Is Democracy Compatible with Islam?

Is Democracy Compatible with Islam?

Some people are under the impression that democracy and Islam are incompatible. But I don’t see any contradiction between democracy and Islam. Though I admit, there is some friction between Islam and liberalism. When we say that there is a contradiction between Islam and democracy, we make a category mistake which is a very serious logical fallacy. We must be precise about the definitions of the terms that we employ.


Democracy is simply a representative political system that ensures representation, accountability, the right of the electorate to vote governments in and vote governments out. In this sense when we use the term democracy we mean a multi-party representative political system that confers legitimacy upon a government which comes to power through an election process which is a contest between more than one political parties, to ensure that it is voluntary. Thus democracy is nothing more than a multi-party political system.


But some of us romantics get carried away in their boundless enthusiasm and ascribe meanings to the words that are quite subjective and fallacious. Some will hyphenate it with liberalism and call it a liberal-democracy while others will call it an informed or enlightened democracy. In my opinion the only correct epithet of democracy is representative-democracy. There is a big difference between democracy and liberalism. Democracy falls under the category of politics while liberalism falls in the category of culture. And we don’t want to mix politics and culture together because it will give us a toxic blend which is an anathema to some of our core sensibilities.



Religion is roughly a sub-category of culture and it will be a violation of the tenets of secularism to involve religion/culture in the political matters. Politics must strictly be about allocation of resources, i.e. economics and any mention to culture, religion or value-system must offend our liberal sensibilities and secular aesthetics.


Puns aside, some people use the term democratic culture, what do they mean by it? It could mean anything from the fairytale of Romeo and Juliet to a belief in Santa and from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs. But does democratic culture means aliberal culture? Liberal as in more open-minded, understanding and tolerant? Tolerant in way that Democrats tolerate the Republicans and the Tea Party questions the birthplace and secret faith of Obama?


In my opinion, a democratic culture only means following certain established conventions and rules of the game. Like holding free and fair elections, congratulating each other on getting elected in a sportsmanly fashion, keeping militaries firmly under the heel of the civilian authority (ostensibly), burying our heads in the sand when it comes to the paramount business interests who control us all, and other such pretenses which are a hallmark of marketing-based neoliberal democracy.
After casting sufficient aspersions on mature democracies and bringing the ideal role-model down a few notches, let us now talk about the nascent democracies of the Arab Spring. The realities of the Arab and Islamic world fall well short of the ideal liberal-democratic model of our wishful thinking in a solipsistic Universe. But there is a lot to be optimistic about. When the revolutions happened in Tunisia and Egypt and before the Spring turned into an abysmal winter in Libya, some of the Leftist dreamers weren’t too cheerful about it.


Unlike the socialist revolutions of 60s and 70s when visionaries used to have a magic wand of bringing about a fundamental structural change that will heal all our wounds and culminate into an equitable distribution of resources overnight, the neoliberal revolutions of today are merely a step in the right direction that will usher the Arab and the Islamic world into an era of relative peace and progress.


These revolutions are not led by Gamal Abdul Nassers, Zulfikar Ali Bhuttos, Jawahar Lal Nehrus and other charismatic socialist messiahs that the utopian thinkers are so fond of. But these revolutions are the grassroots movements of a society in a transition from an abject stagnant state towards a dynamic representative future. Let’s be clear about one thing first and foremost, Ennahda (Tunisian “Islamist” political party) and Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) will follow the same old economic model of Ben Ali and Mubarak. It’s a growth-based neoliberal model as opposed to an equality-based socialist model. Does it takes the wind out of our sails?


It does, because Free Market Darwinism is the order of the day and nobody wants to emulate Castro’s Cuba and Bhutan’s gross domestic happiness anymore. If you have a better economic model, implement it first in the developed world and the developing world will follow the suit. But the developing world can ill afford to experiment with the whims of the intellectuals and unempirical advice of the well-meaning albeit naïve ideologues. (Note on the term Islamist: Most people use this term incorrectly.


In the mainstream media even Erdogan’s party is referred to as an Islamist party. In politics we should only use the well defined terms such as conservative, moderate and liberal. We don’t label the Western conservative political parties as Christianity-inspired then why do we label the conservative parties of Islamic countries as Islamist? It creates a preconceived bias in the mind of a reader and he forms a negative opinion about such parties which are at a forefront of democratic movements in the middle east these days. Those who employ such counter-intuitive and reductive terms to describe the Arab Spring phenomena have an anti-democratic temperament and agenda.)


