Is Democracy Compatible With Islam?

Given the recent political events in the Middle East and in Egypt in particular it would be useful to examine Islamic political theory and address the issue of whether pluralistic democratic government can exist within the framework of Islam.  Because of its importance in the Arab world, the intensity of the current political turmoil there and the long standing existence of a political party with a strong Islamist ideology, the main emphasis of this analysis will be focused on Egypt, particularly as the political landscape there is so very different than that of the Gulf countries looked at above.

The political situation in Iraq is oriented more along sectarian and tribal lines although there are political parties there that are based on Islamic concepts, particularly shi’i ones. I do not think that the Islamic State can be described as a political party. Its position as a self proclaimed political entity both sets it apart and conforms it much of the political thought described below.

Given the importance of the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) in steering the debate in the 20th century within political Islam as to what is the acceptable form that governance can take in an Islamic society this article’s primary focus will be an analysis of the concepts put forward by their leading thinkers.

There is very little in either the Qur’an or the hadith literature that can be said to form the basis of what we in the West would define as the basis of political theory or polity beyond that of the Muslim community itself or ummah. For example in Sura liv 8 it states ‘power belongs to God, His Apostle, and the believers.’

The ummah is the paramount notion of social and political significance in Islam. The reason for its existence is to enable the believers to create the ideal society which is one based on Sharia’. The Sharia’ is at the center of Islamic culture. The duty of Muslims is to do right, not to know the truth and part of that duty is to realize God’s divine pattern on earth. What this means in reality is that the state in Islam is actually a religious and not a territorial concept. This is at the heart of the political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood (ikhwan al-muslimin).

The origins of what one might term Islamic political theory lie with the great Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328 C.E.) who elaborated on these ideas in his work Al-Siyasa al-shariyya, (n.d.)  In classical Islamic political theory therefore there are only two political entities in the world; the Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) and the Dar al-Harb (the abode of war i.e. everywhere that is not part of the Dar al-Islam). It is the duty of all Muslims eventually to incorporate the Dar Al-Harb into the Dar Al-Islam either through da’wa (proselytizing) or through jihad (which literally means struggle and has both militant and non-militant connotations depending on context).

Jihad is the one clearly sanctioned political activity open to members of the ummah. Unbelievers are enemies of God and believers are friends of God. This emphasis creates a political conception that is often confrontational and not irenic.

Thus,” jihad is a most amenable notion to the purposes of the state: it can legitimize aggressive policy. But Qur’anic political ideas provide no clear cut blueprint for authority in the Islamic community after the Prophet (PBUH); the Qur’anic term imam does not refer to a ruler, but a prayer leader. Amir al-muminin (Commander of the Faithful, which is the title that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi head of the Islamic State has given himself) is not a Qur’anic term, but shares with the Qur’an the ideological overtone of militancy. The term khalifa (Viceregent) appears inthe Qur’an but not as khalifatullah (Viceregent of God); rather, it denotes broadly the Muslims at large as inheritors of the earth”. (Vatikiotis, 1987. p.23)

As a result the question of how an Islamic state is to be structured and how power is to be held in that state is one of the key debates still taking place within Islam today. Certainly one of the most influential thinkers that has helped to shape this debate in modern times is Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979 C.E.) the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

“That if an Islamic society consciously resolves not to accept the Sharia’, and decides to enact its own constitution and laws or borrow them from any source in disregard of the Sharia’, such a society breaks its contract with God and forfeits its right to be called ‘Islamic.’” (Maududi, 1955)

“Such a state would be based on three principles, tawhid (oneness of God), risala (prophethood) and khilafa (caliphate).” (Maududi, 1955)

The function of the legislature in such a state would be “that of law-finding, not of law-making.”(Maududi, 1955)

“ Sovereignty of God (hakimiya) and the sovereignty of the people are mutually exclusive.” (Maududi 1955)

This is the opposite of the concept of law and democracy that developed from Greek rationalist thought because in Islam it is not possible to have Natural Law which can be discovered by human reason.

“Consequently, man can have no rights that derive from man-made, or positive law, nor ones that are sanctioned by a Natural Law of reason independently of the revealed religious law. Law and nature are one, because God controls the universe and everything in it in the divine pattern he has revealed to the believers in the Holy Book and, by extension, in the revealed Sacred Law.” (Vatikiotis, 1987 p.27)

As a result “the absence of natural rights rendered freedom a juridical, not a metaphysical concept. As the servant of God, man was ontologically nothing.” (Vatikiotis,1987)

Thus there is no place in an Islamic political system for the concept of liberty as we understand it in the West. “Even the consensus of the community (ijma’) remained a construct of divine will, not even of a mythical popular, or societal will. The only political theory possible therefore has been a juridical one, without reference to the nature of man. Freedom meant what was offered by the covenant of the ummah; for non-muslims it was supplied by the idea of toleration (dhimma) and protection (aman).” (Vatikiotis,1987 p.33)

As a result it is not possible for a legislature in the Islamic world, even a freely elected one to create laws that deviate from Sharia’ and still be Islamic. It would become something else.

To put it more bluntly. “He who accepts a law other than Allah’s ascribes a partner to Allah. Whatever act of worship that is not legislated by Allah and His Messenger is bid’ah  (innovation)and every bid’ah is a means of deviation… Any other law which is legislated by neither Allah or his Messenger in politics, or for judging people’s disputes, it is considered as the law of taghut  (idolatry) and jahiliyyah” (ignorance of divine guidance). (al-Fawzan, n.d.)

So the basic question of law and the necessity of that law being Sharia’ in order to have an Islamic state is merely the first hurdle to the creation of a “democracy” in a country such as Egypt where the legislature is controlled by Islamic parties.

In the issue of the Economist magazine dated February 18th-24th 2012 there was an editorial titled The Muslim Brotherhood -Dialogue is the best Defense. The editorial defines the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-muslimin) in Egypt as a moderate Islamist party. It also posits the theory that engagement by the west with the Ikhwan will make it less likely that “reform-minded Islamists will not lose to extremists at the next election or turn more radical themselves.” Economist, 2012)

This opinion is a fantasy based on a basic lack of understanding of the ideological roots of the Ikhwan movement. The political development that will take place in Egypt over the next few years will be decided primarily by the domestic Egyptian environment and will be subject to very little external influence. It is important therefore to understand what the basis of political thought within the Ikhwan is as that is what will prevail in the end if they ever manage to achieve real power, either there or any where else.  The process  will be driven primarily by domestic Egyptian political forces and not by the wishful thinking of members of the liberal elite in the West no matter how many diplomatic missions are sent to try to cajole them into embracing (to them) alien and unacceptable concepts of political pluralism.

Let’s start with Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of the Ikhwan.  He makes it absolutely clear that power in a state is to be held only by Muslims under the implementation of sharia. This means that there can be no other source of law in the community (umma) except the law of God.(Al-Banna, n.d.)

This in and of itself precludes a secular pluralist society. All of the other leading personages of the Ikhwan , Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), Muhammad Al-Ghazali (1917-1996) and Abdel Qadir Auda oppose secular political orders (‘ilmaniyya) as belonging to the age of ignorance (jahiliyya) and that they are unacceptable for a Muslim and that a Muslim must not obey any man made law or those who enforce it.

“An Islamic society is the only one in which faith is the bond of political association. Power in the state must be monopolized by Muslims.” (Qutb, 1964)

Another firm advocate of this position in modern Egyptian society is the leading female Islamist who was only loosely associated with the Ikhwan, Zaynab al-Ghazali (1917-2005).

All the leading members of the Ikhwan agreed that rejection of secularism is one of the cornerstones of establishing an Islamic state.

“Amongst the visible types of kufr (unbelief) is that represented by the current opposition to the Islamic law as a system of government and the substitution of the secular law in its stead. Some say that the Shari’ah does not concern itself with relations between the individual and the society, or between the government and the governed. They maintain that its application is not mandatory in every case, or to every issue, and that its provisions are not perpetually valid. Sometimes the claim is made that the Shari’ah is relevant only within a particular historical context, that its relevance to modern times is limited and that a secular legal system would be more suitable today. This premise is a challenge to divine authority; both the idea and those who support it are outside Islam.”(Auda,1978)


If we look at the writing of a more contemporary thinker, Tariq Al Bishri is considered one of the leading legal intellectuals in Egypt today. He was appointed in 2011 by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to head the committee set up to propose constitutional changes in the aftermath of the popular demonstrations in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

” Only the law of God can prevail and all other sources of authority in society must be rejected. Uniformity of conduct under the sharia must prevail over any national integration based on the political accommodation of ethnicity and pluralism.” (Bishri,1980)

Thus there is consensus within the Muslim ‘ummah on how the State should be based.  The only debate is whether the State should be established immediately as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has proclaimed or whether there should be an incrementalist policy as recently iterated by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who although not an official member of the Ikhwan is a respected religious authority who said that Egypt needed a five year reprieve from the implementation of God’s law.

In addition to the basic issue that Natural Law and Islamic Law (Shari’a) are incompatible in political society there is a further impediment to the emergence of democracy under an Islamic regime and that has to do with the concept of pluralism within a society as defined by the principles of the Islamic Shari’a.

We in the West have come to a consensus that for a modern secular democratic state to succeed that the political society of that state must be pluralistic.

Muslim society, if the state is Islamic, seems to preclude political pluralism, at least in theory.

As I demonstrated above the leading Muslim writers on the theory of government are in agreement that only the law of God can prevail in any Muslim society. All other sources of law are kuffar, or unbelief, and therefore must be rejected. Thus there is no scope for political accommodation based on ethnicity or pluralism. For example, “there must only be one cultural tradition and that is an Islamic one to guide and inspire the citizens of an Islamic State and that uniformity of the shari’a must prevail over any national integration based on the political accommodation of ethnicity and pluralism.” (Al-Bishri, 1980)

Shi’i jurists such as Muhammad Baqr As Sadir, the chief ideologist of the Islamic Dawa party in Iraq are in broad agreement with the sunni jurists who have been cited herein. The mandatory principles of governance are that absolute sovereignty belongs to God, that Islamic injunctions are the basis of legislation, the people as vice regents of Allah are entrusted with legislative and executive powers, however, no law may be enacted which is repugnant to Islam and that the jurists holding religious authority represent Islam. (As-Sadr, 1975)

The main difference between sunni and shi’i Islam as it pertains to the interpretation of Shari’a in any context, political or otherwise is that shi’i jurists (fuqaha) have greater absolute authority in interpreting God’s will in this regard than sunni ones do.

What therefore can the role of non-Muslims in such a state be? Once again Shari’a  law is very clear on this point. People of the book (ahl-al kitab), in other words Christians, Jews and Sabaoun (although today no one knows to whom this refers) are entitled to the practice of their religion under a Muslim government and to certain protections from the State in return for the payment of a poll tax known as jizya.  The protected category is called a dhimmi  under Shari’a law. They are not dealt with by such a government as individual citizens but as a distinct and separate caste.

That dhimmis will not hold full rights in a State governed by Shari’a  is clear; for example  non-Muslims in a Muslim state must observe all civil, criminal and commercial laws and may not preach or publish any beliefs that are contrary to Islam. “It is not part of forgiveness to ask of the Muslim to forego and freeze his religious rules and the law of God…the destruction of his religious guide to life for the sake of non-Muslim minorities so as not to cause them anxiety or hurt their feelings”. (Al-Qaradawi, 1977)

Thus the essential problem facing the creation of a democratic government under Shari’a is that such a government can be neither secular nor pluralistic. The Shari’a is by its nature a series of divine commands and prohibitions which regulate every aspect of life both personal and public. Secularism means in addition to the separation of church and state that truth is something that cannot be exclusively possessed. Pluralism means that there are differing acceptable views about how to interpret man and his relation to the world and that no one holds a monopoly on how a society is to be structured. That means that skepticism has a place in society that prevails over the certitude of an absolutist system. It means that political experimentation within the framework of a society is acceptable and that mankind will make and attempt to rectify mistakes within the political sphere.

In a society that insists on the exclusiveness of the implementation of God’s law on earth, this isn’t possible. Further this is an ideological problem and not one of historical evolution. The West went through a change because the ideological basis of the Christian Church was one of exclusive secular power. The Pope for example was the Vicar of Christ and not the Vicar of Augustus. It was three hundred years before the temporal powers of the Roman Empire embraced Christianity. Islam was a political entity certainly from the time of the  hijra in 622 c.e going forward and the successors of Muhammad (PBUH) from the moment of his death presided over a political state which in one form or another existed continuously until 1918 c.e.. It is this order that the current brand of political Islam is seeking to restore and there is no question that the so called Arab Spring has brought them a step closer. But a secular pluralistic democracy will not emerge in any Muslim country in the current political environment.



The Qur’an (n.d.)

Taymiyyah, Ibn (c. 1300) Siyassa Al Sharia

Vatikiotis, P.J. (1987) Islam and the State

Maududi, Abdu Ala (1955)  Islamic Law and its Introduction

Al-Fawzan, Shaikh Salih (n.d.) Aqeeda at-Tawheed

The Economist (2012) The Muslim Brotherhood-Dialogue is the Best Defense

Al-Banna, Hassan (n.d.) Majmu’at Rasa’il

Qutb, Sayyid (1964) Ma’alem fil-tariq

Al-Ghazali, Zaynab (1982) Ayyam min Hayyati

Auda, Abdul Qadir (1978) Tashri Al-Jana’i

Al-Bishri, Tariq (1980) Al Muslimun wa’l Agbat fi itar al-Jama’a al-Wataniyya

As-Sadir, Muhammad Baqr (1975) Islamic Political System

Al-Qaradawi, Shaikh Yusuf (1977) Ghayr al-Muslimin fi’l Mujtama’ al-Islami