Citation for Democracy

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Muhammad, Muslih , Muslih Muhammad and Browers Michaelle. "Democracy." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jan 25, 2022. <>.


Muhammad, Muslih , Muslih Muhammad and Browers Michaelle. "Democracy." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Jan 25, 2022).


Around the middle of the nineteenth century, new ways of thought began to emerge in the Middle East, primarily as a result of contact with European industry, communications, and political ideas and institutions. While they were not breaking with the Islamic past, there was a modern element in the thought of some Muslim thinkers and officials—such as Rifāʿah Rāfiʿ al-Ṭahṭāwī (Egypt, 1801–1873), Ali Suavi (Turkey, 1839–1878), and Khayr al-Dīn al-Tūnisī (Tunisia, 1822–1890)—who argued that Muslims could increase their strength by adopting selectively Western institutions and practices that were compatible with sharīʿah (Islamic law).

Some writers of this period maintained that the principles of social action are rational and that they change as society changes. The Egyptian reformer Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1848–1905) sought to strengthen the moral roots of Islamic society by returning to the past, recognizing and accepting the need for change and linking that change to the teachings of Islam. Disseminating his ideas through the periodical al-Manār (The Beacon), ʿAbduh asserted that Islam could form the moral basis of a modern, progressive society while moving in the direction of new ideas about social and political organization. Other modernist thinkers argued further that human society constitutes its own judge and master, and its own interest should reign supreme. Some reformists of the period, such as the Egyptian Qāsim Amīn (1863–1908), went so far as to affirm the benefit of the active participation of all citizens, including women, in matters of public concern.

From about 1900 until the early 1950s, two lines of thought regarding the proper bases of government coexisted in the Middle East. Supporters of the first advocated the principles of secularism and constitutional democracy, including representative government based on broad political participation. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman state, this principle was advanced by leaders of political groups and national liberation movements; it seemed to have reached its logical end with the establishment of quasi-constitutional systems in a number of Arab countries on the model of Western-style democracies. Experimentation with democracy was not, however, a happy experience. Rigged elections, puppet governments, arbitrary arrests, and rubber-stamp parliaments raised serious doubts about the ability of the Arabs to create and tolerate democratic institutions and practices.

Following a second line of thought were those who believed that Islamic law and institutions should be the basis of political and social organization. For most of this school, the ideal was to live in the inherited Islamic framework and to preserve the continuity of the Islamic tradition. This contrasts in many ways with the thinking of the advocates of democratic reform, most of whom accepted Islam as a body of principles but believed that secular norms of nationalism and liberal democracy were best suited to the reorganization and regulation of Arab society and politics.

Following the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and especially with the advent of revolutionary regimes in key Arab states (Egypt, Syria, and Iraq), the balance of political thought tilted decisively in favor of the radicalism of the revolutionary state. The new ways of thought and action were embodied in a form of nationalism that expressed social reform in the idiom of Arab socialism and that expressed foreign policy in the language of anticolonialism and positive neutrality. In the 1950s and 1960s, many secularists as well as Islamists were engaged in attempts to prove that Islam and socialism were compatible, and that the pursuit of Arab unity was more important than the pursuit of democracy and pluralism. In North Africa and in the Arab East, the principle of Arab unity held first place, on the grounds that socialism, freedom, and the liberation of Palestine could not be achieved without it. This was a position clearly articulated by the representatives of Arab nationalism—Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), and such Baʿthist activists and intellectuals as the Syrian Michel Aflaq (1910–1989), the Palestinian ʿAbd Allāh al-Rīmāwī, and the Jordanian Munīf al-Razzāz.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the unrest generated by war and civil strife in some Arab countries, the failure of Arab governments to stand up to Israel, the rising discontent with socioeconomic performance, and the unchecked growth of the power of the state brought about a change in the scale of political life: there was a broader agenda of grievances and a larger public for new ideas and rhetoric. The movement for the revival of Islam as the only valid basis for social and political life was perhaps the most significant aspect of this change.

