Home » Politics » Islamic Sharia and the Limits of Democracy

Islamic Sharia and the Limits of Democracy

OurIndonesia – We may argue on what is meant by “Islamic sharia”. However, I think every Muslim has a political culture in which the prophet Muhammad is the leader we should follow, and that the political society he built, Medina, must be taken as a reference. The Prophet was not only a spiritual leader but also a political leader and he was trusted to run his political power on the base of sharia (Islamic law).

After the death of the Prophet, this model of political leadership had to end since there was no longer a prophet. But the prophet’s companions tried to continue this kind of leadership. The companions were not only political leaders but also religious authorities.

In the historical process, imitation or idealization of the Prophet’s age is not easily achieved in the more complex societies. The division of political authority and religious authority has become unavoidable. Nevertheless, Medina under the Prophet’s leadership was still valuable and became the orientation and source of power and legitimacy in the political history of ummah.

Muslim thinkers supporting democracy still have to refer to the Prophet’s leadership and politics, for instance to “democratize” Medina and make the Prophet a “democrat”. It seems that we, muslim ummah, are destined by history to always be involved in this matter. The real examples reflecting this struggle are: Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Islamic Politics in Sudan, and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Those regimes all apply Islamic sharia law.

But we also have Turkey, post-Suharto Indonesia, Mali, Bangladesh and Jordan which have all experimented with democracy. But, this experiment is not an easy task. The big challenge comes from ummah who enforce Islamic sharia in public life where the state is responsible for its implementation. This challenge also contributes to democratic instability in Muslim countries. Why?

Democracy needs a democratic political culture; the mass majority culture who believes that democracy is the best political system as compared to other systems. It is a belief in political pluralism: the belief that political diversity is a certainty. Therefore, no system of power can be dominant. On the contrary, when the primordial power demands to be dominant in the public arena its political system is non-democratic – an authoritarian or even totalitarian one.

This pluralism is related to other elements in democratic culture: political tolerance and interpersonal trust in a nation-state. If these elements are weak democracy cannot survive. In current or past Islamic society, it is only a variant of ummah having a democratic political culture. They build this culture through interpretation of Islamic doctrine and through political practice of ummah.

Besides, there’s another variant who believe in Islamic sharia, mainly which is practiced by the Prophet and companions, as the base of the best political system for the current ummah. What has been going in Muslim society is a battle of interpretation and its institutionalization.

From this battle there may emerge a healthy cultural conflict in ummah’s life, but it also may implicate an undemocratic attitude of low tolerance and interpersonal distrust among Muslims which will complicate democracy as the best political system for ummah. That’s why democratic experiments in Muslim countries, like Turkey and Pakistan, are not stable.

In Indonesia, the aspiration of enforcing Islamic sharia must be seen in the context of democracy. Everywhere in Muslim countries, this “sharia political” movement doesn’t take democracy as its means and political goal. Sharia politics often resist democracy because the sharia political movement demands that all Muslims implement a certain version of sharia. The next question is this, what sort of laws are not considered central to sharia, and therefore may be neglected?

As long as the aspiration of sharia politics is limited to some groups and not part of public policy, the diversity of understanding can be accommodated. But if it is a public decision enforced by government institutions, it will bind all Muslims. If that happens, democracy as a governmental system accommodating primordial pluralism including the diversity of understanding about sharia, will be threatened.

Democracy has limits in accommodating these antagonistic primordial aspirations. The limits of democracy must be realized by both democrats and by pro-sharia political groups who struggle for their political aspirations in democratic ways. Democracy cannot accommodate the power that will kill democracy itself.