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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Society, Politics, and Economy >
Is Islam compatible with democracy?

All the world's religions in premodern times supported monarchies and feudal societies, then moved to accommodate modern forms of democracy. Similarly, Muslims today are debating the relationship of Islam to democracy. While most Muslims wish for greater political participation, the rule of law, government accountability, freedoms, and human rights, there are many different ways to achieve these goals.

There are many reactions to democratization in the Muslim world. Some, from former King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to ultra-conservatives and extremists, argue that Islam has its own mechanisms and institutions, which do not include democracy. Others believe that democracy can only fully be realized if Muslim societies restrict religion to private life. Still others contend that Islam is fully capable of accommodating and supporting democracy. Engaging in a process of reform, they argue the compatibility between Islam and democracy by using traditional Islamic concepts like consultation (shura) between ruler and ruled, community consensus (ijma), public interest (maslaha), and “the use of human reason to reinterpret Islamic principles and values and meet the new needs of society” (ijtihad). These mechanisms can be used to support parliamentary forms of government with systems of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches.

The facts on the ground in the Muslim world, as determined by major surveys such as the Gallup World Poll, reveal a desire for greater democratization. When asked what they admire about the West, majorities of Muslims' top three spontaneous responses were: (1) technology; (2) the West's value system, hard work, self-responsibility, rule of law, and cooperation; and (3) fair political systems, democracy, respect of human rights, freedom of speech, and gender equality. In general, Muslims see no contradiction between democratic values and religious principles. Muslims want neither a theocracy nor a secular democracy and would opt for a third model in which religious principles and democratic values coexist. Men and women support a role for Shariah as a source of legislation, but most do not want religious leaders directly in charge of drafting legislation.

Many believe that just as the modern democracies of America and Europe accommodate diverse relationships with religion, so too Muslims can develop their own forms of democratic states that are responsive to indigenous values. However, rulers of authoritarian states tend to ignore, discourage, or suppress movements for democratization.

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