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'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 façade 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.