Iqbal’s Islamic Democracy: Addressing the Challenges of Western Democracy
With the caveats of Tawhid and finality of prophethood, Iqbal laid out a concrete democratic model of Islamic democracy. Based on the legal tools provided by Islam, this could provide for a more democratic society than that of the West and could provide people with the greatest freedom possible. It is the best case to be made of Iqbal's claim that Islam can be reconstructed to not just face up to, but address the challenges of modernity.
As an intellectual of India’s minority Muslim community, Mohammad Iqbal was confronted with the question of the fate of the Muslim community in a Hindu majority India. Muslims in India had with great difficulty negotiated a separate electorate for themselves in the Lucknow Pact of 1916, but in 1928 an All Parties Conference appointed to “determine the principles of the Constitution for India” smashed the Lucknow Pact and recommended the liberal dictum that each citizen’s vote should count evenly in the nascent constitution of Indian Republic (All Parties Conference). This caused severe anxiety among Muslims and forced Iqbal to join the voices arguing for a separate state for Muslims. Roughly a year after this, in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1929), a collection of six lectures delivered in Hyderabad, Aligarh, and Bombay, Iqbal put forward his vision of Islamic democracy and its jurisprudence. Drawing upon Iqbal’s The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1929) and Speeches and Statements of Iqbal (1944), this essay argues that Iqbal’s idea of Islamic democracy and its jurisprudence addresses the challenges of Western democracy and is the best case study of his claim that Islam can be reconstructed to not just face up to, but address the challenges of modernity.
He contended that the sole function of democracies in the West was to “exploit the poor in the interest of the rich” and that Europe, having based its democracy on materialism and pure reason, “was the greatest hindrance in the way of man’s ethical advancement”
The question of a communal problem in India that had forced Iqbal to ponder over democracy, he argued that “the model of British democracy cannot be of any use in a land of many nations” (Shamloo 25). If implemented in India, the model would put the Muslim minority at the mercy of the Hindu majority, militating against the principle of equality that is at the core of a democracy. Further, Iqbal also analysed how democracy had unfolded in the West. As he saw it, it was just old wine in a new bottle because it did not emancipate or change the lives of ordinary people there. He contended that the sole function of democracies in the West was to “exploit the poor in the interest of the rich” and that Europe, having based its democracy on materialism and pure reason, “was the greatest hindrance in the way of man’s ethical advancement” (Iqbal 142). It is not that Iqbal was against democracy per se, but he was against how it was practised in the West. For him, democracy was how it ought to be conducted and not how it was carried out in the West. He was well aware that democracy provided more space to accommodate wishes and aspirations of most of the people and that Western democracy could be made more democratic by applying the principles of Islam to it. As in the case of India, when he asked for separate electorate for Muslims as a safeguard, he argued that it was a legitimate demand within the ambit of the “substance” of the democracy but at the expense of its “conventional form” (Shamloo 290). He accepted that democracy cannot solve all the problems but he also argued that it could be refined to at least overcome some of these problems. He wrote that “democratic government has attendant difficulties but these are difficulties which human experience elsewhere shows to be surmountable” (Shamloo 251). It was this quest to liberate democracy from centralising and hegemonic tendencies that led Iqbal to put forward his own vision of Islamic democracy.
As far as Islam is concerned, Iqbal believed that democracy is not only thoroughly consistent with Islam, but also an important aspect of it. In connecting democracy and Islam, he rejected the idea of the separation of religion and state. Laying out his vision of an Islamic democracy, he based it on two important legal tools in Islam – Ijtihad which Iqbal describes as “to exert with a view to form an independent judgement on a legal question” (Iqbal 117) and Ijma which means a consensus on a legal opinion. Ijma, in Iqbal’s opinion, was “perhaps the most important legal notion in Islam” that could be transformed into a permanent legislative institution (137). Since Ijtihad “vigorously asserts the right of private judgement”, it would be fitting to transfer the power of Ijtihad to a legislative assembly which until now remained in the individual representatives of different schools (138). To avoid any kind of mistakes on the questions of legal opinion, this assembly was to be helped and guided by a committee of learned men called Ulema (139). These elected representatives had no authority but they were just interpreters of divine revelations. Also, since Islam doesn’t accept any authority, Iqbal argued that Tawhid which roughly translates to the one- ness of God and which forms bedrock of monotheism, lets Muslims free because this principle demands “loyalty to God, not to thrones” (Iqbal 117) and lets “man develop all the possibilities of his nature by allowing him as much freedom as practicable” (Shamloo 114). Further, it was also that this legislature should only be bound by a minimal set of rules, leaving much of what was to be decided in the hands of the people. Through Ijtihad and Ijma, Iqbal proposed, Muslims could one day govern themselves free from theological constraints. Iqbal further held that the legal order had to reflect the will of the popular and should mirror itself in society. It had to adopt current values and principles, as long as they accommodated the constitutional limitations of Tawhid and the finality of prophethood. Iqbal based this argument on the issue of Muslim women in Punjab who wanted to seek divorce from their unwanted husbands and for that had been driven to apostasy because there was no other way to nullify the marriage. He wrote that “nothing could be more distant from the aims of a missionary religion” and vouched that these women should be provided with the rights to divorce their husbands while they still stay Muslim (Iqbal 134). Also, the fact that Iqbal is writing about democracy in Islam is in itself the reconstruction of Islam to incorporate current values of modern society. There is no direct mention of democracy in Islam per se, but it is only through joining the dots and reinterpreting Islam that Iqbal is justifying that democracy exists in Islam. This is important because it suggests that through reconstruction, any modern value can be incorporated in Islam.
