Iqbal’s Islamic Democracy

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By Haris Rashid

EVEN as consensus over “resource curse” as a primary inhibiting factor for democratization in the Middle East is emerging, but for the sake of convenience, Islam is still blamed for being inconsistent with democracy because most of the Middle East countries are Muslim majority. While it is true that there are many dictators of Muslim majority countries who exploit Islam to justify their rule but their justification cannot be extended to claim that democracy itself is inconsistent with Islam. Dr Mohammad Iqbal came up with an argument that democracy is not only thoroughly consistent with Islam but it is also an important aspect of it. Iqbal argued for an Islamic democracy that would not only face up to but also address the challenges of Western democracy. For Iqbal, democracy was how it ought to be conducted and not how it was carried out in the West. He understood democracy provided more space to accommodate the wishes and aspirations of most of the people and that Western democracy could be made more democratic by applying the principles of Islam to it. Iqbal was well aware that democracy cannot solve all the problems but he believed that it could be refined to at least overcome some of these problems. He wrote that every “democratic government has attendant difficulties but these are difficulties which human experience elsewhere shows to be surmountable”.

In connecting democracy and Islam, Iqbal rejected the idea of the separation of religion and state. Laying out his vision of Islamic democracy, he based it on two important legal tools in Islam – Ijtihad which Iqbal describes as “to exert with a view to form an independent judgement on a legal question” and Ijma which means a consensus on a legal opinion. Ijma, in Iqbal’s opinion, was “perhaps the most important legal notion in Islam” that could be transformed into a permanent legislative institution. Since Ijtihad “vigorously asserts the right of private judgement”, it would be fitting to transfer the power of Ijtihad to a legislative assembly which until now remained in the individual representatives of different schools. To avoid any kind of mistakes on the questions of legal opinion, this assembly was to be helped and guided by a committee of learned men called Ulema. These elected representatives had no authority but they were just interpreters of divine revelations. Also, since Islam doesn’t accept any authority, Iqbal argued that Tawhid which roughly translates to the oneness of God and which forms the bedrock of monotheism, lets Muslims free because this principle demands “loyalty to God, not to thrones” and lets “man develop all the possibilities of his nature by allowing him as much freedom as practicable”. Further, it was also that this legislature should only be bound by a minimal set of rules, leaving much of what was to be decided in the hands of the people. Through Ijtihad and Ijma, Iqbal proposed that Muslims could one day govern themselves free from theological constraints. Iqbal further held that the legal order had to reflect the will of the popular and should mirror itself in society. It had to adopt current values and principles as long as they accommodated the constitutional limitations of Tawhid and the finality of prophethood. Iqbal based this argument on the issue of Muslim women in Punjab who wanted to seek a divorce from their unwanted husbands and for that had been driven to apostasy because there was no other way to nullify the marriage. He wrote that “nothing could be more distant from the aims of a missionary religion” and vouched that these women should be provided with the rights to divorce their husbands while they still stay Muslim. Also, the fact that Iqbal is writing about democracy in Islam is in itself the reconstruction of Islam to incorporate current values of modern society. There is no direct mention of democracy in Islam per se, but it is only through joining the dots and reinterpreting Islam that Iqbal is justifying that democracy exists in Islam.

Iqbal also suggested equity instead of equality in his vision for Islamic democracy. In coparcenary in Islam, a sister gets half of what a brother gets. While defending this position, Iqbal argued that this difference was not because Islam considers women as inferior but due to the social position that the women in Islam occupy. Since a woman gets dower-money from her husband and the responsibility to maintain her is wholly on the husband, it was equitable that she only gets a half in inheritance. It is important to take note of this argument. While Western democracy treats everyone equally, everyone does not start at the same point nor does everyone occupy the same social status in society. Iqbal argued on similar lines when he pointed out that democracy in the West had not brought any change and people were still exploited with the advent of democracy, because it was up for grabs and people with power had seized it, becoming the same old exploitation disguised as democracy. It was this quest to liberate democracy from centralising and hegemonic tendencies that led Iqbal to put forward his own vision of Islamic democracy.

Since the fundamental principles in Islam are Tawhid and finality of prophethood, these liberate Islamic democracy from problems of territoriality or ethnicity. Added to that, having just one Calipah, who is again not some authority but only an interpreter, leads to the establishment of a global country in which the terms of nationality and race are used only for reference. As such, Islamic democracy introduces a new order which could well serve as an antidote to nationalism and could “furnish a model for the final combination of humanity”. This is important because “since the dawn of the modern democratic era in the late 19th century, democracy has expressed itself through nation-states and national parliaments … But this arrangement is now under assault from both above and below”. Such a system puts national interests first while global issues take a back seat. The world is today faced with global problems like climate change and pollution that almost pose an existential threat to the planet that cannot be dealt with by a single country in isolation. In this light, the new order proposed by Iqbal through Islamic democracy deserves attention and could well address the challenges of globalisation.

With the caveats of Tawhid and finality of prophethood, Iqbal laid out a concrete democratic model of Islamic democracy. Based on the legal tools provided by Islam, this could provide for a more democratic society than that of the West and could provide people with the greatest freedom possible.  After all, it does not have any authority but only interpreters; it does not seek allegiance to a state or a nation but God. Though Iqbal later projected this model of democracy on to the whole world, he did not take non-Muslims into consideration. How would non-Muslims be accommodated and treated under such a model is a question that he left unanswered.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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