Posted by: Paul Chiariello | March 4, 2011

A History of Democracy in Islam and Possibilities for Christian-Muslim Relations

Everyone’s eyes are watching the Arab world, and rightly so.  In my opinion, this could possibly be the biggest historical event I will live through as it could change one of the most important international dynamics running through the last few thousands years.

“Freedom is a great, great adventure, but it’s not without risks,” said Fathi Ben Haj Yathia, a Tunisian author and former political prisoner.  So, if the risks are surmounted and we are seeing the birth of a truly democratic Arab world I think this will completely change the dialog about Islam not only within the Arab Muslim world, but also the Muslim world living in Western countries and the Christian world about Islam.

First, I’d like to note that democracy itself has beautiful roots in Islam, classically. The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, was elected by the agreement of senior members of the community based on his qualifications for the post.  And second, the term ijma (إجماع) refers to deliberation on sharia, or law, that is based on ‘consensus.’  Some believe this refers only to scholarly consensus, but since it is based on the hadiith, or saying of Muhammed, “My community will


This article has been republished on the blog Applied Sentience.  To continue reading, please follow the link.  Thanks!



  1. Paul,

    I think it’s great you’re taking this issue up and I enjoyed read this. However, I feel there are some issues that could have been examined in more detail:

    a. A more textual analysis of the concepts of freedom, consensus and discussion/discourse in Islam (whether through an analysis of Quranic verses, Hadith and Sunnah of the Prophet or later writings of Islamic scholars such as Ghazali, Tarabi and Mahmoud Taha (work like this has been done at the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s).

    b. When you refer to Islamic leaders and their democratic inclinations, I would be interested to know who you have in mind and what kind of principles they upheld during their terms of power. Are these modern leaders or rules of older empires? Can we distinguish between those who led and those who ruled? What sort of policies can be examined to conclude they were based on parameters of democracy or something akin to it?

    c. I am keen to explore whether it is really the seperation of state and mosque that the Muslim world requires. It could easily be the case that the very unique and profound role of the masjid (as a social, political and educational centre of community) has been misunderstood and that the solution may not lie in what the NY Times article proposes. In light of this, it may be pertinent to return to the principles of Medina as a case study of what an Islamic city means and the fact that the Prophet’s house served as both a mosque and a community centre. This could also tie in with the discussion we had the other day about why the Prophet married several women and how it contrasts with the Christian clergy not marrying at all, really, but kings throughout Europe being instructed, or deciding so themselves, to intermarry to bridge boundaries and peoples (similar to tribal cultures in the East).

    That’s it. Haha sorry.

  2. quickly,

    a) i agree i’d love to look into that stuff to def expand this.

    b) i meant there are not a lot of such examples, so i didnt really have any in mind. i mentioned abu bakr and have the link to check out a little more there though. in that case consensus among representatives of the community is fairly ‘akin’ to democracy.

    c) i don’t think i said it ‘requires’ this. only that this would have a lot of unforeseen, though i believe positive, impacts on Muslim-Christian relations. Both in the realm of apologetics on both sides and international political and cultural dialogues. In a way this post isn’t making much claims on what Islam actually is, but the impacts on what it may become. My references to what Islam actually is historically/theologically basically are only needed in so far as they can be tapped as popular interpretations to facilitate this change.

  3. I just realized I’d written I enjoyed read this hahaha reading, sorry

    • you are way too much of a perfectionist

  4. On c. I think if you do incorporate the roots of such discourse, it would assist you in presenting more theoretically sound and historically contextualized predictions of what could happen. That could allow for much greater contribution to political and intellectual analysis of the Muslim world. Of course, if that’s what you’re aiming at in any way :)

    It’s just the methodologies essay getting to me.

    • well basically the big point in the post, for me, is the last one about Christian apologetics. the first two points are to prime the possibility that that, according to the third point, Islam may become a much more liberal religion, i.e. democratic in its own development (not just endorsing dem politics) and endorsing sep of church and state. and this could have huge effects on christian-muslim relations.

      it isn’t to argue that democracy and sep of churhc/state are actual parts of islam that we can discover through a hist/textual analysis.

      But there is ‘some’ background of democracy in islam and from more liberal thinkers like Ramadan. The existence of these interpretations is important. if they are all ‘actually’ textually/historiclly inaccurate it doesn’t really matter.

      Even if there is only one ‘best’ way to interpret religion historically and textually, both Christianity and Islam have developed in tons of different ways. So that one actually true interpretation only makes up just a part in how these religions develop.

  5. […] already written another post about the roots of Democracy in Islam, so I won’t go into that […]

  6. […] article was originally published in In a God Who Could Dance on March 4th 2011.  Two years later, we still feel the points it argues and hopes for are just as […]

  7. I’m really enjoying the theme/design of your site. Do you ever run into any browser compatibility issues? A few of my blog visitors have complained about my website not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Firefox. Do you have any ideas to help fix this issue?

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