Democracy in Islamic Political Thought

[Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935)]

Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) saw that the reason for the backwardness of the ummah was that ' . the Muslims have lost the truth of their religion, and this has been encouraged by bad political rulers, for the true Islam involves two things, acceptance of the unity of God and consultation in matters of State, and despotic rulers have tried to make Muslims forget the second by encouraging them to abandon the first.'[^20] He stressed that the greatest lesson the people of the Orient can learn from Europeans is to know what government should be like.[^21] In his book Al-Khilafa (The Caliphate) he stresses that Islam is guidance, mercy and social-civic policy. About the latter, which he seems to use as a synonym for politics, he says: 'As for the social-civic policy, Islam has laid its foundations and set forth its rules, and has sanctioned the exertion of opinion and the pursuit of Ijtihad in matters related to it because it changes with time and place and develops as architecture and all other aspects of knowledge develop. Its foundations include that authority belongs to the ummah, that decision-making is through shura, that the government is a form of a republic, that the ruler is not favored in a court of law to the layman - for he is only employed to implement Shari’ah and public opinion, and that the purpose of this policy is to preserve religion and serve the interests of the public . .'[^22]

Nineteenth-century Islamic political thinkers, who were clearly influenced by European democratic thought and practice, tried to establish a resemblance between democracy and the Islamic concept of shura. Faced with a crisis of government augmented by the autocracy and corrupt conduct of Muslim rulers, they sought to legitimize the borrowing of aspects of the Western model they believed were compatible with Islam and capable of resolving the crisis. However, the trend changed in the aftermath of the First World War and following the demise of the Khilafah (Caliphate), whose abrogation, in 1924, shocked the Muslims in spite of the fact that many of them had suffered greatly at the hands of some Ottoman rulers. The Khilafah was an administrative legacy that for many centuries represented a moral shield and a political entity.[^23] The challenge was no longer despotism. The Muslims had already lost their symbol of unity, which they had been trying to reform. The European democracies, which provided inspiration and were greatly admired by reformists in the East, had colonized much of the Arab world, dividing its territories among them as booties. The Western colonizers' endeavors to westernize the Muslims were viewed as a serious threat to the Arab-Islamic identity, and, thus, liberating Muslim lands from colonialism became a priority. Hence, one for revival replaced the call for reform.

During this period, Rashid Rida, Abduh's disciple, published the Al-Manar Journal that attracted a readership of Islamic intellectuals who shared Rida's specific additions to the thoughts of his masters Al-Afghani and Abduh, namely the condemnation of innovations in doctrine and worship and the acceptance of the rights of reason and public welfare in matters of social morality. A young man who frequented Rida's circle and regularly read his Journal, then attempted to carry it on after Rida's death. His name was Hasan Al-Banna (1904-49).[^24] Trained by his father Ahmad Al-Banna, a graduate of Al-Azhar University and author of an encyclopedia of Hadith and Islamic Jurisprudence, young Hasan grew up to become the founder of the largest and first international Islamic movement in modern times, the al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood).

Established as a study circle, known as Madrasat at-Tahdhib (The School of Refinement), in 1928 in the Egyptian port city of Al-Isma'iliyyah - the headquarters of the Suez Canal Company and the British forces in Egypt - the group grew rapidly and spread to other parts of the country within a short period of time. Its growth accelerated by the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and the Arab Revolt in Palestine against the British Mandate and Zionist colonization; the movement quickly transformed itself into a political entity. By 1939 a series of rasa'il (messages or articles), mostly authored by Al-Banna, were circulated explaining the Ikhwan's mission, clarifying its ideas and underlining its method.[^25] In the first of these articles, entitled Bayn al-Ams wa'l-Yawm (Between Yesterday and Today), Hasan Al-Banna diagnosed the situation in the Muslim world as follows:

European power expanded, thanks to discoveries, expeditions, and travels to far and distant lands as far as many of the remote Islamic countries like India, as well as some of the neighboring Islamic provinces. Europe began to work earnestly at dismembering the powerful and far-flung Islamic state proposing numerous plans toward this end, referring to them at times as 'the Eastern question' and at others as 'dividing up the inheritance of the Sick Man of Europe'. Every state began to seize any opportunity as it arose, adopting the flimsiest of excuses to attack the peaceful yet careless Islamic state, and to reduce its periphery or demolish parts of its integral fabric. This onslaught continued over a long period of time, during which the Ottoman Empire was stripped of much of its Islamic territory that then fell under European domination, e.g., Morocco and North Africa. Many non-Islamic areas previously under Ottoman rule became independent during this time, e.g., Greece and the Balkan States. The final round of this struggle was the First World War, from 1914 to 1918, which ended in the defeat of Turkey and her allies, providing a perfect opportunity for the strongest nations of Europe, (England and France, and under their patronage, Italy). They laid their hands on the huge legacy left behind by the Islamic nations, imposing their rule over them under the various titles of occupation, colonialism, trusteeship or mandate dividing them up in the following manner: North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunis) became French colonies lying in between a zone of international influence in Tangier and a Spanish colony in the Rif; Tripoli and Barca became Italian colonies in which Italy did not wish a single trace of Islam to remain. She forced Italian citizenship upon the people giving it the name of 'South Italy' and filling it with thousands of hungry families and wild beasts in human form (Italian outcasts); Egypt and the Sudan fell under English authority, neither one possessing a shred of independent authority; Palestine became an English colony, which England took the liberty of selling to the Jews so that they might establish therein a national Zionist homeland; Syria became a French colony; Iraq became an English colony; the Hijaz (the Western Province of Arabia) possessed a weak, unstable government dependent on charity and clinging to false treaties and worthless covenants; Yemen possessed an outmoded government and a poverty stricken populace exposed to attack anywhere and at any time; the remaining nations of the Arabian peninsula consisted of small emirates whose rulers lived under the wing of the British consuls and who fought one another for the crumbs falling from their tables, their breasts burning with mutual resentment and hatred. This was the case despite the reassuring promises and binding treaties drawn up by the Allies with the mightiest monarch of the Peninsula, King Hussein, stating that they would help him achieve the Arab independence and support the authority of the Arab Caliphate; Iran and Afghanistan possessed shaky governments beset by power hungry people on every side, they would be under the wing of one nation at one time and under that of another at other times; India was an English colony; Turkistan and the adjoining regions were Russian colonies, subjected to the bitter harshness of the Bolshevik authorities. Apart from these, there were also the Islamic minorities scattered across many countries, knowing no state to whose protection they might have recourse, nor any well armed government to defend their nationality, as, e.g., the Muslims in Ethiopia, China, the Balkans, and the lands of Central, South, East and West Africa. Under such conditions, Europe won in the political struggle, and finally accomplished her goal in dismembering the Islamic empire, annihilating the Islamic state and erasing it politically, from the list of powerful, living nations.[^26]