Is Democracy a Practical Religious Option for Muslim Countries?

Is Democracy a Practical Religious Option for Muslim Countries?


By Dr Mohammad Akmal Makhdum


(Key: Islamic state does not mean ISIL, ISIS, Daesh or any other terrorist entity. This expression is used in a literal sense, meaning a state based on Islamic principles)


This question has become a point of religious contention between ruling elites of Muslim countries and those who oppose them, which primarily are their populace and civic society. Western intellectuals also discuss this issue of democracy in Islam with orientalistic enthusiasm. This issue has the potential, and in reality indeed, has become an intellectual fissure in the dialogue between East and West, South and North. This topic has become a favourite expression of generating negative opinions about Islam.


Western intellectuals and opinion makers accusingly suggest that Islam does not believe in, or for that matter, exist in democracy. That there is, and cannot be a co-existence of democracy and Islam, as both are mutually irreconcilable. This is the point where Muslim elites and unelected rulers conveniently support such western accusers of Islam.


Is it essentially an internal discussion for Muslim societies? Some believe that it is. Some say, especially in the West, that this discussion is as important to non-Muslim societies where Muslims live.


Like everything else, Muslims may choose to view this question, in historical context, as seen in practices and teachings of Prophet Mohammad. This essay is an attempt to review this crucial question, in the light of those historical practices of the earliest days of Islam, in their politico-historical context.


Two broad examples emanate from a direction to Muslims, given in the Quran. It says, “ Shoora Baina-hum” (seek each others counsel/Consult one another). Founded on these words, Islamic history tells us that Prophet Muhammad acted as such, in matters relating to people, and their collective affairs. Aboriginal history of Islam, in relation to populace based practices, show us democratic processes; and to elucidate this issue, we view two events. These events broadly capture two principles: Democracy and the practice of religion and the collective and accountable wisdom in Islam.


The latter, has special pertinence to societies in times of crises, as we shall see in the two following, historical explorations.


First of all, we need to look for the concept of democracy in Islam, and if present, the practice of democracy in the religion of Islam, as practiced by the Prophet. He, being the main source of all wisdom and guidance for Muslims, as ordained in the Quran, during his life and then the Quran, for the rest of times. We should see if, overall, there are authentic practices in the original Islamic society, during the time of Prophet Muhammad, any democratic processes. The other would be to see the time during the rule of the first five caliphs, immediately after the Prophet. Here we would like to mention five, because, Caliph Hasan, son of caliph Ali when he succeeded him was the fifth Caliph. He opposed Omayyid dynasty’s attempt to take over political power, and ultimately yielded by abdicating in favour of the adversaries, after nine months of rule as Caliph of Islam.


This discussion notwithstanding, we should look into original Islamic history, if we are struck by the practice of democracy in action. It is stated that the practice of democracy in original Islam was a different one, as compared to the current democratic processes, as we understand them. Is can be said that those practices were different from what we understand as democracy in modern times. What we see now is representative-democracy. Democratic societies choose representatives for a specified span in time, and during that tome, representatives rule the collective social body.


What we see in Islamic history, surprisingly for some, is that traditional, pre-Islamic, non-democratic practices were abandoned and replaced by a newer, previously unfamiliar practice of active, participative-democracy for all citizens. Those citizens were Muslim, Christian, Jew, Atheist, Pagan and other tribes with different beliefs.


Pre-Islamic doctrines of ecclesiastical claim, and hereditary rights were completely rejected. In Islam, as practiced by the Prophet, it was merit, and merit alone, that determined rights in public matters. This merit was based on good character, piety, perseverance in pursuit of the good and godliness.

Had it been hereditary (Imam) Ali would have been the first Caliph for being the closest blood-relative male to the Prophet. The Prophet himself would have nominated him. He could have nominated anyone. He could have nominated his beloved daughter, or grandson, or any person if he had decided to do that. No one could have or would have opposed him, for fear of eternal damnation and for fear of wrath of his followers. Prophet did not consider religion as a hereditary matter. This is in stark contradiction to the tradition followed in the Judaic history, where son replaced father as worldly ruler and also as religious leader. Prophet Muhammad never nominated anyone to succeed him, even when he knew that his time was coming.


