Democracy in Islamic Political Thought

[Abdurrahman Al-Kawakibi (1849-1903)]

Abdurrahman Al-Kawakibi (1849-1903) wrote two books on the subject, Taba'i' Al- Istibdad (The Characteristics of Tyranny) and Umm Al-Qura (The Mother of Villages). The first is dedicated to defining despotism and explaining the various forms it may take, with much of the discussion focusing on political despotism. The relationship between religion and despotism and what he calls the 'inseparable tie' between politics and religion are also discussed. While stressing that Islam as a religion is not responsible for the forms of despotic government that have emerged and reigned in its name, Al-Kawakibi concludes that 'Allah, the omni wise, has intended nations to be responsible for the actions of those whom they choose to be governed by. When a nation fails in its duty, God causes it to be subdued by another nation that will govern it, just as happens in a court of law when a minor or an incompetent is put under the care of a curator. When, on the other hand, a nation matures and appreciates the value of liberty, it will restore its might; and this is only fair.'[^17] The entire book is an attempt to explain the reasons why the Muslim ummahh declined and became easy prey for 19th-century colonial powers. Like Al-Afghani and Abduh, Al-Kawakibi attributed the success of Western nations to ' . the adoption of logical and well-practiced rules that have become social duties in these advanced nations which are not harmed by what appears to be a division into parties and groups, because such a division is only over the methods of applying the rules and not over them.'[^18] In his other book, Al-Kawakibi constructs a series of dialogues involving fictional characters whom he describes as thinkers each belonging to a known town in the Muslim world, all summoned to a conference organized in Makka (Umm al-Qura) during the pilgrimage (hajj) season to discuss the causes of decline of the Muslim ummahh. One character, Al-Baligh Al-Qudsi, says: 'It seems to me that the cause of tepidity is the change in the nature of Islamic politics. It was parliamentary and socialist, that is perfectly democratic. But due to the escalation of internal feuds, after the Guided ones (the first four Caliphs) it was transformed into a monarchy restrained by the basic rules of Shari’ah, and then it became almost completely absolute.' Ar-Rumi says: 'The calamity has been our loss of liberty.' In conclusion, Al-Kawakibi stresses that progress is linked to accountability while regress is linked to despotism.[^19]