Islam, Liberalism, and Democracy

Mohammad Azadpur,
San Francisco State University

Abdulkarim Soroush argues that to appreciate the significance of the concept of Islamic democracy, we need to decouple liberalism and democracy. [1] It is apparent that for Soroush the central concern is the discord between the liberal and the Islamic accounts of human nature, and to make his case, Soroush sets up a straw-man argument for the liberal tradition.  I will draw upon Islamic and liberal texts to articulate (fairly) whether there is such a discord and to determine its scope.

I would like to begin this paper with a consideration of two seemingly contradictory Qur’anic passages that bear directly on the idea of a democratic political organization. In Sura 2 ( al-Baqara ), verse 213, it is said that

Mankind was one single nation (umma, i.e., community),

And God sent Messengers

With glad tidings and warnings;

And with them He sent

The Book in truth,

To judge between people

In matters wherein

They differed.

This passage (together with verses 83-84 of the third Sura, Al-i-Imran) is often invoked to promote an intolerant view of non-Muslims. It is argued that an Islamic political organization is the preferred community and the one which should be adopted (perhaps even by force) by all of mankind. Of course, this reading does not necessarily tolerate the faithful of other religions living under the Islamic political banner. Everyone, it is maintained, ought to accept Islam as their faith. [2] This reading, however, is not supported by verse 48 of Sura 5, al-Ma’ida :

To Thee [O Muhammad] we sent the Scripture

In truth, confirming

The scripture [i.e., all revelations] that came

Before it; and guarding it

In safety …

To each among you

Have We prescribed a Law

And an Open Way.

If God had so willed.

He would have made you

A single People, but (His

Plan is) to test you in what

He hath given you: so strive

As in a race for all virtues.

Now, this passage seems to celebrate the difference between people and their religious and political commitments. In fact, it declares that God intended variety in religious practice and political organization, and that this plurality ought to be cultivated.

A reasonable way out of this predicament is to contextualize these passages and one way to do that is to take the first passage as indicative of the essential relatedness of human beings before God. This approach draws from verse 172 of Sura 7 ( al-A’raf ) in which God calls forth all the descendents of Adam — all of humanity — and asks them who is their Lord, and they all affirm the lordship of God. The notion of a single community of mankind in 2:213 can be taken to point to this transhistorical covenant between God and all of mankind as descendants of Adam. The unfolding of history then tests humanity on their allegiance to the lordship of God and its implications, and prophets are sent to remind people of their duties and warn them of the consequences of their violations. Now verse 5:48, quoted above, is explained as addressing not the transhistorical singular community of the descendants of Adam, but the historical communities formed by the allegiances of the humanity to the various prophets that God has sent. The verse is beautifully tolerant of the plurality of the faithful communities and demands that the prophet Muhammad preserve this plurality. The inhabitants of these communities are not heretics, for not being nominal Muslims, but, in fact, they carry out the will of God and spread virtue.

This harmonization of 2:213 and 5:48 can be used to support a notion of Islamic democracy, a political organization where Muslims constitute a strong majority. In such circumstances, a Muslim state founded in Islamic law and practice will cultivate the plurality of religious communities living alongside with it and all race for the attainment and promotion of virtues. This is probably the implicit Koranic ground for Soroush’s advocacy of Islamic democracy. In “Tolerance and Governance,” he maintains that “[d]emocracy is comprised of a method of restricting the power of the rulers and rationalizing their deliberations and policies, so that they will be less vulnerable to error and corruption, more open to exhortation, moderation, consultation; and so that violence and revolution will not become necessary” (p. 134). Democracy is then a form of political association that can accommodate the plurality of communities mentioned in 5:48. It does so by allowing for the co-operation and consultation between different groups and individuals such that the virtues of truth and justice are promoted and the vices of corruption and violence are curtailed.

Soroush, however, argues for an Islamic democracy by launching an assault on the liberal conception of democracy. He finds liberalism reductionistic, as it fails to accommodate the religious aspect of human beings. He begins affirmatively:

Liberal democracy draws inspiration and strength from the authentic axiom that states: human beings are naturally free and unique, their appetites and opinions are irreducibly disparate and indeterminably dynamic, and restraining this multifarious heterogeneity is neither possible nor desirable (p. 144).

Then he becomes critical:

Is the continuous renewal of understanding of the religion and the plurality of faiths less than that of appetites? Is the religious society not, by nature, plural and pluralistic? Those who have endured ebbs and flows of the heart, avalanches of doubt, clashes of belief, surges of faith, the violence of spiritual storms, and the plundering swell of visions that restlessly and ruthlessly assail the delicate sanctuary of the heart understand that the heterogeneity of souls and the wanderings of the hearts is a hundred times greater than that of thoughts, tasks, limbs, and tendencies (p. 144).

Soroush then argues that we need to decouple liberalism and democracy, and he advances the idea of religious democracy, or rather more precisely, in the case of Iran, an Islamic democracy. An Islamic democracy facilitates the plurality of human appetites, passions, and thoughts without overlooking the plurality of religious commitments and feelings.

