Is Islam compatible with liberal democracy? Can Sharia law be transformed into the legislation for running a political government? In recent years, those questions have grown even stronger. People in the West wonder whether Muslims are capable of toleration, capable of living in a pluralistic society, and whether Islam itself allows for Muslims to peacefully coexist in a society where all people of all creeds are welcome. In a recent article featured in The Economist titled ‘Dreaming of a Caliphate’ (September 12th, 2011), the author states that “It has become more fashionable to argue that something about Islam makes it hard to reconcile with full-blown liberal democracy.” In other words, more and more people have begun to believe that Islam—and thereby, Muslims—cannot support secular rights and freedoms, cannot support democracy, and cannot support pluralism. The article asks whether Islam—and an Islamic Caliphate—could be compatible with the rights and freedoms enjoyed by secular liberal democracies.
This is a serious charge—one that has to be answered. As The Economist notes, one allegation that “Islamosceptics” raise is that Muslims’ desire to revive the Caliphate must necessarily have political implications. They see the Caliphate (or Khilafat) as “a seat of religious-cum-political authority, holding sway over the whole Islamic world—as the ideal form of governance. If that is the case, liberal democracy, in which authority flows from the people regardless of faith, will always be regarded as a compromise at most.” Another worry they have is about the compatibility of Islamic criminal and family law with liberal ideas about the equality of the sexes and the proportionality of punishment, and that Muslims would want to impose their law—Sharia—on non-Muslims.
There are several questions packed into this assumption—first, what is the nature of Khilafat? Must it be political, or is it only spiritual? And what does Islam have to say about a government whose authority comes from people regardless of their religion? Finally, how can Islamic family and criminal law really coexist with liberal rights and conceptions of equality? These questions deserve a close scrutiny of the Holy Qur’an, the Hadith, and example of the Holy Prophet(saw). In reality, the Caliphate is a spiritual office—not a political one. And Islam not only does not prohibit, but actually endorses a government in which authority “flows from the people regardless of faith.” Finally, Islam prohibits the imposition one’s religious beliefs on others who do not share those beliefs.
Khilafat – Political or Spiritual?
One of the most essential questions is regarding the true nature of Khilafat. Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike see it as not just a spiritual institution, but a political one. However, this is a misguided understanding of Khilafat, stemming from a lack of knowledge about the true meaning and significance of Islamic Khilafat. So, who is the Khalifa? In Arabic, the word ‘Khalifa’ means successor, deputy or vicegerent. In other words, A Khalifa is one appointed by God, who succeeds a prophet of God in order to continue his mission. This renders futile the efforts of many Muslim organisations and around the world that are currently attempting to set up an Islamic Khilafat through their own efforts.
The next question is what this mission is. Is it political? Or is it spiritual? Prophets of God do not come to conquer land and territory or to form governments. Instead, they come to promote and establish the worship of one God and raise people’s spiritual and moral awareness. The Holy Qur’an very clearly mentions the objectives of a Prophet. in the following verse:
We have sent to you a messenger from among you, who recites Our verses/signs to you, and purifies you, and teaches you the Book and wisdom, and teaches you that which you knew not. (Ch.2:V.152)
The goals of a Prophet—and thereby, their Khalifas—are to recite the signs of God, to purify or reform people, to teach people about religion, and to impart wisdom to them and thereby raise their moral awareness. The Khalifa does not require any state or political power to perform these functions—just as the Pope does not require political power to lead millions of Catholics. On the other hand, one might object that this does not preclude a political role for the Khalifa—and the question is, is it required that a Khalifa have state control? From a study of the Holy Qur’an, it appears not. After all, Jesus(as) was also a prophet, and he did not have political power. In the early years of Makkah, the Holy Prophet(saw), although he was spiritual head of Muslims, did not make any attempt at political power. Furthermore, in the time of Hadhrat Ali(ra), political power resided in the hands of Amir Muawiyyah, even though Hadhrat Ali(ra) was the spiritual leader of all Muslims. There is plenty of evidence that political power absolutely does not need to rest in the hands of the Khalifa. Still, though, there is the worry that, even if political power does not have to rest with the Khalifa, per se, that Muslims believe that it must rest with them, and with them exclusively. A close study of Islam will show that liberal democracies are not just acceptable—they are actually preferred.
