Islam, Democracy And Violence

Written by Asghar Ali Engineer · September 04, 2008

I was invited last week to Indonesia for a series of lectures by Asia Calling International Radio to speak on Islam, Democracy and Nation state. These days Indonesian intellectuals are rocked with questions we were faced with in early fifties in India. Also, all over Islamic world the question is being asked is Islam compatible with democracy and nation state? In Indonesia too, a largest Islamic country in the world the radical Islamists have raised this debate. The progressive Islamic thinkers there, are therefore, seized with these questions.

In a Asia Calling talk show where number of prominent public figures and diplomats were present these questions were raised by many. Also I spoke at Wahid Institute founded by former president of Indonesia and a leading scholar of Islam Abdur Rehman Wahid on experiences of Muslim minority in secular India. Indonesia, though a largest Muslim country in the world is still not an Islamic country but a Panchsila State. The doctrine of Panchsila was adopted during president Sukarno’s time.

But now Indonesia is under pressure to become an Islamic state where Shari’ah law would be the official law and religious minorities like Christians and Buddhists and others would become second-class citizens. Still, it seems, Indonesian people are resisting this demand and are hence keen to know the experiences of secular countries like India. Also what is the experience of nation building in South Asia including Pakistan and Bangla Desh. I was also asked to speak on the concept of human rights in Islam as in a democratic country human rights have fundamental importance. Indonesia, a largest Islamic country, is also faced with this question as minorities are coming under attack and their human rights are being violated.

Of course it is not at all correct to say that Islam is incompatible to democracy, I said in my talk. This myth is being spread by the supporters of authoritarian regime in the Islamic world. Kings, Sheikhs and military dictators are spreading such ideas, doesn’t matter if Islam gets bad name in the process. I firmly refuted this myth and maintained Islam does not come in the way of democracy; it is dictators and monarchs who come in its way.

We should remember, I said, that the Qur’an does not give any concept of state but a concept of society. Qur’an wants to establish a just society and what other way could be better suited to establish a just society than a democratic society. Also the Qur’an emphasizes equality of all human beings and equal dignity for all despite different languages, colours and race and nationality. How can it be achieved except through democratic society?

The authoritarian societies negate all these and hence not democracy but monarchy and dictatorship is un-Islamic, not democracy. During medieval ages, the concept like equal dignity, gender equality and human rights were just non-existent and hence monarchy was quite acceptable. It is no longer so. The modern society is emphatic about human equality without any distinction and human rights and gender equality are of great significance and hence democracy is the only way out for Qur’anic concept of just society to be realized Some people, especially radical Islamic groups do argue that the only just government could be through institution of khilafah. Let me say that the institution of khilafah has not been sanctioned by the Qur’an as pointed out above Qur’an does not recommend any form of government at all. The institution of khilafa was a result of historical situation. It was not even a part of Prophet’s (PBUH) Sunna.

That is why there were differences among Muslims about the question of succession. Even most prominent companions of the Prophet (PBUH) were not sure about the mode of succession of the successor. Shia’s maintain that the Prophet (PBUH) appointed his cousin and son-in-law Ali to succeed him. But only the supporters of Ahl-e-bait agreed with this view and others gathered in Saqifa Banu Sa’ida to discuss the question of his successor. There too there was no unanimity and after lot of suggestions and debates Umar proposed the name of Abu Bakr and did bay’ah on his hand and others followed.

Then there was no unanimity in electing the Caliph. Many said the Khalifah could be only from the tribe of Quraish of Mecca and Ansar of Madina who were from other tribes like Khazraj and Aus maintained that caliph should be from among them as they had helped the Prophet (PBUH) in Madina. It was also suggested that two persons be elected one from Quraish and one from Ansars. But this viewpoint was also rejected and ultimately Abu Bakr of Quraish was elected.

Then it was said that there could be only one caliph at one time but this concept also proved to be fragile as when the Abbasid defeated Umayyads, one of Umayyad’s family fled to Spain and founded another empire there and at a time there came into existence two caliphs and when Buwahids captured power and caliph became merely a nominal head, caliphate turned into sultanate. The institution of Caliphate also lasted only for thirty years and Mu’awiyah captured power without any sanction from Muslims as in the case of first caliph and what is more he nominated his own son Yazid against the wishes of all Muslims and against the wishes of prominent companions of the Prophet many of whom were then alive.

All this clearly shows that the institution of khilafah was a tentative historical construct, not the result of any divine injunction either based on Qur’an or Sunnah. Thus it cannot be argued that the institution of khilafah be restored and that is the only way out. Also, institution of khilafah, whatever way it came into existence was after all more democratic than monarchy or sheikhdoms and dictatorship which have no sanction of any kind at all.

