Fethullah Gulen on Islam and Democracy

One of today’s most vibrant discussions happens to be on religion (Islam in particular) and democracy. As a powerful dynamic shaping individual’s and society’s lives, religion has always been treated with caution at the very least in modern democracies. Some argued that Islam could never be at peace with democracy due to its and every religion’s dogmatic nature, others think the two are incomparable like apples and oranges. Nevertheless, religion is and has always been an indispensable aspect of human life and it has much to say about the way we lead our lives as individuals as well as societies. It is only normal that religion has an impact on political life as well. The discussion flares up at this point; since much of the world regards democracy as the best form of government, is there a way to reconcile the two or should religion stay out of government affairs all together.

We would like to shed light on Fethullah Gulen’s views on the subject. The question of Islam and Democracy has found its way to Mr. Gulen many times and he shared his ideas on the subject. He starts out touching on the comparison problem: “If we want to analyze religion, democracy, or any other system or philosophy accurately, we should focus on humanity and human life. From this perspective, religion in general and Islam in particular cannot be compared on the same basis with democracy or any other political, social, or economic system. Religion focuses primarily on the immutable aspects of life and existence, whereas political, social, and economic systems or ideologies concern only certain variable, social aspects of our worldly life.”

It is obvious that if we approach the matter with this view of “partial comparison” we can get a better understanding of the issue. Another aspect is to stay away from extremes at both ends; namely the notion that “we can’t have a true democracy if religion is involved.” A democracy can easily be formed in a Muslim society given that it does not push people away from religion and the people agree on it. The aspects of life with which the religion is concerned are the same today as they were at the beginning of human life. They have to do with the most basic existential questions of “Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where do I go from here?” Democracy on the other hand is a political system that is being developed and perfected by human experience day by day. Now, there exist areas of life where religion and democracy do overlay, we should focus the discussion on these subjects.

According to Fethullah Gulen “the main aim of Islam and its unchangeable dimensions affect its rules governing the changeable aspects of our lives.” On the other hand, Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government or attempt to shape it. Instead, Islam establishes fundamental principles that orient a government’s general character, leaving it to the people to choose the type and form of government according to time and circumstances. If we approach the matter in this light and compare Islam with today’s modern liberal democracy, we will better understand the position of Islam and democracy with respect to each other.

Main difference of democracy from other systems is that in democracies people rule themselves, instead of being ruled by a monarch or group of people. Islam does not prohibit people from choosing the system under which they want to live, so there is no problem here. Islam does, however, require rulers and governments to regard several points when operating. First and foremost, every human being is equal in the eyes of the creator and should be treated with the same principle. No one should be discriminated against based on race, color, age, nationality, or physical traits. The Prophet declared: “You are all from Adam, and Adam is from earth. O servants of God, be brothers [and sisters].” Nobody has an inherent right to rule others because they’re wealthier or more powerful.

Islam also upholds the following fundamental principles:

1. Power lies in truth, a repudiation of the common idea that truth relies upon power.

2. Justice and the rule of law are essential.

3. Freedom of belief and rights to life, personal property, reproduction, and health (both mental and physical) cannot be violated.

4. The privacy and immunity of individual life must be maintained.

5. No one can be convicted of a crime without evidence, or accused and punished for someone else’s crime.

6. An advisory system of administration is essential.

These are universal values and would never clash with democracies.

All rights are equally important, and an individual’s right cannot be sacrificed for society’s sake. Islam considers a society to be composed of conscious individuals equipped with free will and having responsibility toward both themselves and others. Islam goes a step further by adding a cosmic dimension. It sees humanity as the “motor” of history, contrary to fatalistic approaches of some of the nineteenth century Western philosophies of history such as dialectical materialism and historicism. Just as every individual’s will and behavior determine the outcome of his or her life in this world and in the hereafter, a society’s progress or decline is determined by the will, world-view, and lifestyle of its inhabitants. The Qur’an (13:11) says: “God will not change the state of a people unless they change themselves [with respect to their beliefs, world-view, and lifestyle].” In other words, each society holds the reins of its fate in its own hands. The prophetic tradition emphasizes this idea: “You will be ruled according to how you are.”(4) This is the basic character and spirit of democracy, which does not conflict with any Islamic principle.

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