Reading Bewley’s ‘Democratic Tyranny and the Islamic Paradigm’

It provides an overview of Western political thought as well as ‘Islamic Paradigm’ of governance’
Representational Pic
Representational Pic

In the academic world, Ustadha Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley (b.1948, USA) is well known for her (co) translations of Islamic classical works,like Imam Malik's the Muwatta, Imam Nawdi's Riyad as-Salihin, and along withher husband (Abdalhaqq Bewley), The Noble Qur'an and Tafsir Jalalayn, etc.Besides translations, she has delivered many talks and has authored books aswell. One of her recent works is 'Democratic Tyranny and the Islamic Paradigm'.Below is presented a brief assessment of the major ideas and arguments putforth in this book.

The major focus of this 100-page book, divided broadly into two parts (Western thought and Islamic paradigm), is to navigate through the Western political thought to see the emergence, development, and present status of democracy—from its beginning among the Athenians to its 'modern' form(s).

The author's major argument is that "the democracy bandied about today has nothing to do" with the "ancient Athenians" nor is it based on "spiritual equality derived from a theoretical concept of universal Christian brotherhood". The author, in the first part, attempts to demonstrate that "modern 'democracy' is actually the child of liberal individualism, which in turn rose from the reins of the universal Church after Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII succeeded in demolishing it" (p.1).

To prove this argument the author first throws light on 'The Platonic Scenario' (pp. 3-11), where she quotes some prominent Greek philosophers/ thinkers like Thucydides, Pericles, Herodotus, Aristotle, and Plato, to examine the "political origins of the West in the ancient world". For the Greeks, Bewley highlights, "governance fell basically into three fundamental categories—democracy, monarchy, and oligarchy", and they "rejected democracy as an inferior form of governance".

This history then moves to Rome and later to Italy and Geneva; and this is highlighted under 'The Humanist Republic' (pp. 12-24). Here Bewley focuses on the thoughts/ ideas of Cicero, arguing that not only the "idea of 'authority'" (i.e., "how you are governed in a political context") was given by Rome, but the "idea of state, and the distinction between state and society", and the "concept of legal and moral 'rights'" was also developed by them.

These ideas, along with the "codification of Roman law in the Code of Justinian (Corpus Juris Civilis)" and "the dualist theory of church and state (sacerdotium and regnum)" had a crucial effect on "the medieval approach to governance".

In a nutshell, it resulted in Reformation—'The Reformist Revision' (pp. 23-31), which gave "free rein to development in the secular field", and the idea that "all believers had authority" (p. 26). Here she refers to the views of William of Ockham, Luther, and Calvin. In 'English Freedom?' (pp. 33-40) she points out that the "Reformation ushered in a period of embittered controversy and outright war" and "conflicting positions of Catholicism and Protestantism in its various modes".

It was during this period that George Buchanan and Thomas Hobbes propounded the doctrine of "natural rights" which ultimately gave rise to "liberalism". To this line of thought, a significant contribution was made by John Locke, who became the "guiding light of political thought" in 18th century. This was followed by the 'Enlightened Ideas' (pp. 41-47) to which Descartes, along with Bernard de Fontenelle and Montesquieu, contributed significantly.

Bewley then throws light on 'German Idealism' (pp. 48-55), as propounded by Gottholf Lessing, Immanuel Kant, Johann Fitche, Johann G. Herder, and Hegel. This is followed by 'Rousseau and Revolution' (pp. 56-67) with reference to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the "true springboard of modern political consciousness"), who is famous for his doctrine of 'the will of the people', Abbe Sieyes (a major spokesman for the 'Revolution'), and Francois-Noel Babeuf (the "apostle of egalitarian communism").

This is finally winded-up under the heading 'Tyranny dressed up as Democracy' (pp. 68-79), where she refers to the works/ thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, John Cooper, John Calhoun, John S. Mill, etc.

The major arguments put forth in this chapter are: (i) modern democracy provides freedom but "subject to the tyranny of the majority"; (ii) the 'democratic' experiments have reached to an "unsuccessful conclusion as far as human liberty is concerned"; and (iii) that "real democracy does not exist anywhere" in the proper sense of the word, but "only the trappings of democracy" exist.

In part second, 'The Islamic Paradigm [of Governance]' (pp.80-100), she discusses the Muslim Polity, Leadership, Application, Obedience,and the Modern Situation. The major arguments put forth in this part can besummarized under 12-pointformula, as below:

That the "nature of governance in Islamic context" is a"difficult question", because of two reasons: first, "it has been a long timesince Islam formed the foundation of governance"; and second, "Muslims havetended to base themselves on Western political theories [and] to 'Islamize'them".

That the 'umma' (or Ummah)—as used in the Qur'an, 3: 110; 9;71; 58: 22, etc., and in the Covenant/ Constitution of Madina—remains somewhat"nebulous and elusive" as it has been translated either as "nation" or"community", corresponding to "connotations of the modern nation-state" andpurely social concept", respectively. Both these translations areinappropriate, because the term signifying the actual connotation of the termUmmah as a political concept is 'polity'.

Comparing Ummah with 'Polis', Bewley points out seven (7)similarities between two, some of them include: being moral unities, seekingself-transformation through ethical behavior, obeying the laws, freedom ofexpression, etc. This leads to conclude her that "the polity in Islam is theumma".

That it is a conventional Islamic view that "it is areligious duty to have a leader", known as Khilafah or Imam.

That an apt western term for describing Islamic governanceis 'Nomocracy'.

That two important areas "in the legitimacy of the ruler"are Shura (consultation; as in Q. 3: 159 and 42: 38) and ahl-al hall wa'l-'aqd(lit. people who lose and bind; aka people of opinion/ decision-making body),which is followed by Ba'yah (pledge/ act of validation).

That "in this early vision of leadership, the khalifa hadconditional rather than absolute authority", which makes it clear that "Muslimform of leadership is not Herrschaft"—connoting seigniority and thereby'domination and mastery'—rather he is "a guardian, a custodian and a shepherd,not a despot".

That ten (10) principles forming "key to governance", asoutlined by Shaykh Uthman ibn Fodio's Usul al-'Adl, include: governance ontrust, upright and courageous scholars as advisors to leader, to establishjustice and prevent injustice, welfare of people, caring for oppressed/aggrieved, following Prophet's exemplary role model, etc.

That major areas of governance, which a ruler/ leader mustfocus on, include: having a wazir/ minister (as in Q. 20: 29-31), appointingqadi/s (Judge/s), and having equitable persons to collect kharaj/ land tax.

That "duty of the subjects is to obey" (as in Q. 4: 59),which is conditional, and has limitations: there is no obedience if the ruleris a "usurper", or "tyrant", or becomes "an unbeliever".

That on the issue of obedience, there are two approaches: the "quietist school" and "modernist quietist approach".

These approaches, respectively, believe in "obey [ing] whatever the circumstances because anarchy is worse (as in the axiom 'tyranny is better than anarchy') and in "attempts to reconcile Islam with, variously, nationalism, democracy, and socialism … [which are] no real Muslim alternative".

That "Islam rejects the concept of popular sovereigntybecause sovereignty belongs to Allah, and the polity in Islam is not one ofsubject or citizens, but one of believers", and as the Qur'an states: "Thekingdom of the heavens and the earth and everything in them belong to Allah. Hehas power over everything" (Q. 5: 122).

In this way, she presents the long history of western political thought as well as the 'Islamic paradigm' of governance. The author deserves applause for her efforts in summarizing, with brevity, both these paradigms. Except few typos, and not providing references in full, the book is a welcome addition to the literature on political thought.

Deeply researched, presented in brevity but cogently, referenced copiously, Bewley's 'Democratic Tyranny' is a must read for everyone interested in knowing the journey of democracy from Athens and Rome to modern period, and in understanding the Islamic structure/ form of governance and its concord/ conflict with democracy/ Western political thought.

Book: Democratic Tyranny and the Islamic Paradigm

Author: Aisha A. Bewley,

Publisher: Bradford, UK: Diwan Press, 2015

Pages: 100; ISBN: 9781908892485; Price: 7.95 Pounds

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

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