To him democracy is not a governmental system of Jews and Christians, or of the West, but of humans
This is in continuation to my previous columns, dated 3rd & 14th Feb’2019, which was in response to Mehmood-ur-Rashid’s weekly GK column “In defence of ISIS” (5th Jan’19). In this concluding part, views of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi on Islam-democracy discourse are presented, followed by a brief critical-comparative-assessment of the three thinkers – Mawlana Mawdudi, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, and Ghamidi.
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi’s ‘Counter-Narrative’: ‘Shura as akin to Democracy’
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi (b. 18th April 1951, Lahore) is a well-known Islamic scholar, exegete, ‘a leading religious figure in the public and private media’, and educator. He studied Philosophy and English Literature (at Govt. College Lahore) and Islamic disciples ‘from various scholars throughout his early years’; was associated with, and joined Mawlana Mawdudi’s Jamaat-e-Islami; was influenced by the works of Imam Hamiduddin Farahi, and from 1973 studied under the tutelage of Amin Ahsan Islahi. His works are an extension of Farahi-Islahi school of thought and an ‘ultimate manifestation of Dabistan-e-Shibli’, which he is propagating, among others, through Al-Mawrid (Lahore)—A Foundation for Islamic Research and Education.
Mumtaz Ahmad (2010) describes him “one of the most prominent nontraditionalist Islamic scholars today in Pakistan”, who has “attracted international attention for his pioneering role” (Samina Yasmeen, 2013). Described as “(neo-Islamic) liberal”/ “reformist thinker”, who is “more ‘modernist’ and ‘reformist’” than other contemporary Muslim scholars, he is “challenging some generally prevalent interpretations in what is the most sensitive of all subjects for most Muslims” (Ahmad, 2010; Riffat Hassan, 2009). For Ammar Baskh (2016), Ghamidi has “questioned and sought to answer the status quo within Islam and Muslims”, and, thus, is “a force to be reckoned with in the realms of Islamic Sciences”. His vision, and especially his thoughts vis-à-vis Islam and democracy, has been described by Husnul Amin (2012) as a representation of “Post-Islamist Intellectual” trend in current scenario.
Representing a “liberal or neo-traditionalist response” to the intellectual currents of Traditionalists and Islamists (Ahmad, 2010), Ghamidi follows a “text-based approach rather than an historical or sociological one” (Amin, 2012). He is of the opinion that ‘Islam’s political vision is based purely on a democratic principle (in the modern sense) and not a theo-democratic one’, because the noble Qur’an (Q. 42: 38) “prescribes democracy as the way to run the affairs of the state”, neither monarchy nor dictatorship (Renaissance, June 2009). Ghamidi translates Q. 42: 38 (‘Amruhum Shura Baynahum’) as “And their system is based on their consultation”/ “the affairs of the Muslims are run on the basis of their consultation”.
He develops a linguistic analysis of this verse, and bases his entire argument on same, in his different writings, including Mizan and Burhan—his two major (pioneering) works—and in his recently published exegesis ‘Al-Bayan’. In this verse, he translates the word ‘Amr’ as “system” (or ‘directive’: implying the directives which emanate from political authority as well as the state system). He argues that though in Muslim history, ‘monarchy and dictatorship have often been accepted forms of government’, but it is wrong to say that ‘democracy is a concept alien to Islam’.
For him, the ‘style and pattern of the words’ of Q. 42: 38, ‘demands that even the head of a state’ be appointed/ established and maintained through consultation of the believers and should conduct its affairs in all cases on the basis of a consensus or majority opinion of the believers. Though he detached himself from Mawdudi’s thought/ organization, he endorses (and quotes) Mawdudi’s interpretation (in his Tafhim al-Qur’an, IV: 509-10) of this verse, and stresses, like most exegetes, that in Q. 3: 159 (Wa Shawirhum fil Amr: “and consult them in the affair of the state” even the Prophet (pbuh) has been directed to consult others.
