Democracy in Islamic Political Thought

[Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) and Mawdudi (1903-79)]

Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), who was imprisoned for ten years in 1954 and then executed in 1966, became the leading ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood from the mid-fifties. His book Milestones, which was written in response to Nassir's persecution of the Ikhwan, acquired a wide acceptance throughout the Arab world after his execution and following the defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 War with Israel. In it, he put forward the thesis of Jahiliyyah (ignorance, barbarity or idolatry), from which Islam came to deliver the world.[^39] Qutb divided social systems into two categories: the order of Islam and the order of Jahiliyyah, which was decadent and ignorant, the type which had existed in Arabia before the Prophet Muhammad received the Word of God, when men revered not God but other men disguised as deities.[^40] Muslim society, according to him, was itself divided into two realms, that of Islam and that of Jahiliyyah. This was clearly expressed by Qutb in Milestones as follows: 'Jahiliyyah is now present not only in the capitalist West and the Communist East, it has also infected the world of Islam. All that is around us is Jahiliyyah. Peoples' imaginings, their beliefs, customs, and traditions, the sources of their culture, their art and literature, their laws and statutes, much even of what we take to be Islamic culture, Islamic authorities, Islamic philosophy, Islamic thought: all this too is of the making of this Jahiliyyah.'[^41] Drawing from the theory of Mawdudi (1903-79) that as Islam has reverted to a state of Jahiliyyah, true Muslims find themselves in a state of war against the apostates, Sayyid Qutb concluded that true Muslims, the tali'ah (vanguards), are and must be set apart within the ambient infidel society as a sort of 'counter-society'. In his trial statement, Sayyid Qutb declared: 'We are the ummah of the believers, living within a jahili society. Nothing relates us to state or to society and we owe no allegiance to either. As a community of believers we should see ourselves in a state of war with the state and the society.'[^42]

However, as far as democracy is concerned Qutb seemed to develop his own theory. In this he went much farther than Mawdudi, rejecting the concept altogether, denouncing it as alien, incompatible and jahili. The term hakimiyyah (sovereignty), which Qutb constantly referred to while arguing against man-made political systems, was originally coined by Mawdudi, who used it to distinguish between Islamic and jahili (barbaric) societies. Mawdudi had argued that in a jahili situation, the edifice of politics rises on the foundations of al-hakimiyyah al-bashariyah (human sovereignty) whether such sovereignty rests in the hands of an individual, a family or a class or is the sovereignty of the public. 'Legislating in this kind of reign', Mawdudi explained, 'is entirely in the hands of man. All laws are made and replaced according to desires and to experimental interests. So is the case with political plans, which are only drawn or altered as dictated by the passion for utility and the provision of interests. In such a reign, no word is given precedence and no affair is awarded prevalence except if such were the functions of those who are most cunning, most resourceful and most capable of fabricating lies; those who have reached the pinnacle of deceit, cruelty and guilefulness; and those who have seized full control and are recognized as leaders in their community where, in their ''laws'', falsehood becomes truth just because its proponents have power and have the ability to terrorize, and where, in their courts of law, truth becomes falsehood just because it has no supporter or defender.'[^43] In spite of all of this, Mawdudi still believed that Islam, by virtue of the institution of shura, was democratic. In spite of his reservations about the Western liberal democratic practice, he called for a chance to be given to democracy, one which would allow it to adapt and succeed in Muslim countries.[^44] Considering the task of reforming the system of government and administration to be part of the Muslim faith, Mawdudi suggested that the means of achieving such a reform would be to 'displace those who are corrupt and misguided from power and to replace them with those who are fit and righteous.'[^45] As to how this change could be achieved, Mawdudi stressed:

There is no other way in a democratic system except to participate in the battle of elections, that is by educating the public opinion in the country and changing the people's standard in electing their representatives. We should also reform the election mechanism and cleanse it from theft, deceit and forgery. By doing so, we would be in a position to hand power to righteous men, who are eager to develop the country on the pure basis of Islam.[^46]

When asked about the flaws in liberal democracy, he explained to his students that notwithstanding the flaws in any particular form of democracy, the principle that the masses have the right to choose, and to bring to account and replace their government, should always prevail. When asked which method for running the affairs of the people is principally correct, Mawdudi retorted: 'Should those who are in charge of the affairs of the people and who run them on their behalf be appointed by the free will of the people so that they only administer and govern through consultation, and after having obtained the consent of the people, and so that they only remain in power so long as they enjoy the confidence of the public? Or should one person, or a group of persons, impose themselves upon the people, take charge of their affairs and run such affairs according to their own whims, and whose appointment or dismissal, or whose running of the people's affairs, are beyond the will or control of those who are being run by them?'[^47]

He further explained that any flaws in democratic practice were due to three main reasons. The first, the assumption that the masses are the source of total power and absolute sovereignty, while in effect, and in any attempt to set up an absolute democracy in the world, the masses come under the control of, and suffer the hegemony, of very few individuals. Mawdudi suggested that Islam had a solution for this problem. 'Islam', he stressed, 'rectifies this flaw at the outset by imposing a siege on democracy derived from a basic law dictated by the Creator, Master and True Sovereign of this universe. This is a law that both the public and those in charge of administering its affairs are obliged to abide by. Thus, the question of absolute independence, which eventually causes democracy to fail, does not arise.'[^48]

The second and third reasons, Mawdudi argued, pertain to the standard of education and the degree of awareness of the electorate, or what he refers to as the masses. Here too, Islam provides an answer with its emphasis on educating the Muslims, ' . preparing them morally and calling on each of them to have a sense of responsibility'.[^49] For democracy to yield its fruits and proceed successfully, Mawdudi argued, that much would depend on the existence of a strong and vigilant public opinion. 'Such a public opinion', he explained, 'comes [in] to being when the community comprises righteous individuals who are entered in a social system that is established on [a] sound basis, [one] that is so vivid that evil and those who invite to it do not grow whereas good and those who invite to it do grow.'[^50]

Reaffirming that Islam may provide all the necessary rules and teachings for such guarantees to be maintained, Mawdudi expressed his conviction that once these guarantees are secured the apparatus of democracy might function successfully. 'It might also be possible', he added, 'that whenever a flaw appears somewhere in this apparatus, mending it would be provided for by a better apparatus. The mechanism of self-correcting, together with progress and development, would suffice for democracy to be given an opportunity and be experimented with, for it is possible through experimentation to develop any deficient apparatus until it become[s], step by step, perfectly sound.'[^51]

On the other hand, Qutb seems to have been completely opposed to any reconciliation with democracy. In the beginning, he was opposed to the idea of calling Islam democratic and even campaigned for a just dictatorship that would grant political liberties to the virtuous alone. In his Tafsir (interpretation) of Surah al-Shura (Chapter 42 of the Qur'an) he said: 'Democracy is, as a form of government, already bankrupt in the West; why should it be imported to the Middle East?'[^52] Sayyid Qutb and his disciples, including Sa'id Hawwa of Syria and Dr. Abdulqadir Abu Faris of Jordan, in their treatment of the issue of democracy took an anti-Western position. Their discourses exhibit a lack of interest in the origin, nature or conditions of democracy or of its compatibility or incompatibility with Islamic values. In all discussions, the abstract democratic concept is confused with the attitude or policies of Western democracies toward the Arab world and Muslim issues. Their rejection of democracy was, understandably, a reaction.