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Democracy: Government by the People, Equality

Ali Suavi
Document type:
Articles and Essays

Democracy: Government by the People, Equality

Ali Suavi


Ali Suavi (Turkey, 1839–1878) was a leading figure in the Young Ottoman political reform movement and in the search for Islamic justifications of constitutionalism. Trained both in religious and secular schools, Suavi held a variety of administrative positions before embarking on a career as a public intellectual in his mid-twenties. His pamphlets and sermons in the Şehzade Mosque in Istanbul—introducing modern political terminology, criticizing the government, and commenting on foreign relations—made him famous and led to his banishment to the provinces, whence he fled to Europe. In London and then Paris, Suavi published the journals Muhbir (The Reporter) and Ulûm Gazetesi (Journal of the Sciences), calling for constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire. The article from Ulûm Gazetesi presented here, one of the first Ottoman works to use the term “democracy,” maintains that Islamic precedent requires institutions of democratic consultation. In the 1870s, influenced by conservative European thinkers, he began to criticize constitutionalism, and in 1876 he appealed to Sultan Abdülhamid II (reigned 1876–1909) to be allowed to return to Istanbul. Upon his pardon and return, Suavi served as a court librarian, a teacher of young princes, and later the director of the Galatasaray Lycée, but his revolutionary sentiments had not disappeared. He was dismissed from Galatasaray in December 1877. In the following months, Suavi launched an unsuccessful uprising against the sultan, hoping to replace him with his elder brother, who was more sympathetic to constitutionalism. Suavi was killed during this attempt, known as the ÇIrağan incident.1 Hüseyin Çelik, Ali Suavi ve Dönemi (Ali Suavi and His Time) (Istanbul, Turkey: İletişim Yay1nlar1, 1994); İsmail Doğan, Tanzimatîn İki Ucu: Münif Paşa ve Ali Suavi (The Tanzimat's Two Extremes: Münif Paşa and Ali Suavi) (Istanbul, Turkey: İz Yay1nc1l1k, 1991); şerif Mardin, The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962), pp. 360–384.

As is known, the forms of government are monarchy (sultanate), aristocracy (government of notables), and democracy (government by the people, equality).

During the early days of Islam, the form of government was democracy. That is to say, there was no sultanate, sultan, or king, but rather equality. Some words of Khalid ibn al-Walid [Muslim commander, died 642] (may God be pleased with him) will suffice to explain the [nature of] the Islamic government.

It so happened that a Byzantine commander named Bahan, [acting on behalf of] Heraclius [Byzantine emperor, reigned 610–641], engaged in a battle with the Companions [of the Prophet Muhammad] with troops numbering 600,000 [in one account] or 700,000 in another.2 At that battle the number of Muslim troops was 41,000. Bahan invited Khalid ibn al-Walid to his tent on the pretext of discussing the terms of an armistice, but in reality to seize him by trickery. Upon Khalid's arrival at Bahan's tent with approximately a hundred courageous warriors, the latter rose and made a speech in Arabic: “Thanks be to God, who made our Lord Jesus the best of the prophets, our king the best of kings, and our [Christian] community the most excellent of communities.”

When Bahan began his speech with these words, Khalid could not bear it and interrupted, launching into an oration to refute the words of Bahan:

Thanks be to God, who made us believers in Muhammad (peace be upon him), in your prophet Jesus, and in all the prophets, and who made our ruler, whom we ourselves chose to charge with our affairs, a man like us—so much so that if our ruler were to claim to be a king over us, we would immediately depose him. We would never think that our ruler was in any way superior to us, unless it be that he is more pious than us, and so on. That is to say, he possesses the virtue of piety required by the principle of Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong.

Thus at a time when Byzantines, Armenians, and Europeans recognized kings, the men of God, that is to say Khalid and the Companions, thought this way about the Commander of the Faithful.3 At that time the ruler was ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab [second caliph, 634–644]. What this means is that at that time the Islamic government was a democracy. There was equality.

The following incident likewise throws light on the matter.

