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A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy
Oct 1, 2001

Fethullah Gulen has spent much of his life as a religious teacher in Turkey. He is author of more than forty books, most of them best-sellers in Turkey, and his writing appears regularly in Turkish journals. This article was translated from Turkish by Elvan Ceylan.

Religion, particularly Islam, has become one of the most difficult subject areas to tackle in recent years. Contemporary culture, whether approached from the perspective of anthropology or theology, psychology or psychoanalysis, evaluates religion with empirical methods. On the one hand, religion is an inwardly experienced and felt phenomenon, one mostly related to life’s permanent aspects. On the other believers can see their religion as a philosophy, a set of rational principles, or mere mysticism. The difficulty increases in the case of Islam, for some Muslims and policy-makers consider and present it as a purely political, sociological, and economic ideology, rather than as a religion.

If we want to analyze religion, democracy, or any other system or philosophy accurately, we should focus on humanity and human life. From this perspective, religion in general and Islam in particular cannot be compared on the same basis with democracy or any other political, social, or economic system. Religion focuses primarily on the immutable aspects of life and existence, whereas political, social, and economic systems or ideologies concern only certain variable, social aspects of our worldly life.

The aspects of life with which religion is primarily concerned are as valid today as they were at the dawn of humanity and will continue to be so in the future. Worldly systems change according to circumstances and so can be evaluated only according to their times. Belief in God, the hereafter, the prophets, the holy books, angels, and divine destiny have nothing to do with changing times. Likewise, worship and morality’s universal and unchanging standards have little to do with time and worldly life.

Therefore, when comparing religion or Islam with democracy, we must remember that democracy is a system that is being continually developed and revised. It also varies according to the places and circumstances where it is practiced. On the other hand, religion has established immutable principles related to faith, worship and morality. Thus, only Islam’s worldly aspects should be compared with democracy.

The main aim of Islam and its unchangeable dimensions affect its rules governing the changeable aspects of our lives. Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government or attempt to shape it. Instead, Islam establishes fundamental principles that orient a government’s general character, leaving it to the people to choose the type and form of government according to time and circumstances. If we approach the matter in this light and compare Islam with today’s modern liberal democracy, we will better understand the position of Islam and democracy with respect to each other.

Democratic ideas stem from ancient times. Modern liberal democracy was born in the American (1776) and French Revolutions (1789-99). In democratic societies, people govern themselves as opposed to being ruled by someone above. The individual has priority over the community in this type of political system, being free to determine how to live his or her own life. Individualism is not absolute, though. People achieve a better existence by living within a society and this requires that they adjust and limit their freedom according to the criteria of social life.

The Prophet says that all people are as equal as the teeth of a comb.(1) Islam does not discriminate based on race, color, age, nationality, or physical traits. The Prophet declared: 'You are all from Adam, and Adam is from earth. O servants of God, be brothers [and sisters].'(2) Those who are born earlier, have more wealth and power than others, or belong to certain families or ethnic groups have no inherent right to rule others.

Islam also upholds the following fundamental principles:

  1. Power lies in truth, a repudiation of the common idea that truth relies upon power.
  2. Justice and the rule of law are essential.
  3. Freedom of belief and rights to life, personal property, reproduction, and health (both mental and physical) cannot be violated.
  4. The privacy and immunity of individual life must be maintained.
  5. No one can be convicted of a crime without evidence, or accused and punished for someone else’s crime.
  6. An advisory system of administration is essential.

All rights are equally important, and an individual’s right cannot be sacrificed for society’s sake. Islam considers a society to be composed of conscious individuals equipped with free will and having responsibility toward both themselves and others. Islam goes a step further by adding a cosmic dimension. It sees humanity as the “motor” of history, contrary to fatalistic approaches of some of the nineteenth century Western philosophies of history such as dialectical materialism and historicism.(3) Just as every individual’s will and behavior determine the outcome of his or her life in this world and in the hereafter, a society’s progress or decline is determined by the will, world-view, and lifestyle of its inhabitants. The Qur’an (13:11) says: “God will not change the state of a people unless they change themselves [with respect to their beliefs, world-view, and lifestyle].” In other words, each society holds the reins of its fate in its own hands. The prophetic tradition emphasizes this idea: “You will be ruled according to how you are.”(4) This is the basic character and spirit of democracy, which does not conflict with any Islamic principle.

As Islam holds individuals and societies responsible for their own fate, people must be responsible for governing themselves. The Qur'an addresses society with such phrases as: —O people!— and —O believers!— The duties entrusted to modern democratic systems are those that Islam refers to society and classifies, in order of importance, as —absolutely necessary, relatively necessary, and commendable to carry out.— The sacred text includes the following passages:

—Establish, all of you, peace— (2:208);

—spend in the way of God and to the needy of the pure and good of what you have earned and of what We bring forth for you from earth— (2:267);

—if some among your women are accused of indecency, you must have four witnesses [to prove it]— (4:15); —God commands you to give over the public trusts to the charge of those having the required qualities and to judge with justice when you judge between people— (4:58);

—observe justice as witnesses respectful for God even if it is against yourselves, your parents and relatives— (4:135);

—if they [your enemies] incline to peace [when you are at war], you also incline to it— (8:61);

—if a corrupt, sinful one brings you news [about others], investigate it so that you should not strike a people without knowing— (49:6);

—if two parties among the believers fight between themselves, reconcile them— (49:9).

