Is democracy compatible with Islam? This question has bedevilled Pakistan since its formation. There is still widespread confusion. Pakistan was carved out of British India as a homeland for Muslims. It is an ‘Islamic Republic’ and as such there is a need for a clear understanding of the Islamic concept of government.
But before getting to the Islamic concept of government, it is useful to get a clearer understanding of democracy. The term, as we understand it today, is largely the form given to it by the French Revolution: A government by the entire adult population through its elected representatives on the basis of ‘one person, one vote’ with the objective of enabling socio-economic equality for all people.
This, however, is not the concept held by the ancient Greeks who originated the term. To them democracy – the rule of and by the people – implied a much more oligarchic form of government. In their city states, the ‘people’ were free born citizens of the state. These were never more than ten percent of the population. The rest – slaves and serfs – had no civic rights and, of course, were not eligible to vote.
The point here is to appreciate that at different times in history democracy has not always meant the same thing. The general principle has been that those who rule should be elected by the population or some subsection of it. This rules out some forms of government such as monarchy and dictatorships, but at the same time does not limit the forms that democracy itself can take.
Any discussion of the ‘Islamic’ form of government requires that there be a clear understanding of the sources of Islamic jurisprudence. The first of these is the Quran. The second, is what is referred to as the Sunnah – these are the words (Hadith) and deeds (Aa’mal) of the Prophet.
Unlike the Quran, which was committed to writing at the time it was revealed, the Hadith were largely held as oral tradition. The process of collecting, collating and transcribing the Hadith started early in the 2nd Hijrah century and continued well into the 3rd. This is when scholars such as Bokhari and Muslim competed their ground breaking ‘Sahihs’.
Of these two sources of legislation – The Quran and the Sunnah – absolute authority belongs only to the Quran. And from these two sources is derived the Shariah which is the general legal framework by which Musilms live.
The Shariah, given its generality, does not cover the full spectrum of human activity and is not intended to. Like a constitution, it lays down a general framework – guidelines and boundaries – which form the basis for broader legislation. This broader legislation, collectively known as Fiqh, has been developed by generations of scholars to respond to the needs of their people. Each succeeding generation adding or modifying the law in response to the needs and circumstances of the age.
The Shariah, given its divine origin, is timeless and not subject to change. But the Fiqh clearly must change over time to remain relevant as societies, knowledge, and technology progress. This brings us to the concept known as Ijtihaad. Derived from the Arabic verb Ijtahada meaning literally to strive or to endeavour, Ijtihaad is the deduction of statutory laws – Fiqh – based on and consistent with the overriding principles of the Shariah. Wherever the Shariah is silent, and it is silent on many issues, Fiqh steps in to fill the gap.
It is important to appreciate that Fiqh, as a deductive process, is by definition a matter of opinion. One scholar’s opinion may differ from another. This does not mean that one of them is necessarily wrong but rather may reflect a difference of perspective, or timing, or differing geographies or other economic and social circumstances.
One of the areas in which the Shariah is indeed silent is on the specific form of government that Muslims should select for themselves. But it has not left us without guidance on the general parameters of such a government. The overarching general principle on designing a system is contained in the Quran (verse 38, Surat Ash-Shura):
أَمْرُهُمْ شُورَىٰ بَيْنَهُمْ
This is transliterated as “amru hum shura baina hum“. In translation it means “Their (the Muslims) communal business (amr) is to be (transacted in) consultation among themselves”
This verse makes clear that all communal matters, including the manner in which a government must be set up and run, is by consultation amongst Muslims. Consultation then is the fundamental underlying principle in the setting up of any Islamic government. What specific form such consultation takes has been left to Muslims to determine, depending on the time and circumstances in which they live. A general election of the sort held in Pakistan is a form of such ‘consultation’ but by no means the only possible form.
