Last week, I found a greeting card in the mailbox. The card read, ďA friendly note from your neighbour.Ē The note highlighted the commonalities that exist between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It says Muslims worship one God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Allah is the Arabic word for God. Muslims, like Christians and Jews, consider themselves spiritual descendants of Abraham. Muslims consider the Quran as the last divine revelation. They honour Biblical prophets, hold Jesus, his mother Mary and Moses in high esteem and recognise the sacred scriptures revealed to Moses and Jesus. Muslims and Christians believe Jesus will return to the world in the last days. Muslims are expected to assume personal and collective responsibility for relatives, neighbours and others regardless of their faith. Islam and democracy are compatible and complementary; both rest on accountability, consultation and egalitarianism. The note aimed at promoting religious harmony in society and did not, for very valid reasons, dwell on the issues that are acceptable to one but controversial to others. Nonetheless, the issues raised deserve serious discussion.
The convergence of beliefs on the fundamental principles of three widely practiced religions has been overshadowed by the divergence of governance, economic policies and jurisprudence pursued by the seemingly sharia-compliant Taliban administration in Afghanistan and Morsi government in Egypt. The Taliban came to power not by the mandate of the people. They seized the chaotic situation prevailing in the country and gradually took over. Even during the height of their strength they could not bring the entire country under their rule. Badakhshan and the Panjsher valley remained in the hands of the Northern Alliance and Ahmed Shah Massoud respectively. The Taliban never tried to reach out to the factions opposed to it, believing in muscle power to bring the country under its control. During their tenure, the Taliban took no action to appoint a head of government or provincial governors through consultations. Mohamed Morsi came to power securing 52 percent of the popular vote but his administration did not last more than a year due to arbitrary measures taken to keep his office above judicial scrutiny and suppression of dissident views. Judged in these contexts, both the Taliban and Morsiís administration fell short of consultation, compromise and accountability, three major guiding principles of Islamic governance.
When Abu Bakr Siddiqui, the first caliph, fell seriously ill and realised the urgency to appoint his successor, he proposed the name of Omer as the second caliph. Some sahaba (companions) pointed out Omerís harsh behaviour but Abu Bakr reassured that once Omer took the most important responsibility he was bound to change. Abu Bakr then called Omer and apprised him of the outcome of the consultation process. Omer at first refused but yielded when he was reminded that denial would not be in the best interest of the ummah. In his acceptance speech, Omer sought divine guidance and prayed. ďAllah, I am harsh so make me softer, I am weak so make me strong, I am stingy so make me generous.Ē
The concept of election was absent but wide-ranging consultation that preceded the appointment of the second caliph had the merit of election with the only exception being that the incumbent did not campaign on his own behalf. The same procedure was followed in the selection of the third caliph though the consultation could not have been comprehensive since Omer was assassinated. What was established beyond doubt was that rulers in Muslim societies ought to be chosen by the people. There is hardly any scope of inheritance of rulers or dynastic rule as practiced in the Middle East. Given the size of the countries and the vast population, consultation, as was done during the caliphate, is no longer feasible. General elections, as held in democratic countries, appear fully compatible with Islamic governance. Since shura and/or parliament is elected by the people, it can determine the tenure of the government. The administration during the reigns of the four caliphs appears more in congruence with the presidential form of government but a parliamentary government is not inversely proportionate with Islamic governance either.
Sovereignty in democracy rests with the people and they are to decide who should rule the country. In the Quran, sovereignty is reposed in Allah: Allah owns and commands everything in the universe and therefore sovereignty lies only with Him. It is also said that humankind is the best creation of Allah and is His representative in the world. It can therefore be expanded to mean that people being the representatives of Allah, sovereignty can be exercised by them on His behalf. This conceptual explanation or debate does not however affect the merit of governance in any way.
Accountability has been the cornerstone of Islamic governance. Rulers are held accountable not only to the people but to Allah as well. Omer took upon himself the task of ensuring that the poor and disadvantaged were not subject to sufferings. One night, while strolling along the streets of Medina, he heard the crying of children. He followed and found a woman consoling her hungry children by boiling water only. Omer brought a sack of wheat on his back to the woman.
Countries in Asia and Africa have shown wanton disregard for accountability and cronies around the people in power accumulate wealth by all means with impunity. Omer used to appoint judges in consultation with senior sahaba, independent of the governors. He set the precedent of separating the judiciary from the executive and judges on many occasions decreed against the decisions taken by the governors.
Interest-free banking is the foundation of Islamic economics. Interest has been prohibited in any form while trade and commerce have been encouraged. Interest-free banking and investment companies are operating in many Muslim countries on the basis of apportionment of loss and profit, competing with traditional banks, and their numbers are on the rise. On the other hand, interest is the cornerstone of the laissez fare economy and no economic activity can be comprehended in the absence of interest. Of late, mortgage companies have come into existence in the US that claim to operate by buying property from the borrower and selling ownership in installments. The policy makers and scholars in Muslim countries should come out strongly in favour of interest-free banking. They have the potential to replace the traditional banking system.
The choice between democracy and stability is as wrong as the choice between Islamic governance and empowerment of women. Islam and democracy can very well co-exist provided society is geared towards the pursuit of science and education for all and rejects corruption and dynastic rule for good.