By Idries de Vries
Your appearance at Tahrir Square on the 18th of February 2011 during the height of what has been named the “Arab Spring”, and the warm reception given to you at the time by the hundreds of thousands who had gathered there confirmed your status as one of the most influential contemporary scholars of Islam.
For the sharp observer, it also made clear that this “Arab Spring” has always been about more than just removal of tyrannical rulers. As an Islamic scholar, by name, for decades, you have been calling for a system change in Egypt – not just for the removal of a tyrant or change in regime. Therefore, the fact that the protest movement welcomed you to lead them in Jumu’ah Prayer signaled that they too stood for a system change.
As a consequence, ever since this day, your opinions on the issue of government and governance have been given more attention than probably ever before. The Muslim mind is not yet clear about what is to replace the oppressive and exploitative systems of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Abdullah Saleh, Ghaddafi, and the one soon to follow, Bashar Al Asad. So, the Muslim world is asking you for your thoughts on this matter and is studying them. But, the West is also eagerly listening to you. It is fearful as to what the Muslims will end up choosing and recognizes the strength of your voice amongst the Muslim masses.
I am amongst those who listen closely to what you have to say on this matter, Sheikh Yusuf. And I thank Allah (subhane wa ta’ala) that you are trying to take this unique opportunity for real change in the Muslim World, and are working hard to explain in more detail your thoughts on the issue of government and governance. For, in a recent Q&A on the issue of the difference between Shura and Democracy[i], you have gone beyond your usual rhetoric of explaining why, according to you, Islam and democracy are not in conflict. In it, you explain what it is you want to use democracy for, or in other words, what you want to achieve by it:
Democracy itself also can make whatever it wants as lawful, or prohibit anything it does not like. In comparison, the Shari’ah as a political system has limits. If we are to adopt democracy, we should adopt its best features.
As a Muslim society we should adopt it in an Islamic context of a society that seeks to live with its Shari’ah laws. Our society should abide by what has been made lawful by Allah and also what has been made unlawful by Him.
What I am for is a genuine type of democracy, for a society driven by the laws of Shari’ah that is compatible with the values of freedom, human rights, justice, and equity.
Our democracy is different. It is well connected to the laws of Shari’ah. Yes we adopt some of the principles of democracy, but it is incumbent upon us also to uphold our principles. We have pillars of our Shari’ah that we have to abide by. We want the people to be consulted and participate actively in politics as well as in the process of decision-making.
To conclude, Islam is not anti-democracy. What we want is a free society that lives within the rules and laws of the Shari’ah which is very compatible with the values of democracy, freedom, human rights, justice, development, and prosperity.
Your case, clearly, is a call for democracy. At the same time, in conformity with the fundamental teaching of Islam that the law must come from Allah (subhane wa ta’ala), “Indeed, the command is only for Allah”[ii] and “and He does not share His [authority to] command with anyone”[iii], you also call for the implementation of Shari’ah in the Muslim world. The democracy you envision, therefore, is of a special form which does not exist in today’s world. It is a democracy limited by Shari’ah, which means this democracy will not legislate.
This position of yours brought many questions to my mind.
As is well known, the political system that is known as democracy is one of the fruits of the Enlightenment Era. When the European masses decided to replace theocracy with secularism, a need arose for a system to manage and organize the act of legislation. During theocracy, with authorization from the Church, the King had been the sole legislator. Secularism took away from the Church the authority to appoint and approve a legislator, hence, power from the King. So, the question became, “Who would now legislate and how?” Democracy was the answer. The people would henceforth legislate amongst themselves, either directly through referenda or indirectly through elected representatives. Your proposal of a democracy limited by Shari’ah therefore removes from democracy its main task, its raison d’être, so to speak. And that left me wondering why you continue to use the word democracy when explaining your thoughts. One could argue, namely, that this is misleading. Because what you are calling for, a democracy limited by Shari’ah, has nothing to do with the political system known as democracy.
In fact, all that is left of a democracy without the authority to legislate is a method to appoint (a) ruler(s). So, this is the real meaning of your call for democracy limited by Shari’ah. But, given the recent political event in the West, the home of democracy, do we really want to make democracy our process to appoint (a) ruler(s)? The political event in the West I am of course referring to is the rise of the Occupy Movement or the 99% Movement. The main case of this movement, which has turned into a global phenomenon with a mass support base, is that consecutive democratically elected rulers have in their legislation favoured a tiny elite[iv]. In other words, in the countries that were the first to utilize the political system of democracy and by now have hundreds of years of experience with it, there is today a mass movement that complains about this political system! It complains that democracy has not been able to get into office people who consider the well being of the entire or at least the majority of the population! So, it is quite strange that at this time, you are calling the Muslims to adopt democracy to elect (a) ruler(s).
