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Islam Is Democratic

Can a religion based on submission be democratic? We all know that Islam means “submission.” Doesn’t that encourage a cowering mentality in the face of tyrants?

This bothered me for a while, but I’ve come to believe that it’s exactly wrong. Islam is submission to the will of God, and there is no substitute for God. No human being has the right to play God. God is the sole judge, and we stand before God as free beings.

Since God’s judgment is deferred until after death, here on earth we must rely on our conscience and our intelligence to figure things out. This is liberating for humanity. Liberty is the essential premise of the human condition. “There is no compulsion in religion.”

The harshest words in the Qur’an are reserved for those who abuse their power to exploit others. The Prophet Mohammed led his followers to break with the form of rule they had known, because it profited from injustice and persecuted the weak. They started over in a new city, with a new constitution, based on the spirit of fair play.

Starting from the principle that we are equal in God’s sight, we are encouraged to exercise our intelligence to improve our condition, and our conscience in building a harmonious life. This is exactly the same spirit that informs the Declaration of Independence, when it states “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

No human system will every be perfect. Perfection in this world is an ideal. But in aspiring to that ideal, which is a thing of God, our intelligence and our conscience are the best tools we have. The use of these tools in a free society, a society where the individual bows to no one but God, is called democracy.

As Abdelwahab el-Effendi of Sudan put it in the journal Islam 21:

    No Muslim questions the sovereignty of God or the rule of Shari’ah. However, most Muslims…have misgivings about any claims by one person that he is sovereign. The sovereignty of one man contradicts the sovereignty of God, for all men are equal in front of God.

To which Abu al-Ala Mawdudi of Pakistan adds in his book The Islamic Way of Life:

    This is the point where democracy begins in Islam. Every person in an Islamic society enjoys the rights and powers of the caliphate of God and in this respect all individuals are equal.

These quotes are from an interesting article by John L. Esposito and John O. Voll called Islam and Democracy.


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