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Islam and the Challenge of Democracy Essay

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Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl is the most prolific of the Islamic thinkers of today’s world. He is a great Islamic jurist and scholar, and is now a Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law giving the students knowledge of Islamic law, Immigration, Human Rights, International and National Security Law. His Islam and the Challenge to Democracy is the quest to find out numerous questions and varied answers in establishing the relation between the principles so enshrined in Democracy and Islamic political and religious tenants.

To propound the relationship between the Islam and democracy is not a straightforward as it involves the deep and thorough understanding of the religious and political structures of the Islamic world and Democracy in its entity. Dr Khaled says that issue of democracy in the Islamic world of today is being hotly debated and there are both pro and anti versions to this issue that compete with each other and the biggest challenge before the advocators is to promote the vision of social justice and faith.

The very first section only of his most profile book Islam and the Challenge of Democracy straight forwardly says that he does not believe as what other Muslim advocators say that Islam has given birth to Democracy but various elements of Democracy are very well present in the Islam and we can say that Islam too supports Democracy. In this endeavor, he defied the view of radical Islamists as well as hardened Islamophobes who say that as God is sovereign master of whole Universe, therefore the principles of Democracy do not hold true for the Islamic world.

El Fadl poises that there is no doubt of the fact that the God is the sovereign power in the Universe yet this is God who has bestowed upon the humans, the power to envisage the right to form rules to govern themselves in the form of deputies or khulafa. In-fact Islam also believes in a form of government, that gives power to the people, transparency in the decision making through shura’ and there is a toleration for any disagreements and disputes arising out of any rule and rules are accountable to his subjects for any actions.

El Fadl believes in the formulation of the basic ethical values, and rights for all human beings on this Earth. He focuses that Islam should formulate the laws through ijtihad on which shari‘ah doesn’t have anything to say. He emphasized on the importance of formulating the maslaha or the ‘public good’ and ahkam al-shari‘ah or ‘expediency laws’ to envisage new thought process to develop the understanding of giving equal rights to every one. He admits that any interpretation of Islamic tenets, which has been construed by Islamic religious heads or Islamic religious leaders cannot be held as mere will of the divine power or God.

He vehemently opposes the formation of the Islamic state that has all the rights to form the Shari’ah, because he is fully aware of the fact that no human being can interpret the will of the God or divine power. If this is done, it will lead to misunderstanding or very limited understanding of the link or relation between the Islam and will of God and this in turn would mean trying to become equal to God and that’s the biggest sin. This will further lead to authoritative and oppressive state.

He said that although Muslim jurists defined and formulated number of political systems, yet there is nothing specific mentioned in Qur’an about any form that Government wishes to take. But Qur’an does recognize social and political values which form the basis in an arena of Muslim politics. Three values that are so enshrined in the Islamic testament: “Are: pursuing justice through social cooperation and mutual assistance (Qur’an 49:13; 11:119); establishing a non-autocratic, consultative method of governance; and institutionalizing mercy and compassion in social interactions (6:12, 54; 21:107; 27:77; 29:51; 45.

20)”. (El Fadl, Democracy and Divine Sovereignty, 2) Overall Muslims should form the government that would help in endorsing these values. As he said, “Qur’an says that God has bestowed all human beings a divine power by making them viceroys of God on this earth: He says, “Remember, when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I have to place a vicegerent on earth,’ they said: ‘Will you place one there who will create disorder and shed blood, while we intone Your litanies and sanctify Your name?

’ And God said: ‘I know what you do not know’” (2:30). (El Fadl, The Case for Democracy, 3) Institutionally it can be pointed out that the ulama, or Jurists can act as interpreters of the words of God and define what is moral and what acts are immoral for the humans. Every word of them is the voice of the God. But the law of the state demands that no religion can be imposed on the working of the state because laws of the state have been formulated by the humans according to their own whims and state itself.

And therefore in his own words, “Democracy is an appropriate system for Islam because it both expresses the special worth of human beings—the status of vicegerency—and at the same time deprives the state of any pretense of divinity by locating ultimate authority in the hands of the people rather than the ‘ulama”. (El Fadl, Shari‘ah and the Democratic State, 20) Finally he says that educators try to enthuse in the soul of the people the moral values of Qu’ran and induce the society to turn towards will of God.

But in this world of today, if a person is morally strong but cannot imbibe by full majesty of God but still believes in the fundamental rights of individuals, still have to be answerable to the will of God. It’s not just the mirage of the El Fadl’s views but also the vision of the several scholars on the most crucial and complex subject, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy. The second section of the book consists of short responses to El Fadl’s essay by several scholars. Nader A.

Hashemi says that the most prominent aspect to El Fadl is his belief that Democracy can be possible in Islamic countries, with this he proved false, the wildly held belief that Islam is not compatible to democracy. He further said that this idea has gained immense popularity after September 11. He states that biggest challenge in front of the Islamic nations is the choice that they have to make between the modernization and fanaticism and the future of the Middle East all depends on which of them will go for a longer period.

John Esposito espoused that El Fadl indicates complex and multiple manner by which Qur’an can be interpreted by the religious fundamentalists, fanatics and politicians to fulfill their various social and political motives. Jeremy Waldron appreciates El Fadl’s study of the theory of the Islamic democracy. Jeremy says that El Fadl conceptualized in the most articulate way the issue of the Islamic tradition and the way in which he poises about the politics and the rule of law in the milieu of the medieval age and how these thoughts were so prevalent in the early modern thought in the Christian era.

Also, how the moral and ethical values in the context of good governance had to struggle to make its place in front of scriptural authority and theocratic rule. The most enduring thing was that these ideas not only grew out of the abased environment but also actually kept on presenting itself by religious ideas and ecclesiastical practices. Muqtedar Khan talks about the “Pact of Medina”, which was signed between the Prophet and Jews and the pagans of the town.

This pact he said could be utilized to give the Islamic world the model for democracy and pluralism. In this pact, all the parties were guaranteed equal rights and equal responsibilities. Echoing El Fadl, he pinpointed that Islam should be made a symbol of ethical values and moral principles and should solve all the problems from the new outlook and new democratic perspective. But Saba Mahmood criticized Fadl on the point of liberalization. She says that very concept of liberalization is full of contradictions and the limitations that follow.

She further says that he focused more on rights of individuals than on community as a whole. El Fadl also ignored the human rights violations that follow liberalization, which are most popular in the most liberalized states like United States of America. Even Kevin Reinhart revokes same voice as Saba Mahmood by saying that El Fadl ignored the vital point of what the Western nations learned from their liberalized approach in their relations with the other countries including Islamic nations.

The whole liberalized approach depends on polices of Westernized nations and the military interventions of the USA in Islamic countries jeopardized whole concept of democracy and liberalization. William Quandt too said that the absence of democracy in the Islamic countries do not lie in their religion perspective but the problem lies in the presence of monarchical or dictatorial regimes in these countries, which partially or all are backed by the Western powers. In William Quandt views lie the whole thrust of the problem in the Islamic countries.

The requirement is the political and structural changes in the Islamic world that would bring about social and economic upliftment from the vision of democracy, which El Fadl, all the intellectuals and scholars agree won’t be welcomed by either the ruling regime or the Western allies. All in all, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy is the most thought provoking book ready to be explored and pondered in every religious and political arena of the Islamic world.


El Fadl, Abou Khaled. Islam and the Challenge of Democracy: Can individual rights and popular sovereignty take root in faith? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

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