Thirdly, I do not understand how you can acknowledge Islam has its own legislation, but fail to mention that Islam also has its own process for appointment of a ruler. When the Prophet (sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) died, did not the leaders of the Ummah at that time gather to elect a ruler? When Khalifah Abu Bakr (radiAllaah anhu) was close to death, did he not advise the Muslims to elect ‘Umar (radiAllaah anhu) as his successor, to which the Muslims agreed and effectuated? And when Khalifah ‘Umar (radiAllaah anhu) was close to death, did he not appoint a committee to elect a new Khalifah after him (eventual head of which ‘Abdurrahman bin ‘Auf (radiAllaah anhu consulted with the leaders of the Muslim tribes) before the final decision to elect ‘Uthman bin ‘Affan (radiAllaah anhu) as next Khalifah? And after him, did the Muslims of Madinah al Munawwarah, the capital of the Islamic State at the time, not gather to elect a new Khalifah, choosing ‘Ali bin Abu Talib (radiAllaah anhu)? So, if you are looking for a process to elect (a) ruler(s) to accompany the legislation extracted from Islam—the Shari’ah—why then not also extract from Islam the process to elect (a) ruler(s)? If you are convinced of the correctness and appropriateness of Islam’s legislation to the point that you do not want democracy to legislate, meaning you do not want the human mind to decide on matters of legislation, why then do you prefer a foreign process for the election of (a) ruler(s) over the Islamic process? Is this not contradictory?
My last question, Sheikh, is why—at this stage—are we even discussing the issue of electing a ruler? This question might sound strange to you, so please allow me to explain myself. Since the rule with Shari’ah was abolished, the entire Muslim world has done nothing but degenerate in all aspects—be it the political aspect where the Muslim world was forced to degenerate into tyranny, the economic aspect where the Muslim world was forced to degenerate into poverty, or the social aspect where the Muslim world is being forced to degenerate into lewdness. You and I know the fundamental reason for this, as do the Muslim masses today. It is the control over our affairs by the western imperialist nations such as Britain, France, and especially the United States. They wanted exploitation of the Muslims which first required control over the Muslims—removing Islam from the lives of the Muslims. So, instead of Islam, they gave us every system that the human mind has ever been able to think of, from free-market capitalism to social democratic capitalism to socialism on the road to communism, all with larger or smaller degrees of nationalism implanted within. This has brought us to the state we are in today, and we can do nothing but thank Allah (subhane wa ta’ala) for the reaction of the Muslim Ummah to this state of affairs, their rebellion against this state of affairs, and their sacrifice of blood and wealth to change this state of affairs. You and I also agree, as do the Muslim masses of today, that only the Shari’ah of Allah (subhane wa ta’ala) can really change this state of affairs. (And those that even today do not acknowledge this, despite the decades of failure of the systems of human invention, will probably never realize this.) Given this, I sincerely doubt the Muslim masses would object to any ruler as long as he applies Shari’ah! Because, the benefit in ruling with Islam will far outweigh any shortcomings the ruler might be considered to have.
For all these reasons, Sheikh Yusuf, I suggest that for now we leave the debate about democracy – in whatever form – out of the Muslim world. Because, the most pressing issue at the moment, and upon this all Muslims agree, is that Shari’ah be implemented as soon as possible. This is what will give us the correct rights, freedoms, and duties through which we can quickly solve the most important problems the Muslims are facing in their lives today, such as the biting poverty, a main motivator for the uprising. This is a matter of such prime importance to us today that the question of who is good enough to lead should not concern us, as this would only distract from our foremost goal. Once we have re-established the ruling with Islam, then, when the mouths are fed and the oppressed have been liberated and the worship in the Muslim world is only for Allah, then we will have ample time to discuss the process to elect the second Khalifa of the second Islamic State (the first Islamic State being the one established by the Prophet (saw) himself).
Idries de Vries is an economist who writes on economics and geopolitics for various publications. As a management professional he has lived and worked in Europe, America and Asia.
[ii] See the translation of the meanings of the Quran, Sura Yusuf 12, verse 40
[iii] See the translation of the meanings of the Quran, Sura Al Kahf 18, verse 26