Sample Religious Studies Paper on Islam is incompatible with liberal democracy

Islam is incompatible with liberal democracy


Democracy is a commonly sought for movement in the world today, especially following the wake of socialization and liberal democracy. The world democracy has been questioned in various perspectives due to the rising cases of dictatorship and electoral malpractices. Most fingers point to the Islamic countries and the African continent as the most backward regions in terms of the ability to exercise democracy. While corruption and greed for power have been the two most common inhibitors of democracy among the African countries, religion, based on Islamic practices is a major hindrance to the democracy of Islamic countries. The relationship between Islam and democracy is a hotly contested debate around the globe following that dawn of modernity and liberality (Nader, 2009). Various scholars have questioned the extent to which Islam promotes democracy based on the systems of leadership adopted by the region’s leadership. Regarding this, some people have argued in favour of the traditional ruling structures adopted in most Islamic countries that are grounded on the basis of the Islamic faith.

On the other hand, various critics to the Islamic rule have emerged in different parts of the world, mostly of Islamic origins. Such include Sayyid Qutb of Egypt among others. These people have come up to question the fundamentals of the Islamic leadership that reflects the exercise of democracy. Over a long time and in most Islamic nations, the monarchy has been adopted as the model of leadership succession in various Muslim nations around the globe. As Robert, (2000) notes, monarchical governments are inherited rather than electoral. As a result, the leadership responsibilities are passed on from the father to the son upon death or retirements. Elections are not favoured in these contexts, and so the choice of the people is put at bay. Democracy advocates for leadership responsibilities given by the people, for the people and which rules in favour of the people that chose the given leadership regime. This paper examines to what extent Islam is compatible with democracy. The comparison is made by examining the views and opinions of various scholars who have opposed or proposed the Islamic mode of leadership in favour of democracy and the vice versa. This will enable us to come up with a common standpoint to illustrate the facts sought for in this paper.

Defining democracy

In a bid to put the points here straight, we would need to define the term democracy as use din different contexts of life and the world. The term democracy has received various connotations from different people who use it to refer to different aspects of their immediate and remote contexts. The present quest for democracy has thronged many political and religious atmospheres. What exactly is the democracy?  Mohammed, (2007) in his attempt to define democracy notes puts an emphasis to the existence of two different forms of democracy that are exercised by different types of governments: liberal democracy and electoral democracy. In this text, we shall peg our definition of democracy upon the assertions of Joseph Schumpeter as used by Ahmet, (2009). In his definition, Schumpeter defined electoral democracy as a set of institutional arrangements used for arriving at a political decision whereby the individuals (citizens of a nation) hold the power to the most appropriate means of a competitive struggle for the people’s votes. 

The extent to which electoral democracy can be liberal is still a bone of contention between various political analysts and sociologists. According to (), electoral democracy can be illiberal owing to the fact that the decision lies with the majority of the voters and not on the solid requirements of the society. In support of these arguments, Marina, (2003) records that electoral democracy does not have to include the needs to fend for the rights of the minority group in the society and whose rights and responsibilities are often inhibited by the decisions made by the simple majority. It favours the tyranny of the majority group while ignoring the voices of the minority groups. Besides, electoral democracies, liberal democracy is defined by () to include numerous provisions that are sued to protect the minority groups against the tyranny of the majority.  According to Lewis, (1996), liberal democracy besides, does require the provisions of a reserved domain of power that reserves the rights of certain classes of people in the society such as the clergy and the military organizations.  

In a nutshell, both the electoral and liberal democracies have certain factors that determine the way they are practiced. These factors act as the common denominator. To both forms of democracy describe din the previous sections. These include the concept of popular sovereignty, one person one person voting rule, the need to exercise freedom of speech and assembly, the right to protest against the ruling government or object to the government’s rule as well as oppose the ruling government, the need for separation of ruling powers through the executive, the judiciary and the legislature, and the right to have an independent judiciary. In their observations, Masmoudi, (2003) summarizes the last point above as a system of rule which takes into consideration the split of powers into a minimum of three basic compartments: the executive, the judiciary and the legislature. Failure to exercise the three basic rules is a failure of democracy, and that must be taken into account to alleviate the needs of the majority and the minority groups within the society in question. The extent to which democracy is exercised by various governments is a question of controversial debates that has continued to attract the attention of many people around the globe. 

