Democracy and shūrā

The question of democracy in relation to shiird is the focus of an extensive and multifaceted debate among Islamic thinkers, offering solutions that suggest several different paths towards democracy. In a lucid and probing study, Massimo Campanini highlights the central role the concept of shiird plays in the context of Islamic democracy and the potential it holds for the achievement of democratic forms of government in the Islamic world. “Since the Middle Ages, and then especially in the contemporary age,” Campanini explains, “the principle of consultation has been associated with the idea of a limit on discretionary use of sovereign power" (Campanini 2013, 40; my translation). If historical forces should cause this principle to be inflected “in ways that differ from the liberal or free-market democracy in vogue in the West, this would make room for a properly Islamic rereading of the political space, and this exercise should engage the minds of the most attentive Muslim thinkers” (ibid., 45-46).

Particularly significant in this regard are the theses advanced by Muhammad Salim al-Awa, who has identified what he sees as the pillars on which an Islamic state must rest: consultation (shiird); justice ('adl); liberty (hurriyya); equality (musdwdt); the governors’ accountability and the consent of the governed; and the state’s moral foundation, which lies in its promotion of the good and the suppression of evil (al-amr bi-l-ma'ruf wa-l-nahi 'an al-munkar). This is a flexible conception that sets politics on a moral foundation and can make it possible to reach an institutional solution under a democratic paradigm. This approach “does not in any way require us to assume an institutional equivalence between religion and politics when it comes to implementing an Islamic state” (ibid., 46).

There are two opposing tendencies that can be highlighted in the debate on the concept of shiird within the Muslim world: on one side is an interest in finding points of similarity and convergence with the democratic system; on the other is a stance that rules out the possibility of any reconciliation between the two systems (Bclkeziz 2009, 179). A prominent figure in the first camp is Rashid al-GhannushT, who has argued that shiird is not a derivative source that might be ignored. “'Rather it is a source (ask) among the usul of the religion and dictated by the requirements of human vice-regency {al-istikhlaf), that is, conferral of the divine authority on the slaves (i.e., upon humans) [...] and from there, al-shura was the backbone of the political power of the ummah and their means of rising to rule” (GhannushT 1992, 109, as translated in Bclkeziz 2009, 174). Al-GhannushT further points out that in the Islamic system,

it is possible to put into effect the political values that Islam brought such as al-shura and the pledge of allegiance (al-baya) and consensus (al-ijmd) and commanding what is just and forbidding what is unjust (gl-amr bi-l-ma'ruf wa al-nahiy 'an al-munkar)’, that is, the teachings that came to establish justice and to effectuate human happiness. If so, it is possible for democratic implements, just as it is possible for manufactured implements—in the consideration that they are a human inheritance—to be employed in different cultural environs and different conceptual terrain. (GhannushT 1992, 88, as translated in Bclkeziz 2009, 182)

On the basis of these premises, he concludes that “democracy offers the best instrument or device for rule, enabling the citizens, through its use, to practice basic freedoms, and among these are the political liberties” (GhannushT 1992, 75, as translated in Bclkeziz 2009, 180). What al-Ghannushi is saying, in other words, is that the al-shura system can be made to work compatibly with a procedural, or formal, conception of democracy as a form of government.

By contrast, his reflection on the relation between al-shura and the substantive aspects of democracy highlights what he considers to be the negative aspects of the democratic system. We can see this where he makes explicit his "philosophical reservation, not his political, about Western democracy” (Bclkeziz 2009, 180), commenting that

the point of concern (lit., disease) is not in the apparatus of democracy— elections, parliament, majority, multiplicity of political parties or freedom of the press—not to the extent that it is latent in the political philosophies of the West [...] which separate between the spirit (al-riih) and the body (al-jasad)—the philosophy of Descartes—and then ignore the spirit, burying it alive; and [these philosophies] make war on Allah and struggle to the utmost to displace the human being from his [rightful] place so that there does not remain anything in the universe or within the human being other than material substrate, motion, appetite and control and struggle and the legitimacy of raw force. (GhannushT 1992, 86-87, as translated in Bclkeziz 2009, 180-81; italics added)

So, while al-Ghannushi sees the al-shura system as compatible with the procedural aspects ofWestern democracy, he draws a stark contrast with its substantive

Democracy in Islam and Western democracy 133 aspects, on the basis that this democracy rests on forms of philosophical thought that separate body and spirit and in so doing “make war on Allah.”

But the philosophy of Western democracy can be understood as a philosophy of relativism, in opposition to all forms of absolutism. For the democratic process, and hence the democratic form of government, is designed to work only with values that are relative, being specific to the different conceptions espoused by the majority and the minorities. As is known, at the origin of the democratic form of government and its philosophy is the process of secularization, which has led to the autonomy of reason being elevated above all forms of revealed religion and, accordingly, to the separation of church and state.

 
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