Islam in Democracy


by Asghar Ali Engineer

A friend of mine from USA recently wrote to me that can you persuade Darul Uloom Deoband to issue a fatwa to strengthen secular democracy which will help defeat communal forces. I wrote back to him that I can do so but Darul Uloom has always actively supported secular democratic causes. Before my friend perhaps read my e-mail Darul Uloom issued a fatwa that all Muslims should vote and should consider it their religious obligation.

The fatwa says, A vote is as important as a testimony or witness in Islam, hence it must be utilized and correctly. A vote must not be kept back and wasted”. The fatwa was issued in response to a question. The questioner wanted to know whether a Muslim could vote for a candidate who is a criminal and if a Muslims should make their choice after testing the candidate or the party on the fundamentals of the Qur’an.

The Darul Ifta’ (department in charge of issuing fatwa), “India is not an Islamic country but a secular democracy, hence it would be out of place to look at its politics in Islamic perspective and test the parties and political leaders on the principles of Qur’an and Hadith. This would bring nothing but disturbance and confusion.”  The fatwa, therefore, advised Muslims, “One should vote for the party and the leader who is better for Muslims and the country as well.” Other members of clergy from Lucknow and other places also supported the fatwa.

The Ulama from Lucknow supporting the fatwa appealed to Muslims and non-Muslims alike to vote on the polling day in large numbers. They said, “It is our duty to vote. In a democracy, since we choose our own leaders, we can’t blame anyone else for the state of affairs”, said Maulana Khalid Rashid, a prominent Suuni ‘Alim. Similarly a prominent Shia ‘Alim Maulana Kalbe Sadiq too, emphasized the importance of votes and said, “We must make the right choice instead of sitting back and lamenting on the state of affairs. Casting a vote doesn’t take more than twenty minutes. This is all our system wants for us to deliver for the next five years. But we often do not realize the value of votes and let them go waste.”

Contrast this with some sectarian ‘ulama in Islamic country who keep on denouncing secularism as ungodly and participation in secular democracy as haram (prohibited) in Islam. In fact even founder of Jamat-e-Islami-Hind Maulana Maududi had advised Indian Muslims while departing for Pakistan in 1948, not to participate in secular democratic government and if they did, it will amount to raising banner of revolt against Allah and His Messenger.

The Jamat-e-Islami thus kept aloof from all electoral offices for a long time but realized its mistake and has, ever since, come a long way and now actively working for promoting of secular democratic values. Not only this in the current Lok
Sabha elections it is supporting Left Front candidates in Kerala. It is great advance indeed and must be acknowledged.

Indian liberal climate does not indeed encourages religious extremism. Islam, though it has played vital role in shaping Indian society and culture, it never acquired extremist overtones with perhaps with very few exceptions. Indian Muslims are deeply hued in Indian ethos and culture. Muslims, though quite large in number, always remained in 10-25 per cent minority until partition and were reduced to 10-15 per cent minority in post-independence India.

Unfortunately our country got divided in 1947 and now in Pakistan religious extremism of Taliban variety is thriving and is acquiring ever increasing extremist overtones. Had India remained united this perhaps might not have happened. Democracy in almost all countries is often reduced to majoritarianism and it is majoritarian arrogance which gives rise to religious extremism.

In other words religious extremism flourishes in certain political conditions. In India Hindu extremism can be real danger as in Pakistan it is Islamic extremism which is real danger. Pakistan is an Islamic country and a country where religion becomes part of governance there are greater chances of religious extremism thriving. In India which is a secular state religious extremism should have no place and yet majority religious extremism has found opportunity to flourish.

Though secular forces are a countervailing force but what is unfortunate is that our governance has failed to rise up to religious extremism. Elections, however, provide great opportunity to common people to assert themselves and contain extremist forces. Our country can be justly proud of the fact that we have vibrant democracy and people have a chance to reject certain political forces encouraging religious extremism.

In Pakistan too, whenever elections have taken place, religious extremists have been badly defeated. However, defeated in elections these extremists resort to violent methods but nonetheless their defeat is important as election can give them legitimacy which they do not deserve. Defeated they must be.

The fatwa issued by the ulama of Darul Ulum acquires added significance. All, Muslims or non-Muslims, should actively participate in elections to defeat extremist forces or those encouraging it. Islam in India has thrived in secular democratic atmosphere and has proved to the world that Islam is certainly not incompatible with secular democracy. And secular democracy is the only effective counter to religious or for that matter any kind of extremism.

Once in Malaysia I was invited to speak on Islam in India and one of the participants in my lecture asked how you can live, as a Muslim, in a secular democracy. Islam and secularism is quite incompatible. In reply I told him that Islam has better chances of manifesting its spirit in the secular atmosphere of India than even in Islamic country where it often assumes extremist tones.

I also told him that our ulama have always supported secular democracy. Not only that many of them have taken part in elections and have been elected to Parliament. The best example is of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who was a profound scholar of Islam. He actively participated in electoral processes and also became minister in the cabinet. He actively opposed two-nation theory and supported secular nationalism.

Not only Maulana Azad, a large number of ulama belonging to Darul Uloom Deoband also supported secular nationalism as against concept of two nations. Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani, the then head of Jami’at-ul-Ulama-i-Hind, effectively refuted two nation theory profusely quoting from Qur’an and hadith and Darul Uloom and Jami’at-ul-Ulama-i-Hind have stood up to this tradition with firm resolve until today.

Thus it clearly shows that Islam is neither incompatible to secularism not to democracy. And, what is interesting to note in India, no section of Muslims – all sects of Muslims and political opinions included – rejects secularism and secular democracy. This moderation is possible only in secular democratic atmosphere. And let us note that India has largest Muslim population after Indonesia.

Also, if certain traditions are firmly established a religion can remain moderate even where it is in majority. Turkey, for example, is a Muslim majority country and yet, because of Kemalist secular traditions Islam remained a moderate force and Turkish Muslims have rejected religious extremism. In fact religious parties could not be elected there until recently.

And now when a religious party has been elected it had to adopt moderation for acceptability. Kemalist revolution went a long way in containing religious extremism in Turkey. Secular traditions are so strong (though not so for democracy) that a woman is not allowed to wear hijab in any public institution like Parliament or university or government office. And yet people of Turkey consider themselves as good Muslims.

So it will be putting cart before horse to argue that Islam is anti-modern or anti-democracy. It all depends in what political or socio-economic atmosphere it thrives. If there is already political authoritarianism in the country or traditional ulama firmly holding reins of power, Islam will be interpreted accordingly. Saudi Arabia is its best example.

Thus Islam in Turkey and Islam in Saudi Arabia have found very different, nay, totally opposite polarities. In Turkey it is Kemalist ideology which shapes understanding of Islam whereas in Saudi Arabia it is purist and extremist Wahabi ideology which has given shape to Islam. Thus it is socio-political conditions which determine contours of religion, not otherwise.

In India it is secular democracy which shapes contour of Islam in contemporary period and even during medieval ages Sufis adopted Islam to Indian cultural milieu and those ulama who believed in Puritanism never succeeded despite their associating with ruling establishment. Thus we do not find extremist movements thriving in India at any period of time though Islam flourished in India abundantly.


(Secular Perspective May 1-15, 2009)
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism