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Last Updated: 2010/03/13
Summary of question
What is the position of Islam on democracy?
Please clarify the position of Islam on democracy?
Concise answer

Democracy is a method of organizing society and respecting the majority vote while maintaining individual and civil rights.

Although the majority is not necessarily always right[i], the majority can be determining[ii] and can accomplish its goals by accepting or not accepting them. From Islam's point of view a system can not exist unless the people and the majority accept it.

Islam believes that people have the right to determine their future and enjoy their individual and social rights in an Islamic system.[iii]

Of course Islam does not accept democracy in the way the western world does. In Islam if the vote of the majority contradicts basic human dignity[iv], it is considered illegitimate. However Islam accepts democracy in a much more complete and beautiful sense of the word. In Islam, religion and democracy are neither fully contradictory nor fully in agreement. The system which Islam accepts as legitimate is a type of religious democracy.[v]

The system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a clear example of such a system which coordinates between religion and democracy. Imam Khomeini, as a qualified religious authority and jurisprudent, founded the Islamic Republic of Iran and proved that not only aren’t Islam and democracy not contradictory, but that they are in fact able to work in tandem. Based on the peoples' vote, Islam has the most democratic way of organizing the society.

We have some verses in the Holy Quran which show that the Prophet (s) consulted with people, allowed them to take part in political and social matters, used their suggestions[vi], and gave them freedom of thought and speech. [vii]

Furthermore in traditions, the history and the life of Infallible Imams (a) all clearly shows this.[viii]

[i] In another word legitimacy is not determined by the majority vote whereby acceptance is.

[ii] As an explanation we draw your attention to the following example: imagine several jurisprudents are qualified to take over the Islamic government but by the majority vote and public opinion only one jurisprudent is selected for this mission.

[iii] Refer to:

A – Hadavi Tehrani, Mehdi, Leadership and Religion, P.117 – 138.

B – Subject: The relationship of people and government in Islam, question: 269

[iv] Refer to subject: Human being and dignity, question 48

[v] i.e. democracy in a society in which there is a Muslim majority is discussed within the religious and legal principles. They have accepted Islam freely and voluntarily and they have agreed that Islam’s laws and legislative system and moral and religious values should be enforced in society.

[vi] Ale-Imran:159, “So under God’s blessings you have become merciful and kind to them. If you were harsh on them they would keep a distance from you. So forgive them and consult with them in your affairs...”

[vii] Ghashieh:21 and22; Zumar:17 and 18.

[viii] Nahj Al Balagheh, p. 207

Detailed Answer

To answer the question we should take note of the following:

1 – The word "democracy" is a derivation from the Greek word "Demokratia". Here the prefix demo means management of foreign affairs which is opposite to "Polis" which means management of internal affairs.[1]

Today democracy in politics means the superiority of national idealistic power[2] and having people run their country. However, not all scientists of political science accept democracy as an enforceable and practical system.[3]

2 – The concept of people ruling over other people which is called "مردم سالاری" in Farsi[4] has the following features[5]:

A – Respecting the basic rights, especially the right to freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom to gather.

B – Having people's support and not taking aggressive measures to make reform.

Democracy is a way of organizing the society so that the necessary changes can take place without violent revolutions. In other words, democracy is a system to control society and an effective way to change revolutions into reformations.

C – Democracy is a means to settle disputes over power and avoid dictatorships.

The features named up to this point are desired and logical and they don’t contradict Islamic views on socio – political issues.

D – The other feature of democracy, which is nowadays accepted in the western world, is called "human rights" and it is the unconditional acceptance of what people want even if these requests contradict human dignity such as marriages of the same sex…. Certainly Islam does not accept this form of democracy. The philosophy of prophetic missions and the reason why the Prophets are sent was to fight against these types of desires and to channel these desires into real human dignity and position.

It was this majority of people who were blamed in the Holy Quran[6] for refusing mindlessly the invitation of the Prophets (a) towards happiness and salvation because it was against their personal interests and desires.

Now taking this introduction into consideration, we will have a look at some viewpoints regarding the position of Islam on democracy:

1 – One point of view holds that religion and democracy are basically two contradictory concepts and there is no relationship between them. The reason is that democracy is related to political matters while religion has nothing to do with politics.

This point of view belongs to those who believe that religion is separate and distinct from politics. They believe the domain of religion is limited to personal affairs and human relationships with God and have nothing to do with socio - political matters.

2 – The other point of view maintains that there is a contradiction between these two concepts. Democracy puts a high and unconditional value on the public vote and opinion and this is in reality is an inseparable part of democracy. At the same time Islam does not put unconditional value on people's votes in the same sense. For instance if the majority votes for a non religious system democracy will accept this whereas Islam will not.

We have two groups here: On one side there are religious people who don’t care about peoples’ votes and opinions while on the other side there are secular people who don’t want religion to interact with politics. The first group tends to support religion, a religious form of government and at the same time considers the right form of government as being against democracy. The second group believes in a democratic system and considers religion as being anti democratic.

3 – Another point of view is that the relationship between Islam and democracy is neither in full contradiction nor in full agreement, i.e., the relationship of general and specific. According to this point of view there are various types of democracy, some of which are non religious, others of which are against religion , while yet others are strictly religious. Islam accepts religious democracy. The nature of this type of democracy is not different from these other types. The only difference is that this type of democracy is religious in nature.

