Two democracies, Western and Islamic: What divergences?

What mainly accounted for the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to political prominence were the educational and social initiatives promoted by the movement, but the same goes for other movements as well. One example is the political party called Jama'at al-islamT (Islamic Society), established in Pakistan in 1941 under the leadership of Abu al-ATa al-MawdudT, a fundamentalist thinker who lived in British India and then in independent Pakistan. Both movements coupled social work with political action through participation in parliamentary life within a constitutional framework. Al-MawdudT worked out a systematic doctrine that we can look at in comparison with the Western conceptions of democracy in an attempt to deepen our analysis of the relation between Islam and democracy. This comparative analysis will highlight the peculiarities of the Islamic conceptions, while showing why any attempt to “export” Western democracy is unacceptable and bound to fail.

The relation between Islam and democracy forms the subject of numerous writings by John L. Esposito, who has attacked the problem from a variety of angles and has argued that in the history of Islam we can find some concepts that can serve as a foundation on which to as construct an Islamic conception of democracy (Esposito and Voll 1996, 23). As Esposito points out, MawdudT “stated that the ‘political system of Islam has been based on three principles, viz.: Tawhid (Unity of God), Risdla (Prophethood) and Khildfa (Caliphate). It is difficult to appreciate different aspects of the Islamic polity without fully understanding these three principles’” (ibid., quoting from MawdudT 1967, 40).

The first concept—tawhid—is that of the unity of God, whose will acts as a guide for all men. This forms the basis for the concept of the absolute sovereignty of God (al-hdkimiyya)y which is incompatible with the Western concept of the sovereignty of the people. MawdudT makes this point emphatically: “Islam, speaking from the viewpoint of political philosophy, is the very antithesis of secular Western democracy” (Esposito and Voll 1996, 23, quoting from MawdudT 1976, 159-60). While the Islamic understanding of the sovereignty of God is set in opposition to a secular


As we will see shortly, al-MawdudT is considered by Hamadi Redissi (2003b, 49) not an exponent of Islamic reformism (under the classification proposed by Tariq Ramadan) but rather one who championed a kind of fundamentalism Redissi calls radical Islam.

Democracy in Islam and Western democracy 123 understanding of sovereignty, it requires that the entire population act in accordance with God’s will. And herein lies the democratic element inherent in the vision of Islam offered by Mawdudi. For, as he stresses: “Every Muslim who is capable and qualified to give a sound opinion on matters of Islamic law, is entitled to interpret that law of God when such interpretation becomes necessary. In this sense the Islamic polity is a democracy” (Mawdudi 1976, 161, as quoted in Esposito and Voll 1996, 23). Thus Islam, as construed by Mawdudi, can be said to envision a democracy of interpretation based on the idea of equality, that is, on the premise that every Muslim is equal before God.

This doctrine put forward by Mawdudi warrants further consideration, for it is radically antithetical to Western conceptions of democracy. In defining the Islamic state, he singles out its core elements as follows:

The foundation upon which building it rests is the concept of the idea of hdkimiyya of Allah, the one and only [...]. Command (al-amr) and rule (al-hukm) and legislation (al-tashrl') are all the particular province of Allah alone [...]. There is no scope in the confines of Islam [...] except for the state wherein man engages in the function of khalifa Allah. (Mawdudi 1980, 77-78, quoted in Belkeziz 2009, 206)

It may seem that implicit in Mawdudl’s use of the concept of khildfa is the recognition of a government of the human being as a representative (bi-l-niydba) of Allah. But in reality Mawdudi clearly “establishes the distinction between the hdkimiyya of Allah and the hdkimiyya of the human being” (Belkeziz 2009, 207). He accordingly comes to the following conclusion: “It is not correct to assert the term democracy for the system of the Islamic state; rather what is a more accurate expression is the term the ‘divine government’ (al-hukilma al-ilahiyya) or theocracy” (Mawdudi 1980, 34, quoted in Belkeziz 2009, 207).

Mawdudl’s views were in large part informed by the Indian Muslims’ demand for an independent Islamic state, on the premise that there could be no peaceful coexistence with the Hindu population of India in a non-Islamic state.

If we compare this doctrine with Western theories of democracy, we should be able to see that two points of contrast stand out. In the first place, these theories see the state’s secularism as a necessary condition of democracy, and in the second place they frame equality not in relation to God (everyone is equal before God) but in terms of dignity (everyone is owed equal dignity as a human being). In these two elements lies the basic difference between the Western conception of democracy and the Islamic one advanced by Mawdudi.

