Because of certain happenings and because there happens to be monarchy or dictatorships in most of the Muslim countries it has been concluded that Islam is not compatible with democracy and also with modernity. Some even maintain that very Islamic culture is an stumbling block and cannot permit democratic polity and modernistic society. To maintain this amounts not only to misunderstanding religion but also society, history and social forces at work.
If this logic is to be accepted then Christianity will also come under cloud as the Christian Church also opposed democracy, secularism and modernity until 18th century. A great struggle ensued between church and princely rulers on one hand, and between church and secular elements in the society, on the other. It was finally only during 19th century that democracy and modernity became acceptable to western society.
However, even some well-known scholars and orientalists have often accepted such superficial view of Islam and Islamic society. The western media partly for political reasons and partly for ignorance of social and material forces at work, also has been a great instrument of propagating such views about Islam and Islamic societies. In order to understand reality one has to bring to bear not only religious, but also sociological, political and historical view of reality. It requires deeper insight into social processes and working of societies.
Recently a debate took place on a web page and 10 questions were circulated to be replied by the participants. These questions were:
Whether Islam and democracy are compatible?
Can Shari'ah laws with their harsh punishments and democracy go together?
Is it possible in Islamic countries to separate religion and state?
Can Islam support individual rights i.e. human rights?
Has United States contributed to hampering democracy in countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.?
Is Islam opposed to modernity and refuses to come to terms with it?
Could religious texts be used as blueprints to structure modern society?
Do women hold inferior position in Muslim society?
Can equality for women be ensured only through secular laws?
Is Islam tolerant and progressive? Islamic countries ban music and T.V., cinema posters etc.
We will try to answer these questions one by one. As stated before to understand the problem it is not enough to see what is happening in Muslim countries today and ascribe it to religion and religious teachings. Religion may appear to be a dominant cause but often it is not. Much happens behind the cover of religion and religious teachings. One who has penetrating insight into socio-political affairs would know what role religion and other forces play in a society. There are all sorts of interests, particularly political and economic which are more determinative than any thing else and while exercising ones judgement one should not ignore the role of these forces. One also has to remember that there is no single interpretation of religion. It generally has multiple interpretations. And ones interpretation is deeply influenced by ones socio-political inclination and ones bent of mind. The contemporary forces also play an important role in interpretation of religion. Contemporary Islam is being interpreted in multiple ways.
Also one should keep in mind the role of history, historical forces and culture. Certain cultural formations also play important role. Culture, in turn, is not determined wholly by religion and religious teachings though it does play a part therein. For understanding contemporary socio-political set up one can hardly ignore the role of culture as well as that of historical heritage.
With these preliminary remarks I would throw light on the questions detailed above. The first question is whether Islam is incompatible with democracy. It is certainly not. In fact even if one goes by religious text the Qur'an lays emphasis on what it calls shura' (consultation) (3:159, 42:38). Even the messenger of Allah is required to consult his people in worldly matters and Muslims are required o consult each other in their secular affairs.
Now it is true such consultation and modern day representative democracy may not be exactly similar. However, the spirit of modern democracy and the Qur'anic injunction to consult people is the same in spirit. New institutions keep on developing and human beings, depending on their worldly experiences keep on changing and refining these institutions. The Qur'anic text not only gives the concept of shura' (democratic consultation) but does not support even remotely any concept of dictatorship or authoritarianism.
Some people try to use the Qur'anic verse 4:59 to justify obedience to any kind of authority including a monarch or a caliph or a military dictator. It is certainly not the spirit of the Qur'anic verse. One has to see it in historical background. The verse is addressed to Bedouins who were nomads and were not habituated to submitting to any authority. The Prophet used to send his representatives to these Bedouin tribes and they will refuse to follow their instructions. The verse thus exhorted them to obey these authorities. One cannot justify submission to illegitimately constituted authority. And, if this verse is read in conjunction with the verses 3:159 and 42:38 it would mean one has to submit to properly and democratically constituted authority. An authority has to be legitimate and properly constituted.
In contemporary world the concept of shura' should mean democratic process and constitution of proper democratic institutions of which elections are a necessary requirement. In Islam any authority forcibly constituted or acquired by power of swords or arms can have no legitimacy whatsoever. The institution of monarchy or military dictatorship did not exist during the prophet's time at all. These are subsequent developments and were legitimised by the 'Ulama in order to prevent anarchy. Thus 'Ulama conferred some legitimacy on monarchy, not in the light of Islamic teachings but only to prevent anarchy. Some of them also became part of power structure and their pronouncements had no Islamic legitimacy. One sees this today in most of the Islamic countries. The 'Ulama in Saudi Arabia are very much part of monarchical power structure and legitimise everything the Saudi rulers do.
Thus the absence of democracy in Muslim countries is by means on account of Islamic teachings or incompatibility of democracy with Islam but due to host of factors political, historical and cultural. The imperialist powers, firstly of Europe and then those of United States also play their own role. The early Islamic democracy breathed its last within thirty years of the Holy Prophet's death. The institution of monarchy crept in under Roman influence. It is important to note that the capital of Islam had shifted from Madina to Kufa in Iraq and then to Damuscus in Syria which was once under Roman Empire.
