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Islam and Democracy: Perspectives from Reformist and Traditional Islam

Part of the Middle East Today book series (MIET)


Justice, freedom, and democracy, all key aspirations to which Muslims in general aspire, are subscribed to by many Islamic movements, parties, and reformist religious scholars who see no contradiction between Islam and democracy. However, conservative Islamists insist that Islam and democracy are incompatible, and that the pursuit of a democratic society would not only conflict with Islamic teachings, but also passively succumb to the dictates of Western modernity. Leading Muslim thinkers have long debated the compatibility versus incompatibility of Islam and democracy. Analyses of these two divergent viewpoints might start by considering the following questions: Do the advocates and opponents of the compatibility of Islam and democracy abide by different interpretations of Islam? Do they share the same understanding of “democracy”? Given that these divergent perspectives are defendable when situated within their respective ideological parameters, it is important to clarify these parameters in conceptual terms. In this chapter, Mohsen Kadivar identifies the key differences between traditional interpretations and reformist readings of Islam. Whereas traditional interpretations are dominant mainly in clerical establishments and seminaries, reformist readings are generally promoted by religious intellectuals including clergy and lay thinkers who have received academic training. After explaining the identifying characteristics of these two opposing interpretations, this chapter then highlights three underlying themes that are essential to the relationship between Islam and democracy: (a) popular sovereignty and oversight; (b) political equality; and (c) public decision-making. The chapter explicates how traditionalist and reformist readings of Islamic teachings have resulted in sharply diverging articulations of these themes. In short, while the reformist theological articulation delineates the compatibility of Islam and democracy, the two remain fundamentally incompatible from a traditionalist perspective.


  • Islamic Tradition
  • Kadivar
  • Political Equality
  • Islamic Education
  • Muslim

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  1. 1.

    As an example, see Qutb (2006).

  2. 2.

    Traditional religious scholars have not explicitly stated the characteristics of their interpretations. What follows is the result of the author’s familiarity with traditional Islamic thought.

  3. 3.

    I have dealt with this specific issue in detail in a separate article entitled ‘Human Rights and Religious Intellectualism’, see Kadivar (2009b).

  4. 4.

    The issue has been elaborated upon in ‘Freedom of Thought and Religion in Islam and Human Rights Documents’, see Kadivar (2006).

  5. 5.

    I have discussed this topic in detail in ‘From Historical to Spiritual Islam’, see Kadivar (2009a).

  6. 6.

    See Kadivar (2001b).

  7. 7.

    The idea of democracy as a contested concept can be found in: Beetham (1999) and Gallie (1956).

  8. 8.

    Regarding supervision see my article ‘Nezarat bar amalkard-e vali-ye faqih’, Kadivar (2001a).

  9. 9.

    Regarding propagation for the good and against the wrong, see Montazeri (1987, pp. 213–304).

  10. 10.

    In this regard, see Ali ibn Abu-Talib and Seyyed Razi (2006, Sermon 31, p. 216).

  11. 11.

    See Quran 4:141.

  12. 12.

    Regarding rule of rejection of path of God, see Bojnourdi (1998, pp. 185–207).

  13. 13.

    Traditional interpretations assume an exclusive decision-making role for God in Islam; however, one may argue that God does not have a physical presence on earth and He does not speak directly to people. Human beings, namely the clergy, claim to speak on behalf of God (i.e. to be His representatives). Islam explicitly decrees that no person or member of an institution (e.g. the clergy or the state) has the authority to represent God on earth. According to the Islamic scriptures, with the exception of the Prophets, no human being is authorised to convey God’s orders. Still, the Islamic scriptures do refer to human beings as the Caliphs of Allah on earth. Reformist reading of Islam argues for the reconciliation of God’s authority with people’s authority by asserting that people as a whole represent God on earth. This is a compelling standpoint from which to argue for popular sovereignty and the right of the people to exercise political authority.

  14. 14.

    La fahkre lel-‘Arab ‘alal-‘Ajam wa la lel-‘abyadhe ‘alal-aswade ella bet-taqwa.

  15. 15.

    See Kadivar (2009b).

  16. 16.

    I have dealt with this issue extensively in ‘Mas’aleye barde-dari da islam-e mo’aser’ (The Issue of Slave Holding in Contemporary Islam.) in Kadivar (2008a).

  17. 17.

    I have discussed the fourth sphere in detail in my book (Kadivar, 2008b).

  18. 18.

    Torkoman (1995, pp. 59–60).

  19. 19.

    Torkoman (1995, pp. 56–58).

  20. 20.

    Torkoman (1995, pp. 104, 106).

  21. 21.

    Qutb (1996, vol. 9).

  22. 22.

    Al-Tabatabai (2004). See the discussion of social relations in Islam at the end of al-Omran Sura, vol. 4. Also see ‘Velayat va za‘amat dar Islam’ (Guardianship and Representation in Islam) in Al-Tabatabai (1990, p. 182).

  23. 23.

    Islam accepted and practiced many of the pre-Islamic-established rules pertaining to socio-political matters in order to achieve justice (Kadivar, 2002: 427). They can be valid insofar as they are seen to be just and rational according to the conventions of time and space. Thus, all precepts which are not just and rational in the context of the conventions of time and place ought to be abolished. Instead of modifying these precepts, we should see them as outdated and disqualified from practice. Rational laws ought to be issued by the collective reasoning of people, and these laws must not be attributed to religion (Kadivar, 2002: 429).


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Kadivar, M. (2018). Islam and Democracy: Perspectives from Reformist and Traditional Islam. In: Esposito, J., Zubaidah Rahim, L., Ghobadzadeh, N. (eds) The Politics of Islamism. Middle East Today. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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