Masood N. Khan M.D.

It seems the world today has comfortably accepted a system of governance based upon popular votes. Though still there are pockets of autocratic rulers mostly clustered in Muslim countries, in the majority of countries in the world a democratic system of governance, essentially western in origin, is in place and has developed a track record of compatibility with the demands of the modern world with reasonable efficacy.

But this system is far from being near-perfect, much less being perfect. The premise of counting the votes in making decisions is inherently flawed and potentially dangerous. The western democracy is totally dependent on human assessment and evaluation dictated by prevailing economic, cultural and political values often with adversarial relationship with morality, not to mention popular fads and fashions. The notion that every principle of human and moral value could be subject to revision and change just by counting votes is preposterous. Its probable benefits are outweighed by significant degree of harm. In his protest against such a system which is so heavily dependent upon vote count rather than value, Iqbal was forced to indict it by declaring;

جمہویت اک طرز حكومت ہے كہ جس میں
بندوں كو گنا كرتے ہیں تولا نہیں كرتے
Democracy is a system based on headcount, not on value and substance.

Dred Scott, an African American slave, sued his master seeking his freedom after he was taken to a federally governed territory, hoping federal laws will prohibit slavery which was unchallengeable in the state courts. In a landmark judgment written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the court held that African Americans whether enslaved or free could not be American citizens and therefore could not sue in federal court. According to Taney, the authors of the Constitution had viewed all blacks as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Now for comparison, let us go back fourteen hundred years ago to a relatively primitive and tribal society in Arabia which also practiced slavery. A divinely revealed decree announced very categorically that the only criterion for nobility of a human being was righteousness not color, social status, language, ethnicity or in modern terminology ‘citizenship’. This was a land mark judgment of that time which had such a deep impact on human conduct that it forced society to move uni directional towards gradual abolition of slavery.

The examples are many where legislation passed had to be later changed, repealed or reverted back to its original version either due to popular support or lack of it. Such an uncertain and compromising approach towards moral well being of a society is unfortunately a sad part of western democracy even with its legitimate claims to justice and fairness that have provided great deal of civil protections, human rights, peace and security to a notable extent.

It is remarkable that fourteen hundred years ago in the absence of all the know-how, scientific or otherwise, available to modern man, the structure of governance called Caliphate established after the Prophet was based upon an ingenious combination of ‘selection’ and ‘election’ with complimentary roles of value and number. Even though its origin and execution understandably might have been very primitive and crude but it was clearly based upon two components, first, selection by consultation (Shura) of a capable and morally upright person to govern and secondly, to complete the process seeking of public consensus called the “bai’ah” (allegiance) for that person, akin to popular vote. It is possible that an objective orientalist’s take on this could be that the system of taking Bai’ah was not an invention of Islam but was present as a tribal custom in the pre-Islamic era. Regardless, as it was not a self-proclaimed rulership and ratification through allegiance was mandatory, it was as democratic as it could be given the time and age in which it was introduced. Even though there could be remarkable differences in that system compared to modern day democracy yet the underlying prodemocracy and anti-autocracy character was undeniable. Had Muslims stuck to that system and developed it to its evolutionary sophistication, they could have been the pioneers of a highly civilized and comprehensive democratic system of governance of far superior quality, way before democracy was introduced in the west.

The challenging question before Muslims is if they could accept and adopt western democracy as it is? Or to pose a more fundamental question, can Islam with its claim as a divine message with guidelines to establish a righteous society be content with it? This question becomes even more meaningful and demands an answer, when it is evident that Qur’an which has given moral directives and guidelines and at times detailed instructions on societal matters pertaining to inheritance, marital relations etc, is silent about any structure for system of governance. However the one fundamental principle embodying the spirit of the divine message that should come handy to Muslims in their quest for a right system of governance is that Islam delivered human beings from all yokes of subjugation and gave them dignity of freedom born out of their submission to one God. With such a goal in mind, naturally, freedom, equality, fairness and justice automatically become the fundamental pillars of any system of governance that Muslims strive to establish. This protocol then can be easily compared with what western democracy can deliver, only to pleasantly discover that the foundational structure of an Islamic system of governance in fact is closer to democracy and under no circumstances autocratic. Muslims’ foremost job therefore, in devising any system would be to exclude all forms and shades of dictatorial power from any construct of acceptable models. The presence of so many autocratic rulers in Muslim countries is a sad paradox. Such a powerful message that liberated human beings and upheld human dignity, to rapidly slip into kingship and a haunting despotism in Muslim countries is a very perplexing disappointment, an enigma and the dark face of Muslim history. It shows something terribly wrong happened in the very understanding of the message early on within one and half century of departing of the Prophet.

Today Muslims are faced with the challenge to create a system which reconciles the fallacy of human intellect with the achievements in civility, justice and fairness that the system of western democracy has offered to the world.

