All those who have been in the East, or in Africa, are struck by the way in which the mind of a true believer is fatally limited, by the species of iron circle that surrounds his head, rendering it absolutely closed to knowledge, incapable of either learning anything, or of being open to any new idea.
—ERNEST RENAN, “Islamism and Science”
Islam neither destroyed knowledge nor was it destroyed with knowledge.
—NAMIK KEMAL, “Renan Müdafaanamesi”
Democracy emerged as a by-product of complicated history in the West involving state formation, secularization, class struggle, and revolutions. It is associated with specific values and institutional structures such as freedom, accountability, popular sovereignty, elections, and representation. Democracy is a highly desired government type that “resonates in people’s minds and springs from their lips as they struggle for freedom and a better way of life.”1 As Kenneth Amaeshi argues, although democracy is like value-free technology that can be implemented in non-Western countries, “to transfer it from one context to another, one needs to recognize the traditions and cultures of the place to which it is being transferred.”2 Common wisdom attaches the Western tradition and culture to democracy when exporting it to the Global South, usually neglecting the native culture, values, and practices. If democracy fails to take root or produces outcomes at odds with liberal democratic values in a particular setting, this failure is often blamed on cultural incompatibility.3 In no other context was this outlook carried to its extremes more than in Muslim-majority societies where democracy is lacking.
Explaining the lack of democracy with cultural factors represents an ethnocentric worldview toward other religions (or civilizations) that views them from a lens similar to the Orientalist approach.4 Western civilization, with its achievements—modernization, the scientific revolution, technological innovation, industrialization, political development—is taken as an ideal example to be emulated by the so-called “backward” civilizations. Since Islam is inherently incompatible with democracy, goes the argument, democracy can only succeed if Muslim-majority societies emulate the Western values. This perspective comes from the idea of “privilege of ignorance”5 or the “problem of asymmetric ignorance.”6 That is, intellectuals in the periphery have to consider the Western history and traditions even when writing about their problems, but the Western scholars have the privilege of not reciprocating. Essentialist theorizing about the lack of democracy in Muslim-majority societies attaches Western values to democracy as prerequisites for its installment and does not consider the native traditions and culture, such as religious values or ethnic traditions.
The hegemony of liberal democratic discourse prevents us from seeing the other cultures’ potential. We can indeed treat democracy as a neutral government type, but its legitimacy is contingent on its acceptability as a universal value.7 Such acceptance in non-Western settings, in turn, can emanate from its justification through values that are most important to the members of these societies. Therefore, focusing on the approval of democracy by ordinary people will help us understand the normative/cultural foundations of support for democracy in the Muslim world.
This chapter presents the main contours of theoretical scholarship on Islam and democracy. To that end, it first provides a brief review of the origins and contemporary examples of essentialist theorizing on the subject that views Islam as hostile to democracy. Then, it discusses the counteressentialist theorizing and looks at the recent scholarship that sees a positive relationship between Islam and democratic ideals. The chapter concludes with a critical account of both approaches by emphasizing the role of Islamic values as cultural foundations of democracy.
Understanding the Essence of the Essentialist Theorizing
The origins of intellectual debate about Islam and democracy go back to the eighteenth century. According to the enlightenment philosophers, reason and science are the primary sources of authority and legitimacy. Reason and science give way to freedom, progress, democracy, and the separation of the state and church.8 Positivist philosophers, similarly, attribute the progress of Western civilization to the advances in science. Comte argues that human societies will undergo social evolution stages, including the theological, metaphysical, and scientific phases.9 During the scientific revolution stage, science replaces religious dogma, seen as the main impediment to progress. Only Western societies managed to reach the last stage of evolution in this scheme. Therefore, other societies should follow the example of Western societies and replace religious dogma with scientific ideas to achieve progress according to this approach. Comte’s ideas greatly influenced scholars like Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim. Although Islam was not the only target for the enlightenment and positivists, they viewed it as one of the primary impediments to economic development, scientific revolution, freedom, and tolerance in Islamic societies.