Developed economies must now focus their attention on social justice/equality. While the developing third world economies with large populations and scant resources must make economic growth their foremost goal. It’s because poverty in the developed world is only relative while poverty in the third world countries is absolute. We donot have poverty in the developed world, that’s not poverty as in wants, that is only a relative inequality. There are only two classes in the developed world, the rich and the middle class.


I could be wrong but I have seen millions of my poor compatriots who go to the rich countries on work visas, they do menial jobs there, make money not only for themselves but they also manage to send their savings to their poor families back home. As long as you are working, you can’t be poor in the developed world. Their problem is only employment. Our problem is employment as well as inflation. Even those who are employed cannot make ends meet. Your poverty is only a state of mind and a lack of conditioning to your environment and circumstances. Get over it or get even with it.Your Business Roundtables who represent the net wealth of $6 trillion (6000 billion) don’t exploit you, they exploit the poor of the third world. The poverty in the third world countries is not relative, it’s absolute and abject. I wish I had pictures who could speak a thousand words but here is a rough stat.


Imagine spending a month (four weeks) on 70 dollars. That’s the minimum wage in Pakistan. Natural empathy is only a contagious empathy. It is provoked only when we see something gross happening before our eyes. Movies, pictures and words don’t provoke the similar kind of emotional response to the environmental stimuli. We often overlook what’s happening right in front of our eyes and fail to realize it’s significance.


Realization is the key. Our minds are quarantined into our rich countries, segregated suburbs, affluent neighborhoods and equivalent social circles. If you are unsympathetic and the only interest that you care about is your self-interest, I don’t think I can convince you,
nobody can.


Coming back to the topic, what will the Arab Spring revolutions achieve when the resultant democratic governments will follow the same old neoliberal, growth-centered economic policies? Democracy is not the best of systems because it is the most efficient political system. Top-down authoritarian dictatorships are more efficient than democracies. But democracy is a representative political system.


Democracy brings about a grassroots social change. Enfranchisement, representation, transparency, accountability, checks and balances, rule of law and the consequent institution-building, nation-building and consistent long-term policies are the hallmarks of a representative democracy. Are these achievements any less significant compared to the goal of social justice and radical redistribution of resources?


We can’t live in a fool’s paradise. We must accept realities as they are, even if they don’t quite get to our ideal utopian goal. But utopias don’t exist in the real world. It’s just some theoretical, unempirical, unscientific theories that the likes of Plato and Marx dupe us into believing.


Kant said that moral autonomy produces moral responsibility and maturity. I think this dictum also applies to politics and governance. Political autonomy and self-governance lead to political responsibility and social maturity. A top-down political system is dependent on the artificial, external force that keeps it going. The moment you remove the force, the society will revert back to it’s old ways and the system will collapse. But a grassroots bottom-up political system evolves naturally and intrinsically. We must not expect from the Arab Spring revolutions to produce results immediately. The evolution of Western culture happened over a course of many centuries. And we are not willing to give Ennahda and Ikhwan a single term in office to prove their mettle.
We must not judge people, political parties and cultures by their putative intentions. We shouldn’t even judge them by their words and incoherent manifestoes and theories. The reality is always too complex to be explained in words or pronounced neatly in reductive theories. We must judge people by their actions. We must be patient and give them time to get their orientation right. It is the best thing that has ever happened to the Middle East and the Islamic World. The revolutions of 60s and 70s only mobilized the elite classes. Some
working classes may have been involved. But the elite don’t understand the workers (except as supervisors in their factories) and the workers are often misled by the elite.


Like I argued earlier, democracy falls under the category of politics and liberalism falls in the category of culture. There is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. But some friction between Islam and liberalism. Let them have a democratic representative political system first. Let them get their orientation right. Let them create their institutions first, because institution-building takes time. These are the short and intermediate term steps that we must take to qualify as tolerant and pragmatic individuals. We donot tolerate things that we already like. We only tolerate things that we dislike. If we, the so-called educated folks, cannot tolerate them, how can we expect from them, the so-called Jahils, to tolerate us?


In the long term some cultural change is also a possibility. If our liberal values are based on merit, then it is the nature of social evolution to adopt the traits that are beneficial to their hosts. It is equally possible that we may adopt a few good values from their culture. But we cannot expect such a transformation happening in one or two terms in the office. It will at least take a generation or two.


