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Islam and Democracy



“A study of Islam as presented in the Quran and Sunnah, however, reveals that not only is the principles of Islam compatible with “democratic” values, Islam is the very religion of democracy.”


“Democracy is not only compatible with Islam, it is essential to the formation of an Islamic state. The acceptance of democracy by Muslim countries, therefore, should not be viewed as the westernization or modernization of such states, but rather as the implementation of an Islamic form of governance. Muslims need to acknowledge this fact and apply pressure on the political leaders of so-called “Islamic states” to conform to the democratic ideals expected from adherence to the religion of Islam."


Islam and Democracy



Fazeel S. Khan


Due to the present state of global affairs, a great debate is being engaged in: is Islam, the religion with over 1.1 billion adherents in the world today, capable of being followed in a manner that is consistent with the democratic ideals accepted by the modern, civilized world? Governmental policy-makers, scholars of religion and the general public all appear to be divided, not being able to come to a consensus on this issue. The dismal track record of Islamic states adopting a democratic form of government is proof enough for those who contend that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Others explain this phenomenon as having more to do with historical, political, cultural and economic factors. A study of Islam as presented in the Quran and Sunnah, however, reveals that not only is the principles of Islam compatible with “democratic” values, Islam is the very religion of democracy. Therefore, notwithstanding the validity of the above-mentioned factors, it is the departure from a correct understanding and implementation of Islamic principles that is, in essence, the primary cause of the creation of autocratic regimes in the Muslim world.

Defining Democracy

Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Secretary of Education, describes the general concept of democracy as commonly understood in the western world, by relating:

When a representative democracy operates in accordance with a constitution that limits the powers of the government and guarantees fundamental rights to all citizens, this form of government is a constitutional democracy. In such a society, the majority rules, and the rights of minorities are protected by law and through the institutionalization of law [ whatdm2.htm].

Hence, the definition of democracy, in its basic sense, is rooted in two fundamental principles: majority rule and minority rights. Looking to the religion of Islam, one finds a system of governance provided therein in which both majority rule and minority rights are clearly established.

Majority Rule

The establishment of majority rule in a society requires the institutionalization of certain practices, such as:

1) having a system in which the public participates,
2) requiring representatives of the people to be elected,
3) applying the principle of rule of law, and
4) enforcing limits on governmental action.

Participatory System

The issue of public participation in the political process is clearly defined in Islam. The Holy Quran advocates for the people to actively engage in forming a governmental structure that will enable them to live in a state of peace. This may be witnessed by the following Quranic verse: “O you who believe, enter into complete peace” (2:208). This command includes the spiritual state of “peace” (or Islam) each individual is to strive to attain as well as a system of peaceful cohabitation with others that a society must create. Furthermore, the Quran specifically states: “Allah changes not the condition of a people, until they change their own condition” (13:11). In other words, a peaceful state of existence cannot be achieved without whole-hearted participation of the public at large. It can even be argued that it is a duty, as per the Quran, for the people to have an awareness of the political system, political parties and political ideologies, as it commands: “And follow not that of which thou hast no knowledge” (17:36). The implication being, one is not to abide by the rules and conventions of a society without an understanding of their purpose and effects.

The form of government that Muslims are to strive to achieve is that based on “consultation” [or shura]; this also reveals the participatory nature of an ideal Islamic form of government. The following Quranic verse lays the basis for this as it states: “And those who respond to their Lord and keep up prayer, and whose affairs are (decided) by counsel among themselves, and who spend out of what We have given them” (42:38). Between the oft-repeated duties of prayer and charity, in this verse we find a doctrine that lays the basis for government by counsel. The people are not to be ruled by the whim of one person, but rather are to be consulted, or have their representatives consulted, as to the conducting of affairs of public life. The strict adherence to the system of consultation in Islam is illustrated by an incident in which the Holy Prophet had gone out to meet a warring tribe for battle as a result of a consultative decision, and against his own inclination for he sided with the minority opinion of not meeting the enemy in open field. It was at this juncture that the revelation was received: “and consult them in important matters” (3:158). If the Holy Prophet himself accepted the majority view despite his own opinion, how can Muslims today question whether a government based on a democratic decision-making process is acceptable for them?