This requires deep understanding of the indispensable changes that have occurred in the anthropological character of the world and recognition of the potentials for change in the theological part of the message that deals with individual and societal code of conduct and faith-based solutions for the modern day issues, all without losing the spirit and essence of the message and the goal to create a righteous, caring, compassionate and benevolent world. It is a sad commentary that Muslims have miserably failed in this endeavor. Their dogmatic, telescopic and narrow-minded understanding of their faith has paralyzed them intellectually, and left them insecure to be easily threatened by challenges of the modern world .This has been the typical mind-set whether an accomplished graduate of a prestigious religious school or a masjid Mullah with a powerful constituency over masses of mostly uneducated Muslims.

However in spite of all the setbacks and bad reputations and discouragingly bleak situation caused by despotic autocrats of the Muslim world, a glitter of hope on the horizon cannot be missed. Muslims have been able to present to the world two very successful models of governance with underlying principles of democracy and popular consensus. Both the examples, to further reinforce their validity have emerged respectively from Sunni and Shia theological backgrounds the two major divides of faith among Muslims.

  1. The Sunni example is of Turkey where under the able leadership of Erdogan and the wise strategies of Justice and Development Party (AKP), a strongly autocratic system of governance under the military was converted into a democratic system. The reassuring part of this system is that it has been nourished and energized by Islam and its belief structure and message of freedom.
  2. The shia example is of Iran where a despotic king shamefully and hypocritically supported by the west was overthrown by a popular uprising and was replaced by a system of governance that is a successful combination of theocracy and democracy. The influence and role of religion is though stronger in Iran than in Turkey yet popular voting is its hallmark. In spite of a concerted effort by the west to malign it and to reverse it back to west-friendly despotism it has proven its viability by having survived the most punishing sanctions ever given to a country.

Besides these two major examples there are others like Indonesia and Malaysia which more or less are a true copy of western democracy. In the case of Pakistan, though it was established on the pattern of western democracy with Islam as its source of legislation, the experiment failed miserably as evident by off and on military takeovers. It is ironic that in spite of being conditioned under colonial Britain and being familiar with parliamentary form of government the Muslims of Pakistan have been unable to sustain democracy making it a sad anomaly and paradox. Among many reasons for this failure one that stands out glaringly is the corruption, lack of vision and criminality of its leaders. Pakistan with its passionate history of origin, massive brain drain from India and loyal adherence to Islam could have been a highly successful example of Islamic democracy in the world.

It is very interesting to note that all models of democracy in the Muslim world have been produced in Non-Arab countries. It is indeed a very painful tragedy that even the Arab spring could not effectively change the status quo in Arab autocracy except Tunisia which has followed the path of Turkey and tailored it down to its historical, cultural and sociopolitical needs. It is a case for research and investigation to understand why fiercely free-spirited Arabs have been tolerant of brutal dictators for so long, helplessly unable to unshackle it. Perhaps it is because Arab psyche is known to have great admiration for a strong and high-handed leader and the line between high handed leadership and dictatorship could be a thin one and crossed very easily.

To conclude;

  1. Islam in its spirit is compatible with democracy and rejects autocracy.
  2. Yet it cannot accept western demoracy in totality for it is heavily based on a system of head count that disregards quality and substance.
  3. The ingenious system of governance that early Muslims established immediately after the Prophet injected an emphatic element of value into headcount. This could have been a substrate for future improvement and sophistication to help it evolve into a remarkably superior system to the western democracy, had Muslims stuck to it and improved it with time.
  4. In the modern world Turkey and Iran present two successful models aligned with Islam arising from two major theological backgrounds of Sunni and Shia.
  5. All models of democratic system of governments in the Muslim world are non-Arab, a puzzling paradox in relation to fiercely free-spirited nature of Arabs.

With proper understanding and recognition of the flaws in western democracy and at the same time an emphatic refusal to subjugate human beings to dictators acting like Gods, Islam should be the source of hope to give to the world a system of governance which is democratic yet quite insulated from within against its vices. This is possible only when Muslims know how to use Islam to their benefit and not abuse it.

نہیں ہے نا امید اقبال اپنی كشت ویراں سے
ذرا نم ہو تو یہ مڻی بڑی زرخیز ہے ساقی

Dr. Azher Qader has drawn a thought provoking distinction in his article between theology and faith. If theology is understood to be the science concerned with laws, rules and regulations about marriage, divorce, fasting, zakath (charities), Hajj and other lawful and unlawful things and faith as the essence and purpose of the creation, submission to one God, viewing all human beings as His creatures and building a righteous, peaceful, just and compassionate world, one may realize the relative importance of theology and faith and know that they have a means and goals relationship. It would not be then difficult to understand that at any cost one cannot lose sight of the goal. What good the means will serve if they do not achieve the goal. One who always keeps the goal in mind will elevate above all differences in Fiqh, sectarianism, superficialities in life and hair-splitting regulations and understand that righteous conduct lies in taking care of deeper issues like love, compassion, justice and honoring God-given rights of human beings.