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Religious Democracy: An Introduction

Governance in Islam is one of the deep-rooted issues that dates back to the lifetime of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) and he is the first founder of a government in the history of Islam. After the Prophet (pbuh), the principle of the Islamic government"s necessity was accepted by all Muslims and was not questioned by any of the chiefs and companions. Therefore, the necessity of government in Islam is a definite matter, and the main issue in this regard is the type of government and its relationship with the people from the perspective of Islam. In Iran, this issue was raised seriously and tangibly when the Islamic Revolution of Iran began to change the authoritarian government to the Islamic government and the leaders of the revolution, pioneered by Imam Khomeini, started explaining Islam"s views of governance and their relationship to democracy. Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, at different points during the years of fighting and after victory, has explained the Islamic views of governance and the position of people in the Islamic government using the term "religious democracy". The present essay is mainly a brief introduction to explain the concept of "religious democracy" which indicates the type of government in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 In the phrase "religious democracy", the concept of "democracy" requires adherence to the people"s opinion and the concept of "religion" requires obedience to God, which, the occultation period of the infallible Imam, is achieved in the form of following the Wali e faqih. Therefore, at first glance, this combination seems to have an internal contradiction. Basically, in the monotheistic view, sovereignty belongs only to God, and anyone other than God does not have the right to rule except through a direct assignment by God[1]; in this regard, the Quranic verse reads, "Say, ‘O Allah, Master of all sovereignty! You give sovereignty to whomever You wish, and strip of sovereignty whomever You wish;"[2]. So the fundamental question is: how can obedience to the will of people and obedience to God be combined in "religious democracy"? This question can be examined and answered from different aspects among which two are mentioned here which are the most important and key elements of religious democracy.

 The first point is that Islam is based on rationality. Obviously in Islam and of course all the Abrahamic religions, religiosity and obedience to God find meaning and are accepted when they are based on a free and rational choice. In the Holy Quran, the non-application of reason by people has been repeatedly condemned and reason has been glorified[3]. Also, in certain traditions and hadiths by profound Islamic figures, reasoning and thinking have been emphasized in many cases; For example, the Prophet (pbuh) says: "There is no religion for the person who has no reason."[4] Thus, religiosity and obedience to God are based on rationality and human choice. And as another example, Imam Ali (a.s.) has considered one of the most important goals of the prophets" mission to be the awakening of human rationality: "To arouse the treasures of wisdom among human beings."[5] Therefore, at the heart of the concept of religion and obedience to God, lies the consideration of man and his choice, because valuing human rationality depends on valuing his free will and choice. In other words, theoretical reason and practical reason are intertwined. As the result, the divine government is a government where the people"s choice is valued in order to elevate the people"s rationality. Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, quoting the above-mentioned words of Imam Ali (a.s.), considers moving the thoughts and intellects of people from the level of theory to action as one of the principles of the prophets" mission and accordingly denies authoritarian rule and proclaim religious democracy:

In Islamic governance, the basic and assumed principle is that no coercive domination makes sense. Wherever there is coercive domination, there is no Islamic society and system; Wherever there are rulers who do not allow their people to think and decide, there is no Islamic society and system. Islamic society is a society where, according to the teachings and guidance of the prophets of God, people have thinking and reason, have the power to make decisions ... Even the Supreme Leader in our Islamic system, which is derived from religion and Islam, is chosen by the people ... Religious democracy means paying attention to what people want, understanding what they say and pains they have, it means letting people to take roles. In the governing system of divine prophets, all human beings must be able to learn[6].

The second point is the special place “human dignity” enjoys in Islam. God has honored man in the Quran: "Certainly We have honored the Children of Adam."[7] Accordingly, any act that violates human dignity is forbidden in Islam, and it is obvious that ignoring the will of human beings is one of the clear examples of violating human dignity. For Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei the logic of religious democracy revolves around human dignity:

Within Islamic worldview, people’s opinion and views are significant and valid before God Almighty on the basis of human dignity. ... The guardianship [Wilaya] is acceptable when it has been validated by the divine lawgiver, and the validating by the divine lawgiver means that the person to whom the guardianship—at any level of the guardianship—is given must have qualification and competence, that is, he must have justice and piety, and people should want him. This is the rationale behind religious democracy.[8]

And certainly, from the Islamic point of view, human dignity depends on not violating the divine limits, in other words, not committing sinful acts detrimental both to the individual and the society. In Islamic traditions, maintaining the dignity of the soul cannot be combined with committing sins[9] and following foul desires[10]. Therefore, choices outside the framework of Islamic law—which guarantees the preservation of human dignity—are not compatible with religious democracy; Likewise, according to the first point, choices contrary to rationality and based on ignorance are not compatible with religious democracy. Basically, the adjective religious in “religious democracy”, presupposes that the teachings and orders of religion guarantee human rationality, dignity and excellence. That is why in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Guardian Council is responsible for overseeing the guarantee of religious observance in parliamentary decisions and qualifications of candidates, also the Assembly of Experts ensures the existence of Islamic competence—justice and knowledge of Islamic law—in the Supreme Leader and constantly supervises over him.

This is where the fundamental difference between Western secular democracy and religious democracy comes into play. In religious democracy, the centrality of human beings, his/her freedom, human dignity and other human values ​​are meaningful only when they agree with the supreme reality, that is, God and the divine will. However, the secular democracies, since mostly being based on materialistic presuppositions, usually define and limit humans to utilitarian beings, whom are doomed to follow their interests at whatever cost. For instance, in democratic capitalistic societies, the primary evaluative criterion and decisive factor is the “capital”, the very fact which makes it very likely, as it has happened repeatedly, for the public opinion to be overlooked and neglected for the benefit of the wealthy minority. While in religious democracies, with the help of the divine orders and laws such manipulative and oppressive treatments are minimized.


[1] Imam Khomeini, Al-Makasib al-Moharramah: 160/2

[2] Quran 3:26

[3] In the Holy Quran, the family words of "reason" are used 49 times; In 25 verses of the Holy Quran, irrationality is strongly condemned and in 23 verses, reason is emphasized.

[4] Tuhaf al-Uqul: 54

[5] Nahj al-Balagha (Subhi Salih), First Sermon

[6] Ayatollah Khamenei, Friday Prayer Sermon, December 3, 1982

[7] Quran 17:70

[8] Ayatollah Khamenei, Speech in the meeting with university instructors and students of Qazvin, December 17, 2003

[9] Ghurar al-Hikam wa Durar al-Kalim: 634

[10] Nahj al-Balagha (Subhi Salih): 555

16:41 - 15/09/2020    /    Number : 756934    /    Show Count : 6


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