Soroush’s criticism coincides to a large extent with the views of the critics of classical liberalism. These critics take issue with liberalism’s combination of (1) focus on the individual as the end of political organization and (2) the rejection of the view that political organization should aim to change or improve human nature. They interpret these claims as leaving liberalism in a position of pandering to the lowest common denominator. Classical liberals, according to this line of protest,

all gave pride of place, among human motivations, to the desire for power, pleasure and material possessions. Humanity, they argue, is reduced in liberal theory to nothing more than a competitive mass of market individuals — voracious consumers with unlimited appetites, hostile or indifferent to the well-being of others, and requiring no more of their political and legal institutions than that they secure the conditions for market activity [3]

This criticism puts liberalism in an awkward position, but not one that it cannot free itself from. The liberal position is capable of accommodating other aspects of the human being, including the cultural and the religious, rather easily. Just as classical liberalism advocates a framework to secure conditions for market activity, procedural liberals argue that such a framework can be extended to include the heterogeneous cultural and religious domains. Such a view draws from the Kantian insight that human dignity is associated less with a particular conception of the good life than with the ability of each to determine such a conception for himself or herself . [4] Procedural liberalism avoids any substantive commitment to the good (as the object of religion and high culture), and simply provides the opportunity for people to commit themselves to a particular conception and flourish.

I would like to press the dialectic of the debate on liberalism just a bit further: The inclusion of cultural and religious considerations pose further relevant challenges to liberalism. For example, Charles Taylor, in “The Politics of Recognition” argues that procedural liberalism is plagued by the politics of difference.He maintains that, at its best, procedural liberalism is capable of letting cultures defend themselves, within reasonable bounds. “But the further demand we are looking at here is that we recognize the equal value of different cultures; that we not only let them survive, but acknowledge their worth ” ( p. 64). In other words, it is not right to demarcate cultural and religious boundaries and tell people to do what matters for them within those limits. This is clearly shortsighted and overlooks the complexity of cultural transactions and human involvements. Say, the French move into Algeria, undermine her autonomy and destroy her political institutions and then impose a democratic order based on procedural liberalism. The order is: Keep the Muslim natives in their quarters and allow them the freedom to engage in their cultural and religious activities, and the French and the secular Algerians can do the same. Is that going to resolve the tensions? What about the injustices perpetrated by the colonists? How about the oppression and the degradation of the native culture? How about the damage to the native’s self-perception and his or her dignity? Taylor claims that to truly address these Fanonist concerns and to achieve real freedom and equality we need to pass through a revision of the images of inferiority inculcated by the dominant groups (p. 66). And to pass through this revision there is need for genuine dialogue where the downtrodden are given a real voice. Such a dialogue culminates in a Gadamerian fusion of horizons as well as a revision as well as a revision of the dominant mode of discourse.

I suppose at this point I should say that this is how I want to interpret the Koranic idea of plurality of human communities struggling for justice and good deeds while respecting and recognizing each other’s differences and worth. Such a respect and recognition, in my opinion, can only emerge from a dialogue on the model of Taylor’s reformed liberalism, i.e., a liberalism that embraces the politics of recognition. The crucial thing is that for a genuine liberal democracy to flourish, all members of the political association should be able to express their identities for the sake of truth and justice. The transition to this ideal is inevitably turbulent as some of the voices, because of a long history of oppression and exploitation, may require nurturing and therapy. Nevertheless, the virtues of the endpoint justify the pains of its birth.

One final point I should like to make (so as to perhaps tie my arguments to the concerns of Jeffrey Stout in Democracy and Tradition [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004]) concerns the importance of substantive considerations or rather truth in the politics of recognition. A genuine fusion of horizons cannot be achieved without respect for truth and the willingness to revise one’s commitments and activities in order to bring one to the truth. In the Islamic tradition, it is deference to God and his will that enforces the primacy of truth. The question is whether Stout’s endorsement of a deflationary theory of truth is capable of meeting this need. I believe that he makes a genuine effort to allow for a dialogue that cultivates the politics of recognition through his construal of the logic of discursive practices. But reducing truth to the accordance with the endorsements of the deontic scorekeepers (pp. 270-78), the masters of the mutually recognitive activities, seems to do away with the ordinary notion that our beliefs are justified if they get things right. In other words, Stout’s position does not aim to preserve the phenomenology of justifying beliefs, and I am not convinced (from what I have read of his work) why we should give up the intuition that we have the world in view when we launch a true belief appropriately. [5]


[1] Abdoulkarim Soroush, “Tolerance and Governance: A discourse on religion and democracy”, in Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush , trans. and ed. Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri (Oxford: Oxford University Pres,, 2000), p. 138.

[2] See Abdulaziz Sachedina’s reading of Sayyid Qutb, the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism , pp. 39-40.

[3] Jeremy Waldron, “Liberalism”, in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy , ed. Edward Craig (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 601.

[4] See Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,”in Multiculturalism, ed. Amy Gutman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 57.

[5] For a more detailed account of ethical realism, refer to John McDowell’s work, especially “Virtue and Reason” in Mind, Value, and Reality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

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