The so-called crisis of authority in modern Islam is not a new story. Arguably, this term might serve as a shorthand definition of what modernity is in general, never mind for Islam.1 But it is no less true that these seem like acutely fraught times within the global Islamic public sphere. It is a question of the clash of authority not only between traditionally trained religious scholars and others claiming to speak for Islamic norms and doctrines but also among the ¢ulemā’. Admittedly, the issues that tend to divide religiously committed Muslims most predictably are political rather than narrowly theological. But certain political disputes today can seem to carry the consequences of some of the notorious doctrinal disputes among early Muslims: affiliation (al-walā’) with the like-minded and near absolute disassociation (al-barā’) with those on the other side.
The issues that can carry these stakes are familiar to anyone. Within the United States, cooperation with the government on projects funded by the notorious countering violent extremism (CVE) program, or anything associated with the Trump administration, can render certain Muslims beyond the pale in the eyes of others. Perhaps you can pray with them, but you should not share a platform with them, and their arguments need not be refuted without their prior repentance. In terms of geopolitics, alignment on either side of the United Arab Emirates/Saudi versus Qatar/Turkey axes can carry similar stakes. Being on the wrong side is not a matter of political judgment (ijtihād) subject to reasonable disagreement (ikhtilāf) but rather a matter of maliciousness toward the ummah itself that requires disavowal and repentance.
But the latter often presents itself not only as a geopolitical dispute over the conflicting interests of two different blocs of states but also as a deep doctrinal dispute over the correct political vision espoused by Islam and the proper balance between political commitments and individual spiritual perfection. One side holds the other accountable for the brutally violent counterrevolution in Egypt and ongoing antidemocratic interference in other countries, including lobbying to list certain Muslim civil society organizations in the United States as “terrorist” groups. The other side claims that obedience to rulers and scholars in political matters is the classical position in Islam, that Muslims should see government not as tyrannical but as a “gift,” and that “democracy must not become a call in certain societies for civil war.”
What I am interested in here are the competing claims about the status of democracy as a value for pious, religiously committed Muslims. When should the claims of democracy or representation be seen as the measure of legitimacy and obedience-worthiness for a Muslim government? In this essay, I am not concerned about resolving this question for Muslims of conscience. Rather, I want to ask the question “What would it mean for democracy to be a deep commitment for religious Muslims?” It is true, of course, that if democracy is a deeply held value or commitment, it is also a newly held value. But it does not follow that the intellectual justifications for it must be shallow or incoherent. In fact, many Muslim intellectuals throughout the twentieth century collectively produced a fairly sophisticated theory of what it would mean for a state to be both Islamic and democratic. I will explore the path to that theory and its most compelling features in this essay, as well as the intellectual and social conditions of its possibility that might point to the challenges for bringing it to life. Like all ideal theories, the vision of an “Islamic democracy” is unlikely to be realized the way its theorists portrayed it, but it nonetheless has something to teach us about the strivings of many modern Muslims to be both free and governed under the canopy of the divine law.
No political concept enjoys universal agreement about its precise meaning and importance, and democracy is no exception. But we can begin with a weak, or thin, conception of democratic rule. We might say that a regime is democratic when the following are true: rulers do not claim to rule by divine right or their own might but by some consent of the people whom they govern; consent can be given either explicitly or implicitly but, in either case, can be revoked; legitimate rulers govern not only by consent but also through institutionalized forms of consultation; and political power is not absolute and unconstrained but is divided and checked by a combination of laws, competing institutions, and informal norms.
I would submit that this thin conception of democracy admits to wide acceptance by Sunni Muslims. While classical Sunnism did tend to recognize the authority of rulers who came to power through the sword, the normative doctrine was that rulers are (s)elected by a group of elites known as “the people who loose and bind” and acquire legitimacy not from divine appointment but from those representatives’ vow of obedience (bay¢ah). Once in power, rulers are not true sovereigns. Their power is not absolute but rather is constrained by both law and morality. They themselves are not the sources of the law’s authority but are at most the guardians of the law’s execution. And decisions or policies they make in their own authority must be arrived at through consultation and are only justified if they plausibly advance the community’s welfare or public interest (maślaĥah).