The enlightenment and positivist philosophies justified the subjugation and exploitation of colonies located within the territories ruled by classical Islamic empires. Thus, it is no coincidence that the nineteenth century witnessed the invention of a new science devoted to the study of Eastern societies, namely Orientalism.10 For Orientalists, freedom, tolerance, and economic development are alien to Eastern and, especially, Islamic societies, because Islam, as monolithic and an all-encompassing religion, prevents its adherents from emulating the example of the West. In his famous treatise on Islam and science, French orientalist Ernest Renan refuted the religion and blamed it for the Islamic world’s backwardness.11 In response, two nineteenth-century modernists, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Namık Kemal, argued that Islam is open to progress and scientific revolution.12
That Islam is incompatible with economic development and democracy became a staple thesis in the Western academia. For example, Weber blamed Islam for the lack of economic development and freedom in Muslim-majority societies.13 Following Weber’s argument, contemporary scholars famously argued that Islamic faith principles are inimical to democratic ideals.14 For example, Samuel Huntington contends that Islam is hostile to Western values such as rational thinking, freedom, and secularism.15 According to Elie Kedourie:
The notion of a state as a specific territorial entity which is endowed with sovereignty, the notion of popular sovereignty as the foundation of governmental legitimacy, the idea of representation, of elections, of popular suffrage, of political institutions being regulated by laws laid down by a parliamentary assembly, of these laws being guarded and upheld by an independent judiciary, the ideas of the secularity of the state, of society being composed of a multitude of self-activating, autonomous groups and associations—all these are profoundly alien to the Muslim political tradition.16
Ernest Gellner famously stated that “Islam is the blueprint of the society” and that its all-encompassing nature prevented the emergence of secularism and democratization in the Muslim world.17 Similarly, Bernard Lewis states, “such central issues of Western political development as the conduct of elections and the definition and extension of the franchise therefore had no place in Islamic political evolution.”18 For these scholars, there is something inherent in Islam and Islamic culture, an essence, that makes it hostile to democracy. This incompatibility stems from the fact that (1) Islam is not conducive to the separation of religion and state, (2) it has a fixed set of rules that precludes popular sovereignty, (3) Islam provides a blueprint for the social and political life, and (4) in Islam, human-made legislation is not possible due to God’s sovereignty. These factors leave little chance for establishing democracy in Muslim-majority societies.
Although Gellner, Lewis, and Kedourie contend that Islam is inherently hostile to democracy, a closer look reveals that these scholars do not merely use faith principles to substantiate their argument. Instead, they elaborate on the lack of social and political institutions that gave way to the rise of democracy in the West as the leading cause for the democracy gap in the Muslim world. These scholars employ a historical-deterministic approach for generalizing specific Islamic traditions or certain historical periods to all Muslim-majority societies over time, usually ignoring the vast diversity and temporal variation therein.
For example, inspired by Ibn Khaldun, Gellner uses a broad brush to confine a rich tradition and history to the duality of social structure.19 Islamic society, Gellner states, “was divided into a ‘high’ form, the urban-based, strict, unitarian, nomocratic, puritan and scripturalist Islam of the scholars; and a ‘lower’ form, the cult of personality–addicted, ecstatic, ritualistic, questionably literate, unpuritanical and rustic Islam of the dervishes and the marabouts.”20 He argues that democracy cannot flourish in the Muslim world because the evolution and interaction of low and high Islam, as observed in the fourteenth century, created static political systems inhibiting democratization and secularization.21 Gellner convincingly sets aside immeasurable changes and the vast diversity in Islamic societies, spread across the “Bosnia to Bengal complex.”22
A similar reductionism takes place in the account of Kedourie, who argues that the first impact of European institutions on Middle Eastern governments came through enlightened absolutism rather than representative institutions lacking in the Muslim world.23 Enlightened absolutism was similar to oriental despotism. Thus, it proved to be an efficient and attractive political model as the Middle Eastern states created modern military and bureaucratic institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.24 In other words, the incompatibility between Islam and democracy is due to the unsuitability of Islamic traditional institutions and the impact of Western absolutist political ideas. Thus, the reductionism in Kedourie’s account explains away complex social and political outcomes with accidental encounters by Western political institutions.
