In the late 1970s, two Muslim figures attempted to make their ideas of the True Islamic State a reality. Imam Ruhollah Khomeini succeeded forming the “Islamic Republic of Iran” under the ideology of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (wilayat al-faqih). In contrast, Juhayman al-‘Utaybi failed with his friends in “al-Jama‘a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba” to establish the apocalyptic “Rightly Caliphate” (al-Khilafa al-Rashida) under the Mahdi’s rule in Mecca. Despite these differences, Khomeini and Juhayman agreed on one thing: the “Islamic Government” must be ruled by God’s rules, not human law. Both Khomeini and Juhayman rejected democracy because it promoted governance through man-made laws and not those of God.
The relationship between democracy and Shari‘a law has been a point of contention between various Islamists throughout the Muslim world but, despite the different intellectual and political orientations and affiliations in the country, it has never been problematic among those in Saudi Arabia. Islamists in Saudi Arabia have uniformly considered democracy a form of paganism, not a legitimate political system or regime. They have moved democracy from the political arena to the sphere of religious belief by condemning it through an uncompromising and purist religious discourse.
Islamists in the Kingdom have viewed democracy as a pagan creed because it promotes governance through man-made laws and not those of God. Thus, they have regarded parliaments as institutions of arbitrary rule and places in which kufr (unbelief) and shirk (polytheism) dominate because the laws that are proposed and enacted are not rooted in God’s revelation.
In the early 1990s, Islamists throughout the Arab world began participating in parliamentary elections such as in Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, and Kuwait; and they looked for fatwas from Saudi scholars to legitimize this participation. The fatwas they received varied.
Despite the unanimous agreement among Saudi religious scholars that legislation is an exclusive right of God’s and challenging this right by participating in Parliament constitutes kufr, some Saudi scholars (e.g., Grand Mufti ‘Abd al ‘Aziz ibn Baz and Muhammad ibn ‘Uthaymin) provided the Islamists in neighboring countries with fatwas allowing them to join the Parliament on certain conditions. On the other hand, other scholars maintained their position that parliamentary participation is prohibited.
Some scholars provided a fatwa which conditioned the Islamists’ participation in Parliament on making the government adopt Islamic law and to use Parliament as a means to overthrowing the ruling regime. A further condition disallowed those who were running for Parliament from accepting a government office that was in contradiction with Islamic law. They also pointed out that an oath of loyalty to the constitution is prohibited because one should be loyal only to God. They offered a way out of this bind by requiring the newly elected member of Parliament to maintain in his heart the intention to plead allegiance to the constitution as long as it is not contrary to Shari‘a. This is on the basis of the accepted principle that deeds are based on intentions.
Within the Saudi Islamist camp there have been a number of attempts to re-consider Islamic political theory and to make democracy compatible with Shari‘a. The only attempt that has truly succeeded in generating a debate among Islamists about this question resulted from a collection of published articles by Dr. Muhammad Hamid al-Ahmari, who has written extensively to prove that there is no clash between Islam and democracy and states that the latter is to be considered the best type of regime available today despite its flaws, which he believes can be corrected.
Following the war between Hezbollah and Israel in August 2006, Al-Ahmari wrote an article entitled “The Pitfall of Analyzing Matters Theologically” in which he criticizes the interference of religious scholars in political affairs. He explains the shortcomings of analyzing politics by using theology, warning that despite the importance of the religious in political matters, it should not be the only perspective to adopt.
Al-Ahmari describes theological analysts as “narrow-minded, limited in [their] range of thinking and interpretation, [and] who win the approval of those [like them who are] limited in their thinking and cannot tolerate a diversity of views.” He adds: “A one-sided narrow-minded way of thinking that does not allow any room for diversity of thought and may work well for mob leaders and military officials in the battlefield, but it does not work well on people of a higher level or in controlling a state because it will fail due to its narrow, limited and weak ideological foundation. The political process will fail even though such school of thought succeeds with the mob.”
Al-Ahmari wrote another article in celebration of the victory of Barak Obama in the 2008 US presidential election which generated many reactions. Entitled “The Victory of Democracy over Paganism in the US elections, Al-Ahmari describes this election as a
victory for the democracy of numbers (the will of the majority), the democracy of opinions (the public took heed of opposite opinions), and the democracy of interests (opposition is necessary to evaluate the best position). Democracy triumphed over race (a black man won), and gender (a woman almost won the election). Democracy [until now] has not triumphed over religion; if Obama was a Muslim, he would not have won the presidency. If he was an Arab, he may not have won either. However, this is what has happened now, and what the future holds remains unknown. Yet, [we should] remember that two people of Arab origin are competing in the state of New Hampshire.
