The struggle in the Islamic world nowadays is a struggle for a piece of the Muslim mind.
Recently, I received an invitation from the Faisal Center for Islamic Research and Studies, which wanted me to talk about democracy, or “good governance,” as the participants called it.
It was obvious that the organizers’ goal was to revive religious and political speech in order to find a middle ground between Islamic faith and democracy. I argued that, as many Islamic scholars have recognized, Islamic jurisprudence is compatible with democratic values. Every country that has chosen democracy has come closer to achieving Islam’s goals of equality and social justice.
Democracy suffers in the Islamic world due to skepticism about everything that comes from the West, especially the US. Thus, some leaders view democratization efforts as a new form of colonialism or imperialism in disguise.
But the region’s hesitancy to embrace democracy goes beyond mere fear of Western hegemony. There is a deep philosophical dispute about the nature of democracy. Some Islamic thinkers point to an inevitable contradiction between Islamic and democratic values. They argue that Islam requires submission to the will of God, while democracy implies submission to the will of people. This notion was clear in the writings of Sayyid Qutb, who saw parliaments as preventing people from submitting to the rule of God.
Yet Qutb’s understanding contradicts the established practices of Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh), who created the first real state in the Arabian peninsula by declaring the Constitution of Madinah, which stated: “Muhammad and the Jews of Bani-Auf [who were citizens of Madinah at that time] are one nation.” Thus, social relations were to be based on equality and justice, not religious beliefs.
Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad’s most important political truce, the Hudaybiah Agreement between his rising nation and the leaders of Quraish (the dominant tribe in Makkah at that time), stated clearly that “everybody is free to join the league of Muhammad or the league of Quraish.” Many non-Muslim tribes, like the Christians of Nagran, the Jews of Fadk and the pagans of Khoza’a, joined Muhammad’s league and became part of the Islamic state. All Muslim and non-Muslim tribes had equal rights and freedom and enjoyed the protection of the state. Most importantly, Makkah was later opened to protect the pagan people of Khoza’a against the attacks of Quraish.
Reconciling the true understanding of Islam and democracy will, I believe, lead to a full realization of the richness of the Islamic experiment. It could also add great vitality to the democratic experiment by bringing it closer to the Muslim street. But the Islamic mainstream must first realize the importance of democratic reform, which is possible only by clearly understanding the Prophet’s message, which promises genuine solutions for every time and place.
Although the creation of centers to debate the concept of Islamic democracy reflect the natural evolution of Islamic thinking, it will not go unopposed.
As the ancient Arabs used to say: “A man’s choice is a piece of his mind.” The struggle in the Islamic world nowadays is a struggle for a piece of the Muslim mind.
(The writer is member of the Syrian parliament and director of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus).