Theorizing Modernities article

Foundations for Democracy in Islamic Traditions


What do we mean when we ask about the potential of “Islam” to contribute to democracy? Islam must not be essentialized nor personalized; Islam is a religion consisting of different discursive traditions, traditions which have changed and continue changing elastically within their own varied historical, political, and social contexts. There are, of course, common foundations of the Islamic religion that all Muslims share; there are the main tenets of belief (and practice, since 4 of the 5 pillars of Islam concern practice), there are common references to a corpus of religious scriptures–most prominently, but not exclusively, the Qur’an. However, the readings, the interpretations, and the understandings of these foundations come to us as a complex set of dense, rich, and interesting–albeit divergent–readings, interpretations, and implementations that have developed in the course of fourteen centuries over wide regional and cultural spaces.

So when asking the questions about the foundations for democracy in the Islamic tradition, one could not expect the same answer to be given by a contemporary Muslim (which is itself not a unitary category of identity) and, for example, by a scholar from 11th-century Bagdad (if the latter understood the question at all). This might seem an obvious and redundant remark, but it is important to point out, given that much of current Islamic theology across the Muslim world, at least that conducted in the traditional way, is operating within the same epistemological paradigms as those used by scholars in the classical ages.

When considering foundations for democracy in Islamic traditions and thought, we always have to bear in mind the multi-referential contexts and conditions in which these Islamic traditions and thought are situated. Let me first point out some difficulties and tensions when it comes to the current contexts of Islamic thought on democracy. I am explicitly referring to thought that references Islamic traditions as its primary framework, or at least as one important framework among others.

The contexts of current Islamic thought are characterized by one important structural feature of modernity: the condition that Austrian sociologist Helga Nowotny in her work on social experience of time has described as the “synchrony of inequality”[1]. Nowotny’s phrase seeks to convey that the contraction of the spatial and temporal distances through technological innovations of modernity (transportation, communication channels, etc.) has not led to more equality or even to synchronicity in social developments, but rather to the existence of different social times within the same historical timeframe. For example, it is very possible that religious Muslims in the domain of the IS justify enslavement of girls and women on the grounds of religion, while at the same time, only a few hours by flight away, a group of young religious Muslims discusses the issue of gay marriage or LGBT rights. Both Muslim discourses are coeval, but they are substantially different in their outlook and their premises. The transfer and interlocking of these discourses and their actors might be difficult to achieve. Similar developments can surely be observed within other religious traditions as well. The social context in which religious thought is developing is crucial for shaping the outlook of that thought, the religious interpretation of the world, the religious justification and appropriation (or lack thereof) of democracy, and the values that are connected with or attributed to democracy.

Current Islamic theological thought is also characterized by one important tension between the “historicizing” approach (still a minority) and the “universalist” approach. Without going into too much detail, this tension often translates into the tension between a dynamic and a static understanding of religious normativity. Most Muslims are probably oscillating somewhere between these two approaches, while the current traditionalist Islamic theology mostly leans to the second view, with some concessions to the role of the context (usually taken as a point of refuge for such parts of the Scripture which cannot be harmonized with today’s generally accepted ethics, but not as a departure point of a new, re-thought hermeneutics). Both perspectives–the historical-critical and the universalist–have produced their own ways of legitimizing democracy, with different degrees of scholarly soundness. A view which has determined the timeless validity of a particular wording from a religious tradition, while at the same time a view that holds a static-dogmatic notion of religious ethics will, however, have more problems justifying and appropriating new developments and new civilizational paradigms–such as democracy.

One of the solutions, and indeed a very popular solution, is to anachronistically project today’s terminology and values in the historical past. For example, shūra, as the administrative principle of consultation in the affairs of the early Islamic community, is thus often understood not as a potential that can be further developed and unfolded into the principle of democratic consensus, but directly as “democracy.” Similarly, tolerance toward the religious practices of other religious communities throughout the history of Islam is being anachronistically interpreted as “religious freedom” in the sense of today’s international conventions, and so forth.