Iqbal believed that democracy is not only thoroughly consistent with Islam, but also an important aspect of it. In connecting democracy and Islam, he rejected the idea of the separation of religion and state.
Iqbal also suggested equity instead of equality in his vision for Islamic democracy. In coparcenary in Islam, a sister gets half of what a brother gets. While defending this position, Iqbal argued that this difference was not because Islam considers women as inferior but due to the social position that the women in Islam occupy. Since a woman gets dower-money from her husband and the responsibility to maintain her is wholly on the husband, it was equitable that she only gets a half in inheritance (Iqbal 135). It is important to take note of this argument. While Western democracy treats everyone equally, everyone does not start at the same point nor does everyone occupy the same social status in society. In fact, Iqbal argued on similar lines when he pointed out that democracy in West had not brought any change and people were still exploited with the advent of democracy, because it was up for grabs and people with power had seized it, becoming the same old exploitation disguised as democracy. Even in case of the demand for a separate electorate for Indian Muslims, it was equity against equality that was being demanded by Iqbal.
Since the fundamental principles in Islam are Tawhid and finality of prophethood, these liberate Islamic democracy from problems of territoriality or ethnicity (Iqbal 117). Added to that, having just one Calipah, who is again not some authority but only an interpreter (Shamloo 142), leads to the establishment of a global country in which the terms of nationality and race are used only for reference. As such, Islamic democracy introduces a new order which could well serve as an antidote to nationalism and could “furnish a model for the final combination of humanity” (Iqbal 132). This is important because “since the dawn of the modern democratic era in the late 19th century, democracy has expressed itself through nation-states and national parliaments … But this arrangement is now under assault from both above and below” (The Economist). Such a system puts national interests first while global issues take a back seat. The world is today faced with global problems like climate change and pollution that almost pose an existential threat to the planet that cannot be dealt with by a single country in isolation. In this light, the new order proposed by Iqbal through Islamic democracy deserves attention and could well address the challenges of globalisation.
With the caveats of Tawhid and finality of prophethood, Iqbal laid out a concrete democratic model of Islamic democracy. Based on the legal tools provided by Islam, this could provide for a more democratic society than that of the West and could provide people with the greatest freedom possible. It is the best case to be made of Iqbal’s claim that Islam can be reconstructed to not just face up to, but address the challenges of modernity. After all, it does not have any authority but only interpreters; it does not seek allegiance to a state or a nation but to God. Though Iqbal later projected this model of democracy on to the whole world, he did not take non-Muslims into consideration. How would non-Muslims be accommodated and treated under such a model is a question that he left unanswered.
- All Parties Conference. Report of Committee, The General Secretary, All India Congress Committee Allahabad, 27 August 1928.
- Iqbal, Mohammad. “The Principle of Movement in the Structure of Islam”. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, edited by M. Saeed Sheikh, Stanford University Press, 2013, pp. 116-142.
- Speeches and Statements of Iqbal, (1944), edited by Latif Ahmad Sherwani, Iqbal Academy Pakistan, 2015
- The Economist. “What’s gone wrong with democracy.” The Economist, 27 February 2014. https://www.economist.com/essay/2014/02/27/whats-gone-wrong-with-democracy
Author is an under graduate student at Ashoka University studying political science and international relations. He can be mailed at email@example.com
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