doesn’t do anything, Muslims do. We human beings are the agents of our religious traditions.)

Rather, there are general ethical principles that have to be guaranteed under any system of government that Muslims adopt, like social justice; protection of life, property, and honor of humanity; accountability of rulers to law; distribution of wealth; and protection of minorities. All systems of government are imperfect, and it is not only good but also healthy to be perpetually vigilant against abuses of any form of government. However, it may also be the case that a genuine and robust democracy is the least imperfect of all imperfect political models today, as others before us have said.

There must be a democracy of Muslims who live side by side in a commitment to a 'greater we' alongside our neighbors. By speaking of a robust democracy, we are not talking about simply copying the American model of democracy, which is in many ways broken — beholden to special interest groups, and perhaps better labeled as an oligarchy or plutocracy. The ideal model that I see for Muslims would be more akin to some of the European models that combine democracy with guaranteed social services like universal health care, widespread education, respect for human rights and minimized military spending. Then again, we see some of those same European models struggling today with their own inherent racism toward Muslims, so we have to be honest enough to admit that the “perfect” system is one that we will have to adapt, rather than adopt wholesale.

The conversation is ultimately about citizenship, not some mythical blending of “Islam” and “democracy.” All of us, Muslim and non-Muslim, are now citizens of pluralistic societies where we live together as neighbors. We have to begin by realizing the holistic nature of justice (and injustice); that what happens to the least of us has a profound political and moral impact on all of us.

If we are going to insist that Muslim Americans are full and complete citizens, not merely tolerated guests (and we do); if we are going to insist that Muslim Indians are full and complete citizens of India, not the tolerated descendants of “foreign invaders” (and we do); and if we are going to insist that Palestinian Muslims (and Palestinian Christians) are not second-class citizens in Israel but fully deserving of the exact same set of rights, responsibilities and privileges that Jewish citizens of Israel receive (and we do) — then moral consistency demands of us that we recognize the exact same set of rights and responsibilities for non-Muslim citizens of Muslim-majority societies. In other words, quite apart from world opinion and public relations, the fundamental commitment of justice demands that our commitment to democracy goes hand in hand with a robust notion of citizenship that encompasses every citizen of a country regardless of race, religion, gender, class and ethnicity.

To sum up, there may not be an “Islamic democracy” any more than there can be a “Christian democracy” in American that privileges Christians over non-Christians or a “Jewish democracy” that privileges Jewish citizens of Israel over Palestinians, but there can be — and today, must be — a democracy of Muslims who live side by side in a commitment to a “greater we” alongside our neighbors.

Muslims Have Pushed for Democracy

Richard W. Bulliet, a professor of history at Columbia University, is the author of "The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization."

If democracy is to be born in the Muslim world, religious political parties will be the midwives. Elections do not necessarily mean democracy, of course. Most majority-Muslim countries, including monarchies like Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, hold elections. Usually nationalist regimes instituted them, and nationalist leaders transformed them into instruments of dictatorship, partly by banning religious parties. Muslim political parties have been the strongest and most consistent force urging genuinely free elections in majority-Muslim nations.

The question is whether a Muslim party, once elected, would inevitably make a mockery of that process by creating a religious dictatorship. The question in both the Western and the Muslim world, however, is whether a Muslim party, once elected, would inevitably make a mockery of that process by creating a religious dictatorship. After all, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought into being an Islamic Republic that seemed only a veil for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s religious autocracy. Elections were held, but only candidates wedded to a religious government could run.

Iran is a failed model, however. Not only was it a product of Shi’ite political thought, which Sunni thinkers are loath to follow, but also no one knows who’s in charge – the elected president or the unelected “supreme leader.” Today even Shi’ite leaders outside Iran shun the phrase. Muslim thinkers have long argued that fundamental Islamic texts dealing with consultation and representation support both constitutional government and elections. These arguments have gained wide acceptance, along with commitment to pluralist systems in which anyone can run for office and losers peacefully turn over power to their successors.

Is Islam compatible with democracy? Decidedly so. Does Islam encourage democratic government? No more than does any other religious tradition. But individual Muslim leaders do find in their faith the resources to sustain a commitment to elections and pluralism. In and of itself, Islam does not prescribe a governing form. What is crucial is that more and more Muslims believe in both their religion and democracy.

The Prophet’s Plurality

Jerusha Tanner Lamptey is an assistant professor of Islam and ministry at Union Theological Seminary.

The Islamic tradition does not inherently commend any particular form of government. The diversity of governance and participation models in both contemporary Muslim-majority nations and in Islamic history attest to this. What the Islamic tradition does commend in the socio-political sphere is the practice and exemplification of certain values, including equality of all individuals, noncompulsion, respect for diversity and respect for the communal whole.

In Muhammad's vision, religious communities were explicitly granted rights to autonomy and self-determination.

A striking example of these central values is found in Islam’s earliest socio-political context, the city of Medina under the leadership of Muhammad. Muhammad came to Yathrib (later renamed Medina) to act as an arbitrator among various warring factions in the city. His leadership role and socio-political vision was subsequently outlined in the Mithaq al-Madinah, the Contract of Medina.

