Muslim matters: Asghar Ali Engineer on Islam and democracy

From the final decades of the 20th century, and especially after the events of 9/11, there has been a growing tendency in debates and discussions revolving around the question of the relationship between Islam and democracy, or the compatibility and coexistence of the teachings of Islam with the principles of democracy. Broadly speaking, one finds two main groups who have extensively debated and discussed this issue.
The opponents, including various western academicians as well as extremists and hard-line ‘Islamists’, believe that Islam and democracy are totally incompatible; arguing that the Muslim faith and Islamic civilisation are incongruent and divergent with liberty, democracy, secularism, etc. But, on the other hand, the proponents—consisting of a growing number of intellectuals spread globally—are advocating, promoting and encouraging compatibility between Islamic socio-political concepts and institutions and Western democracy. In India, the (late) Asghar Ali Engineer was the most prominent voice in the 21st century who wrote extensively in favour of the compatibility thesis.
A Muslim reformist thinker and activist, Engineer is internationally known for his work on liberation theology in Islam. He has contributed to various other discourses, including the theme of Islam and democracy. Engineer is of the view that Shura (mutual consultation)—a Qur’anic concept/term (Q. 3:159; 42:38)—and modern day representative democracy, merely a human concept, may not be “exactly similar”; however, both are “same in spirit”. In the contemporary world, for Engineer, the concept of Shura means democratic process and constitution of proper democratic institutions, of which elections are a necessary requirement. The Qur’anic text not only gives the concept of Shura, he emphasises, but “does not support even remotely any concept of dictatorship or authoritarianism”. For him, the Islamic polity established by the Prophet (SAW) in Medina, and later successfully carried on by the four Caliphs, was “democratic in spirit”. He calls this period the “golden period of Islamic democracy”, which was ultimately “replaced”, with the establishment of Umayyad rule, “by monarchy and dynastic rule”.
Regarding democracy and pluralism, in his “What I believe”, Engineer writes: “I strongly believe in pluralism and diversity,” because “democratic freedom has meaning only if diversity is allowed to flower… I, therefore, believe in three ‘ds’ i.e. democracy, diversity and dialogue. I believe that democracy, diversity and dialogue sustain and strengthen each other. If there is no diversity, there can be no democracy and if there is no dialogue, diversity cannot be strengthened. Dialogue is the very spirit of religious and cultural diversity. A genuine dialogue can be conducted only in the spirit of democracy.”
There are, at present, different political systems in different Islamic countries: from monarchy to military dictatorship, to limited democracy. But it would be naïve, claims Engineer, to blame Islam for this. It is not at all correct to say that Islam is incompatible with democracy, because Islam does not come in the way of democracy; it is dictators and monarchs who come in its way. Islam is quite compatible with democracy. It is rather rulers of Muslim countries who are not compatible with democracy. Thus, Engineer reaches the conclusion that the absence of democracy in Muslim countries is not by means of or “on account of Islamic teachings” or due to “incompatibility of democracy with Islam”, but due to a  host of factors: political, historical, social, economic and cultural which are more “responsible for the lack of democracy in the Islamic world and not Islamic teachings”.
Thus, engaging in a process of reform, and basing upon the Qur’an and Hadith—of course, with modern (re)interpretations and (re)readings—the proponents advocate compatibility of Islam and democracy by using the traditional Islamic concepts like Shura, Ijma (community consensus), and Ijtihad (personal reasoning), Bayah (oath of allegiance), and Maṣlaḥa (public welfare), and other such ideas and ideals, having roots in the primary sources of Islam. Thus, these intellectuals insist on compatibility between Islam and democracy with a reinterpretation of key Islamic political concepts and values, institutions and legal principles, embedded in the primary sources of Islam; albeit democracy here is conceived with certain qualifications and limits prescribed by Islamic law.
—The author holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from AMU and teaches at the Government Degree College Kokernag, Kashmir.