Islam’s Participative democracy is exemplified by this one event that reflects all practices of the Prophet. This event saved Muslims from complete annihilation. It was probably the one most crucial event of Prophet’s trials and Islam’s tribulations. The time was the battle of the Trench (the battle of Khundaq), when an overwhelming army of pagan tribes, in their thousands came from the city state of Mecca, determined to destroy, once and for all, Muslims, who had sought refuge in Madina. This army was overwhelming in infantry and cavalry. Prospects looked bleak. Everyone was scared. Prophet Muhammad did not receive any Divine guidance at that crucial time as how to deal with this crisis. He asked people for their counsel. He sought their opinions. When no firm opinion was forthcoming, he went into his house and came out wearing his armour and carrying his sword. He said to people that everyone should be prepared to fight the enemy. Now, here is the practice of participative-democracy, as ordained by Islam! One of his companions questioned his decision, as he had assessed that odds were overwhelming against Muslims. He asked the prophet whether he (Prophet) was acting as a man Muhammad or as the Prophet of God. He asked if the Prophet had received Devine guidance on how to fight the enemy or that it was his personal decision. To that, Prophet Muhammad responded that he was acting as a man, and that he had not received any guidance from God. At that juncture, it was discussed again, and then agreed by people who had gathered for guidance, that they should ask someone who had knowledge of warfare in such occasions. This was discussed and agreed by all and to that Muhammad agreeing with this opinion of others, sought advice form someone who had some experience. Suleman the Persian was asked for his opinion because he had experience of warfare from other parts of the world, from his own past travels. It was he who suggested that a trench was dug around the city of Madina to protect against overwhelming odds. A collective plan was prepared. Design of the trench was agreed. Alongside everyone else, Prophet Muhammad dug the trench around the city, in spite of lack of food and going hungry for at least three separate days.


This suggests that there are two basic lessons from the life of Muhammad, when Divine intervention was not forthcoming. Firstly, that Muhammad continued in participative-democratic practices, as he had done throughout his life, especially at the most sensitive juncture of Islamic history. Muhammad knew that if the enemy prevailed Muslims would be wiped out from Arabia and from the face of the Earth. Still, he discussed, gave an opinion, started to act on it, was questioned upon it by others, he reflected, then sought advice from those who knew about warfare, listened to that advice, everybody else agreed with it, he agreed with it, supported it and worked with everyone else when a course of action was decided. When a decision was taken, he picked his pickaxe and shovel, and worked as the next man, despite suffering semi-starvation. That is participative-democracy. And how could this be possible? Because, he nurtured freedom to question. He demanded that they used their freedom of thought, and reflect, and analyse, and discuss. He asked people to follow the Quran, when it stated that people should consult one another, seek one another’s counsel.

Secondly, it suggests how much value Muhammad, the Prophet of God, gave to human knowledge that he himself did not possess. He did not hesitate to seek it from somebody else who knew more about warfare. This proves that the Prophet of Islam believed in collective intelligence generated through participative-democracy.


If he were an oppressive dictator, no one would have had the courage to say anything or dare challenge his actions. A monarch would have had all such people executed, their eyes gouged out and bodies chopped to pieces. Doubters would have been hung, drawn and quartered.

If he were a caeser, or a pharaoh, he would have thrown opponents to lions or burnt them alive. He would have still gone into battle, with or without stratagem, and would have considered his own opinion superior to everyone else’s, in all matters.


We see that at that particular juncture in Islamic history, he was confronted with a situation, he asked for opinions when his own action was challenged by his own followers, and acted upon what others agreed. This is how Islam allowed everyone to challenge even the holiest of the holy amongst men.

Another person’s opinion saved Muslims from certain defeat but it was the practice and leadership of Muhammad, which allowed collective intelligence to prevail through participative-democracy. Muhammad was the unquestioned spiritual head and the declared leader of Muslims, but at the same time, he described himself as an ordinary man, only an arbitrator, and not a ruler or king. He described himself as someone who tried to resolved differences amongst people.


It suggests that he valued other peoples’ opinion; he bowed before opinions of those who knew more about various worldly subjects. He valued others. He valued their knowledge. He exercised participative-democracy as established practice, in resolving issues when confronted with challenges of any sort, except when he received divine revelation.


