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د عدلي الهواري

للمساهمة في التراكم المعرفي وتعزيز التفكير النقدي

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Controlled Democratisation: Democracy and Islam in Jordan

Islamic Democracy?

Dr. Adli Hawwari


د. عدلي الهواري

Having discussed the claims of incompatibility made by Muslims, I shall discuss Esposito and Voll’s arguments concerning Islamic democracy, whose elements, they suggest, include shura (which I discussed), tawhid, and the caliphate (1996, pp. 21-32).

Tawhid

The importance of tawhid is encapsulated in the first pillar of Islam: the statement that ‘there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger’. This principle does not accept the notion that there are other Gods, or that God has a son or children. The notion of trinity is not accepted in Islam as it contradicts the principle of tawhid.

Moreover, the principle is extended to mean that there is no need for intermediaries between God and people (Muslims), whether the intermediary is a holy person, a revered object such as a statue, or the grave of a saint. The use of an intermediary is known as shirk, which means God has partners of sorts. The Arabs before Islam used idols in rituals that they thought made them closer to God. Muhammad’s message was against that.

Al-Mawdudi’s emphasis on tawhid is unnecessary because a Muslim does believe that there are no other Gods but Allah. A Muslim says this many times a day. The intermediary part is the problematic one. There are people who seek help of pirs, or visit tombs asking God to grant their wishes, such as recovering from an illness, or having children. These practices used to be common; they still exist.

I suggest that there is a link between wealth and education and these practices. In the past, a desperate infertile woman would go to a holy place to pray and ask God to enable her to have children. An infertile woman now would seek a medical solution.

The people who engage in such practices do not consider them shirk because they have already acknowledged that there is no God but Allah. The father of Wahhabism, Muhammad ‛Abd al-Wahhab, considers them shirk, and these practices are not allowed in Saudi Arabia. However, they are not banned in other Muslim countries.

I suggest that the importance al-Mawdudi attaches to tawhid is related to this aspect (shirk). Al-Mawdudi has argued in the past that al-Ahmadiyya sect is not Islamic, and sought to declare it as such. Al-Mawdudi’s concern about shirk is artificially connected to the notion of democracy.

A Muslim ruler may feel great, and may create a cult of personality around him. Some people may fear him; others may love him. However, this form of ‘worship’ is different from worshipping Allah at certain times of the day.

Moreover, if democracy is implemented in Muslim countries, the chances of creating cults of personality decrease, because the officeholder has to leave at the end of a set period. Therefore, to suggest that tawhid somehow makes democracy incompatible with Islam is unjustified.

The Caliphate: Islam’s Political System?

According to Esposito and Voll (1996), another element in al-Mawdudi’s notion of Islamic democracy is the caliphate. In arguing that Islam has its own political system, al-Tamimi (1993) claims that ‘[m]any contemporary Islamic thinkers consider the collapse of the Islamic Caliphate to be the most catastrophic event in the entire history of the Muslims’ (p. 11).

Al-Tamimi makes no attempt to criticise this statement for being a gross exaggeration and loaded with inaccuracies. To begin with, there is no mention of some of those thinkers to examine their views on the issue of Islamic caliphate.

The claim that the collapse of the caliphate was so catastrophic seems at odds with many catastrophic events in the history of Muslims. For instance, what about the invasion of Baghdad by the Mughal? What about the driving out of Muslims from Andalusia? What about the loss of Palestine, an event Palestinians and Arabs refer to as the catastrophe (nakba)? What about the loss of Jerusalem, the third holiest shrine for Muslims?

Gross exaggerations aside, I shall subject the point about the caliphate to the scrutiny it deserves.

The most common meaning of khalifa in Arabic is ‘successor’: one who comes after another, either after death, or one who replaces another in a position in an organisation. Therefore, Abu Bakr was the successor of Prophet Muhammad. He became the leader of Muslims after the death of Muhammad. ‛Umar was the successor of Abu Bakr.