In my view, rather than looking for wording in the religious scriptures that could be somehow adjusted to today’s terminology and postulates of social and political theories, it makes more sense to assess the direction in which the Qur’anic provisions point, and then explore the ways they can be made concrete given the social and global realities of today’s world. In other words, this entails approaching the Qur’an as the oral revelation (a speech act) that conveyed specific meanings to specific audiences (listeners, not readers) and made references to their specific contexts.

In this light, the Qur’an interacted with the dynamics of the living community over more than 20 years guiding the community towards a more just and human society, but also is a revelation that favors specific interventions and guidance over explicit formulations of timeless laws at certain points. The universal dimension of the Qur’an lies not in its single formulations and wordings, but in the direction in which it orients us. In other words, to use an image borrowed from my Frankfurt colleague, the Turkish-German theologian Ömer Özsoy, who has developed an important historical hermeneutical approach to the exegesis of the Qur’an: If the Qur’an, in terms of guidance, is a finger pointing in a specific direction, one of the common mistakes both Muslims and non-Muslims make is to look at the finger only, but not in the direction at which it is pointing. I would add to that: You can see the direction only if you see where the finger is situated (context), and if you are aware of your own position vis-a-vis the sign (positionality).

It might be painful, but we have to accept that the Qur’an does not speak in today’s terms, terminology, and values, including concepts such as democracy, human rights, and freedom. At the same time, the Qur’an’s universal value is reflected in its positioning against injustice and oppression, its demanding more humane relationships among humans, and its reminding the believers that they cannot exert power over their fellow human beings by claiming to do so in the name of God. These themes commonly occur throughout the Qur’an, designating clearly the direction the Revelation was pointing. Again, what is considered to be just or unjust, to be oppression or liberation–these values are contingent. Indeed, in the course of Islamic history, they have been understood and put into effect in many different ways–including both Islamic approaches that have appropriated and advocated democracy and those that have not.

An understanding of the Qur’anic ethical dimensions as orienting us in a certain direction can only be fully developed against the background of the relationship between the Qur’an and history (with history understood as the spatial and temporal frame within which humans act in the world). The Qur’anic self-understanding as the last revelation of God is thus not to be interpreted as the ultimate superiority of Islam towards all other religions, but as an invitation for human agency in history. With no further interference from God in the form of further revelations, human beings are free and called upon to act in the world, to shape their societies and the earth according to reason and the guidance they received through the Revelation. The directions are there–Qur’anic revelations having established them in their address to specific audiences in Mecca and Medina–but it is up to humans to take further steps in those directions, and to unfold the ethical message of the Qur’an as history advances. To quote Özsoy again: “These are steps that humans shall follow with further steps on their own, and messages upon which they should build their history” [2].

New questions, problems, and developments arise out of the unfolding of history, out of the living circumstances of individuals or societies. Human agency in shaping historical processes, as well as humans’ responsibility in and for this world (stewardship), are genuinely Islamic concepts and values, and they play an important role in every political theory of democracy.

Another important element: despite the claims of modern political Islam, there is no particular political system preferred by the Qur’an. This void leaves many options. Indeed, it leaves options for any system or form of political rule–and this has been precisely the case through the history of Muslim societies: a wide range of different forms of rule. Notwithstanding the central role of the Caliph for the symbolic unity of the religious community, the flexibility of Muslim states in incorporating other political and administrative traditions, in accordance with the requirements of the expanding and increasingly complex societies, bears witness to this plurality.

The history of political rule in Muslim contexts is thus characterized by flexibility and potential adaptation to the requirements of the time, and this applies across many fields. Muslim intellectuals, politicians, scholars, and laymen all thought in the categories of their own time. The “Islamic state,” as a concept that is often talked about today, is a political construct of modernity, a result of different attempts by Muslim intellectuals to cope with the project of modernity, with secularization, with colonialism. It is also a concept that owes as much to the Hegelian understanding of history and of Hegel’s notion of the state as the culmination of the historical process, and to European Romantic notions of organic history, as it does to specific interpretations of the religious texts of Islam. In this context, it is certainly worth looking into and re-evaluating the classical debates on the scope of Prophetic authority in the building of a political order.

