Finding democracy in the Islamic tradition

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Reza Aslan, writing in the Los Angeles Times, strives to find a democratic tradition in Islam. The purpose is a noble one: to refute those who denounce the elections in Iraq as "satanic."

Because Muhammad did not officially choose a successor, it fell to the community he left behind to decide who should lead them. Unsure how to proceed with such a momentous decision, the community fell back on the tribal tradition that had been sanctioned in Medina. They called, first, for a shura, or consultative assembly, of Muslim elders to choose a new leader. Speeches were delivered, political alliances formed and, ultimately, a consensus reached: The choice was Muhammad's closest friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, who became known as Khalifat Rasul Allah, "the successor to the messenger of God" — caliph, in English.

Yet the selection of Abu Bakr was meaningless until the entire Muslim community pledged an oath of allegiance to him. In fact, Abu Bakr's appointment as caliph was delayed because partisans of Muhammad's nephew and son—in—law, Ali, refused to swear allegiance. It was only after this powerful faction, the Shi'atu Ali, or the Party of Ali (a.k.a. the Shiites), relented and took the oath that Abu Bakr was allowed to assume his leadership role.

It is a fairly slender reed, as Aslan immediately acknowledges:

Perhaps it seems wrong to call this a democratic process. After all, Abu Bakr was appointed rather than directly elected. But it required community approval nonetheless.

In truth, the political tradition of Islam, where ideally a Caliph rules on the basis of Sharia law, which provides legitimacy, is at its best moments, enlightened despotism. Nevertheless, the slender reed is a good start at building an argument for Islamic democracy. Malaysia is an Islamic country with a history of elections, and its arguments for the legitimacy of democracy also need scrutiny.

Japan, more than any other country, has demonstrated the malleability of tradition. Within the last century and a half, Japan has seen its tradition used to justify feudalism, enlightened despotism, nascent democracy, theocratic military dictatorship, and now true modern electoral democracy, which has taken root and thrives. The fact is that every complex historic tradition contains the seeds for a wide variety of societies.

Islam desperately needs adaptation to modern life. However weak, the voice of those building a basis for a new Islam deserves our support.

Hat tip: Ed Lasky

Thomas Lifson  12 15 05

Reza Aslan, writing in the Los Angeles Times, strives to find a democratic tradition in Islam. The purpose is a noble one: to refute those who denounce the elections in Iraq as "satanic."

Because Muhammad did not officially choose a successor, it fell to the community he left behind to decide who should lead them. Unsure how to proceed with such a momentous decision, the community fell back on the tribal tradition that had been sanctioned in Medina. They called, first, for a shura, or consultative assembly, of Muslim elders to choose a new leader. Speeches were delivered, political alliances formed and, ultimately, a consensus reached: The choice was Muhammad's closest friend and advisor, Abu Bakr, who became known as Khalifat Rasul Allah, "the successor to the messenger of God" — caliph, in English.

Yet the selection of Abu Bakr was meaningless until the entire Muslim community pledged an oath of allegiance to him. In fact, Abu Bakr's appointment as caliph was delayed because partisans of Muhammad's nephew and son—in—law, Ali, refused to swear allegiance. It was only after this powerful faction, the Shi'atu Ali, or the Party of Ali (a.k.a. the Shiites), relented and took the oath that Abu Bakr was allowed to assume his leadership role.

It is a fairly slender reed, as Aslan immediately acknowledges:

Perhaps it seems wrong to call this a democratic process. After all, Abu Bakr was appointed rather than directly elected. But it required community approval nonetheless.

In truth, the political tradition of Islam, where ideally a Caliph rules on the basis of Sharia law, which provides legitimacy, is at its best moments, enlightened despotism. Nevertheless, the slender reed is a good start at building an argument for Islamic democracy. Malaysia is an Islamic country with a history of elections, and its arguments for the legitimacy of democracy also need scrutiny.

Japan, more than any other country, has demonstrated the malleability of tradition. Within the last century and a half, Japan has seen its tradition used to justify feudalism, enlightened despotism, nascent democracy, theocratic military dictatorship, and now true modern electoral democracy, which has taken root and thrives. The fact is that every complex historic tradition contains the seeds for a wide variety of societies.

Islam desperately needs adaptation to modern life. However weak, the voice of those building a basis for a new Islam deserves our support.

Hat tip: Ed Lasky

Thomas Lifson  12 15 05