Democracy from Imam Khomeini's point of view

Imam Khomeini, as a religious authority who founded one of the most democratic systems in the world called the "Islamic Republic", proved that Islam and Democracy are not in contradiction but that they can freely interact and also be functional. He also showed that Islam is the most democratic way of organizing the society by people's support.

If we interpret democracy as the people's free choice to elect their own rulers or to discharge them and to determine their own destiny, then this won't be in contradiction with Imam Khomeini’s principles. The Imam said in this regard:

"Here we have the peoples’ vote ruling. It is the people who rule… no one is allowed to violate the people's decree.”[7]

When addressing the government, the people’s representatives, etc.. …, Imam obviously stresses the main role that people play in determining their destiny.

Once Imam suggested that the representative of the parliament should not act against the people’s will. He said: "If you want to act according to your own inclinations and call it democracy then this isn’t democracy. Democracy is that whereby the vote of the majority is followed. Whatever the majority say should be followed even if by chance it is to their loss. You are not in their position to tell them that something is to their loss; you are not their representatives.”.[8]

These words clearly show that Imam believed in the fate determined by people. He believed that democracy lies within Islam and that people are free to express their ideas and act provided that there is no larger conspiracy behind their actions.[9] This belief of the leadership of the Islamic system is reflected in the constitutional law as well.

In the constitutional law of the Islamic Republic the interaction between Islam and democracy is very apparent. In this governmental system the religious aspect and the democratic aspect are not separated. They have a conditional relationship with each other to the extent that we can say that according to the nature and logic of constitutional law, the Islamic system is necessarily a democraticly styled system and it was perhaps for this very reason that the founder of the Islamic Republic didn’t agree with the title of "Islamic System" and insisted on the title of "Islamic Republic".

Article 19 and 23 of Chapter 3 of the constitutional law of the Islamic Republic are under the title of people's right including freedom of speech, freedom of opinions, freedom of parties, and freedom of press and equality of people under the law…. . Also chapter 5 titled “Sovereignty” shows the position of Islam on democracy.[10]

This interpretation from Islam and its relationship with democracy is confirmed by many religious texts and sources like verses of the Holy Quran, traditions, and the ruling system of the Prophet (s) and Imam Ali (a).

In the Holy Quran God says to the Holy Prophet (P): “… and consult with them in your affairs”.[11] In another verse God places the subject of consultations next to that of prayers.[12]

He also says about freedom of opinions: “So remind them. You are only one who reminds.”[13]

These verses show that people can take part in determining their destiny in the society that they live in. It also is an indicator of freedom of opinions and civil rights such as freedom of speech.

The method of the Infallible Imams (a) also shows this. Although the prophet (s) had the authority to form a ruling system from the beginning of his prophetic mission until the time of his emigration to Medina, he formed a ruling system in Medina because he wanted to have the vote of the majority of the people.[14]

Also Imam Ali (a), based on traditions about Ghadir, had the divine right of leadership after the Prophet (s) yet he only accepted the leadership when he saw that the consent of the majority of people was with him.

In the Nahjul Balagha he said to people: "Do not speak to me like the tyrants are accustomed to speaking and don’t think that your words of truth are hard to bear for me. So speak words of truth and justice to me."[15]

Participation in making decisions through consultation was one of the policies which Imam Ali (a) had used in running his government. This meant participation of people in determining their fate and participation in making decisions.

Therefore, although in some cases the majority vote is not legitimate; it can be determining as to which system will rule by accepting it or rejecting it.

From Islam's point of view, people can determine their own destiny and enjoy their individual and social rights under the Islamic system.

Islam does not accept some features of western democracy where the majority vote contradicts human dignity; however, there are more complete and beautiful facets of democracy present in the Islamic version. In reality, there are no contradictions between religion and democracy and Islam has the most developed form of democracy that exists.

[1] Ali Babaie, Gholamreza, Dictionary of Political Sciences, Vol. 1 The Word

emocracy; Kohn, Karl, democracy (translated by Fariborz Majidi) p. 21

[2] Ibid.

[3] Enayat, Hamid, New political thought of Islam, p. 179

[4] Nowadays it is common to say that the government which values people’s rights is more democratic.

[5] The study of democracy in definition, history, features and the relationship of people’s right with democracy and Islamic sources position on this subject requires great deal of research by itself.

[6] Maedah:103

[7] Imam Khomeini, Sahifeh Noor, vol. 14, p. 109; vol. 9, p. 304.

[8] Sahifeh Noor, vol. 8, p. 247.

[9]Ibid. Vol. 4, p. 234

[10] Constitutional Law of Islamic Republic, ratified in 1358 (1979) with recent mendments 1368 (1989)

[11] Ale:Imran:159

[12] Those who pray and consult in their affairs” Surah Shura:38

[13] Ghashieh:21 and 22

[14] Ayati, Mohammad Ibrahim, The History of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), p. 181

[15] Nahjul Balagha (The Everlasting Sun, Translated by Abd Al Majid Moadikhah) p. 207

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