Also, in case of electing a caliph tribal experience of the time was used as successor to a tribal chief was elected by the members of the tribe. There was no concept of one-man one vote at the time. In the institution of modern democracy one man one vote is the tried and tested method for electing public representative. New historical experience has resulted in new methods of election. There should be no hesitation in excepting and assimilating new experiences. During the period of Khilafat many institutions were readily borrowed from Roman and Sassanid empire like keeping salary register for soldiers from Iran. Earlier only share in the loot was given to those taking part in the fight.

Another question which is raised by Islamists is imposition of Shari’ah law. They argue that in democracy there are man made (human made) laws and Shari’ah law is divine law and this cannot be allowed in an Islamic state as only Shari’ah law should be enforced. This is also an erroneous concept. Shari’ah laws can be divided into two categories: ‘ibadat and mu’amalat (i.e. laws pertaining to salah, saum, haj etc. which are part of ‘ibadat.

Then the laws pertaining to mu’amalat which include relations between human beings and human beings. Laws about mu’amalat cannot be permanent. Of course no changes can be made as far as Shari’ah laws concerning ‘ibadat are concerned but as for mu’amalat laws cannot be permanent and parliament should be empowered to make laws in those respects. All modern democracies allow people to pursue their respective religions and do not interfere in their religious affairs. In all secular democracies also right to religion is a fundamental right.

Also, as far as ‘ibadat are concerned it does not require enforcement by any state but its importance lies in its voluntary nature. ‘Ibadat pertain to ones heart and soul and real ‘ibadat is one which is done most sincerely and from ones core of heart. It cannot be enforced. And it will cease to be ‘ibadat if it is enforced by a state machinery. This is what Qur’an also maintains when it says there is no compulsion in matters of religion.

Thus no Islamic state is required even to enforce provisions of Shari’ah. An Islamic state again would mean the majority of Muslim sect who live in that country would enjoy real freedom and those Muslims who belong to other sects would be persecuted. We see this right in the beginning of Islamic history. The Abbasids initially subscribed to the doctrine of createdness of Qur’an and all those who rejected this doctrine were severely persecuted. Even eminent Imam like Abu Hanifa was flogged for rejecting this doctrine.

In modern Islamic states too we see this phenomenon. In Saudi Arabia only Wahabi Muslims enjoy real freedom of religion. Those who do not subscribe to this doctrine are persecuted or do not enjoy freedom like Wahabis to practice their religion. Similarly the Shias are persecuted in Sunni majority states and Sunnis in Shiah majority states. In Iraq a Sunni minority dominated and persecuted Shi’ahs and in Syria, Alawi minority dominate over Sunni majority as it wields political power.

Real freedom of religion is possible only in democratic state where all enjoy equal rights irrespective of caste, creed and colour. Large number of Muslims today live as minority in various secular democratic states in various Asian, African and Western countries and enjoy right to freely practice their religion. This it is not correct to maintain that you need an Islamic state to practice Islam freely.

Every democratic state permits Shari’ah laws pertaining to personal laws like marriage, divorce, property, inheritance etc. In secular India too Muslims are completely free to practice these laws. Indian Muslim refuse any reform in their laws and state does not insist on that though in many Muslim countries these laws have been reformed.

Now the question about criminal laws whether it would be permitted in a secular democratic state to be permitted. The answer is certainly no. In India the Britishers had abolished Islamic criminal laws in 19th century itself and enforced a criminal code drafted by their parliament. The Muslim Ulama agreed to abolition of the Islamic code and agreed to enforcement of common criminal code. Today in the modern world many Muslim majority countries have also taken similar steps. Criminal punishments are largely contextual. In the tribal Arab society certain punishments were thought to be more effective and hence they were recommended. The main purpose is to prevent crime and nature and extent of punishment can certainly change. Also, there is provision for tazir punishment also in Islam and the rulers did enforce tazir punishments too. So it is not matter of principle whether hudud laws are enforced or not. Main thing is to check crimes.

Thus it would be seen that a secular and democratic state is equally good as long as it permits Muslims to practice their religion. It is also important to note that the Indian Ulama voluntarily opted for a secular state as opposed to an Islamic state in the form of Pakistan in 1947 when India was divided. They vigorously opposed creation of separate Muslim country and preferred to have a secular democratic and multi-religious, multi-cultural country. And who knew Islam better than the Ulama of Darul Ulum Deoband.

An Islamic state itself, as pointed out before, is a historical construct and not a Qur’anic concept and hence it is in no way obligatory for Muslims to set up an Islamic state. Those who argue in favour of Islamic state cannot produce any argument from the Qur’an and Sunna. In every country there are certain forces who adopt majoritarian aggressive postures and want their religion to be associated with the affairs of the state. In India, for example, a section of Hindus want India to become Hindu Rashtra (i.e. Hindu nation) but secular Hindus resist that demand.

In any religious state all citizens of different religious persuasions cannot enjoy equal rights and no modern state can allow this. The very essence of modern polity is that all citizens irrespective of their religion should enjoy equal rights. Maulana Maududi of Jamat-e-Islami of Pakistan had argued that no non-Muslim can become head of the state or prime minister of Pakistan. He or she cannot even hold any key post in the government. Sure in secular states also no person from minority religion will find it easy to become head of the state but theoretically it is not ruled out. In India a Sikh, a non-Hindu became a prime minister and three Muslims could become president of the country.