Islam, Democracy, and Liberalism
And whose affairs are administered by mutual consultation. (The Holy Qur’an, Ch.42:V.40)
Here, the emphasis is on consulting one another—and isn’t that the very basis of democracy? Votes are, after all, a form of consultation. Moreover, Islam lays down two guidelines for any state. First, it asks people to be mindful of the responsibility entrusted to them:
Verily, Allah commands you to give over the trusts to those entitled to them, and that when you judge between men, you judge with justice. And surely excellent is what Allah admonishes you with! Allah is All-Hearing, All-Seeing. (The Holy Qur’an, Ch.2:V.266)
So any democratic process of elections must be based on trust, honesty and integrity. The voter is a trustee and is answerable to God Almighty, therefore he or she must vote for those who are most responsible and capable for that position and should therefore not violate this trust. Note here that the verse does not say that Muslims should only give over trusts to Muslims. Instead, Muslims are required to give them to the person who is most capable of doing the job required, regardless of faith. The most obvious question, then, if this is really true: why are there so few Islamic democracies—let alone Islamic liberal democracies? The Economist article states that according to Freedom House, an organisation that tracks democracy worldwide, only three countries in which Muslims are in majority ‘enjoy political liberty’.
Of the Muslim countries that do ‘enjoy’ political liberty, quite surprisingly Indonesia also happens to be one of them. Surprising because this is the country where recently members of the Ahmadiyya community were mercilessly beaten to death over their religious beliefs that apparently opposed the mainstream’s interpretation of Islam. Irrespective of this however, such statistics do lead one to ponder over Islam’s compatibility with the attributes of a fully functioning democracy.
Islam has the unique quality of being a universal religion and so caters for all forms of the society. Since different societies will require different systems of governance, the Holy Qur’an mentions many political systems. As Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh) (1928-2003), the Fourth Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, explained:
‘According to the Holy Quran, people have a free choice to adopt any system of rule which suits them. Democracy, sovereignty, tribal or feudal systems are valid provided they are accepted by the people as the traditional heritage of their society. However, it seems that democracy is preferred and highly commended in the Holy Quran. The Muslims are advised to have a democratic system though not exactly on the pattern of western style democracy.’1
Note, here, that the people still have authority—the system doesn’t have to be democracy per se, but it does have to have the approval of the people. The Holy Qur’an does not condemn any political systems, it does however, prefer democracy as the ideal form of governance. So what is the problem? One has to do with social and economic factors—as the article points out, these do play an important role. In that sense, the “problem” of Muslim democracy is a problem shared by many countries where both literacy and wealth are scarce. But a further problem animates the issue: that maulawis (Muslim clerics) and mullahs have, for political power, tried to monopolise religious authority. This works best when the population is illiterate and doesn’t have the depth of understanding of the Holy Qur’an and Hadith. Because of this, as Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh) wrote:
‘The masses are confused. Would you prefer the Word of God and that of the Holy Prophet(saw) of Islam or would you rather have men under a godless and fearless society to guide and shape your political manifestos?’2
While the Muslim masses love their religion, they are unsure of what the true Islamic position on governance should be. And mullahs and maulawis can be of no help here—after all, they have hit upon a perfect formula for protecting their political power.
The second important principle of Islamic statecraft is that the government must administer all its affairs on the principle of absolute justice. When such principles are adhered to by any society, only then can we say that it is truly a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Justice and equality are extremely vital elements of any society and the Holy Qur’an on numerous occasions reminds us to incorporate these values in all our affairs.
What is noteworthy here is that the verse above does not instruct Muslims to only judge between Muslims with justice—rather, it says to judge between all people with justice. Thus, Pluralism and religious tolerance are values upheld by the Holy Qur’an. But the “Islamosceptic” might ask: what is the principle of justice? Is it always the Islamic principle? After all, it seems that treating people justly might just mean to treat people according to the principles of Islam. The Holy Qur’an lays down an incredibly important principle:
“There should be no compulsion in religion” (Ch.2:V.257)
Nobody should be forced to comply with religious rules that he or she does not believe in. If we take this verse seriously, this would rule out a whole variety of injustices and impositions that are currently practiced in so-called Muslim states. For it would be unjust to compel, through legislation or other means, those who are not Muslims to abide by Islamic law. It would be difficult to do this even were all the citizens Muslim—there are 73 sects in Islam, each with differing views about a whole host of issues including the definition of a Muslim. Who would decide which sect would be accorded authority as the correct one and deemed worthy enough to follow?
