By LIMSEER ALI P.A.
A key feature of world politics in recent years has been the resurgence of religious issues and organisations into public affairs. Whether with the Christian coalition in the U.S, Hindu (read Hindutva) nationalism in India, militant Buddhism in Srilanka, or Islamist movements in the Muslim world, the end of the twentieth century demonstrated convincingly that high modernist reports of religious demise were, to say the least, premature. [Robert W. Hefner, Sociology of Religion]
The connection of Islam and politics creates strong images and opinions. In the globalising world, political dimension of Islam is not decreasing quiet contrary. During recent decades we have seen how Islam has generated political turbulence around the world. This has shown, at least, that the connection of Islam and politics is very multidimensional and heterogeneous.
The political orientation of Islam since the 1960s is characterised by its connection to general world politics and especially to the political events in the Middle East (that is the state of Israel and its relation with Palestine and the rest of the Arab Muslim world. Since the founding of Israel, in 1948, conflicts and crisis have been numerous).
Current history is marked by the meeting of two powerful currents, democracy and political Islam. Islam itself is the subject of cultural dialectic between a modern and an authenticated form, out of which a synthesis tends to arise, only to be attacked again by a new authentic antithesis. Political Islam is current antithesis, attacking the unpopular states for impiety and materialism. Democracy is also rising in popularity as a criterion of good governance, with special meaning as the consummation of nationalism for new states recently free from colonial rule.
The two currents are not necessarily incompatible, but they have different sources and they will have a profound effect on each other whenever they meet. [William Zartman, Democracy and Islam: the Cultural Dialectic] There is no inherent incompatibly between democracy and Islam. Like all scriptures, the Qur’ān can be interpreted to support many different types of political behaviour and systems of government.
ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY
It is also alleged that Islam is anti-democracy. There is a fundamental misunderstanding in this formulation. Current notion of democracy is in favour of the notion of popular sovereignty. It is at variance with in the Islamic concept of world and society. Islam affirms the sovereignty of God and believes that man needs divine guidance. According to this theory, sovereignty belongs to Allah. He alone is the law-giver. No man, even if he be a prophet, has the right to order others in his own right to do or no to do certain things. Thus the main characteristics of an Islamic state that can be deduced from these express statements of the Holy Qur’ān are as follows;
No person, clan, class or group, not even the entire population of the state as a whole, can lay claim to sovereignty. God alone is the real sovereign; all others are merely his subjects.
God is the real law giver and authority of absolute legislation vests in him. The believers cannot resort to totally independent legislation nor can they modify any law which God has laid down, even if the desire to effect such legislation or change in divine law is unanimous ; and
An Islamic state must, in all respects, be founded upon the law laid down by God through his prophet. The government which such a state will be entitled to obedience in its capacity as a political agent sets up to enforce the laws of God and only in so far as it acts in that capacity.
Within this above mentioned divine law, there is a vast area of flexibility and change. This vast area is known as (Mubaha) the permissible and as such change and flexibility are built in the system. The Book of God is open to all who have the knowledge and capacity to understand and interpret it. The door of ijtehad is open within the framework of the Islamic legal system. Islam uses the term ‘vicegerency’ (khilafa) instead of sovereignty. Since, according to Islam, sovereignty belongs to God alone, anyone who holds power and rules in accordance with the laws of God would undoubtedly be the vicegerent of the supreme ruler and would not be authorised to exercise any power other than those delegated to him. The real foundation of democracy in Islam, illustrates the following points:
A society in which everyone is caliph of God and an equal participant in this caliphate, can’t tolerate any class divisions based on distinctions of birth and social position. All men enjoy equal status and position in such a society.
In such a society no individual or group of individuals will suffer disability on account of birth, social status, or profession that may in any way impede the growth of his faculties or hamper the development of his personality.
There is no room in such a society for the dictatorship of any person or group of person since everyone is a caliph (vicegerent) of God herein. No person or group of persons is entitled to become an absolute ruler by depriving the rank and file of their inherent right of caliphate.
All members of the society have a right, nay the duty, to give the reigns of power to those whom they trust in. The political leadership is accountable before the people as much as it is accountable before God. It is the people who have the right to elect or change the leadership through political process.
In the Islamic political system there has to be rule of law and respect for fundamental rights of all members of the society including non-Muslim minorities.
The principle of accountability of the government is also cardinal to the Islamic system. Similarly, the election and removal of leadership through the will of the people is an accepted principle. So is the right to disagree and dissent.