When cloth from the Yemen was divided among the Companions, ‘Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, received the same share as everybody else.

One day ‘Umar, wearing a robe made from this cloth, was addressing the Companions from the pulpit to encourage them to jihad [religious struggle], when one of the Companions arose and said, “‘Umar, from now on we will not listen to you.” ‘Umar asked, “Why?” The Companion responded, “Because you have privileged yourself instead of remaining equal with us. Because during the division of the Yemeni cloth you too received your share. The robe that we now see on you cannot have been made from that piece. Thus you must have received a bigger piece than us to be able to make such a robe. In this way you have become privileged.” Upon hearing these words, ‘Umar turned to his son ‘Abdullah [died 693] and said, “‘Abdullah, answer this man.” Thereupon ‘Abdullah rose and answered the man: “‘Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, wanted to make himself a robe from the cloth that he had received as his share, but it was not enough. So I gave my own share. Combining the two pieces produced such a robe.” Then the objecting Companion said, “If so, we will continue to listen to ‘Umar,” and sat down.

May God be pleased with all of them.

Now that the meaning of democracy, government by the people, and equality is understood, we can go on to say that this form of government was established in a place and among a people [that were alike extraordinary], a single united, loyal, observant, and pious community. They had no fear other than the fear of God, they had no work other than serving God, they had no institutions (tanzimat) other than good morals, in sum they were men of God. The system of equality that Plato [Greek philosopher, circa 427–347 B.C.] had merely imagined became a reality in their time.

Now a French party, which has been growing day-by- day in the name of freedom and equality, wants to annihilate the monarchy and create equality in a democratic system. But they do not have men of God among them—that is to say, they do not have an overpowering force in their hearts such as fear of God.

In their language, freedom is tantamount to saying whatever comes to one's mind and doing whatever one wants without any impediment. Thus an idea came to some Frenchmen, they did as they wanted, and published a newspaper to deny the existence of God in early May in Paris. Those who read this newspaper know well the improper and shameless language that they resort to against those who believe in God.

What will be the future of this nation that lacks a morality limiting liberties within the community if it does not possess an overpowering force to restrain freedom and license in such a shameless country? Undoubtedly this beautiful Paris, this prosperous France that the entire world strives to imitate, will be ruined in a year or two.

Democracy, [that is to say] equality, is a nightingale that can sing loudly only in the rose garden of good morality. Would such a beloved nightingale sing in such a dunghill of [corrupt] hearts?

Since French ideas on democracy have not remained confined to their country but are being disseminated through the press to the east, west, north, and south, they will one day cause trouble even in Istanbul, Cairo, Tehran, Bukhara, and Kabul. Therefore, let us take a glance at these lands of ours.

Morality in our big cities is worse than in those of the Europeans. We have reached such a position that a man who spends two hours in the company of a woman and controls his desire will be pointed out and reckoned to have miraculous powers. Do we not repeat in conversations and in our books as an extraordinary event that “[Mehmed] Ebussu‘ud Efendi [Turkish religious leader, 1490–1574] found himself in the same room with a girl one night but controlled his desire and did not touch her.”

In Europe, a man may stay with a woman for three days and nights, and it may not even occur to him [to have sex with her]. This nevertheless is considered an indecent act. In our country, can this behavior, whether attributed to increased sexual desire due to the warmer climate, or to the passion aroused by veiling in the cities—no such impatience being observed among nomads and peasants—or to whatever cause, be brought under control with good morals or not? There lies the problem. All our situations and acts are similar to this matter of sexual desire. It is necessary for us to educate ourselves by refining our morals.

The present disposition of the peoples of our countries does not simply expect the government to regulate their material needs. Rather they look for a government that will also satisfy their moral needs— in short, one which will instill good morals in people through superior force. This superior force is the monarchy, that is to say the sultanate.

Today if even ‘Umar came to us, what would he achieve?

For example, suppose someone got up and said: “Women too are human beings. They have the right to socialize with men. You yourself even dispatched women to war along with men.” ‘Umar would reply: “Those women, those men were not you. Those were decent people, but you are not.”

