The compatibility of democracy with traditional or mainstream Islam has become a bone of contention among the scholars since the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate. Traditional Muslim apologists continue to court a system wherein pure democracy flourishes in predominantly traditional Muslim and sharia compliant societies, rather than absolute monarchy persisting throughout Islamdom in the middle age and still firmly thriving in the GCC countries.
However, after observing the ailing state of democracy in the traditional Muslim states like Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Iraq or Iran and its inexistence in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and UAE, we beg to differ from the apologists.
In its full glory, can democracy really run in traditional Muslim countries, will they allow it?
Why Democracy can’t succeed in Traditional Muslim world
It needs no mention that power in traditional Islam exclusively belongs to God (Qur’an), Muhammad (Hadith) and ‘those in authorities’ (Earliest Jurists). All state decisions, policy and law making is invariably vested in these three bodies, and unshakable faith, absolute obedience are the minimum demanded of the people, traditional Muslims.
On the flipside, democracy owes it roots to two Greek terms. Demos – people, Kratos -Power. Power belongs to the people, leaders act on the will of the people, to serve the people.
The blatant opposition between these two power ideologies is just the tip of the iceberg, no sufficient for thorough comprehension of the bane of democratic systems in traditional Muslim countries. It is therefore of paramount importance to delve in to details or specifics and in fact, analyze traditional Muslim history and religious texts, if a thorough understanding of the failure and unpromising of democracy in the traditional Muslim world is desired.
Appointment of Abu Bakr As Sadik as the first Supreme Leader of Muslim state
Since traditional Muslims are very nostalgic folks, often reminiscing the era of the first four Muslim state supreme leaders as the Islamic golden age and one that they devoutly seek to recreate, it is only ideal that our analysis begin by scrutinizing crucial political events of the time.
Unlike the Umayyad and Abbasid monarchies that would emerge over three decades later, the appointment of the first four Muslim supreme leaders seems to bear a democratic hue to Muslim apologists, at least by the standard of the 7th century. It is indeed true that Abu Bakr did not usurp power and the electoral nature of his appointment does service to democracy, yet this election bears numerous anti-democratic indicators that apologists conveniently overlook.
Below is a record of this event documented by the as confirmed by
Sahih Bukhari, Book of limits and punishment set by Allah.
And no doubt after the death of the Prophet (ﷺ) we were informed that the Ansar disagreed with us and gathered in the shed of Bani Sa`da. `Ali and Zubair and whoever was with them, opposed us, while the emigrants gathered with Abu Bakr. I said to Abu Bakr, ‘Let’s go to these Ansari brothers of ours.’ So we set out seeking them, and when we approached them, two pious men of theirs met us and informed us of the final decision of the Ansar, and said, ‘O group of Muhajirin (emigrants) ! Where are you going?’ We replied, ‘We are going to these Ansari brothers of ours.’ They said to us, ‘You shouldn’t go near them. Carry out whatever we have already decided.’ I said, ‘By Allah, we will go to them.’
And so we proceeded until we reached them at the shed of Bani Sa`da. Behold! There was a man sitting amongst them and wrapped in something. I asked, ‘Who is that man?’ They said, ‘He is Sa`d bin ‘Ubada.’ I asked, ‘What is wrong with him?’ They said, ‘He is sick.’
After we sat for a while, the Ansar’s speaker said, ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,’ and praising Allah as He deserved, he added, ‘To proceed, we are Allah’s Ansar (helpers) and the majority of the Muslim army, while you, the emigrants, are a small group and some people among you came with the intention of preventing us from practicing this matter (of caliphate) and depriving us of it.’ When the speaker had finished, I intended to speak as I had prepared a speech which I liked and which I wanted to deliver in the presence of Abu Bakr, and I used to avoid provoking him. So, when I wanted to speak, Abu Bakr said, ‘Wait a while.’ I disliked making him angry. So Abu Bakr himself gave a speech, and he was wiser and more patient than I. By Allah, he never missed a sentence that I liked in my own prepared speech, but he said the like of it or better than it spontaneously.
After a pause he said, ‘O Ansar! You deserve all (the qualities that you have attributed to yourselves, but this question (of Caliphate) is only for the Quraish as they are the best of the Arabs as regards descent and home, and I am pleased to suggest that you choose either of these two men, so take the oath of allegiance to either of them as you wish. And then Abu Bakr held my hand and Abu Ubaida bin al-Jarrah’s hand who was sitting amongst us. I hated nothing of what he had said except that proposal, for by Allah, I would rather have my neck chopped off as expiator for a sin than become the ruler of a nation, one of whose members is Abu Bakr, unless at the time of my death my own-self suggests something I don’t feel at present.’ And then one of the Ansar said, ‘I am the pillar on which the camel with a skin disease (eczema) rubs itself to satisfy the itching (i.e., I am a noble), and I am as a high class palm tree! O Quraish. There should be one ruler from us and one from you.’ Then there was a hue and cry among the gathering and their voices rose so that I was afraid there might be great disagreement, so I said, ‘O Abu Bakr! Hold your hand out.’ He held his hand out and I pledged allegiance to him, and then all the emigrants gave the Pledge of allegiance and so did the Ansar afterwards. And so we became victorious over Sa`d bin Ubada (whom Al-Ansar wanted to make a ruler).
Thus did Abu Bakr become the elected head of the new Muslim state except that already unofficial, impromptu and closed-door, this election was further marred by witness of no other Quraysh (aside Umar & Abu Ubaida) and as time would eventually tell, Abu Bakr was no man of the people. Such quasi, unceremonious kind of politics has no place in even the most half-baked system of government, let aside democracy.
Additionally, Gender, racial, ethnic, religious and familial equality constitute basics of democracy necessary to empower the people, not the majority but equally the minorities but Abu Bakr’s claim of the Quraysh superiority and exclusive right to the Supreme office is flagrant disregard for the right of the Ansar to rule their community, one they have immensely contributed to. It is a middle finger to claimants of democracy as well as egalitarianism among traditional Muslims.
Some Important Hadith Passages for Consideration
A. Women have no right to Rule
Sahih Bukhari, Book of Affliction & End of the world
Narrated Abu Bakra:
During the battle of Al-Jamal, Allah benefited me with a Word (I heard from the Prophet). When the Prophet heard the news that the people of the Persia had made the daughter of Khosrau their Queen (ruler), he said, “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.”
The right of all citizens to vote and be voted for is a major crux of democratic system, enabling the people wider options in deciding who is best qualified and most competent for the office but by cursing nations that elect a woman as ruler, the above Hadith not only relinquish women of their right to lead a society whose existence depend on their presence but also infringes on the democratic right of the people to choose whom they want, regardless of gender. Of course, there comes the counter argument from apologists that the above Hadith only relate to national leaders holding the highest ranking power office and women may be elected as minister, parliamentarian or other lower but still major offices. True as this sound on paper, the sexist undertone of traditional Islamic texts pertaining to women leaves render it practically undesirable. Consider the hadith texts stating women are intellectual inferiors of men and their testimony is worth half of men, such teachings cultivate preconceived opinions against women’s capacity to even rule at all.
If even a Muslim woman cannot rule a nation, can a non-Muslim man? Do Christians, Jews or Buddhists men enjoy the right to be voted for in Islamic democracies? Quite easy it is to guess right that non-Muslims cannot be elected if one quickly recalls that there exist no distinction between mosque and state in the ideology of traditional Islam and the traditional Muslim society rather than egalitarian, is vastly embroiled in Muslim supremacy. And the ideology of Muslim supremacy is so deeply ingrained in the society that as confirmable from the Hadith below, an oppressive non-Muslim is preferable choice of leader to a just non-Muslim or woman.
B. Oppressive Muslim Rulers should be tolerated and endured
Sahih Muslim, Book of Government
Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman reported:
The Prophet said, “Rulers after me will come who do not follow my guidance and my tradition. Some of these men will have the hearts of devils in a human body.” I said, “O Messenger of Allah, what should I do if I live to see that time?” The Prophet said, “You should listen and obey them even if the ruler strikes your back and takes your wealth, even still listen and obey.”
C. Non-Muslim men cannot rule
Sahih Muslim, Book of Government
The messenger of God said, “The best of your rulers are those whom you love and who love you, who invoke God’s blessings upon you and you invoke His blessings upon them. And the worst of your rulers are those whom you hate and who hate you and whom you curse and who curse you. It was asked (by those present): Shouldn’t we overthrow them with the help of the sword? He said: No, as long as they establish prayer among you. If you then find anything detestable in them. You should hate their administration, but do not withdraw yourselves from their obedience.”
So much can be deduced from this Hadith about the politics of traditional Islam but first, notice the ONLY condition for rebellion against a leader is utter apostasy or disbelief in Islam. The Muslims are not empowered to mobilize against a ruler even if he commit all kinds of transgression but his mere disbelief in any aspect traditional Islam demand his enthronement and possibly execution. This reveals that an incompetent, unjust and oppressive Muslim is more preferable to rule than a competent, just and merciful non-Muslim. This, as already explained is enough evidence to conclude that traditional Muslim society is too anti-egalitarian, too religiously stratified for democracy to operate. Worse still, such unholy teachings spurn bias and foster so much discrimination against non-Muslim as leaders even in non-political posts or offices in traditional Muslim states.
Secondly, notice that oppression from a Muslim ruler should be endured by the Muslim people. It is interesting to see that while democracy seek to avoid such oppression by empowering the people to vote and elect a ruler that represent them, traditional Islam safeguard such oppression by demanding the people endure unless the tyrants leave Islam, because the will of the people that triumph everything else under democracy is inexistent under traditional Islam.