Islam and the question of it’s relation to democracy is not a new subject.  It is in fact one of the seminal and important discussions going on within and outside the Muslim world today. In this light I want to share an important dialogue on the topic between some extraordinary and extremely diverse intellectuals: Sadiq Al’Assam, Abdol Karim Soroush, and Tariq Ramadan that took place recently in Holland.  Sadiq Al’Assam is an atheistic materialist thinker who wrote a controversial critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism and other books.  Abdol Karim Soroush is a religious intellectual and a leading reformer from the Shia’ tradition in Iran. Tariq Ramadan is a controversial intellectual who has written many books and articles and is also a leading reformist and revivalist from the Sunni tradition.  All of these thinkers have a background in Philosophy and Islam.

This is the sort of dialogue, and the sort of interlocutors that I had hoped to see come together in conversation but for some time now it hasn’t materialized.  In America usually all we see are some think tanks or special interest groups sponsoring a few “scholars” who are usually nothing but Islamophobes or deeply biased individuals to speak on the subject. Personally, I wish the discussion were lengthier but it was a good starting point and hit many key points.

It started off with a very good question, “what is your personal relationship with the Qur’an, how do you read it?”  Sadiq responded that he views the Qur’an as any other great piece of literature and he does not ascribe any magical qualities to it.  He understands it better when it is read aloud rather than in silent reading.  He also made the point that Muslims aren’t 24 hours Muslim and that this is impossible and something ‘for the angels’.  Soroush responded to this by stating that, “religion is something that is in deep connection with your personality, and if someone is a real believer he is 24 hours a believer…whether you are a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim or whoever and you are a deep believer, you are a 24 hour believer even in your dreams you see your Prophets, your God your whatever.”  Tariq also addressed Sadiq’s fallacy by pointing out that there seems to be an issue of semantics here.  He tells Sadiq that it seems you are confusing being Muslim with being perfect.  To be Muslim does not mean to be perfect.  “I can be Muslim even with my struggles, with my weaknesses, when I am betraying myself, and when I am trying to be better.  It is a question of life.”

Soroush then describes his relationship with the Qur’an and states that it is a very extraordinary book and though he is coming to it from a second language, since his mother tongue is Persian, he still understands it’s beauties.  He says that the main purpose aside from the legal and historical aspects of the Qur’an is to liberate reason. 

“Reason is important but a liberated reason. A reason in chains: in chain to lust, in chain to greed is no kind of reason. It is a reason in bondage…By liberating your reason you become a free person in a very true sense of the word and then you can philosophize and become whoever you want.”

This is an idea or concept I would like to hear more about from Soroush.

Soroush speaks about Rumi and the Masnavi as being a parallel Qur’an and not in the sense of commentary but plainly as another Qur’an! Quite an extraordinary statement, but what does he mean by this? What Rumi was “asserting was that some people will be guided by this book and some people will be misguided by this book.” Which is similar to a verse in the Quran which says the same thing.  One question that this does raise is that what about the Quranic challenge which says, “Bring something like it then if you are indeed truthful, but you will never be able to bring the like thereof,”  speaking about the uniqueness, inimitability and incapacitating nature of the Qur’an.

In stark contrast to Soroush’s heterodox equation of Qur’an with Masnavi, Tariq brings it back to the foundational creed. The Qur’an is the very word of God. It is a revelation, in one point in history God sent the Qur’an after other revelations as the final revelation. He says,

“For me this is central. Very often the perception is that because we believe that it is the very word of God we are not to use reason as it is and there is no real rationality, this is wrong. Here we have to distinguish between 3 levels. The Qur’an is not a scientific book, it is a book that in the first dimension, its purpose is to remind us of the meaning of life which is a spiritual message. This spiritual message is universal, it is trans-historical. It is dealing with a central question and I find in the Qur’an a central answer. Why are you here? What is your answer to the quest for meaning? I find it in the Qur’an, because there is One God to Him you belong and to Him you are going back. Then there is something that is connected to this that is the moral dimension, ‘remember that there are things that are good: respect towards people, try not to lie, try to be consistent, try to respect human beings and know that from the very beginning that humanity is one.’ One God, One Book, One humanity…then there is something that is connected here that I want to mention and I don’t want to disconnect from the Qur’an and rationality, three times and mainly two times it is mentioned that, ‘Beware, that your hearts have a sort of reason, you understand with your heart.’ The third dimension, is that we cannot forget that this book has a historical dimension. Here we need to come to a rational understanding, which is the dialectical process between text and context. Here reason is absolutely central and unavoidable.”

