The sovereignty of God and the sovereignty of the people

The concept of sovereignty finds itself at the core of a crucial theoretical difficulty that Muslim thought faces in dealing with the question of democracy in Islam. For on the one hand democracy comes down to popular sovereignty, that is, to the idea that the people are their own lawgivers (they are the ultimate source of authority for the laws they agree to submit to). But on the other hand Islam seems to reject the idea of popular sovereignty, instead embracing the idea of divine sovereignty, or the “sovereignty of God,” an idea for which “fundamentalist Islamic thinkers often use the slogan al-hdkimiyya li-llah, which may roughly be rendered as ‘sovereignty (rulership) belongs to God’” (Bahlul 2000, 287, which will be the main source for the discussion in this section).

There is little doubt about the aim the theory of the sovereignty of God serves in Muslim thought: it can be deployed to invalidate secular conceptions that deny that God can rule over society, and hence over Muslim society. Still, some commentators have argued that the contrast between popular and divine sovereignty is more apparent than real, and that a close analysis of the meaning of the sovereignty ascribed to God will reveal this sovereignty to be actually consistent with democracy.

In illustrating the idea of divine sovereignty and the principles framing the forms of government based on that idea, Islamic thinkers point to the Qur’an, and in particular to Women 4:53: “You who believe, obey God and the Messenger, and those in authority among you” (Abdel Haleem 2005, 56). On


In this verse some Islamic thinkers see the makings of an Islamic state and the basis for the authority that vests in God. As Ghannushi (1993, 119) comments, “obedience to the Messenger of God [...] is the practical form in which obedience to God expresses itself. After this comes the power which the people exercise. The legitimate scope for this power does not violate divine law which is found in the Qur an and the Traditions of the Messenger” (quoted in Bahlul 2000, 288).

this understanding, then, “there is no place in Islam for a popular government which is separated from the Faith.” In other words, “democracy in Islam does not mean absolute popular power, but rather popular power in accordance with shari'a" (TurabT 1987, 63-64, 67, quoted in Bahlul 2000, 288).

But this also means that “the authority of government is limited because shari'a is the higher law, just like the constitution except that it is a detailed constitution” (Bahlul 2000, 288, quoting TurabT as quoted in Lowrie 1993, 25). Reasoning from these premises, “many Islamic thinkers want to draw an opposition between government by people andgovernment by God" (Bahlul 2000, 288). But this assumption of a neat separation between these two forms of government needs to be tested: as Raja Bahlul (2000, 289) puts it, “does government by God exclude government by the people and vice versa?” Or, more to the point: “If the people freely choose to be governed by God’s law, that is, if they take God’s law to be their own law, are they exercising popular sovereignty, or are they subject to divine sovereignty, or both?” (ibid.).

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