In addition, the separation of religion from governance is advocated by Islam, which further admonishes to be just to even your enemies. Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), Khalifatul Masih V, current worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community has repeatedly stressed this point in his lectures around the world:
“Allah has said that a requirement for a just government is that it should separate religious matters from matters of State, and every citizen should be afforded his due rights. This principle is absolute and without exception, to the extent that you must act justly even with those people who have displayed hatred towards you, and who due to this opposition have persecuted you repeatedly in every possible way. The Holy Qur’an states:
O ye who believe! Be steadfast in the cause of Allah, bearing witness in equity; and let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah. Surely, Allah is Aware of what you do. (Ch.5:V.9)
This is the key principle to running a government, that religion should play no part in it. Religious differences should not be an obstacle to the implementation of justice. Now, after hearing all of this, how can anyone allege that the teachings of Islam are not just? I do not believe that those who consider themselves to be just and educated can deem the teachings of Islam to be wrong once they have come to understand it.”
The Holy Prophet(saw) has provided us with a very practical example of its true implementation. In Madinah the Holy Prophet(saw) was accepted by Muslims, Jews and other community members as their Head of State. Whenever someone would come to him and present their issue or dispute to be solved, the Holy Prophet(saw), in spite of being a Prophet who came with the final and perfect law of Islam, would always ask them “Would you like your dispute to be settled according to the Jewish law or according to the Islamic law or according to arbitration?” That is because he was not only a Prophet but was also Head of State and valued their rights as members of the society. Had the kind of imposition that both mullahs and Islamosceptics believed was permissible under Islam actually been allowed, this could not have been the Holy Prophet’s(saw) practice. As Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih IV(rh) points out:
‘Islam pleads for the secular type of government more than any religion and more than any political system…The very essence of secularism is that absolute justice must be practiced regardless of the differences of faith and religion and colour and creed and group…and this is exactly what the Holy Qur’an admonishes us to do in matters of state.’
Thus, Islam doesn’t recognise liberal democracy—where authority comes from the citizens, “regardless of faith” as a compromise that Muslims must grudgingly live with. Instead, it recognises it as a truly Islamic form of government. A serious study of the principles of the Holy Qur’an and the practices of the Holy Prophet(saw) lead us to this very conclusion.
Finally, there is another worry about Islamic law. The first worry is how Islamic laws and practices can be reconciled with certain aspects of a liberal state. Muslims believe that the laws mentioned in the Holy Qur’an are given on the basis of justice. The Holy Quran states:
‘Verily, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency, and manifest evil, and wrongful transgression. He admonishes you that you may take heed.’ (Ch.16:V.91)
Yet some of these instructions seem unfair to the outside eye. For instance, if we take a look at the laws concerning inheritance, the female receives half the share of what the brother receives. This seems to be treating women unequally. But the unequal inheritance is a reflection of the different responsibilities incurred by men and women. Men are held responsible for being the breadwinners for their families. In contrast, women may spend their shares entirely on themselves, and are not obligated to spend on anyone else. The man’s share is therefore, in essence, divided amongst his family, while the woman’s remains whole and undivided. Considering these factors, Islam believes that this is a just distribution of inheritance. However, Islam recognises that others may disagree and that is why these laws are for Muslims only—it would be wrong to impose such laws on non-Muslims as that too would be unjust and the Holy Qur’an restrains us from doing so.