Tamimi overlooks certain facts in Islamic history when he makes his arguments about the caliphate. The title of the ruler of Muslims was not caliph (successor) throughout Islamic history. Soon after ‛Umar became the caliph, a new title emerged: commander of the faithful. The title caught on, because ‛Umar was supposed to have had the title of the successor of the successor of the messenger of God. The title would have become very long after a few caliphs (Sharqawi 1987, p. 60). The title ‘commander of the faithful’ is still in use in Morocco.

The first four caliphs were selected through varying degrees of consultations amongst Muslims. They did not become caliphs on hereditary bases. The fourth caliph, ‛Ali, was beset by wars with Mu‛awiya. The advocates of ‛Ali’s right to rule after Muhammad created their own branch of Islam (Shi‛i). Once Mu‛awiya secured his reign, he introduced the hereditary system of government. Is this Islamic? If so, why was it not introduced by the Prophet? If it was not Islamic, why did it continue for centuries? The point here is that al-Tamimi’s assertion that the caliphate is the Islamic system of government is problematic already.

Ibn Khaldun (2011, pp. 284-285) explains that the title ‘sultan’ was common, but after the central caliphate disintegrated, different titles were used by the rulers of different parts of the Muslim world. Moreover, by the sixteenth century, as Esposito points out (1994, p. 62): ‘Three major Muslim empires emerged in the midst of the many sultanates’, namely, the Ottoman; the Safavid in Iran; and the Mughal in India.

‛Abd al-Raziq (2000) discussed the issue of caliphate in Islam.(1) He pointed out that the caliphate was eliminated in Baghdad by the Mughal in the seventh century, hijra (p. 137). Moreover, he disagreed with Ibn Khaldun who suggested that unlike other religions, the religious and political authorities in Islam were merged (p. 150). He concludes that the caliphate is a political matter, not a religious one, and it must be decided by ‘reason, experiences of nations and political rules’ (p. 182).

‛Imara (2000) explains that there are contradictions in Raziq’s analysis and that he ‘neglected the bright side of Islamic thought’ (p. 49). According to ‛Imara, there were Muslim thinkers who adhered to the principles of shura and selection even when the rulers usurped power (pp. 49-45).

Kahlawi (2007) notes that ‛Abd al-Raziq emphasised general statements, and added to them a brief and naïve historical narrative that would not be acceptable to most contemporary historians, including his denial that there was no government during the Prophet’s time’ (p. 13). I disagree with Kahlawi’s assessment. Although he is entitled to disagree with ‛Abd al-Raziq, the latter’s discussion of the caliphate is not naïve.

Furthermore, the advocates of the caliphate are silent about certain facts that reflect badly on the caliph, such as being allied with the colonisers of Turkey. Nor do they refer to the fact that Mustafa Kamal’s move was supported by some Muslims such as ‛Abd al-Hamīd ibn Badīs who described Kamal as ‘one of the great geniuses of the East’ (cited in ‛Imara 1984, p. 163). He considered the caliph of the time to be a captive caliph, and the ‛ulama’ around him to be hypocrites.

Irrespective of the title, two substantives points should be addressed: the first is whether the caliphate has been the Islamic system of government from after the death of Prophet Muhammad until it was the abolished by Mustafa Kamal in 1924. If this has been the case, the second point is to examine whether it is unIslamic to have a ruler with a different title?

Al-‛Awwa (2006, p. 25) subscribes to the view that there has been a caliphate system which started with the selection of Abu Bakr and ended with the removal of ‛Abd al-Majid in 1924. Abu al-Majd (2006) is more discerning when looking at the caliphate since Abu Bakr until ‛Abd al-Majid. He points out that the caliphate of the four rightly-guided caliphs is different from that of their successors, who, despite the title of caliph, were effectively kings. They ruled sometimes with coercion and did not respect rights and freedoms (pp. 104-105).