The four rightly guided Caliphs were all appointed by some form of consultation. The first Caliph Abu Bakr, was elected by tribal chiefs of both the Muhajirs and Ansar present in Medina at the time of the Prophet’s death. On his death bead, Abu Bakr nominated Umar as the next Caliph. This was subsequently ratified by the community – what in today’s terminology would be termed an election. Umar did not nominate a successor. Instead he proposed an ‘electorate’ of six of the Prophet’s closest companions who were to select the next Caliph. They agreed on Uthman as the 3rd Caliph. Following Uthman’s death, Ali was proclaimed Caliph by the congregation at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Following this the majority of the population pledged their loyalty to Ali.
It becomes clear then that in the early stages of Islam there was no prescibed single way to appoint a ruler. In fact the method of each appointment differed from that which came before. Yet all the methods were in conformance with the Quranic injunction:‘amruhum shura baina hum.’ Perhaps the Divine Wisdom intended to show Muslims that they were not limited to a single method.
It also becomes clear that, at least in the appointment of the first four Caliphs, ‘consultation’ did not extend to all people rather it was limited to a relatively small group of community leaders. While the overarching principle ofamru hum shura baina humdoes not impose such a limit, the exigency of the moment, and the need to have a leader in place promptly, may well have been on the minds of community leaders.
There is another factor that may also have influenced the leaders to seek a limited consultation. Let’s understand that these were people who were companions of the Prophet. They knew him well. At the same time they were bearers of the Quran. Many of them had memorized the whole revelation. Others had been assigned by the Prophet to transcribe verses as they were revealed to him. They had an understanding of the Quran and the Sunnah that would be hard if not impossible to replicate today.
And so they knew the multiple references that the Quran makes about the importance of wisdom, knowledge and reason. The term ulu al-albab (ألو الألباب) meaning owners or possessors of wisdom, appears in no less than 16 verses. And then there is verse 19 of Surat Faatir:
مَا يَسْتَوِي الْأَعْمَىٰ وَالْبَصِيرُ
Translation: “Those who are blind are not as those who see.” And the blindness here is not that of the eyes, rather that of hearts and minds.
Consider also verse 9 of Surat Az-Zumar which poses the rhetorical question:
هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Translation: “Are those who have knowledge the same as those who do not?”
These references could not have been lost on community leaders whenever they sought to appoint a new leader for the Islamic state. And so they thought it imperative that consultation be limited to those who did have knowledge and wisdom – the ulu albab, and to those who could ‘see’.
From the foregoing it becomes clear that ‘democracy’, defined as a process of consultation, is the central principle of an Islamic system of government. And further that there is no defined or preferred way to conduct this consultation. Rather the matter has been left to Muslims to determine what is fit for the circumstances of the age in which they live.
As Muslims, in our increasingly embattled Islamic Republic of Pakistan, we have done well to have a democratic system broadly consistent with the Shariah. However, where perhaps we have erred is to extend the ‘consultation’ to the entire population. In doing so we have, one, not taken into consideration ground realities such as illiteracy, feudalism, and pir fakiri; elements that take away the freedom of vast swathes of the population to vote as they would like. And two, declined to take advantage of the flexibility offered by the Shariah to tailor our ‘consultancy’ process to our needs.
This is how we must now modify our democracy to make it work: The misconceived ‘one person, one vote’ principle must go. In its place the vote should only be given to those who do have knowledge and are free to vote as they choose. This could, for example, be all those who have passed matriculation. Or, a higher standard could be applied, such as all those who are college graduates. Such a change need not be permanent. It can be kept in place as long as needed to bring widespread literacy and to end feudalism and pir fakiri.
And by choosing to exercise this flexibility given to us by the Shariah in designing our system of government we will finally rid ourselves of the curse of the usual culprits: Those who compel, coerce and fighten the illiterate and underprivileged to vote them into the assemblies. We have seen their corruption and supreme incompetence in bringing Pakistan to its knees. It is now time to send them home. And in doing so achieve on of the central objectives of the Shariah which is to put the best of our people in charge of our affairs.
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