Muslims, theology & democracy

| | in Oped
Muslims, theology & democracy

India has practiced toleration and at the same time run a successful democracy. This makes toleration a sine qua non of democracy

What happened in the Turkish elections last month was a transfer of veto power from the Army to the President. The shift, however, is not as revolutionary as it is being portrayed by many observers. It is true, however, that after World War I, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the founder of modern Turkey, did not have enough faith in his people to sustain a Western-style democracy. He had, therefore, set a tradition for the Army to be strictly secular and to keep a watch over the Government being free from religion. It was made unconstitutional for a political party to have any religious leaning.

Earlier, Kemal Pasha had abolished religious schools or madrassas as well as religious courts. He went on to the extent of ending the Ottoman Sultanate as well as the Caliphate of all Sunni Islam. In 1928, he further replaced the Arabic script with Roman letters for the Turkish language. Now, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has replaced the parliamentary with a presidential form of Government and it has been endorsed by the people of Turkey.

Our sub-continent has inherited a great deal of tradition from the British rule. Muhammed Ali Jinnah was a constitutionalist; by temperament and training was an English-style lawyer but the Pakistan he founded could not sustain democracy. Bangladesh, where most of the people are less staunch as Muslim, also has a chequered record of democracy. Generals Zia-ul-Rahman and Md Ershad and their tenures come immediately to mind. On the other hand, Pakistani history bristles with the dictatorships of Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Generals Zia-ul-Haq and Yahya Khan lasting almost three decades.  

The Pakistani Constitution begins by assigning the country’s sovereignty to Almighty Allah alone and not to the people of Pakistan. It further asks the Government to enable the citizens to order their lives in accordance with the teachings of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah (practices of the Prophet). What kind of democracy does such a Constitution promise to promote?

President Yahya Khan’s regime in 1971 allowed the country to break up rather than let the clear majority leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, become Prime Minister. Uncannily, the Bangladesh Constitution also declares the state religion of the Republic to be Islam; that leaves not much scope for non-Muslims to progress as citizens with equal rights.

The Iranian national document declares that ‘the society is based on Islamic principles which represent an honest aspiration of the Islamic Ummah’. There are frequent references to Quranic ordainments as well as repeated mentions of what Imam Khomeini had said. The leadership of Iran should be in the hands of a holy person in order to prevent organs of the State deviating from their essential Islamic duties.

Moreover, the army should be ideologically committed to fulfil the mission of jihad. Finally, the reader is reminded that the Iranian State is based on belief in one God. The Constitution is not the supreme arbiter of State affairs but the scriptures of Islam are and they all add up to non-democracy. Periodic elections merely help to choose governmental leaders.

The Constitution of Iraq more or less opens by declaring that Islam is the religion of the State. That of Kuwait begins swearing in the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful. Saudi Arabia understandably has designed its green flag with these words in its centre: There is but one God and Mohammed is His Prophet. The last two countries have no pretensions to being democratic but at this rate clearly, they offer no scope for democracy.

The Holy Quran devotes a great deal of space to the evils of Kufr or kafir societies and how to deal with them. Little wonder that wherever the old armies inspired by Hejaz (Mecca and Medina) conquered territories they have almost comprehensively gone over to the Muslim faith. As Prof. Bernard Lewis had written, it was a Muslim duty-collective in the attack, individual in defence — to fight in the war against the unbelievers. In principle, this war was to continue until all mankind either embraced Islam or submitted to the authority of the Muslim state. Until this purpose was achieved there could theoretically be no peace.

India as a whole is about the only exception. Even then, if we add Pakistan and Bangladesh, the sub-continent would be over 40 per cent Muslim.

Admittedly what is Bangladesh was converted largely by Arab traders and the Maulvis who accompanied them. Nevertheless, Pakistan and, to a little lesser extent, Bangladesh, have also been intolerant in squeezing out most Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. The contrast has been India, which has practiced toleration and, and at the same time, run a successful democracy. This makes toleration a sine qua non of democracy; a proposition which applies to all real practitioners of this free system of government.

The root of intolerance is the innocent ambition quoted in the Hadith. The Prophet’s exhortation to his followers was ‘marry women who will love their husbands and be very prolific, for I wish you to be more numerous than any other people’ (Miskatul Masabih book XIII). More numerous than any other people has meant to all obedient Muslims that their population increase is a top priority, whether by having more children or when possible by conversion. With this priority, co-existence is ideally not possible and, under compulsion, not welcome.

The answer to avoiding compulsion or constraint on the free play of religious practice, another Islamic priority, is living in a darul (land of) Islam. This priority sets off the propensity to separation in a darul Harb (conflict). How can a momin (faithful) be happy living in a democracy? If he is stuck in, say India, he merely makes the best of it.

In order to presumably keep Islam united, the powers that be in Hejaz, a thousand years ago or so, banned ijtihad or reinterpretation and insisted on taqlid or orthodoxy. This great step minimized clashes of opinions. As a contrast, Christianity happened to be more open-minded and, in the process, split into different denominations. The first bifurcation took place as early as in the fourth century when the Eastern Orthodox Church came up based in Constantinople.

The sixteenth century witnessed a series of Protestant movements beginning with Martin Luther in Germany. By avoiding such splits, Islam has not allowed its practices to move with the progress of time. In the process, Muslims are out of step compared to other communities.

‘Most of the now-advanced countries had developed institutions essential to the mass mobilization of savings, the lengthening of individual planning horizons, and the exploitation of new technologies through structurally complex organizations.

Therein lies a key reason why the Middle East fell behind in living standards and why it succumbed to foreign domination. As the institutional complex of the West gave rise to progressively more advanced commercial and financial institutions, that of the Middle East produced organisational stagnation within those sectors beyond direct state control. That equals 28 per cent of the average for high-income countries. Only three-quarters of the adults in the region are literate, as compared to near-complete literacy in advanced countries.’ This is brought out in The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held back the Middle East, by Professor Timur Kuran.    

Nevertheless, in some dominantly Muslim countries, there have been a few quiet changes like Tunisia abolishing polygamy in 1957. After Partition, Pakistan has made divorce more difficult as also taking on a second wife. But in India, being a darul Harb, the clergy, wary of their followers being polluted by the secular environment, has enforced taqlid strictly and kept change at a distance.

This no-change policy keeps the whole country back as highlighted by the Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam belt, where Muslims live in substantial numbers, being behind the rest of India. Different areas progressing at a different pace is not quite congenial for democracy.    

(The writer is a well-known columnist and an author)

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