An Islamic Democracy?

Is a Democracy with a foundation of Islam possible?

  • Yes, an Islamic Democracy is both theoretically and pragmatically possible
  • An Islamic Democracy is theoretically possible, but practical/cultural concerns will keep it from ever happening
  • No, Islam and Democracy have fundamental differences which make them inconsistent
  • No, Democracies are fundamentally secular
0 voters

Recently I read Khaled Abou El Fadl’s essay Islam and the Challenge of Democracy. In this essay El Fadl attempts to make the case that Islam can not only be coherent with Democracy, but that it might, in fact, be the best system in which to live out the values of the Qur’an and Shari’ah. I was just wondering what everyone thought about this.
Let me further explain that El Fadl is trying to make the claim that there could be an Islamic Democracy, i.e. that the principles of Islam and Democracy are not inconsistent, and that, in fact, they can support one another. He is not speaking of whether a Muslim can be a part of a Democracy, whether a state can be democratic when the majority of the population is Muslim, or anything like that. He speaks directly of Islamic Democracy.
I’ll post more about his specific arguments a little later.

I’d like to hear his arguments for a Islamic democracy. My readings suggest the it is fundamentally impossible since separation of church and state is not recognized in either the quran or haddith literature. It would seem that the Iranian model is the Islamic ideal or as close to it as you could get. Given the history of Islamic states and their various forms of government, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll ever see such a phenomenon as an Islamic democracy. The nation of Turkey come’s as close as you can get, and they have had their ups and downs over the religion issues.


If you attempt to impose nonsensical superstitions on a group of vulnerable infants – thus arguably perpetuating child abuse – how can you call the result a “democracy”?

Or, if you have a system that corners individuals into desperation and thus encourages the use of religion as a “crutch” and a substitute for reality, how can you assume that these individuals will make rational choices and such?

Or, even worse, if you degenerate an individual’s mind to the point of complete submission to authority, such as advocated by Islam and most religions, why is democracy even “desirable” by these people if they would obviously prefer a strictly regimented existence?

I’d like to think they can coexist, but I fear that in practical terms they’re mutually exclusive. I’d like to hear his arguments, and I’m definately not an expert on Islam. I’ve read the Koran, but as others have pointed out, there may be some translation issues that have impaired my understanding of it.

Unless I misunderstand the book (in which case, so must a billion or so Muslims), Islam isn’t big on womens rights, at least not in the sense that the West would understand them. Granted, equality is coming only slowly and with difficulty in the West, and we’re not overly burdened with misogynistic religious dogma. It’s my understanding that a fundamentalist Muslim views the role of women in society as very different than I do.

I don’t know if a society can be Islamic and democratic both, unless religion is pushed to the background. There is no practial difference between religious law and secular law in the Koran, as far as I understand it. You simply cannot run a society by both sets of laws.

Assuming this debate is about Iraq, I honestly don’t know what to expect. On the one hand, I firmly believe that all people yearn to be free, even those not culturally conditioned to accept it. Given a taste of it, most people will desire to be free. But religion dominates many of their lives to a degee that I don’t know if they can “break free” of it.

I believe the Koran is a fantasy, just like “our” Bible. But obviously it’s very real to the Muslims of the world. Their views can’t be ignored, and it’s impossible to overstate what people will do in the name of God.

An Islamic democracy is very feasible and I think the the themes of social justice in the Qu’ran may produce better social justice than more Occidental forms of democracy.

One major issue is freedom and human rights. The freedom to create new forms of life that are not sanctioned Islamic forms of life would be a place of serious contention. Would the freedom to drink alcohol be available? What about premarital sex? What about homosexuality? These forms of life have had more success in the West because of our concept of personal freedom. I’m not sure that such a concept would emerge within Muslim societies. I could be very wrong on that point. Their is great tolerance in the history and beliefs of Islam. But there is also an intrusion of tribal and patriarchal orders. It really depends on the concept of freedom that is established constitutionally rather than democratically. I think a democratic organization in many Islamic countries would reveal human rights problems, much like the US had democratically instituted slavery and marginalization of anything that wasn’t white, rich and christian.

Maybe not exactly what we’re talking about, but it’s close.

Only one alcoholic drink is outlawed in the Qu’ran I believe.

Really? As I understood it, it read that alcohol in general should be banned; that Muslims must remain sober their entire life, or so I read.

So what drink is named??

of course it is. i read the koran a few months ago and found absolutely no reason as to why democracy and islam could be incompatible.

sharia law, islamic law, is just an interpretation. this is a very important concept to grasp. what is needed in the islamic world is a contemporary interpretation that proves that islam can, and does, accept democracy. the western (Christian) world did it centuries ago, and at the time it seemed entirely revolutionary. why wouldn’t the islamic world be able to do it?

this is a key concept in El Fadl’s work. He starts by saying that Islam and Democracy are defined by underlying moral values. He goes further to say that these two systems share the same underlying moral values, specifically “protecting human dignity”. El Fadl says that Democracy is the best system in which Qur’anic values, such as this one, are expressed. He further notes that the Qur’an mentions certain socio-political values that one should look for in Islamic society:

El Fadl attempts to deal with the problem of sovreignty in the people in a democracy (where in Islam, it is clearly God’s alone) by noting that the Qur’an speaks of people are viceroys of God. Human beings are entrusted with making this world, which we have been entrusted by God, more just. Realizing the weakness of humans, however, he sees the need to enshrine the core values of the Qur’an (and democracy as well, as it is the best way of promoting those Qur’anic values) in a constitution.
El Fadl sees this as a beginning case for democracy, but realizes that he must address the issue of Shari’ah. In response to fundamentalists who claim that Shari’ah, as God’s law, must alone rule, El Fadl relates a story about Ali, one of the rightly guided Caliphs, who was attempting to settle a dispute through arbitration:

El Fadl uses this wonderful example of showing that Divine Law cannot speak for itself. It needs humans to interpret it, and in human interpretation, we get things wrong (or even if we get it right, cannot know for sure that we got it right). He further points out that God demanded that creation honor humanity because of the miracle of intellect, an expression of the abilities of God. El Fadl uses this idea to show that it is, in fact, our duty to attempt to use our God-given intellect to reach for a more just world. We cannot simply sit back and claim that scripture tells us all we need to know.
El Fadl then goes into a great deal of detail with some history of Muslim juristic thought (he has been trained both as a Muslim Jurist, and as an American legal scholar/lawyer) but I won’t get into that here (you can read it if you are interested). Basically I would say that his system sums to a constitution/bills of rights based upon the fundamental Qur’anic values of freedom and dignity of humanity. He sees democracy as the fullest expression of those Qur’anic values, and he sees nothing in democracy which is contradictory with Islam. Further, he sees some legal tradition for, at least, proto-democratic ideas within juristic thought. He also sees these ideas within various traditions (one of the rightly guided Caliphs - Abu Bakr - stated that God left the issue of who would lead the community open so that Muslims might decide for themselves, the Qur’an instructs the Prophet to consult regularly with the community on all major issues)

On the issue of enforcing Islamic law (especially on non-Muslims), El Fadl says that:

Thus, El Fadl sees in the Qur’an a celebration of diversity, and its necessity when faced with the challenges of creating a just society. Thus, attempts to eliminate taht diversity are incorrect. He further explores the concept of mercy in Islam and sees it as coupled with the need to be patient and tolerant of others. El Fadl explains the juristic tradition of how to synthesize these divine values of justice and mercy with:

He goes on (in a very lawyerly way) attempting to answer various objections, problems to his ideas, but I think this gives some sense of his arguments. I can post more as problems arise, or if you wish to read the text, it is online at My apologies for taking so long on this, I simply wanted to get the arguments correct and not misrepresent El Fadl’s text too much (though I am sure I managed it). Hopefully this will spur some more discussion

note on above post: El Fadl doesn’t really say that Shari’ah is an interpretation. Shari’ah is, according to the Muslim, God’s law. He does, however, say that any attempt to get any meaning out of Shari’ah requires human intellect and anything produced by human intellect is a human interpretation, not God’s word/law.

I think that the more of the Koran they forget, the easier it will be for democracy to flourish. But some of that stuff is simply incompatible with democracy. For our (US) democracy to work, look what we had to do: Separate the Church and State. I can only assume the same sort of deal would have to be struck with Islam for it to be viabe.



Are you talking about Bush’s corporate christian fundamentalists here or something else? :smiley: