Islam and the Challenge
of Democracy

Can individual rights and popular sovereignty
take root in faith?
Khaled Abou El Fadl

A Muslim jurist writing a few centuries ago on the subject of Islam and government would have commenced his treatise by distinguishing three types of political systems. The first he would have described as a natural system-like a primitive state of nature, an uncivilized, anarchic world where the most powerful tyrannize the rest. Instead of law there would be custom; instead of government there would be tribal elders who would be obeyed only as long as they remained the strongest. The jurist would then describe a second system, ruled by a prince or king whose word is the law. Because the law is fixed by the arbitrary will of the ruler and the people obey out of necessity or compulsion, this system, too, is tyrannical and illegitimate.

The third and best system would have been the caliphate, based on Shari’ah law-the body of Muslim religious law founded on the Qur’an and the conduct and statements of the Prophet. Shari’ah law, according to Muslim jurists, fulfills the criteria of justice and legitimacy and binds governed and governor alike. Because it is based on the rule of law and thus deprives human beings of arbitrary authority over other human beings, the caliphate system was considered superior to any other.

In espousing the rule of law and limited government, classical Muslim scholars embraced core elements of modern democratic practice. Limited government and the rule of law, however, are only two elements of the system of government with the most compelling claim to legitimacy today. Democracy’s moral power lies in the idea that the citizens of a nation are the sovereign, and-in modern representative democracies-they express their sovereign will by electing representatives. In a democracy, the people are the source of the law and the law in turn is to ensure fundamental rights that protect the well-being and interests of the individual members of the sovereign.

For Islam, democracy poses a formidable challenge. Muslim jurists argued that law made by a sovereign monarch is illegitimate because it substitutes human authority for God’s sovereignty. But law made by sovereign citizens faces the same problem of legitimacy. In Islam, God is the only sovereign and ultimate source of legitimate law. How, then, can a democratic conception of the people’s authority be reconciled with an Islamic understanding of God’s authority?

Answering this question is extraordinarily important but also extraordinarily difficult, for both political and conceptual reasons. On the political side, it must be said at the outset 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 philosophical and doctrinal questions are important, and I propose to focus on them here as the beginning of a discussion of the possibilities for democracy in the Islamic world.

A central conceptual problem is that modern democracy evolved over centuries within the distinctive context of post-Reformation, market-oriented Christian Europe. Does it make sense to look for points of contact in a remarkably different context? My answer begins from the premise that democracy and Islam are defined in the first instance by their underlying moral values and the attitudinal commitments of their adherents-not by the ways that those values and commitments have been applied. If we focus on those fundamental moral values, I believe, we will see that the tradition of Islamic political thought contains both interpretive and practical possibilities that can be developed into a democratic system. To be sure, these doctrinal potentialities may remain unrealized: without will power, inspired vision, and moral commitment there can be no democracy in Islam. But Muslims, for whom Islam is the authoritative frame of reference, can come to the conviction that democracy is an ethical good, and that the pursuit of this good does not require abandoning Islam.

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