It is also proven that he, and his original companions practiced respect of knowledge and valued collective intelligence. Democracy was such in Mohammad’s life that his followers asked him to distinguish between his opinion as a man and divine guidance from God. When he declared that his opinion was his personal one, they demanded further exploration and sought opinion from a more experienced expert. If that is not participative-democracy, where people are allowed to take charge of their own lives, as their lives were at stake, what is?


The other aspect that is highlighted is value derived from knowledge, via democratic discussion, and how this knowledge saved Muslims from annihilation. This was only possible because of the environment of democratic nurturing and courage to question that Prophet Muhammad created in Madina’s Islamic society. Prophet Muhammad fought that battle on the basis of knowledge acquired from Suleman the Persian. At that juncture, Arabs did not become xenophobic or ethnocentric. They did not feel superior to the Persian refugee. They were guided by the advice of someone who did not belong to Arabia but came from Persia. They did not exhibit any discriminatory thoughts against him, or doubted his intentions. He was a close companion of Prophet Muhammad, a former slave, whom Prophet had managed to free, and despite being a non-Arab, he was the architect of their defense.


In regards succession, being close companions of the Prophet became the key argument that his friends, Abu-Bakr and Omar, presented to the host population of the city of Medina, when the issue of succession appeared after his demise. They canvassed that his successor to lead Muslims should be from amongst the closest companions.


This was the first test of leadership and succession for Muslims, without the Prophet. They dealt with it through a choice, through discussion of opposing ideas. This choice was presented to the broad community of Muslims: the Ansaar (the host community) and the Muhajaroon (the migrants, the asylum seekers). Muhammad, who led the migrating Muslims from the city of Mecca to the city-state of Medina, had become the symbol of the new joint-community, which, after his death, was choosing a leader.

The narrative goes something like this: after the death of Prophet Muhammad, Abu-bakr and Omar heard that the people of Medina, specifically the Ansaar (the host community) were meeting to decide a successor from amongst themselves. When they arrived there at the gathering, they found that discussions had already begun and they were close to making a choice. The host community wanted the new leader to be selected from amongst them because, they argued, that they were saviors of Islam and benefactors of Meccan Muslims. That the Prophet had chosen to migrate to their city at their invitation. They contended that the prophet had decided to live amongst them as their own and made Madina, also called Yathrib, his city. From these discussions arose consensus. Abu-bakr and Omar presented two main arguments: first, the leader should not be chosen only from the host community despite it being the majority and indeed being saviour of the migrant-Muslims of Mecca. Second, the process of selecting through dialogue, discussion, and consensus should occur regardless of one’s tribal and migration status; and the choice should be made from amongst those who were the closest to the Prophet.

Abu-bakr and Omar presented the case and through discussion, dialogue, and consensus. They were able to convince all communities in Madina such that the majority host community accepted both these arguments. It transcended boundaries of tribalism, which were many; it overcame caste, creed, colour, and nationality (Medina being a separate city state from the city state of Mecca.).


There were three parties interested in leadership: prophet’s family and their nominee was Imam Ali. Abu-bakr represented friends of the Prophet. Ansaar had their own nominee. That gathering acted as an electoral college, with representative nominees from all parties, although Prophet’s family were busy in his funeral and were not able or willing to participate in discussion about succession at that time of sorrow.


The gathering of representatives of people of Madina ultimately agreed on Abu-bakr as the first caliph of Muslims. Despite opposition from Prophet’s daughter Fatima, who later supported her husband’s right to succeed, the selection had already taken place and Ali decided to accept the decision to avoid conflict and bloodshed amongst Muslims.

This decision represented many things. The host community acknowledged that there would be no difference between the host and the migrant communities; so, equality was established, as demanded by God, in Quran, and by Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. There would be no discrimination between the saviours and the saved: the asylum seekers and the asylum givers; All Muslims were eligible for selection; all were equal; and only by discussion and consensus the next leader would be selected.


