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February 3, 2010

Human Rights, Democracy and Islam-Part II

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Some 1400 years ago, long before the Magna Carta and the U.S. Bill of Rights, Western democratic principles like freedom of thought and social justice were foundations of Islamic society. In fact, democracy in the modern sense is not only compatible with Islam, but is virtually an Islamic system with a Greek name.

The Qur’an, Islam’s holy book and the basis of Islamic society, has numerous passages that show the closeness of Western and Islamic ideas of justice and government:

Public good is based on establishing justice

“God commands you if you judge among people, judge justly.” (4:58)

Freedom of choice, even in any matter of faith, is a cornerstone of civil society

“[Tell people O, Muhammed: you are free to] believe or do not believe [in the Qur’an].” (17:107)

All members of society are fundamentally equal

“O, people! We have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so you may get to know each other.” (49:13):

Collective decision-making serves the common good

“[True believers are the ones who] respond to the Call of their Lord, do their prayers Salah, consult each others on issues of public concern, and spend in charity from whatever We bless them with.” (42:38)

In fact, the Qur’an elevates collective decision-making beyond the category of a recommended process to an obligatory one:  “[Oh Muhammed] consult your companions…” (3:159)

Perhaps most importantly, the Qur’an warns against the three tyrants—dictators, exploitive politicians and greedy capitalists.

In the ancient world the Qur’an mentions an example of the dictator; the Pharaoh, his minister (Haman), and the greedy capitalist (Qaroon). (40:24)  The Qur’an teaches in (89:6-14) that “Dictators and their supporters cause great harm to their people eventually leading to total destruction of their nations.”

These commandments, though, do not offer a specific prescription, or recipe, for good governance. That is the task of Islamic jurisprudence, which revives and gives effect to the doctrines, mechanisms and institutions of Islamic Law through consultation. The government and the people’s representatives (e.g., parliament) must conduct public affairs through consultation. This leads to the establishment of consultative processes, the right to have access to information, openness and transparency in government, and the right to differ on issues of law and policy.

Muslim democrats

Good Muslim politicians who apply sound Qur’anic teachings should call themselves Muslim democrats.

In fact, during the 19th and early 20th centuries this was the primary thesis of Muslim reformers, the most important of whom were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abdu, and Rashid Rida—an Afghani, an Egyptian, and a Syrian, respectively.

Each asserted that the values of freedom and democracy in the West are exactly what traditional Islamic teaching defines as justice (‘adl), right (haqq), collective decision-making (shura) and equality (musawat).

These Islamic values relate to imparting justice and rights to the people, and affirming the nation’s participation in determining its own destiny. Basically, they reframed and reformulated Western democratic principles using Islamic terms, harmonizing Islamic teachings with Western political, social and economic concepts.

Furthermore, Egyptian writer and thinker Abas El-Aqad published a best seller in 1952 called Democracy in Islam, in which he cited Qur’anic verses that explicitly reject dictators (79:24): “[The Pharaoh shamefully said] I am your lord, the most high.”

The Sheik of Azhar, Imam Mahmoud Shaltoot, asserted 60 years ago that the Islamic system of governance has more common elements with Western democracy than differences. During the 1940s, Imam Hassan Elbana the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood also said that the Western parliamentary system has no major contradictions with the Islamic system.

A country like Canada, which likes to think of itself as a tolerant Western democracy, could benefit greatly from adopting the principles of Islamic democracy. Muslims can lead the way to making Canada freer and more tolerant, but only if they behave like Muslim democrats in name and in spirit, not as Muslim politicians. The good news for all of us is that you don’t have to be a Muslim to join them.

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry can be reached at

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