Democracy and us

© Muhammad Haniff Hassan, October 2002

One of the main pillars of da’wah in the context of Singapore is our commitment to upholding the democratic system. (NB: There is a clear distinction between democracy as a system and democracy as a philosophy. Democracy as a system refers to the mechanism, infrastructure and operational aspects of it. The philosophy on the other hand refers to the thoughts, principles and the ideology).

It is important to understand the rationale for our commitment to democracy, as there are many opinions on it among Islamic scholars. Some of them criticize or reject this position. Failing which, will only lead to confusion. Whereas da`wah should be driven by conviction and true understanding.

What are the substance and characteristics of democracy? In his book Introduction to Political Science by Rodee, Anderson, Christol dan Greene, McGraw Hill International Edition, Fourth Edition, 1983, page 139 it was written:

“The broadening acceptance of the democratic philosophy led to idealization of the role of public opinion in a representative democracy. According to this idealized view; (1) the public was interested in making the laws of the land; (2) the public was informed (3) it would deliberate and reach rational conclusions; (4) rationally conceived individual opinions would tend to be held uniformly throughout the social order; (5) the public, would make its will known at the polls and elsewhere; (6) the public’s will or at least the views of majority would be enacted into law; and (7) continued surveillance and constant criticism would ensure the maintenance of an enlightened public opinion and consequently a public policy based upon the principles of social morality and justice.”

In the Singapore contexts, the systems that support the above are (1) an electoral system that gives citizens the right to elect their representatives or government; (2) representative government; (3) channels for communication and consultation between the government/ government representatives and the people, such as the Feedback Unit, Meet the People Session, Speakers’ Corner and “freedom” of the mass media; (4) a parliamentary system of government with separation of power between the executive, judicative and legislative bodies, (5) a constitution that ensures individual freedom and basic humanitarian rights.

When we place all these in the context of Islam, then the closest concept to democracy is “syura” or the practice of consultation as stated in Ali-Imran verse 159 and Asy-Syura verse 38.
The importance of syura is highlighted in a hadith where Ali r.a. said, “O Messenger of Allah! There will come a time after you, when a matter is raised that is not in the Quran or hadith. The Messenger of Allah s.a.w. answered “Then gather all those strong in faith among my ummah and hold a consultation on the matter. Do not decide based on the opinion of one person only. (Riwayah Al-Khatib, Ad-Dur Al-Mantsur by As-Suyuti, vol 10, page 6)

There were also other examples where the Prophet held consultations such as during the Battle of Badr and the decision to leave Medina in order to confront the aggressors in the Battle of Uhud.

In terms of concept, what differentiates syura from democracy is the extend of power given to the citizens in formulating laws. Syura in Islam is permissible only for those matters in which there are no hukm qat’ii and that do not conflict with what is in the Quran and Sunnah. Syura must also recognises the authority of the Quran and Sunnah as the “constitution” above all in our way of life. Democracy on the other hand gives absolute rights to citizens or mankind, where all matters may be legislated as long as it receives the support of the majority, even if it involves matters such as marriages between couples of the same gender, which are against the Islamic teaching.

However the Quran and the Sunnah do not provide specific instructions on how syura should be operationalised. This is to provide mankind with the flexibility and freedom in promulgating suitable systems as long it adheres to the principles of consultation, justice and also efficient. Hence contemporary Islamic scholars accept the parliamentary democratic system as an alternative system to Ahlul Halli Wal `Aqdi that was presented by our past scholars. This is because the parliamentary system can fulfill the need of syura and it is an urf’ (tradition) that is acceptable by all now.

Due to its close similarity to syura, we can accept democracy as second best alternative for us now despite the element that contradicts Islamic teaching in democracy – the absolute power of human being to legislate rules. It is a case of ‘lesser of two evils’.

We must acknowledge that such element can be changed through a process of true democracy. What else, Islam also acknowledges that there are some wrongdoings that cannot be eliminated except when a person in a position of authority.

This commitment to democracy is also strengthened by the fact that Islam opposes to dictatorship. This is highlighted in the Quran’s stories of the Pharaohs, Namrud, Ashabul Ukhdud and Ashabul Kahfi. The Messenger of Allah said, “The best leaders are those that you love and they love you in return, that you pray for and who in turn pray for you, and the worst leaders are those that you dislike and they dislike you in return, and you ridicule them and they ridicule you” (Riwayat Muslim)

Many may dispute our position towards democracy. To us this dispute and differences are natural because Islam does not elaborate on how to run a government. Even the sahabah had different means of choosing a caliph. The important is our position is based on valid dalil and sound arguments. Since this is an area that is disputed by Islamic scholars, we should respect the opinion of others and hope that others would act likewise.

Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi in his book entitled Fiqh Daulah: Dalam Perspektif Al-Quran dan As-Sunnah page 192-193, 205, wrote

“We are of the opinion that it is not wrong for us to learn from the democratic system as a tool for ensuring justice and syura, respecting human rights and obstructing tyranny in this world. The basis of this opinion is that when an act that is wajib requires another act for it to be fulfilled, then the second act will automatically become wajib. In addition, conditions for the implementation of a syariat becomes a pre-requisite in itself. There is nothing in the syariat that prohibits taking the ideas or practical solutions from non-Muslims. As such syura in Islam is in the spirit of democracy, even the substance of democracy is similar to the spirit of syura.