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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 affairs.”

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.

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