Mu-'awiyah who siezed power without consent of Muslims was functioning from Damascus and adopted Roman monarchical ways. Thus deeper historical and cultural forces must be taken into account to understand the political institutions in many Muslim countries today. The US and British interests also play their role in shaping things in these countries. In many Islamic countries including the Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Muslim countries there is deep urge for democracy and popular government among the people but it is frustrated by the heavy hand of authoritarian rulers. Islam in no way comes in the way of establishing democracy in these countries. It is the powerful vested interests, both internal and external, which do not permit democracy to be established.
The next question is of implementation of Shari'ah law in Muslim countries. Many theologians and their followers believe sincerely of course that problems confronting their countries and societies can be solved by enforcing Shari'ah laws and the punishments prescribed therein. Also, they believe these laws must be enforced as they were evolved by the early jurists (fuqaha') without any rethinking.
This is certainly not the spirit of the Qur'anic injunctions. Many Qur'anic verses were revealed in a particular situation and while applying these laws that has to be kept in view. The fundamental principle is to prevent crime and crime can be prevented in number of ways. At times harsh punishments become necessary and at times reformative efforts more relevant. The Qur'anic injunctions about crimes like murder, theft, robbery, rebellion, rape and adultery are understood carefully it becomes quite obvious.
For example, the verse on cutting off of hands 5:38 is immediately followed by verse 5:39 which says, "But whoever repents after his wrongdoing and reforms, Allah will turn to him (mercifully). Surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful." Thus emphasis is on reform and repentance, not on harsh punishment. It may be awarded only in extreme case. Also, if it is read in conjunction with the verse 5:33 where punishment for "those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is that they should be murdered, or crucified, or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides, or they should be imprisoned", it should become obvious that one must distinguish between ordinary and ultimate crime. When for mischief in earth or waging war against Allah and His Messenger could be imprisonment as well, how can the punishment for mere theft could be cutting off hands.
It could be interpreted as metaphorically as well i.e. cutting off of hands means taking measures which will prevent him from committing theft in future as cutting off tongue means silencing some one, not literally cutting off tongue. Also, one must keep conditions in Arabia at the time. This was the traditional punishment meted out at that time and also some tribes indulged in crimes for their survival. The Qur'an used prevalent punishment and also added the concept of reform and repentance and talked of Allah's Forgiveness and Mercy. A criminal, if repents and reforms should be forgiven and shown mercy. Thus the Qur'an accepts the prevalent punishment but also improves upon it. The real purpose of the Qur'an is not to give harsh punishments but to reform the criminal but not to spare him if he persists despite better opportunities in life.
Another question relates to separation of state and religion. It is true Muslims in general believe that in Islam religion cannot be separated from religion. This belief has acquired almost a status of doctrine among Muslims. However, it has no such doctrinal position in the Qur'an. In fact it has been pointed out that Qur'an does not even give any concept of state, only a concept of a just society.
However, in Arabia there was no state at the time of appearance of Islam and the Prophet laid down a bare framework of administration of newly emerging society. There was no paid police, army or bureaucracy during his time. It was during the time of 2nd Caliph Umar that a register (Diwan) of paid army soldiers was started. Thus it was mere historical coincidence that a state structure came into existence along with a religious movement. The Shari'ah law has such status in Islam as in Arabia as there was total legal vacuum and Islam provided, for the first time a cohesive and logical legal structure. This legal structure was provided in total legal vacuum. It was great development. Hence Shari'ah law acquired very high status in Islam.
So integration of state and religion is historical coincidence rather than religious doctrine. Over period of time Shari'ah law which was result of dynamic process became stagnant. Some modern scholars tried to infuse the principle of dynamism by invoking the institution of ijtihad but did not succeed much in view of total stagnation in Muslim countries. The authoritarian rulers in Muslim countries find legitimisation only by seeking support of the 'Ulama and 'Ulama insist on retaining the Sahri'ah law as inherited from the past. If Shari'ah law is rethought or re-interpreted keeping in view the modern conditions, the orthodox 'Ulama fear loosing grip over power structures. Thus such collaboration between authoritarian rulers and orthodox 'Ulama has resulted in total social, political and legal stagnation in Muslim countries.
Though in given circumstances it may not be possible to attempt total separation between state and religion in Muslim countries as this has become integral part of historical legacy, one should begin by taking gradual steps in that direction. There cannot be any universal recipe as much will depend on concrete conditions in each Muslim country. But an overall Islamic moral framework has to be retained as had happened in many western countries including USA where an overall Christian moral frame-work has influenced law making. There are few countries in the West, which have discarded such influence totally. Among Muslim countries Turkey has achieved separation of state from religion. It also has to be borne in mind that forcible imposition of modernisation and separation of state and religion has failed in Muslim countries like Afghanistan during thirties and in Iran during Shah's time. Such attempts resulted in Islamic revolution and imposition of Shari'ah law from above.