With the rise of Islamic political movements in the 1970s and 1980s, writers and activists formulated diverse ideas about social and political organization. We shall deal in a general way with three of them—the rejectionist, moderate, and liberal Islamic perspectives—because they are broadly representative of certain attitudes and positions with respect to the notion of democracy. However, we should neither impose a false unity on the ideas of a particular category nor view the categories as mutually exclusive, particularly because the works of many of the writers have evolved over several decades. The term “fundamentalist” is likewise too narrow to be applicable to any of the intellectual trends discussed here. See FUNDAMENTALISM.

In fact, advocates of each of the views were influenced by the modernizing impulse and the call for ijtihād (independent reasoning) of Muḥammad ʿAbduh, who encouraged Muslims to establish their government by reasoning from Islamic principles in the interest of the Islamic community. What distinguishes the three perspectives is not only their assessment of democracy, but the scope permitted to, and the basis of, their ijtihād.

The Rejectionist Islamic View.

ʿAbduhʾs student Rashīd Riḍā (Syria/Egypt 1865–1935) edited al-Manār from 1898 until his death. Like ʿAbduh, Rashīd Riḍā encouraged Muslims to emulate the scientific and technological achievements of the West but discouraged the imitation of foreign ideas and practices. He maintained that the backwardness in Muslim countries arose from the neglect of the true principles of Islam.

The Egyptian thinker Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966), who was a leading member of the Society of Muslim Brothers and whose writings became very popular after his execution by the Egyptian authorities, shared Rashīd Riḍāʾs concern with emulation of the foreign. Quṭb condemned the Arab nation-state systems as un-Islamic and as part of what he calls the modern jāhilīyah, a term that originally denoted the period prior to the emergence of Islam in the seventh century but which, for Quṭb, corresponds to the prevailing aspects of modern life, including Western institutions and beliefs inconsistent with Islam. Quṭb believed that the comprehensiveness and universality of Islam made it good for all peoples, regardless of place and time. Quṭb asserts that the Islamic political order is an eternal system that rests on three fundamental bases: “justice on the part of rulers, obedience on the part of the ruled, and consultation between ruler and ruled” (see Quṭb, pp. 119–120). For Quṭb, a just political and social order based on the Qurʿān and the sunnah (tradition) will lead to the implementation of the sharīʿah and will thus achieve the main political goal of Islamists, which is the establishment of the Islamic state. The main value is not democracy but the implementation of the sharīʿah, and the only political system of any type that can claim Islamic legitimacy is one that enforces the sharīʿah.

An even sharper distinction between democracy and “consultation between ruler and ruled” is drawn by Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (India/Pakistan, 1903–1979), who believed that the notion of popular sovereignty that lies at the basis of democracy violates the principle of ḥākimīyah (the absolute sovereignty of God over the world) and is tantamount to shirk billāh (the sacrilegious attribution of partners to God). Mawdūdī terms the proper Islamic system of government a “theo-democracy,” distinct from European theocracies because, rather than rule by a clerical class that enforces its decisions upon the people in the name of God, the entire Muslim population is to run the state in accordance with the sharīʿah, which rules over all aspects of life.

While this perspective remained common throughout the 1970s and 1980s among various groups calling for the establishment of an Islamic state, the number of thinkers adopting an outright rejectionist stance toward democracy—generally the most radical Islamists—has diminished in recent years. Many Islamist groups, including most factions of the Muslim Brotherhood, have moderated their stance on democracy. Nonetheless, much contemporary scholarship has questioned whether this or that Islamic thinker who has claimed the mantle of democracy merely exploits the popularity of the term for political opportunity or cloaks more radical stances in moderate language.

The Moderate Islamic View.

Three concepts are central to the moderate Islamic understanding of democracy: shūrā (consultation), maṣlaḥah (public interest), and ʿadl (justice). There are disagreements among Muslim scholars with regard to shūrā, but in essence they all agree, on the basis of the Qurʿān, that God instructed the Prophet to consult with his advisers, even those whose advice had led to defeat in battle, and that good Muslims should consult with each other in conducting their affairs. While Quṭb, Mawdūdī, and others have rejected the equation of shūrā and democracy, others consider this principle of mutual consultation to be a basis for the election of representative leaders and government institutions, as in the case of Western democracies. Fatwās (scholarly opinions), it is further argued, have allowed and will continue to allow different systems of government to legitimize their authority in the name of Islam.

