Friday, April 2, 2010

Islam and The Challenge of Democracy

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 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.

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?

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. 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. 

The Qur’an itself did not specify a particular form of government. But it did identify a set of social and political values that are central to a Muslim polity. Three values are of particular importance: pursuing justice through social cooperation and mutual assistance (Qur’an 49:13; 11:119); establishing a non-autocratic, consultative method of governance; and institutionalizing mercy and compassion in social interactions (6:12, 54; 21:107; 27:77; 29:51; 45.20). So, all else equal, Muslims today ought to endorse the form of government that is most effective in helping them promote these values. 

Several considerations suggest that democracy—and especially a constitutional democracy that protects basic individual rights—is that form. 

Of course God’s vicegerent does not share God’s perfection of judgment and will. A constitutional democracy, then, acknowledges the errors of judgment, temptations, and vices associated with human fallibility by enshrining some basic moral standards in a constitutional document—moral standards that express the dignity of individuals. To be sure, democracy does not ensure justice. But it does establish a basis for pursuing justice and thus for fulfilling a fundamental responsibility assigned by God to each of us.

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Biography Khalid Abou Al Fadl:

Khaled Abou El Fadl, a prominent Islamic jurist and American lawyer, is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at UCLA and author most recently of The Place of Tolerance in Islam. He trained in Islamic law in Egypt and Kuwait and is a high-ranking sheikh.

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