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Tolerance and Governance: A Discourse on Religion and Democracy

Soroush Abdolkarim


Born in Tehran and initially trained as a pharmacologist and philosopher, Abdolkarim Soroush studied history and philosophy of science, particularly the philosophy of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, in the United Kingdom. During the months preceding the Islamic revolution of Iran, Soroush had a major role in the gatherings of young Muslims, opponents of the Shah's regime, that took place in the London imam-barah. His book Dialectical Antagonism, a compilation of his lectures delivered in the imam-barah, was published in Iran. When the revolution began in 1979, Soroush returned to Iran. In the spring of 1980, Soroush was appointed a member of the Council for the Cultural Revolution, established by Āyatullāh Khumayni, but resigned in 1982. Soroush became a member of Iran's Academy of Sciences in 1990 and was Dean of the Research Institute for Human Sciences in Teheran. His writings and audiotapes on social, political, re-ligious, and literary subjects delivered all over the world are widely circulated in Iran and elsewhere. He has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard University, Yale University, and Princeton University.

Soroush begins the search to reconcile Islam and democracy not by finding Islamic concepts that are considered democratic (such as shura [consultation], ijma‘ [consensus], or bay‘ah [oath of allegiance]) but by deconstructing the concept of democracy. He maintains that “it is the religious understanding that will have to adjust itself to democracy and not the other way around.” He continues, “Justice, as a value, cannot be religious. It is religion that has to be just.” And, “Methods of limiting power are not derived from religion, although religion benefits from them.” His approach differs not only from that of Sayyid Qutb and Abu al-‘Al‘ al-Mawdudi but also from that of Rachid Ghannouchi, Fathi Osman, and Murad Hofmann. Soroush’s insistence that justice, human rights, and limitations on power are logically rational in origin, not religious, goes too far for these Muslim. The reason is that it conflicts with a bedrock principle upon which they insist: it is the religious sensibility that in the first place generates these values, which Muslims must therefore work hard to promote. In other words, religion derives its position on justice from its acceptance of rationality as the ontological given of the human condition. To be sure, Soroush takes great pride in his religious faith and pointedly notes that a religious democracy is not only possible but essential. He rejects the suggestion that the reconciliation of Islam and democracy requires the secularization of Islam. It is true that a “jurisprudential religious government” will undermine a religious democratic one, but there is no warrant for maintaining that a reconciliation of democracy and religion will mean a subversion of the former by a monistic jurisprudential authoritarianism that imposes antidemocratic laws.

1. The Principles of a Religious Democratic Government: a Synopsis

“The Idea of Religious Democratic Government” . . . alluded to a number of pivotal principles that are of cardinal significance to the architecture of religious democracy:

A. The combination of religion and democracy is an example of the concordance of religion and reason. Thus, the efforts and experiments of religiously sympathetic thinkers in the latter domain will be of use in the former. It is evident that such attempts are at once religious, useful, and well-precedented. They are by no means tainted by antireligious intentions or treacherous tendencies to supplant religiosity with worldliness.

B. The combination of religion and democracy is a metareligious artifice that has at least some extrareligious epistemological dimensions. Therefore, the exclusive reliance on the religious laws and myopic focus on intrareligious adjudications [ijtihad-e fiqhi] in order to confirm or reject democratic religiosity are ill-considered and unsound.

C. Whether we consider democracy as a successful method to delimit power, attain justice, and achieve human rights or as a value that tacitly em-braces all those objectives, it is the religious understanding that will have to adjust itself to democracy not the other way around; justice, as a value, can not be religious. It is religion that has to be just. Similarly, methods of limiting power are not derived from religion, although religion benefits from them. In any case the question of whether or not democracy has the above advantages can only be decided outside religion, prior to its acceptance, and as a prelude to its understanding. The same reasoning holds for the relationship of religion and human rights, which is—not unlike the debate on free will—a theological and metareligious argument that influences the understanding and acceptance of religion.

D. In autocratic governments, the right of arbitration is left to the power and will of the few; in democratic governments, it is left to the dynamic common wisdom; in religious society, it is left to religion.

E. In a religious society, it is not religion per se that arbitrates, but some understanding of religion which is, in turn, changing, rational, and in harmony with the consensual and accepted extrareligious criteria.

F. Religious society is the supporter, sponsor, source, and succor of the religious politics. Without a religious society, the religious democratic government would be inconceivable.

The above synopsis provides a valid starting point and a correct formu-lation of—if not an actual solution to—the problem of the combination of religion and democracy. The present argument, unlike the writings of some Islamic thinkers, makes no attempt to place the entire weight of the conceptual edifice of democracy upon the frail shoulders of such (intrareligious) precepts as consultation [shura], consensus of the faithful [ijma’], and oath of loyalty to a ruler [bei‘at]. Rather, the discourse on religious government should commence with a discussion of human rights, justice, and restriction of power (all extrareligious issues). Only then should one try to harmonize one's religious understanding with them.

2. Shared Notions of Justice, Human Rights, and Limited Power in Democracy and in Religion

In the opinion of believers, justice is at once a prerequisite for and a requirement of religious rules. A rule that is not just is not religious. Justice, in turn, aims to fulfill needs, attain rights, and eliminate discrimination and inequity. Thus, justice and human rights are intimately connected. The rights concerning government, power, and the just relationship between the ruler and the ruled are among the most significant elements of these rights. Therefore, the effort to restrain and restrict power is closely related to the establishment of justice and human rights. Indeed, the two efforts are in such constant exchange and harmony that any trouble or tension in one reverberates in the other. Justice, then, is a metareligious category, and the right and acceptable religion should, inevitably, be just. The same is true of other categories such as discovery and derivation of methods of just government, distribution and restriction of power, and the specific instances of human rights.

All of the above issues have, primarily and logically, a rational—not a religious—origin. Religion (in itself) and religious understanding (religion for us) rely on these rational precepts. Once the status of reason, particularly the dynamic collective reason, is established; once the theoretical, practical, and historical advances of humanity are applied to the understanding and acceptance of religion; once extrareligious factors find an echo within the religious domain; and finally, once religion is rationalized, then the way to epistemological pluralism—the centerpiece of democratic action—will be paved.

Sober and willing—not fearful and compulsory—practice of religion is the hallmark of a religious society. It is only from such a society that the religious government is born. Such religiosity guarantees both the religious and the democratic character of the government. Democracy needs not only sobriety and rationality but liberty and willing participation. The above rationality (which is not to be adopted halfheartedly) is realized when the innerreligious and outerreligious domains are harmonized. This rational sensibility permits the transformation and variation of religious understanding. The acknowledgment of such varieties of understanding and interpretation will, in turn, introduce flexibility and tolerance to the relationship of the ruling and the ruled, confirm rights for the subjects, and introduce restraints on the behavior of the rulers. As a result, the society will become more democratic, humane, reasonable, and fair. Expansion and contraction of knowledge, its constant renewal, the perception of truth as an elusive labyrinthine path, the recognition of man as a tarnished, slothful, and fallible creature who, nevertheless, possesses an array of natural rights have all been among the necessary prerequisites for and epistemological and anthropological foundations of democracy. If these same principles are included in religious knowledge and respected by religious people, the result will be religious democracy. Practical and governmental regulations and social relationships are born out of theoretical presuppositions, just as branches feed on roots. The root of democracy is a novel insight that humanity has gained about itself and the limitations of its knowledge. Wherever this seed is allowed to germinate, the external manifestations of democracy will, inevitably, bloom.

3. The Paradox of “Democratic Religious Government”: A Critical Exchange

Some critics, however, have deemed the idea of democratic religious government preposterous. They point to such phenomena and rules as gender and belief inequality in the Moslem societies, theocracy, the absolute authority of the jurisconsults, designation of death penalty on apostates, the regarding of infidels as impure, dogmatism of beliefs, and the general inflexibility of the rules of religious decrees as evidence of the inherent animosity of religion and religious government toward democracy. They further accuse the adherents of the compatibility of democracy and religion, of ignorance about the true nature of religion. (See Mr. Hamid Paydar's “The Paradox of Islam and Democracy,” Kiyan, no. 19.)

Three dark and dangerous errors dim the horizon of judgment of the above thesis. First, Democracy is equated with extreme liberalism. Second, religious jurisprudence [shari‘ah] is severed from its foundations, quoted out of context, and then presented as evidence. Third, and most important, religious democratic government is equated with religious jurisprudential [fiqhi] government and attacked as a monolithic whole. It should be unequivocally stated that all three assumptions are erroneous.

If the debate is over the compatibility of the religious jurisprudential government, with democracy, then the sponsors of the above-mentioned regime themselves avoid the title of democracy; they even take great pride and delight in opposing it, because they consider democracy as a fruit of the secular Western culture. The excerpts the critics quote from the declarations of some religious scholars and orators in order to portray religious democracy as a “paradox” reveal the critics’ misperception of religious democracy, which they identify with the religious jurisprudential government.