To sum up, the Qur'an addresses the whole community and assigns it almost all the duties entrusted to modern democratic systems. People cooperate with one another by sharing these duties and establishing the essential foundations necessary to perform them. The government is composed of all of these foundations. Thus, Islam recommends a government based on a social contract. People elect the administrators and establish a council to debate common issues. Also, the society as a whole participates in auditing the administration. Especially during the rule of the first four caliphs (632-661), the fundamental principles of government mentioned above–including free election–were fully observed. The political system was transformed into a sultanate after the death of 'Ali, the fourth caliph, due to internal conflicts and to the global conditions at that time. Unlike under the caliphate, power in the sultanate was passed on through the sultan's family. However, even though free elections were no longer held, societies maintained other principles that are at the core of today's liberal democracy. Islam is an inclusive religion. It is based on the belief in one God as the Creator, Lord, Sustainer, and Administrator of the universe. Islam is the religion of the whole universe. That is, the entire universe obeys the laws laid down by God, so everything in the universe is —Muslim— and obeys God by submitting to his laws. Even a person who refuses to believe in God or follows another religion has perforce to be a Muslim as far as his or her bodily existence is concerned. His or her entire life, from the embryonic stage to the body's dissolution into dust after death, every tissue of his or her muscles, and every limb of his or her body follows the course prescribed for each by God's law. Thus, in Islam, God, nature, and humanity are neither remote from each other nor are they alien to each other. It is God Who makes himself known to humanity through nature and humanity itself, and nature and humanity are two books (of creation) through each word of which God is known. This leads humankind to look upon everything as belonging to the same Lord, to whom it itself belongs, so that it regards nothing in the universe as alien. His sympathy, love, and service do not remain confined to the people of any particular race, color, or ethnicity.

The Prophet summed this up with the command, —O servants of God, be brothers [and sisters]!— A separate but equally important point is that Islam recognizes all religions previous to it. It accepts all the prophets and books sent to different peoples in different epochs of history. Not only does it accept them, but also regards belief in them as an essential principle of being Muslim. By doing so, it acknowledges the basic unity of all religions. A Muslim is at the same time a true follower of Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and of all other Hebrew prophets. This belief explains why both Christians and Jews enjoyed their religious rights under the rule of Islamic governments throughout history. The Islamic social system seeks to form a virtuous society and thereby gain God's approval. It recognizes right, not force, as the foundation of social life. Hostility is unacceptable. Relationships must be based on belief, love, mutual respect, assistance, and understanding instead of conflict and realization of personal interest. Social education encourages people to pursue lofty ideals and to strive for perfection, not just to run after their own desires. Right calls for unity, virtues bring mutual support and solidarity, and belief secures brotherhood and sisterhood. Encouraging the soul to attain perfection brings happiness in both worlds.

Democracy has developed over time. Just as it has gone through many different stages in the past, it will continue to evolve and to improve in the future. Along the way, it will be shaped into a more humane and just system, one based on righteousness and reality. If human beings are considered as a whole, without disregarding the spiritual dimension of their existence and their spiritual needs, and without forgetting that human life is not limited to this mortal life and that all people have a great craving for eternity, democracy could reach its peak of perfection and bring even more happiness to humanity. Islamic principles of equality, tolerance, and justice can help it do just that.


  1. Abu Shuja' Shirawayh ibn Shahrdar al-Daylami, Al-Firdaws bi-Ma'thur al-Khitab (The Heavenly Garden Made Up of the Selections From the Prophet's Addresses) (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiya, 1986), 4:300.
  2. For the second part of the hadith see the sections —Nikah— (Marriage Contract) in Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari, ed., al-Jami' al-Sahih (A Collection of the Prophet's Authentic Traditions) (Istanbul: al-Maktabat al-Islamiya, n.d.), ch. 45; —Birr wa-Sila— (Goodness and Visiting the Relatives) in Imam Abu Husayn Muslim ibn Hajjaj, ed., al-Jami' al-Sahih, op. cit., ch. 23; and for the first part see —Tafsir— (The Quranic Commentary) and —Manaqib— (The Virtues of the Prophet and His Com-panions) in Abu 'Isa Muhammad ibn 'Isa al-Tirmidhi, al-Jami' al-Sahih (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-Turath al-'Arabi, n.d.), chs. 49 and 74, respectively. The original text in Arabic does not include the word —sisters— in the command. However, the masculine form used refers to both men and women, as is the rule in many languages. An equivalent in English would be —mankind,— which refers to both men and women. By saying —O servants of God,— the Prophet also means women, because both men and women are equally servants of God.
  3. See Karl R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, trans. Sabri Orman (Istanbul: Insan yayinlari, 1985).
  4. 'Ala al-Din 'Ali al-Muttaqi al-Hindi, Kanz al-'Ummal fi Sunan al-Aqwal wa al-Af'al (A Treasure of the Laborers for the Sake of Prophet's Sayings and Deeds) (Beirut: Muassasat al-Risala, 1985), 6:89.