Can Islam Harmonize With Democracy?

In contemporary societies many people contemplate whether or not Islam is harmonious with the “western” idea of democracy and its application. This query is due to the resistance of what some might say are “fanatical” jihadist Muslims like Al Qaida (Islamic fundamentalist group opposed to the “western world”) and the Taliban (Afghani militant political group) rejecting the integration of Islam into western society, and carrying out malicious attacks against these societies. By the same token, some Muslims may believe that Islam is not compatible due to the teachings of the Qur’an and the sovereign rulership of Allah instilled in the followers of the faith. Contrary to this belief, there are people, even Muslims, who believe that Islam can exist within the confines of democracy and, to a certain extent, may encourage democracy for an enhanced practice of Islam. In this exposition we will discover what the teachings of the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sharia laws reveal about the matter. Also, we will learn what some Muslim followers believe about living inside the borders of western civilization while practicing their religious convictions. Correspondingly, we’ll discuss the understandings of opponents to the issue such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabian dictatorships. Democracy is spreading to all areas of the world, forcing many religions to adapt to its practice, but Islam has major contradictions to implementation of the system due to inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims, male and female. The machine that is imperial democracy is an evolution of mankind that may naturally and ultimately take over the world’s political systems and secularize these populations in the process. Islam, as well as numerous other religions, cannot and will not endure with this process of democracy. We have seen many religions vanish throughout the history of man like that of the ancient Sumerians, Aztecs, Egyptians, and Zoroastrianism. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism will most likely join the ranks of “dead religions” as the system of democracy continues.

In the 7th century A.D., a modest man living in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, by the name of Muhammad Ibn Abd Allah Ibn Abd al Muttalib, would forever change the course of history for mankind, by delivering a message to the people of the world he claimed he had received from the angel Gabriel. The message Islam offers to the world is that there is no other god but Allah. All people are to stop following false gods and religions and submit to the will of Allah, delivered through the revelations given to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, through meditation and physical manifestation. These revelations would be recorded, gathered, and labeled under the name the Qur’an, which is the Islamic equivalent of the Holy Bible. Muhammad’s message would be the beginning of the fastest growing religion the world has seen, known as Islam, which translates to submission in the English language. Islam has 1.5 billion followers all across the world. It is known as the third major monotheistic religion, and is directly related to the other two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity. The followers of Islam call themselves Muslims. In modern times, there are five different major denominations of Islam - Sunni, Shite, Sufi, Kharijite, Ahmadiyya, with many other smaller denominations or subdivisions. Differences are mainly in moral codes and interpretation of the Qur’an (“Islam”).

Democracy is literally the rule of the people (man-made law). All people within it, man or woman, have the same rights. A free election is held; whereby the people of the nation vote who will be put in legislative positions of power, what laws will be made, and the distribution of the wealth. This is done by way of popular vote (many in the United States of America may believe this is not true due to the Electoral College). All citizens living within the borders of the democratic nation are held responsible under nation’s laws equally. Democracy practices separation of religion from governmental affairs, making them secularly administered. The latter is an enormous aspect to the compatibility of religion within these governments. The United States of America and Sweden are examples of democracies existing in the world today. In these democracies, all people have equal rights, which allows for gay rights, atheism, the practice of all religions and cults. This is contradictory to Islam, as it teaches that all people must follow the laws of Allah.