Elected Representative

The most important function of a participatory system of government is the election of the people’s representative(s). This right is clearly established in Islam in the following Quranic verse: “Surely Allah commands you to make over (positions of) trust (in government or affairs of the state) to those worthy of them” (4:58). Thus, it is the people that possess the authority to make an individual their representative. The granting of power to the first four successors to the Holy Prophet further reveals that the system by which such a determination is to be made is by election. Hazrat Abu Bakr, Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Uthman and Hazrat Ali were all democratically elected heads of State. Hazrat Abu Bakr, the first successor to the Holy Prophet, was chosen by the agreement of all parties, after a resolution confirming that one person only shall be head of state. Hazrat Umar, the second successor to the Holy Prophet, was nominated by Hazrat Abu Bakr as the second successor after consultation with the leading representatives of the Muslim community and was thereafter confirmed by agreement of all parties. Hazrat Uthman, the third successor, was appointed by an elective council comprised of six eminent persons who were all qualified to hold this position. Hazrat Umar had decided that these six representatives should choose one person as the head of State from among themselves, the mantle falling upon Hazrat Uthman. In the case of Hazrat Ali, again, he achieved leadership status by being selected by the majority of the people.

Islam’s endorsement of a representative form of government is also revealed by its condemnation of compliance to evil autocracies. Pharaoh’s dictatorship is a prime example. We read in the Quran that Pharaoh exceeded all limits as a ruler (89:11) by subjecting people to severe torment (2:49), oppression and tyranny (10:83), while living a posh lifestyle of finery and riches (10:88). He was accountable to no one and had vested supreme, god-like authority in himself (7:123). As people are to be responsible for their own socio-political condition, as mentioned earlier, not only is Pharaoh condemned, but those who “followed the bidding of Pharaoh” (11:97) are also deemed in the Quran as “transgressors” (43:54). It is, therefore, quite clear that it is the duty of the people to establish a peaceful society by denouncing unjust rulers through active opposition and by facilitating the granting of authority to those who represent their interests.

Fitness to rule, moreover, is not to be determined on the basis of temporal power, but rather on qualities that ensure proper decision making capabilities and stable health to sustain the stresses accompanying the performing of such duties. The Quran clarifies this point by stating:

And their prophet said to them: Surely Allah has raised Saul to be a king over you. They said: How can he hold kingship over us while we have a greater right to kingship than he, and he has not been granted abundance of wealth. He said: Surely Allah has chosen him in preference to you, and He has increased him abundantly in knowledge and physique (2:247).

The mental and physical capabilities of administering the political duties in the best interests of the people is what is to be required of a leader. Additionally, Islam also requires the vesting of state authority in the hands of persons who are God-fearing. The head of State in Islam is called both an Amir (literally, one who commands) and an Imam (literally, a person on a high moral plane whose example is to be followed). The practice of the head of State leading the Muslims in prayer was performed by Hazrat Abu Bakr and continued with a long line of successors. Thus, the quality of righteousness, which entails fear of God and regard for other people’s rights, is a requisite qualification for fitness to rule in Islam. It had been recognized that only through spiritual force can man be enabled to control the powers which temporal authority gives him, and which in the absence of such a force are often in danger of being abused. This is not to suggest that the Islamic state is to be a theocracy. The head of the Muslim state does not consider himself a representative of God on earth, but rather a representative of the people who was chosen to serve them; an acute responsibility to God for every act that he did in the exercise of his authority, though, is not denied.

Limits on Governmental Action and Rule of Law

Once a person is democratically elected to be the leader of a people it is the people’s responsibility, according to Islam, to respect decisions of the leader and the laws of the state. Mere dissatisfaction of the majority choice of leader is no justification for rebellion. The Holy Prophet is reported to have said: “Hear and obey though a Negro slave is appointed to rule over you” (Bukhari 10:54). However, it must be understood that the authority granted to the elected leader is limited; all actions must be consistent with the principles set forth in the supreme law of the land, the Holy Quran. The Quran sets forth this hierarchy of authority in clear terms:

Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority from among you, then if you quarrel about anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger (4:58).