The second defining concept of Islamic democracy is, as mentioned, that of khildfa, or representation: it traces back to the concept of khalifa understood as “successor” to the Prophet Muhammad, but has since taken on the meaning ofa deputy, representative, or agent of God on Earth.12 According to MawdudT, in this concept of God being represented on Earth lies “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” (MawdudT 1967,43-44, quoted in Esposito and Voll 1996, 26). From this perspective, then, the construction of Islamic democracy presupposes a community of Muslim believers. And in this respect, too, a deep fissure exists that can be seen to separate Islamic democracy from its Western counterpart.

Tawhtd and khildfa are the two key concepts structuring the paradigm of Islamic democracy. Indeed, they form the basis for the “concepts of consultation [sbiird), consensus (ijmd"), and independent interpretive judgement (ijtihdd)" (Esposito and Voll 1996, 27). The concept of consultation is closely bound up with that of believer as an agent of God on Earth. Believers as a community can “delegate their authority to the ruler,” but their “opinion must also be sought in the conduct of state” (Esposito 1998, 154). In addition, collective decisions by the community need the latter’s consensus, on which rests the legitimacy of authority. Finally, completing the paradigm is the concept of independent interpretive judgment: this element imparts a considerable degree of pliancy to

12 The semantic evolution of the term khalifa has been reconstructed by John L. Esposito in a way that does not seem entirely clear (Esposito and Voll 1996, 25-26). The concept of lieutenant, representative, or agent of God is in reality Qur anic, appearing twice in the Qur'an and both times in that sense. One occurrence is in The Cow: “I am putting a successor on earth” (Qur'an 2:30, quoting from Abdel Haleem 2005, 7, where the point is made that “the term khalifa is normally translated as ‘vicegerent’ or ‘deputy.’ While this is one meaning of the term, its basic meaning is ‘successor’—the Qur'an often talks about generations and individuals who are successors to each other, cf. 6: 165, 7: 129, etc.—or a ‘trustee’ to whom a responsibility is temporarily given, cf. Moses and Aaron, 7: 142” [Abdel Haleem 2005, 7 n. a], The same concept is rendered as “ruler” in Muhammad Ali 2010, commenting that “the word ‘ruler’ (khalifa) here refers to the whole of mankind, which is corroborated by the Quran itself in 6:165” [Muhammad Ali 2010, 9, п.д], and as “(mankind) generations” in Hilali and Khan n.d., 7]). These are words that God speaks to the angels, subsequently enjoining them to “Bow before Adam” (Qur an 2:34, quoting from Abdel Haleem 2005, 7). The other occurrence of the concept of khalifa is in SAD 38:26, where God invests the Prophet David with the function of serving as his “representative” on Earth and tells him what responsibilities flow from that role: “David, We have given you mastery [khalifa] over the land. Judge fairly between people” (Abdel Haleem 2005, 291). Compare: “O David, surely We have made you a ruler in the land; so judge between people justly [...]” (Muhammad Ali 2010, 570). And: “O Dawud (David)! Verily! We have placed you as a successor on the earth; so judge you between men in truth (and justice) [...]” (Hilali and Khan n.d., 611-12). The original text: “ya Dawttd, ja'alna-ka khalifatan fi 1-ardi, fa-hkum bayna 1-nasi bi-l-haqqi.” The use of the term khalifa in these two Qur anic texts helps to clarify two important aspects of the concept’s semantic evolution. First, considering that the concept of the khalifa of Allah makes its appearance in the Qur'an, it precedes the concept of the khalifa of Muhammad (not only chronologically but also conceptually). And, second, the meaning “successor of Muhammad” is simply a specific application of the more general meaning “representative/successor” that in common parlance was already forming a set phrase next to the word khalifa. I should thank Professor Giuseppe Cecere tor this accurate explanatory gloss.

Islamic democracy by enabling it to adapt revealed concepts to the conditions by which each different era is marked.

To be sure, this makes Islam compatible with a range of different forms of government, and so also with its democratic parliamentary form, where ijtihdd is exercised by a representative body. But as Esposito and Voll (1996, 30) comment: “Consultation, consensus, and ijtihdd are crucial concepts for the articulation of Islamic democracy within the framework of the oneness of God and the representational obligations of human beings.” And here, too, we can see how disparate the two forms of democratic government are in view of the different foundations they rest on and the systems of values they embrace—the Western form being rooted in the secular principle of the separation of the political order from the religious, the Islamic form instead being inseparable from the idea of the truth of revealed sources.

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