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Islam Islam And The Challenge Of Democracy

Jun 1, 2004
40 Quarterly Issue No.17, August 2004 [font=times new roman, Georgia, verdana]Islam and the Challenge of Democracy

Yoginder Sikand

The relationship between Islam and democracy is a much discussed and hotly debated issue. Given the diverse understandings of democracy and Islam, the answer to the question of the compatibility between the two is not a straightforward one. As Khaled Abou El Fadl makes clear in his absorbing book Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, Islam and democracy are not singularly defined concepts, and the quest for reconciling the two must necessarily entail exploring the plurality of understandings of both. Anti- and pro-democratic versions of Islam exist and compete with each other, he suggests, and the task before the concerned believer today is to promote socially engaged visions of the faith that are grounded in the quest for human rights and social justice.

The first section of the book consists of a lengthy essay by El Fadl, where he seeks to develop a democratic understanding of Islam. At the very outset he warns that he does not argue that democracy is an invention of Islam or of Muslims, as some Muslim writers indeed do. Rather, his claim is more modest, in that he contends that Islam can indeed be interpreted in such a manner as to support democracy. In the process of developing such an understanding of Islam, he seeks to counter radical Islamists as well as hardened Islamophobes, both of whom, using the argument of God as sovereign law-giver in Islam, insist that Islam is antithetical to democracy.

El Fadl argues that while God is indeed the sovereign master of the universe, He has provided humans with a limited, derived sovereignty of their own in their capacity of His deputies or khulafa. Further, Islam envisages a limited form of government, the rule of law, consensual decision making through shura’, toleration of dissent and difference and accountability of rulers to the people. It also stresses the centrality of basic ethical values, particularly social justice (‘adl) and respect for the rights of the ‘creatures of God’ (huquq al-‘ibad), which, in turn, resonate with many contemporary notions of human rights.

Islam, El Fadl points out, allows for the use of human reason to devise, through the process of ijtihad, laws in areas on which the shari‘ah is silent. He also highlights the importance of notions of maslaha or the ‘public good’ and ahkam al-shari‘ah or ‘expediency laws’ in developing new understandings of fiqh to suit changing social contexts. This is particularly crucial for him, as for many other modernist Muslim writers, with regard to the legal status of women and non-Muslims, whom he insists should be treated as the absolute equals of Muslim males. The crux of El Fadl’s essay, then, is to draw the parallels between democracy and Islam as he defines it. He is of course aware that his own interpretation of Islam is not normative and that it can be contested, being only one among many. He admits that all interpretations of Islam are human constructs, and none can be held to represent the absolute divine will, which is actually beyond human comprehension. This is why he is opposed to the notion of an ‘Islamic state’ charged with the task of imposing the shari‘ah. As he explains, to do so would be to confuse a limited human understanding of Islam with God’s will, which, in turn, is tantamount to the grave sin of putting up partners with God (shirk). Furthermore, he argues that a state that sees itself as the deputy of the divine will would soon, and inevitably, degenerate into an instrument of authoritarianism and oppression.

Copyright©2004 Yoginder Sikand. About the author


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