The supreme source of law is the Quran, which is signified by the phrase “obey Allah”. “Obeying the Messenger” refers to following the “sunnah” (the practices of the Holy Prophet which enable one to interpret the principles in the Quran) and is second in priority as to sources of authority. “Obedience to those in authority” is also a requirement, deemed necessary, but is conditioned upon a leader’s actions not violating the laws of Allah and the Messenger. This system of authority creates what is today accepted as a “constitutional democracy”, where governmental power is kept in check by reference to a supreme law outlining the rights of the people. This constitutional position of the head of State was explained by Hazrat Abu Bakr in his very first address after being elected khalifa [i.e. successor to the Holy Prophet]; he said:

You have elected me as Khalifa (successor to the Holy Prophet as temporal head of the state), but I claim no superiority over you. The strongest among you shall be the weakest with me until I get the rights of others from him, and the weakest among you shall be the strongest with me until I get all his rights … Help me if I act rightly and correct me if I take a wrong course … Obey me so long as I obey God and His Messenger. In case I disobey God and His Messenger, I have no right to obedience from you.

Significantly, the head of State in Islam is also accountable for his actions in his private capacity; no leader is to be above the law. The enforcement of the “rule of law” is guaranteed to the people and the maxim “the king can do no wrong” is foreign to the Islamic system of government. A leader is to be a servant of the state who is paid a fixed salary for maintenance out of the public treasury, like all other public servants. He has no special privileges and can even be deposed for questionable conduct. Even the great Hazrat Umar, ruler of four kingdoms, appeared as a defendant in the court of a magistrate upon the complaint of a private citizen. The early Muslims understood the necessity of holding leaders to account, for it was the Holy Prophet himself who taught that to speak out the truth in the presence of an unjust ruler is “the most excellent jihad” (Msh. 17). Such a practical form of responsible government is, truly, yet to be seen in the modern world.

Minority Rights

As indicated earlier while defining the term democracy, along with majority rule must come the safeguards of minority rights for a system to be democratic. A state is not democratic, for example, if a simple majority of 51% of the people wishes to infringe upon the rights of the minority. To establish such safeguards, four essential principals must be implemented:

1) it must be established that all people are equal before the law,
2) basic human rights must be guaranteed,
3) the administration of justice must be based on due process, and
4) an independent judiciary must be instituted. Again, all four components are entrenched principles of Islam.

Equality before the Law and Human Rights

The Holy Quran is clear as to the equal status of humans in relation to one another as well as to the civil rights each individual is to enjoy. These two aspects of minority rights will be dealt with in the lecture on Human Rights in Islam later in the program. I will, therefore, limit my discussion to the remaining two aspects, the due process of law and the independence of the judiciary.

Due Process of Law

The concept of due process of law is based upon general notions of fairness and justice. Specifically, it requires that a person who may be affected by the decision of a judicial tribunal be afforded a fair process of adjudication and an opportunity to present a proper defense.

The Islamic system of justice ensures that a defendant will receive a fair trial by establishing certain principles that must be present in the adjudicative process. The Quran stresses that a plaintiff (or the State in a criminal action) must “prove” his or her case, as is revealed by the repeated phrase: “Bring your proof if you are truthful” (27:64). Thus, a judgment may not be given by a decision-maker arbitrarily but must be proved, based upon the evidence presented. Similarly, the Quran provides: “Inform me of knowledge if you are truthful” (6:143). Here, aside from the procedural aspect of requiring evidence to be offered, the necessity of establishing the substantive elements of a claim is implied by the call for producing “knowledge” as to why one should succeed in their claim.

Furthermore, witness testimony in Islam is limited to those facts which one has first-hand knowledge of; opinion evidence is deemed unreliable. The Quran emphasizes this in the following words: “and we bear witness to only what we know, and we could not keep watch over the unseen” (12:81). More specifically, those who do not have first hand knowledge but who merely “make conjectures” are not appropriate witnesses, for the Quran states: “contend not in their matter but with an outward contention, and question not any of them concerning them” (18:22). The rules of admissibility of evidence in Islam clearly provide a defendant with a system in which only reliable evidence may be used against him or her.

Moreover, the judicial process in Islam is to be one based on transparency. The legitimacy of the system is ensured by demanding full disclosure of all evidence. The Quran states: “and conceal not testimony; and whoever conceals it, his heart is surely sinful” (2:283). Accordingly, a defendant has the right to an open forum in which he has the opportunity to examine the evidence against him and, consequently, become aware of the case he has to meet.

