Democracy in the Islamic World

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Shaikh Muhammed Ali*


(In interpreting the rule of law and limited government, classical Muslim scholars always referred to core elements of modern democratic practice. Limited government and the rule of law are the two most legitimate elements of the system of government today. Democracy’s moral power lies in the idea that the citizens of a nation are a sovereign entity and in modern democracy, they express their sovereign will by electing their chosen representatives. In a flourishing democracy, the people are the source of the law and the law in turn is needed to provide fundamental rights that protect the well-being and interests of the individual members of the sovereign society.

For Islam, democracy indeed poses a formidable challenge. Muslim jurists over the years have argued that law formulated by a sovereign monarch is illegitimate since it substitutes human authority for God’s sovereignty. But on the other hand, law drafted by sovereign citizens of the state also faces the same problem of legitimacy. In Islam, God is the only sovereign and ultimate source of legitimate law. How can a democratic concept of the people’s authority be reconciled then with a Muslim understanding of God’s authority?

Answering this question is religiously important but also extremely difficult, for both political and conceptual reasons. On the political side, it can be said without an iota of doubt that democracy faces a number of practical hurdles in Islamic countries; authoritarian political traditions, a history of colonial and imperial rule, and state domination of economy and society. But answering philosophical and doctrinal questions are important at this stage, and I intend to focus on them here as the beginning of a discussion of the possibilities for democracy in the Islamic world. Author.)

Democracy in the Islamic World


The relationship between Islam and democracy in the contemporary world is complex. The Muslim world is not ideologically monolithic. It presents a broad spectrum of perspectives ranging from the extremes of those who deny a connection between Islam and democracy to those who argue that Islam requires a democratic system. In between the extremes, in a number of countries where Muslims are a majority, many Muslims believe that Islam is a support for democracy even though their particular political system is not explicitly defined as Islamic.

A strong debate has been going on between Islam and democracy since the late twentieth century among the people who affiliate themselves with the Islamic resurgence. Some of them believe that ‘democracy itself is indeed a foreign concept which has been imposed upon them by the western world. They have been noticed arguing that the concept of popular sovereignty denies the fundamental Islamic affirmation of the sovereignty of God and is, therefore, a form of idolatry.

Many prominent Islamic intellectuals and groups, however, argue that Islam and democracy are compatible. Some extend the argument to affirm that under the conditions of the contemporary world, democracy can be considered a requirement of Islam. In these discussions, Muslim scholars bring historically important concepts from within the Islamic tradition together with the basic concepts of democracy as understood in the modern world. 1

A relatively neutral starting point for Muslims is presented in a 1992 interview in the London Observer with the Tunisian Islamist leader and political exile, Rashid Ghanoushi who argues: “If by democracy is meant the liberal model of government prevailing in the West, a system under which the people freely choose their representatives and leaders, in which there is an alternation of power, as well as all freedoms and human rights for the public, then Muslims will find nothing in their religion to oppose democracy, and it is not in their interests to do so.” Many Muslims, including Ghanoushi himself, go beyond this and view democracy as an appropriate way to fulfill certain obligations of the faith in the contemporary world. 2

The synthesis of spirituality and government builds on a fundamental affirmation at the heart of Islam: the proclamation that “There is no divinity but The God” and the affirmation of the “oneness” of God. This concept, called Tawhid, provides the foundation for the idea that one cannot separate different aspects of life into separate compartments. Ali Shariati, who made important contributions to the ideological development of the Islamic revolution in Iran, wrote in On the Sociology of Islam, that Tawhid “in the sense of oneness of God is of course accepted by all monotheists”. 3

Another basic concept in the development of Islamic democracy is “caliph.” In the Qur’an, the Arabic words for caliph (khalifah) and caliphate (khilafah) have a different meaning. These terms in the Qur’an have the more general meaning of steward and stewardship or trustee and trusteeship.

As the intellectual dimensions of the late twentieth-century Islamic resurgence became more clearly defined, Ismail al-Faruqi, a scholar of Palestinian origins, outlined an ambitious project in a small book, Islamization of Knowledge. The concept of the caliphate involved responsibilities for all humans, in all dimensions of life, but especially the political: “Rightly, Muslims understand khilafah as directly political. Islam requires that every Muslim be politicized (i.e., awakened, organized, and mobilized).” 4

The implications of this reassertion of a more explicitly Quranic meaning of human stewardship for Islamic democracy were spelled out by the Pakistani Islamist leader, Abu al-Ala Mawdudi in The Islamic Way of Life: “The authority of the caliphate is bestowed on the entire group of people, the community as a whole. . . . Such a society carries the responsibility of the caliphate as a whole and each one of its individual[s] shares the Divine Caliphate. This is the point where democracy begins in Islam. Every person in an Islamic society enjoys the rights and powers of the caliphate of God and in this respect all individuals are equal.” 5

Why democracy did not survive in Pakistan – A case in point!

An intensive debate is raging in Pakistan these days about revival of democracy. In my humble opinion, what is missing in this debate is an in-depth analysis to identify real reasons because of which democracy did not work in Pakistan but in India it did. It is a natural tendency to compare Pakistan with India since Sub-Continent as it was earlier called was populated by Hindus and Muslims alike and was ruled by Muslim rulers for over 500 years. Later, the British came to rule over the greater India which was finally given independence by the British. Pakistan was formed on 14th August 1947 while India a day later i.e. 15th August 1947 respectively.

Various reasons that can be comfortably listed in the context of democracy not flourishing in this part of the world are to name a few; lack of education of people and politicians in democratic fundamentals, illiteracy of the masses, division along provincial, linguistic and ethnic barriers, leadership having become a family affair, etc. among others for the failure of democracy in Pakistan. 6

As a matter of fact, the first and foremost condition for growth of democracy is acceptance by all the sovereignty of the people but the leaders of Pakistan have failed miserably on this front. Democracy demands men make laws to govern themselves. It is the acceptance of this premise that democracy has succeeded in India and it is the rejection of this very premise that democracy failed to take roots in Pakistan. 7

No society can live outside the parameters of its basic ideology; and not only the ideology but the very raison d’être of the existence of Pakistan is Islam. Pakistan was the first nation in the history of the world which was carved out in the name of Islam by its founding father  (Late)  Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali  Jinnah. Though  India is not a religious Hindu state but Hinduism is still the soul of India and still guides the way India thinks and acts. It is the basic difference in these ideologies that has made democracy a failure in one and success in another even though in all other respects both countries are twins. It is when religion comes into play, the two part company.

The Muslims don’t want to live by man-made laws but by Sharia — the laws revealed by Allah (God) and practiced by Muslims throughout the world. Democracy did not fail in Pakistan because of illiteracy or castes or ethnic differences or linguistics or any of the other reasons put forward. The real reason, in my opinion as to why democracy failed in Pakistan is the ideology Pakistan is wedded to. Sadly, this is true of any Islamic country. Pakistan is not unique in this respect. A quick glance at all the Islamic nations around the world will prove the point. 8

The day Hindutva parties like BJP or the likes take the center stage in politics and the secular Congress party is routed in India, it will be no different from Pakistan.

Pakistan’s current quest for democracy:

Democracy continues to play hide and seek with most Pakistanis. In its 60 plus years of checquered history, Pakistan’s periods of stability have often been interrupted by upheavals in the ruling elite and never more so than in recent times. The military has never let democracy flourish in Pakistan and the Saints (military) have come marching in as and when they felt the desire.

It wasn’t that long ago when Asif Ali Zardari (the husband of the slain leader Benazir Bhutto) of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) joined hands with Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party, to oust President Pervez Musharraf, our last military dictator. And the alliance succeeded with Musharraf stepping down in the face of such opposition. 9

Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed, but it wasn’t long before fissures in this new alliance began to surface. But as the days passed, Zardari showed no inclination to honor the recently concluded agreements with Nawaz Sharif, the restoration of judges being the top most priority. He denounced the declaration that bore his signature adding that it was merely a political act and there was nothing inviolable about it.

