Islam and Democracy
Beyond Elected Government. Just Government
"Surely, Allah commands you to fulfill trust obligations toward those entitled to them and that when you judge between people, judge with fairness." [An-Nisa 3:58]
This is an essential verse of the Quran to be consulted by anyone who wants to understand Islams teachings about governance and government. While it talks about discharging trust obligations and being just in all situations, it has special implications for staffing and running public office.
Amanah (discharging ones trust obligations) and Adl (Justice) are highly stressed attributes of believers. Sayyidna Anas, Radi-Allahu unhu, says: "It must have been a rare sermon in which the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, did not say the following words: One who has no amanah has no iman (faith) and one who breaks promises has no religion. " Yet these all important qualities become even more so when a person is occupying a position from where he can affect other peoples lives. Thus, Ulema explain that this verse specifies that all positions of authority are a trust to be given to those who are qualified for them. Further it specifies that whenever a Muslim is in a position to adjudicate a case between any two parties, he must do so with justice and fairness.
The conduct of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, in this regard and his numerous sayings on the subject further highlight the importance of this command. According to one hadith, if a person who has been charged with some responsibilities relating to the general body of Muslims gives an office to someone simply on the basis of friendship or connection of some sort without regard to the capability or merit of that person, the curse of Allah falls on him. None of his acts of worship are accepted, whether mandatory (fard) or voluntary (nafl).
We can discern some very important principles from the above. First, the selection of people for positions of authority, and their behavior once in office, is a religious matter. Islam does not recognize the separation of religion and state. Second, these positions are not a right of the people but a trust from Allah to be discharged according to His commands with utmost concern for justice for all. Third, the people so chosen must be good, for the good of the society depends on that.
From this we can begin to see the difference between Islam and that immensely advertised political system called democracy. Democracy is concerned with the mechanism for selecting people for government. Islam is concerned with the outcome of that selection. Democracy makes a huge virtue of its mechanism--- the electoral process. But, mechanisms can and do change with time and circumstances. The two leading models of democratic government, England and the U.S.A., have different systems for electing the head of the government and the legislators, and their systems have also changed over time. Further, anyone overly impressed with the outer trappings of American Democracy may do well to remember a little known historic fact: Many in the U.S. wanted to make George Washington the King of America, but it was the distaste of the Revolutionary days for things English that kept monarchy away from the leading democracy of the world.
What matters most is what sort of rulers and managers of public life result from the process. Yet democracy is silent about it. It wants an elected government. Islam goes much further. It wants a just government.
What if corrupt people get elected through fair elections? Democracy offers no serious answer to this question. Early leaders, like James Madison, claimed: "People will have the virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom." But more than two centuries of history have made nonsense of this proposition. Just recently a convicted liar and known sex-offender occupied the highest office in the U.S., and the public was not even concerned. So much for "men of virtue."
What if democracies turn into tyrannies and the elected people commit atrocities against mankind? It is sufficient to glance at the historic record of this century. The only use of atom bombs was made not by a rogue dictatorship but the leading democracy in the world. The atrocities committed by European powers against each other in the two world wars were mostly the works of democratic governments. Just recently we saw with horror what happened in Bosnia, and Kosova. Yet the Serb leader had been an elected one. In Kashmir, where Indian atrocities are no less serious but are much less publicized, the democratic world is quite happy that India is a democracy. We are constantly reminded that Israel--- a country built on stolen land and sustained through constant oppression, torture, and treachery against the people whose land was stolen --- is the only democracy in the Middle East. Well, what does that say about the system of government called democracy?
Democracy's record on the home front is equally unenviable. It is no secret that in the U.S. real power lies with big corporations and wealthy people. Manufactured consent replaces informed public opinion and provides the fašade for the "government by the people." One result: Pockets of abject poverty in the richest nation in the world. In a country that grows so much food that it does not know what to do with all of it, there are thousands of people who go hungry or eat off the trash. What is more, no body thinks the system of government has anything to do with it. No body looses sleep over it, not the least the elected rulers. Now contrast this with the Islamic Khilafah, where Sayyidna Umar, Radi-Allahu unhu, worries: "If a dog dies of thirst at the bank of Euphrates, how shall I answer for that to Allah."
The widespread popularity of democracy indicates the yearning people have for justice, righteousness, and fairness that democracy promised but never delivered. Democratic movements had started out with the noble intentions of ending the tyranny of autocratic rulers. However, as with all other efforts aimed at reforming human society that were free from divine guidance, they could not reach their goal. The world needs to know that it will find it in Islam. But before that the billion Muslims living in the world today also need to discover that fact. Unfortunately, our preoccupation with the vocabulary of democracy has shifted our focus to the electoral process and away from the requirement for establishing a just government.. The sooner we realize our mistake, the better.