Maṣlaḥah means doing what is good for the people and avoiding what is injurious. Critical here is the extent to which the people can be involved in determining what is good and what is not good for them. Theoretically speaking, this can be resolved by means of mutual consultation through the representative organs of the state, but regardless of the extent of consultation, just rule is a sine qua non for the promotion of the public interest. Islamic political leaders are considered to be just insofar as they follow policies that are consistent with the public interest as defined through shūrā and insofar as they do not inflict unnecessary hardship on their people. See MAṣLAḥAH.

Representing this perspective is Ḥasan al-Turābī (b. 1932), a leading Islamic thinker and the primary ideologist of the Sudanese Islamic National Front, the main pillar of the Sudanese government; he argues that any political or social system must be based on tawḥīd, the unification of all Muslims as a fulfillment of the rabbānīyah (lordship) of God. Shūrā and tawḥīd should go hand in hand. Shūrā is needed to interpret sharīʿah and to deal with constitutional, legal, social, and economic matters. Al-Turābī distinguishes between shūrā and Western-style democracy: shūrā represents the ultimate sovereignty of God as embodied in the Qurʿān, while democracy connotes the ultimate sovereignty of the people. See TAWḥīD.

According to al-Turābī, liberal democratic systems have two flaws. First, they are based on factional interests and therefore cannot promote real political equality, unity, and freedom. Because wealth, and therefore power, are concentrated in the hands of a few, ultimate authority is vested in a small elite. Second, liberal democracies are based on human reason, and regardless of how people may try to perfect the political and social order, reason still suffers from the limitations that God has imposed on humans.

For al-Turābī, Islam thus has a unique advantage in postulating the divinely ordained connection between political shūrā and tawḥīd. This connection prevents tyranny because it resolves ideological conflicts and unifies Muslim actions. It also leads to an ʿaqd al-bayʿah (contract of allegiance) between the people and their ruler. The origin of this ʿaqd is ijmāʿ (consensus) through political shūrā. Al-Turābī believes that by following this course Muslims will be able to create a democratic system free from the flaws of liberal democracies. This system will be able to deliver the Islamic ummah from jāhilīyah and will provide through shūrā a means of participation and adaptation, as well as a mechanism for the realization of true political equality.

The Tunisian thinker Rāshid al-Ghannūshī (b. 1941) has considered how present-day Muslims might best pursue the political ideals of shūrā, al-maṣlaḥah, and ʿadl. Acknowledging that Islamic government exists only as an idea, unrealized in contemporary circumstances, al-Ghannūshī encourages Muslims to participate in existing non-Islamic governments as a nonviolent means of laying the foundation for a truly Islamic social order. He defends this strategy as necessitated by the exceptional circumstances of the present, where Muslims are unable to establish Islamic rule directly and where the choice is not between Islamic and non-Islamic rule, but between dictatorship and democracy. Further, this approach is rendered permissible by the Islamic principle of maṣlaḥah: Muslims must actively pursue the (even partial) implementation of Islamic laws and values in order to serve mankind. In those countries in which Muslims form the majority, Islamic movements will benefit from working with other groups to topple dictatorships that stand in the way of the realization of respect for human rights, security, and freedom of expression, essential bases for preparing the way for the longer-term goal of establishing an Islamic government. In those countries where Muslims are minorities, they should work to transform the values of their society in order to secure their freedom of worship and belief.

