What is Islamic Democracy? Is it a secular democracy in which Islamic leaning parties come to power and Islamic identity influences policy choices, or is it, a theo-democracy in which Islam and Islamic values are constitutionally privileged and mandated, and where elections serve merely to elect the executive while the legislative function remains subordinate to Islamic law – The divine Shariah?
The Three Cs of Islamic Democracy
The key features of Islamic governance are Constitution, Consent, and Consultation. While these principles need to be explored and articulated in the specific socio-cultural context of different Muslim societies, it is important to understand that they are essential.
The compact, or constitution, of Madinah that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ adopted provides a very important occasion for the development of Islamic political theory. After Prophet Muhammad ﷺ migrated from Makkah to Madinah in 622 CE, he established the first Islamic state. For ten years, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was not only the leader of the emerging Muslim community in Arabia, but also the political head of the state of Madinah. As the leader of Madinah, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ exercised jurisdiction over Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The legitimacy of his sovereignty over Madinah was based on his status as the Prophet of Islam ﷺ, as well as on the basis of the compact of Madinah.
As Prophet of Allah ﷺ, he had sovereignty over all Muslims by divine decree. But Muhammad ﷺ did not rule over the non-Muslims of Madinah because he was the messenger of Allah ﷺ. He ruled over them by virtue of the compact that was signed by the Muhajirun (Muslim immigrants from Makkah), the Ansar (indigenous Muslims of Madinah), and the Yahud (several Jewish tribes that lived in and around Madinah). It is interesting to note that Jews were constitutional partners in the making of the first Islamic state.
An important principle of the Constitution of Madinah was that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ governed the city-state of Madinah by virtue of the consent of its citizens. He was invited to govern, and his authority to govern was enshrined in the social contract. The constitution of Madinah established the importance of consent and cooperation for governance.
The process of bayah, or the pledging of allegiance, was an important institution that sought to formalise the consent of the governed. In those days, when a ruler failed to gain the consent of the ruled through a formal and direct process of pledging of allegiance, the ruler’s authority was not fully legitimised. Just as Prophet Muhammad ﷺ had done, the early Caliphs of Islam (RA), too, practiced the process of bayah after rudimentary forms of electoral colleges had nominated the Caliph, in order to legitimise the authority of the Caliph.
The third key principle of Islamic governance is consultation, or Shura in Arabic. This is a very widely known concept, and many Islamic scholars have advanced the Islamic concept of Shura as evidence for Islam’s democratic credentials. Indeed, many scholars actually equate democracy with Shura.
وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِى ٱلْأَمْرِ
And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern; [Quran 3:159]
The Prophet ﷺ himself left behind a very important tradition that emphasised the importance of collective and democratic decision making. He said that “the community of Muhammed will never agree upon error.” Consultative governance, therefore, is the preferred form of governance in Islam, and any Muslim who chooses to stay true to his faith sources cannot but prefer a democratic structure over all others to realise the justice and wellbeing promised in Islamic sources.