Therefore, the view that there has been a caliphate system that started after Prophet Muhammad and ended in 1924 is not uncommon. However, this view glosses over the differences that characterised the caliphs and caliphate at various stages in history. It also glosses over the fact that there have been three different Muslim regions with different rulers

In the absence of recognition of the differences, I agree with Abu al-Majd, who considers the arguments concerning the caliphate sterile (2006, pp. 104-105). Therefore, I will address the more substantive, relevant point: can Muslims be ruled by someone whose title is not caliph?

Both al-‛Awwa and Abu al-Majd argue that Islam, specifically the Qur’an and sunna, did not prescribe a system of government; nor did they specify how the ruler of the Muslims should be selected. Al-‛Awwa suggests the absence of a prescribed method to select the ruler and other details pertaining to the system of government means that these issues are left to Muslims to decide according to their interests, time, place, and circumstance. The only proviso is that these matters are decided with guidance from the general principles and values of Islam (pp. 64-65).

Similarly, Abu al-Majd explains that there has been consensus in the past that it is not the title that matters; it does not have to be caliph. He rejects the suggestion that the caliphate is a Godly system, namely, prescribed by God. He also rejects the opposite argument that the Islamic system of government is based on ijtihād, namely, solely based on human reason.

Abu al-Majd takes a centre position and argues that an Islamic system of government must be based on shura, justice, and holding the ruler to account. Al-‛Awwa argues that the term ‘caliphate’ does not imply a specific system of government, and that the caliphate is not part of shari‛a. That the Muslims in the past called their ruler ‘caliph’ is a matter that belongs to the realm of history, not religion, according to al-‛Awwa (pp. 108-109).

Interestingly, the view that a new Islamic system of government can be developed is shared by some Sunni and Shi‛i scholars. For instance, Paya (2010) outlines the views of some ‘famous contemporary Iranian scholars’ to establish how it is possible to have an Islamic version of democracy (p. 102). He outlines the views of such scholars from three categories: fundamentalist; traditionist (not the same as traditionalist), and modernist. The scholars in the first two categories ‘reject the authority of reason’. The modernists do not; they ‘try to provide rational interpretations of religious tenets and doctrine’ (p. 104).

Paya introduces a fourth category, which he calls ‘critical rationalists’. Within the framework of this category, Paya develops a model of Islamic democracy. It is based on treating democracy as a technology. As he points out (p. 110), ‘the users of technology [...] try to alter the products they are using to better fit their specific tastes and preferences [...] Car and home owners, almost universally, put their own personal touches on these “technological products” no matter how perfect the products were when they obtained them’ (p. 110).

Paya argues: ‘The more a technology is adjusted to the needs and cherished values of its users and the environment in which they live, the more it is considered “acceptable” or “popular” or “efficient”.’ (pp. 110-111).(2)

Treating democracy as a technology, and utilising the notion of ‘social construct’ and the critical rationalist approach, Paya concludes that it is possible to have Islamic forms of democracy which share with their ‘standard’ counterparts five components: ‘civil society, political society, the rule of law, state apparatus, and economic society’.

The other common features are ‘freedom of association and communication, free and inclusive electoral contestation, constitutionalism, regional-legal bureaucratic norms, and institutionalised markets’. He stresses that labelling it as Islamic does not attach to it ‘sacredness’; it implies ‘sources of value’ (p. 111).

Although I disagree with the need for an Islamic form of democracy, I do recognise that to move away from the rejection of democracy in Muslim countries, towards accepting an Islamic version entails some benefits.

Democracy, as practised now in democratic states, is not the same that was practised when it was first adopted as a system of government. Women had to fight for the right to vote. African-Americans in the US had to fight for their civil rights.

Therefore, the Islamic version, whether as proposed by Paya or anyone else, will not remain static. People will demand more and wider rights, and will achieve some or all demands through campaigns or reinterpretations of the Islamic principles and rules which restrict rights.

In contrast, El-Affendi (2010, p. 25) goes further than Paya in making the case for democracy without attaching any labels to it, Islamic or other. He suggests that there is an ‘anti-democratic ethos’ in the models purported to be ‘Islamic’. He further suggests that the ethos is ‘underpinned by a further set of interconnected assumptions’ made in relation to Islam having all the answers.

El-Affendi refutes these assumptions and comes to the conclusion that ‘Islamic teachings are not only compatible with democracy, but demand it’ (p. 26). He urges the Islamists to ‘revise their models in order to reflect Islam’s true spirit, which is not only favourable to democracy, but […] finds democracy indispensable’ (p. 26).

In sum, the incompatibility claim made by some Muslims on religious grounds is contested by other Muslims using religious grounds as well. In my considered judgement, the evidence is in favour of Muslims who reject the incompatibility claim.

Incompatibility Claims: Non-Muslim Scholars

Lewis (1990/2002) has argued that Islam is incompatible with democracy. He argues that the key to the success of ‘Christiandom’ is in the separation of ‘Church and State’. He traces the inclination to separate them back ‘almost to the beginning of Christianity’. Lewis says that ‘Christians are enjoined in the Scriptures to “render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s [ellipsis in original] and unto God the things which are God’s”.’(3)

Whether there is a relationship between Islam and a lack of democratisation, Huntington (1991) is not categorical regarding which side of the argument he is on. ‘Whatever the compatibility,’ Huntington observes, ‘of Islam and democracy in theory, in practice they have not gone together’ (p. 308). However, in 1997, he could not be more candid:

The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defence. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world (pp. 217-218).

Fukuyama (1992, p. 347) rejects the argument that there are cultural prerequisites for democracy. However, he contradicts himself when he discusses democracy and Islam. He does not see it as part of culture, which evolves, as he has argued. Instead, he claims that Islam is incompatible with liberal democracy, and Muslims have no interest in adopting it. He portrays Muslims as a mindless group of people, when he says Muslims ‘can, of course, challenge liberal democracy through terrorist bombs, a significant but not vital challenge’ (p. 347).

Milton-Edwards (2004, p. 116) makes the same claim that Islam and democracy are incompatible: ‘In conclusion, there is evidence that the religious fundamentals of Islam are incompatible with secular liberal democracy’. The claim is based on her observation that ‘the majority of Muslim societies are characterised by authoritarianism and intolerance for pluralism and principles of popular sovereignty and equality’ (p. 116). She reconsidered her view in 2010 as shall be seen later.

The suggestion by Lewis that Islam is not amenable to a separation of the state and mosque cannot stand even a minimum amount of scrutiny. The separation of church and state in the Christian world did not come naturally, nor was it established smoothly and effortlessly. In the past, the king of Spain was referred to as His Catholic Majesty, and the king of France was called His Most Christian Majesty.

Lewis’s approach to declaring the amenability of Christianity regarding separation of state and church is simplistic. By using a statement attributed to Jesus to explain the separation of state and church in the Christian world, Lewis’s approach is no different from that of al-Mawdudi and Qutb, who found in one short statement a rule that had magical power to explain complex phenomena. The state and church in the Christian world were not separate. There was a conflict between the church and state. That is why secularism emerged, with varying degrees of hostility towards religion.

Moreover, Lewis’s area of expertise is the Ottoman Empire. As discussed before, the view that there has been a continuous system of government since Abu Bakr in 632 until ‛Abd al-Majid in 1924 is not uncommon. However, as Abu al-Majd has pointed out, it is not possible to talk about that system and the entire period of time as one, inseparable unit. With regard to the Ottoman Empire, Abu al-Majd also points to a difference of opinion amongst Muslims regarding the Ottoman era, especially before the collapse of the empire and the removal of the last caliph, ‛Abd al-Majid.

He notes that some Muslims defended the Ottoman caliphate because they viewed it as Islamic and acted as a bulwark in the face of European political, military, and intellectual invasion. Other Muslims did not view it as Islamic in its latter days; they criticised the Ottoman caliph, and did not mind the collapse of the empire (pp. 104-105).

