The relationship between Islam and democracy is a much discussed and hotly debated issue. Given the diverse understandings of democracy and Islam, the answer to the question of the compatibility between the two is not a straightforward one. As Khaled Abou El Fadl makes clear in this absorbing book, Islam and democracy are not singularly defined concepts, and the quest for reconciling the two must necessarily entail exploring the plurality of understandings of both. Anti- as well as pro-democratic versions of Islam exist and compete with each other, he suggests, and the task before the concerned believer today is to promote socially engaged visions of the faith that are grounded in the quest for human rights and social justice.The first section of the book consists of a lengthy essay by El Fadl, where he seeks to develop a democratic understanding of Islam. At the very outset he warns that he does not argue that democracy is an invention of Islam or of Muslims, as some Muslim writers indeed do. Rather, his claim is more modest, in that he contends that Islam can indeed be interpreted in such a manner as to support democracy. In the process of developing such an understanding of Islam, he seeks to counter radical Islamists as well as hardened Islamophobes, both of whom, using the argument of god as sovereign lawgiver in Islam, insist that Islam is antithetical to democracy. El Fadl argues that while god is indeed the sovereign master of the universe, he has provided humans with a limited, derived sovereignty of their own in their capacity of his deputies or ‘khulafa’. Further, Islam envisages a limited form of government, the rule of law, consensual decision-making through shura’, toleration of dissent and difference and accountability of rulers to the people. It also stresses the centrality of basic ethical values, particularly social justice (‘adl) and respect for the rights of the ‘creatures of god’ (huquq al-‘ibad), which, in turn, resonate with many contemporary notions of human rights. Islam, El Fadl points out, allows for the use of human reason to devise, through the process of ‘ijtihad’, laws in areas on which the shari‘ah is silent. He also highlights the importance of notions of ‘maslaha’ or the ‘public good’ and ‘ahkam al-shari‘ah’ or ‘expediency laws’ in developing new understandings of ‘fiqh’ to suit changing social contexts. This is particularly crucial for him, as for many other modernist Muslim writers, with regard to the legal status of women and non-Muslims, whom he insists should be treated as the absolute equals of Muslim males.
The crux of El Fadl’s essay, then, is to draw the parallels between democracy and Islam as he defines it. He is of course aware that his own interpretation of Islam is not normative and that it can be contested, being only one among many. He admits that all interpretations of Islam are human constructs, and none can be held to represent the absolute divine will, which is actually beyond human comprehension. This is why he is opposed to the notion of an ‘Islamic state’ charged with the task of imposing the shari‘ah. As he explains, to do so would be to confuse a limited, human understanding of Islam with god’s will, which, in turn, is tantamount to the grave sin of putting up partners with god (shirk). Furthermore, he argues that a state that sees itself as the deputy of the divine will would soon, and inevitably, degenerate into an instrument of authoritarianism and oppression.
The second section of the book consists of short responses to El Fadl’s essay by several scholars. John Esposito points out how El Fadl’s essay indicates the complex and multiple ways in which a religious text, in this case the Qur’an, can be interpreted in different contexts in order to suit different social and political agendas. Muqtedar Khan remarks that the pact of Medina that the Prophet entered into with the Jews and the pagans of the town could be used as an Islamic model of democracy and pluralism, in that all the parties to the treaty were guaranteed equal rights and had to shoulder equal responsibilities. He also adds to El Fadl’s point about the historicity of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence by suggesting that Islam should be seen as a font of values and moral principles, as opposed to a rigid system of readymade solutions to all problems. He argues that this distinction is essential in order to develop a more democratic and relevant understanding of the faith.
Saba Mahmood also criticises some of El Fadl’s proposals, but from a different angle. She questions whether liberalism is the only answer for Muslims, or for anyone else for that matter, and argues that the assumption that liberalism is normative and problem-free is itself gravely problematic. She critiques El Fadl for uncritically embracing liberalism without noting its contradictions and limitations, and for ignoring the distinctly illiberal and violent historical trajectory of western liberalism. She contends that El Fadl’s concern with civic rights glosses over the perhaps more important question of economic rights, and that in focusing on the rights of individuals he overlooks the importance of the rights of communities. She claims that El Fadl’s perspective on rights stems from his assumption of the normativity of the western liberal tradition, in which economic and community rights receive little attention. Mahmood also faults El Fadl for ignoring the crass and large scale violation of human rights by self-proclaimed liberal states such as the US, and for their sponsoring of distinctly illiberal regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in order to promote their own interests.
Echoing Mahmood, Kevin Reinhart remarks that El Fadl’s assumption of liberalism being normative for all peoples is greatly problematic. It ignores the vital question of what western liberalism could learn from other cultures and approaches to the world, including the Islamic. He also notes that the reception of democracy in the Muslim world critically depends on western policies. Quite naturally, western military intervention in the Muslim world can only make the cause of democracy in that region even more hopeless. William Quandt echoes a similar view, arguing that the diversity of understandings of Islam clearly suggests that Islam per se cannot be said to be the cause of the distinct absence of democracy in many Muslim countries. Rather, he says, the problem must be located principally in the existence of monarchical or dictatorial regimes in these countries, nearly all of whom are supported by dominant western powers. In other words, he seems to suggest, the cause of democracy in the Muslim world depends on both a more democratic vision of Islam as well as structural political changes in the direction of genuine democracy, a prospect that neither ruling regimes in that part of the world, nor their western allies, are likely to enthusiastically welcome.