Democracy and Islam

The question is often asked, “Should Muslims participate in politics in a democracy, since ‘democracy’ is itself not an Islamic form of government?” Let me try to put this in perspective.

I am talking about the issue of Muslims living in democratic countries, often as minorities. What must we do? What options do we have and what are the consequences of these options?

To the question, “Should Muslims participate in politics in a democracy?” I would like to state that first, there is no specific form of government that is ‘Islamic’. If anyone disputes that statement and says that the ‘Khilafa’ is the only form of government that is permissible in Islam, then we have to ask why it is that ever since the ascension of Yazid bin Muawiyya, monarchy has been accepted even by Sahaba who lived under Yazid and supported his rule? This continued even though the terms, ‘Khalifa’ and ‘Khilafa’ continued to be used off and on, until the institution of Khilafa was finally abolished in 1923. For the record, the Ottoman rulers called themselves ‘Sultan’ and not ‘Khalifa’, though the dynasty is called ‘Khilafa Othmania’ by others.  

Islam is concerned with the nature of the government and not necessarily its form.

Consider this: the Khilafa Rashida itself followed three different processes to choose a successor in the case of the first three Khulafa.

In the case of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) it was an election of the Supreme Leader by lesser leaders in Madina. This was the usual way of the Arabs when electing a new Ameer or Chief of their clans where the decision would be taken by a few significant and powerful elders/leaders and everyone else would accept and support it. So also, in this case, it was not one-man-one-vote involving the entire population of Madina.

Even if the entire population of Madina had voted, hypothetically speaking one could have argued that the people of Makkah, Ta’aif, Najd and all the tribes of the Hijaz had not voted. Yet, the leader being chosen would have authority over all Muslims. Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was elected by the people who had gathered in the Saqifa Bani Sa’ada and was later ratified by the rest of the community in Masjid An-Nabawi when other people gave him the Baya (Oath or Pledge) of Allegiance. In the election in the Saqifa Bani Sa’ada, which itself was not planned but was impromptu, many of the prominent Sahaba of Rasoolullahﷺ including Sayyidina Ali bin Abi Talib (R) were not present and neither was their opinion sought.

This was not deliberate or by design but because Ali bin Abi Talib (R) was busy with the burial of Rasoolullahﷺ he was not disturbed, and he gave his pledge the next day. Since Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was already accepted as the foremost among the Sahaba and was their leader, nobody objected and they all, including Ali bin Abi Talib (R) gave him their Pledge. They remembered that Rasoolullahﷺ had always sought his advice and used to give him precedence over everyone else because of his having been the first man to accept Islam and for his service to Islam and to Rasoolullahﷺ. They remembered that Abu Bakr (R) was Rasoolullahﷺ’s companion in the cave during their Hijra from Makkah to Madina and Allahﷻ had revealed Qur’an about that where Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was mentioned as the ‘Sahib – companion’ of Rasoolullahﷺ. People remembered that Rasoolullahﷺ had given him Imamat of Salah from the Thursday before the Monday when he passed away. For the Sahaba, that was a clear sign that Rasoolullahﷺ preferred and had thereby nominated Abu Bakr Siddique (R) as his successor. Now let us look at what happened two years later, when Sayyidina Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was dying.

Abu Bakr Siddique (R) took the advice of the Asharum Mubashshara (the 10 Sahaba who had been given the good news of Jannah by Rasoolullahﷺ) about his proposed choice, Omar ibn Al Khattab (R), as his successor. All of them except one [Zubair bin Awwam (R), the husband of his daughter Asma (RA) and the mother of Abdullah bin Zubair (R) who played a very important role in the struggle for Khilafa after the Shahada of Ali bin Abi Talib (R)] accepted this choice and so Abu Bakr Siddique (R) called Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) and nominated him. This action of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was in keeping with the informal but clearly understood and accepted hierarchy among the Sahaba in which the Asharum Mubashshara came first followed by the Badriyyeen (Sahaba who participated in the Battle of Badr) and then everyone else. And among the companions of Rasoolullahﷺ, Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) was considered second only to Abu Bakr Siddique (R).

Narrated Jubair bin Mutim (R) A woman came to Rasoolullah  who ordered her to return to him again (the next day). She said, “What if I came and did not find you?” as if she wanted to say, “If I found you dead?” Rasoolullah  said, “If you should not find me, go to Abu Bakr.” [Sahih Bukhari]

Rasoolullah  said, “While I was sleeping, I saw myself (in a dream) standing by a well. I drew from it as much water as Allah  wished me to draw, and then Ibn Quhafa (Abu Bakr) took the bucket from me and drew one or two buckets, and there was weakness in his drawing—-may Allah  forgive him! Then `Umar took the bucket which turned into something like a big drum. I had never seen a powerful man among the people working as perfectly and vigorously as he did. (He drew so much water that) the people drank to their satisfaction and watered their camels that knelt down there. (Bukhari)

Ten years later when Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) had been stabbed and was dying, he called the remaining of the Asharum Mubashshara (10 who had been promised Jannah) and told them to choose one among them to succeed him. Some of them declined to accept the role of Khalifa. There were two contenders who remained. Abdur Rahman ibn Awf (R), who was a scholar among the Sahaba and one of the wealthiest businessmen of the time was himself from the Asharum Mubashshara and was one of those who had declined to be considered for Khilafa, was chosen to pick between them. He decided to consult the Sahaba who had participated in the Battle of Badr and other significant leaders in Madina and at the end of this consultation, he borrowed the Amama (turban) of Rasoolullahﷺ from Sayyida Hafsa bint Omar (RA) and wearing it, he ascended the Minbar of Rasoolullahﷺ in Al-Masjid An-Nabawi and announced that Othman ibn Affan (R) had been chosen to succeed Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) as the Khalifa. Everyone accepted this choice, including Ali bin Abi Talib (R) who had also accepted Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) as Khalifa and worked under him as a judge.

Othman ibn Affan (R)’s Khilafa ended in a coup and Ali bin Abi Talib (R) was forced to accept the Khilafa to put an end to the worst turmoil and violence that the Muslims had ever seen. However, his ascension was also contested, and we have a history of ever more complex conflicts thereafter. Once again, I am not going into details here as they are not relevant to our topic. Then twenty years later, when Muawiyya bin Abi Sufyan (R) was dying, his son Yazid bin Muawiyya (also called Yazid I) succeeded him, and the Banu Umayyah (Umayyad) dynasty was established. The Khilafa became a hereditary monarchy. Much has been written about this extremely painful and difficult period in Muslim history and is well worth reading to learn from.

Since then, hereditary monarchy became the default Muslim (Islamic) form of government all over the world, from the Banu Umayyah to the Banu Abbas, Fatimi, Ayyubi, Saffavid, Khilji, Ghori, Lodhi, Mughal, Uthmani (Ottoman) and other rulers right down to our modern times. Before we blame the kings however, let us reflect on the fact that none of their subjects, including Sahaba, all the Imams of Fiqh, all the Ulama of the Tabiyyin and their followers including to this day, has ever criticized or refused to accept hereditary monarchy, or called it ‘unislamic’. One reason could be that the Khilafa Rashida itself had seen three different ways in which the Ameer-ul-Mu’mineen was chosen. So, which of them would one use today?

The point that I want to make is that it appears from reading our history that Islam is more concerned with the nature of government than its form. Both our great classical and modern scholars seem to be agreed upon this and this seems to be the majority view. Scholars have and still may criticize a particular king, but not the institution of monarchy. Islam is concerned with how the government is carried on; whether it establishes the laws of Allahﷻ as mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, whether it establishes justice or not, whether the poor and weak are taken care of, whether there is corruption or not, and whether law is enforced so that crime is minimized if not eradicated. It is not concerned with the structure of the government, if that government does what all good governments are supposed to do i.e. establish justice and exercise good governance.  

Today we have various forms of democracy. In Britain, India, Pakistan, and former British colonies there is Parliamentary Democracy. In the United States, there is Constitutional Representative Democracy. There are other countries which play the game of democracy where people get to elect the dictator of their choice, once in a lifetime – theirs or his – whichever ends first. It is as if merely by calling it ‘democracy’, its opposite can be legitimized.

From the Islamic point of view, for a government to be considered Islamic, whichever form of government it may be, it must follow the Divine Laws of the Shari’ah and must not legislate against the Laws of Allahﷻ. Governments are free to legislate and pass laws to ensure the best for all people, without denying, altering or going against Divine Laws. For examples, laws of taxation, zoning of cities, regulation of road traffic, environmental protection, anti-pollution, health, and safety, and so on can be made because they do not contradict the Laws of Allahﷻ. However, laws which make Halaal what Allahﷻ prohibited, for example, interest-based banking, consumption of alcohol and other addictive substances and so on, are not permissible in Islam and any government that makes such laws would be unislamic even if the government was run by Muslims.