Al-Ahmari saw in Obama’s victory a triumph for minorities, which further confirms the value of freedom in the US. He adds a sharp comment on the state of the Arab world saying: “It is part of this world’s fate that freedom and the respect for it are firmly rooted in a government [US government] that is superior to us, which brings the hope that freedom will seep through to the societies of backwardness and slavery. It is part of this world’s luck that we aspire to create our own freedom and require the freed to treat us as humans and help us get rid of the worship of our idols.” Obama’s win is no longer one man’s victory, but a triumph of principles and ideas. It is an example that the people of the Arab region need to emulate. Democracy is no longer paganism. In fact, the dictatorships that rule the Muslim world and the ideologies that protect them are.
Al-Ahmari’s articles generated numerous and varied reactions, which were reflected in scores of newspaper pages and internet websites that debated and discussed his ideas, not to mention television interviews and lectures in literary clubs. Furthermore, his articles elicited powerful reactions from a group of Salafis and theologians, as might be expected. Most of these reactions dealt with side issues and were of a sectarian nature that used a dogmatic language and failed to present any constructive discussion of Al-Ahmari’s views. However, one particular Salafi group sought to answer Al-Ahmari to illustrate that democracy is not a political paradise, but rather is a flawed system since the election process levels the differences between the commoners and the elites, which is unacceptable. Democracy, this group argued, is another form of colonialism. The most important response to al-Ahmari’s ideas came from Dr. Nasir al-‘Umar who criticized the state of obsession that has befallen writers following Obama’s victory in the US election. Despite al-‘Umar’s admission of the relative existence of freedom in the US, he believes that the US system of governance is a dictatorship since democracy is not a synonym of freedom. Voters are subjected to the influence of the media, which in turn control their thinking. Meanwhile, the media are under the power of a controlling clique.
Al-Ahmari responded powerfully to all those who criticized him. One of the most important issues he pointed out in his response is the role of the media in influencing election results. He uncovered the hypocrisy of the religious scholars who employed money and the media in their municipal election campaigns in Saudi Arabia in 2005 and parliamentary ones in Kuwait. He writes:
Who is it who speaks of using money and publicity? I hope these people remember the competition between Salafis and the brothers [i.e., Muslim Brotherhood] in the municipal elections in the Kingdom and the Islamists’ internecine struggle in Kuwait. If these are crimes then the so-called “Golden lists” issued by the Islamists, the publicity and banquets are a front for the struggle between the Islamists, who donated and spent money and whose legitimacy was never questioned. No one objected to these practices, so why object now when this pertains to the non-Muslims.
al-Ahmari fought vociferously for his opinions, and the Islamists similarly responded, which enriched the Islamic-political discourse and the understanding of Saudi Islamists of the meaning of democracy and freedom. Al-Ahmari was not alone in defending his ideas, as many adopted his views, which prompted his opponents to call them the “neo-reformists.” The details of this struggle deserve further examination, which will not be possible due to the space constraints here.
The importance of al-Ahmari’s opinions lies, first of all, in his ability to recapture politics from the sphere of religious debate to that of worldly affairs by exposing theological analysis to criticism and questioning its credibility. He was able to bring the Islamists to discuss the value of democracy instead of being content with prohibiting it and projecting it as a form of blasphemy. This includes getting them to acknowledge, both implicitly and explicitly, its value to the here and now.
Second, al-Ahmari managed to stir a strong debate amongst the Islamists in Saudi Arabia, which no other writer has managed to achieve. One reason for this is al-Ahmari’s “past,” having been one of the prominent ideologues of the “Islamic awakening” (Sahwa) in the 1990s. Furthermore, his strong and sharp language succeeded in provoking many. He remained very active by writing in the press and by appearing on television talk shows and on the lecture circuit, which he used to clarify his ideas and respond to his opponents.
Third, al-Ahmari succeeded in restoring a degree of respect for such ideals as freedom and democracy among some of the Islamists, albeit to a limited degree.
Al-Ahmari is presently leading a new reformist Islamic trend in the Kingdom — one that aims to restore the respect of individual freedom in relation to political and religious despotism. It remains an open question how successful this trend will be.
. Ruhollah Khomeini, Islamic Government (New York: Manor Books, 1979).
. Mahdi means the rightly guided one. Here it refers to Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allah al-Qahtani (killed in 1979), whom Juhayman and his colleagues in the al-Jama’a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba believe is the awaited Mahdi.
. See: Juhayman ‘Utaybi, Risala fi al-Imara wa-al-Bay’a wa-al-Ta’a (Essay on the Emirate and Pledge of Allegiance and Obedience), available at www.tawhed.ws/r1?i=6513&x=fcchouzr; and Khomeini, Ruh Allah, Islamic Government.
