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James Piscatori
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


Elections have occurred with regularity in, among other places, Turkey and Iran and, in the Arab world, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, and Yemen. Beyond the Middle East, they have formed part of the political landscape of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Senegal, and Muslim minorities have been actively engaged in the electoral politics of Europe, America, and Australia. Islamists—Muslims who are committed to political action to implement what they regard as an Islamic agenda—have routinely participated in many of these elections. Yet doubts remain about their intentions and whether the elections themselves substantially contribute to democratization or are merely cosmetic.

Elections as Principle.

The idea of elections came into its own in the Ottoman Empire of the nineteenth-century Tanzimat period. The principle of representation was first recognized in a firmān (edict) of January 1840 whereby administrative councils were established in the major districts of the empire. The majority of members were chosen by a complex and indirect process of selection in which non-Muslims were allowed a place. The Hatt-i Hümayun (Imperial Edict, 1856) created an assembly of indirectly elected delegates within each millet (religious community), while elections were first formally recognized in the vilâyet (district) laws of 1864 and 1867. But the constitution of 1876 had a broader reach, establishing a chamber of deputies whose members were to be elected. Each deputy, to be chosen by fifty thousand male electors, would not merely represent his own electoral district or sect. Power remained mainly in the hands of the sultan, the ʿulamāʿ were steadfast in their opposition, and the electoral process did not live up to its promise but, in fact, followed the vilâyet precedent of corporate representation. Yet, with these developments, the notion of popular sovereignty began to penetrate the Islamic political consciousness.

The electoral principle became further entrenched in the Muslim world as a result of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran. The momentum for a consultative assembly of some kind was unstoppable, though disagreement ensued as to whether this should be an Islamic or national (millî) assembly. An imperial rescript in August 1906 announced “the establishment of a majlis of elected representatives” of various social classes, which would provide advice to the shah's ministers and would devise reforms to be “enforced in accordance with the sharīʿah.” The electoral law was based on the Belgian constitution but adapted to local circumstances. The few hundred electors in each social category had to be literate males, Persian nationals, over twenty-five, and substantial property owners or engaged in a recognized trade or business. No mention was made of religious affiliation, although heretics as well as women, minors, bankrupts, and convicts were specifically excluded.

With the Tanzimat and the Constitutional Revolution the electoral principle thus put down early and partially formed roots, but differing views emerged and have solidified among Muslim intellectuals. One school of thought accepts that elections are fully consistent with Islamic principles. Khayr al-Dīn al-Tūnīsī (d. 1889) likened ahl al-ḥallwa-al-ʿaqd, “those who loose and bind,” to a parliament, and Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935) equated them with the members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly. The idea that government rests upon the consent and participation of the people came into its own, however, only from the mid-twentieth century. Muhammad Asad (1900–1992) argued, for example, that although the real source of sovereignty is the will of God, the community is subject to the control of the people. The majlis al-shūrā (consultative assembly) must be both representative of the entire community, men and women, and the result of free and general election based on universal suffrage.

A second, contrasting line of argument rejects any notion of popular sovereignty. Sayyid Quṭb (1906–1966), in commenting on the Qurʿānic verse that says, “were you to follow the majority (akthar) of those on earth, they will lead you away from the path of God” (6:116), inferred that majoritarianism and popular opinion were suspect. In Algeria, one leader of the Islamic Salvation Front, ʿAlī Bel Ḥajj (b. 1954), has similarly argued that popular sovereignty leads to the rule of scoundrels, is the antithesis of God 's authority, and undermines the Islamic way of life.

Straddling these lines of thought is Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (1903–1979), founder of the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī in South Asia, who argued that elections are acceptable but must avoid the distortions of Western parliamentary systems. Although he felt that the number of votes could not be equated with what is true or right, he accepted majority voting in an advisory body as a practical necessity. But since the source of legislative authority, shūrā (consultation), is itself based on ijtihād (independent judgment), it must be limited to a select few who are well-versed in the appropriate subjects.

Elections as Process.

Though contested, the vocabulary of participation and representation has gradually become part of modern Muslim political discourse. There is less agreement as to how to interpret the unfolding practice. Some see hopeful, others disappointing, signs in the experience of Iran—eight parliamentary and nine presidential elections since the Revolution in 1978–1979. On the one hand, these and the considerable number of other elections throughout the Muslim world may appear contrived and, in the end, counterproductive. One form of this argument concerns governments: External and some internal pressures may force governments to stage elections, whereas the hope of controlling the result compels them to manipulate electoral rules. In either case, elections may only superficially transform the political system and reinforce authoritarianism. This has been argued of the limited elections in Gulf societies such as Saudi Arabia (2005), Bahrain (2006), and Qatar (2007), and also of Egypt (2005) and Pakistan (2008), among others. Another form of this argument concerns Islamists, who are also regarded as calculating—“one person, one vote, one time”—intending through the ballot box to acquire the means by which to render democratic development impossible. Some see Ḥamās 's electoral victory in January 2006 as a case in point.

On the other hand, elections may be transformative, socializing participants into accepting democratic values, snaring in their logic even reluctant but tactical Islamists. Elections may formalize existing informal networks, in effect bringing new actors into the game, and acquaint them with the rules of intergroup bargaining. Ḥizbullāh 's electoral and parliamentary participation in Lebanon since 1992 is offered as one pertinent example, and the moderating trajectory of the Islamist political party (variously named Refâh, Fazilet, and Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) in Turkey since at least 1998—when it was banned under pressure from the military—as another.

Although it remains unclear whether elections will lead to the democratization of Muslim societies, they are increasingly part of the landscape in the early twenty-first century. To the extent that they will be seen as unavoidably or naturally so, they are likely to be a useful political instrument of modern Islam.



  • Brumberg, Daniel. “The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy.”Journal of Democracy13, no. 4 (October 2002): 56–68. Argues that some Middle Eastern societies, even with elections, are “deliberalizing.” Find it in your Library
  • Hamdy, Iman A., ed.Elections in the Middle East: What Do They Mean?Cairo, Egypt, and New York, 2004. Reviews elections in the region from 1999 to 2001. Find it in your Library
  • Hefner, Robert W.Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, N.J., 2000. Nuanced treatment of Muslim groups as civil society and electoral actors in the largest Muslim country. Find it in your Library
  • Lewis, Bernard. “Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview.”Journal of Democracy7, no. 2 (1996): 52–63. The view that Islamists use elections mainly as a means to power. Find it in your Library
  • Piscatori, James. Islam, Islamists, and the Electoral Principle in the Middle East. Leiden, Netherlands, 2000. Overview of the debates over whether elections can be Islamic and are democratizing. Find it in your Library
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