They also accepted the other criterion for selection that whoever was the closest to the Prophet of Islam was more worthy. This was a criterion agreed and the majority accepted that argument. This was a transparent and equitable criterion and each had the opportunity to present his or her arguments. This closeness to prophet did not necessarily mean blood link, as seen by the community. This process was more significant in the sense that it was consensual, after arguments. It also empowered the previously persecuted asylum seekers to acquire leadership position with the support of the asylum givers. The majority agreed to hand over power to the minority. The indigenous handed power, by choice, to the foreign. Why? Because these distinctions, of caste, colour, creed and tribe, had been demolished by the Prophet and the Quran.


The argument put forward by Prophet’s daughter Fatima was also founded on the criterion of closeness to the prophet, of her husband, Imam Ali. She was leading that argument, albeit late, a woman leading a major political move, immediately after the death of the Prophet. She argued, unsuccessfully, that if selection were to be made on closeness to the Prophet then there was no one closer than Ali. Ali was a cousin, someone whom Prophet brought up as a son, with his first wife Khadijah, in his own home, the closest relative since childhood, a comrade, the first male Muslim and the son-in-law of his favourite daughter, all in one. Ali was an intellectual, an author, a scholar, a poet, a great general, a great warrior and commander and more than a brother to Muhammad, the Prophet.


We see strong democratic processes emerging, obviously grounded in the training by Prophet Muhammad while he was alive. There was no such tradition of singular leadership of all disparate tribes and faiths in that region. Each tribe had its own hereditary leader. But, once Prophet Muhammad was gone, they did what they and been taught: selected a leader through peaceful, democratic dialogue and consensus, for all tribes and cities they had influence over.


In this participative-democratic process, there was discussion at length amongst the general population. We could call it participative-electoral process, to determine selection criteria by the populace. As a result of those discussions a set of criteria were evolved. We could call it a qualification process. Then there was a further refining discussion, which led to the development of gathering of people who could agree. We may call it an electoral college, and that led to the final selection of the new leader. But, the new leader was only in matters of the world and not of faith. For that, Muhammad was the final arbiter in his life and all decisions relating to faith were to be made in the light of the Quran.

At the same time, we also see a woman, at the head of a political move, presenting strong arguments, on the unanimously agreed criteria. She was leading a democratic movement, in asserting her point of view, supported by a large number of other Muslims, supporting the candidacy of her husband. That was the core democratic tradition, establishing the role of women in Islam’s participative-democracy. This was the behaviour of the original Muslim community, as trained and nurtured by the Prophet.


This was continuing the practices of the Prophet, guided by various orders in the Quran like “ Shoora Baina-hum” (seek each others counsel). God ordains consultation, discussion and consensus especially when Muslims confront issues on which Quran is not clear or when prophet had not clarified what should happen.   At the most crucial point of Islam, the death of the Prophet, especially when his wisdom was not available, Muslims evolved a universal process of empowered, informed and vigorous, yet peaceful discussion.


Despite being family of the Prophet, Ali did not pick the sword to support his candidacy. He bowed before the decision of others, to avoid discord. He accepted the result. This further evolved into developing criteria of selection through broad based succession of leadership. We see, for the first time in history, a democratic faction led by a woman. She being the eldest daughter of the Prophet suggests that Muslim women have a role model in Islam, to participate in democratic process of electing leadership in Islam.


Although Fatima’s argument was based on valid principles but, was late in coming, and for some, contained seeds of hereditary leadership. Ali was not only a great scholar, general, leader and close confidante but also the closest blood relative of Prophet Muhammad. Prophet Muhammad was raised by Ali’s father, in Ali’s house. Ali was raised in Muhammad’s house, he was Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali’s father was the only father-figure Prophet knew in his life. The intense grief Mohammad felt at the death of his uncle, Ali’s father, led him, to declare that year as “the year of grief”, something also compounded by the death of his most beloved wife, Khadijah.


We see a move away from hereditary leadership by a majority of Muslim community, despite strong arguments in his favour. There does not seem to be any faction that chose heredity as their argument. All factions wanted equitable and transparent succession, based on principles of emancipation, equity and merit.


Clearly, the practice of Prophet Muhammad and the message of Islam that every Muslim was equal in the eyes of God were established firmly. We see a democratic, universal, egalitarian, fraternal and robust system of discussion, dialogue, challenge, disagreement and consensus at the end.