Everybody knows that democracy is the highest form of egalitarian government and the most in accord with the holy law. Unfortunately, the people of Istanbul are not all like the shaykh of Gümüşhane [Ahmed Ziyaeddin Gümüşhanevi, Halidiyye Sufi leader, 1813–1893]. This is such a people that they did not even feel the loss of a vast territory like Algeria. It heard the rumblings in Samarqand, Tashkent, and Bukhara as if they were the buzzing of a mosquito. It bent down so low that 39 âli Pashas could jump over it [a leading Tanzimat statesman and Ottoman grand vizier, 1815–1871].

We have become such a nation that when four of our school children gather, they start playing a game in which one of them becomes sultan and bestows high offices upon the others. When four of our elderly statesmen gather in the name of patriotism, each of them wants to announce his leadership and become commander.

What market can there be for the values of brotherhood and equality among a people with such morals?

Mustafa Fazîl Pasha [1829–1875, Egyptian prince and Ottoman statesmen who financed the Young Ottoman movement], who until yesterday led so many people in the name of freedom and patriotism, has been silenced with a membership in the Council of Ministers, despite the fact that he is as rich as Croesus and not in need of any high offices or imperial favors. He has not been affected in the slightest degree by the sighs of all those believers whom he encouraged in the name of patriotism and freedom and whom he made prisoners in the fortresses of Cyprus, Rhodes, and Acre.

A government is required that will not only satisfy the material needs but also see to the moral needs of such an immoral and leprous people. If a ruler like ‘Umar is wanted, then one must have men of God like ‘Uthman [third caliph, 644–656], ‘Ali [ibn Abi Talib, fourth caliph, 656–661], and Khalid.

They once proposed the principle of democracy to Hajjaj [ibn Yusuf, one of the ablest governors under the ‘Umayyad caliphate, 660–714]. He replied, “You be Abu Dharr [al-Ghifari, a devout companion of the Prophet, died 653], and I’ll then be ‘Umar for you.”

“Verily an evil patron, and verily an evil friend.” [Qur'an, Sura 22, Verse 13]

It is not just Hajjaj who says this. The political thinkers of modern Europe say the same. Jean- Jacques Rousseau [French philosopher, 1712–1778] says: “If there exist men of God, they should be governed by democracy.”

In a book published this very year, entitled Principes de la science politique [Principles of Political Science], Monsieur [Félix Esquirou de] Parieu [1815–1893] states (p. 382): “In civilized societies the democratic way of government is excellent for the well-being of the majority. This way of government, however, must be ripened, sufficiently matured, and extremely well organized through the perfect education of times and obstacles.”

Question: Since freedom and equality are among the rights of man, the proper form of government is the one that guarantees these rights. This form of government is democracy.

Answer: What a nice idea! What a sound conclusion! There is no doubt that this is so. Let us, however, move from theory to practice. Let us consider whether it is possible to establish democracy in this place or not? Here lies the problem. For when the term “sound” is used in Muslim jurisprudence and political science, the meaning of this phrase cannot be separated from feasibility, practicability, and utility. Monsieur Parieu says: “If the truth in question is not ripe and mature, it is not the truth, for in politics the truth cannot be separated from feasibility, practicability, and utility” (p. 386).

The same idea is expressed in the rule put forward by our own jurists: “One must not issue a legal opinion based on sound doctrine that is no longer practiced.”

Is the only reason for the inapplicability of democracy in the Ottoman country bad morals? We have spoken about morals as an example. The fact that the country is divided between various continents, that it is inhabited by many peoples differing in language, custom, and religion, and its size are all obstacles in the way of democracy and equality.

However many republics may have come into being in the world up to now, they provide no examples to show that equality can be put into practice in a place like the Ottoman country; indeed they may rather indicate the contrary.

Where do we currently find democracy? In San Marino, do we not? That republic is composed of no more than 8,000 individuals, for all that they constitute a nation. Lübeck has a population of 30,000.

