Parallel Universe: Islam and Democracy

ISLAM’S relation to democracy has been a hot topic for a long time, but especially so after the Sept. 1 1 , 200 1 , attacks. Ever since the events ofthat fateful day, Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers have been evaluating the ways in which Islam can work with democracy. This question often assumes that “democracy” is synonymous with or representative of Western civilizations and that the analysis of Islam’s compatibility with democracy is usually a counter to those who claim that there will soon be a “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic and Western world.

Those who insist on compatibility rather than conflict between Islam and the West (where “the West” is signified by “democracy”) usually do so by noting democratic practices in traditional Islam. This line of argument points out, for example, that the baya ‘a, or pledge, given to rulers in the Islamic state functioned like a vote. Also noted is the Qur’anic requirement of Shura, or mutual consultation, which demands that the ruler consult the people, usually through their religious leaders before making official decisions.

A different approach to reconciling Islam and democracy problematizes the idea of Islam as inherently democratic. By noting conflicts between democracy and Islam as it has been practiced, writers taking this approach do not seek to contradict the idea of Islam as compatible with democracy. Rather, they question traditional conceptions of “Islam” and insist on reinterpretation (ijtihad) as a means of revealing and resurrecting democratic elements in Islamic principles. According to these writers, uniting Islam and democracy requires creative work.

A third approach is presented by the late Iliya Harik in Democracy and the Paradoxes of Cultural Democracy. The difference in approach is fundamental – Harik does not equate democracy with Western civilization. Nor does he assume that Islam, or the Islamic world, must find a way to achieve what the West has already achieved.

Instead, he discusses the contextualization of democracy, arguing that democracy does not belong only to the West. He also shows how democracy, in its multiple forms, has always been a part of many civilizations, Western and non-Western.

Harik notes three elements often considered prerequisites of liberal democracy:

1. The separation of state and religious establishment,

2. Autonomy of the individual, and

3. The prevalence of egalitarian attitudes.

He then goes on to dissect each to showthat none is unique to Western democracies. For example, on separation of church and state, Harik starts by noting two different forms in which this occurs: the Franco-American accommodation of religion and the Anglo-Nordic integration of church and state. The latter is evident in the British break with the Catholic Church, which resulted in a “state-dominated Church rather than separation of the two institutions.” A similar structure was in place in the Ottoman Empire, where the Sultan controlled the religious establishment. In both of these cases, religion served the needs of the state.

Harik also argues that in order for a democratic state to remain authentically democratic, democracy must sometimes accommodate principles that contradict the prerequisites outlined above. For example, the focus on individualism should not result in “discrimination against communities.” According to Harik, democratic communalism may be in tension widi liberal individualism, but it is not incompatible with democracy.

These arguments fit into I larik’s larger theme of contextualization. “Democratic values have the effect of being mutually constraining,” and the extent to which values will be complementary or in competition depends on the weights assigned to the various elements within a particular context. Social democracies, for example, will assign different weights than will liberal democracies. Context is relevant in other ways as well. For instance, although the U.S. is “institutionally secular,” religious attitudes are prevalent among its citizens. In countries such as Denmark and Norway, secularism is more social than institutional. The different ways in which secularism is manifested in these countries complicates the determination of which country is more secular.

Just as secularism cannot be compared without reference to context, so too is comparison between Islamic and Western countries a contextual matter:

Following the preceding logic of contextuality … is there any meaning left in continuing to maintain the conventional position that secular government prevails in Europe but not in Islamic countries? It is time that the entire thesis that in Islam, state and the religious establishment are inseparable in doctrine and practice be considered in a more sophisticated manner.

Harik’s contribution to the Islam and democracy analysis, therefore, is his focus on context and its role in how democracy is defined and implemented in various countries and civilizations. By recognizing common ground among competing notions of democracy, the analysis is no longer about which civilization is better and which needs to catch up. Democracies are not judged “as better or worse, but as different.” Most importantly, they are seen as “relevant to one another as part of one whole phenomenon.” Contextual understandings of democracy show how various countries and civilization are interlinked and open up possibilities for discourse and mutual exchange.

There may be yet another approach to the question of Islam and democracy. In Guests of God: Pilgrimage and Politics in the Islamic World, Robert Bianchi discusses the creation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the ways in which debates about Hajj policy shape the struggle for power in international Islamic organizations and affect relations among Muslim countries. He argues that the OIC, though originally conceived as a tool to be used by the wealthiest Muslim countries, eventually became “the architect of compromise.” The new Hajj regime set up by the OIC “is a skillful compromise between conflicting approaches of sovereignty, free access, and common heritage preservation.” Arab countries no longer have a monopoly over the Hajj; through the OIC, non-Arab countries have gained the importance they deserve. There are more non-Arab Muslims than Arab Muslims, and the OIC Hajj regime recognizes that in its quota system. Most importantly, what distinguishes the process of developing Hajj policy from other international struggles is the role of transcendent authority. Higher law supersedes national interests and all Muslims are required to work together to make this spiritual opportunity available to as many Muslims as possible.

To the extent that democracy can be seen as affording greater rights to the individual, democratization on an international scale means recognizing the unique needs of individuai nations. Democracy is also defined in terms of egalitarianism; equality of all nations requires giving attention to the role of each in the world community and preventing stronger nations from dominating weaker ones. Based on this simple, but central, notion of democracy, the Hajj regime as described by Bianchi is an example of a global arrangement that reflects democratic ideals. The OIC relates Islam and democracy on an international scale, and gives weight to the idea that the Higher authority that compels Muslim countries to seek compromise on the question of Hajj can also force similar changes in other areas. Specifically, religious obligations other than the Hajj can be used to continue the process of democratization and improvement begun by the Hajj regime.

Religious obligations that can help create compromise must be those, like the Hajj, that require communal cooperation in addition to individual effort. For example, the democratic implications of the Islamic duty to pay Zakat can be exploited by an international organization such as the OIC. Qur’anically, Zakat was introduced to allow “those of society with the most extra wealth to financially and otherwise help those of society presently in need so as to produce a society wherein everyone has the opportunity to grow strong . . . (and) to contribute to their humanity and its further development.”

This “socioeconomic democracy” can be created on an international level by having poorer Muslim countries work with richer Muslim countries through the medium of an organization such as the OIC. Just as the OIC has set up a quota system for the Hajj based on the number of Muslims in any given country, it can collect and distribute Zakat in proportional terms. Zakat can thus be used not only to help individual Muslims, but individual Muslim countries as well.

The analysis of how Islam and democracy work together has taken many forms. Some seek to reveal the democratic elements within Islam, either as it has been traditionally practiced or how it could be practiced if Muslims engage in ijtihad. Harik converts the central question from “Islam and democracy” to “democracy as it is practiced in the Islamic world versus how it is practiced in the West.” Bianchi’s analysis, on the other hand, approaches the subject in an indirect way, and suggests that if Islamic obligations arc internationalized so that countries work together to satisfy these duties, Islam may well be a potent and effective tool for greater democratization on a worldwide level.

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor

    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed