An issue that Muslims struggle with constantly, at least in the modern age, is the issue of democracy. Recently, people have again asked me if it is haram to vote in elections because there are forces in the Muslim world that have a vested interest in perpetuating the idea that democracy is antithetical to God's will, therefore Muslims should not aspire for democracy; that even if they live in a nation-state that has any type of democratic governance, Muslims should abstain from being involved.
Worse, it is not just the rejection of democracy in principle, but the rejection is used as a vehicle to embrace dictatorship, as if there is something meritorious about autocratic rule. This position is adamantly advocated by Jaami Islam, an off-shoot of Wahhabi Islam. Jaamiyyah, in essence, fervently rejects democracy and uses its anti-democratic ideas to fully embrace autocracy. This is not just limited to the Jaami school of thought, which grew out of Saudi Arabia, but has now become embraced even by those who represent certain Sufi orientations in Islam like bin Bayyah, the Mauritanian religious figure, who wrote a book denouncing democracy as un-Islamic and celebrating autocratic rule as the will of God. Bin Bayyah has an extension in the U.S., and that is Zaytuna College and its representatives, Hamza Yusuf and others.
The Prophet was not an autocrat. If you study the Sirah of the Prophet, something that strikes you immediately is that although he was a prophet guided by God, the way he carried himself within his nascent, newly born state, was that he consistently engaged in shura (consultation). That principle became enshrined in the Qur'an itself, as the Qur'an repeatedly says, "Consult with them." Even with the divinely guided Prophet, the rule enshrined in the Qur'an is to consult, meaning do not rely just on your own perspective. Do not make the opinions of others irrelevant to what you do.
The Prophet developed an instrumentality that assessed the consent of the governed, known as the baya’ (pledge of allegiance), i.e. a pledge, a vote. Even more, a process was developed by which people represented by various tribes, clans or geographic localities would choose a naqib, who represented them in the agreements and baya’ that they made with the Prophet.
With so much historical evidence, you would think the matter would be easily resolved in Islam. The principles of shura, baya’ and representation are all anti-autocratic. But people like Jaamiyyah and bin Bayyah argue that none of those principles are obligatory, that the Prophet consulted with people not because he wanted to achieve the will of the people, but simply as a judicious act engaged in by a wise autocrat. They argue you should consult not because you are interested in what people believe, but more as a morality boost to encourage people to have opinions; you are not bound to follow any of it. Similarly, they argue that the baya’ or vote was an instrumentality of convenience also used to provide an emotional boost to the people; that it is not binding nor is it a serious doctrine of democracy.
If we do not care about the consent of the governed, then we are saying that compulsion and coercion (‘ikrah) are acceptable as a moral ethic in Islam. Ikrah is condemned by the Qur'an, which puts theorists of Jaami Islam and these particular modern Sufi orientations in a pickle. How can they defend the idea that people can be ruled through coercion when the Qur'an forbids it? The rhetorical stratagem goes like this: Democracy doesn't really represent the will of the people, it represents the will of parties and factions, and factionalism is haram in Islam. So, while consent is important, there's no instrumentality to contest this consent. In fact, we can assume that consent exists in the form of a legitimate ruler whose decisions will be assumed to represent the consent of the people. They fudge the coercion issue, by saying, "Yes, the Qur'an prohibits ‘ikrah. Yes, the Qur'an commands that you engage in shura. However, if you're a good Muslim, you will consent to the government of any ruler, even if that ruler is an autocrat, as long as that ruler allows you to pray. It is a religious obligation upon you to consent.” Along that logic, consent is assumed to always exist because a good Muslim would consent even to a dictator.
There has been an ideological curse hanging over Muslims for centuries. Most Muslims agree that the Prophet and his companions were not autocrats. However, what happens after one of his companions, Othman, dies? After the first four rightly-guided caliphs (leaders) ruled, the question of governorship became defined by sheer brute force. The throne would be possessed by the most powerful, that is, whoever usurped governments. The person who attained the throne by brute force and allows people to pray is assumed to be the will of God. God says in the Qur'an that God gives sovereignty (mulk) to whomever God wills. Using that, the anti-democratic faction argues that it is the will of God that a particular person takes power; that the means by which they achieved power is irrelevant. Once they stabilize themself upon the throne, they become God's will. And as long as that individual allows the very minimum of being able to pray, it becomes a religious obligation to obey them.
This logic makes ideas like the consent of the governed become irrelevant, leave alone ideas like representation and justice. In Jaami Islam and the type of Sufi Islam represented by people like bin Bayyah, once you have a ruler, they become the will of God, and thus, obeying that person becomes the will of God. Since we are not going to assume that people are disobeying, we can assume that people have consented. Their consent becomes irrelevant in every way. Obedience becomes a religious obligation.
Does this sound legitimate, moral, ethical or Islamic to you? Whoever comes to power, even if placed in power by an invading colonial force, they become the ruler and you must obey that person. Even if that person came to power through a military coup that jails and tortures people and commits all types of injustices, it becomes a religious obligation to obey that person. As long as they have the power of compulsion, they become the legitimate ruler and it becomes a religious obligation upon you to obey that ruler. There is a fundamental problem with this entire way of thinking, in the way that they interpret the divine will. It is an irony of ironies - a remarkable paradox - to believe that if you come to power through brute force, that is God's will.
But what if you come to power through a ballot box, why is that not God's will? Why is it that if Sisi has a military coup, that is God's will? If Salman imprisons thousands of scholars, invades Yemen and does all the misery that Salman is doing, that is God's will? If Mohammed Bin Zayed jails all dissidents and sits in power because anyone that dares oppose him is thrown in prison, that is God's will? But if we decide to resolve the issue of power through the ballot box, suddenly people are not so sure about God's will. Why is it that, to them, God's will is happy with brute force but not the electoral ballot? Why is it that you can decide, according to them, through the power of weapons but not through the power of vote? Why is it that if someone is elected, that is not considered God's will? But if someone uses brute force and usurps power, that is God's will? It never made any sense, and it will never make any sense.
I say this to expose the hypocrisy of the Jaami’s, the bin Bayyah’s and all of the people that support this way of thinking - those who are nothing more than apologists for autocrats, who even benefit from their relationship with autocrats. They get perks for serving autocrats, so they philosophize and Islamize the will of despots and autocrats.
How do you have a government that can hold a ruler accountable when the ruler acts in a wrongful manner? There is no other system besides democracy that is capable of holding rulers accountable. With all of the faults and shortcomings of democracy, human beings have not managed to think of another system. Holding rulers accountable is the embodiment of living a life where you pursue, advocate and achieve goodness, and also resist evil.
Autocracy and despotism do not allow you to do that. Political quietism, acquiescence and apathy do not allow you to do that. If you try to hold autocrats accountable, they will do what Sisi, Bin Salman and Bin Zayed do—they will put you and your family in prison, they will torture and murder you. How is that Islamic? But if we think of a system of government that can at least potentially hold rulers accountable by removing them from office through the ballot box when they act unjustly and unethically, that is haram? If I hold a ruler accountable through the ballot box, that is not God’s will? But if I allow a despot to jail, murder, maim, torture and rape, that is God's will?
The ideas of bin Bayyah, of Jaami Islam and all these similar orientations were supported and promoted in response to the Arab Spring, in response to an actual political unfolding. Autocrats in the Middle East worried that if democracy established itself, they may finally be held accountable for all the sins they have committed against their own people for decades. So, they brought a group of religious groups like bin Bayyah, Zaytuna and Jaami Islam and paid them a lot of money to go to Muslims and say, "Muslims, the injustice of autocrats is God’s will. But the ballot box and its results are not God's will."
Remarkably, a lot of young, ignorant Muslims have accepted this as fact. If you ask them, "Doesn't the Sunnah of the Prophet include shura? Isn't justice an ultimate principle in Islam?", they will agree. If you say, "Isn't coercion prohibited by the Qur'an?", they will agree. If you ask, “So, what's wrong with Democracy?” they will argue, "The ballot box is not God’s will. That is the will of parties and factionalism.” If you ask, “How about weapons, coups, tanks and airplanes?” they will say that’s God’s will. How are we still thinking this way, in this day and age? The issue is not whether or not you call it democracy; the issue is developing a political system that can hold rulers accountable by removing them when they misbehave, where you do not have to assassinate them in order to end their injustice. Instead, you simply go to the ballot box and remove them.
These people are nothing but ideologues that are on the payroll of autocrats and despots. That's why they rely on your ignorance and your piety. They rely on that piety to stunt your critical thinking. When your piety is an obstacle to your ability to think analytically and coherently, that is the worst type of piety. They bring you an apocryphal hadith that says you have to obey a ruler, even if they steal your money and strike your back. They rely on your piety for you to accept this logic.
Trump is supported by every Islamophobic and Christian Zionist organization because of his passionate hate of Islam. And yet, there are Muslims – I call them masochist Muslims - that like Trump. That is what masochists do – they love those who insult and humiliate them. They have no honor. They have no dignity. They have no Islam. Without dignity and honor, there is no Muslim. If you are okay with people insulting your religion, degrading your Prophet and stealing your holy lands, and if you still consider them a desirable ruler, you are not a Muslim. God will never bless an unjust people. God will never bless a blind and ignorant people. When you celebrate autocracy as the will of God, when you celebrate ugliness and injustice as the will of God, when you celebrate torture, imprisonment, maiming and raping as the will of God, you blaspheme against God. If you accept despotism and injustice as the will of God, you blaspheme against God. If you blaspheme against God, how can you expect God to bless you? You are saying God likes injustice. You are saying God looks at MBS, MBZ and Bashar al-Assad and says, "Yes, that is My Will. I am fine with you torturing, raping and killing." If you’re that type of Muslim, you are not Muslim. You have committed the biggest act of blasphemy against God. You worship an unjust, cruel, unethical god.
