April 28, 2008

Islamic Democracy

Posted in Religion at 6:00 am by egalitaria

Finished reading “No God but God”, Reza Aslan’s book recently, and it is an excellent read. It charts out the entire history of Islam, dating from pre-Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) Arabia and consequent developments, making it simple for the layman to comprehend origins of the Shiite-Sunni divide, how Islam is not homogeneous since there are multiple interpretations of its theology and practice. Two points struck out:

First, the description of Sufism, which as we know is the mystical understanding of Islam, the nafs (desire) that longs for unattainable union with God the Creator, and insatiable love. In the story of Layla and Majmun, the lovers are initially banned from seeing the other, and after years of separation, develop the sort of deep, aching love that even upon finally meeting, cannot actuate. The intense longing is best left as it is, since proximity would be too intoxicating for either party. The Conference of the Birds outlines the birds who travel far and wide to discover wisdom, only to find that it is the journey itself that has developed their characters that way inclined. Sufism is the mystical journey towards full knowledge of God, best described but not defined.

The second is that the Muslim world has struggled for centuries to come to a thorough understanding of the governance of an Islamic state. Prophet Muhammad himself attempted this model, and years later debates ensue on the best practice of a society based on rules of justice, fair governance permeating all levels of public life. It also struck me that the author says, what we have today is not as much an external problem between the Muslim and Western worlds, but rather – an internal struggle within Islam.

Finally, the author states in an almost enlightened manner the following:

Democracy, if it is to be viable and enduring, can never be imported. It must be nurtured from within, founded upon familiar ideologies, and presented in a language that is both comprehensible and appealing to the indigenous population.

I think this is a wise saying, not because I disagree with international standards and international laws. I do agree with these principles, but it is more true that until and unless democracy is driven by the local community for which it will serve, and birthed out of such a context, then importation of ideals will never work (even if to the pleasure of a minority community). I may be lambasted for these, but I believe these are debateable points yet.

This is all the more pertinent as I observe workings within the Muslim world here. The Ummah is considered the “People of the Book”, but some agree it is to include all of humanity i.e. God’s creations. The call is for all to work together in securing peace and harmony. There are few people who would disagree with principles of democracy but there are ways in which one announces it, or fights for it, that is less subversive for the host country. Feeling the pulse of the nations here, Islamic democracy has a chance to flourish and it must be given its own space and chance to do so.


  1. Dan-yel said,

    “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice, and to leave nothing but naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence.” Edmund Burke on conservatism

    I came across it in wikipedia, and it’s interesting that he pointed out how, in my view, radical ideas, no matter how enlightened could amount to bad governance.

    What has happened in Iraq is the result of American prejudice with respect to Middle East, similarly to the nation’s confrontational approach to China, in which its people are virtually unanimously sympathetic to the cause of their government.

    The problem that the world has with the Islam religion may be that due to our treating it as a ‘religion’. ‘Religion’ to me denotes a somewhat political belonging to a community of common belief and sets of values. Thus, one community would view another community with a set of our prejudices, we find it uncomfortable to approach them, and we judge them through the lens of our values, true to our primitive instinct that served us well in the past to protect our resources from competitors of different tribe.

    But humanity has gone so far, and it cannot afford to subject itself to such primitive nature and aim to move beyond that prejudicial bubble. It’s time for us to realise that ‘religion’ was a new concept, a concept that serves to justify one community ownership to a set of intellectual ideas against another, a concept that arises as a way to identify one as different from another, and an instinctive reaction to the encroaching of foreign civilisation. Islam should be viewed instead as a philosophy, perhaps it’s possible even to merge all so-called ‘religions’.

    The world is getting more globalised, and this whole world, a population of 6 billion, must be seen as one whole small village. ‘Village’ in a sense that how in the primitive times, humans identify themselves with fellow villagers, and different or even as different from the other village.

    Islam, has been victimised into a rigid dogmatic religion, I do not think that was so intended in the first place. I think it was meant to be a spiritual-political change for Arabia, and perhaps Muhammad’s answer to change the whole world for the better. Perhaps Islam wasn’t about its rituals or membership, perhaps Islam was so universal that it’s about its aim for justice, reconciliation of humanity themselves and with transcendent common nature, God, even to the extent that maybe we are actually all Muslims.

  2. Barry L said,

    Islam, in my opinion, began as a progressive religion that was forward-looking and its dramatic rise in the 7th century showed that it had many attractive qualities. Its call for the strengthening of the community and for its aderents not to be waylaid by materialism are and will always be salient messages.

    In the present context of globalisation, Islam as a religion is confronting issues that were anticipated a long time ago.

    Sometimes I feel that religion on its own is timeless, and it is the epoch that determines its value. And every epoch’s inhabitants would consider themselves somewhat different in perspective as the epoch before, but fundamentally, religion calls to attention very similar issues that spans across time.

    My only gripe is that it is strange for me to think that given a democratic medium such as the Internet, people are still unable to recognise the diversity in the world and assume that there is only one ‘truth’ and one way to do things.

    Islamic democracy is perhaps one of the casualties of people’s misunderstanding. Instead of trying to understand what it means and its outcomes, people should first understand the value of it, because value is something that is universal and timeless.

    Barry L

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