Demorcacy & Shriah
DEMOCRACY AND THE SHARIA
Sufi Mohammad, a cleric with substantial following in Swat recently declared that democracy is not compatible with the Shari’a.
We might dismiss him as one who is poorly educated in Islamic studies but for the fact that others in his clan of orthodox ulema entertain similar views. It may then be appropriate for us to see how well democracy and Islam go together. Islam forms the foundational principle in Pakistan’s constitution. There are two ways of interpreting a country’s basic law: one is to hold that whatever is not forbidden is to be regarded as permitted. That would be the liberal constructionist approach. Alternatively, it may be said that whatever is not specifically permitted is to be taken as forbidden. That is strict construction. On exploring the place of democracy in Islam we will adopt the first of these approaches (the liberal).
Two ingredients of democracy may first be noted: it is government by the chosen representatives of the people, and that these representatives are accountable to the people for their performance. Democracy is also concerned with the process by which the ruler comes to power. That process has to be one of election. Next to the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (PBUH) Sunnah the Shari’a honours the practice of the pious caliphate (632-661), it so happens that the precedents of this period with regard to the process of coming to power are not uniform. But an elective element of one sort of the other was evidenced in one out of the four cases.
The Qur’an, Sunnah, and the four schools of jurisprudence (fiqh) have little to say about forms of governmental organisation. The Quran says only that we are to obey God, the Prophet, and those from among us who have been given the authority to govern. It does not say how such persons are to reach office. As noted earlier, three of the pious caliphs attained office through some sort of an election. Al Mawardi, a renowned mediaeval political thinker, recognises the ruler’s election by a small group of notables present in the capital as a legitimate procedure. But he seems to prefer election by the generality of people throughout the realm if its mechanics can be managed.
Precedents of the pious caliphate concerning the ruler’s accountability to the people are once again mixed as the caliphs considered themselves accountable to varying degrees. A word may now be said about a third ingredient of democracy, namely, the people’s right to have a say in the making and implementation of public policy. The Qur’an enjoins Muslims to settle their collective affairs by mutual consultation (‘shura’). The practice of the pious caliphs in this regard was variable. It should however be noted that the shura was never institutionalised, meaning that the number and kind of persons to be consulted, the kind of issues on which they were to give their views, and the status of the recommendations resulting from the process were never settled.
Keeping in mind the foregoing elaborations, how may we place democracy in Islam? It seems to me that the basic elements in the democratic process (ruler’s election, his accountability to the governed, and their right to political participation) stand approved. It was open to the subsequent generations, to extend their scope. There is nothing to stop them from enfranchising the entire body of citizens. The injunction regarding mutual consultation goes beyond requiring the decision-maker to consult; it gives the consultees (the people) the right to be consulted.
Coming together in an assembly is the best organisational mode for them to engage in mutual consultation. And since it is physically impossible for all of the people to gather together at one place and time, resort must be had to representatives authorised to speak and act for the people. Parliamentary question hour, votes of censure, and the authority to dismiss the government of the day are viable procedures for enforcing the ruler’s accountability. All of these arrangements will work to implement the spirit of the relevant Islamic injunctions. They are thus Islamic enough.
Generations of Muslims following the pious caliphate abandoned Islam in so far as it relates to politics and governance. They reverted to their native tradition and practices. Both Islam and democracy require equal rights for all citizens. This the nativity in most Muslim societies would not accept. We have elected governments in Pakistan at the present time. Yet there is widespread concern that democracy here is very fragile. This may be due to the fact that democracy has had a tough going in this country. It has periodically been overthrown by the army. The generals and the feudal lords who dominate governance in Pakistan think of democracy as an unnecessary nuisance.
The good news is that the people of Pakistan are gaining political maturity. Indications are that they are tired of authoritarian rulers, like democracy and intend to keep it. In this they have support from the powerful print and electronic media and other organs of civil society such as the lawyers. The likelihood is that this time democracy has come to stay.
[By Anwar Syed, Dawn, Sunday, 10 May, 2009, firstname.lastname@example.org The writer is a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts.]