Instead of aiming for a liberal democracy, a pragmatic mind will aim only for a representative democracy in the context of MENA and the Islamic World, at least in the short term. Let Ennahda and Ikhwan enjoy a few terms in the office. In the meantime, liberals should get their act together, create and build a liberal political party and contest the elections. Pulling the leg of the conservative democrats in such a precarious situation will only strengthen the hand of the undemocratic forces. And we will get back to the square one.


Finally and in the nutshell, if the Arab Spring is not about the radical redistribution of wealth or creating a liberal-democratic system in the Middle East and the Islamic World overnight, what is it about then? Let me explain it by an allegory. Democracy is like a school and people are like children. We only have two choices. One, keep the people under the paternalistic dictatorships. Two, enroll them in the school of representative democracy and let them experience democracy as a lived reality rather than some stale, sterile theory.
The first option will only produce half-witted dwarfs. But the second option will produce an educated human resource that doesn’t just consumes resources but also creates new resources. We are on a historic juncture in the Middle East and North Africa in particular and the Islamic world in general. This is the beginning of a new era. This is the beginning of an Islamic Renaissance and Enlightenment.


Nauman Sadiq

An attorney and contributor for The News/Geo blogs


    “Zubaan-e khalq ko naqqaaraye Khoda sumjho”.

    Those who say Islam and Democracy are incompatible — are Islamofascists. .

  • Bader

    Sir, I think you don’t have much understanding about the terms such as Islamism, conservatism or liberalism. Your article contains many mistakes as far as sociological and anthropological perspective of these terms is concerned.

  • M.Saeed

    According to Benjamin Franklin, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”.
    It can explains that, a true Democracy is yet to be born

    Wise men learn from history. But, this certainly is not our way to wisdom. We took no time in unlearning what our ancestors meticulously taught us for survival with pride. We forgot without realizing that Khalifa (Caliph) Umar ibn Al-Khittab was the pioneer of basic human rights and his charter of government has been silently accepted and adopted by the world. Michael H. Hart’s has accepted this fact in his book titled: “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History”. In the ranking list compiled by Hart, Umar ibn Al-Khittab is listed at 52nd place, due to his highly successful system of Governance considered the best so far in the human history and the basic starting point of modern democratic governance. It has been adapted in various democracies of the world today but, the unyielding biased against Islam, West would never allow even a remote reference, not to talk of giving any credit to Caliph Umar.
    Presently ongoing Crusade against Islam by painting it a “Terrorist Religion” is a major part of their sinister plan. They know from their own research, as sufficiently disclosed in various historic papers that, Islam is the “Ultimate Religion” of the world. Therefore, they are employing all crooked means and oblique practices that their “terrified” minds can conceive, to “delay” the obvious already predicted by their own realists.

  • asim

    hi mr nauman you should read quran and shariah and then write ur comments about democracy.politics is not sekparate from islam and whatever kind of democracy you describe without theocracy i.e,the final law is from quran and sunnah.
    if people will start use their own observation to deny rule of islam or in other words to make laws against islam with a sucess rate of more than half in parliament that against theocracy and islam.hope this might be helpfull.thanks

  • Worldly life is illusion

    As the word suggests, Democracy is just for ‘Demo’, and Islam is about everything this life and hereafter..

  • SAm586

    A very good Point you have raised here, we need to think little bit Broadway to solve this problem and first thing that we need to do is to educate our society. As you know this blogs can only read by you and me but not the low level person who don’t have internet access. But again i would like to say in our society we need to change the mind set of the people the educated person,its all about the mind set of society.

  • Najeeb A Khan

    Debatable article

  • tuglag

    There is no compatibility between democracy and Islam.
    1. Democracy means, people will decide who will rule in what way. Islam means rules Chalipha will rule and terms of rule are predefined by quran.
    2. Democracy means change as per need of time, situation and demand. Islam says no.
    3. Democracy means, all are equal no matter what race, cast or religion you are of. Islam says no.

    • Silvya Mousa

      Your ignorance is scary..

  • Sabeen

    There is a difference between the two (Islam & Democracy). we have to follow the guidelines preached by our Prophet S.A.W.W and in that we can not use our wish list but in democracy we can say and do what we want. but then it does not means that we should forget our Islamic ideology. there are lots of Islamic books available @ . if we are not sure about anything its better to look up for solutions rather than applying our guesstimates.

