Review of the Ideas of al-Ghazali, al-Turabi and ‘Amara

Islamist Attitudes towards Democracy: A Review of the Ideas of al-Ghazali, al-Turabi
and ‘Amara
Author(s): Raghid El-Solh
Source: British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies , 1993, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1993), pp. 57-63
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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Raghid El-Solh
Introductory Comments
This paper1 is based on a survey of some of the prevailing attitudes towards
representative democracy among Arab intellectuals during the period 1985-
1990.2 A main reason for taking 1985 as a starting-point is the fact that
a number of events took place in that year which were to have important
implications for the political process in Arab countries. On the international
level there was the launching of M. Gorbachev’s perestroika, which played a
role in weakening the legitimacy of Arab ruling regimes who had adopted the
Soviet single-party system. In the Arab world itself, there were such important
events as the overthrow ot the Numeiri regime in the Sudan (April 1985),
followed by an interim period of military rule which paved the way for general
elections in April 1986. Another event was the general election which took
place in Kuwait (February 1985), in spite of the stresses and strains clouding
the political climate in the Emirate, which in turn were primarily due to
the repercussions of the Iran-Iraq war. A third relevant event was the local
elections in the former North Yemen during that year, and the government’s
announcement that general elections would be held by 1986.
All these events are indicative of the increasing level of interest in democ-
racy permeating a number of Arab societies by 1985. As one leading Arab
intellectual put it, these and similar events encouraged the belief that ‘there
is no louder message today in the Arab world than that of democracy. For
democracy is presently being demanded by elites in all the Arab countries’.3
The survey attempted to gauge the applicability of this observation. To
what extent did Arab intellectuals and writers contribute to the opening-up
of certain Arab regimes? How did these intellectuals address the issues and
dilemmas affecting the implementation of democracy in some countries of the
Arab region?
These questions obviously apply to intellectuals and writers across the
political spectrum, be they Marxists, pan-Arabists, nationalists, liberals or
Islamists. However, by 1985, these questions appeared to be of special rele-
vance to Islamists, and I shall accordingly focus on them here.
1 This paper is based on a study carried out by Ali Khalifa al-Kuwari (from
Qatar) and myself, forming part of the activities of the Project for Democracy
Studies in the Arab Countries, a group based in Oxford, England which we
2 The material surveyed is located in the libraries of the School of Oriental and
African Studies, London and the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College,
Oxford respectively.
3 al-Ahrdm al-iqtisddi, 16 October 1988.
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Islamists and the Question of Democracy
There were a number of inter-related factors which encouraged the Islamists’
interest in the question of democracy. First, their strength and influence was
increasing, and they were accordingly expected to provide their followers with
intellectual guidance and answers to the key political questions being debated.
Secondly, Islamists felt compelled to respond to attempts on the part of some
Arab governments to exclude them from the political process by questioning
their democratic credentials. For example, in Egypt and later in Tunisia,
Islamists were not allowed to organize as an independent political force. The
ideological statements of Islamist leaders and the behaviour of their followers
were carefully scrutinized and monitored in order to assess their compatibility
with the principles of democracy. Under these circumstances, Islamists appear
to have found it necessary to join the debate on democracy and to explain
their position vis-a-vis its various aspects.
A third related factor was the burgeoning number of Islamist periodi-
cals and publications during the mid-1980s which were competing with other
groups and organizations for public attention. These Islamist writings also
found themselves compelled to respond to the increasing interest in democ-
racy, both locally, as well as in regional and international politics.
In dealing with democracy, Islamists appear to be divided into three
groups. The first group includes those who reject democracy outright, such
as Shaykh Sha’ban, the amir of Harakat al-tawhzd al-Isldmf (the Movement
of Islamic Unification) in Lebanon who proclaimed that ‘we [i.e. Muslims] in
Lebanon do not demand half the Parliament, because we do not believe in
parliamentary rule, since democracy … is a heretical form of government’.4
This belief, which equates democracy with apostasy, reverberates in differ-
ent shapes and forms among many Islamist groups in the Arab world. Some
Islamists, such as Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Mughnl, a leader of the Islamic Sal-
vation Front in Algeria, upheld this belief even while their party was partici-
pating in the electoral process.5
A second distinct group of Islamists includes those who believe that true
Islam is inherently democratic, and that all the principles and practices of
democracy are integral to it. Hence the democratization and the Islamization
of Muslim societies are more or less an identical process.
