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Islamic Ideals in Democratic Governance
Published in ‘Islamic Horizons’, the monthly journal of the Islamic Society of North America [ISNA], a leading and the largest Muslim organization in the entire North America
January 1, 2007
Amatulla, Nurjahan Ruby
A fundamental idea of democracy is that the people remain sovereign in the governance of the society, and the government derives its legitimacy from the people it governs.
Some Muslims erroneously assume that popular sovereignty clashes with God’s sovereignty. People’s sovereignty, however, does not contradict or undermine God’s sovereignty because God, the Owner of everything, allows people to own property and dispose of it as they please. God’s ownership is eternal; people’s ownership is temporary and limited.
God gave humanity free will so that people could be held accountable for their deeds on the Day of Judgment.
He also created humanity to serve as his khalifah (vicegerent) on Earth (Qur’an 2:30, 6:165). Such an empowerment and position comes with authority and rights, for this vicegerent must have the right to sovereignty on earth. The right of self-governance and free will are tied with this position. Thus, all Muslims must uphold a democratic system of self-rule.
Some say that the Shari’ah, should govern, because this would recognize God’s Sovereignty as supreme. However, any set of religious doctrines is based on human interpretations along with differing interpretations. Therefore, if the state enforces one interpretation, it will be violating the Qur’anic verse: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256).
The Qur’an declares since God is Creator-Lord, only He can grant rights to people and set the standards 4:1. Free will, human rights, dignity, and equality are derived directly from the humanity’s status as God’s vicegerent, and these rights’ legitimacy is grounded on divine authority.
As God’s vicegerent, people are responsible for running the affairs of this planet the way God runs the universe: with justice, balance, compassion, and wisdom. To do so, they need certain rights, such as the right to life and free will, the right to own tangible and intangible property, and the right and authority to have self-rule in order to be God’s vicegerent. In Islam, these rights are sacrosanct and people have the right and the responsibility to defend these rights, even militarily, when they are violated.
Many Muslims see democracy as a Western concept and, therefore, inherently un-Islamic. Such an attitude is un-Islamic. The truth belongs to God and so any good idea that better serves humanity belongs to humanity. No one group has any exclusive right on truth and goodness.
Sincere Muslims consider any idea that can help society function better and strive to make the system even better. Such a spirit can help establish peace and transform humanity.
God is the Ultimate Reality or Truth. To comply with His Will, one needs to search for truth using one’s God-given reason (‘aql) and wisdom (hikmah). This devoted search to acquire knowledge was the paramount characteristic of the Muslim “Golden Age,” when such people were the objects of public admiration. This period ended due to arrogance, ignorance, prejudice, and closing the door of ijtihad. A period of darkness ensued, for the Muslims began treading the path of fear, reaction, misery, and colonization.
There is an unprecedented influx of people from diverse cultures, lifestyles, and faith living together in a given society. Pluralism is the reality today. If peace and justice are the goals of Muslims, they cannot ignore or reject a democratic way of governance.
As God’s vicegerent, people are responsible for running the affairs of this planet the way God runs the universe: with justice, balance, compassion, and wisdom.
Nurjahan Ruby Zigrino, a mother and a businesswoman, is the founder of Peace and Justice International (www.peace-justiceinternational.org). She works for the Palestinian cause and Muslim empowerment in the West through constructive engagement.
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