Islam, democracy not incompatible

By Abdullahi A. Gallab,1249,595051051,00.html

Is Islam compatible with democracy?

The short answer is "yes."

But since nobody is interested in the short answer, I

will go for the long one.

The tragic events of Sept. 11 made Islam a globally

debated topic. Muslims from all ranks and different

parts of the world condemned the attacks.

Nevertheless, many scholars, politicians, journalists

and evangelists in the United States have been

building on a "clash of civilizations" ideology.

Samuel Huntington asserts, for instance, that "Western

ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism,

human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law,

democracy and the separation of church and state have

little resonance" in Islamic culture. The Rev.

Franklin Graham has condemned the entire faith of

Islam as "wicked, violent and not the same as God."


For such people, no positive relation could ever be

found between Islam and democracy or civilization.

Islam stands as separate culture.


In focusing on the compatibility between Islam and

democracy, we first need to define what Islam is. The

word itself signifies the believer's "move toward

God," a feeling of being promoted to a higher

existence. But Islam also has another meaning. The

Quran commands Muslims to "Say: we believe in Allah,

and the revelation given to us, and Abraham, Ismail,

Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and that given to Moses

and Jesus. . . . We make no different between one and

another of them: and we submit to Allah." (2:136).


This primary Islamic disposition is a fundamental

foundation for plurality.


The first Islamic state was established in Medina in

622. In the Constitution of Medina, Jewish tribes

living in the town entered a pact as free and equal

partners, enjoying their religious autonomy and full

human rights. Since that time, Islam has encountered

various religious communities east and west during its

fast expansion. Muslims have been able to establish

constitutions of interfaith relations in conformity

with their own worldview and in accordance with their



According to Muslim understanding, "democratic

civility" is seen as a reproduction of the Islamic

concepts of "shurah" (consultation), "ijima"

(consensus ) and "ijtihad" (independent interpretive



The Quran laid down the principle of "shurah" to guide

the community's decisionmaking process.


The "ijima" adds another dimension by asserting that

the principles of pluralism are compatible with divine



Moreover, differences of opinion, which could come out

of "ijtihad," do not affect the eternal essence of the



When Abu Bakr al-Siddiq was sworn in as the caliph and

successor of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 C.E., he

addressed the people saying: "O people. I was

entrusted as your ruler, although I am not better than

any of you. Support me as you see me following the

right path and correct me when you see me going

astray. Obey me as long as I observe God in your

affairs. If I disobey Him, you owe me no obedience.

The weak among you are powerful (in my eyes) until I

get them their due. The powerful among you are weak

(in my eyes) until I take away from them what is due



These brief reflections show that Islam began with a

certain type of democratic civility.


In closing, I quote a paragraph from an article

written by Dale Eickelman titled, "Islam and Ethical

Pluralism." He argues, "Some contemporary Muslim

intellectuals argue that Islam offers a timeless

precedent of peace, harmony, hope, justice and

tolerance, not for Muslims but also for mankind."


Of course all this is not conclusive in addressing the

issue of compatibility. But revealing the universal

issues of our common humanity might be a significant

"movement from inside to outside."


It calls for opening doors and windows.


Thus, we could find an opportunity for human

togetherness as Islam and democracy find a comfort


Abdullahi A. Gallab, former director-general of

Information in the Sudan, teaches in the sociology

department at Brigham Young University.


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