Islam is at the center of many deliberations in contemporary times due to the current clashes in the Middle East as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict. The world has seen how far some Muslim “extremists” will go to promote Islam and resist western philosophy and religion, with the horrific acts of 9/11 and numerous other acts of “terrorism.” I quote terrorism because, for some people, this “terrorism” is considered “revolution.” America should understand this quite well as it is a nation built on acts of “terrorism” against the British in order to gain its independence. These Muslims believe they are committing righteous acts of war against the enemies of Islam, which is called jihad - the struggle to practice their faith. Many Muslims agree with the acts carried out against what the Islamic community calls the “infidels.” They are considered the non-Muslim peoples of the world who refuse conversion to Islam. The Hadith, which are a collection of teachings given by the Prophet Muhammad to the Muslim believers to follow as guidance for living the righteous path of Islam in daily life, teaches its followers to offer infidels three paths of coercion; 1) convert to Islam, 2) accept Muslim superiority over themselves (that is to not convert and adhere to Muslim rule and pay a tax for protection known as the jizya), and 3) if they do not accept the first two options, they will be killed (Esposito). Many people (Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc.) during the expansion of the Islamic Empire accepted the first two choices obviously. However, this is one reason why some believe Islam cannot be fully applied under a liberal democracy, as it is against the rights of the democratic population to force them to follow a certain religion. Also, it is against the law to commit murder. In a liberal democracy, people have the privilege to pursue whatever religion they may choose and these rights may not be infringed upon. Yet some may argue that in a democracy there is the chance of these rights being capable to be encroached on by way of popular vote against a certain practice within a religion, like that of Mormon polygyny being deemed illegal by the United States Government. This is one of the main issues with religious rights being truly free within a “western” style democracy.

Democracy promotes “equality” to all people. In Islam, the Qur’an and Hadith teach contrary to this belief and not all people are considered equal. This is shown by the Qur’an’s many verses that state Muslims are higher in status to Allah’s kingdom than that of the non-Muslim. The Qur’an states in 45:21; "What! Do those who seek after evil ways think that We shall hold them equal with those who believe and do righteous deeds,- that equal will be their life and their death? Ill is the judgment that they make." Also, 4:141 says, "...And never will Allah grant to the unbelievers a way (to triumphs) over the believers." Furthermore, 9:3 states, "...Allah and his messenger are free from obligation to the unbelievers..." These teachings show that the Qur’an demonstrates that non-Muslims are not equal to Islam’s disciples and should not have authority over them. Likewise, democracy allows women to be in positions of power in politics. The Hadith clearly teach its followers to not allow this to happen. Bukhari 88:219, "Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler" (“What”). This undoubtedly happens in this system of government when we see many women like Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice in prominent positions of power. This is why numerous Arab nations govern under a monarchy, which allows them to dictate the way its people are governed and practice Sharia law.

Furthermore, there are countries in the world that do practice a form of Sharia law. For instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, continue to exercise monarchy rulerships. This permits them to implement their nation’s exclusive religion, Islam, and restrict the practices of others. These rulerships impose Sharia law, which is considered dissenting within democratic populations. However, some believe the practice of Sharia law in these countries makes them very well ordered for fear of punishment. Sentencing for theft is the dismemberment of the right hand. The crime of adultery is punishable by death. Women are not allowed to drive cars or wear pants. There is zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol as well as many other infractions against the laws of Islamic nations that are considered to be unobjectionable in secular nations. Prisons are for punishment in these countries, not rehabilitation, which makes them very hard to bear for most people (British). The intention for this law system is to strike fear into the inhabitants of the land. This is not going to stop someone from committing crimes; however, it does stop many people from recommitting crimes. Many people in The United States of America feel this way of punishment is too harsh. In contrast, California practices the three strike rule; where if a person commits a felony crime three times, they are sent to prison on a life sentence. It’s easy to assume if asking whether a thief locked in a prison for life could instead have his hand cut off, he would rather be subjected to losing his hand rather than to have the rest of his life spent behind bars with vicious criminals. Sharia law is used to insure the obedience to Islam. These nations are built around the Qur’an to insure the religions consistent traditions.

On the contrary, some rely on democratic components for the advancement of Islamic society. They believe democratic facilities are better suited to deal with the pragmatic issues a society faces and helps the improvement of its inner workings. For instance, Sadik J. Al Azm, states in his article entitled “Is Islam Secularizable?”, “…in spite of the Islamic idio, politico-ideological discourses, debates and polemics of the Iranian clerics and guardians of correct belief are substantially dictated by the historical “yes” of the present socio-economic and political conjuncture rather than by the exigencies of the dogmatic “no” of orthodoxy. This is why we find that the public discourses of Iran’s Mullah deal not as much with theology, dogma, or the Caliphate and/or Imamate, but with economic planning, social reform, the redistribution of wealth, the right of private property weighed against the right to distributive justice, imperialism, economic dependency, development, the role of the popular masses (as against that of technocratic elites), without forgetting such issues as identity, modernization, authenticity, etc.” (Al-Azm). This statement is the one of the best examples of the progressive properties of a democratic government. However, Iran is an exception to the argument, due to the major influences of Islam in its society, which make it a theocracy (government that is run by divinely guided officials) and not a democracy. Democracies indorse separation of religion in governmental affairs, whereas in Iran, Islam sways the course of governing its people. This is because in Iran the president doesn’t have the same power that a typical president has elsewhere in the world. The major influence on Iran’s policies is the Ayatollah. Ayatollahs are Iranian clerics who may not have much of an effect on things like economics, but have great impact on the jurisprudence, ethics, and philosophy of Iranians, creating a collective mind state of its people to follow the teachings of the Qur’an.

Sadik J. Al Azm’s opinion that Islam is harmonious with democracy can be supported by other Muslims living within a democratic society. This is in accordance with my interview with a 27 year old Sunni Muslim woman living in Sweden. She believes “as long as the democratic governments of the world do not intrude on the practice of Islam, Muslims can live within the boundaries of these societies.” She stated that some of the problems she found with the “western lifestyle” are “certain Muslim women may find it hard to find jobs as their headdress or burkas will show that they are Muslim, which can bring discrimination, due to the bad image many people have of Muslims since the acts of 9/11.” This treatment can prevent them from living an ordinary social life. Furthermore she states; “Eating food can be restrictive as many foods can come into contact with pork, which is forbidden in Islam.” Another concern she finds living in Sweden is laws may be imposed such as permitting the autopsy of a Muslim, which is contradictory to teachings of Islam. Nevertheless, overall she believes that it’s not too difficult to live in her democracy and continue to be a righteous Muslim. Although this may be true, it goes to show that in a democracy, a practicing Muslim must make compromises to his/her faith in order to live with secular people. Many who decline immigration to democratic nations do so because of the idea of having to make these secular choices, which is not part of Islamic creed.

All things measured, Islam may be able to exist within a democracy; however, it is NOT compatible with democracy. Democracy requires the separation of church and state for its governing processes. With this in mind, one cannot imagine a place for religion in these governments, as they encourage secularism. Elected officials must be as unbiased as they can be and not impose their religious beliefs on the people he or she is governing. Islam is completely against the separation of church and state or mosque and state if you will. Likewise, this creates secularism in the population due to the disassembly of religious practice outside of the home and religious facilities. Essentially, this means people within democracies must be as “politically correct” or universal with others in order to not break the covenant of equality. This has led to religion essentially being wiped out of the daily lives of many individuals. In spite of this agreement, the Qur’an teaches that “political correctness” has no place within Islam. Believers of the faith are to follow Allah’s rule, not man’s rule. If a Muslim is to live in a democracy, they will have to make secular compromises to their faith in order to adapt to the lifestyles of others. This is a fragment of the secularization process of democracy. Since its application into civilization, religious individuals have lost their steadfast devotion to their faith in many ways. For instance, some may find it as offensive to place a cross on the side of the road commemorating the death of a loved one or preaching the message of God on the street. This has made many believers afraid of even professing their faith. Disciples are intended to follow God’s law, not man’s law. This is why many Muslims, like the factions of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, resist and commit acts of terrorism or jihad against democratic secular nations. Religions, at least the Abrahamic religions, are not supposed to be amending. They are meant to be followed with unwavering faith. Islam has no room for adaptation due to the belief that it is the absolute word of Allah, which is never changing. Allah is the same now as he was when Moses walked.