Many in the Muslim world and in the West differ on the ways to reach democratic governance. Significant questions remain:
Democracy or Theocracy?
How can democracy thrive in countries with authoritarian
cultures? Can democracy exist where religion and politics
are intertwined? The electoral victories of Shiites in Iraq and
Hamas in Palestine seem antithetical to Western democracy's
separation of church and state. Is it possible to have democracy
Although many Muslim and Western governments talk about
democracy, self-determination as understood by the majority of those polled does not require a separation of religion
and state. Poll data show that large majorities of respondents in
the countries surveyed cite the equal importance of Islam and
democracy as essential to the quality of their lives and to the future progress of the Muslim world. Politics and Islam have been
mixed from Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Jordan to Pakistan,
Malaysia, and Indonesia, where Islamically oriented candidates
and/or parties have succeeded in national and local elections.
Along with indicating strong support for Islam and democracy,
poll responses also reveal widespread support for Sharia.
Commonly thought of in the West as a harsh and primitive
code of law, Sharia represents something very different for
many Muslims. Sharia literally means "the path to water" but
means "the path to God" when used in a religious context and
symbolizes a path of both spiritual and societal guidance. Sharia
represents the moral compass of a Muslim's personal and public
life. So what are Muslims calling for whfti they say they want
Sharia as a source of legislation? The answer to this is as diverse
as the Muslim community.
Historically, the principles of Sharia could be used to limit the
power of the sultan. A Muslim writer for Al Jazeera magazine,21
Sheikha Sajicta, wrote in October 2006:
It's logical to install Sharia Law in Arab and Muslim states,
where the majority of the population is Muslim. It's the only
way for Muslims to escape the dictatorship and oppression
of some of the Arab rulers, those who favor perceived self-
interest over what's best for their nations.
In response to a question posted on the
"Let's Talk" section,
Islam advocates justice and I see no conflict between Islamic
law and human rights. On the contrary, applying Islamic
law in Muslim states safeguards human rights against the oppression of some of the Arab rulers who are only focused
on how to use their influence to the utmost before they lose
When the Nigerian state of Kano first announced it would apply Sharia in 2000, for example, many Nigerians gathered to
celebrate the decision in the state capital's main prayer grounds.
Hassan Dambaba, a teacher who was present at the proclamation ceremony, said, "It is the fulfillment of our dreams. Now we
can practice our religion as we should."
The world's attention turned to Nigeria in 2002 when a 30-year-old Nigerian woman, Amina
Lawal, was sentenced to death
by stoning. In response to her pregnancy out of wedlock, the
Islamic court convicted her of adultery, punishable by stoning,
Sharia as a source of le'gislation
today, draws strong support fro
ban 7 in 10 Nigerian
is who say they want sharia as at least, a source of legislation lin-5 wants it as
the only source.
Democracy or Theocracy?
While the man who allegedly
had sexual relations with her
was freed because of the lack
of four witnesses. Although
such cases have come to represent Sbaria in the West, many Muslims believe that these cases
reflect a departure from the true spirit of Sbaria. An editorial in
the Ghanaian Chronicle read:
Some so-called Muslim scholars have attempted to justify
stoning on the grounds that it applies where the adulterers
and fornicators are married. In any case, in the case of
Amina Lawal and the Katsina Sharia court how come that
no punishment was meted out to the man who made Amina
Lawal pregnant? Why create the impression that there is
no justice for women in Islam? Obviously at work was a
combination of pre-Islamic practices, male chauvinism,
sheer ignorance, and zealotry.
A Sharia Court of Appeal overturned her conviction in 2003.
According to four of the five judges, the original sentence had
violated certain precepts of Islamic law because: it did not meet
the requirement that three local judges hear her case only
one was present at the time of conviction; the defendant's right
to proper legal defense was not provided;25 and circumstantial
evidence, in this case her pregnancy, was not considered sufficient evidence, according to Islamic
The charges by scholars that Nigeria's Islamic court had mis-
applied Islamic law in the Lawal case reflect the plurality of
interpretations within the Islamic legal tradition.
It is likely that Nigerian Muslims will continue to explore the
flexibility built into Sharia as they develop their system of law.
According to Gallup data, Sharia as a source of legislation today
draws strong support from more than 7 in 10 Nigerian Muslims who say they want Sharia as at least a source of legislation 1 in 5 wants it as the only source. At the same time, about 1
in 5 does not want it to be a source of legislation at all.
If the West and many Muslims want democracy for the
Muslim world seeing it as a stabilizing force and key to future
progress critical questions must be addressed:
Why is democracy absent in so much of the Muslim
world? Is Islam the problem?
How do 1.3 billion Muslims view democracy?
Should majority Muslim support for Sharia make the
When Muslim men and women express a desire for Sharia, what do they mean?
What is Muslim democratic thought?
If democracy is a desired goal for many Muslims and
for U.S. foreign policy, do Muslims believe the West
has any role to play?
Excerpted from "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think"
written by John L. Esposito & Dalia Mogahed.
John L. Esposito is an Islamic studies
professor at Georgetown University. Dalia Mogahed is executive director of the
Center for Muslim Studies at Gallup.