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Last Update:  Fri. Oct. 22, 2004

Reading Islam » Understanding Islam » Islam in the World » Politics

The Nature of the Islamic Political System *

By  Dr. Jamal Badawi

Chairman, Islamic Information Foundation - Canada


In Islam, each and every human is, in a sense, considered a representative of God on earth.

Theocracy vis-à-vis Islam

The political system of Islam is not theocratic because the term “theocracy” implies two basic elements: The first element is the assumption or acceptance of the principle that God alone is the Sovereign of ultimate power. The second part of the definition of “theocracy” is the assumption that there’s a certain priestly class or clergy who claim to be representatives of God on earth, who alone have the right to interpret the will of God, and who in some certain cases are the ones who are supposed to enforce the divine law.

According to the first part of its definition, theocracy is not contradictory with Islam, whose structure is based on the acceptance of the supremacy of God in that His laws are ultimate and His wisdom is infinite. However, the second part of the definition has nothing to do with Islam. In Islam there’s no church as an institution as such, there’s no clergy. Islam doesn’t accept the notion that a particular group of people can claim for themselves to be representatives of God on earth. The entire human race is regarded, in a sense, as representatives of God on earth.

In Islam, legitimacy of any power or institution is derived mainly from people’s acceptance of this legitimacy. In other words, one can’t gain legitimacy as a ruler unless people agree to this, not to have it imposed on them; the people are entirely free to choose their rulers. Islam does not accept a system which involves any kind of dictatorship, nor does it accept a system of monarchy where the power is inherited within the same family. Indeed, one wouldn’t only point out to systems that call themselves monarchies because there are many countries that call themselves republics, but indeed power seems to be circulated only within the elite.

Is the Political System of Islam Democratic?

For more on Islam and democracy, read Forming an Islamic Democracy.

Whenever a comparison is made between Islam and anything else, we need to remember that Islam is not a man-made idea. Islam is a God-ordained way of life, and as such it reflects the infinite divine wisdom, which is absolutely infallible. With this kind of understanding, Islam, as reflected in the word of God and the sayings of the Prophet—which he also received by way of revelation—present the ultimate truth. It’s not something that anyone can update or change or supersede in any way; it is free from error or else, of course, there wouldn’t be any belief in God. On the other hand, other systems, whether they are democracy, socialism, or otherwise, are man-made ideas or ideologies.

The human being is fallible, his wisdom and knowledge are imperfect. Of course, in any of these man-made ideas there may be certain good ideas. When saying that Islam is similar to democracy, this seems to carry an implication that democracy is “the way,” “the ideal,” and then we go back to Islam to find out whether it meets these ideals or measures up to these standards or not. And that is almost like saying: Let’s take God’s ordained way of life and judge it in accordance with the criteria established by humans. Therefore, democracy and the political system in Islam, although they may have some similarities, are not really synonymous.

Similarities and Differences

In a true Islamic system, even if the majority wants to deprive the minority, they can’t do it because of the automatic restriction on their action.

Some of the fundamental principles in democracy are similar to Islam: first, the idea or notion of freedom of the people to choose the rulers they want. Another idea that is similar is that of participation in the decision-making process in some form or the other. The third similarity between democracy and Islam is the notion of the removal of some governments which fail to meet the expectations of the people.

The first basic difference between the political system endorsed by Islam and democracy is that in democracy, the ultimate authority lies with the people. In Islam, however, the ultimate authority doesn’t belong to people; it belongs to God alone. That means that both the ruler and the ruled in Islam are subject to a higher criterion for decision-making, that is, divine guidance. If the people—the rulers and the ruled—are truly believers, the final say in the interpretation or understanding of these divine laws would have to be within those laws.

Some might feel or think that this distinction between Islam and democracy is academic or theoretical, but it is not. It has some serious implications. For example: When the majority, in a Western democracy, decide that the drinking age should be lowered to 13 or 14, no matter how harmful this may be, it becomes a law, because that’s what the majority of people want. Under Islamic law, the Qur’an itself prohibits drinking, so it shall be prohibited regardless of what the people want.

Another example regards the rights of minorities. Suppose in a given society the majority of people, who belong to a particular race or class or group, decided to deprive minorities of their rights. Even if the constitution prohibited this, the constitution itself can be changed. So, if a decision is taken to oppress a certain minority or minorities, it could be done under democracy, theoretically at least. Yet, under an Islamic system it cannot happen because the rights of the minorities are rights which are enshrined in the Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition, and as such no human being can supersede that.

The Qur’an and Prophetic tradition are the ultimate constitution, which is different from the secular constitution because it cannot be changed. In the secular system the constitution can be changed whenever needed because it’s human-made and there may be better words than the ones that were put in the first place. Whereas, in the case of divine constitution, one cannot say “I know more than God.” In addition, it’s quite clear that democracy seems to go with systems which are basically secular, where the legislation of churches or temples or any religious body has nothing to do with the actual political system. However, the system of government in Islam doesn’t make any distinction between the moral and temporal and the whole notion of secularism is alien to Muslim thinking.

What Is the Political System of Islam?

Some have tried to give the title of “theo-democracy” to the political system in Islam. “Theo-democracy,” in this sense, would reflect an element of theocracy concerning the supremacy of God and His laws. At the same time, it would also reflect the democratic notion that there is no exclusive class and people who can monopolize the interpretation of that system.

A better term, however, has been suggested by Abul-A`la Al-Mawdudi: “popular trusteeship.” This suggests that the entire human race is appointed on this earth to be like trustees or vicegerents of God on earth, and it [trusteeship] is not to be claimed by one individual, group, or class. Rather, it is a collective type or responsibility to fulfill this duty, which means that the rules apply to rulers and ruled alike.

Does the Islamic Model Exist Today?

In order to have what can be called an Islamic political system, it is not enough to simply implement some aspects of Islam, such as the criminal law, while neglecting some more fundamental issues, such as the freedom of the people to choose the rulers. In addition, if penalties are to be applied, they have to be applied impartially

Similarly, it would not be necessarily representative of the true approach of Islam, to restart immediately implementing aspects of criminal law without allowing transitory periods of sufficient time to reform society and move it to the ideals of Islam. The philosophy of criminal law in Islam is not just punishment; it is the idea of creating reform in a society by removing the causes of crime before punishment can be applied. Therefore, before applying the laws, rulers should look into the wisdom of the legislation and the prerequisites to implementing those penalties.

Unfortunately, the complete and perfect model of an Islamic political system does not exist today. But this does not mean that it is a utopian system that exists only in theory. It existed in a complete and perfect form during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and during the reign of the first four Rightly Guided Caliphs. There were ups and downs, but there were some periods when one could actually say that the model was either perfect or as close to perfection as could be expected. In later centuries, however, there have been lots of ups and downs and many deviations. It is very difficult to point out any single model and claim that it represents the true picture of an Islamic political system. Indeed, there are many systems that are quite apart from Islamic teachings and violate the very basic principles on which a truly Islamic political system can be based, although they may claim that they are Islamic.

* Adapted from a lecture in Dr. Jamal Badawi’s Islamic Teachings series.

Dr. Jamal Badawi is a professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Canada, where he currently teaches in the areas of management and religious studies. He is the author of several works on various aspects of Islam.

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