ISLAMIC DEMOCRATIC THOUGHT
Contemporary Islamic democratic thoughts have, to a lesser extent been influenced by two other major 18th century revivalism efforts; One in the Indian subcontinent led by Shah Wali Allah al-Dahlawi and the other in western Africa led by Othman bin Fudi . To Muhammad ibn Abdl al-Wahhab, politics mattered only in as far as it impacted on his mission; that is, only to the extent that his campaign was hampered or assisted by the power to be. Mohammed Ali, Sheikh Hessian al-Attar, Rifa al-Thahtawi were the pioneers of Islamic democratic thought.
An important landmark in the Islamic democratic thought was the contribution of Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi. A leader of the 19th century reform movement in Tunisia and author of Aqwam al-Masalik fi-Ma’arifat Ahwal al Mamalik (the straight path to knowing the conditions of nations). He called for an end to absolutist rule, which he blamed for the oppression of nations and destruction of civilizations. In his search on the causes of decline in the Muslim world, Jamal-din al-Afgani diagnosed that it was due to the absence of adl (justice) and shura (council) and non-adherence by the government of the constitution. One of his main demands was that the people should be allowed to assume their political and social rule by participating in governing through shura and elections.
Similarly Rashid Ridha and Mohammed Abdu equated shura with democracy and ijma with consensus. Addressing the question of authority, Abdu denied the existence of an authority of the hakim (governor) or that of the qadi (judge). He strongly demanded that ijtihad should be revived because of emerging priorities and problems, new to Islamic thought, needed to be addressed. He was a proponent of parliamentary system.
In the meantime, in Syria, Abdurrahman al Kawakibi had been championing the struggle against the Ottoman authoritarian rule. Similarly, Hasanul Banna, Syed Qutb, Abul A’ala Mawdudi, writing in the wake of European colonialism and its political and cultural impact, argued that Islam was incompatible with western democracy, maintaining that Islam had its own foundation for democracy. Decades later both they and their Islamic movements, Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, would accept and participate in the democracy movement and elections in Egypt and Pakistan.
The debate continues today, within the mainstream Islamic movements, intellectuals and scholars. Some of the biggest names in contemporary Islamic political thought areTariq al Bishri, Muhammed Ammarah, Abdul Wahhab Elmessiri, Rachid al-Gannouchi, Abdol Karim Soroush, Tariq Ramadan and Talal Asad. Members of this group generally had a better understanding of western culture and European political thought than Islamists who had received an exclusively Islamic oriented education.
SOROUSH AND GHANNOUCHI
Two Middle Eastern philosophers symbolise the diverse origin of Islamist reformers and the breadth of their thought. Abdul Karim Soroush is a Shiite Muslim and a Persian from Iran. Sheikh Rachid al-Ghannouchi is a Sunni Muslim and a Tunisian Arab. He is an exiled leader of Hezb al Nadha, a movement with intent on creating an Islamic republic Tunisia. Soroush’s writings mainly focused on the concept of democracy. Although Islam literally means “submission,” Soroush argues that there is no contradiction between Islam and the freedoms inherent in democracy. “Islam and democracy are not only compatible, their association is inevitable. In a Muslim society, one without the other is not perfect.” His advocacy of democracy for the Islamic world rests on twin pillars. One, to be a true believer, one must be free. Belief attested under threat or coercion is not true belief. And if a believer freely submits, this does not mean that he has sacrificed freedom. He must also remain free to give up his faith. The only real contradiction is to be free in order to believe, and then afterward to abolish that freedom. This freedom is the basis of democracy. Soroush goes further: the belief and will of the majority must shape the ideal Islamic state. An Islamic democracy can’t impose from the top; it is only legitimate if it has been chosen by the majority, including non-believers as well as believers.
Ghannouchi conceives of democracy as a political system that derives legitimacy from the public. In a democracy, he explains people elect, audit and, when necessary, replace the ruler by means of mechanisms that may vary from one democratic regime to another. However, all such democratic models share in common the mechanism of free election.
Democracy, he says, establishes the principles of alternation of power through the ballot box, guarantees a number of basic liberties for the public, such as freedom and independence of judiciary. Democracy is a mechanism that guarantees the sovereignty of people over the ruling regime and that instantiates a number of important values that shield the public against injustice and despotism. Ghannouchi’s main aim has been to emphasise the need for democracy and its compatibility with Islam.
These reformers contented that human understanding of Islam is flexible, and Islam’s tenets can be interpreted to accommodate democracy and encourage pluralism. They are actively challenging those who argue that Islam has a single, definitive essence that admits of change in the face of time, space, or experience and that democracy is therefore incompatible or alien. Neither Islam nor its culture is the major obstacle to political modernity. Politicalised Islam is not a monolith; its spectrum is broad.