Contrary to popular and more fundamentalist understandings of the role of Prophet Muhammad as a mandatory example in all spheres of life, the Islamic intellectual tradition features debate around the precise spheres in which the Prophet is to be followed as an absolute authority. These have historically been distinguished between the area of the transmission of the revelation (regarded as mandatory) and those spheres of action such as legislation, jurisdiction, or political leadership in which the example of the Prophet was not considered to be mandatory (mostly by the scholars of the Malikite school of legal thought). Some modern Muslim intellectuals have re-read these debates in the light of the separation of powers in the modern state. Such a comparison is naturally difficult to sustain, but such classical debates and views, while usually not well-known among Muslims, could be taken as a point of departure for further elaborations of the justification of political authority.

Another point that I would like to mention in this context is the notion of consensus. I am not viewing consensus as being restricted to the notion of ijmāʻ (i.e. the consensus of the community of legal scholars), but rather as arising from the fact that legal norms–as a result of interpretative work of scholars–had to be made rationally plausible to Muslim communities if they were to catch on and become accepted. It is of great interest to ask how this element of Islamic intellectual and social history can be successfully brought into relation with the notions of public reason as one of the core elements of today’s democratic societies.

Another concept to mention is the so-called goals of Sharī’a or the legal system, known as the maqāṣid al-sharī’a in Arabic. This is a concept that is today widely discussed in the context of Islamic law, and that is definitely, despite all methodological shortcomings and deficiencies within the debate, worth further elaboration. By this I certainly do not mean the introduction of the Sharī’a, but a new reflection of Islamic legal hermeneutics according to which the individual regulations of a legal system have the intention of serving specific superordinate goals and values. According to some classical Islamic scholars, these goals include: the protection of life, the protection of religion/faith, the protection of progeny/lineage, the protection of intellect, and the protection of property [3]. Muslim scholars such as al-Ghazālī or Shāṭibī, who contributed significantly to this concept, formulated their theories on the “goals of law” as theoretical frameworks that answer how any given society can maintain itself and survive. So, when talking about maqāṣid, we are dealing with a sort of theoretical framework for a societal values system that emerged in the Islamic context, and whose relationship to the concept of human rights and democratic values remains a subject of dynamic debate among today’s Muslim scholars. These discussions are ongoing, but nonetheless interesting to observe.

One final point that I would like to mention, a problem rather, is the absolute centrality of the formal-juristic discourse in defining and coding Islamicity today. Other discourses, firmly rooted in Islamic tradition as well–ethical discourses, philosophical discourses, humanist approaches in the medium of literature for example–have become absolutely marginalized. This process started long ago, but it achieved a special status in the era of modernity. With the emergence and the spread in the 20th century of political Islam in the form of social movements (such as the Muslim Brotherhood), a social order run by the interpretative framework of Islamic jurisprudence emerged as the central element in the imaginations of Islamic polity, as well as the defining element of religious identity. Today, we can observe a further evolution of this development: the halal/haram discourse has become one of the central defining features of Islamic belonging, or not-belonging, particularly among young generations of Muslims living in minority contexts in Western countries. What is still lacking, though a huge desideratum, is a systematization of social ethics that will build the foundation for the mobilization of Islamic resources with the goal of actively shaping a democratic order. It is a desideratum, because this kind of social ethics needs to be extracted from various disciplines, systematized and transferred into our times. It is not an easy task, but it is not an impossible task.

Reflections on the Conference and My Personal Takeaways

Altogether, the conference was a successful combination of diverse scholarly perspectives highlighting different aspects and forms of relationships between religion and democracy, and different areas of (and needs for) action, academic and otherwise.

At the same time, the conference highlighted the shifting, increasing role of religious agency not only in the academic sphere, but also in the context of political decision-making. This is most evident in two respects: a) the potential of religions to strengthen the ethical perspective of political decision-making processes, and thus contributing to the containment (and humanization) of purely interest-led Realpolitik; b) the involvement of religious actors (at home and abroad) in the formulation and implementation of political strategies coping with the current domestic and foreign policy challenges of globalization: migrations, immigration, and conflict resolution. Consequences of this shift for the future understanding and outlook of secularism in the European and the US contexts will be very interesting to observe. Also, if the productive potentials of religions in supporting and strengthening the peaceful coexistence and cooperation between different social groups in pluralist democratic societies (or sharpening the consciousness for the necessity of such societal forms) is to be operationalized, we must seriously reflect on several questions: Which religions, which dimensions of religion, and which interpretative frameworks of religions are being referred to? How do we tackle the issue of religious authority-building and hierarchicalization in these processes?