Along with the procedural regulations ensuring a fair trial, a defendant must also be afforded the right to put forth a proper defense in order for due process of law to be satisfied. An Islamic system of justice provides for this in two ways. First, the Quran prescribes the calling of defense witnesses to rebut the evidence introduced against a defendant. The reliability of the plaintiff’s (or prosecution’s) evidence is tested by having it compared to testimony that is opposed to the plaintiff (or prosecution) and that favors the defendant. The Quran provides for this in the following verse:

If it be discovered that they (i.e. plaintiff’s or prosecution’s witnesses) are guilty of a sin (i.e. providing untrustworthy testimony), two others shall stand up in their place from among those against whom the first two have been guilty of a sin; so they shall swear by Allah: Certainly our testimony is truer than the testimony of those two, and we have not exceeded the limit, for then surely we should be unjust (5:107).

The second way in which Islam allows a defendant to put forth a proper defense is by authorizing a defendant to cross-examine the plaintiff’s (or prosecution’s) witnesses. This process allows the decision-maker to assess the credibility of the witness who is offering testimony against the defendant. The Quran provides for this by stating: “Their evidence (i.e. witnesses’ testimony) will be recorded and they will be questioned” (43:19). Therefore, not only is a defendant entitled to substantiate their position by providing their own witnesses in their defense, but a defendant is also granted the right to have the testimony of the opposing party’s witnesses preserved so that they can be questioned regarding its validity.

Independence of the Judiciary

Minority rights are also protected in an Islamic democracy through the establishment of an independent judiciary. The formation of an objective forum in which grievances may be brought is an integral part to realizing the rights of those who are most vulnerable in society. Islam ensures the correct implementation of this safeguard in several ways.

The judiciary, or any other body that is granted decision-making authority, is to be an autonomous institution, separated from the influences of the parties involved. The Quran states: “…nor seek to gain access thereby to the judges” (2:188). Restricting associations between involved parties and the judiciary preserves fairness of decisions by securing the process from conflicts of interests.

The judiciary is also to be a neutral institution, as the Quran states: “judge between men justly and follow not desire, lest it lead thee astray from the path of Allah” (38:26). All men are to some degree biased, whether consciously or unconsciously, having pre-conceived opinions on certain matters. Accepting that this is a natural phenomenon, the Quran warns judges to be aware of it when carrying out their duties[b], and to examine their determinations making sure it is not based on a personal inclination that may create an unfair or unwarranted decision. The natural desire to make someone accountable for the harm or loss caused to an innocent victim should not interfere with the legal and equitable protections guaranteed to each defendant nor the principles of fairness and justice that the process itself is to be based upon.

Likewise, prejudices of others is to be set aside when administering justice, the parties involved being regarded as equals, regardless of how distasteful they may appear to the decision-maker. The Quran states: [b]“let not hatred of a people incite you not to act equitably” (5:8). The judiciary is to be impartial in the course of their business notwithstanding their personal dislike for what a party in a case may represent. One’s race, religion, color, social status, sexual orientation, prior conduct, for example, is not to detract from the merits of a case. A judge is to be blind to any unfavorable personal characteristics of a party, seeking only to bring about a just resolution to the dispute at hand.

Major Obstacle: Misunderstanding the Role of “Ijtihad”

Seeing the consistency between the ideals of democracy and the principles of governance prescribed in Islam, an obvious question arises: why does such reluctance exist on the part of the Muslim world to implement democratic systems in their countries? The major obstacle in the way of support for democracy appears to have a theological basis; it is argued by some Muslims that democracies are systems in which laws are based on human whim whereas Islam is transcendental and its principles cannot be undermined by the will of the people. This contention, however, is unwarranted, for the exercise of judgment (or ijtihad) by the people (or their elected representatives) is a fundamental source of law in Islam along with the Quran and the Sunnah. Islam does recognize the Quran and Sunnah as a source of authority higher than reason but at the same time expects exercise of judgment to be used to meet the always-arising new circumstances of life. This is comparable to the authority granted to the legislature in a constitutional democracy: reason is employed in creating law, but the law’s validity is conditional upon its consistency with the supreme law of the land, the constitution.