The truth, however, is that religious law [shari‘ah] is not synonymous with the entirety of religion; nor is the debate over the democratic religious government a purely jurisprudential argument. Moreover, jurisprudential statements are different from epistemological ones, and no methodic mind should conflate the two realms. Evidently, a jurisprudential conception of Islam has so occupied certain minds that epistemological arguments are allowed to pose as jurisprudential propositions. Democracy itself, in some circles, is treated as a religious practice, subject to ritual prescription or proscription.

Democracy is comprised of a method of restricting the power of the rulers and rationalizing their deliberations and policies, so that they will be less vulnerable to error and corruption, more open to exhortation, moderation, consultation; and so that violence and revolution will not become necessary. Separation of powers, universal compulsory education, freedom and autonomy of the press, freedom of expression, consultative assemblies on various levels of decision making, political parties, elections, and parliaments are all methods of attaining and securing democracy. Conversely, a nation that is illiterate, unfamiliar with its rights, and unable to attain them, in other words, a nation deprived of the right to criticize and choose, will be unable to achieve democracy.

Agnosticism and indecision, however, are by no means necessary foundations of or prerequisites for democracy. On the contrary, constant review, critique, and renewal of ideas and beliefs, followed by emendation, calibration, and transformation of the policies and decisions of rulers and their powers are among the routine responsibilities of democratic societies. There is no doubt that a democracy is engaged in an interminable process of choosing and examining, while a religious society believes that it has made a crucial choice and that it has the answer within its reach: it has chosen the path of religiosity and has determined to live in the shade of a religious belief. However, this preliminary decision of religious societies paves the way to innumerable subsequent decisions and arduous trials. From there on, it is religious understanding that needs to undergo constant examination. It will have to pass through difficult cycles of contraction, expansion, modification, and equilibrium:

On the path of love, a hundred hazards lie, beyond oblivion, yet; So you won’t say: once I reach my life's end, I’ll have escaped.

The venerable author of the essay on “Paradox of Islam and Democracy” observes: “Islam and democracy can not be combined, unless Islam is thoroughly secularized.” This belief stems from the assumption that relativistic liberalism and democracy are identical. Democracy, however, does not require believers to abandon their convictions, secularize their creed, and lose faith in divine protection. Why should a religion that is freely and enthusiastically adopted be cast away? Why shouldn’t the believers be allowed to strengthen and spread their belief? The practice that truly violates democracy is not embracing a faith but the imposition of a particular belief or punishment of disbelief. Needless to say, these practices are impermissible and undesirable in a democratic religious government. (Although some may condone them under a jurisprudential religious government.)

Mr. Paydar regards the principle of free choice as prior to human fallibility and considers the realm of ideas as “the most important manifestation of human free choice.” He proposes that human beings are free to choose religion or irreligion at any time and under any conditions, thus equating freedom with indecision. The logical flaws of such an argument notwithstanding, one may point out that it still does not mean that a self-determining religious society is unfree or that religion and democracy are incompatible. It seems Mr. Paydar has not noticed that freedom does not necessitate permanent ambivalence and inability to reach, or act upon, a decision. Embracing a faith, relying upon it, committing to it, and believing in it—independent and autonomous decisions—are not contrary to the freedom of choice. This is the meaning of the theological dictum “Self-imposed restraint is no restraint!”

It is not the assumption of free will or the belief in the fallibility of human beings in liberal societies that causes religion to abdicate the office of final judgment. Nor are these assumptions responsible for the neutrality of the liberal government and prevalence of the scientific and practical evaluation of religion. There is another epistemological fact that is partly responsible for this separation: Liberal philosophers consider metaphysical arguments unverifiable and unfalsifiable. Consequently, they deem controversy over the truth or falsehood of religious beliefs futile and interminable. They point to the permanence, doctrinal rigidity, and plurality of divergent religious practices as historical evidence. Therefore, they advocate peaceful coexistence of a multiplicity of belief systems. Their neutral stance enables them to dismiss the interreligious strife as a futile pursuit of truth in the quagmire of delusions. Or else, they view the variety and plurality of beliefs as consistent with a divine plan to distribute heavenly guidance in many disguises.

