Friday 29 June 2012

Islam And Democracy

Representative Of The People: Egypt's new President, Mohammed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been hailed as that country's first democratically elected leader. But early Islamic history manifested a strong impetus towards political representation and equality within the community of the faithful. The great hope of the so-called "Arab Spring" is that these traditions will undergo a powerful revival.

IS MOHAMMED MORSI Egypt’s first democratically elected leader? Though many journalists are insisting he merits that distinction, it’s just possible the journalists may be wrong.

Among the first peoples to be conquered by the followers of the Prophet Mohammed, Seventh Century Egyptians discovered earlier than most that membership of the community of the faithful (the Ummah) conferred radical new rights. Among the most important of these was the right to elect representatives. These upright citizens (the Shura) were, in their turn, collectively charged with determining upon whose shoulders the responsibility for leading the peoples of Islam should fall.

The chosen one, known as the Caliph, was of necessity both a religious and political leader. Islam, unlike Christianity, draws no clear distinction between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belongs to God. The Caliphate, at least in its original form, was, therefore, a proto-democratic republic of faith, ruled over by a person in whose supreme office the powers of President and Pope were combined. It’s at least arguable that, fourteen hundred years ago, Mr Morsi had a predecessor.

Given the political traditions of the era, it is hardly surprising that the Caliphate became the prize of a succession of dynasties. Even so, the core religious-political principle of the fundamental equality of all believers made possible the dazzling and extraordinarily tolerant culture of Islam’s “Golden Age” (750-1250 AD).

The Great Mosque of Cordoba, in Spain. In the islamic Golden Age (750-1250 AD) the best scientific minds were to be found in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Weakened by successive Christian assaults from the West (the Crusades) the Abbasid Caliphate was finally laid low in 1258 by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan. The West, however, had reason to be grateful that before the beautiful cities, towering mosques and celebrated universities were destroyed, most of the scientific, mathematical, medical and philosophical achievements of Islamic civilisation had already, by fair means and foul, passed into the hands of Christendom.

Though the Caliphate would rise again under the Ottoman Turks, it would never again attain the extraordinary confidence and poise of Islam’s golden age. Hugely impressive (not to mention militarily dominant) though the Ottoman Caliphate may have been, there was something missing. That vital spark which had lit the fires of creation and inquiry for so long was, for some reason, no longer being struck.

Scholars of Islamic history called that missing spark ijtihad – the spirit of independent reasoning. Today, we’d call it critical thinking. The loss of confidence which followed the slaughter and devastation of the Mongols, combined with the authoritarian military-bureaucratic culture of the Ottomans, saw ijtihad replaced by taqlid – reliance on the tested, following established practice, deferring to the teachings of those who had come before.

At the same moment that the knowledge passed to Christendom began fostering the intellectual forces that would result in the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, the Islamic world was beginning its slow but remorseless decline into insularity and orthodoxy.

The real question to be asked about the so-called “Arab Spring” is whether or not it signals a reaffirmation of the fundamental equality of all believers, and a rebirth of the democratic spirit of the shura? If so, then the world can hope that the spirit of independent thought, of ijtihad, will similarly be born again and the Islamic world will recapture the glories of its golden age.

But, if the revolts taking place across the Middle East end up being hijacked by the upholders of taqlid: if Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are only interested in the re-establishment of orthodoxy and the extinguishing of freedom, then spring will become winter and the Ummah will, once again, be robbed of the summer they deserve.

As we watch these events unfold across the Islamic world, we should resist the temptation to celebrate our historical escape from the clutches of taqlid. The global financial crisis harrowing the West may not mirror the mayhem of the Mongols, but all around us there is evidence of a very similar loss of confidence and intellectual agility.

Looking at our own caliphs, are we struck by their ability to engage in independent reasoning and creative thinking? Or have they, too, fallen victim to the false promises of orthodoxy?

What now lies before the West: a golden light, or gathering darkness? In the words of the Fifteenth Century Syrian scholar, Ahmad ibn Arabshah: “If the future is hidden, yet you should guess it from the past.”

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 June 2012.


Anonymous said...

In before the Islamophobic nut cases...

You seem to have missed out one of the most crucial bits: La Convivencia of the Ummayad caliphate in Al Andalus (Islamic Spain).

(Although I see that the nutters have already got to the relevant Wikipedia page. It amazes me how some people feel the necessity to denigrate Islamic culture come what may. Sure, there were problems, but also triumphs).

Weird, since you have a picture of the Mezquita in the article.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@12:45 PM

You're quite right about Moorish Spain.

I've often said, if there's one place I'd like to visit in the past it is the city of Toledo under the Moors.

A place of great learning, technological innovation (Toledo steel) and extraordinary tolerance.

Muslims, Christians and Jews - living together in peace and harmony.

It was only considerations of space that prevented me from including Al Andalus in the original column.

guerilla surgeon said...

Don't want to be picky Chris (well yes I do) but whatever Moorish Spain was responsible for in the way of technological information it wasn't Toledo steel. Goes back to pre-Roman times.

Brendan McNeill said...

What ever Mohamed Morsi says to the Western media today, here is what he said in an election speech to Cairo University students earlier this year:

"The Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.

Today Egypt was close as never before to the triumph of Islam at all state levels, he said.

Today, we can establish Sharia law because our nation will acquire well-being only with Islam and Sharia. The Muslim Brothers and the Freedom and Justice Party will be the conductors of these goals."

I think that says it all.

Chris Trotter said...

The Muslim Brotherhood is not the way forward for Egypt. It promises nothing but the reaffirmation of orthodoxy - taqlid.

Willfully seeking death - especially in the name of Allah - is blasphemy and constitutes a perversion of Islam.

