From an 'Islamist' to a 'Muslim Democrat'

From an 'Islamist' to a 'Muslim Democrat'

Reading Rashid al-Ghannouchi vis-à-vis Islam and Contemporary (Political) Challenges

Book: Rāshid al-Ghannūshi̇̄: A Key Muslim Thinker of the 21st Century   

Author: Mohammad Dawood Sofi

Publisher: London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018



An interesting and thought-provoking work in knowing Ghannouchi’s transformation 


Islam, Islamic political system, and its relation with democracy and democratic procedures is a significant issue that has been highly debated. Though it gained momentum in the post-9/11 era and later due to the ‘Arab Spring’ as well, but the fact is that the issue of ‘governance’ has been one of the very first issues faced by Muslims after the demise of Prophet (PBUH) in 632 CE. It was debated in the medieval times, occupied mind of Muslim thinkers in modern period, and in the contemporary political dynamics of the Muslim world—from Arab world to South, Southeast Asia—Muslim thinkers and activists, globally, are trying their best to present Islam and its relevance in the present ‘globalized’ world. Among the present-day Muslim political thinkers-cum-activists, a significant voice is Rachid al-Ghannouchi (b. 1941, Tunisia)—the Islamic leader of Tunisian Renaissance Party (Hizb al-Nahda).

Ghannouchi is a prominent voice of political pluralism, democracy, human rights, power-sharing Islam, who has been described by Azzam Tamimi as a “Democrat within Islamism” (2001). A new addition to this existing literature on Ghannouchi’s life, legacy, thought and activities, as a political leader/ activist and thinker, is Dr Mohammad Dawood Sofi’s Rāshid al-Ghannūshi̇̄: A Key Muslim Thinker of the 21st Century (2018).

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, this book is a modified (and abridged) version of Dawood’s PhD Thesis: a son of this soil (and a budding young scholar), Dawood holds Masters and PhD in Islamic Studies from Kashmir University and AMU, respectively; and is currently serving as Post-Doc Fellow in the Faculty of Political Science, Ankara Beyazit Yildirm University, Turkey. Below is provided a brief assessment of this book, with a specific focus on the chapters highlighting Islam–democracy (in) compatibility.

Consisting of seven (7) chapters, including Introduction and Conclusion, the ‘Forward’ of this book is written by Prof. Cenap Çakmak (Eskisehir Osmangazi University, Turkey). Praised by scholars from AMU and Malaysia to Turkey and UK, the book discusses various dynamic facets of the life of Rashid al-Ghannushi, with a specific focus on his activities, work, and his understanding of, and insights on, some critical contemporary issues—ranging from the question of Islam-democracy compatibility, Islam-West relations, to Human rights, and power-sharing theory. It also raises fundamental questions related to Ghannushi’s activism regarding its response to the contemporary challenges and reformation of Tunisian society. It provides a “balanced approach to the interpretation of the interplay between the Muslim values and West-originated norms and principles including human rights, democracy, and transparent government” in the light of thoughts and writings of Ghannushi (‘Foreword’, p. ix).

The Introductory chapter presents, very briefly, some of those key developments in Tunisia which had a direct impact on the emergence of Islamic Movement founded by Rashid al-Ghannushi in 1981. It also delineates on the structure and significance of the work. The next three chapters (2—4), present an assessment of life and character of Ghannouchi as “a Social Reformer”, his “Sociopolitical Activities” (how he evolves as a refined reformer, activist, thinker, and political leader), and an exploration of his academic works, respectively. The 3rd chapter, for instance, provides an analysis and assessment of Ghannouchi’s those books which “deal with and discuss the subjects of democracy, human rights, and other such issues” (p. 47). These include: The Right to Nationality Status of non-Muslim Citizens in a Muslim Nation (1989); Civil Liberties in the Islamic State (1993); Approaches to Secularism and Civil Society (1999); The Woman between the Qur’an and the Muslim Reality (2000), etc.

The next three chapters (5—7) are the most significant and insightful chapters of this work, which highlight the position of Ghannushi vis-à-vis Islam and: West Relationship; Human Rights; Democracy (in) compatibility; and Power-Sharing Debate; and is followed by ‘Conclusion’ (pp. 57—112). In these chapters, the author first explores the views and arguments of Ghannouchi related to issue(s) of Islam–West relationship and human rights, by putting forth the main argument that “while in the style and approach of Rashid al-Ghannushi the dose of ‘pragmatism’ dominates the dose of ‘cynicism’, the need and acceptability of selective synthesis of Islam and Western global norms is preached” (p. 75).

Similarly, in chapter 6, he explores his views on Islam-Democracy compatibility and (political) pluralism through a critical and deep examination of Ghannushi’s ‘Power Sharing Theory’, and attempts to find out the theory of ‘coexistence and cooperation’ among the various political identities. This is followed by his succinct conclusion which provides some concrete reflections regarding the intellectual activism of Ghannushi, major findings and a summary of the general approach of Ghannushi. For example, he summarized his thoughts on Islam-democracy compatibility in these lines: “In case of Islam-democracy compatibility, Ghannushi is well known for his pro-democratic character. … He has highlighted…the importance and application of Shura [Mutual consultation, referring to Quran 3: 159 and 42: 38] that forms one of the very significant traditions of Islam. He tries to convey to the Muslim population that several Islamic practices and traditions like Shura, Ijma, and Ijtihad are attuned with democracy and thus, in a way persuades them to look for common objectives and goals between Islam and the West. … It signifies that his style and approach regarding Islam-Democracy compatibility or incompatibility is quite different from that of other Muslim thinkers, particularly when viewed in the context of his emphasis and acceptance of Western form of multi-party system that neither marginalizes nor rejects religion” (pp. 109-110).

From the study of this book, what becomes evident is that in 21st century, Ghannouchi has emerged as “one of the dominant entities who cogently express Islam-Democracy compatibility”; he has been an active contributor in “championing the trend of democratization”, and thus has been rightly described as “one of the leading Muslim figures heavily engaged in blending Islam with democracy” (p. 82).

One of the major findings of the author, as a forecasting, is that Ghannushi has brought about the “transformation of al-Nahdah’s worldview from old to new”, and his “political and intellectual activism, still ongoing, will definitely witness further development and maturity and will form in the future core strand of thought throughout the world” (pp. 111-12; italics in original).

The book meets the criteria of precision, lucidity, smoothness, content, and subject; it truly delivers what it promises. It indeed justifies, what Prof. Cenap Çakmak and Anne Wolf (University of Oxford), among others, remark in its praise, that it is “a fine work … [and] is very timely contribution”, which “provides important insights into the particular ideological and intellectual evolution of … Rashid al-Ghannushi, and shows how he has engaged with democratic politics”.

Though slim in size (of just 145 pages), the price is very high, and unaffordable for a common reader. Also, the author has not dealt in detail with issues of ‘women empowerment’, and/or their position in the new Tunisian constitution and Ghannushi’s position, etc. But keeping these loop-holes aside, Dawood’s Rashid al-Ghannushi: A Key Muslim Thinker of the 21st Century is an interesting and thought-provoking work which helps in knowing life, legacy, and ‘transformations’ of Ghannouchi from an ‘Islamist’ activist to a moderate political leader and thinker—or in a nutshell, in knowing Ghannouchi’s transformation from a ‘Democrat within Islamism’ to a ‘Muslim Democrat’.

The Reviewer is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir.