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Vol. 10, No. 4, 2011
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
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David Solway
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Andrée Lafontaine
Samuel Burd
Sylvain Richard
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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john esposito & john voll's

reviewed by


Farzana Hassan is the author of Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest. Please visit her website at:

Conservative Muslims often tout Islam’s ‘democratic tradition.’ They proudly refer to the era of the pious caliphate when the successors of the prophet were elected to office by the influential of the community. These pious caliphs were wholly answerable to the common citizen of the nascent Muslim state. Even the lowliest of the low, including women, could stand up and take these men of influence to task over the most trivial of matters.

In line with this view, Shahina Siddiqui, former co-chair of the Islamist organization CAIR, asserts that Islamic democracy embodies the principles of shura -- the Arabic word for consultation which describes the process by which pre-Islamic tribes elected their leaders -- and nomination. She believes these are both Islamic and “cardinal principles of democracy.” As evidence she cites historical precedent surrounding the successorship of the prophet Mohammad in the nascent Islamic state of Medina.

If that was then, why are so many Islamic countries non-democratic? Have the faithful lost sight of their own democratic traditions or is Islam simply incompatible with the tenets of modern liberal democracies? These questions are even more relevant today in light of the current uprisings in the Middle East, often referred to as the Arab Spring.

John L. Esposito and John O. Voll examine these issues at length in their book Islam and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 1996). They provide a comprehensive theoretical framework for Islam’s political institutions and describe how some of these emerged in the functioning of modern states such Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia. According to the authors “Independent states with Muslim majorities joined the world of sovereign nation-states . . . It is important to examine the conceptual resources within Islam for democratization.”

Esposito and Voll, however, declare at the outset that to many “the concept of Islamic democracy is anathema.” However in order to counter this perception they state: “ In the global environment of the present, narrow and parochial understandings of concepts as important as democracy are dangerous and limiting, even for long established democratic systems.”

But the reader must ask: Would an Islamic state governed under Shariah law, acknowledge as equal women and religious minorities? Would they be allowed to assume leadership roles in the government? Would Shariah law be subject to review by an elected parliament? Within the framework of such a system, could a minority representing a non-Shariah viewpoint ever have the opportunity to become the majority? And can such a scenario be deemed democratic? Is it therefore intrinsic to Islamic doctrine that government and state must converge? Would Christians be treated as equal citizens under an orthodox Islamic regime, a "theo-deomocracy" as suggested by Dr. Jamal Badawi? Is a theo-democracy a contradiction in terms?

Esposito and Voll acknowledge some of these concerns when they state: “None of these, nor all of them in combination, represents an explicitly democratic conceptualization of opposition as understood in the modern era . . . ”

The authors define the concept of fitna in Islam as “disturbances, or even civil war involving the adoption of doctrinal attitudes which endanger the purity of the Muslim faith” The authors state that: “Fitna sets limits on what kind of disagreement is allowable in terms of the Islamic heritage.”

As a solution to some of these undemocratic tendencies, Esposito and Voll argue that democracy can be understood in a variety of ways that are suited to the ethos of various cultures and civilizations. “There may be a dominant discourse, but multiple discourses have existed and can continue to exist or be formulated. The term ‘democracy’ is capable of multiple interpretations and applications.”

Although the book is an older publication and does not comment on current affairs, it provides detailed insight into Islam’s political institutions, history and past. It is a useful resource for developing ideas that may ultimately lead to some form of democratization in Islamic countries.




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I am reminded of that line in "The King and I" that goes something like: Democracy has many forms; in my country it has a form called Absolute Monarchy.

David Solway
Farzana Hassan has it all wrong again. The method of power transference among the first "rightly guided" caliphs was assassination. And then poor Ali who felt done out of his inheritance has led to the violent confrontation between Sunni and Shi'a that we see today. Shura, which I studied and consulted on and wrote about in my books, has absolutely nothing in common with the principle of democracy. Those who foreground it remind me of Irshad Manji desperately trying to make a case for Ijtihad--which was shot down by Ibn Warraq, Nonie Darwish, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and a host of other former Muslims. Esposito's concept of different kinds of democracy is both well-known and untenably absurd, and besides he's only a shill for the Saudis, his outfit at Georgetown subsidized by the Wahabis, just as Carter's Peace Center is. There's a lot of crap going down here.

Farzana Hassan
In response to David Solway: I only reviewed the book. These are not my own thoughts on democracy, which I consider incompatable with orthodox Islam.
It's easy for Esposito and Voll to write that "that democracy can be understood in a variety of ways that are suited to the ethos of various cultures and civilizations," -- these words mean nothing to the persecuted Copts of Egypt, or the Christians of Iraq, whose number has dwindled greatly since the Amerian intervention.
Profs Espositio and Voll, please try and live in Pakistan or Egypt, or Saudia, and enjoy their brand of democracy.
Excellent review. To my mind Islam does not appreciate the idea of individual freedom. By accepting Sharia not as a framework but as a detailed rule book Islam finds it difficult to convceive of an evolving democracy needing course correction.


by Farzana Hassan:
Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution (review)
The Islamist (review)
The Grand Design (review)
The Jew Is Not My Enemy (review)
To Ban the Hijab?


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