However, let's remind ourselves that these same liberal societies, their unshakable belief in the freedom of the will and fallibility of man notwithstanding, will never relinquish the reins of decision making concerning lucid and well-examined affairs to the popular whim. Nor do they warrant indiscriminate reexamination of all things. No liberal government would base its modern technology upon the Aristotelian physics or reexamine such obsolete theories as the Flogeston theory of combustion, which prevailed before the oxygen theory of combustion. Nor would it experimentally expose people to such deadly diseases as plague and small pox. No one is allowed, under the penalty of law, to free those accursed demons from their enchanted dungeons. In the meantime, a colorful assortment of religious creeds is allowed to multiply and spread. In other words, although the state in liberal governments stays neutral toward religious claims, it does not remain impartial concerning scientific achievements. It is true, then, that the liberal society is no longer a religious society but a scientific one. The same status accorded to religion and religious certitude in religious societies is ascribed to science in liberal societies. The experimental, verifiable, and falsifiable scientific rules have deservedly reached such a grandeur and glory that no freedom-loving thinker would contemplate their arbitrary casti-gation, just as no wise and vigilant person would relegate the judgment of those scientific rules to laymen and dilettantes. Science, however fallible as a human achievement, has been so well elaborated, thanks to courageous and free human critique and refinement, that it has attained an unassailable status. This exalted position of science has not diminished human free will and dignity, nor has it curtailed, in the least, the liberal identity of the society. If in these societies religion is not an equal partner with science, it is not because liberalism considers human beings as autonomous decision makers and allows them to constantly change their religion but because it does not recognize science and religion as analogous bodies of knowledge. And this is established epistemologically, not through popular vote. Therefore, the religious attitude (relegating the judgment to the shared religious knowledge) maintains the same epistemological relationship to democracy as does the scientific attitude (relegating judgement to the shared wisdom of practitioners). Another error of Mr. Paydar is equating freedom of choice with indecision, ambivalence, irresolution, and an absence of a basis for judgment, thus declaring religion and democracy incompatible. However, religious knowledge is, potentially, as open to criticism as scien-tific knowledge; the authority of religion in religious knowledge is as invalid as the authority of science in the scientific knowledge. Contraction and expansion of scientific knowledge and religious knowledge share the same vicissitudes and trajectories.

Mr. Paydar has (incorrectly) surmised that liberalism is neutral on the subjects of science or religion. He has equated liberalism's skeptical credo of fallibility of human knowledge with utter neutrality. It is true that the liberal society has taken the above principles as the groundwork of its life and belief; however, in practice, as a result of those very criticisms, the society has adopted specific positions with respect to science and religion and no longer countenances their infringement.

The prophets of the liberal philosophy are not only Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Bayle, Voltaire, and (among contemporaries) Rawls and Friedman; but Kant, Hume, and—among contemporaries—Russell, Quine, and Carnap as well. The latter group should be included among the founders and supporters of the liberal society because they share the belief that unraveling the intricate knots of metaphysical questions is improbable. They go even farther by declaring any involvement with metaphysical subjects as exceeding the boundaries of rationality altogether. However, had religion enjoyed as popular an epistemological niche as science and had it not been weakened by the philosophical and scientific forays of the Western scholars, the society could have, conceivably, remained both “religious” and democratic, just as it has remained “scientific” and democratic.

Parting with metaphysics meant, for the West, parting with all of its requisites: the church and the clergy, divine laws, ethics, religious strictures, clerical government, and pious submission. In short, every religious institution that oversaw the temporal affairs in any way was abandoned. It was such a rupture that, in Kant's words, liberated humanity from its “infancy” and placed the destiny and determination of all affairs in its hands. Thereafter, man reached an unprecedented centrality (even Godliness) in world history. Liberal freedom was freedom from the fetters of religion and metaphysics. It was freedom from divine guardianship. This freedom had an epistemological and rational basis. Liberal philosophers did not discover man's fallibility and free will. They discovered the irrelevance of metaphysics. This, their most important achievement, combined with the advent of scientific knowledge and free economy, shaped the liberal society. But, atheism, by itself, does not entail emancipation from tyranny and totalitarianism. Communism, too, professed atheism but it fostered an utterly ruthless form of dictatorship. Thus, democracy is neither a result of atheism nor an ally of it. Equating liberalism and democracy signifies, at once, great ignorance of the former and grave injustice toward the latter. The liberal democratic society has plural foundations. Its many bases, while not mutually conflicting, are far from being mutually indispensable. It is, therefore, logically possible to separate them. The idea of democratic religious society is a result of logical decoupling of democracy and liberalism. As such, it is analogous to the attempts of the social democrats to separate democracy from capitalism.

The opponents of religious democracy usually conclude that since liberalism is identical with or a requirement of democracy and since religi-osity has no affinity with liberalism; therefore, religiosity can not coexist with democracy. However, as we have argued above, the premise is not correct.

Bibliography references:

From Ahmad Sadri and Mahmoud Sadri, eds., Reason, Freedom, and Democray in Islam (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 131–155.

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