By their very self-definition, religions imply a sense of community-building that is, at least at an ontological level, characterized by demarcation and distinct identity-building. How can we assure that these features do not lead to societal disintegration, the tendencies of which are already observable with the increased political presence of the religious right-wing formations in all European countries, not to mention the networks and groups advocating a violent political form of Islam? Against this background, the importance of religious dialogue cannot be overstated, but it is not enough. Besides still being predominantly a form of intellectual exchange–something that needs to be expanded into active encounters on the level of popular religion–the need for a more inclusive approach to a dialogue on societal values, including the myriad decidedly secularist positions, seems very urgent. In this sense, while understandable that the conference focused on two particular religious traditions, Catholicism and Islam, the discussions might have benefited from a more inclusive approach involving other religious traditions and positions.

Also, a closer approach to scrutinizing the current relationships between religion and democracy in different contexts might have pointed out more clearly the current possibilities, as well as the difficulties, of the religion-democracy nexus. This includes accounting for the various conditions–legal, institutional, societal, educational–under which different religions are currently developing their positions towards democracy and pluralism (differences that inevitably result in varied accentuations of problems and areas of action) as well as the persistent differences between the democratic societies of the West with regard to the relationship between state and religion. The effects and consequences that these different conditions of particular institutionalized relations have on the understanding of the role and potential of religion in the processes of democratization might have become more visible through, for example, direct comparisons. Such questions might benefit from stronger transnational networking and academic exchange between related projects.

Another interesting point, surely worth further exploration, is the relationship and interaction between the facticity of religious agency and the normativity of religious discourses. One of the scholarly desiderata seems to be a comprehensive identification of religious agency in the grass-roots processes of democratization, including the different roles of religious actors and the spheres in which they are acting, as well as the precise nature of the attribution “religious.” In this respect, it might be important to ask whether new understandings of democracy (or, for that matter, religion) are generated by these activities.


[1] Nowotny, Helga. “Eigenzeit: Entstehung und Strukturierung eines Zeitgefiihls.” (1987 [Rev ed. 2016]).
[2] Ömer Özsoy, „Das Unbehagen in der Koranexegese. Den Koran in anderen Zeiten zum Sprechen bringen“, [‘The Uneasiness of the Qur’anic Exegesis: Letting the Qur’an Speak in Different Times’], Frankfurter Zeitschrift für Islamisch-Theologische Studien 1 (2015): 64.

[3] See for example al-Ghazālī, al-Mustaṣfā min ʻilm uṣūl al-fiqh. Ed. Ḥamza b. Zuhayr Ḥāfiz. Medina, n.d.; al-Shāṭibī, al-Muwāfaqāt fī uṣūl al-fiqh. Ed. Abū l-Faḍl al-Dimyāṭī Aḥmad b. ʻAlī. Cairo 2011.


Armina Omerika
Armina Omerika is Assistant Professor for Intellectual History of Islam at the University of Frankfurt. She studied Islamic Studies, Film and Television Studies, and English Studies (M.A 2002) at Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany and John Moores University, Liverpool. She received her PhD in Islamic Studies (Bochum 2009) on the history of Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 20th Century and the networks of Young Muslims. Since 2005 she has been teaching and researching History and Islamic Studies at universities in Germany, the US, and Switzerland. She has received scholarships from the Volkswagen Foundation and the Gerda-Henkel-Foundation and was a member of the plenum chamber of the German Islam Conference. Her fields of research include theories of history and Muslim historiography; intellectual history of Islam in Europe; social and religious history of Islam in Southeastern Europe; the relationship between Islam, nationalism, and transnationalism; and the history of Islam-related scholarship in Southeastern Europe.

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