Therefore, when Lewis makes a sweeping generalisation about Islam, it is highly likely that he relies on his expertise in the Ottoman Empire, which lasted for more than six centuries. It defies logic that one can view this period as a single unit.

It defies logic even more when this long period is seen as a continuation of the caliphate that started with Abu Bakr, and as being representative of Islam and fourteen centuries of its history. It is imprudent to use this period, or events from the past, to make sweeping generalisations about Islam and Muslims now and in the future.

As Hitti (1948) notes, the idea of inseparability of political and religious roles of the leader of the Muslims is a ‘common fallacy’. He rejects the assertion that ‘the caliphate is a religious office’ (p. 57). He argues that it is ‘misleading’ to make comparisons with ‘the headship of the Holy Roman Empire’, or ‘the Catholic Church’ (p. 57). Hitti further notes: ‘Not until the latter part of the eighteenth century did the notion prevail in Europe that the Moslem Caliph was a kind of pope with spiritual jurisdiction over the followers of Muhammad throughout the world’ (p. 58). He attributes the idea to an Ottoman sultan, the ‘shrewd ‛Abd al-Hamid II’ (p. 58).

The principle of the separation of branches of government is discussed by Gharaybeh (2000, p. 505). He points out that only Prophet Muhammad combined all authorities. With his death, the ability to legislate with divine authority came to an end. Moreover, none of the successors combined all roles. Caliphs appointed judges to adjudicate on matters, and the caliphs were not above the decisions made by these judges.

In response to Lewis and Huntington, Said (2001) points out that Huntington ‘relies heavily on a 1990 article by the veteran Orientalist Bernard Lewis’.(4) He argues that ‘neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization’.

Said describes Huntington as ‘an ideologist, someone who wants to make “civilizations” and “identities” into what they are not: shut-down, sealed off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization and sharing’.

Said’s characterisation of Huntington as an ideologist applies equally to Fukuyama. These scholars are not only ideologists; they are in some way politicians, or scholars who serve political agendas. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 showed that they were members of the ‘neo-conservatives’ trend, or had offered advice to the administration of George W. Bush. As Waldman (2004) reported in the Wall Street Journal, days after the attacks of 11 September 2001, Lewis ‘argued for a military takeover of Iraq to avert still-worse terrorism in the future’.

The claim of incompatibility made by Milton-Edwards (2004) was based on what some Muslims, like Qutb, had argued. Her claim was shaky because she failed to identify the ‘religious fundamentals of Islam’ that made it incompatible with democracy. The ‘evidence’ she relies on to support the claim of incompatibility is that ‘the majority of Muslim societies are characterised by authoritarianism’.

Her own evidence is not in favour of her argument. If there is a minority of Muslim societies which are not ‘characterised by authoritarianism’, why not investigate the matter further to ascertain whether it is indeed the fundamentals of Islam that are the source of authoritarianism.

In fairness to Milton-Edwards, I should point out that she has updated her views on the matter. She indicates that many Muslim ‘thinkers believe that there is a mutual compatibility between Islam and democracy’. She further observes that the majority of Muslims have ‘accepted some notion of democracy, but […] they have differences over its precise meaning’ (2010, p. 137). In spite of the change, which seems qualified, the fact remains that the opinion she expressed in 2004 should be mentioned because it represents a view subscribed to by some non-Muslim scholars. Unlike Lewis, she reconsidered her view when she familiarised herself with what Muslim scholars have said about Islam and democracy.

Democracy and Shari‛a

There remains another important question to answer. Can democracy and shari‛a co-exist? Can democracy in a Muslim country be adopted, and at the same time shari‛a be applied? This is a valid point and requires consideration.(5) I propose two answers in response to this point.