Lewis follows a similar line of reasoning, but he is subtler than Gellner and Kedourie. According to Lewis, for several reasons, autocratic rule (not despotism) has been the primary governance model for much of the Islamic political history.25 For example, there was a distinction between revolutionary (Mecca) and quietist traditions (Medina) during Islam’s beginning period. The former period represented an outlook of opposition, change, and rebellion against the status quo, whereas, during the latter period, political activities centered on lawmaking and establishing social order.26 For Lewis, these two views prevailed throughout Islamic history, but the discourses of order took precedence over opposition’s rebellious rhetoric due to the fear of fitna.27 Although there were religious checks carried by the ulema, according to sharia, unconditional obedience to the ruler became the central political norm replacing the revolutionary spirit of the Meccan period. Furthermore, Lewis argues that modernization increased the prevalence of quietism by increasing the modern states’ power while eroding the authority of religious checks on the rulers.28
Lewis also cites a lack of recognition of corporate bodies and accompanying legislation as one reason for the Muslim democracy gap.29 Consequently, modern representative institutions did not emerge, and the state essentially turned into God’s state ruled by divine law.30 Other factors leading to democracy in the West were also not present in the Muslim world. For example, although private property was sanctified in Islam, its confiscation by the rulers was common practice. The merchant class was vibrant, but it never reached the power of the bourgeoisie in the West.31 Religious scholars were economically independent because of familial ties to the merchant class, but this situation also disappeared by the eleventh century when ulema entered into an alliance with the rulers.32
By and large, then, for Lewis, the essence of the incompatibility thesis is not as much about doctrine as it is about institutions and their evolution in Islamic history. He does not entirely discard Islamic elements in the founding of democracy, leaving some room for the influence of traditional institutions and doctrinal principles.33 For example, he notes the contractual nature of the ruler/ruled relation per the notion of bayʿa. Lewis attributes a democratic quality to this notion by defining it as a “deal” rather than an “allegiance” or “homage.”34 Furthermore, he argues that the Islamic caliphate might be an autocracy, but since the law checks the ruler’s power, it has never been despotic. More interestingly, Lewis argues that Islam’s openness to diversity and emphasis on human dignity can provide the basis for democratic ideals.35
Overall, the analyses of Gellner, Kedourie, and Lewis are subtler than the presumption of Huntington, who links the principles of faith to a lack of democracy in the Muslim world. The former three scholars contend that while there might be potential for democratic ideals in Islam, the institutions that gave way to the rise of democracy in the West were lacking in the Muslim world. A combination of principles of faith, traditions, and accidental encounters with Western political models were the main reasons for the Muslim democracy gap. In response to this line of theorizing, some scholars argue that Islamic traditions, institutions, or values may inspire democratic ideals.36 Usually, these scholars invoke principles of legal methodology such as ijmāʿ (consensus of scholars) and ijtihād (free reasoning, opinion) or scriptural principles like shūrā (consultation) to make a case for the Islamic origins of democratic ideas. The next section presents the main contours of this argument.
Proponents of the counteressentialist approach (compatibility thesis) see no contradiction between Islam and democracy.37 For example, they argue that Islamic legal methodology principles such as ijmāʿ and ijtihād or scriptural principles like shūrā can provide the basis for such ideas as popular sovereignty, elections, and legislative institutions. Next to the conceptions of legal methodology, the proponents of the compatibility thesis also frequently cite Islam’s emphasis on values like justice and human dignity.38 Rather than viewing the prevalence of religion in social life as an impediment to democratization, these scholars see a path to democracy through the reinterpretation or renegotiation of religious values.39 To the extent that Islam determines religious outlooks, framing democracy as an Islamic model would increase its acceptability. A majority of people, however, viewed Western institutions with great suspicion. As Filali-Ansary insightfully says, “Muslim confrontations with European colonial powers in the nineteenth century gave birth to some great and lasting misunderstandings, as a result of which Muslims have rejected key aspects of modernity (secularization and, to some degree, democratization) as an alienation and a surrender of the historical self to the ‘Other.’”40
Accordingly, it was necessary to convince a religious populace that democratic government was not in contradiction to the Islamic faith. In addition to overcoming the deep suspicion about Western institutions, building precise mechanisms that could convincingly link Islamic principles and values to democratic ideals proved to be challenging for the modernist Islamists. Examining the works of early modernists, some scholars conclude that concepts like tawhid (unity principle), khalifa, ijtihād, ijmāʿ, and shūrā were instrumental in constituting the Islamic foundations of democracy.41 Early Islamists responded to Western philosophies that viewed Islam as the leading cause of regression by demonstrating that Islam has significant potential to accommodate democratic institutions.42 For example, Muhammad Iqbal cites the principle of shūrā as the foundation of elected assemblies: “The transfer of the power of ijtihād from individual representatives of schools to a Muslim legislative assembly which, in view of the growth of opposing sects, is the only form ijmāʿ can take in modern times, will secure contributions to legal discussion from laymen who happen to possess a keen insight into affairs. In this way alone can we stir into activity the dormant spirit of life in our legal system.”43
Simultaneously, the concepts utilized for justification of the Islamic democratic ideals may legitimize nondemocratic forms of government. For example, tawhid may inspire the notions of equality and dignity by creating a condition of exclusive servitude to God, but it could also be a source of nondemocratic government by prioritizing divine sovereignty over human-made legislation. Similarly, ijmāʿ could be seen as public opinion, but it may also justify a closed political system through authoritarian worldviews posed by religious scholars. Esposito and Voll refer to the challenges in specifying precise mechanisms explaining how these ideas could be foundational to democratic ideals. They highlight the need to develop a genuine Islamic theory of democracy based on ethics and moral values:
