Why Islam and Democracy Go Well Together

The Shiite scholar Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari is regarded as one of the Iran's most influential Muslim reformist thinkers. In an interview with Jan Kuhlmann, he explains why there is no inconsistency between Islam and democracy.

By Jan Kuhlmann

You have stated that Islam is a religion and not a political programme. Many other Islamic scholars, however, say that it is not possible to separate religion and the state or, alternatively, religion and politics. Do you thing these spiritual leaders are mistaken?

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari: You cannot expect politics to adhere to the sort of ethical principles found in religion. And conversely, you cannot expect religion to follow a political programme with the aim of achieving certain social objectives. As I understand it, religion is the relationship between man and God, in which man speaks to his God, his God listens, resulting in inner emancipation. This is why I hold the view that religion, and also Islam in particular, cannot be equated with a political programme.

Do you therefore advocate a clear separation of religion and state? That is an unusual position among Muslim scholars.

Shabestari: My view is that religious and political institutions are very different sorts of institutions with different sorts of tasks and responsibilities. This is the reason for their separation. Yet, it doesn't mean that a person's religious inclinations cannot provide a moral or ethical impulse in politics. This is possible. For this reason, I do not call for a separation of politics and religion, but rather that political and religious institutions should be kept separate. Of course, there can and should be cooperation between them.

Muslim scholars base their pronouncements on the Koran and the Sunna, the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Where do you find support in Islamic sources for your positions?

Shabestari: It is not something that can be derived from the Koran or the Sunna. This division is a necessary reality of our time, because these institutions have been separated from each other. And it was not prompted by anyone in particular. What we today refer to as political and religious institutions did not exist during the time of the Prophet. At the time, politics and religion were intricately linked almost the whole world over.

High-ranking Muslim spiritual leaders, such as those at the renowned Al Azhar Mosque, predicate their authority on references to traditional sources. However, a modern form of society cannot be derived from the Koran, but is rather a necessary reality of our time, says Shabestari

​​The way of life in Medina and Mecca was quite simple. But what took place then cannot be a model for today's world. Nowadays, Muslims live in intelligent social systems, in which there is a wide diversity of institutions. This requires us to develop a proper plan with the aid of reason. This is not something that can be derived from the Koran.

During its Golden Age, Islam was known for highly controversial and pluralistic debates. Today, the reality in many Muslim countries is quite different. There is little freedom of thought.. What can be done to promote more freedom of thought in Muslim countries?

Shabestari: This is a question of political development. It all depends on whether a people has politically developed to such an extent that it understands what freedom is. Then it will demand freedom of expression. Even now there is a great tendency towards freedom in Islamic countries. Yet, why it hasn't truly developed is another question. This has to do with political hurdles and the system of government in these countries. It is more of a cultural difficulty than a difficulty related to Islam or religion in general. Unfortunately, this is a retrograde cultural reality.

The Arab protest movements are associated by many people, both within these countries and also abroad, with the hope for democracy. Others say that Islam fundamentally forbids democracy…

Shabestari: The question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy is a false one. The proper question is whether Muslims want democracy or not. If Muslims want democracy, than they will find an interpretation of Islam that is compatible with democracy. If they don't want democracy, then they won't find such an interpretation.

The Arab Spring has raised the question of whether the Arab civilian population is capable of democracy. Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari is convinced that "if Muslims want democracy, they will find an interpretation of Islam that is compatible with democracy."

​​Islam is dependant on interpretation, just as every religion is dependant on a particular interpretation. And the interpreters are those who decide in which manner a religion should be interpreted, with what goals, and with which methods. When the interpreters are well educated individuals, who desire freedom, democracy, and human rights, then they will interpret their religion is such a manner.

Those who say that Islam and democracy are not compatible base this claim on traditional Islamic scholarship, which holds that God is the highest authority. In a democracy, the final authority is with the people. How can these two positions be compatible?

Shabestari: There is a "Christian Democratic" party in Germany. Isn't God the highest authority for this party? Yes, despite this, Germans live in a democratic country. You cannot say that when an individual or an entire people regard God as the highest authority, then they are against democracy. Why should that be? One can view God as the highest authority, yet in one's everyday, social life say, "Yes, I am free, you are free, and everyone else is free as well."

Here it is a matter of freedom between people and not about freedom between God and people. Freedom and democracy entail that a particular order exists between people. This has nothing at all to do with whether or not God is the highest authority. The argument that if God is the highest authority, then there can be no democracy is constantly misused. The argument is simply false.

Is Islam exploited for political ends?

Shabestari: Every religion can be exploited, not only Islam. Christianity and other religions have also been exploited. But our task is to prevent Islam being misused as a means for dictatorship.

What role does sharia, Islamic law, have in a democracy? In your opinion, what should or must it play?

Shabestari: Europeans tend to regard the sharia as a solid edifice. But the sharia is not a solid edifice. It is dependant upon the fuqaha, Islamic legal scholars, who are allowed to issue a fatwa, i.e. an Islamic legal pronouncement.

"Islam is not a political programme." Iran is ruled by the principle of the primacy of religion over politics. The system of "rule by religious legal scholars (welayat-e faqih) is diametrically opposed to a separation of religion and state

​​When these legal scholars are free-thinking individuals, then they can interpret Islamic law in such a way to present no hurdles to the establishment of democracy. Those who venture even further could say, "We can find passages in the Koran, the Sunna and the sharia that encourage us to adapt a democratic system."

From the outside, Iran appears to be a very religious country. Yet, if you take a closer look, you get the impression that many in Iran have privately turned away from religion. How religious is Iranian society today?

Shabestari: It all depends upon what one understands as religion and religiosity. The religiosity of a mystic is something different than the religiosity of a philosopher, which in turn is different than that of a theologian. Generally speaking, I don't hold the view that people no longer wish to be religious. It is a fact that some abandon their faith because they have experienced horrible things done in the name of religion. Yet, I do not accept that there is currently such a large epidemic in Iran.

Religiosity changes with time. Many have turned from a traditional to a mystical form of religiosity. I see absolutely no indication that religiosity now is weaker than it was 40 or 50 years ago. But for many people, religion and religiosity has become more of a private matter.

Interview: Jan Kuhlmann

© Qantara.de 2012

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, born in 1936, is one of the most important religious intellectuals in contemporary Iran. As a student, he studied under Khomeini. In 1970, he took up the post as head of the Shiite Islamic Centre of the Imam Ali Mosque in Hamburg, Germany, and was engaged in Islamic-Christian dialogue. In 1979, he returned to Iran as a follower of Khomeini and was elected to Parliament. However, Shabestari soon abandoned politics. Since 1985, he has taught Islamic philosophy, comparative religion, and theology at Tehran University. He has developed an understanding of religion that is at once emancipatory and critical of ideology. His modern concepts of individualism, human rights, and democracy are of great importance to many Muslim legal experts interested in pursuing a contemporary reading of Islamic law. Shabestari continues to organize international conferences promoting Christian-Islamic dialogue.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de