Once succession was decided by the majority, everybody followed. The first amongst those who pledged his allegiance to the first Caliph, once the majority had decided, was Imam Ali. He became a close advisor to the first caliph. He remained his friend and continued to subscribe to the doctrine of universal franchise.


It suggests that original, unadulterated and basic Islam practiced, during the life of Muhammad and in election of his successor, universal, participative-democracy.   This doctrine included equality for women and saw women’s influence in political dialogue. There are numerous other examples of strong women exercising influence during and after the life of Prophet Muhammad. The role of his wife, mother of believers, Ayesha, is another clear example.


Original Muslims did not see conflict between Islam and democracy as they practiced participative-democracy freely and in all situations. They were moved away form monarchy and heredity as determinants of leadership in Islam, in clear contradistinction to subsequent events and now, contemporary prevailing practices in parts of the Muslim world.


Another interesting aspect is that there was no influence of any ecclesiastical class. At that time there was no group of scholars in religion, exclusively trained in and specifically groomed to be experts in religion. This influence did not appear to be a factor at all. At that time, there were few who could compare themselves to the scholarship of Imam Ali, an author and intellectual of Islam and other disciplines, including philosophy. He was a distinguished poet too. But, religious scholarship and belonging to a religious class was neither a requirement nor mandated in Islam.


Abu-bakr, on the other hand, did not claim to be or was considered a scholar of Islam. He was a cloth merchant by profession and a devout friend of Muhammad.  He was always there when Muhammad needed him and he was devoted to the cause of Islam, giving away everything he owned for the sake of Islam. Knowledge of religion was not a factor in the choice of successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Closeness to the Prophet was.


In this succession process many democratic themes emerged confirming that Islam practiced participative-democracy during the life of the Prophet and also immediately after his death. Religion of Islam established strong democratic behaviours.


Muhammad himself and his original companions did not subscribe to the doctrine of hereditary monarchy or familial despotism. He rejected familial or tribal affiliations, as Quran ordained it. Quran established a democratic society, where each had a stake and each participated, with equity and equality.


The second to explore is the concept of democracy in contemporary Muslim societies in regards collective intelligence.

From Muslim history the actions of Prophet Muhammad and his original companions, it is apparent that Muslim society was run on principles of democracy, justice, accountability and respect for knowledge.   Everybody valued his or her life. They did not follow their leader blindly. They questioned the leader. The leader felt accountable to his followers and when challenged upon an action, he sought guidance from more knowledgeable person amongst his companions. And, alongside everyone else, Prophet also followed that advice. From this example alone we can see numerous democratic principles being established by Prophet Mohammad.


Whether democratic process had emotional value for society, this question was also addressed by actions of the prophet.

From above examples we see that Muslim society, as run by Prophet Muhammad, and after his death by his companions, first five caliphs, was run on democratic practices, and on the principle of fair accountability. Differences of opinions were respected. Differences were robustly presented. Another important fact appeared was active involvement of every Muslim in this process, whether migrant Arab, non-Arab, local Arab, man or woman. This process included freed slave Bilal the Ethiopian, Suleman the Persian and of course all others around the Prophet. They were people from every caste, color and creed. His adoptive son was a freed slave. His friends and confidantes were from various parts of the world. These people were leaders of Muslims and not just invisible faces in the crowd. The wretched of the earth were leaders in Islamic society.


That was the greatest tradition of multi-cultural cooperation, multi-racial harmony, multi-faith integration and mutually-respectful multi-religious co-existence. This fraternal co-existence was crucial for emotional well being of Muslims to develop a peaceful society as ordained by the Quran and so established by the Prophet. Peace in the world, with equity and justice for all in Islam is clearly stated in the Quran.


Muslims are required to be active part of constructing a peaceful, non-repressive, completely equitable, neighbour-loving, orphan-embracing, excessively-charitable, slave-freeing, intensely-generous and honest-living society, by their religion.

