The Response to Democracy in Islamic Contemporary World:
A Brief Overview of Moslem Intellectuals’ Discourse
By: Ahmad Sabiq
PPI Netherlands [Den Haag]
The issue of whether Islam is compatible to democracy has been widely debated for decades. It is an interesting object to observe because there are some influential observers especially in the western world who still do not believe that Islam has values which are in favor of democracy. They simply judged that Islam is against democracy. For example, Huntington (1996) believes that Islamic civilization cannot easily coexist with democracy. How intellectuals in Islamic world actually respond to democracy, however, hasn’t been commonly acknowledged. According to Esposito (1992) the Muslim world is not ideologically monolithic. There are varied spectrum of conservative and progressive tendencies in Islam, including new movements seeking to reconcile religious resurgence and democratization (Esposito and Voll, 1996). As a consequence, the respond to democracy in the contemporary Islamic world is complex. Within this back ground this essay will present the respond to democracy in the present-day Moslem intellectual discourse. It will also first elaborate the historical concept of democracy itself in a short overview.
Democracy: A Brief Outlook
Democracy is originally a western word. It comes from the Greek words demos and cratein used the first time by the Greek Historian Herodotus (Holden, 1993). Demos means people and cratein means to rule or to govern. In short, democracy is the government of the people. Nowadays, the term democracy has been widely accepted by all governments in the world. Even the authoritarian governments use democracy as an attribute of their regimes. As a result, the use of the word democracy has spread out and every government has given a label to it, such as liberal democracy, popular democracy, social democracy and so on. In addition, this phenomenon is also happening on individual level. Currently, almost everybody pretends to be a democrat (Held, 1995).
For the first time, the idea of democracy referred to a political form in which people in Greece have the right to deploy political power. It was also related to direct democracy---a kind of democracy in which a political decision is determined by people meeting together. At that time, democracy was used to resist a government which is led by one person (monarchy) or a group which has privilege (aristocracy) and the bad forms of those two systems of government— tyranny and oligarchy (Bagus,1996). Then this word developed and later was giving a meaning like what the American President Abraham Lincoln said “government of the people, by the people and for the people”.
However, direct democracy may only happen in a small group of people like what happened in the ancient Greece. It can not be implemented anymore these days, in the modern world. Because, democracy has progressively developed since the 17th centuries, started by the revolution of industry which led to French Revolution and American Revolution after the philosophers such as John Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau launched the idea of human rights and political rights. Then, the theory and form of democracy were getting closer to representative democracy. In the 18th and 19th centuries liberal democracy appeared in Europe and America. In this system, parliament was used to represent people to articulate their opinion. And, the decision was drawn up based on the voice of majority. Election was held regularly, every adult have right to vote and they have freedom to establish counter organizations because minority group was recognized as an important thing within democracy (Koswantini, 1988).
Intellectuals’ Response to Democracy: An Islamic Overview
In relation to democracy, according to Esposito and Piscatori there are three political paradigms in Islamic thoughts (Sihbudi, 1993). The first is the paradigm which belongs to intellectuals who think that Islam is inherently democratic. The second paradigm belongs to intellectuals who reject democracy. The last belongs to intellectuals who agree that there are principles of democracy in Islam although they also admit that there are differences as well between them.
It has been argued by intellectuals who belong to the first paradigm that Islam is democratic not only due to the principal of syura (mutual consultation) but also the concept of ijtihad (independent reasoning) and ijma’ (consensus). Iqbal—a famous poet from India—was obviously in favor of democracy. He said that democracy is the most important aspect of Islam as a political ideal (Ma’arif, 1996). According to him there are two views in Islam related to democracy. Firstly, the rule of God is the highest law and secondly, it requires the absolute equality among the members of the community. Another intellectual, Rahman tried to correlate democracy with the basic views of Koran and the historical inheritance during Prophet Mohammad period (Ma’arif, 1996). He stated that for the first time the idea of syura didn’t come from Islam. It had been widely implemented by the leaders of tribes or cities in Arabia before the coming of Islam. Koran then democratized this institution and changed it from the tribe’s institution in to the community’s institution. He argued by giving one example, when the Moslems went to war in the battle of Uhud the prophet Mohammad obeyed the outcome of the syura decided by his companions. This clearly proved that the principle of democracy was implemented as a realization of the views in the Koran.
Furthermore, they strengthened this argument by giving opinion that in Islam, majlis syura—legislative body—should really represent all communities and do not discriminate between men and women so that the members of majlis syura have to be elected by both men and women in the society. Generally speaking, most intellectuals who are for democracy concluded that there is no reason why we would not accept democracy as an instrument of socio-political life.
It is the contention of the opponents of democracy that as mores and a legal system, Islam has been very complete, so that it doesn’t need any other legislation system in it including democracy. According to Abdillah (1999), there are two strong supporters of this paradigm whose views are influential. The first view came from Salih which forbids the use of the term and the concept of democracy because it means to negate the sovereignty of God on human beings. Moreover, the word democracy is not from Islamic vocabularies. Therefore it should be left out. The second view came from Turabi who tried to distinguish between syura and democracy. He thinks that although the denotative meaning of syura and democracy are the same which is public participation in deciding political problems but the connotative meaning are different. Democracy means that the highest sovereignty is located in the peoples hand while syura means that the ultimate sovereignty is in God’s hand through the revealed holy text.
The last paradigm seems to bridge the gap between the first and the second paradigm. They admitted that on the one hand, there are principles of democracy in Islam. On the other hand, they also believed that there are differences between them. Maududi, one of the leading intellectuals who are for this paradigm stated that philosophically even though Islam has the system which seems to be the same with democracy it is actually different (Sihbudi, 1993). According to him, the foundation of the western democracy tends to deny the sovereignty of God and pay more attention to the popular sovereignty. He offered a new term for his system and named it theo-democracy. It is a democratic government which has a divine quality in which the people implement their sovereignty limited by God’s sovereignty. In addition, Maududi concluded that if we have a look at the principles of the government system, Islam is very democratic. These principles include (a) the executive body is elected by the people who also have the power to bring it down (b) all administrative problems and things that are not explicitly determined by syari’ah (the Islamic legal path) are decided through consensus between Moslems (c) every Moslem who is qualified to give opinions on Islamic law is free to interpret God’s law when the interpretation is needed (Abdillah, 1999).
To conclude, the response to democracy in Islamic contemporary world varies from intellectuals to intellectuals. Even though some of them rejected the concept of democracy they did accept the principles of democracy. They meet each other on how the universal values such as justice, human rights, public participation and equality should be implemented. Those values are actually the main points of Islam as well as democracy. Therefore, although their views are still on the level of response meaning they haven’t produced the genuine concept of democracy based on Islamic perspective, what they have done is a significant contribution for the effort to deal with contemporary situation.
Ahmad Sabiq is a member of Indonesian Students Association (PPI) Den Haag, currently studying at Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Netherlands.