Brief survey of the Islamic democracies

The compatibility between Islam and democracy can be looked upon in various dimensions. Whether electoral or liberal, does democracy exists in the context of Islamic systems of governments? This section will illustrate this point based on a variety of perspectives by providing an in-depth analysis and interpretation of various texts written by different scholars.  (Lakoff, (2004) assessment of the Islamic rule in 47 Islamic countries notes that only 11 of them representing 23 percent of the studied population have had successful democratic elections since their creation. From the onset of governance in the 47 Islamic countries surveyed in () research to 2002, much have not changed in many Islamic worlds. Some of the common democratic affairs that have been witnessed in various Islamic societies include the reelection of President Hosni Mubarak in 2005 during a hotly contested democratic election in which multiple candidates were fielded, a successful parliamentary election that took place in Iraq in 2005 as well as the constitutional referendum that was held in the same year (2005).

The majority of the Muslim nations, however, have shown little if no intentions to embrace democracy in their ruling systems. Çaha, (2003) conducted a similar research that constituted up to 53 states forming the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Among these, () asserts that only Turkey can be said to have passed the Huntington’s criteria for classifying democracy. According to Huntington’s classification, a country is said to be democratic if it has held at least two consecutive and successful elections that have led to a successful change of governments through peaceful free and fair elections. Among the 53 countries surveyed, only Turkey seemed to have qualified the criterion. Even so, El-Affendi, (2003) notes that even Turkey’s democracy is a troubled one and raises more questions that answer regarding its sustainability over time. Moreover, El-Affendi, (2003) made a systematic comparison between the extent of democracies exercised between Muslim-majority countries and the other countries that have embraced modern democratic systems of ruling. According the findings from this research, out of 193 Free states surveyed, 119 of them, making 60 percent had strongly entrenched democratic systems of ruling and government transitions through peaceful and democratic elections. This number was then compared to another group of 46 Muslim-majority nations, and the findings indicated that only 9 of them, representing 9 percent had strongly entrenched electoral democracies.      

Freedom House, besides, categorizing countries as either democratic or not goes ahead and gives scores to various countries as a means of categorizing them based on the level of democracies adopted in their respective governance systems. The score ranges from 1 to 7 and is guided by various observations that underscore democracy in the respective nations. The groupings of Freedom House as follows: 1 – 2.5 grouped as Free states (democratic), 3 – 5 grouped as partly free (partly democratic) and 5 – 7 grouped as non- Free states (undemocratic or authoritarian countries) (Ahmet, 2009). Using the Freedom House categorization above, El-Affendi, (2003) has developed a trend in the transition system among various Muslim majority countries grouped as either free, partly free or non- free countries in terms of democratization of their government systems. This survey was conducted to date back to 1972 and is represented in Table 1 below. Based on the categorization displayed in Table 1, the number of free Muslim societies that are categorized as democratic and Free States has been decreasing over time owing to some factors. While religion plays a very critical role in determining the systems of governments adopted in these states, other factors such as the distinctions between the ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’, and the ‘sacred law’ and ‘secular laws’. 

Table 1: classification ratios of Muslim majority countries as free, partly free and non-free countries

Source: Nader, (2009)

Islam’s compatibility with democracy

            Questions regarding whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy has raised a series of questions stemming from different quarters. The debate has led to the division between the contestants into two main groups of those in support for the presence of democracy and those in opposition. In a bid to approve or disapprove of these facts, we shall look at various aspects of the governance that are related to the presence or absence of democracy. As Nader, (2009) notes, there are three main classical or historical procedures through which governance or rulership in the Islamic context was passed on to the next generation: through shura, istikhlaf (nomination of a successor by an ailing ruler) and ghalaba (nomination through force whereby the successful candidate had to suppress and subdue all political rivals in order to access leadership). The three systems of government succession are still commonly evident in the majority of the Muslim countries. These three systems will be looked at in this section to ascertain the extent of democracy in the Islamic contexts.  

Shura: participatory governance in Islam

            Shura is an Arabic word that can be translated directly into consultation. Shura is used in the Islamic context of governance to refer to a system of governance in which deliberations are conducted between the ruling body and the citizens to come up with different opinions concerning certain factors with an aim of coming up with a unanimous decision Mohammed, (2007). Islamic Shura is traced back to the verses in the al-shura as well as the al-‘Imran chapters of the Quran. Several directives involving the shura are also found in the hadiths made up by various Muslim scholars as well in Muhammad’s systems of decision-making and governance. In consideration of all these facts, the majority of the Islamic jurists and contemporary scholars consider shura a fard translated directly as an Islamic obligation (Mohammed, 2007). Even those that do not believe in the obligations of the shura still deem it madub (recommended for practice within the Islamic context).