Is there anything remarkable about the fact that these and similar countries that resemble our small towns are suited by their situations to be governed by a republican regime? What is more, these countries have been living under the protection of [larger] powers.

The biggest republic in Europe is Switzerland, which is the size of our Danube Province. Its population is only two and a half million people.

It is, however, extremely suitable for its present system of government because of its circumstances. There the republic is nothing other than a federation of various states with each other. That is to say, in Switzerland each state joined the federation on condition that it would retain its autonomy and administration. What we have there is a federation where only two tongues exist (German, French). There are only 4,000 Jews in a population of two and a half million people; there is no other religion but Christianity. Moreover, each state is populated by one or another of the various Christian sects. For instance, Catholics and Protestants are not mixed. Nine cantons are exclusively Catholic, and seven exclusively Protestant. There are only six places in the twenty-two cantons where Catholics and Protestants are mixed. The Christians in Switzerland are extremely pious and devout. This means that there is morality there, not like in France.

Finally, it was only recently that Switzerland become a federation divided into twenty-two cantons, and that a federal government was set up in Bern to have oversight [of federal affairs]. Previously, the term “republic” was just an empty title. This is because the form of government was not uniform: three cantons were aristocracies administered by aristocrats, six cantons were democracies; where then was equality?

Yes, one hears of a big republic in the New World, the United States of America. This country, however, cannot provide any model for our world. The American government was created by the federation and union of various independent provinces; it is a form of government suitable to that region and to the customs and circumstances of that region. It is divided administratively into states, counties, and townships, known respectively as Cities, Territories, and Districts. A region with a population of 600,000 people is called a state. Every state preserves its administrative independence and special privileges. There are 35 states, each of which joined on condition of preserving its administrative independence and privileges. This federation has a government in the city of Washington. This federal government is made up of a senate and a house of representatives. The president of the federal government is elected for four years. There is also a vice-president. The federal government does not intervene in the administration of the states, that is to say, the regions with populations of 600,000 each. It only administers the counties. Townships are governed from the nearest place.4 [Ali Suavi must have garbled his source on the administrative system of the United States of America.—Trans.]

Something else that has to be said is that in truth democracy is an illusion. For is not its literal meaning government by the people? In Greek demos means people and kratos government. The basic idea of government by the people is that the people gather and decide in consultation on whatever regulations need to be made or decisions taken—just as in the days of the [early] caliphate people congregated in the mosque. While it may be possible to govern a little state with a small population through such gathering and consultation, how could this work in a larger state? How could the individuals composing such a population congregate? Doesn’t everybody have work to do? How and when would they satisfy their needs?

We can therefore judge with certainty that it is not possible to establish a real democracy based on this conception. It is because of this impossibility that in the republics which exist today, the gathering of the people has given way to the gathering of deputies. The chamber of deputies that works best is that of Switzerland. There every 20,000 people participate in the chamber through electing a deputy. Does this not mean that the votes of 20,000 individuals are subsumed under this contract? As a matter of fact, since unanimity in chambers composed of many deputies is virtually impossible, experience has shown everywhere that one has to go by the majority opinion. Indeed the current rule is to go by the majority of the deputies actually present in the chamber.

Under these circumstances, is it not meaningless to call the opinion of the majority of the deputies present the opinion of the people? Unfortunately, such are the limits of feasibility and practicality. Having dwelt upon this matter, we have succeeded in differentiating the concepts of “soundness” and “political truth” at both the levels of theory and practice. Yet a conclusion has been reached from this discussion: “If a state accepts a chamber of deputies, it possesses the spirit of a republican form of government as far as is practicable.”

If all these points about democracy have been understood, let us again consider how democracy and equality can be achieved in, for example, the Ottoman lands. How could these many different ethnicities, religions, sects, and tongues be gathered and united?

Could a federation be formed as in the case of America? To believe in the possibility of such an alliance is to believe in the possibility of Serbia in Europe forming a federation with Egypt in Africa, or Bulgaria in Eastern Europe forming one with Tunisia in Arab Africa—what a fantasy!