Individual rights are very fundamental to functioning of any liberal democracy. In fact the concept of individual rights or human rights has evolved along with evolution of democratic power structure. Since there is no full fledged democracy in any Muslim country there is no respect for individual rights and many authoritarian rulers in Muslim countries reject the very concept of human rights denouncing them as western and secular in origin.
Thus one has to struggle for democratic power structure in order to usher in the concept of individual rights in Muslim countries. The Human rights activists in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc. are dubbed as western agents, persecuted and thrown into jails. As a result of this anyone who holds different political opinion faces persecution. Some who advocate change in Shari'ah laws in view of changed conditions or attempt to re-conceptualise Islamic philosophical doctrine face severe persecution. Thus there is no respect for individual rights and individual dignity. It will be possible only when democratic culture prevails. For that there is a basic need for democratic polity.
Freedom of conscience and freedom of speech has never been denied by Qur'an or the Prophet. The Prophet never suppressed individual freedom or discouraged differences of opinion. He even said that difference of opinion in Islamic ummah is matter of grace and mercy. However, with evolution of feudal and monarchical culture differences of opinion were not permitted and ruthlessly suppressed. During the early Abbasid period a controversy raged whether the Qur'an is created or co-eternal with God. The Abbasid who supported the Mu'tazilah viewpoint that Qur'an is created forcibly suppressed the other point of view that Qur'a' is co-eternal with God and flogged person of Imam Abu Hanifa's'stature for holding views contrary to those of Mu'tazilah. This authoritarian culture has not changed in Muslim countries until today. Many profound scholars of Islam had to leave for western universities from countries like Egypt, Pakistan and other Muslim countries.
It is for this reason that in no Muslim country today one has good tradition of social or physical sciences. For these sciences to flourish one needs liberal democratic culture. The Muslim countries would remain far behind in these fields if authoritarian power structures are not demolished and replaced with democratic ones. Unfortunately there is no such movement in sight. The United States has always propped up corrupt and authoritarian rulers in Middle East who suppress freedom of expression and these countries remain totally dependent on the west in every respect. They cannot develop even like India has developed. No Muslim country can boast of any modern scientific discovery.
ISLAM AND MODERNITY
In fact democracy and modernity go hand in hand and one can hardly be modern without being democratic. One can say that there are authoritarian models of modernisation like China and Singapore but on deeper reflection it will be seen that democratic model is far more congenial to modernisation in all spheres including social sphere. Modern social sciences cannot flourish in authoritarian regimes though natural sciences might.
However, lack of modernity in Muslim countries is not on account of Islamic teachings but more due to its medieval interpretation. Islam can not only come to terms with modernity but its teachings were quite modernistic if one goes by the Qur'anic pronouncements. Qur'an encourages pluralism if one goes by the verses like 5:48,6:109, 60:8 etc. All these verses are quite supportive of pluralistic social structure. In fact earlier Islamic societies were much more pluralistic than any other societies throughout medieval ages. The Qur'an not only recognises validity of other faiths but also makes it incumbent for Muslims to respect equally all past prophets and one who does not, is not a true Muslim. The verses 4:150-152 are clear proof thereof.
Intolerance in Muslim societies today is more political than religious. Islam is not intolerant of any other religion including that of kufr (unbelief) if it agrees to co-exist peacefully and harmoniously. Thus Islam and pluralism always go together. In fact it was in Europe in medieval ages that non-Christians were not tolerated. Islam today of course needs to be freed from intolerant theologians who are close to authoritarian power structures, which is at the root of their intolerance.
RELIGIOUS TEXT AND MODERN SOCIETIES
It is true religious texts pose some serious problems for modern society. But it need not be so with all religious texts if they are appropriately interpreted, at least not with the Qur'anic text if it is understood in its real spirit. But at the same time one should not obstruct democratic social and political structure if some text is problematic. The religious text were revealed or evolved in very different social background and one must take today's relevance into account. One need not reject religious text per se but examine its suitability or otherwise for modern societies.
STATUS OF WOMEN
It is true that Muslim countries are treated women as inferior to men and try to justify this treatment by quoting from religious texts including the Qur'an. But they quote very selectively from Qur'an to prove women's subordination to men. The Qur'an, if approached holistically, promoted equal status for women. The verse often quoted by theologians to show inferior status of women is 4:34 and ignore verses like 2:228, 33:35 and several others or try to explain away them as merely promoting spiritual equality. It is far from true. The Qur'an taken as a whole is far more supportive of equality of sexes. The modern Islamic scholars are totally rejecting orthodox interpretation of the verse 4:34 which was done in an atmosphere wherein male superiority was considered as quite natural, social and biological. I have discussed this in details in my book Rights of Women in Islam. It need not detain us here.
But one has to wage serious struggle to promote sexual equality in contemporary Muslim societies wherein Muslim women suffer several disadvantages. Again, it should be a part of democratic struggle. One can break stronghold of conservative 'Ulama only in a tolerant, pluralistic modern democracy. It is not Islamic teachings which come in the way, it is orthodox 'Ulama on one hand, and authoritarian power structure, on the other, which come in the way. The Qur'an, in fact, can become a great asset for promoting sexual equality.
For that we need not only modern interpretation of the Qur'anic text but also female theologians fully conscious of their rights.