Thus, Islam’s insistence on upholding democratic principle, argues Ghamidi, does not imply a specific form of government. The latter is a function of spatial and temporal variations. To him, democracy should be the principal means and primary end of all social and political struggles. In compliance with the Qur’anic injunction on Shura, in his Burhan [lit. ‘Balance/ Scale’], he mentions that “the Sunnah decreed by the Prophet (sws [pbuh]) is based on two principles: First, Muslims shall be consulted in the affairs of state through their leaders in whom they profess confidence. Second, among the various parties or groups present in an Islamic State, only that party shall assume its political authority, which enjoys the confidence of the majority”. From these two principles, it is evident that “the real essence of democracy definitely exists in an Islamic Political System”.
He further argues that on the one hand, the Islamic form of government is an aristocracy in that the individuals who comprise the government are elected on the basis of their piety and political insight and, on the other hand, it is a democracy in that they are elected and have to run their state affairs on the basis of consultation among them. For him, the very fact that “Muslims have accepted democracy is an Ijtihad” (italics mine).
Furthermore, for Ghamidi, democracy is not a governmental system of Jews and Christians (or of West), but of humans/ humanity—and humanity is above and beyond religion or ideology. The democracy, known to us today, is essentially the centuries-old-struggle for achieving a system of government which is based on people’s choice. Therefore, in principle, it is not problematic as the Qur’an has itself described this method in Q. 42: 38. Here he adds an interesting point: when it comes to (Western) science and technology, then Muslims accept/ use/ utilize it, without any hesitance; however, when it comes to political concepts, philosophy, etc., Muslims start pointing out faults in it. So he suggests that it is the responsibility of the Muslims to over-come such shortcomings and fallacies of democracy and make democracy (work more) better.
Ghamidi’s idea of democracy in Islam goes beyond ‘procedural aspects and encompasses notions of rights and responsibilities of the state and its citizens’, and his interpretations suggest that ‘the text itself appropriates new space for accommodation of western democracy’. He thus, aptly, concludes: “the form of government envisaged by Islam is neither a theocracy nor a monarchy. It is more akin to democracy…” (Italics mine).
A Brief Comparative Critical Assessment: From the assessment of Mawlana Mawdudi, Ghannouchi, and Ghamidi vis-à-vis Islam-Politics/ Democracy debate, it becomes evident that they have interpreted/ envisioned the ‘Islamic polity’, and its congruence or conformity with democracy, on the basis of their understanding of ‘Islam’—and things Islamic, including political system—and there is indeed influence of the socio-politico-intellectual setting/ scenario on their understanding and interpretation. ‘Islam’ is a divine religion, based on the Divine Word (the noble Qur’an)—the text of which is so dynamic that its meanings, interpretations, and applications are relevant for all times and spaces. So, a common point in their thought is that on the basis of their understanding they have envisioned ‘Islamic political system’ for Muslims/ Muslim societies (or for their specific societies) which may or may not be applicable in all settings, and which indeed is appreciated as well as criticized. The sources/ basis for their interpretations—and for their envisioned systems—are same; what varies is their understanding and interpretation. Also, it is necessary to point out that the Islamic primary sources do not prescribe a specific system/ form/ model of government/ governance, but only provide guidelines, rules/ principles.
Another crucial point, in the lexis of Muhammad Asad (Principles of State and Government in Islam, 1962, pp. 18-19, 21), is that it is “extremely misleading to apply non-Islamic terms to Islamic concepts and institutions”, because the ideology of Islam, in comparison to Western (or any other) ideology, “has a social orientation peculiar to itself … and can be successfully interpreted only within its own context and in its own terminology”. Therefore, when Westerners speaks of ‘democracy’, ‘liberalism’, ‘socialism’, ‘theocracy’, ‘parliamentary government’, etc., they use these terms “within the context of Western historical experience”. Therefore, the terminology used by these thinkers, for Islam-democracy (in) compatibility, needs a ‘contextualist’ understanding.
Speaking in his backdrop, one finds that there are certain flaws in the terminology coined by Mawdudi (especially ‘Theo-democracy’). Firstly, when Mawdudi is criticizing the ‘philosophical’ basis of, and is opposed to the ‘absolute sovereignty’ of western democracy, then why is he using the term ‘democracy’ with prefix ‘theo’? Why not a new term/ alternative? Why not to describe the ‘Islamic political system’, or by that way his ‘envisioned Islamic state’ with a full-fledged Islamic name? And it is perhaps, in this context, that Zeenat Kausar (2003) uses the terms ‘Allahcracy’, ‘Shariacracy’, ‘Khilafacracy’, and ‘Shuracracy’, etc., for describing Islamic polity—both as an extension of, and as a critical mark to, Mawdudi’s ‘Theo-democracy’. Secondly, the terminology used by Mawdudi for describing the Islamic political order was not the final, it was just for the sake of comparison that he used such terms/ phrases like “theo-democracy”, “democratic Khilafah”, and “Islamic democracy”, while as in essence they are contradictory terms. Thirdly, like other contemporary scholars, like Allama Iqbal, Abul Kalam Azad, Amin Ahsan Islahi, and others—who used the terms like ‘Spiritual Democracy’, ‘Islamic Democracy’, and ‘Shuracracy’, respectively—Mawdudi also coined a term that, in his opinion, was a suitable term for describing both the congruence and conflict of ‘Islamic polity’ with ‘democracy’. So, in a nutshell, it is not the terminology but rather the envisioned system which needs to be focused on.
Similarly, Ghannouchi’s interpretation and understanding of Islam, and his vision of ‘Islamic democracy’, is not out of context, or a result of ‘Westoxification’ (Persian ‘Gharbzadegi’: as projected by Ali Shariati of Iran). It is the socio-political circumstances, intellectual transformation, and his experience and observation of having lived under different political settings, which is behind Ghannouchi’s ‘reconciliatory’ understanding and thinking. Also, his (re) interpretations of concepts like Shura, Ijma, Ijtihad, Pluralism, Power-sharing, etc., and their affinity to Western democratic ideals and notions is the result of his ‘reconciliatory approach’—highlighted with more rigor in the post-Arab Spring era. And it is his belief that ‘civilizational products and achievements are universal’, and his approach of ‘Islam and/ in the West’, rather than ‘Islam vs. West’, which is one of the major forces behind his theorization of reconciliation. Also, Ghannouchi is of the opinion that democracy, as a concept/ form of government, is a part of intellectual legacy, which belongs to humanity and humanity has no religion. Ghamidi also believes in this.
Moreover, in contrast to Mawdudi’s ‘Islamist’ vision or Ghannouchi’s ‘moderate Islamist’/ ‘Muslim Democrat’ vision, Ghamidi—whose ideological/ intellectual orientation is seen/ labeled as non-traditionalist/ liberal/ reformist—represents a ‘Post-Islamist’ intellectual trend in Islam-politics discourse. His understanding and interpretation, which has been both appreciated and criticized, noticeably reveals that even text-based interpretation can bring about a new space in which Islam and modernity can be reconciled. This approach suggests that ‘the text itself appropriates new space for accommodation of western democracy’.
However, it is remarkable that none of them have either expounded for complete abandoning democracy (or any western concept/ system), nor have they claimed for its ‘wholesale’ adoption—all of them have adopted, in their own ways, an equitable and ‘reconciliatory’ approach. Thus, reading them together, in an unbiased and unprejudiced manner, will indeed provide us many insights on building a ‘Theo-democratic, Reconciliatory Counter Narrative’ to the political ‘crISIS’ faced by Muslims, globally. [Concluded]
The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir. Views expressed are personal, and not the institution he works for.