The third group of Islamists comprises those who put more emphasis on
democracy in its representative forms. They seem to be less sceptical than
members of the first two groups about the possibility of borrowing from the
experience of non-Muslim societies, specifically with regard to parliamentary
Though the differences between these three groups are in some aspects
significant, in others they appear to be more a matter of emphasis and nuance
than of fundamentals.
The survey of Arabic-language periodicals published during the second
half of the 1980s did not identify a single contribution in defence of the first
4 al-Saftr, 21 May 1985.
5 al-Hayah, 10 April 1991.
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group. In fact, the articles surveyed generally adopted a position in line with
beliefs held by the second or third groups.
Hasan al-Turdbi
An important example of proponents of the second group is Hasan al-Tu leader of the Islamic National Front in Sudan and Head of the Arab Islamic
Conference. Al-TurabT published a paper entitled ‘Al-Shuira and Democracy Problems of Definition and Concept’ in May 1985, i.e. a month after the
fall of Numeiri.6 In it he attempts to compare these two terms, and starts
by delineating aspects of democracy, specifically the differentiation between
its direct and indirect versions. While direct democracy is more egalitarian,
indirect or representative democracy is associated with the interests of the
‘bourgeois elite’. Al-Turabi sees the extension of the right of suffrage as a step
towards countering these bourgeois interests by drawing democracy nearer to
the direct version. However, this attempt is inhibited by prevailing social
and economic inequalities. Al-Turabi notes that though the call for socialist
democracy is attempting to address this problem, the outcome of such efforts
remains uncertain. For democracy, be it in the Western or in the Third
worlds, continues to be marred by deficiencies and is moreover associated
with experiences which are inimical to Islam.
In spite of these shortcomings, al-Turabi has no objection to assimilating
the concept of democracy into Islam, just as there has been no problem in
appropriating the terms revolution and socialism. Though he does not clarify
how the incorporation of the term democracy could be beneficial to Islam and
to Muslims, he suggests that such assimilation is acceptable, provided, first,
that the term is divested from meanings and implications injurious to Islam;
and secondly, that Muslims have reached a state of self-confidence, alertness
and emancipation. This is the pre-condition for Islam’s ability to assimilate
foreign concepts and Islamize them, i.e. use them to pursue Islamic goals
and objectives. According to al-Turabi, Muslims have reached this stage with
the advent of Islamic revivalism. However, before attempting to assimilate
the concept of democracy in Islam, Muslims should first turn to the al-shurd
(consultancy) system, to understand it, perfect it, and reintroduce it into
public life.
With regard to al-shurd, al-Turabi notes that it has passed through three
different stages. The first pertains to the early days of Islam, more precisely
the days of the Prophet, and those of Abu Bakr and ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab. As
al-shurd was thoroughly implemented then, this period may act as a reference
point for the correct Islamic system of government. The second stage pertains
to the centuries which followed when al-shurd began to lose its original form
and meaning. As for the third stage, this dates to the current Islamic revival,
where al-shurd is becoming increasingly relevant not as a result of the demo-
cratic challenge, but because Islam is returning to its roots. Through this
salafi approach, and by way of invoking the Qur’an and the sunna, al-TurabT
concludes that al-shurd is not merely informative (mu’lima), but also binding
6 al-Mustaqbal al-‘Arabz, Centre for Arab Unity Studies, Vol. 8 (75), May 1985.
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Al-Turabi also suggests that there are four types of al-shura. The most
advanced and encompassing form is that which involves all people. A less
advanced form involves ahl al-hall wa-l-‘aqd (those who are qualified to unbind
and bind, i.e. those who act on behalf of Muslims in appointing and deposing
the ruler).7 The other two forms, involving specialists, organized polls or
forms of public expression, are non-binding, and hence less significant.
Having explained what al-shurd stands for, al-Turabi concludes that it
is superior to Western democracy in various respects, for historical and other
reasons. Historically, the Islamic theory of democracy antedates that of the
West. Thus, Europeans discovered and adopted this theory through their
contacts with Islamic jurisprudence. Al-Turabi goes on to cite five additional
points which support his view of the superiority of al-shurd.
First, Western democracy is based on non-religious secularist rule, al-
though it should properly be implemented as part of religious government.
Islam, on the other hand, draws no distinction between the private and
the public domains, between the realm of God and that of man.
