Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

Democracy and Islam: An Odyssey in Braving the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

Democracy and Islam: An Odyssey in Braving the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt


During the last few decades, the Muslim world has witnessed various traumatic events. The Iranian Revolution and the hostage situation, the suicide bombings in Palestine and in Africa, and the tragedy of 9/11 are only a few examples of episodes that led many to regard Islam and democracy as incompatible. It is alleged that Islam is a monolithic faith opposed to pluralism, that it has a poor human rights record, and that Muslims seek "heaven by creating hell on earth."1

Nevertheless, there is abundant evidence that democracy and the Islamic faith are compatible. This Article contends that the traditions, scripture, and teachings of the founder of Islam are compatible with the principles and practices of democracy and that the chief encumbrance to the development of democracy in Muslim states has not been and is not Islam itself. Part II compares the historical obstacles to the development of democracy in Europe with counterpart obstacles to democracy's development in the Middle East. Part II further demonstrates the compatibility of Islam and democracy by discussing Muslim tradition, historical figures, and sacred texts, all of which endorse democratic values including justice, consultation, egalitarianism, education, and pluralism. Part III notes the historical decline of democratic ideals in Muslim states since the sixteenth century and discusses their potential reemergence in Muslim states.


Religion and democracy, as belief systems that share certain complementary values, are not new concepts. Democracy, however, as a system of governance with a focus on the rights of the individual, is a relatively modern concept. While there is no one form or definition of democracy, there are, nevertheless, broadly accepted principles, institutions, and values that are considered democracy's essential elements. Examples may include periodic elections, participatory governance, equality, individual rights to ensure pluralism, the existence of the rule of law, and due process.2

As a system of governance, democracy has been accepted in varying degrees in the Islamic world.3 In fact, a close look at the forty-four countries constituting the Islamic world today would indicate that democracy has been accepted to varying degrees and that no one form of political system is in vogue.4 Some Islamic countries are ruled by monarchs, while others have absolute dictatorships; still others have mixed forms-authoritarian with some elements of democracy.5 Only a few Islamic countries have democratic dispensation in the real sense.6 Moreover, while democracy as a system of governance appears to have Western origins, the growth of democracy came late even in the West. Therefore, to have a true appreciation for Islam's democratic tradition, it is important to understand the historical background of democracy in the Western and Muslim worlds coupled with an appreciation for the democratic principles contained in Islam.

A. Historical Background

The emergence of democracy in Europe and in the Middle East was inhibited by different factors. While Enlightenment philosophers had to overcome the European concept of the divine right of kings in order to facilitate Europe's transition from monarchy to popular sovereignty, Islamic nations faced the obstacle of despotism. The difference between the challenges faced by these two regions was that authoritarian rule in Europe was tied to religious principles, while despotism in the Middle East was not.

1. The emergence of democracy in Europe

The fact that many European nations viewed their monarchs in a divine light was likely one of the reasons that the growth of democracy in the west was a relatively slow process. "For centuries, kings and princes were portrayed as the equivalent of God's vicegerents on earth, and any challenge to their authority was tantamount to denial of the faith."7 The opinion that rulers were acting on behalf of God "found ready expression in the way political life was organized. …

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