Consultation, consensus, and ijtihād are crucial concepts for the articulation of Islamic democracy within the framework of the oneness of God and the representational obligations of human beings. These are terms whose meanings are contested and whose definitions shape Muslim perceptions of what represents legitimate and authentic democracy in an Islamic framework. However, despite the fact that within the Islamic world these terms are contested, they provide an effective foundation for understanding the relationship between Islam and democracy in the contemporary world.44
To address this issue, recent scholarship favoring the compatibility thesis develops precise mechanisms linking principles of faith to democratic ideals. This scholarship diverges from the approach focusing on principles of legal methodology by exploring the conditions that will make democracy acceptable to the pious Muslims. To that end, it has focused on the positive role religion can play in secularization and democratization by employing flexible interpretations of Islamic principles. The next section reviews this new genre of scholarship on Islam and democracy.
Authenticating Democracy within Islam
Democracy gains legitimacy when a majority of people view it as an acceptable form of government. This condition is especially significant for Muslim-majority societies where democracy is a rare commodity and suspicion about the democratic system abounds due to the perception that democracy and secularism are instruments of a Western imperialist project. For that reason, given Islam’s primacy as a potent social force, any democratization attempt will have to acknowledge the importance of religious values in these societies.
Democracy is more than the sum of procedures or institutions. It provides a method for resolving differences over specific norms and values. As Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl state, “Modern democracy, in other words, offers a variety of competitive processes and channels for the expression of interests and values—associational as well as partisan, functional as well as territorial, collective as well as individual. All are integral to its practice.”45 The peaceful resolution of contentious politics and the struggle between the poor masses and the wealthy elite are also essential prerequisites of democracy.46 Insofar as actors and groups that hold different values and interests believe that democracy is the best option for resolving their differences, they will prefer it over other government systems.
Throughout Islamic history, significant contention has taken place about the role of religion in politics. A division between religious and political authorities started to materialize as early as the seventh century and consolidated during the reign of Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn in the early ninth century.47 This separation was at odds with the communal governance model based on the unification of political and religious authority in Muhammad’s person. In the medieval period, the separation of political and religious authorities resulted in a compromise between secular rulers and ulema. Consequently, rulers employed different political strategies, making it necessary for them to either obtain the blessing of religious authorities or subdue them to legitimize their rule. Religious authorities assigned a central role to Islamic law because they believed that law could provide the primary frame of social and political life and could be the only instrument for the livelihood of the ethically bound prophetic community model.48
On the other hand, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, state-religion relations came to be associated with secular policies and bottom-up social contention that at times gave way to democratic movements.49 Despite this paradigmatic shift in social and political spheres, the theoretical debate on Islam and democracy continued to focus on the religion in politics. Consequently, making democracy acceptable to the Muslim public requires addressing the role religion will play in any political system. This is precisely the idea that motivated the recent scholarship of An-Náim, Hashemi, and El Fadl.50
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Náim51 argues that a secular state guaranteeing the expressions of civic reason and allowing the religious people to contribute to policy making will bring about the acceptance of democracy among the pious Muslims. An-Náim’s position rests on several assumptions. First, he believes that free choice should determine religious belief and adherence. Second, there is no room for the compulsory practice of religion by a state in Islam. Only a secular state can ensure religious freedom. Third, historically, religion and state were not as intertwined. There has been a great deal of struggle and altercation between political and religious authorities.52 Furthermore, An-Náim argues that the modern state cannot accommodate the pluralistic and complex nature of sharia.53
Rather than seeking the theological roots of democracy, An-Náim proposes that a secular state that allows both the negotiation of sharia among different groups of Muslims and its reflection on public policy is the most important condition for democratic governance in Muslim-majority societies. Democracy is superior to the Islamic state as a governance model because it facilitates public deliberation, strengthens civic virtues, allows representation of Islamic policy positions, and engenders consensus among the Muslims, whether they are in the majority or the minority. For An-Náim, while the separation of state and religion (or religious law) is necessary, it is important not to separate religion from politics so that Muslims can accept democracy as a viable political system. Devout Muslims should be able to participate in politics and influence policy in democracies. This arrangement should take place even if Islamic law informs their policy positions.54 In sum, An-Náim views the secular state as a precondition for the Muslim public’s acceptance of democracy because devout Muslims will be treated impartially by a secular state and be able to influence policy making according to their religious values. Religious values and even the principles of sharia can affect policy outcomes through the participation of devout Muslims in a secular-democratic order. These conditions will make democracy acceptable to the pious Muslims.