Another objection raised by many Islamists is that in secular democratic states human rights are sacred and the very concept of human rights is un-Islamic. This is also not in keeping with the Qur’anic teachings. Firstly, most of the Islamic countries with few exceptions have signed the UNO’s Human Rights Declaration. Some countries who did not sign the declaration their objection was that one who renounces Islam cannot be put to death as freedom of religion is a fundamental principle of human rights.

However, as pointed out above Qur’an itself upholds right to freedom of religion and the Qur’an pronounced it much before modern world realized its significance. It is very strange that now some Muslims in contradistinction to Qur’anic principle, of which they should have been justly proud, reject the doctrine of freedom of religion as modern western and hence unacceptable. The Shari’ah rule that one who renounces Islam should be given death sentence is highly controversial and there is no unanimity on this among Muslim jurists. Maulana Aslam Jairajpuri, for example, disagrees with it and advances several arguments from Qur’an and Sunna to show death punishment for renouncing Islam is not justified.

In fact freedom and faith go together. One cannot genuinely believe in any religion unless one is completely free to accept or reject it. If one is forced to accept a religion it cannot be accepted by his heart and soul. He may accept it outwardly but his heart and soul may resent it. It is precisely for this psychological reason that Qur’an made principle of freedom of religion so important. The Shari’ah provision for death sentence was more for sedition than for renouncing religion. It was feared that a Muslim living in an Islamic state, if renounces Islam, he may join hands with the enemy and conspire against Islamic state. Punishment for sedition world over is death.

The fear of sedition was genuine because Muslim states were surrounded by Christian states and there was direct political, though not religious confrontation between the two and hence anyone renouncing Islam there was genuine fear that he may help the Christian state. The crusades are well known from 11th to 13th century. That period of confrontation between Muslims and Christians was most intense. Thus death punishment for renouncing Islam makes sense during that period. This context must be kept in mind but in the long run the Qur’anic doctrine of freedom of religion must be upheld.

As for other principles of human rights even the most orthodox Muslim cannot object to them. For example, equality of all human beings is very central to Qur’anic teachings too. Human dignity is sacred in Islam as well. Gender equality is also clearly enunciated in the Qur’an. Moreover, woman has been given equal rights for contracting marriage and husband and wife have been described as each others garment. All these are enshrined in declaration of human rights issued by the UNO. Those Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia who did not sign Human Rights’ Declaration also did not object to these provisions.

Those who argue that implementation of Shari’ah is an obligation of Islamic State should understand that Shari’ah evolved gradually and there were great deal of differences among the Muslim jurists on many issues. Thus Shari’ah, as one Islamic scholar Prof. Muhammad Mujeeb maintained, is a human approach to divine injunctions. That is very apt description of Shari’ah laws as evolved by many eminent jurists during first four centuries of Islam.

The great Urdu poet Iqbal from Indian sub-continent also maintained that every generation of Muslims should be entitled to rethink Shari’ah issues and in a Muslim majority country parliament will be the right forum to do so. He also maintained that ijtihad is the dynamic principle in Islam and ijtihad becomes necessary in changed conditions in modern society. Thus a democratic society with an elected parliament would be a better institutional arrangement for making Shari’ah more relevant to our contemporary world. Many new issues have arisen which need use of ijtihad quite urgent.

And where Muslims are a minority and live in secular democratic state should evolve their own forums to bring about necessary changes. Today more Muslims live in minority situation than in majority and hence they would have to evolve their own institutions to do ijtihad with the cooperation of Ulama and modern scholars. No secular democratic state can stop them from attempting these creative changes in their laws. All this has to be done within the framework of Islam. No changes can be brought outside this framework if they are to be accepted by Muslims at large.

To accept democratic state would be far more beneficial to Muslims and would enable Muslims to practice their religion faithfully and fearlessly than in so called Islamic state where sectarianism and fundamentalism will prevail. A democratic state is much better guarantee of genuine freedom of religion than a state based on any religion. This seems to be contradictory but in fact true.

Thus we must properly educate Muslim masses and prepare them for acceptance of democracy in Islamic world. They should be made aware that those who oppose democracy in the name of Islam are really serving certain vested interests rather than Islam. Islamic world is still reeling under the impact of feudal and medieval forces who serve their own interests in the name of Islam. Islam is quite compatible with democracy. It is rather interests of rulers of Muslim countries which are not compatible with democracy.

Indonesia, I said in my lectures, has achieved democracy after a long spell under dictatorship and it must be protected at any cost and all religious minorities also should be guaranteed full freedom to follow their respective religion. Tolerance of differences is an important principle of democracy and due tolerance should be shown to all different religious opinions too. It will not violate any Islamic principle at all.


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