Islam and Democracy

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A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy

Fethullah Gulen has spent much of his life as a religious teacher in Turkey. He is author of more than forty books, most of them best-sellers in Turkey, and his writing appears regularly in Turkish journals. This article was translated from Turkish by Elvan Ceylan.

Religion, particularly Islam, has become one of the most difficult subject areas to tackle in recent years. Contemporary culture, whether approached from the perspective of anthropology or theology, psychology or psychoanalysis, evaluates religion with empirical methods. On the one hand, religion is an inwardly experienced and felt phenomenon, one mostly related to life’s permanent aspects. On the other believers can see their religion as a philosophy, a set of rational principles, or mere mysticism. The difficulty increases in the case of Islam, for some Muslims and policy-makers consider and present it as a purely political, sociological, and economic ideology, rather than as a religion.

If we want to analyze religion, democracy, or any other system or philosophy accurately, we should focus on humanity and human life. From this perspective, religion in general and Islam in particular cannot be compared on the same basis with democracy or any other political, social, or economic system. Religion focuses primarily on the immutable aspects of life and existence, whereas political, social, and economic systems or ideologies concern only certain variable, social aspects of our worldly life.

The aspects of life with which religion is primarily concerned are as valid today as they were at the dawn of humanity and will continue to be so in the future. Worldly systems change according to circumstances and so can be evaluated only according to their times. Belief in God, the hereafter, the prophets, the holy books, angels, and divine destiny have nothing to do with changing times. Likewise, worship and morality’s universal and unchanging standards have little to do with time and worldly life.

Therefore, when comparing religion or Islam with democracy, we must remember that democracy is a system that is being continually developed and revised. It also varies according to the places and circumstances where it is practiced. On the other hand, religion has established immutable principles related to faith, worship and morality. Thus, only Islam’s worldly aspects should be compared with democracy.

The main aim of Islam and its unchangeable dimensions affect its rules governing the changeable aspects of our lives. Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government or attempt to shape it. Instead, Islam establishes fundamental principles that orient a government’s general character, leaving it to the people to choose the type and form of government according to time and circumstances. If we approach the matter in this light and compare Islam with today’s modern liberal democracy, we will better understand the position of Islam and democracy with respect to each other.

Democratic ideas stem from ancient times. Modern liberal democracy was born in the American (1776) and French Revolutions (1789-99). In democratic societies, people govern themselves as opposed to being ruled by someone above. The individual has priority over the community in this type of political system, being free to determine how to live his or her own life. Individualism is not absolute, though. People achieve a better existence by living within a society and this requires that they adjust and limit their freedom according to the criteria of social life.

The Prophet says that all people are as equal as the teeth of a comb.(1) Islam does not discriminate based on race, color, age, nationality, or physical traits. The Prophet declared: “You are all from Adam, and Adam is from earth. O servants of God, be brothers [and sisters].”(2) Those who are born earlier, have more wealth and power than others, or belong to certain families or ethnic groups have no inherent right to rule others.

Islam also upholds the following fundamental principles:

1. Power lies in truth, a repudiation of the common idea that truth relies upon power.

2. Justice and the rule of law are essential.

3. Freedom of belief and rights to life, personal property, reproduction, and health (both mental and physical) cannot be violated.

4. The privacy and immunity of individual life must be maintained.

5. No one can be convicted of a crime without
evidence, or accused and punished for someone else’s crime.

6. An advisory system of administration is essential.

All rights are equally important, and an individual’s right cannot be sacrificed for society’s sake. Islam considers a society to be composed of conscious individuals equipped with free will and having responsibility toward both themselves and others. Islam goes a step further by adding a cosmic dimension. It sees humanity as the “motor” of history, contrary to fatalistic approaches of some of the nineteenth century Western philosophies of history such as dialectical materialism and historicism.(3) Just as every individual’s will and behavior determine the outcome of his or her life in this world and in the hereafter, a society’s progress or decline is determined by the will, world-view, and lifestyle of its inhabitants. The Qur’an (13:11) says: “God will not change the state of a people unless they change themselves [with respect to their beliefs, world-view, and lifestyle].” In other words, each society holds the reins of its fate in its own hands. The prophetic tradition emphasizes this idea: “You will be ruled according to how you are.”(4) This is the basic character and spirit of democracy, which does not conflict with any Islamic principle.

Gulen, Fethullah. Fountain Magazine. Issue 37 / January – March 2002