Nader Hashemi55 also points to the positive role religion can play in the democratization of Muslim-majority societies. Like An-Náim, he views secularism as a prerequisite for democracy and tries to address a significant puzzle. Democracy requires secularism, but the inspiration of the Muslim democrats is the Islamic theology. The outcome of this paradox is the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, a puzzle that Hashemi aims to resolve in his book Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy.56 Hashemi is critical of accounts that see religious ideas as antithetical to liberal democratic order. He invites scholars to rethink the relationship between religion and political development in the West. Religion, particularly reform movements, played an integral role in secularization and political development as the church came to accept legitimate political authority. The liberal democratic order had to deal with religious ideas before it had gained widespread acceptance. In societies where religion remains a potent force in social and political life, secular and political development has to pass “through the gates of religious politics.”57 As Hashemi neatly states:
Both Christianity in the early modern period and Islam today had to grapple with the idea of the moral basis of legitimate political authority. More importantly, they had to do so in the context of rival notions of political legitimacy rooted in the Scripture. The emergence and social construction of an indigenous version of political secularism was an integral part of this development trajectory. Overcoming religious opposition to emerging liberal democratic ideas was also part of this long-term political process that scholarship on the development of liberal democracy has generally ignored.58
For Hashemi, just as secular and liberal democratic order emerged through renegotiation and transformation of religious ideas in the West, religion should have a role in Muslim democratization. As a prerequisite of liberal democracy, secularism lacks authentic roots in Muslim-majority societies. Since its top-down implementation has created hostile attitudes toward it,59 Hashemi calls for an “indigenous theory of Islamic secularism” as a necessary step toward establishing democracy in the Muslim world.60 Like An-Náim, for Hashemi, the emergence of secularism will require the input and participation of religiously inspired movements, especially the political Islamists that came to occupy an important place in the public space in the late twentieth century. Just as religion was at the center of the contentious politics for the religiously inspired movements in sixteenth-century Europe, Hashemi argues that participation by political Islamists of the contemporary times can play a significant role in the democratization of Muslim-majority societies. Hashemi states that Islamism “has been responsible for bringing new social groups into the political process, particularly from the previously marginalized sectors of society.”61
An-Náim and Hashemi make a case for the constructive role of religion in the democratization of Muslim-majority societies. For An-Náim, a secular state is necessary for allowing the devout individuals to participate in policy making based on their religious preferences. Since this is possible in a secular-democratic system that protects religious freedom and allows rival groups’ participation in policy making, democracy should be the most appealing form of government for devout individuals. For Hashemi, liberal democracy becomes an acceptable form of government to the extent that religious values inform secularism. Islamist activism plays a vital role in mobilizing religious masses and making Islam a constitutive element of secular liberal democracy. Both scholars focus on secularism as a prerequisite of a democratic system and highlight the instrumental role of religious values and religious identities for genuine acceptance of democracy by devout individuals. However, they do not comment on specific religious values that may inform the participation of religious actors. Such values are important because they emanate from religious norms that are likely to influence the attitudes and behavior of the devout. Khaled Abou El Fadl addresses this issue in his masterful essay on Islam and democracy by exploring the role of justice as a central concept that could provide the normative basis for acceptance of democracy by ordinary Muslims.
Justice as a Normative Principle of Democracy
According to El Fadl, the central paradox in Islam and democracy is the tension between procedures of democracy and theological sources of political norms.62 The founding principles of democracy, including limited government, popular sovereignty, free elections, and representation, imply that people are the source of law. This understanding poses a challenge for Islamic political theory, according to which “God is the only sovereign and the ultimate source of legitimate law.”63 It is necessary, then, to reconcile the conceptions of people’s and God’s authority. To resolve this paradox, El Fadl acknowledges the dual conditions of the desirability of democratic institutions and the primacy of theological doctrine in Islam.
El Fadl starts to develop his theory by highlighting the importance of values in a democracy. Much of the theorizing on Islam and democracy focuses on specific institutions that facilitated democratization in the West. While procedures and institutions matter, “democracy and Islam are defined in the first instance by their moral values and attitudinal commitments of their adherents—not by the ways that those values and commitments have been applied.”64 Thus, it is imperative to explore the moral values that will show that Islam has practical possibilities for democracy.
According to El Fadl,65 pursuing justice, the consultative method of governance leading to nonautocratic states, and mercy and compassion in social relations are essential values in Islam. Man is the vicegerent of God on earth, and this gives him the responsibility to pursue justice in this world. Given the primacy of justice as a social and political value, it is logical to expect that devout individuals will look into the practical possibilities of cherishing the pursuit of justice. As such, for devout Muslims, political systems that facilitate justice will be preferable relative to other systems.66 For El Fadl, the greatest likelihood of implementing justice is found in democracy because democracy has moral and institutional standards that may facilitate this potential.67 These standards include civil rights, religious freedom, the rule of law, and political accountability. While there is no guarantee for implementing justice in democratic systems, at a minimum, it provides an institutional basis for fulfilling the primary responsibility of man as vicegerent of God on earth; namely, the pursuance of justice as directed in many verses in the scripture.
Democratic policies are based on the principle of popular sovereignty, not God’s sovereignty. If the latter ensures true justice, how can democracy and human-made legislation be the best option for implementing justice? El Fadl finds a solution to this paradox in the flexible sharia interpretation. For El Fadl, “when human beings search for ways to approximate God’s beauty and justice, then, they do not deny God’s sovereignty; they honor it.”68 If the state claims a monopoly on interpreting and implementing the divine law, excluding alternative interpretations, this condition will likely result in the justification of authoritarian government. This conclusion echoes An-Náim’s theory citing the existence of a secular state that does not attempt to define or implement sharia as the prime requisite of democracy. Democracy with its representative and deliberative institutions will better facilitate the interpretation and implementation of sharia than a regime that claims to be the only authority implementing religious law.
After establishing the conditions that support his argument about the acceptability of democracy as the most preferred political system, El Fadl lays the foundation for his argument about justice being a constitutive principle of democracy. According to El Fadl, there is no clear guidance about the relation between the ruler and the ruled in Islam. The central paradigm is that the ruler implements the divine law and obtains the obedience of the ruled. There is supposedly an ‘aqd (contract) between the ruler and the people, and, as a result, the people have the power. Within this framework, it is easy to justify the rule of law that ensures that specific regulations bind the government. The contractual nature of political authority and the rule of law are based on normative values inherent in sharia. As El Fadl states, the rule of law “might be interpreted as requiring the government to be bound by processes of making and interpreting laws, and even more important, as requiring that those processes themselves be bound by fundamental moral commitments—in particular to human dignity and freedom.”69 For El Fadl, putting restrictions on a ruler in consideration of public interest (al-maṣālih al-mursalah) or blocking the means to illegal actions demonstrates the primacy of Islamic values as guiding principles of procedures.70 This reasoning is similar to engaging in forbearance according to informal norms.
The proponents of the compatibility thesis also refer to shūrā or consultation as a founding principle of democratic government in Islam. The Koran instructs the Prophet to consult with Muslims, and his life is replete with examples proving that he had frequently used consultation. Inspired by this principle, modernist scholars attempted to use the shūrā principle to justify representative democracy.71 To that end, there were attempts to broaden the meaning of shūrā from consultation to wide-ranging discussions or deliberation by the public72 or to the individual rights to form representative assemblies.73 El Fadl accepts the significance of shūrā as a foundational principle of participatory democracy. Ultimately, however, it is the moral relevance of this principle that matters:
so even if shūrā is transformed into an instrument of participatory representation, it must itself be limited by a scheme of private and individual rights that serve an overriding moral goal such as justice. In other words, shūrā must be valued not because of the results it produces but because it represents a moral value in itself. As a result, regardless of the value of specific dissenting views, dissent would be tolerated because doing so is seen as a basic part of the mandate of justice.74
Islamic justice has substantive implications for democratic procedures and norms. It is closely associated with the notion of “promoting good and forbidding the evil” (al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-n-nahy ʿani-l-munkar), considered as an obligation to God and one another.75 In addition, echoing Abdulaziz Sachedina’s conclusion, El Fadl argues that the principles of justice and diversity lay the foundation for respect of differences and dissent.76 This reasoning extends to the political realm by turning these two principles (justice and diversity) into the core values that democracy ought to protect.