The point we have to grasp is that the Ottoman state, for example, must be a state in conformity with its geographical location, circumstances, and population, so that it has to be a sultanate.

However much republicanism puffs itself up, what can it actually accomplish in France, England, or anywhere else? We have to look at practice. When republican regimes were established in France and England, they became a source of corruption for the peoples of the world, and inimical to its good order. The French republic assaulted the Orient as her initial act. She compelled the Ottoman state to enter into extremely harmful alliances with England and Russia. Yet how long-lasting these republics were to prove! Strangely enough, while the republicans in England and France speak about democracy, equality, and freedom, they have no wish to relinquish their hold over Canada, India, or Algeria. Just look how those Frenchmen talk pretentiously about freedom and equality, all the while seeking world domination like Caesar.

If there is going to be freedom and equality, let them ask the Algerian Arabs, who have absolutely no ethnic, religious, cultural, or geographical affinity with them [the French], whether or not they prefer their own rulers, however tyrannical they may be, to the French republic?

Question: Should the administration in Istanbul remain as it is now?

Answer: No, it should not. What should be done? The parliamentary [form of government should be adopted], that is to say government based upon the principle of consultation—the form which France has adopted this method in this very year 1870 A.D. What is the relevance of this method for us? In essence, our High Council [of Reforms] (Meclis-i âlî-i [Tanzimat]) should be enlarged, a chamber of deputies elected by the people should be opened, and the ministers should be held accountable. The accountability of ministers means that their conduct of policy is discussed in the chamber of deputies. The members examine and question it, and the ministers respond. In the end, if the majority of the deputies give their approval with a majority of votes, the ministers keep their offices. And if the majority vote turns out to be against the conduct of policy by the ministers, then they leave office.

Question: Under the circumstances, would the treasury be able to raise money in a short period of time? Would the state be able to impose its authority over the provinces in this huge country?

Answer: These are entirely different questions. With the measures we have proposed, the Ottoman state would establish its state power on a strong foundation in the specific regions of Rumelia and Anatolia, where it currently is able to collect taxes and conscript soldiers directly. That's it. Only longterm policies will provide a remedy for fiscal problems. Bringing provinces under control requires overwhelming force. In our own opinion, the time has passed for the state in Istanbul to acquire such overwhelming force. There is no chance of this.

As far as Africa is concerned, if Tunisia, Tripoli in Barbary, and Egypt can come to their senses and unite, they will establish the best and the most enduring Muslim state in the world. If not, then the overwhelming power of Europe will conquer Africa.

In that event, Istanbul could only lodge a protest as strong as the one it made regarding Algeria. That's it.

For those who share our views, this is inevitable. That is to say, there is no remedy for it. But if Istanbul adopts a policy of attempting to create a unified African state, and henceforth favors the birth of such a state, then it will have found itself a great ally in the cause of its own survival. And until the Day of Judgment the Ottoman dynasty will be given honorable mention for this in the history books.

God knows best what is right.

Bibliography references:

[Ali Suavi], “Demokrasi: Hükûmet-i Halk, Müsavat” (Democracy: Government by the People, Equality), Ulûm Gazetesi (Journal of the Sciences), Paris, France, volume 2, number 18, May 17, 1870, pp. 1083–1107. Translation from Turkish and introduction by M. Şükrü Hanio ğlu.


1. Hüseyin Çelik, Ali Suavi ve Dönemi (Ali Suavi and His Time) (Istanbul, Turkey: İletişim Yay1nlar1, 1994); İsmail Doğan, Tanzimatîn İki Ucu: Münif Paşa ve Ali Suavi (The Tanzimat's Two Extremes: Münif Paşa and Ali Suavi) (Istanbul, Turkey: İz Yay1nc1l1k, 1991); şerif Mardin, The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962), pp. 360–384.

2. At that battle the number of Muslim troops was 41,000.

3. At that time the ruler was ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab [second caliph, 634–644].

4. [Ali Suavi must have garbled his source on the administrative system of the United States of America.—Trans.]

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