Islam and Democracy

Soroush starts off by saying the question is not about an ‘Islamic’ Democracy.  It cannot be said that the Prophet (pbuh) came “preaching Democracy.”  This is according to him “ahistorical” and absurd and no one is really calling now a days for Democracy because it is from Islam.  Tariq said this was ‘disputable’ because you have examples of people who go to the text and try to create a bridge of understanding between the different universes of references, such as Nahna in Algeria saying our word is “Shura-cracy.”  The real question according to them both and Sadiq didn’t voice a disagreement to this is, ‘Whether Muslims can have a democratic political system?’ Soroush says it is quite possible and quite compatible for Muslims to have a just democratic system.  He lays out some commonalities and parallels and Tariq adds some principles to it.

Islam and Democracy: some commonalities and parallels

  1. Seperation of Powers
  2. Independence of the Judiciary- even more important then elections because you can have ‘elections’ in dictatorships.
  3. Accountability of the Ruler
  4. Equal citizenship
  5. Universal suffrage
  6. Rule of law

Issues and contradictions between Islam and Democracy:

  1. Right to Legislate- In Religious Democracies one doesn’t have the absolute right to legislate because you already have a whole bunch of regulations and rules coming from God.

a. Ans: One possible solution is that these rules are like the constitution, you can’t change the constitution but inside the constitution you have some mechanism for maneuver

b. Sadiq, in rebuttal to the point that ‘one can have complete Islam and Democracy without compromising any Islamic principles’ brought up the issues of Ahl-Al’Dhimma and Slavery, as what he termed Islamic principles that must be shed in order to have a Democracy. Essentially he said it is false to say one does not have to leave any Islamic principles to attain a democracy-> Soroush replied that these are not principles but small legal points.

A key question that was left unaddressed because of time constraints came from the female moderator:

“We have to be consistent on the principles, but once you have a conflict of principles to what authority do you turn to resolve that conflict and can you turn to religious authority or is religious authority privatized, in that in the societies that we create and in our debates and conflicts in our societies we do not turn to religious authorities”

Sadiq’s strongest point though I don’t know about the strength of its relevancy was when he stated: ”

For me it is much more straight forward and honest to say that parliaments, elections, separation of powers, state sovereignty, the idea of the nation state are basically modern European institutions that we have taken over. People like you go about finding explanations, arguments, justifications, rationalizations, in order to naturalize, acclimatize these institutions that have to come to us. Have you ever heard of a republic in the history of Islam.”

I would have been interested in the response of the other two to this statement.

The point about the language of Religion and Democracy was foreshadowed by Tariq, but Soroush did a fine job in expounding upon it further.  For me this was an integral and deep point:

“The language of Islam and all religions is a language of duties and obligations and responsibilities, whereas the language of democracy is a language of rights. So an ‘Islamic democracy’ is the combination of two things that are seemingly contradictory, but as all the well educated people know there is no real contradiction between rights and responsibilities. Too much emphasis on rights may marginalize duties. Too much emphasis on duties may marginalize rights, but always we have to strike a balance between the two. I think too much emphasis on rights has mislead many of the democratic societies to the extent that now a days you have to draft a declaration of human responsibilities. I was in the interaction council…in Vienna, this council has been working for 25 years. 10 years ago they drafted a declaration of Human Responsibility. A number of politicians as well as a number of religious leaders from around the world because they thought that there was already a short coming in the Declaration of Human Rights, because it was lacking the element of responsibility. We badly lack it and badly need it. None of the European countries accepted it. Here it comes in that religions tell you more about your responsibilities than your rights. They ease the way to responsibility.”

This last point was important because it brings a reality check to all those who espouse the superiority of Western Democracies and to those who are all too comfortable in the way things are presently.  It brings up a real fault that Muslims who are pondering this question and this puzzle should contemplate over and learn from.  It is also one of the reasons why in our materialistic, consumerist societies people are so apathetic and self-absorbed in the attitude of “who cares,” and “it doesn’t affect me so why should I bother with it.”  Balance is non-existant, and as the Faith of Balance we must promote both rights and responsibilites and not over emphasize one over the other.  This is dangerous and there needs to be a rejuvenation of self-criticism in the West on these issues.  One instance of this manifesting itself in the recent past was over the Danish Cartoon controversy, which highlighted these issues.