The development of a moderate Islamic discourse has influenced some of the most prominent Islamist thinkers. Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī (Egypt/Qatar, b. 1926), who in a 1977 work placed democracy at the top of a list of “imported solutions” to be rejected, revealed a change in stance in a widely circulated 1990 work, in which he argued that the main objective of the Islamist movement is to oppose political despotism and the usurpation of the peopleʾs rights and to stand for political freedom and true democracy. Al-Qaraḍāwī argues that Islam and democracy are different things. The former is a comprehensive system of values, while the latter is a means. Democracy, in al-Qaraḍāwīʾs view, means that Muslims would be permitted to rule themselves according to their own beliefs in those countries in which they are majorities. Only in an atmosphere of freedom and democracy has Islam flourished. Al-Qaraḍāwī shares with Quṭb and Mawdūdī the belief that the Islamic community is charged with ensuring that rulers govern within the limits of Islamic law, to which everyone is held accountable. However, while Quṭb and Mawdūdī seem to assume a unified Islamic community and a narrow legislative space, al-Qaraḍāwī believes that Islamʾs binding texts are few, leaving a wide space capable of accommodating multiple permissible interpretations of Islam. Further, whereas Quṭb and Mawdūdī rely upon that which unites the Islamic community, al-Qaraḍāwī trusts the Muslim masses to assert Islamism through majority rule.

The Liberal Islamic View.

Like the moderate Islamic view, that of Islamic liberals is influenced by ʿAbduhʾs emphasis on the role of reason in understanding religion and in dealing with the demands of modern life. According to the Islamic liberals, the challenge in coping with worldly matters is to enter social transactions and relations on a basis that allows for adaptation to changing conditions. The liberal Islamic view is, however, distinguished by its emphasis on the importance of a plurality of positions and the freedom of thought for the emergence and proper functioning of a democratic system. Liberal Islamic thinkers argue that the Qurʿān allows for political and religious diversity. The often-cited verse 2:256, “lā ikrāh fī al-dīn” (there is no compulsion in religion), is interpreted to mean the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims in civic rights and duties. There is inequality in matters of faith, but that is something that should be left to God. Human beings are not entitled to pass judgment on other peopleʾs religious beliefs.

Islamic thinkers like Egyptians Fahmī Huwaydī (b. 1937) and Tāriq al-Bishrī (b. 1933) have constructed important justifications for the full citizenship of non-Muslims in an Islamic state. Based on Muḥammadʾs ruling in the Charter of Medina regarding ahl al-kitāb (people of the book), they assert that Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are muwaṭinūn (citizens), not dhimmīyūn (protected subjects), and thus share rights and duties equal to Muslims. Other thinkers, like Mohammed Arkoun (Algeria/France, b. 1928) and Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd (Egypt/Netherlands, b. 1943), have attempted further to assert the value of plurality and freedom by extending the boundaries of acceptable interpretations of Islam through the incorporation of postmodern or literary modes of textual interpretation. These approaches are unified by a willingness to forego the literal interpretation of scriptures when it is believed to harm the interests of Muslims.

The Iranian thinker Abdolkarim Soroush (b. 1945) is exemplary in this regard. He argues that reason, freedom, and democracy are universal, primary values that cannot be constrained by religious or political dictates. Going further than moderate Islamic thinkers, Islamic liberals affirm not just the possibility of the coexistence of religion and democracy but the necessity of the constant examination of religious understanding, which can only be done in a democratic context. What Soroush calls “religious democracy” does not require that democracy be religious, but that religious thought be democratic, tolerant, and just. Religion needs freedom and tolerance to flourish. Soroush maintains that religious democracy is thus more demanding and substantive than secular democracy, because whereas the latter removes matters of faith and belief from the realm of politics, the former necessitates the constant engagement with and renewal of understandings of faith and belief.

One finds within these three Islamic trends distinct, though not necessarily conflicting, elements of modernity and tradition that echo the thoughts of nineteenth-century Islamic writers. They show the point at which certain ideas about political organization have entered contemporary Arab intellectual discourse. They also illustrate intellectual attempts to restructure Islamic society and politics, on the basis of an inherited Islamic past that is believed to contrast with Western political traditions, on the basis of the selective appropriation of modern democratic thought made to conform to Islamic values and law, or on the basis of a theory of liberal norms that becomes the basis for a reinterpretation of Islamic thought.



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