Democracy in Islamic Political Thought

[Sa'id Hawwa]

Sa'id Hawwa initially wrote: 'Democracy is a Greek term which signifies sovereignty of the people; the people being the source of legitimacy. In other words it is the people that legislate and rule. In Islam the people do not govern themselves by laws they make on their own as in democracy. Rather, the people are governed by a regime and a set of laws imposed by God.' However, Hawwa seemed to adopt a more moderate position later in life, in fact just before his death, one much more reflective of the changing attitude of the mainstream Islamic movement. He wrote:

We see that democracy in the Muslim World will eventually produce victory for Islam. Thus, we warn our brothers and ourselves against fighting practical democracy. In fact, we see that asking for more democracy is the practical way to the success of Islam on Islam's territory. Our enemies have realized this fact, and that is why they have assassinated democracy and established dictatorships and other alternatives. Many of the followers of Islam have been unable to see the positive things democracy provides to us; they only looked at the issue from a purely theoretical and ideological perspective, and failed to look at it from the perspective of reality, namely that the majority rules, that the values of such a majority dominate and that in whichever country a Muslim majority exists Islam will prevail. Even when the Muslims are a minority, democracy is mostly in their interest.[^53]

In what amounted to a coup against his own previous stand and those of his mentor, Sa'id Hawwa seemed to campaign for, and encourage Islamists to adopt, the democratic alternative. He regretted that the Islamists have failed to benefit from the democratic circumstances that existed in many countries in the Muslim world, insisting that 'democracy in the Muslim World is the most appropriate climate for the success of Islam in the future.' Acknowledging the dilemma, he went on to say: 'The Islamists have fought democracy in the Muslim World because democracy in the Western concept has the right to make things halal (permissible) or haram (prohibited). It is a well-established rule in Islam that no Ijtihad (opinion) is allowed where a nass (sacred text) already exists. However, the problem here is that in the phase of conflict between Islam and other [ideologies] in the Islamic territory, we should know which system is better in order for the battle to be won by Islam.'[^54]

Hawwa's years of exile from the early 1980s until his death in the Jordanian capital, Amman, in 1988 represented an important transitional period in the thinking of the Mashriqi (eastern) Islamic school of thought away from the rejectionist thought of the earlier decade. The dramatic events of the early 1980s in Syria, particularly the military confrontation between the regime and some Islamist factions, as a consequence of which the government declared an all-out war against all forms of Islamic activity coupled with the destruction of the city of Hama and the wiping out of the organized edifice of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country, had profound and long-term effects on Islamic movements throughout the region. Ironically, it was the leaders and intellectuals of the severely bruised Syrian Islamic Movement that led the trend. The violent means of change had proven disastrous and the radical reform approach was a complete failure.

It was thanks to Hawwa himself, and those who shared his insight, that this transition took place. Criticizing those Islamic writers who stood adamantly against the democratic process, he wrote: 'Undoubtedly, democracy is the most favorable environment in the Muslim world for the battle to be won by Islam. Nevertheless, some people have been found in the Muslim world to fight democracy. The alternative has been military dictatorships and [single] party dictatorships that kept all the ills and prejudices of the Western democracy against Islam and the Islamists and denied Islam and the Islamists the freedom of passage. Democracy, wherever it exists in the Muslim world, means that eventually Islam and the Islamists will win and achieve their objective[s].'[^55] Then as if reminding his readers, who at the time were mostly members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in the countries of the Middle East, Hawwa hailed the decision once made by the founder of the movement, Hasan Al-Banna, to participate in parliamentary elections. This was, as admitted by many pro-democracy Islamists, a very significant event in the history of the Islamic movement that for much of the 1960s and the 1970s nobody seemed, or probably wanted, to remember.

Hawwa wrote: 'Al-Banna was wise when he wanted to participate in the parliamentary life, and Al-Hudaybi[^56] was wise when he called for the revival of the parliamentary life in Egypt.' Then as if to distinguish between two different trends within the ranks of Islamism, Hawwa declared: 'Participating in the elections to benefit from the democratic life has become a common denominator among the genuine Islamic movements, and thus we ought to be brave and frank in declaring that we do not fear [the emergence of] democracy in the Muslim world but fear for it.'[^57] Hawwa went so far as to remind the Islamists that they would be committing suicide by rejecting democracy: 'Because they fought democracy and viewed it through its [literal] meaning rather than its implications, the Islamists have killed themselves. Consequently, they have been governed by the worst regimes, that have imposed on them what they had feared from democracy; they have been denied the freedom democracy grants to them.' Then he asked: 'How could the Islamists fear democracy, the fear of which only leads to usurping them their freedom and to the rule of the minority? They should instead fear for democracy. The human experience has thus far shown that there can be no alternative to democracy other than revolutions, minority conspiracies and violence. All of this is a much greater risk than giving everybody the freedom to choose so that the majority elects those whom it deems fit and capable.'[^58] It is, however, clear that Hawwa did not think of democracy as an end in itself, but as a means to what he believed to be the noblest end, namely the implementation of Islam. 'Experience has proven that, in the Islamic ummah, democracy is the lesser of the two evils and the more moderate of the two damages prior to reaching the state of Islamic government.'[^59]

