Democracy in Islamic Political Thought


As for the question of the existence of democracy within Islam, Bennabi argues that this is dependent on the provision of what he earlier refers to as the general conditions of the democratic sentiment. He then puts forward a set of questions: Does Islam provide and guarantee these objective and subjective conditions, in the sense that it creates a sentiment toward the 'ego' and toward the 'other' that is compatible with the democratic sentiment? And does it create the appropriate social circumstances for the development of such a sentiment? Does Islam truly reduce the quantity and intensity of the negative motives and of the anti-democratic tendencies that characterize the conduct of the oppressed and the conduct of the oppressor? He suggests that any project aimed at founding a democracy should be considered an educational enterprise for the whole community, administered through the implementation of a comprehensive curriculum that encompasses psychological, ethical, social and political aspects. 'Democracy', he asserts, 'is not - as is superficially understood by the common usage of its etymology - a mere political process; a process whereby powers are handed over to the masses . But is the generation of a sentiment, and of objective and subjective responses and standards, that collectively lay the foundations upon which democracy, prior to being stated in any constitution, stands in the conscience of the people. The constitution is usually nothing but the formal outcome of the democratic enterprise once transformed into a political reality indicated by a text that is inspired by customs and traditions, and dictated by a sentiment generated in a given circumstance. Such a text will have no meaning if not preceded by the customs and traditions that inspire it, or in other words the historical justifications that necessitate it.' He then warns that the answer to the question 'Is there democracy within Islam?' is not necessarily pertinent to a fiqh (jurisprudence) rule deduced from the Sunnah or the Qur'an, but is one which is related to the essence of Islam as a whole. 'In this sense', he argues, 'Islam should be viewed not as a constitution that proclaims the sovereignty of a given community, or that states the rights or liberties of a certain people, but as a democratic enterprise that is the product of an exercise, through which the position of a Muslim vis-à-vis his or her encompassing society is defined, along the path toward accomplishing democratic values and norms provided a Muslim's temporal activity is tied to the general principles endorsed by Islam in the form of a seed sown in the Islamic conscience, and in the form of a general sentiment, and of motives, that constitute the Islamic equilibrium within every member of the community.'[^64]

Speaking of models of democracy - 'Western' in Europe, 'popular' in the East and 'new' in China - that differ from one another in the way they express their new symbolic evaluation of man, Bennabi sees that an Islamic model of democracy is attainable. Whereas in the other models the main objective is to endow man with political rights, enjoyed by the 'citizen' in Western countries, or social securities, enjoyed by the 'comrade' in Eastern countries, 'Islam', is distinguishable, according to Bennabi, because it 'endows man with a value that surpasses every political or social value'. He explains that the declaration in the Qur'anic verse 70 of Chapter 17, (We have honored the children of Adam), endows man with more than just rights or securities. 'This verse was revealed as if to lay the foundations for a democratic model that is above every other model, where the divine element within man is taken into consideration and not just the human or social aspects as in the other models. Thus, a kind of sanctity is endowed upon man raising his value above whatever value other models give to him.'[^65]

However, Bennabi is keen to distinguish between what Islam has the potential to offer and the prevalent state of the Muslims. He concludes that democracy exists within Islam, not during the era when Islamic traditions petrify and lose their brilliancy such as nowadays, but during the era of their making and when society is developing, such as during the first 40 years of Islamic history.[^66]

Bennabi's analysis was revolutionary during his time, when Islamists in much of the Arab world, especially in the Middle East, were influenced by Qutb's thoughts and made an enemy out of democracy without ever understanding it. It was primarily thanks to his disciples such as Rachid Ghannouchi and other North African thinkers that mainstream Islamic movements gradually, though sometimes reluctantly, relinquished old positions on this matter. Malik Bennabi, who according to Ghannouchi, 'undoubtedly represents an element of the Islamic culture of rationalism and particularly a revival of Ibn Khaldun's historical culture of rationalism', had a profound influence on the Tunisian Islamic group. The two men's first encounter came when, on his way back from Paris to Tunis, Ghannouchi traveled by land through Spain, Morocco and Algeria where he visited Bennabi before entering Tunisia. He had read his books in Damascus when he, as he put it, returned to Islam.[^67] Having read Sayyid Qutb during his student years in Syria and France, and having been greatly influenced by his thoughts during that initial period of self- searching, he listened attentively to Bennabi as he strongly criticized Qutb. The latter had actually referred to Bennabi in one of his writings without mentioning his name: 'An Algerian writer who writes on Islam believes that Islam is one thing and civilization is another.' Bennabi was seemingly offended by Qutb's remark that he believed was demeaning. After listening to the critique, Ghannouchi concluded that Bennabi had deeper knowledge and a better understanding of civilization than Qutb. Bennabi believed that 'whereas civilization is the transformation of any good idea into a reality, Islam is a set of guidelines, a way of life, or a project, that creates a civilization only when put into practice; when its adherents carry it and move through the world positively influencing man, material and time. Therefore, a Muslim may be uncivilized just as a non-Muslim may be civilized.'[^68] On the other hand, Qutb insisted that civility is a synonym of Islam; that a Muslim is civilized and a non-Muslim is not. 'This belief', Ghannouchi comments, 'would inevitably lead to Takfir' (that is charging someone with unbelief), and goes on to say, 'Qutb seemed to have borrowed the belief of the Al-Khawarij that a person is not a Muslim unless he or she is sinless and applied it to the question of civility; that is a person is not a Muslim unless he is perfectly civilized, and therefore all those backward Muslims are infidels!'[^69]