What is the role of Muslim citizens who live in democratic countries? Should they participate in government, from voting, to standing for election to discharging their responsibilities in difference capacities in Parliaments and Senates? Or should they abstain from doing any of these things. And if they should abstain, then how are they to ensure that their rights, needs, and issues are represented and addressed by a government that they did not elect or show any interest in?

My contention is that there is no such thing as an ‘Islamic’ form of government. What is ‘Islamic’ about a government, lies in its actions of governing. Democracy, like monarchy is simply a form of government. Citizens of democratic countries must participate in democracy for the simple reason that all change can only be initiated and implemented from within. As a matter of interest, if we take the very first form of government of the Muslim State after Rasoolullahﷺ passed away, it was a ‘representative democratic’ decision, in some ways like the system of election in this country (USA), where people elect representatives who make laws. It was not universal suffrage leading to universal suffering (except for politicians) but it was a democratic process, nevertheless.

Often there is confusion between authority and responsibility. Authority is the permission to act. Responsibility refers to the consequences of the action. Authority can be delegated. Not responsibility. Responsibility remains with the original person. Meaning that if the one to whom authority was delegated fails to perform, it is the one who delegated it, who will still be responsible.

We, the people of the nation, through the ballot box have delegated the authority to run the nation to those we elect. But we retain the responsibility for their actions, success, or failure. It comes back to my favorite political quote: “We get the government we deserve”.

If those to whom authority was delegated, failed, we need to take back the authority and give it to those who can do a better job. We must realize that to give ourselves good government is our responsibility, not anyone else’s.

We must understand that good governments and governance is also a factor of being good citizens and participating in the life of the nation. Not merely in casting our vote, important though that is, but in standing for the truth and justice, advocacy of worthy causes, helping the weak, volunteering our time and talents for the benefit of society and putting our money and effort where our mouths are when it comes to helping others. We have seen people of all faiths and races coming together in the Black Lives Matter protests in this country. Muslims stood and stand shoulder to shoulder with others in fighting for justice. But there are many other countries where injustice is perpetrated on the weak, but Muslims only stand by and watch. They do nothing until it comes to them and then they complain that others stand and watch. Why is that surprising?

Allahﷻ didn’t define justice as race, gender, even religion specific. There are no discriminatory laws in Islam when it comes to justice. Murder is murder, no matter who commits it or who is its victim. So also, other crimes.

Allahﷻ told us clearly that justice is the supreme consideration and in that there are no favorites.

Nisa 4: 135 O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor, Allah is a Better Protector to both (than you). So follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you may avoid justice, and if you distort your witness or refuse to give it, verily, Allah is Ever Well-Acquainted with what you do.

Justice is the foundation of peace. Without justice there can never be peace.

As citizens of a democratic nation, we must teach, understand, and exercise citizenship. That is a fundamental and critical need. Muslims and Muslim institutions must take the lead in educating people in citizenship and in taking the lead in social causes. We must be and be seen to be beneficial to society because that is the reason Allahﷻ created us and that is the reason we will be appreciated and valued. People may be remembered for many reasons, but they are valued only for one: their contribution to the welfare of others.

In conclusion I would like to state clearly and unequivocally that Muslims living in democratic countries must participate in government in every way knowing that it is entirely in keeping with Islam to do so. They must participate because Islam orders them to support all that is beneficial for everyone, Muslim or otherwise and to do that in a way that showcases Islam for the rest of the world. Muslims must participate in democracy, because it is only by participation that we can ensure that our interests are addressed, and our needs met. We have seen many examples of what happens when we do not participate; none of them good.

That is the key. YOU MUST GO TO VOTE. Whether it is raining or snowing or whatever be the situation, you MUST GO AND VOTE. Remember this is the only opportunity that you have in a democracy to be heard, to influence your own future and to protect yourself and your nation.

Finally, please remember that a party is not elected by the majority of the population of the country but by the majority of those who cast their vote. This is the key to modern democracies and the reason why you must vote. If you do not enroll yourself and do not go and vote, then do not blame anyone else for the result. You are responsible, and you will pay the price.

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Yawar sir, Assalamoalaikum!

Another one of your marvelous articles, and a real eye opener. Thank you for putting everything in the right perspective!


Failure to participate in the democratic process will leave Muslims with no stake in it and little reason to participate in the future. You hit the nail on the head when you said at the start that we are responsible for the world. The only way to start is by participating in the democratic process, this keeps us invested in ensuring that we work toward getting the right outcome. If we are able to pass on the feeling of responsibility for the world around us we will create some very invested and active Muslim political class that will build the… Read more »

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