This contract placed all groups within the city into a mutual alliance in which they agreed to protect the city, to come to the aid of allies, and to embrace Muhammad as a political and military leader. Notably, this alliance was in no way contingent upon religious affiliation or homogeneity. There was no obligation to adhere to the religious rites practiced by Muhammad, and in fact, religious communities were explicitly granted rights to autonomy and self-determination.

The values in play in this one example — an example that is essential to Islamic self-understanding — demonstrate significant overlap with the democratic values of participation, freedom, human rights and pluralism. Therefore, when we probe the relationship between Islam and democracy, the central question is not whether Islam is or can be compatible with democracy. The Islamic tradition proffers more than enough fodder to validate democratic principles. Rather, the more pressing question is why democracy-compatible aspects of the richly diverse Islamic tradition are emphasized — or de-emphasized — in various contexts. In order to answer this question, we must probe the intersections of Islam, culture, colonization, socio-economics and education. This is a much more complex question, but it is the question we need to ask.

(Source: The New York Times, October 5, 2012)

The Arab Spring Still Blooms


THE violent demonstrations that have spread across the Muslim world in recent weeks have convinced many in the United States and Europe that the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010 are now over and that the democratic project has failed. Bitterness and a sense of impending catastrophe are replacing the enthusiasm that followed the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt last year.

Now there is ominous talk of an “Islamist Fall” and “Salafi Winter” after a supposedly failed Arab Spring. To these skeptics, religion is the driving force in Arab politics, and hateful anti-Western slogans and the killing of America’s ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, are evidence of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West.

While these fears are understandable, such alarmism is misplaced. The Arab revolutions have not turned anti-Western. Nor are they pro-Western. They are simply not about the West. They remain fundamentally about social justice and democracy — not about religion or establishing Shariah law.

The democratization of Tunisia, Egypt and other countries has allowed a number of extremist free riders into the political system. But it has also definitively refuted the myth that democracy and Islam are incompatible. Islamists are political actors like any others: they are no more pure, more united or more immune from criticism than anyone else.

Islamist parties are now free to take part in political debates and to win seats in legislatures and governments. However, these political changes have also rendered the divisions among Islamists more apparent than ever before.

Islamists span a wide ideological and political spectrum. Yet many observers still seem to believe that extremist Salafi groups represent a majority. They are wrong. Radical Salafis who advocate violence and Shariah constitute a very small minority in Tunisia — and even in Egypt they are vastly outnumbered by more moderate Islamists. They are a minority within a minority, and extremely unpopular among both religious and secular Tunisians. They do not speak for all Tunisians, Arabs or Muslims.

The goal of these violent extremists is not political participation; it is to create chaos. We should not forget that before attacking American symbols, these extremists had degraded Tunisian symbols, like the flag and national anthem.

Despite their small numbers, the danger they pose cannot be dismissed. Tunisia’s economy depends on the millions of foreign tourists who visit each year. If Salafi extremists were to attack just two or three foreigners in Tunisia, it would destroy our tourism industry and ruin our country’s peaceful reputation. As a democratic government, we support the Salafis’ freedom of expression, but advocating violence is a red line. Those who cross it will be arrested.

The strength and importance of extremist groups have been unduly amplified by the news media. Images of angry Muslim mobs, like the one featured on a recent cover of Newsweek magazine, once again revived the old Orientalist trope of a backward and hysterical Muslim world, unable to engage in civilized and rational debate or undertake peaceful negotiations — in other words, incapable of conducting political affairs.

However, that image is a distorted fantasy; it does not represent any sociological or political reality. Arguing that the groups who have recently staged violent demonstrations represent the entire Arab population is as absurd as claiming that white supremacist groups represent the American people or that the Norwegian right-wing mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is representative of Europeans.

The demonstrations that took place against the anti-Islamic video “Innocence of Muslims” involved small numbers of extremists; there were only about 3,000 in Tunisia. Counterprotests denouncing the violence also took place in Benghazi, Libya, after the killing of Ambassador Stevens; numerous Muslim leaders have implored believers not to respond to provocations; and no demonstration occurred last Friday, after a French newspaper published demeaning caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

The attempts by journalists and anti-Islamic filmmakers to stage a sequel to the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006 are in vain. Most Tunisians firmly condemn the violence that took place against the United States embassies, even if they were personally offended by anti-Islamic provocations emanating from the United States and Europe.

They are frustrated by how this unnecessary uproar has made the struggle for what matters most to them more arduous: building new democratic institutions, creating jobs and halting the exodus of Tunisian boat people seeking a better life in Europe.

These are difficult tasks for any country, and the challenge is even greater for new democracies in the post-revolutionary Arab world. We are in a race against poverty. At this crucial moment, the West must not abandon us. It must continue to aid Tunisia in strengthening democracy and the rule of law, securing our borders to stop arms from reaching extremists, and creating economic opportunities that give our citizens hope.

Moncef Marzouki is Tunisia’s president.

(Source: The New York Times, September27, 2012)

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