  • Tahir

    Politics is to manage and control the state and the public, for the purpose the politicians make Law. On the other hand for what the religion stands? It depends in which context are you taking the religion.
    First of all, the word religion is not at all equivalent to the arabic word “DEEN”. Religion and Politics can be mutually exclusive for the western minds but for the Muslims DEEN & POLITICS are not mutually exclusive. Islam is not that religion as the religion dominantly defined by the western school of thought.
    DEEN e ISLAM also has its own set of laws in different walks of life. The politics in Islam should obey the tenets of Islam, just like any economical system adopted by the Muslims must be interest free, and so on. Politics cannot be done keeping Islam aside, likewise Deen can never be implemented or practiced without politics. JUDA HO DEEN SIYASAT SAE TU REH JATI HAE CHANGEZI.
    OXFOR DICTIONARY of POLITICS says “Theoritically there is no difference between religion and politics in Islam.”
    As far the adoption of any political system is concerned ISLAM emphasizes PEACE & JUSTICE not the political system itself. Where is peace and justice in the contemporary Muslim world? We need peace and jusitce whether its through dictatorship, democracy or by Caliphate. Unfortunately our masters (WEST) just spins the matter playing democracy democracy just like saying kabaddi kabaddi to cheat the opponents. GUYS seek JUSTICE & PEACE.

  • Khalid

    If non Muslims are financially weak then they are not liable for any tax.Indeed The Islamin Estate is responsible for well being of all it’s citizens regardless of their religion.This is also to note that even Khalifa is not above the law and answerable for his actions and decisions by Muslims. Do not try to confuse with baseless comments. Any any Muslim who thinks Sharia is incompatible today must review his Iman.We can,t even see whether the person who is leaving comment is Muslim or not anyway.

  • Anonymous

    Isolating democracy from culture doesn’t fit with reality . If politics is al about allocation of resources then economics should be devoid of all ‘cultural’ hues such as capitalist or socialist.

    Is not the whole game about making ones own cultural values the dominant ones – democracy is just a tool in pushing whatever cultural being promoted. Consider the National Socialist Party and that Hitler too could claim democratic platform.

    Liberalism and Islam are probably not as far apart as the writer fears – just need to open up ijtihad and arrive at a consensus in light of the Quran only in some matters. A reference to Voltaire would be apt for regardless of wether he would have disagreed with what you sayhe would have surely defended to the death your right to say it.

  • Noor

    anybody committing a crime should face the music, as our dearest Prophet PBUH said that He was ready to cut the hands of his own daughter if she had committed theft.

    I don’t understand the actual problem, whether we don’t have belief in Islamic verdicts or we are Muslims just in the name.

  • Noor

    I wonder what will be your reaction if your daughter or sister commits adltery out of her love for one of your enemies, and defies your instructions.

    We are very much apt at behaving one way for a crime committed by friends & behave another way if it is a stranger.

  • saifullah

    For the DEMOCRACY lovers.. just take a look around our 65 years history and examine the democracy yourself.. truth will be unleashed.. and go about 1400 years ago, see the government of Hazrat Muhammad S.a.w.w. , Abu bakar siddiq R.A., Umer Farooq R.A., Usman R.A., Ali bin Talib R.A., ETC… you will find a great difference.. and decision is in your hand..

  • saifullah

    can you state any example of elections organized by Holy prophet p.b.u.h.?? or abu bakar r.a., umer r.a., usman r.a., ali r.a. etc were elected by any election??

  • Anonymous

    It depends on what kind of democracy you want. If it is to be a liberal democracy (majority rule, as in modern democratic countries) focusing egalitarianism than it definitely goes against Islamic teachings since Islam teaches egalitarianism in spiritual realm, not in material realm (in material realm a strict hierarchical society is to be maintained at all level from family to mosque with loyalty, obedience and submission to Allah, whereas liberal democracies promote freedom and equality). However if democracy is to be taken as a mean to determine general will and let it influence policy and law making strictly under the principles set forth by Allah (SWT) than it is ordained by Islam since it is necessary for justice and progress :D .

  • Anonymous

    In other words, a totalitarian democracy would be compatible to enforce a theme of Islamic principles in social, political and economic life of the nation whereas a liberal democracy will eventually eradicate Islam :D .