To make matters worse, Shahbaz Sharif a brother of Nawaz Sharif, a political heavyweight representing the influential province of Punjab, was lately routed from the Chief Minister ship of the biggest province i.e. Punjab through politically appointed judges who declared that neither Nawaz Sharif nor his brother Shahbaz could hold any elected post in the government. Zardari further invoked the ‘governor’s rule’ by appointing his own man to head the political process in Punjab. But the governor rule did not last long since Nawaz Sharif sided with the lawyer’s long march and the governor was routed and the lawyers became triumphant while the ousted Chief Justice had to be reinstated. People’s power has been experienced for the first time in the history of Pakistan and the final winners are the people.

Instead, the illusion of democracy is fading fast in the minds of those who fervently hoped that the departure of Musharraf would finally bring peace and stability to the country. There are fears the present situation, if allowed to continue, may finally result in martial law being reimposed, with the army taking over the reins of power. The record of both Nawaz Sharif and Zardari in government has not been very encouraging but the masses continue to gravitate toward one or the other. 10

Are there no good, honest and able Pakistanis left in the country to lead them out of this never-ending mess? A question that I often ask of educated Pakistanis. Perhaps it’s time Imran Khan (the famous world renowned cricketer turned politician), leader of the Pakistan Tehreek- e-Insaaf was given a chance. At least he does not appear to have been tainted by corruption. Only such people can set Pakistan on the right track.


In theory and concept, Islamic democracy is, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, quite well developed and persuasive. In actual practice the results have been sadly discouraging. Authoritarian rulers such as Ja’far Numayri in Sudan and Zia ul Haq in Pakistan initiated formal programs of Islamization of the law and political system in the 1980s with results that were not encouraging for democracy. A military coup brought a combination of military and civilian Islamists to rule in Sudan in 1989 and despite the proclaimed goal of creating an Islamic democracy, the regime’s human rights record in terms of treatment of non-Muslim minorities and Muslim opposition groups is deplorable. 11

I would like to conclude my findings by leaving you with four arguments:

1st:      The biggest threat to human rights in the Muslim world does not originate from Islam but it emanates rather from the economic, political and semi-educated forces that surround the system.

2nd:     The struggle for human rights in the Islamic world will be lost or won at a national and not necessarily at the international level. It is always up to the Muslims themselves as to how much influence and respect that they would want to give to human rights in the context of their own nations.

3rd:      It is a proven fact now that those countries that have a weak civil society and are governed by authoritarian regimes / dictatorship are indeed fertile ground for terrorism. If the west wants to suppress this terror, then they must foster civil society and fund them heavily while trying to educate the masses and help them in poverty alleviation. They can also apply economic and political pressure on these authoritarian regimes to bring about a fundamental change in the governance of the nations being helped.

4th:      In this complex context, it is clear that Islam is not inherently incompatible with democracy. “Political Islam” is sometimes a program for religious democracy and not primarily an agenda for holy war or terrorism.


The ideas floated on Democracy in the Islamic World, in this paper are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the Higher Education Commission.


Had the author not been working for the HRD Division of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), for the last 8 years, he would not have the freedom to research freely on the HEC Digital Library and the high speed DSL Internet connection and thus the author is highly indebted to HEC for its support in this respect.


1.   Islam and Democracy by John L. Esposito and John O. Voll (Oxford University Press US, 1966, ISBN 0195108167, 9780195108163

2.   ibid.

3.   ibid.

4.   ibid.

5.   ibid.

6.   Why democracy didn’t take roots in Pakistan? By Vinod Kumar, Kashmir Herald, Volume 3, No. 7, December 2003

7.   ibid.

8.   ibid.

9.   Pakistan’s quest for democracy by Tariq Al – Maeena, Saturday 28 February 2009, Arab News.

10. ibid.

11. Islam and Democracy by John L. Esposito and John O. Voll (Oxford University Press US, 1966, ISBN 0195108167, 9780195108163