According to the Islamic theological teachings, people who do things that are mandub are ultimately rewarded by God and failure to do so is associated with certain repercussions. Majority of the Islamic jurists believe that powerful people in the society, who can be trusted with leadership positions, ahl al-hall wa al-‘aqd are those that have the power or strength to force obedience or the consent of the people to admit their rulership. It is for this reason that in most Islamic countries, leadership positions are held on by certain powerful members of the society including highly influential persons, tribal leaders, military commanders, wealthy people, famous elders and scholars (Marina, 2003). It is also these people who were also considered official participants of shura.  

 These beliefs are still held by various Islamic groups around the globe. As () notes, ahl al-hall are usually not elected. In most Islamic nations, leadership positions are changed from generation to generation through the voices of the powerful people in that particular society. This is seen in various countries including Egypt where political opposition has been met with utter resistance from the ruling side. The case is similar in several other Muslim nations, especially among those in the Asian continent and Middle East. In most cases, the ruling people have to suppress the voice of all opposing persons to rule. Such instances are seen in places such as Iraq where Sadam Hussein exercised his authority over the people through the murder or several people who were opposed to his ruling regime. Similar situations are witnessed in Syria where the Al Assad household has been ruling with an iron hand for several years. 

Even though various Muslim jurists and theologians agree that the number of votes cast should be the ultimate decisive factor in determining the ruling persons within society, there is no specific definition of the participants’ voters in the endorsement process. It is for this reason that Nader, (2009) attests to the fact that rulers in the Islamic contexts are entrenched in power by the powerful members of the society and maintained through suppression of the opposing voices. This assertion is confirmed by the beliefs of several other Islamic jurists who subscribe to the belief that important decisions in the society should be arrived at based on a combination of strength and theological knowledge backing the decision makers. On many occasions, those in this school of thought have held the day compared to those proposing the majority vote counting as the major decisive factor.           

The Bay’a as an Islamic electoral platform

Basically, we have seen all the three ways through which leadership can be passed on to the next generation. In this section, we will look at the last method (Bay’a) of changing leadership positions within an Islamic context and its relationship with democracy. As opposed to the other methods of leadership changes discussed in the previous sections of this paper, bay’a literally refer to the act of selling the leadership position or the right to leadership in exchange for something else. Bay’a in the Islamic context refers to the process of giving loyalty to the would-be ruler after a successful negotiation with the rightful owner of the kingship. Certain conditions have to be met, however. Such conditions include a variety of different policies as well as promises that revolve around social justice, wealth distribution as well as the military defense (Robert, 2000). The agreement stipulated in the bay’a can be withdrawn in case the conditions set are not met. Bay’a is not a common leadership crowning process in most Islamic nations today. However, the three pre-discussed conditions are common in several countries around the globe

Islamic political democracy and women

  According to Nader, (2009) liberal democracy is one that caters to the needs of every member of the society irrespective of their differences in sex, race, tribe, language, or religious affiliations. Liberal democracy gives all people, men and women, equal opportunities to participate in the decision-making process irrespective of their economic standings. Current democratic propositions tend to encourage people from all walks of life who are legible to vie for any governance position. Women, people with disabilities and such related persons have been encouraged to vie for various political posts in various countries. America considered the most democratic state in the world has women incorporated in leadership positions in various aspects. For instance, Hillary Clinton was the former secretary of state during the first regime of President Obama’s leadership over the US. She is the current senator representing the state of New York. Other instances of women being accorded leadership positions have been witnessed in various democracies around the globe.  

Islamic democracies do not give room for women and other people with different kinds of disabilities to vie or be in various positions of leadership. According to El-Affendi, (2003) women are considered voiceless in the Islamic context. El-Affendi, (2003) assessment of the Islamic leadership through history notes that there is not even a single woman in who has ever held leadership positions in these countries. Besides, El-Affendi, (2003) asserts that the rights of women and other people with disability is often violated as they are ignored, their voices are not taken into account in making serious decisions concerning the governance of their respective countries as well as in the exercise of the shura. In this way, therefore, we can conclude that Islamic democracy is partial and inclined to favour the male members of the society at the expense of the vulnerable women and people with disabilities.   


To conclude democracy involves considering the voice of the people to be the dominant factor that governs decision-making processes taking place in various sectors of the society. Two types of democracies exist in the world: liberal and electoral democracies. The aspect of democracy is sought for by an increasing majority of the world populace. Islamic democracy has been in question over a period considering the manner in which such democracies are exercised in their various institutions. This is due to the manner in which various political and leadership changes are exercised in various Islamic nations around the globe. Dictatorship and the rule of minority elites continue to undermine democratic rights of various individuals in these Islamic nations. 


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