In the meantime, a different school of thought was developing in the Arab Maghreb drawing its inspiration from the 19th-century reform movement of Khairuddin at-Tunisi and the ideas of 'Abduh (who had twice visited Tunis and had a number of associates there),[^60] Bin Badis, Ath-Tha'alibi, Al-Taher al-Haddad, 'Allal Al-Fasi and others. Malik Bennabi, however, is credited with having laid the foundations of this modern Maghreb school of thought. An Algerian thinker of French culture, Bennabi (1905-73) believed that the coming of Europe had enabled the Muslims to escape from their decadence - caused by the emergence of a type of mind incapable of thought and afflicted with moral paralysis - by breaking up their rigid social order and freeing them from belief in occult forces and fantasies.[^61] From the early 1950s until his death, he wrote and lectured on what he believed to be the grand issues: namely, civilization, culture, concepts, Orientalism and democracy.[^62] In a lecture entitled 'Democracy in Islam' delivered in French at the Maghreb Students Club in 1960 - attended then by Rachid Al-Ghannouchi and later on co-translated into Arabic by him - Bennabi attempted to answer the question 'Is there democracy in Islam?' He pointed out that defining the concepts of 'Islam' and 'democracy' in a conventional manner would lead to the conclusion that, with respect to time and location, the connection between the two is non-existent. He suggested that deconstructing the concepts in isolation from their historical connotations and re-defining democracy in its broadest terms, without linguistic derivatives and free from any ideological implications, would lead to a different conclusion.

'Democracy', he said, 'ought to be looked at from three angles: democracy as a sentiment toward the ego, democracy as a sentiment toward the other, and democracy as the combination of the socio-political conditions necessary for the formation and development of such sentiments in the individual.' He went on to say: 'Contrary to the depiction of the romantic philosophy of the era of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, these conditions are not created by nature, nor are they the requisites of natural law, but are the upshot of a specific culture, the crowning of the progress of the humanities and a new appraisal of the value of man; his appraisal of himself and his appraisal of others. Thus, the democratic sentiment is the product of this progress over the centuries and of this twin appreciation of the value of man.'

Citing the French historian Guizot, in his book Europe from the End of the Roman Empire to the French Revolution, Bennabi stressed that various stages of progress led to the emergence of democracy in Europe and to the growth of the democratic sentiment in the European countries. He said: 'The great historian explains to us how remote and simple the origins of Western democracy had been before the democratic sentiment slowly formed prior to bursting with the declaration of human rights and citizen rights; the declaration which expressed the new appraisal of man and the legendary and political crowning of the French Revolution. Thus, the European democratic sentiment began to express itself - though not yet ridden of the obscurity that accompanies an object while in the state of making or evolving - through the two grand historical movements, the movement of reform and the movement of renaissance.' Bennabi considers the two movements to be the first expression of the value of the European human in the domain of the soul and in the domain of the mind. He stresses that this is the essence of the Western democratic sentiment when ridden of the fetters of history and politics - since the obscurity is caused by a package composed of phenomena and characteristics peculiar to Western history and which are not found in the history of other races and peoples - and when things are expressed in the terms of psychology and sociology. In other words, the democratic sentiment in Europe was, according to Bennabi, the product and natural outcome of the reform and renaissance movements. 'This', he stresses, 'is its correct historical meaning, and therefore it cannot simply be severed from the history of Europe so as to be applied to other nations.' However, he reiterates that whether in Europe or anywhere else, the general rule with regard to the nature of the democratic sentiment is that it is the outcome of a specific social continuity. 'In psychological terms', he adds, 'it is the middle position between two ends that are opposed to each other; the end that expresses the psyche of the oppressed slave on the one hand and the end that expresses the psyche of the oppressive master on the other. The free man, or the new man, in whom the values and conditions of democracy are embodied is the positive co-ordinate that is the sum of two negatives that individually negate all such values and conditions: the negative of servitude and the negative of enslavement.'[^63]