Is Islam undemocratic?
Parvez Manzoor

Modernity has given us a de-divinized public order. It has suppressed the truth of the Soul for the harmony of the City. It has reduced the mandate of Divine Vicegerency to a commitment to civil morality. Our civilization no longer represents any cosmic truth, it partakes of no transcendent order of being and recognizes no human purpose beyond existence. Indeed, by redefining the End (eschation/Akhira) as an immanent order of society, modernity has abolished quest for transcendence from public order altogether. In place of the bliss of the soul, it offers peace in the city, and for the mystery of the Here-after, it substitutes the promise of the Here-now.

Contrary to the modern truth, Islam holds that salvation of the Soul takes precedence over peace in the City. The believer confronts the mystery of being as l'homme and not as le citoyen. The sacrosanct discourse of the Law addresses the individual soul, the singular Muslim who is not a political being. Indeed, for all the compelling logic of its communitarian ethic, the Islamic vision is more transcendent than mundane, more symbolic than pragmatic, more paradigmatic than strategic. The true guardian of Islam would rather damn the whole of history a thousand times than part with a single text. Faith not existence is the real home of the believer.

Paradoxically, the Sacred, long banished from the precincts of the Secular City, now besieges it with a vengeance. Donning the garb of ‘fundamentalism’, it challenges secularity on its own immanentist ground. Realizing that the problems of a historically existent society cannot be exhausted by waiting for the end of the world, faith now promotes itself as the politics of immediate return. Indeed, committed to the glories of this world, it proffers its own model of the earthly paradise. Thus, while the Leviathan of modernity has not succeeded in devouring religious faith, the faith that has resurfaced from the abyss of secularism is afloat the raft of Messianism: it is immanentist, radical and totalitarian.

Today, the faith of Islam is under siege by a new worldliness. Challenged by the immanentism of the state-idea from within and by the secularism of the modern orthodoxy from without, the Islamic tradition stands indicted for being hostile to the humane values of democracy, freedom and tolerance. The Islamic truth of the believer, it is claimed by outsiders, cannibalizes on the right of the citizen. The sovereignty of Islam as a trans-temporal and trans-existential faith, then, compels us to sift the half-truth of the world from the full truth of our faith. In combating the new worldliness, in other words, the believer need to identify the true demons of our age and not exhaust himself in a futile game of shadow-boxing

In reflecting over the dialectics of faith and existence, we would do well to remember that while Islam is pre-eminently a religious faith, a doctrine of truth, modernity's mistresses - freedom, democracy and secularism - are all ideologies of method. They are all theories of practice, philosophies of means and instrumentality that care nothing for any ultimate cause or goal. Whereas the revealed truth of Islam cannot allow itself to be disenfranchised by any human - democratic or despotic – dictate, the methodological half-truths of the world, having no stake in man's ultimate purpose or goal, are concerned only with the niceties of procedure and form. Hence, only when democracy, wedded to atheistic humanism, lays claims to being a doctrine of truth, or when secularism interprets itself as an epistemology, does it clash with the faith of Islam. For by conceiving itself as a doctrine of truth, democracy does not merely affirm the political idea of the will of the people, it repudiates the religious idea of the truth of God as well! In sum, where there is no temptation on the part of the collective will to suppress the truth of the Soul, to subjugate the autonomy of individual conscience, the truth of faith and the method of democracy can cohabit within the same existential chamber. And that goes for the historical space occupied by the Muslim polity as well.

As for liberty, the revealed faith of Islam holds that, whatever the contingencies of existence, the moral man is always bound to God's law. He is the one who barters his freedom for obedience, submits his will to God's will, and becomes a Muslim. Hence, the Islamic tradition knows of no ‘libertarian discourse of rights' against God's revelation and its injunctions. It is also because of the revelational imperative that the faith of Islam can never free itself from the ‘ultimate ends of existence' and degenerate into a mere stratagem for survival. Indeed, Islamic existence may neither become a Promethean bid for an earthly paradise nor remain a pathetic quest for security in the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short' life of man.