The first is that, in theory, the answer is yes: shari‛a and democracy can co-exist. Shari‛a is an Arabic word for law. The other one is qānūn. The law and democracy co-exist in democratic countries, and the rule of law is very important in a democratic system of government. The laws in such countries differ from one another in relation to rights. The same logic applies to a Muslim country wishing to democratise and implement shari‛a at the same time.

Contrary to a widely held view, shari’a is a body of law, which covers punishments for crimes such as theft and murder, as well as other acts and beliefs which do not warrant punishment under universal human rights, such as sexual orientation or changing one’s religion.

In Muslim majority states, whether highly secularised such as Turkey, or anti-secular, such as Saudi Arabia, shari‛a does exist in one form or another in the laws in relation to marriage, inheritance, and economy, for instance.

Even in the West, the banking sector found that it can attract customers if the business is conducted in a way consistent with the shari‛a. Therefore, some financial institutions created Islamic banking and investment divisions. I need to stress here that I am only explaining that shari‛a is law and the term is broader than what it is often associated with—the penal code (hudūd).

Having said that, I have to explain how shari‛a, specifically the penal code that comes into conflict with the universal human rights, can be reconciled with democracy based on universal human rights. The answer is found through different routes. One is that it is wrong to suggest that the implementation of penal code in particular is wanted in every Muslim state.

There are old and new debates about the implementation of shari‛a even amongst those who want it implemented. Some people oppose immediate implementation, and call for gradual enforcement. Others argue that severe punishments, such as stoning and severing hands, were rarely implemented in the past because the conditions that have to be satisfied before the punishment is applied are nearly impossible to be satisfied.

For example, the punishment for zina requires that the act must be witnessed by four people. In reality, a couple copulate in private, and consequently the condition of four witnesses cannot be easily met. Those who follow this line of argument conclude that the punishments stipulated in shari‛a (hudūd) cannot be implemented because the standards of proof are too high.

In Saudi Arabia there is little doubt that shari‛a, regarding the penal code in particular, is implemented selectively. Therefore, it is not the model that appeals to other Muslim countries. The majority of Muslim states do not implement the hudūd. Jordan, my case study, is one of them. Some laws in Jordan are within the rules of shari‛a (family and related issues); others are not (banks and economy).

Laws and the interpretations of laws evolve. In the West, homosexuality was punishable by law. Oscar Wilde was tried for homosexuality and imprisoned. At present, gay couples can marry legally. Some Muslims say that Allah’s laws do not evolve. From a critical, rationalist perspective, this rigid attitude will not serve Islam or Muslims, as it rejects refutations.

Some Muslim scholars distinguish between shari‛a and fiqh. Abu al-Majd (2006, pp. 88-89) explains that those who equate them make a big mistake. The people who engage in fiqh are human beings, and obeying them is not a duty. Similarly, al-‛Awwa (2006, pp. 232-233) explains that opinions expressed by fuqahā’ in the past do not bind Muslims of subsequent eras, because the circumstances have changed.

In other words, although the point about implementing shari‛a within a democratic country seems contradictory at first sight, closer scrutiny reveals three points. The first is that there is no single interpretation of shari‛a; the second is that there is no agreement on immediate or gradual implementation; and the third is that not all Muslims want to implement hudūd.

= = =

(1) The book was originally published in 1925. Muhammad ‛Imara republished it in 2000 with relevant documents, including the decision by al-Azhar scholars to strip Razik of his ‛ālim title.

(2) There is an element of over-simplification in treating democracy as a technology. However, if this makes democracy acceptable, the comparison is useful.

(3) Lewis’s argument is outlined in The Atlantic magazine (Sept. 1990) and his book What Went Wrong? (2002).

(4) An Article in The Nation, 4 October 2011. Available online.

(5) I thank professor Chantal Mouffe for raising the issue in our discussion on Islam and democracy.


Adli Hawwari (2020). Controlled Democratisation: Democracy and Islam in Jordan, 1989-2019 : A Critical Reexamination of the Incompatibility Paradigm. London: Ud Al-Nad.

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