The Quran acknowledges the importance of the principle of exercise of judgment in the following verse:

But if any news of security or fear comes to them, they spread it abroad. And if they had referred it to the Messenger and to those in authority among them, those of them who can search out the knowledge of it would have known it” (4:83).

The point being that it is necessary to reason in order to reach an informed decision about a matter. The Holy Prophet’s approval of one’s exercise of judgment in novel situations is illustrated in a tradition in which the Governor of Yaman, upon his appointment, was asked by the Holy Prophet as to the rule by which he would abide. He replied: “by the law of the Quran”. The Holy Prophet then questioned what he would do if he did not find any direction therein. He then replied: “then I will act according to the Sunnah”. The Holy Prophet further enquired as to what he would do if he did not find any direction therein either. He responded: “then I will exercise my judgment and act on that”. The Holy Prophet, pleased by the Governor’s answers raised his hands and said: “Praise be to Allah, Who guides the messenger of His Apostle as He pleases” (AD. 23:11).

The four great Jurists of Islam, Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi, and Imam Ahmad, have further demonstrated the use of various methods of exercising judgment. The most important of these is “qiyas” (or analogical reasoning). When no explicit direction is found in the Quran or Sunnah, one is to find a case resembling it in the Quran or Sunnah and by reasoning on the basis of analogy arrive at a decision. When a deduction based on analogy is not acceptable, either because it will result in inequity to one or both parties or because it is not in the interest of the public good, one may use “istihsan” (or formulating an equitable result) by adopting a rule that is in consonance with the broader rules of justice and “istislah” (or deduction based on public good) by creating a rule conducive to the general societal goals. There is also the method of “istidlal” (or applying inferences from customs and usages) that may be employed. It was accepted that the customs and usages that prevailed before the advent of Islam, and which were not abrogated by Islam, had the force of law. Thus, customs and usages prevailing anywhere, and particularly to specific types of transactions, when not opposed to the spirit of the Quran and Sunnah, are permissible regulations. These four methods of exercising judgment clearly lay the basis for the creation of laws by a legislative entity, the only condition being that such laws conform to the principles of the Quran and the Sunnah.

The prime illustration of the legislative authority granted to Muslims is the formation of the Constitution of Medina. This compact, created in 622 C.E., was the first written constitution of a State ever promulgated by a sovereign in human history! It stipulated a city-state in Medina, it acknowledged the various parties bound by the treaty, it granted equal rights to the participating parties and outlined societal rules of conduct that would ensure social welfare and designated one political leader to govern the community. Accepting that all governance and administrative decisions shall be judged according to a supreme law, the Quran, the treaty recognized the prevailing customs of the participating groups that did not conflict with the broad, equitable principles of Islamic law. The most significant aspect of the Constitution of Medina is the fact that it was an agreement catered to cover the needs of all participating parties in the community (namely, the immigrant Muslims from Mecca, the indigenous Muslims from Medina and the Arab Jews of Medina). The rights, conditions and leadership stipulated therein were all consented to by the party signatories. Consensual, participatory governance, despite the admission of ultimate authority resting in the word of God, was central to this historic, democratic, governing document.


The principles from the Quran, the lessons from the Sunnah and the facts evidenced from the early history of Islam show that democracy is not only compatible with Islam, it is essential to the formation of an Islamic state. The acceptance of democracy by Muslim countries, therefore, should not be viewed as the westernization or modernization of such states, but rather as the implementation of an Islamic form of governance.

Muslims need to acknowledge this fact and apply pressure on the political leaders of so-called “Islamic states” to conform to the democratic ideals expected from adherence to the religion of Islam. Democratic entities in the west striving for democracy to flourish in the Muslim world need to support those organizations that exhibit democratic principles in their practices. What must be remembered, though, is that this does not amount to the allying only with “secular” groups, but rather bodies that reject autocratic forms of government based on an Islamic standpoint. For, any other initiative will fail, being viewed by the people as an attack on their religious identity, and therefore, its implementation, against the will of the people, will be a prime example of what the foundations of democracy are not to be. Islam, therefore, is not the problem; Islam is rather the solution to the creation of democratic governance in the Muslim world. Ironically, the success or failure of democracy spreading in the Muslim World is dependant upon the willingness of Islamic states accepting the authentic, entrenched principles of Islam.