There is the issue of criminal law. What about punishments for adultery, for example, or stealing? These are generally matters of legislation that the state has a right to control. Must they be legislated along Islamic guidelines? Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih IV(rh) writes: ‘Religion does not need to be the predominant legislative authority in the political affairs of a state.’3 As he points out, were we to give religion this kind of weight in deciding legislation, then we would also be conceding that other countries—which might practise different religions—would be free to legislate their own religious punishments. We would again come to the question of imposition. He further writes:
‘A believer of any religion can practise his beliefs even under a secular law. He can abide by truth without any state law interfering with his ability to speak the truth. He can observe his Prayers and perform his acts of worship without the need of a specific law being passed by the state to permit him to do so.’4
Muslims do not need Islamic legislation to be passed. They—and those of every and any religion—merely need to be allowed to practice their religion as they see fit. This is the spirit of secularism. This is the spirit of Islamic statecraft.
True Khilafat Today: The Ahmadiyya Khilafat
Many readers of The Economist might say that while the above arguments sound good in theory, there would be very different results in practice. These may appear as purely theoretical arguments. Yet many of them might not realise that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, established in 200 countries of the world, has had a thriving Khilafat for over 100 years. This is currently the era of the fifth Khalifa, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), Khalifatul Masih V. He is the successor to Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(as), the Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi whose advent was prophesied by the scriptures of the previous religions, and who the Holy Prophet(saw) said would come to revive the true teachings of Islam. Hadhrat Ahmad(as) was a non-law bearing Prophet, who came in complete subordination to his master, the Prophet Muhammad(saw). He brought nothing new. His Book was the Holy Qur’an and his religion Islam. God appointed him in accordance with Qur’anic prophecies pertaining to a reformer of the latter ages.
The Prophet Muhammad(saw) said that this reformer would arrive at a time when the true teachings of Islam would have been forgotten., when the Qur’an would no longer be adhered to by Muslims, and when the Muslim clerics would resemble the worst people. At such a time the Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi who would come to re-establish the connection between mankind and God and explain the true teachings of Islam. Hadhrat Ahmad(as) claimed to be that very person. Divine Signs were fulfilled in his favour and he also provided logical proofs to corroborate his claim. He wrote over 80 books in which he expounded unparalleled discourses and arguments depicting the real, beautiful and rational face of Islamic doctrine. After his demise, the system of Khilafat as promised in the Qur’an and Hadith was established which continues until today. The Promised Messiah writes in his book Shahadatul Qur’an regarding the advent of the Messiah that:
‘The Christian faith will come to an end at the hands of the Messiah and he will break the cross. He (the Holy Prophet(saw)) did not say that he will destroy their government. This indicates that the Promised Messiah’s kingdom will have nothing to do with worldly governments whatsoever…’5
Hence, none of the Khalifas has ever tried to take political power.
None has tried to impose Islam on non-Muslims. Instead, they have provided Ahmadi Muslims and others around the world with spiritual guidance and unity through means of love and peace and so Khilafat is compatible with all forms of governance. The present Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, in one of his sermons, stated:
“For this Khilafat, neither a violent uprising is required, nor do bullets need to be fired. The reward of Khilafat can only be established with God’s grace, and has been established through His blessings; not through the efforts and schemes of the people.”6
Here we have a practical example of what Khilafat should be; spiritual, not political. Peaceful, not violent. Respecting all religions, imposing none. At the 8th Annual Peace Symposium in London, Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih V(aba) stated:
“We have always implemented the teaching of Islam that you should never take the law into your own hands, and always keep the best interests of your country in view and never create disorder, because this is a requirement of true love for your country. Wherever in the world Ahmadis reside, no matter which country they originate from…for the sake of attaining Allah’s Pleasure they always steer clear of all forms of disorder. And this is the conduct that one day will not only save the world from anarchy, in fact it will be the guarantor for world peace….In terms of the role of our community, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama‘at, we hold a passionate desire to establish peace and to end cruelty in light of the true Islamic teachings.”
Nakasha Ahmad is on the Editorial Board of The Review of Religions and is a Ph.D candidate in Political Philosophy at Bowling Green State University.
Shehzad Ahmad, a special contributor to The Review of Religions is a 6th year student at the Jamia Ahmadiyya UK (the Institute of Modern Languages and Theology) and a regular panellist on ‘Beacon of Truth’ on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International (www.mta.tv)
1. Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(rh), Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, p.230
2. Ibid., p.236
3. Ibid., p.244
4. Ibid., p.243
5. Shahadatul Qur’an in Ruhani Khaza’in, Vol. 6, p.307
6. Friday sermon, 25th February 2011