Secondly, in Islam democracy is not a separate political practice as it is
in Western countries, but a way of life which permeates all spheres of
human existence.
Thirdly, in Western democracies, it is the people who are sovereign, a sovereignty which is absolute. In Islam, it is God who is sovereign and who delegates his authority to the umma through a khalifa. This raises
the question whether the shar’a limits the freedom of the people. Al-
Turabi argues that it does not since all the people believe in the prin-
ciples and details of sharf’a law, and apply them wholeheartedly as an
expression of their free will. Thus there is no need for force. Another re-
lated question pertains to the interpretation and implementation of the sharf’a. Here al-Turabi maintains that, since everyone believes in the
sharf’a, there is no need for either an interpreter or an enforcer.
With regard to the fourth point pertaining to the comparison between
Western and Islamic theories of democracy, al-Turabi explains that the
former is based on the separation between politics and morality, and tha Islam (where such a separation does not exist) is therefore superior.
Fifthly, Islam is believed to be a better guarantor of the unity of the umma, since it calls for ijma’ (consensus), rather than the rule of the
majority. Al-Turabi concludes from this that the shurd system which existed during the early days of Islam is superior to present-day Western democracy, and that Muslims should therefore emulate it in order to
perfect their political systems.
Proponents of the Third Group
In comparing al-shiird system with direct democracy, al-Turabi differs from a
number of other Islamist thinkers, particularly those who believe that demo cratic principles can easily be incorporated into Islam, and who were identified
as a third separate group above.
7 El2, Vol. 1, pp.263-264.
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Two important proponents of this group are the Egyptian Muhammad
‘Amara, a well-known writer on Islamic affairs, and Shaykh Muhammad al-
Ghazali, also Egyptian, who was one of the founders of the Muslim Brothers’
Movement and held the post of Dean of the Islamic University in Algeria.
Both of them hold a number of beliefs in common with al-Turabi, for example
that al-shurd is relevant to the debate on Islam and democracy, and that it is
binding and not merely informative.
Thus, al-Ghazali maintains ‘that the statement that Islam adopted al-
shurd as a form of government, but absolved the ruler from adhering to its
results, and that the political edifice of the Islamic umma is built on this
basis, is nonsensical’.8 ‘Amara supports this view, lamenting those thinkers
and writers who ‘claim that the ruler is not bound by al-shura’.9 Like al-
Turabi, al-Ghazall makes it explicit that al-shurd does not apply to matters
dealt with in the Qur’an. ‘Amara agrees with this, and explains that ‘the
freedom of the umma … stops at boundaries which should not be crossed;
these maintain the distinction between that which is sinful and that which is
not. This limitation does not constitute a diminishing of the freedom of the umma. Rather, it is a commitment to the religious framework for the good of
the umma as perceived by God Almighty.’10
However, both these Islamist thinkers differ from their Sudanese coun-
terpart on a number of issues. Though, like al-TurabT, their reverence for the
Islamic heritage is unquestionable, and their commitment to the principles of Islam is undoubted, their writings nevertheless indicate that they are less bound by restrictions in interpreting these principles. Thus, al-Ghazali argue ‘we have closed the door to ijtihdd for nearly a thousand years. If we have preceded others in the realm of human principles, this does not mean that w may not benefit from ijtihad. Nor does it mean that we should embark upon our quest by ignoring the achievements of others.’ Significantly, the article from which this quote is taken is entitled ‘Why don’t we take from Western democracy?’11 In the same vein, ‘Amara looks for ‘the creative implemen-
tation of a scientific approach inspired by our heritage, and benefiting from it in facing challenges. The approach of returning to the pristine roots and
extracting from them the best they can offer, to develop and modernize them
so that they may be compatible with new circumstances of life.’12
Thus, both al-Ghazall and ‘Amara suggest that one may add to past
experiences and legacies, irrespective of how significant or modest such ad-
ditions may be. This approach differs from al-TurabT’s, who advocates the appropriation of other societies’ concepts of political theories and practices to apply them to Islamic society.