. See, for example, Safar al-Hawali, Muhadarah: Qira’a fi al-dasatir al-qawmiyya (Lecture: A Reading on Nationalist Constitutions); Nasir al-‘Umar, Min Tawabi’ al-intikhabat al-amrikiyya: madha sana’at al-dimuqratiyya? (The Aftermath of US Elections: What has Democracy Achieved?), available at http://www.almoslim.net/node/102742; ‘Ali al-Khudhayr, Fatwa fi hukm al-barlamanat (A Fatwa about the Legality of Parliaments) <unpublished>; Mani’ al-Juhani and others, al-Mawsu’ah al-muyassara fi al-adyan wa al-madhahib wa al-ahzab al-mu‘asira (Encyclopaedia of Religions, Sects and Contemporary Parties), Vol. 2, pp. 1056-7.
. See, for example, Rabi’ al-Madkhali, in his book: Jama’a wahida la jama‘at wa sirat wahid la ‘asharat (One Community not Communities and One Path not Tens of Paths). pp. 39-40.
. Fatawa al-Lajnah al-Da’ima lil Buhuth al-‘Ilmiyya wa al-Ifta’, Vol. 23, pp. 406-7. The fatwa was issued by Ibn Baz, ‘Abd al-Razzaq ‘Afifi, ‘Abd Allah b. Ghudayyan and ‘Abd Allah b. Qu’ud.
. This fatwa was issued by Ibn ‘Uthaymin. See: Hamad al-Hajiri, hukm al-dimuqratiyah fi al-Islam [The Legal Value of Democracy in Islam], p. 5 (unpublished).
. For example, ‘Abd Allah al-Hamid.
. Muhammad al-Ahmari, Khid‘at al-tahlil al-‘Aqadi (The Trick of Theological Analysis), available at http://www.alasr.ws/index.cfm?method=home.con&contentID=8070.
. Muhammad al-Ahmari, Khid‘at al-tahlil al-‘Aqadi.
. Muhammad al-Ahmari, Khid‘at al-tahlil al-‘Aqadi.
. Muhammad al-Ahmari, Intisar al-dimuqratiyya ‘ala al-wathaniyya fi al-intikhabat al-amrikiyya [The Victory of Democracy over Paganism in the US Elections], http://www.alasr.ws/index.cfm?method=home.con&ContentId=10439 .
. Muhammad al-Ahmari, Intisar al-dimuqratiyya ‘ala al-wathaniyya fi al-intikhabat al-amrikiyya
. Muhammad al-Ahmari, Intisar al-dimuqratiyya ‘ala al-wathaniyya fi al-intikhabat al-amrikiyya
. For example, see Lutf Allah Khujah, Sidq al-tahlil al-‘aqadi [The Truthfulness of Theological Analysis], http://www.alasr.ws/index.cfm?method=home.con&ContentId=8227; and Bandar Al-Shuwayqi, Khid‘at al-tahlil al-siyasi [The Trick of Political Analysis], http://www.dorar.net/art/61.
. ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Silmi, al-Azmah al-waqi’iyya li-l-dimuqratiyya [The Real Crisis of Democracy], http://www.alqlm.com/index.cfm?method=home.con&contentID=497; and Badr al-‘Amir, Hawas al-dimuqratiyya [The Obsession with Democracy], http://www.islamtoday.net/nawafeth/artshow-40-105729.htm.
. Badr al-‘Amir, Hawas al-dimuqratiyya [The Obsession with Democracy], http://www.islamtoday.net/nawafeth/artshow-40-105729.htm.
. Nasir Al-‘Umar, al-Diktaturiyya al-fikriyyah allati yumarisuha du‘at al-dimuqratiyya akhtar min al-idariyya [The Intellectual Dictatorship Exercised by the Promoters of Democracy is More Dangerous than the Administrative], http://www.almoslim.net/node/102391. Al-‘Umar repeated and expanded on these ideas in his article: Min tawabi’ al-intikhabat al-amrikiyya: wa madha sana‘at al-dimuqratiyya? [The Aftermath of the US Elections: What Has Democracy Achieved?], http://www.almoslim.net/node/102742.
. Okaz Newspaper, Issue 2720, November 27, 2008.
. For example, see N. Qudaymi, Ashwaq al-Hurriyya [Longing for Freedom] and Fouad al-Farhan, al-Tahlil al-‘aqadi li-l-intikhabat al-amrikiyya [The Theological Analysis of the US Elections], http://www.alasr.ws/index.cfm?method=home.con&contentID=1047.