Jihad describes the constant struggle against everything that prevents the believer from following the teachings of the Prophet: everything that leads him away from God.

Only rarely is this a physical struggle. Traditionally, it describes the eternal struggle of virtue against vice: of good against evil.

In the Christian tradition it is the battle that takes place within the soul of man to determine which will prevail: righteousness or sin.

Before condemning Sharia Law, Brendan, we should recall that it is only in the course of the last 75 years that we in the West have emptied our statute books of religious crimes: blasphemy, adultery, sodomy, etc.

Nor should we forget that it was Christendom which developed the concept of "Holy War". Before the Crusades the idea of killing in the name of God was an anathema among the followers of Christ.

Victor said...


You are quite right to remind us that Islam is an essentially democratic religion based on the priesthood of all believers.

You are also right to remind us of the glories of Islamic civilisation, particularly during an epoch when those parts of Europe not under Muslim sovereignty were in a dire state of cultural regression.

But I'm not sure that Islamic civilization owed its glories (or its exemplary tolerance)to its democratic spirit.

If anything, the opposite was true, with art, science, philosophy and inter-faith dialogue sponsored by emirs and an omni-present merchant class, whilst the masses clung to the less sophisticated faith of the desert.

I've never doubted that Islamic democracy is a reality. The problem is not, surely, whether Islamist rule can be reconciled with democracy but whether it can be reconciled with liberal, secular, peaceful and constitutional governance.

Concerning this, there are grounds for hope but also, alas, some reasons for scepticism.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

You are well intentioned and well informed on many subjects.

I do wonder however, how it is that as an infidel you can be so confident that your interpretation of Islam is correct, when it is so clearly at odds with those whose lives are immersed in Islam, who are its followers, and who are its present day teachers?

For my part, I am simply quoting the new President of Egypt and taking him at his word. The Western world would do well to listen and to do the same.

For the record, "Killing in the name of God" has always been anathema to sincere followers of Christ, before the Crusades, during the Crusades after the Crusades.

One of the primary differences between Christianity and Islam is this:

When Christians kill 'in the name of Christ' they do so in *contradiction* of Christ's teaching and example.

When the followers of Islam kill in the name of their prophet, they do so in *accordance* with his teaching and his example.

I'm more than happy to substantiate those claims from the Bible, the Koran and the Hadith, and will do so if requested, however it's there for all genuine inquirers to see.

Now I know a good number of peaceful Muslims. I have employed more than one, and they have been some of my best employees. I have no issues with Muslims.

Islam however is entirely another matter, and referencing its 'golden years' is no comfort to those who are amongst its many bloody victims today, Muslim and Infidel alike.

Chris Trotter said...

"[I]t's bloody victims", eh Brendan?

I find it interesting that you do not include in your analysis the "bloody victims" of the "Christian" USA. Presumably that's because it would be wrong to judge an entire religious community by the actions of a terrorist few.

Osama Bin Laden is no more a representative of Islam than Timothy McVeigh is representative of Christianity.

As for Mr Morsi, he, like all of us, will be judged by his deeds.

Peddle your Islamophobia elsewhere, Brendan.

Anonymous said...

Christians do it in contradiction because the New Testament, glorious as it is, doesn't deal with war in the same straightforward and practical way.
I don't have my Quran with me on hand as I am not at home. But Islam permits a just war conducted without transgression. Transgression is what Obama's drones and Al-Qaedas bombs do to non combatants.

Islamist absolutist terrorists kill civilians in defiance of the Qur'an.

I would like you to tell me, Brendan, what you think is wrong with this;'The Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.'

Brendan McNeill said...


1) I'm not an apologist for USA foreign Policy.

2) The USA has separation of church and state as you well know, so it's a misnomer to refer to the actions of its Government as those of "Christian USA".

Its constitution as you also well know forbids the establishment of any religion by the Government.

For the record, its present wars are being conducted by a Left wing administration, and its incursions into Libya were initiated by Obama.

All present day drone attacks are personally signed off by President Obama, no doubt they form a strategic part of his Islamic outreach.

3) There is no equivalence between Osama Bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh, except that all of their murderous acts are reprehensible.

4) To my knowledge McVeigh never at any time attributed his actions to his religious beliefs, assuming he had any.

5) I usually accept the resort to name calling rather than genuine discussion of the issues as a sign of intellectual surrender.

6) For the record, I'm not Islamophobic. Quite the contrary. I have no fear of Islam.

What I have observed however is a self imposed censorship regarding Islam on the part of the main stream media, including a number of book publishing houses.

That is genuine Islamaphobia.

You are correct however about one thing. Time will tell if the West's celebration of the Arab Spring and the election of their new Muslim Brotherhood President is premature or not. Will he promote the claims of moderation and the growth of the intermediary institutions that are necessary to the establishment of democracy, civil society and the rule of law, or will we see the nation revert to some kind of Islamic fundamentalist state?

Most likely it will be neither of the above, and the Egyptian Army, with financial support from the USA will be the final determining factor.

Anonymous said...

For God's sake Brendan, you know what Chris means when he calls you an Islamophobe.

You have a real problem with Islam and see it as a source of evil. That is what it boils down to.

Stop prancing around with gutless sophistry and face up to it.

Sparky said...

Brendan, you sir are an idiot!

Just because the US doesn't have an official Religion does not make it a truly secular state. It has an unofficial national religion referred to as "Southern Baptists". Pious members of that strange group have, in the last few years, started several un-necessary wars.

George Bush II invaded Iraq, a completely senseless war that has cost the lives of tens of thousands for no real gain.

As some-one who has spent some years living in Islamic states, good and bad, I can say that in general the people are moderate and friendly.

It seems to me that everything you disagree with politically has to be "Leftish" when, in fact most are not. They are simply sensible suggestions to a complicated set of issues.