Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
As I write, the war against Iraq rages on, and the sheer sense of trauma is overwhelming. Under such conditions, one must wonder whether a doctrinal conversation about Islam and democracy has any point. Why appeal to the hearts and minds of Muslims when economic, political, and military forces are so uncompromisingly coercive?
The slaughter in Iraq may tempt us to surrender to cynicism about claims of democracy, freedom, and dignity for all. In my view, in this war the flag of democracy has been exploited in order to justify an enormous amount of bloodshed. But just because some Muslims abuse Islam for immoral purposes, I am not tempted to abandon my faith. Likewise, the abuse of moral universals to justify immoral conduct—such as invading a country in the name of democracy—does not dissuade me from recognizing the worthiness of these normative goals.
With great sadness about current political events, but with confidence in the importance of moral ideas, democratic values, and my own Islamic faith, I turn to the comments of my respondents, to whom I am deeply grateful.
1. The West vs. Islam?
Some respondents, Saba Mahmood included, prefer not to waste time on doctrinal issues, and would rather focus on Western hegemony and belligerence, and the failure of Western democracies to live up to their own standards (see Kevin Reinhart’s response). Though I share these concerns, I think that John Esposito gets it right: reformist efforts at democratization “do not imply uncritical acceptance of Western democratic forms.” Democracy is a political institution with moral foundations. The possibility that the West has failed to live up to the democratic ideal is an unfortunate fact, but it has little bearing upon my normative commitments as a Muslim and democrat. Moreover, while the West might appropriately claim pride of authorship over democratic institutions, the moral values that inform such a system have—as I tried to show in my essay—powerful resonances within the Islamic tradition.
To be sure, Islam must challenge subjugation on the basis of class, ethnicity, and gender. But a commitment to democracy and to the basic rights of human beings is hardly inconsistent with such a challenge. Implicit visions of human rights often lie at the heart of socio-political demands for empowerment. The right thing to do is to make this vision explicit, and thus render it publicly accessible and accountable.
And while we are skeptical of the universality of Western values and respectful of the integrity of the Islamic experience, we also need to be wary of strategies that exaggerate the distinctiveness of Islam. Critics of Orientalism have long emphasized that it inflicts upon Islam an exoticism that reflects the fears and imperialist fantasies of Orientalist scholars. While critical scholars such as Mahmood aim to undo this legacy, their work may serve to sustain it. They challenge asserted moral values, including the norms of democracy, as false universals, but offer no moral alternatives. Their opposition conforms to the reactive state of modern Islamic discourse. Much of this discourse is formed by the experience of colonialism and imperialism, and is hostage to a traumatized condition in which obsessive concerns with autonomy are coupled with a disregard of the need for constructive self-definition.
2. Islam and Democracy
In my essay, I recognize democracy as a moral value, and seek to define my faith in a way that is consistent with the normative demands of a democratic order. Here, I agree with Nader Hashemi: “The real focus should not be on what Islam is, but rather, what do Muslims want.” Esposito, William Quandt, Bernard Haykel, Jeremy Waldron, and Noah Feldman are admirably respectful of the right of Muslims to direct the ethical compass of their faith, and to shape their moral destinies.
If Muslims become convinced that democracy is not only desirable but also an Islamic imperative, they will strive to overcome both intellectual and political challenges to its implementation. For Muslims, a democratic commitment cannot be made in a doctrinal vacuum, but will require that it reconcile with their religious convictions. In this process of reconciliation, convictions may change, and democratic theory and practice might have to be modified. For instance, in my view, liberal Western democracies give insufficient weight to economic and social security rights.
My essay focused principally on Islamic doctrinal justification, and not on the complexities of democratic theory. That said, I do agree with Haykel and Waldron that democracy is not just about the rule of law or a system of rights, but also about the integrity of process and the practice of legitimate opposition. I would argue that at the core of democracy are the ideas of representative government, limits on the power of government, and the safeguarding of basic human rights. Then there are derivative but necessary rights, institutions, and practices that flow from this core, such as the right to associate and form oppositional groups, the right to reflect and speak, and the institution of an independent and fair judiciary. Once the core democratic beliefs are reconciled with Islam, the derivations are much easier to justify. Even at the doctrinal level, working out the full details is a long-term process that can only commence once the fundamental democratic commitment is explicitly argued. This was the primary purpose of my essay.
3. But Is It Islamic?
My argument for democracy draws on six basic ideas: 1) Human beings are God’s vicegerents on earth; 2) this vicegerency is the basis of individual responsibility; 3) individual responsibility and vicegerency provide the basis for human rights and equality; 4) human beings in general, and Muslims specifically, have a fundamental obligation to foster justice (and more generally to command right and forbid wrong), and to preserve and promote God’s law?; 5) divine law must be distinguished from fallible human interpretations; and 6) the state should not pretend to embody divine sovereignty and majesty.
This summary provides the basis of my reply to Mohammed Fadel and Muqtedar Khan. Fadel urges, in effect, that we investigate divine will in its unadulterated form, paying little heed to what he believes are false Western universalisms and past interpretive efforts. Thus Fadel traces my views to the rationalist (Mu‘tazali) tradition within Islam, and insists that they represent a “heretofore discredited theological argument.” I do not consider myself a follower of the so-called discredited school, nor do I believe that pure reason defines what is good and moral. Instead, goodness, morality, and beauty (husn) are defined in an interactive dynamic between revelation, human reflection upon nature and creation, and human perception of socio-historical experience.
Fadel also insists that the ultimate good in Islam is salvation, not justice. In my view, the emphasis on salvation reflects the impact of Christian symbolism and language on Islam. Qur’anic Arabic lacks a literal equivalent to the word “salvation”; more broadly, I believe that the concept of salvation, fundamental to Christianity, is foreign to the Qur’an’s language and spirit. Furthermore, I would argue that struggling to enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and being just with oneself and other human beings and creation, is essential to finding balance (al-mizan), equanimity, and peace. And the pursuit of this peace, balance, and justice lies at the core of submission to God, and the obligations of vicegerency. The point here is not that my arguments are convincing, but only that because of my context—my intellectual upbringing, personal history, and theological training—Fadel’s claims about salvation seem foreign and odd to me. This only demonstrates that both Fadel and I are each embedded in his own context, and each of us understands the Islamic tradition from his own subjective and unique vantage point.
While Fadel thinks I am insufficiently orthodox, Khan thinks that I do not go far enough. Khan thinks that Muslims should forget about Shari‘a; otherwise we perpetuate a Khomeni-style theocracy, where jurists (fuqaha) become the representatives of divine will and truth.
In my view, Khan’s response perfectly exemplifies the problem with much of the contemporary work done by Islamist reformers. Their lack of methodology often poses insurmountable obstacles to engaging these reformers in a systematic fashion. In Islamic theology, Shari’a is identified as the way to the fulfillment of the divine will. The processes of Shari‘a search the divine will by reference to doctrinal and historical sources, as well as a variety of rational and sociological devices (such as studying human custom or considering public interest). Some reformers, like Khan, rebel against the prized position of Shari‘a. But they rarely explore the implications of their positions. The undisciplined selectiveness that is characteristic of liberal reformers does serious violence to the traditions of Islam without offering a coherent replacement for them.
4. Final Thoughts
Since the onslaught of colonialism and modernity, Islamic traditions have been in a state of intense instability. Some have treated this legacy as a defensive mechanism against modernity, while others have surrendered themselves entirely to their modern context without much regard to the insights of past generations. If democracy is to become a normative goal for large numbers of Muslims, and is to be achieved in Muslim countries, it will have to be anchored in both Islam and modernity. Achieving this objective will require a serious discourse that negotiates between past and present without dismissing either. This is why the current engagement between my interlocutors and myself is particularly valuable. The fact that this debate is taking place at all while terrorism and war grip the world’s attention underscores the possibility and value of the democratic practice of civil discourse.
Khaled Abou El Fadl is Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at UCLA and a 2005 Carnegie Scholar. He is author of The Great Theft: Wresting Islam from the Extremists and the Boston Review book The Place of Tolerance in Islam.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The gender politics of Positive Psychology valorize the nuclear family and heterosexual monogamy. But few of the millions who encounter it through self-help books and therapy have any idea.
The passage of the administration’s signature IRA should be celebrated, but without explicit corporate guardrails it’s doomed.
As the war continues with no end in sight, the country’s ability to prevail at the front will depend on how badly the war damages life on the ground.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.