Islam and Democracy: How Far Compatible?

I shall raise three issues. First of all, I would discuss democracy. It is useless to debate whether Islam is democratic, presidential, parliamentarian or monarchic. Some people today are saying that Islam is against democracy. Islam and democracy are incompatible.

Any form of government is Islamic provided it meets the basic principles of Islam. We, therefore, see that our earlier Islamic scholars termed king Abdul Aziz as the fifth rightly guided caliph although he was a king. He is even today considered a caliph and not a king because of the presence of Shura- consultative system and human welfare being the objective of his kingship. This consultation by the head of the state or by the head of the government is obligatory and not optional. Therefore, Islamic political system cannot be described undemocratic.

I am of the view that Bangladesh is essentially an Islamic state by its constitution. Only thing we require is that we have to constitute a committee in the Ministry of Law, Justice & Parliamentary Affairs consisting of eminent Islamic scholars, Ulama, jurists and Fuqaha, Islamic theologians having the essential ability for expounding Islamic law and being an authority thereon, just, virtuous, abreast of time, having political and social insight, judicious and who command and enjoy the trust and confidence of the people. The members of this committee shall examine and review all drafts acts to be passed by Parliament (also all Presidential Ordinances) and give its views on such act(s) to the Government so that parliamentary enactments are not contrary to the tenets and precepts of Islam. The inclusion of such members in the committee will ensure that the Government is being judiciously advised at the drafting stage so that no law repugnant to the Quran and Sunnah comes before the Cabinet or Parliament for consideration.

Some people in Bangladesh are clamoring for Law of Allah- demanding implementation of Law of Allah- Shariah without explaining or elaborating the idea. Really, we have in Bangladesh Islamic Law in practice. The Law of Inheritance, the Law of Endowments, the Marriage Law – all these are by and large Islamic and akin to Shariah. Allah has given us a lot of freedom to enumerate laws- for example the municipal law or the traffic law, whether we walk on the left side or the right side of road etc. etc. As regards Hudud, Capital Punishment- Caliph Omar has suspended the amputation of hands of the thief and he decreed that this law couldn’t be implemented if people are without food and they steal. Now what will happen if we expound this law in case of adultery? Can we implement Islamic Penal Law for adultery as long as we keep the door of obscenity open such as brothels, bars, obscene movies, obscene printed books and pornography or the government cannot ensure the marriage at appropriate age? Really what moral authority we have to demand implementation of Hudud before creating congenial and healthy social environment?  Only recently Tariq Ramadan, distinguished educator of Philosophy at the University Fribourg, Switzerland and an eminent Arab Islamic scholar and grandson of Hasan Al Banna, has given a call for the suspension of Hudud for the time being till all relevant issues have been examined by the scholars.

Recently a retired Secretary to the Government has examined all laws of Bangladesh and viewed that 98 percent of these laws are Islamic in the sense that these laws contain nothing in conflict with the Text of the Quran or Sunnah. Prof. Dr. Yusuf Al Qaradawi, Dean of the Faculty of Shariah, Qatar Islamic University, after examining some laws of Qatar, an Arab Muslim country, wrote in his book ‘Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase’ that he found nothing objectionable in these laws and many of these laws fall within the purview of amr bil maruf wa nahi al munkar - realizing interests and removing evils but were not directly linked with any revealed Text except for one or two of them.  

Let us again go back to the question whether Islamic political system is democratic or not. Hizbut Tahrir Bangladesh is demanding Caliphate without elaborating how the Caliph of the Ummah will be elected or chosen and what shall be the qualification of such Caliph and what shall be the qualification of those who shall elect or choose the Caliph and what shall be the tenure of such Caliph.  Hizbut Tahrir Bangladesh also did not explain how to select or elect Caliph of Bangladeshi Ummah or how the Parliament will be formed or how laws will be made.

If you look at the Quran, you will find that Queen (or the ruler) of Sheba was not removed from the throne even after she became a Muslim although she was a lady. Here comes the question whether in Islam woman is permitted to become the head of the state or the head of the government? This point I shall discuss later.

The second thing, I would discuss is sovereignty. The Muslims largely misunderstand this concept.

In 1969 I visited Lahore in student exchange program between the two wings of Pakistan. I met Moulana Mawdudi and discussed with him the concept of sovereignty. I asked him: In the matters of interpretation of the Text of the Quran- the Shariah- the Law, who shall exercise the final authority- who shall have the final say. Is it the Parliament? Is it the Judiciary- the Supreme Court being the interpreter of Constitution and Law? Is it the Council of Elders or the people by referendum?

Moulana Mawdudi did not give any specific or clear-cut reply. He only said that such issues would be resolved once the Islamic government is formed. I believe that the issue is not still resolved and the Islamic scholars and Ulama are even now divided on the issue and it needs to be discussed at the academic level. 

To me the authority that shall have final say in the interpretation of the Text of the Quran is sovereign.

Only recently, I visited the website of the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan and downloaded a ‘JI Media News’ item dated Lahore 5 July 2002 captioned “Govt. deprives people of sovereignty”. The news item states: “Ameer Jamaat-e-Islami Qazi Hussain Ahmad said on Friday that the government has deprived people of sovereignty …” Look even the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan official website-news reports that Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan considers that the people of Pakistan are sovereign.