In conclusion, El Fadl develops an Islamic theory of democracy by treating justice as the main principle of Islam. His theory relies on the importance of Islamic values in shaping society and politics. El Fadl’s account of the human interpretation of God’s law requires a paradigm shift that entails the primacy of justice as a determinant of law rather than the law determining justice.
Democracy emerged as a result of a complex social process in the West. It is also closely associated with liberal values. To explain the democracy gap in Muslim-majority societies, one stream of scholarship blames religion, culture, and values, invoking an incompatibility thesis due to a lack of liberal values or Western institutions that gave way to democracy in Europe.77 In response, some scholars argued that Islam is compatible with the democratic ethos. Early Islamists responded to positivist and Orientalist views by arguing that democratic institutions were not alien to Islam. This line of reasoning used the shūrā principle and procedures of legal methodology to make a case for the Islamic roots of democracy.78
A new genre of scholarship focused on the positive role Islam can play in engendering democratic ideals. One of the proponents of this new approach is Nader Hashemi,79 who proposes that Islam can play a positive role in justifying a secular order as a prerequisite of democracy through the contribution of Islamists. Similarly, An-Náim80 argues that the most important condition for the acceptance of democracy by Muslims is a secular state. While Hashemi looks at the participation of Islamists as a condition for the acceptance of secularism and, consequently, democracy, for An-Náim, deliberative democracy, which can be possible under a secular state, would be the main route to engendering support for democracy in the Muslim world. The third group of scholars, including Tariq Ramadan,81 Abdulaziz Sachedina,82 and Abou Khaled El Fadl,83 justify the religious origins of democracy through Islamic values such as mercy and justice. El Fadl’s approach is especially noteworthy because he aims to develop the moral base of democracy from within the Islamic value system. This recent wave of scholarship on Islam and democracy contributed to our understanding of Islamic origins of democratic ideals. The scholars justifying democratic government by Islamic values are especially unapologetic in responding to essentialist scholars. They aim to authenticate democracy from within the Islamic paradigm.
Scholars can build on insights from this scholarship to advance our knowledge of Islam and democracy in two ways. First, principles of faith or religious traditions do not inform democracy in only one direction. Rather, religion and religious values have the “double-edged sword” quality that may engender democratic or authoritarian ideals. In other words, Islam can engender rival discourses of legitimacy. We need to unfold the mechanisms through which Islamic values can inspire both democratic and authoritarian ideas. Second, while it is important to elaborate on Islam’s compatibility with democracy, we also need to understand the microfoundations of Muslims’ support for democracy. While recent scholarship assigned a significant weight to the role of Muslim agency, generally, the focus has still been on “Islam and democracy” at the expense of paying attention to the issue of “Muslims and democracy.” As a central value of Islam, if justice matters, how do individuals relate this notion to inform their views about democracy? What are the microlevel implications of Islam’s ethical values for political preferences? How do individuals construct the meaning of religious values to form their opinion about different political systems? These questions, in essence, relate to the attitudes of Muslim agency.
This book explains how devout Muslims understand and interpret central religious values to form their attitudes. It puts justice at the center of its investigation into understanding the microlevel perceptions and behavior related to justice of devout Muslims and how these perceptions shape their acceptance or rejection of democracy. Its main contribution rests in its ambition to connect theoretical scholarship on Islam and democracy with the burgeoning empirical studies explaining Muslim political attitudes to understand the puzzle about Islam and democracy better.84 Building on the research reviewed in this chapter, this book calls for a new approach that examines the role of values rather than principles of faith, legal methodology, or grand traditions for explaining democratic orientations. The analysis in the subsequent chapters builds on this approach to explain the synergies among conceptions of justice, Muslim agency, and support for democracy. The next chapter introduces the theoretical and conceptual foundations for this analysis by exploring historical trajectories of Islamic justice and the microlevel implications of conceptions of political and social justice.