8 M. al-Ghazali, Azmat al-shurd, Cairo, 1990, p.69. (This booklet contains
many of his articles which had previously appeared in various newspapers and
9 M. ‘Amara, ‘al-Shura dimuqratiyyat al-islam’, al-Hildl, March 1985, pp.24-31.
10 M. ‘Amara, loc. cit..
11 M. al-Ghazali, loc. cit..
12 M. ‘Amara, loc. cit..
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Another difference between al-Turabi on the one hand, and al-Ghazali and
‘Amara on the other, pertains to the latter’s attitude towards
representative or parliamentary democracy. Whereas al-Turabi makes a po of suggesting that this is a degenerate type of democracy, especially w compared with the direct democracy which he believes existed during t early days of Islam, the other two indicate a preference for representati democracy, which ‘Amara, for example, outlines as follows: ‘the umma in self and by itself is the source of authority and the sovereign in state po and the organization of society, as well as the development of civilization And this umma chooses representatives who are aware of reality as well as the shara’a. They are those who choose the head of the Islamic state … and ahl al-hall wa-l-‘aqd. They are those who ensure the compatibility of real with the sharf’a … and adapt legislation to the new reality.’13
For his part, al-Ghazal7 maintains even more explicitly than ‘Amara th ‘Western democracy has generally laid down proper principles for polit life. We need to take much from these states in order to fill shortcomings du to the paralysis which has afflicted our jurisprudence for many centuries Moreover, al-GhazalT’s views on parliamentary democracy are not confined a theoretical discussion. Rather, he draws on experiences in Egypt to prov proof and to corroborate his stand. In his opinion, during the early decade the twentieth century, Egypt had the ‘most modern of constitutions’. Tho this was considered a gift from King Fu’ad, it enabled the Parliament to f the monarch to abandon the attempt to spend the state’s and the Muslim money on maintaining his private ship. During thirty years of constituti life, and in spite of numerous rigged elections, ‘public freedom overcame impediments created. Thus, manhood matured, pride, science and the arts flourished’. Moreover, public freedom provided the ground for the emerge of ‘strong, religious movements, and the Muslim Brothers were able to we a network of active branches all over Egypt’.15
In terms which would have suited Muslims in former times, but whi are also acceptable to present-day Muslims, al-GhazalT expresses his sorr that believers and religious groups have adopted a wrong stand regardin the struggle for freedom and for constitutional life. Thus, while al-Azhar the time sided with the King, the Islamic organizations remained aloof fr the conflict between the Wafd which was defending the Constitution, the King who was tampering with it. Al-Ghazal7 recalls that he complain to his spiritual mentor, Hasan al-Banna’, the first leader (murshid) of t Muslim Brotherhood, about such laxity, and went so far as to suggest t the Movement appeared to be siding with the King. Al-Banna’ responded ordering the editorial staff of the Brotherhood’s mouthpiece-al-Ikhwan publish whatever al-Ghazali had to say, even if it did not comply with Movement’s general policy.
13 Ibid.
14 M. al-Ghazal, loc. cit..
15 Ibid.
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Concluding Remarks
This particular experience, as detailed by al-Ghazali, illustrates the differences
which existed and continue to exist among different thinkers and groups of
With regard to al-Turabi, al-Ghazali and ‘Amara in particular, there
appear to be three factors which explain the differences which separate them.
One such difference pertains to the experience of democracy. Thus, Egyp has a relatively longer experience of this than the Sudan, a fact which may explain the greater responsiveness of the Egyptian Islamists towards the ide of parliamentary democracy compared with their Sudanese counterparts.
A second factor is related to the different experiences of the older gener-
ation of Islamists such as the Muslim Brothers, who were affected by highl centralized forms of government, and the newer generation of Islamists, such a members of the Islamic National Front in Sudan, who have been less subjecte to such pressures, partly because of the political skill of their leader al-Turabl.
In other words, those Islamists who suffered under a non-democratic system of government are likely to be more appreciative of the merits of democrac than those who largely escaped such pressures.
The third factor relates to the difference between intellectuals such as
al-Ghazali and ‘Amara on the one hand, and al-TurabT, who is both an intel- lectual and a political leader, on the other-i.e. between those who have the freedom to express their views without having to take a political following into
consideration, and those like al-Turabi who are bound by certain constraint and interests.
Bearing these differences in mind, it seems to me that those who tend
to highlight certain Islamist anti-democratic theories and/or practices, and
to equate them with the attitudes of Islamists in general, are committing
an error of judgement. Such a misjudgement undercuts those Islamists who
are responsive to the idea of parliamentary democracy, and as such, may
eventually contribute to a weakening of democratic tendencies in the Arab
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