Islam and the Challenge of Democracy

Islam and the Challenge of Democracy: A "Boston Review" Book

Khaled Abou El Fadl
Jeremy Waldron
John L. Esposito
Noah Feldman
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    Islam and the Challenge of Democracy
    Book Description:

    The events of September 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism have provoked widespread discussion about the possibility of democracy in the Islamic world. Such topics as the meaning of jihad, the role of clerics as authoritative interpreters, and the place of human rights and toleration in Islam have become subjects of urgent public debate around the world. With few exceptions, however, this debate has proceeded in isolation from the vibrant traditions of argument within Islamic theology, philosophy, and law.

    Islam and the Challenge of Democracyaims to correct this deficiency. The book engages the reader in a rich discourse on the challenges of democracy in contemporary Islam. The collection begins with a lead essay by Khaled Abou El Fadl, who argues that democracy, especially a constitutional democracy that protects basic individual rights, is the form of government best suited to promoting a set of social and political values central to Islam. Because Islam is about submission to God and about each individual's responsibility to serve as His agent on Earth, Abou El Fadl argues, there is no place for the subjugation to human authority demanded by authoritarian regimes. The lead essay is followed by eleven others from internationally respected specialists in democracy and religion. They address, challenge, and engage Abou El Fadl's work. The contributors include John Esposito, Muhammad Fadel, Noah Feldman, Nader Hashemi, Bernard Haykel, Muqtedar Khan, Saba Mahmood, David Novak, William Quandt, Kevin Reinhart, and Jeremy Waldron.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7320-3
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Islam and the Challenge of Democracy
    (pp. 3-46)

    A Muslim jurist writing a few centuries ago on the subject of Islam and government would have commenced his treatise by distinguishing three types of political systems. The first he would have described as a natural system—like a primitive state of nature, an uncivilized, anarchic world where the most powerful tyrannize the rest. Instead of law there would be custom; instead of government there would be tribal elders who would be obeyed only so long as they remained the strongest.

    The jurist would then describe a second system, ruled by a prince or king whose word is the law....

  4. Responses
      (pp. 49-54)
      Nader A. Hashemi

      One of the most prescient insights about Islam and democracy that have informed my politics over the years is an observation by the late Eqbal Ahmad, a dissident Pakistani Muslim intellectual.¹ In response to the question, What strategies should Arab and Muslim intellectuals pursue to democratize their societies? he offered the following words of wisdom:

      One must make an effort to understand the past, understand it with compassion, sympathy, and criticism. The reason I am stressing that is that many of us, Arab and Muslim intellectuals, know more about the West, more about modern history, more about the ideas of...

      (pp. 55-58)
      Jeremy Waldron

      While reading Khaled Abou El Fadl’s exploration of the prospects for a theory of Islamic democracy, I was struck by the similarity between the way these issues are posed in the Islamic tradition and the way ideas about politics and the rule of law were posed in the context of medieval and early modern thought in the Christian West. There, too, proponents of ideas about law, good governance, individual rights, and consultative decision making had to struggle to make themselves heard in the context of scriptural authority and theocratic rule. And the remarkable thing was that these ideas not only...

      (pp. 59-62)
      Noah Feldman

      Can Islam and democracy cohere, either in principle or in practice? This crucial question—debated in scores of Arabic books, articles, andfatwassince the temporary success of Islamists in the Algerian elections of 1990—is no longer merely of abstract or regional interest. With the United States poised to invade Iraq, with an announced commitment to establishing a democratic government there, it has become central to American foreign policy. With fair elections in Iraq, some Islamists are bound to win office. And a representative Iraqi constitutional convention must necessarily incorporate the voices of Islamic democrats, committed to the idea...

      (pp. 63-68)
      M. A. Muqtedar Khan

      The Islamic intellectual tradition—which includes Islamic legal thought (usul al-fiqhand fiqh), theology (kalam), mysticism (tasawwuf), and philosophy (falsafa)—is highly developed and profound. However, in the area of political philosophy, it remains strikingly underdeveloped. One reason for this is the “colonial” leaning of Islamic legal thought. Many Islamic jurists simply equate Islam with Islamic law (Shari‘ah) and privilege the study of the latter. As a result, we have only episodic explorations of the idea of a polity in Islam. Hundreds of Islamic schools and universities now produce hundreds of thousands of legal scholars but hardly any political theorists...