We have to address the issue of sovereignty afresh and look deep into it.

Finally, I would discuss the question of the participation of woman as the head of an Islamic government or head of an Islamic state. Those who object to assigning political position to women forget that in today’s world rulers are parts of an establishment. Indeed government itself is one of a group of institutions that share out among itself the power and authority, which used to be exercised by a single ruler, regardless of the title he assumed. During the earlier days of Islam, the Kholafa-e-Rashadeen used to combine in them comprehensive and broad authority, over the whole Muslim world which no ruler is expected to exercise in foreseeable future, including leading prayers, commanding armies, exercising absolute Ijtihad in Fiqh, and being the supreme judge. From the point of view of her competence, a woman may be assigned some of these powers, including the post of the head of the state, because none of these powers, including that of head of the state, constitute the overall authority over the community, which assigns it to a woman. The Hadith (Verily that nation would not prosper which hands over the reigns of its government to a woman- Bukhari) often quoted against the participation of woman as head of an Islamic government or head of an Islamic state is an Ahad Hadith (whose authenticity is not beyond question) and its meaning is Zanni (that is- it has no one established interpretation) in nature.

In modern state, it is institutions that rule, not individuals. Women, whatever their number in executive, legislative or judiciary positions are included in bodies and are subject to a system. Laws are codified, and discretionary decisions are subject to be reviewed by those who have higher positions or by the courts. No single man or woman can maintain absolute power in modern state. A woman has the right to vote, to be a member of parliament, a minister, a judge, and even an officer in the army. Which jobs may or may not be convenient should be decided by women themselves- not imposed on them- according to their own conviction and based on their own interests. But many traditional Islamic leaders are reluctant to accept this position.

Interestingly the daily Sangram on 8 February 2006 published a photograph, which shows Moulana Motiur Rahman Nizami presiding over the meeting of the JIB Parliamentary Party at the Jamaat’s Central Office at Moghbazar, Dhaka in which 2 JIB female Parliamentarians attended in addition to all JIB male Parliamentarians. Until now, however, female members (Arkan) of JIB cannot directly participate in the Central Shura of JIB along with male members of the Central Shura. The female members of JIB sit in a Shura separate from male Shura. Jamaat’s logic behind allowing JIB female Parliamentarians to sit with JIB male Parliamentarians in the meeting of JIB Parliamentary Party in the same room at Jamaat Central Office at Moghbazar, Dhaka and then not allowing JIB female members to sit with JIB male Shura members in the same room during the meeting of the Central Shura is not understandable. If JIB female Parliamentarians can sit together with male JIB Parliamentarians at the meeting of JIB Parliamentary Party at Jamaat’s Central Office to discuss important national issues, on what logic JIB female members are not allowed entry in the Central Shura when the male dominated Central Shura discuss vital issues affecting the destiny of the Muslim Ummah. Are not these practices contradictory?

It is important to allow female members to sit with male Shura members in the same room for that can create condition where female members can make instant query and observation on each issue that is discussed in the Central Shura and thereby enable female members participate and contribute effectively in the decision making process. This will no doubt also make discussion lively. There is no meaning of claiming that Jamaat believes in the empowerment of women keeping female members segregated from the male members in the Central Shura of JIB         

To make Muslim society dynamic and effective, it is important that our women are allowed to play positive and meaningful role as they used to play in the Madanian society during the time of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, not isolate them and force them to live in watertight compartments.

Another noteworthy thing is that Moulana Nizami while attending the Cabinet meeting chaired by the lady Prime Minister sits in the same row with other women Ministers. JIB female Parliamentarians are, however, seen sitting in separate row from the male Parliamentarians while Moulana Nizami presiding over the meeting of JIB Parliamentary Party as is depicted in the daily Sangram photograph referred earlier. It is not self-contradictory and denial of rights to women equal to that of men?

You will see from the photograph of the daily Sangram that the two JIB women Parliamentarians are in Nikab- their face is covered. In this connection I would like to quote the opinion of Sheikh Adil Salahi, an eminent Arab Islamic scholar who is the Director of Islamic Foundation UK, English translator of Sayyid Qutb’s monumental commentary of the Quran- ‘Fi Zilal al Quran’- ‘In the Shade of the Quran’ and author of another 850 page mammoth work ‘Muhammad: Man and Prophet’. Commenting on the verse 24 (Sura An Nur): 30-31 wherein both men and women have been asked to lower their look when fall on the opposite sex Sheikh Adil Salahi in his regular weekly column ‘Our Dialogue’ in Saudi daily Arab News wrote:

The instruction of the verses quoted above is that both men and women are required to keep their eye cast down, so that when they meet each other, neither should men stare at women nor women at men. The natural question that arises is why man should lower his gaze if the face of woman is totally covered? From the text of the verses it is clearly evident that the face of the woman is not to be covered and therefore man has been advised to lower his look.

To conclude, I want to emphasize that the issues just I have raised need wider deliberation and reflection by the Ulama, academicians, scholars and Islamic activists, the workers of Dawah. What I have discussed here is not the last word, rather the subject demands in depth analysis, critical examination and painstaking exercise.