The morally binding Law of God, it goes without saying, is not contingent upon the ordinances of any ruler or state: it is truly trans-political. Or, as understood by our classical tradition: after the termination of Prophecy, no rule has the right to demand absolute obedience. For every post-Prophetic rule is worldly rule, and every post-Prophetic state, Muslim or non-Muslim, under the guidance of the Faqih or under the governance of the Sultan, is 'fallible'. The state, as a historical phenomenon, accordingly, neither ‘incarnates' the Law nor ‘represents' the truth of faith but constitutes a contingent entity that has its jurisdiction over the bodies of men, not over their conscience. Hence, the same rationale for submission, which ties the moral man and his conscience to the imperatives of the revelation, cannot be applied to the citizen's relationship with the temporal state. Revelational conscience of the individual and not the political power of the state is sovereign in the House of Islam.

Given the insight that Islamic conscience must always maintain its autonomy in the face of political authority, any Islamic rationale for obedience to a historical, contingent, state is a matter of voluntary assent, an ijma‘ of the Umma, and not an article of faith. It is only for the sake of existential security and common good that Muslims constitute a polity in a limited sense. Faith is the truth of Islam, polity is its method. For all its ‘transcendental' rationale, governance in Islam is a dispensable communitarian business, not an indispensable affair of faith. No wonder that our tradition understands it the believer's fard kifaya.

Given the contractual nature of the Islamic polity, then, Muslims are fully justified in demanding from the state whatever political liberties and civil rights that they deem desirable. Conversely, the Muslim state - in contradistinction to the Prophetic Regime - must, on its part, guarantee the believer indemnity against its own (mis)rule; it must offer safeguards against its infringement of the believers' rights. The purpose of the Islamic contract, whatever its political trappings, then, is to deny the state any totalitarian claims, theocratic or otherwise. Indeed, to submit to the coercive power of the state only conditionally and not absolutely, is not only an Islamic imperative but that of any moral doctrine that upholds the sovereignty of the good. Indeed, it is the only orthodox political interpretation of the ineluctably religious doctrine of Khatm an-Nubuwwa (Finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad (S)).

The Islamic debate on civil and public liberties will start when we stop confounding State with Paradise, political order with divine order, contingency with eternity, in the manner of the secularists! Indeed, we must rectify our propensity for conceiving the State in terms of the regime of Law, mistaking an immanent polity for a transcendent moral order. (Obviously, the only exception is the Prophetic regime, which, being under the direct command of God through the revelation, represents a unique - and unrepeatable - instance of God's rule, theocracy. Hence, it is the only ‘state' within history that may demand unconditional obedience from the Muslim. However, this is one exception which ends every other rule; it renders all further claims to theocratic government illegitimate and un-Islamic.)

Given the fact that 'theocracy' is only possible under the Prophetic rule, it would follow that - whatever the sacred logic of the classical theory and the secular fury of modern revivalism - the believer and the citizen are not doomed to live a life of perpetual strife in the House of Islam. Indeed, as long as the state lays no claim to 'incarnating' the transcendent truth of faith, as long as it does not put on the theocratic mantle, it may be assured of the believer's loyalty, albeit a limited and conditional one. Only when the temporal state makes the ultimate pretense of directing the citizen's destiny beyond dahr or dunya, (thus usurping the authority of the Prophet) does it loose its right to obedience. A false imam is more dangerous than a false sultan.

To proclaim the eternal truth of faith and strive for the bliss of the soul, however, is not to renounce the half-truth of the City. It is simply to uphold the moral authority of revealed truth, and its attendant religious conscience, over the coercive power of political order. Inasmuch as the problem of creating peace in the City does not abolish the quest for the meaning of existence, the democratic method does not exhaust the religious search for truth. Hence, even if the religious faith of Islam and the political methodology of democracy have been presented as mortal enemies by the misguided champions of religious piety or by the self-appointed guardians of 'world order', they can, and indeed must, coexist. And this cohabitation must take place not only within Muslim polities but within the emerging Global City of humanity as well.

There is no divine decree that, in obeying the imperatives of faith, Muslim political order must perforce become despotic and undemocratic. Indeed, if there is any Islamic precedent with regard to method, it is just the opposite, as is amply borne out by the traditional doctrine of Ijma‘. Classical Islam (not to be confounded with the traditional Muslim polity) - unnegotiably religious by temper and inclination, is thoroughly democratic. Modern Islam - militantly political in theory and practice - seems to be going in the opposite direction. By so doing, however, it also puts into question its own Islamic credentials.