      (pp. 69-73)
      A. Kevin Reinhart

      Like many moderns, Khaled Abou El Fadel conceives of Islam as a system, one largely defined in the Islamic legal tradition. He draws from this tradition to advocate democracy; others draw from it to advocate what Malise Ruthven calls Islamo-fascism. (Similarly, Israeli liberals have drawn from the Bible and Jewish values to argue for a liberal democratic state of Israel, and others, like Ovadiah Yosef, argue from the same sources for ethnic cleansing and castelike discrimination. Also, American abolitionists and slavery’s apologists alike argued from the Bible.) “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy” should convince those Muslims who believe that...

      (pp. 74-77)
      Saba Mahmood

      Khaled Abou El Fadl’s essay is an erudite attempt to explore those principles and values within Islamic political and legal traditions that could be made compatible with ideas of liberal democracy. Abou El Fadl joins a growing number of scholars who have been writing on this theme in the last three decades; some of these writers are in the Muslim world and others in Europe and the United States. These thinkers represent a wide spectrum of political perspectives: some support the reformist trend within the Islamist movement (for example, Tariq al-Bishri in Egypt, the Tunisian scholar Rashid al-Ghannouchi, who lives...

      (pp. 78-80)
      Bernard Haykel

      Khaled Abou El Fadl is one of the most accomplished liberal Muslim legal scholars of our time. His present article argues for the compatibility of Islam and democracy on the basis that both are premised on, and aim for, the same fundamental moral value: the pursuit of justice, which entails guaranteeing human dignity and liberty. Abou El Fadl’s argument is ultimately centered on the establishment of a set of moral and ethical claims that are anchored more in theology than in law. In so doing, he appears to argue for a suspension of the injunctions that are constitutive of an...

      (pp. 81-86)
      Mohammad H. Fadel

      Khaled Abou El Fadl argues passionately that democracy and Islam share certain fundamental moral tenets, and that Muslims may therefore assimilate democratic norms without abandoning their religious beliefs. He marshals an impressive array of sources in support of his argument: verses from the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as medieval works of Islamic jurisprudence, treatises of Islamic substantive and constitutional law, and Islamic political philosophy. The sheer breadth of his argument precludes a detailed response here, and, accordingly, I address only some of the major points of his argument.

      1. Abou El Fadl insists that...

      (pp. 87-92)
      David Novak

      As a non-Muslim, and one having a superficial knowledge of Islam, it would be inappropriate for me to evaluate the Islamic validity of Khaled Abou El Fadl’s argument for the possibility of an Islamic-democratic regime, that is, an Islamic regime that could in good faith and with rational cogency incorporate much of what more and more people in the world regard to be the desideratum of modern democracy. Nevertheless, as a Jew who very much wants to live with Muslims in a peace based on mutual respect, I am indeed interested in Abou El Fadl’s project. It is very attractive,...

      (pp. 93-100)
      John L. Esposito

      Many people charge that both the religion of Islam and the realities of Muslim politics demonstrate that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Across the political and ideological spectrum, the Muslim experience has been one of kings, military rulers, and ex-military rulers possessing tenuous legitimacy and propped up by military and security forces. In Syria the president’s son recently succeeded his father; and some believe the rulers of Libya, Egypt, and Iraq now entertain such a possibility. Some Islamic governments—the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan—have projected a religiously based authoritarianism that parallels secular authoritarianism. And since September...

      (pp. 101-106)
      William B. Quandt

      The Bush administration, as it proceeds with its grand strategy of reordering the Middle East, talks optimistically of bringing democracy and peace to a region that has known little of either. One wonders if those who put forward this vision really believe in it, or whether they hope it will convince Americans that the war against Iraq is moral. It is puzzling that many intellectuals who have been most influential in instructing the Bush crowd on the Middle East have maintained that there is something in Arab and Islamic culture that is profoundly hostile to democracy.

      The issue of Islam...

  5. Reply
    (pp. 109-128)

    I agree with Nader Hashemi’s pertinent remark that in many ways “[t]he real focus should be not on what Islam is but rather on what Muslims want.” In this valuable group of responses, I admire the fact that my non-Muslim interlocutors, John Esposito, William Quandt, Bernard Haykel, Jeremy Waldron, Noah Feldman, David Novak, and Kevin Reinhart, are respectful of the right of Muslims to direct the ethical compass of their faith and to shape their moral destinies. Unlike some other Western writers, my non-Muslim interlocutors do not assume that Muslims are fated to suffer the indignity of despotism, and they...

    (pp. 129-130)
  7. INDEX
    (pp. 131-140)