In the Arab Spring, many secular Muslims sided with military coups because they did not want Islamists in power. Ironically, many Islamists also sided with military coups because they were handsomely rewarded for their defense of autocrats and despots. Then developed the irony of ironies. If the secular intelligentsia ended up supporting military coups, and the majority of Islamists supported military coups, who ended up not supporting the coups? The only people left were those associated with the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ikhwan; the group of Islamists that believed in and advocated for democracy. Because of that, they were labeled terrorists, imprisoned and exterminated.
For decades, everyone feared the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization that wants to exploit democratic thought, jump on power and stay in power. But through the political decisions of various Islamic factions, the only people that are still defending the idea that democracy is consistent with Islam and is actually an Islamic imperative, are the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). Sadly, the Ikhwan are an easy target for oppression. They are a vilified group, so they are ineffective. If you remove them from the equation by jailing and killing them, what is left? Enough stupidity. Enough ignorance. God will not bless a people who curse themselves.
You want to know the effects of autocracy and despotism? We all know about the new cozy relationship between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. We all know about the agreement that betrayed Palestinians in the most grotesque, uncompromising fashion. But it turns out that this agreement betrays more than that. The southern portion of the Al-Aqsa Mosque has been considered part of the Haram of Al-Aqsa Mosque for centuries. Israelis have been calling that part the Mount Temple, although there has been no archeological evidence that the Mount Temple actually existed in this location. So, for decades, including just this week, Israeli settlers have invaded and violated the sanctuary of this part of Al-Aqsa Mosque by disrupting Muslim prayers – protected by Israeli police. The Emirate-Israeli agreement recognizes this part of Al-Aqsa as legitimately Israeli. The Emirati government even consented to the radical position of the Netanyahu government, that when Israeli settlers invade the sanctuary, they are engaged in acts of religious worship so they are protected and Palestinians have no option but to withdraw. We cannot say this is the will of the Emirates, because Mohammed Bin Zayed is an autocrat. There is no mechanism to hold him accountable or remove him from office.
When Mohammed Bin Zayed gives an award to India’s president, who is systematically oppressing Muslims all over India, there is no way to criticize MBZ. If you do, you are promptly in jail. There is no way to hold him accountable, there is no way to remove him from office. His will is divine. Bin Bayyah and his student Hamza Yusuf tell us, ‘You have to obey him, it is God’s will.’ Another consequence of autocracy: Mohammad Bin Salman allowed Israeli airlines to fly over Hijaz to reach the Emirate. There is no way that we can hold MBS accountable, or even ask him questions. Sisi of Egypt is demolishing thousands of homes and throwing poor people in the street. There is no way to hold Sisi accountable. There is no way to remove him from office. These autocracies are the will of God?
The Jewish journal, “The Forward,” published an article on how the Israeli government is funding Islamophobic organizations in the United States. Israel receives a large amount of our tax dollars in the form of economic aid, which they then use to fund Islamophobic organizations. The response from Muslim governments is non-existent. In fact, many actually participate in and encourage Islamophobia. The Trump administration encourages this relationship to exist between Israel and American Islamophobic organizations, yet obeying Trump is the will of God. If we cannot hold Trump accountable by even voting against him, because voting is supposedly haram, how is that Islam?
According to the Washington Post, China has built 268 new concentration camps for Muslims since 2017. China is determined to wipe out the Kazakh Muslims and Uighur Muslims, traditional Muslim societies that have existed for centuries in China. Trump is doing nothing. Mohammad Bin Salman is doing nothing. Mohammed Bin Zayed is doing nothing. In fact, they pursue policies that encourage and support China. We are supposed to accept this calamity as God's will?
We cannot even use the ballot box to say we want a president that does something about these concentration camps, or that a Muslim leader who supports genocide should be removed from office. The will of God is despotism and autocracy? When MBS handed Chinese students studying at Al-Azhar over to the Chinese government so they could be put in concentration camps, when MBZ gave an award to the Chinese president, there is no way we can hold them accountable? There is no way we can remove them from office? That’s God's will?
In our day and age, there are two types of Muslims. There are Muslims who stand by Jerusalem, and Muslims who betray Jerusalem. There are Muslims who stand by Kashmir, and Muslims who betray Kashmir. There are Muslims who stand against the holocaust being perpetuated in China against Muslims, and Muslims who don't care. I am sure that, on the Final Day, they will be split into two camps: The camp of hypocrites who defended autocracy, despotism and injustice as God's will; and Muslims who refused to do so. On the Final Day, which camp do you want to stand with? Do not think that you can take a neutral camp – a camp that chose not to get involved. It is either the camp of the hypocrites or the camp of those who truly carried out the message of Islam, who stood for justice, dignity, ethics and morality.