Is Islam compatible with democracy? The short answer is “yes.” But since nobody is interested in the short answer, I will go for the long one.
The tragic events of Sept. 11 made Islam a globally debated topic. Muslims from all ranks and different parts of the world condemned the attacks. Nevertheless, many scholars, politicians, journalists and evangelists have been building on a “clash of civilizations” ideology.
Samuel Huntington asserts, for instance, that “Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism,human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law,democracy and the separation of church and state have little resonance” in Islamic culture. The Rev. Franklin Graham has condemned the entire faith of Islam as “wicked, violent and not the same as God.”
For such people, no positive relation could ever be found between Islam and democracy or civilization. Islam stands as separate culture. In focusing on the compatibility between Islam and democracy, we first need to define what Islam is. The word itself signifies the believer’s “move toward God,” a feeling of being promoted to a higher existence. But Islam also has another meaning.
The Quran commands Muslims to “Say: we believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus. . . . We make no different between one and another of them: and we submit to Allah.” (2:136).
This primary Islamic disposition is a fundamental foundation for plurality.
The first Islamic state was established in Medina in 622. In the Constitution of Medina, Jewish tribes living in the town entered a pact as free and equal partners, enjoying their religious autonomy and full human rights. Since that time, Islam has encountered various religious communities east and west during its fast expansion. Muslims have been able to establish constitutions of interfaith relations in conformity with their own worldview and in accordance with their beliefs.
According to Muslim understanding, “democratic civility” is seen as a reproduction of the Islamic concepts of “shurah” (consultation), “ijima” (consensus ) and “ijtihad” (independent interpretive judgment).
The Quran laid down the principle of “shurah” to guide the community’s decisionmaking process. The “ijima” adds another dimension by asserting that the principles of pluralism are compatible with divine guidance.
Moreover, differences of opinion, which could come out of “ijtihad,” do not affect the eternal essence of the doctrine.
When Abu Bakr al-Siddiq was sworn in as the caliph and successor of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 C.E., he addressed the people saying: “O people. I was entrusted as your ruler, although I am not better than any of you. Support me as you see me following the right path and correct me when you see me going astray. Obey me as long as I observe God in your affairs. If I disobey Him, you owe me no obedience. The weak among you are powerful (in my eyes) until I get them their due. The powerful among you are weak (in my eyes) until I take away from them what is due others.”
These brief reflections show that Islam began with a certain type of democratic civility. In closing, I quote a paragraph from an article written by Dale Eickelman titled, “Islam and Ethical Pluralism.” He argues, “Some contemporary Muslim intellectuals argue that Islam offers a timeless precedent of peace, harmony, hope, justice and tolerance, not for Muslims but also for mankind.”
Of course all this is not conclusive in addressing the issue of compatibility. But revealing the universal issues of our common humanity might be a significant “movement from inside to outside.” It calls for opening doors and windows. Thus, we could find an opportunity for human togetherness as Islam and democracy find a comfort zone.