These episodes establish the concept of care given to the emotional wellbeing of Muslims. The ordinary individual, man or woman, is involved in this process of governance. There is ownership in every aspect of running Muslim society, which is actually run by people themselves. When Mohammad receives divine guidance everybody accepts it without question. When he gives personal opinion, there is discussion. This discussion makes everyone own Islamic society and its decisions. Muhammad values people’s lives and their opinions. Every time there is no divine guidance, opinions of others and especially those who have better knowledge of specific matters, are accepted and acted upon. All this gives Muslims ownership of their society and it establishes psychological security for them that they are stakeholders in the running of their lives and their state. They were active participants and decision makers in the process of developing an Islamic community.


That community, from earlier examples, was democratic at its core. It was democratic in practice, democratic in attitude and completely accountable, working through dialogue and consensus.


As long as people followed core Islamic and Muhammadan practices they were selfless and focused on the creation of the first welfare society in the World. When they moved away from these principles they began to serve individual, familial and tribal aspirations of power, they betrayed core Islamic principles and practices, established by Prophet Muhammad and his original companions: the first five caliphs. After them, Muslim societies became hereditary, despotic and dictatorial states, leading to conquest, empire, civil warfare and split into factions, leading to being colonized and enslaved.


The example for America is too obvious for all to see. Its democracy, although representative at the highest level, is participative at the local level. That is its dynamo for growth and development. In Muslim societies, the example of Malaysia is probably the only one. It was transformed by strong democratic leadership, which provided stability, racial cohesion and economic growth. Before this change, when Malaysian communities were relying on hereditary and unaccountable ruling systems, that nation was suffering from internal strife, economic stagnation and social decay leading to bloodshed.

After having studied Islamic history, life of Prophet Muhammad, actions of his first five caliphs, it is unquestionably clear that discussion, dialogue, consensus building, and respect for knowledge and acquiring mandate of the people were key Islamic principles. God used the word ’Ilm’ more than any other word in the Quran, except God: more than prayer, fasting or Hajj. Is it from ’Ilm’ or knowledge that we derive insight into history? From that insight, we understand actions of Prophet Muhammad. These actions are repeated by his immediate successors. These processes are: consultation, discussion, seeking support of masses, dialogue, accountability and respect for people’s opinions. These are key to the establishment and subsequent success of any just Islamic society.


Just Islamic society can only be established if there is complete and absolute justice, with peace and security for the citizen, free from any form of oppression, so he or she can devote his or her life to the service of God, in piety, charity, knowledge, service to humanity, feeding the poor, ransoming the captive, freeing the slave, removing injustice from economic suppression, fighting usury, feeding the hungry, embracing the orphan, being trustworthy in dealings, being honest when trusted and not creating conflict (fasad).


On the one hand, the second caliph Omar was known as a very strong leader, but on the other, when he was seen wearing a longer length of cloth acquired from war booty, an ordinary Muslim challenged him publicly, in a mosque he stood up to him and questioned him. The gathering held him accountable for wearing a longer length of cloth compared to others. He had to justify his position that his share was equal to others but due to his tall disposition, his son offered his share to him because his share of cloth could not make him a full-length shirt. Such was the level of complete accountability and participative-democracy in the original Islamic state.


Reading this history as one reads it, for the Prophet of Islam and his immediate followers, participative democracy is not a preference. It is but the core principle on which an Islamic state must be based. That core Quranic principle of equality before God and complete justice in all aspects of life in Islamic state then evolves a process of discussion, arguments and peaceful consensus building, through collective wisdom and knowledge. This is done in such a way that it is situationally relevant, religiously applicable, morally justifiable and emotionally nurturing of a peaceful Islamic state. From an Islamic point of view, the way one reads it, one sees no other system except Islamic participative-democracy, which is egalitarian and emancipatory; that is based on absolute accountability and universal franchise, with women able to and taking leadership roles in discussion, consultation, dialogue and decision-making.

All other systems maybe present in Muslim history but are contrary, if not contradictory, to the original Islamic history, as practiced by Prophet Muhammad and his original followers.


  • (Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, to be inferred each time it is written or read)
  • (About the Khariji/Khawarij, Islamic scholar and historian, Ismail ibn Kathirwho wrote, “If they ever gained strength, they would surely corrupt the whole of the Earth, Iraq and Shaam (Syria) – they would not leave a baby, male or female, neither a man or a woman, because as far as they are concerned the people have caused corruption, a corruption that cannot be rectified except by mass killing.”




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