THE ROOTS OF DEMOCRACY IN ISLAM
Summary of Remarks by Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour
December 16, 2002
On December 16, 2002, Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour
gave a public presentation at the National Endowment for Democracy on the “The
Roots of Democracy in Islam.” Speaking before an American audience for the first
time, Dr. Mansour traced the sources of democratic thought in Islamic theology
and discussed his ideas of how Islam’s democratic potential may be realized in
the modern Muslim world.
According to Dr. Mansour, peaceful interaction with other human beings lies at
the heart of Islam. The values of peace, human rights, freedom of speech and
belief, justice, equality, and democracy are all laid down in the Quran and
should thus provide the foundations for any society that claims to be Islamic.
The Quran invokes five rights to which everyone is entitled: the right to
justice; the right to freedom of belief and speech; the right to wealth; the
right to security; and the right to power. It is this right to power, which
relates to modern conceptions of democracy.
According to Islam, it is the community as a whole, not one person, that owns
and exercises power. In a chapter on “Al-Shura,” the Quran describes Muslim
society as one in which individuals manage their affairs through consultation.
Shura represents the kind of direct democracy in which all people participate in
meetings held to discuss community affairs. So long as they are peaceful in
their dealings with others, members of the opposition have complete freedom to
say and do as they please. Direct democracy takes place when members of a group,
each representing himself or herself, come together to exchange views and arrive
at decisions reached by the majority and applied by all.
In Islam, democracy is considered a ritual commandment. Like every ritual
commandment, shura is a personal duty, which no one can perform on behalf of
another. Muslims are urged to practice shura in their daily work and family
lives, much as they are exhorted to pray five times a day. Dr. Mansour pointed
out that Islamic democracy also entails accountability. A true Islamic society
rules itself through executives who are accountable before their society. The
Quran refers to these executives as “Olo Al Amr,” meaning “those of the
The tradition of attending open meetings with Prophet Mohammed to discuss
matters of common concern was a new one for the inhabitants of Al-Madina, Dr.
Mansour said, but it soon took root. Despite the initial difficulties,
democratic consultation became a way of life for the inhabitants of Al-Madina,
even in times of war. Prophet Muhammed encouraged his people to govern
themselves, which is why he did not appoint a successor. After his death, his
legacy was altered, Dr. Mansour noted, by successive generations of rulers who
failed to realize the democratic potential of Islam.
Returning to the modern era, Dr. Mansour lamented the conditions under which
much of the Muslim world finds itself today—under the grip of dictators on the
one hand and religious fanatics on the other. Between the dictators and their
religious foes lies a weak, secular opposition that calls for democratic change.
Dr. Mansour felt that it was incumbent on the international community, led by
the United Nations and the United States, to help facilitate such change. He
suggested that the United Nations reconsider its policy of nonintervention in
order to combat authoritarian regimes. He concluded that the United States needs
to negotiate with its allies in the Arab world to guarantee peace and direct its
foreign assistance in support of groups working to promote human rights,
democracy, and civil society.