Relationship between Democracy and Islamic Government

Monday, June 16, 2008

Seyed Hadi Khosrow-Shahi

Democracy is a complex concept which can be realized in various forms. However, the common denominator of all forms of democracy is the “rule of people” and “elections”. The relationship between Islam and democracy has always been a cause of debates between Muslim and non-Muslim thinkers. There is a delicate point when comparing Islam and democracy: Islam is a divine religion while democracy is a manmade way of governance. Therefore, comparison should be made between “Islamic system” and “democratic system”.

Major commonalties between an Islamic and a democratic system include: rule of law, republicanism, separation of powers, and guarantees on protection of public rights and freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and parties. The author maintains that the above principles have been observed in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic system is, therefore, a democratic system. People can determine their fate through elections and the president, members of local councils, Majlis deputies, as well as members of the Assembly of Experts are chosen through people’s direct votes.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran guarantees political and social rights and freedoms of citizens and enforces the principle of supervision over power as a means to prevent dictatorship. Even the Supreme Leader should be just and pious and the Assembly of Experts supervises his performance. Other powerful institutions such as the Majlis, president, and judiciary are directly or indirectly supervised by the people.

Therefore, the Islamic system is a forerunner in terms of protecting the rights and interests of the nation and realizing people’s participation in political affairs.

Democracy is a complex concept which has been introduced by a number of thinkers and many political scholars have expanded it during past centuries. Democracy may mean many things and, therefore, may appear in different forms. However, there is a common denominator among those forms which is the main pillar of democracy and it is nothing but the “rule of people”. The rule of people is also a vast concept and its realization needs many tools, the most important of which is elections and polls.

Democracy encompasses philosophical, ideological and political themes which are related to its main pillar, “the rule of people”. Those philosophical and ideological themes emanate from such concepts as governance, leadership, and legitimacy while political themes are closely related to strategic aspects of the government. The main issue here is the relationship between democracy and the Islamic system which is a controversial issue preoccupying many Muslim scholars, both those who are fundamentalists and those who are inclined toward secularism.

The main problem with such comparison is that Islam is a “divine religion” while democracy is “a materialistic political method” and therefore, comparison between them would be problematic and seems to be illogical. Comparison should be made between two things that are of the same type.

Therefore, “democratic system” should be compared to “Islamic system” because an Islamic system would be based on Islam both comparatively and practically and includes other subsystems such as the political, economic, and social subsystems of the system. Such subsystems are fully developed and some of them may have been already in force in various places.

If we considered philosophical and theoretical concepts of democracy, not as a political practice in a special social environment, but as a tool for the establishment of government, there would be many commonalities between a democratic system and the political system of Islam. Of course, all aspects of that Islamic government would not be necessarily democratic because Islam has its own executive tools some of which conform to a democratic system and some others do not conform. However, commonalties between the two systems can be summarized as follows.

1.    Rule of law

Democratic and Islamic systems stress on the rule of law. Of course, we must not ignore differences in the origin of laws under Islamic and democratic systems.

Democracy has considered principles to assure conformance of the government to the rule of law, the most important of which include existence of the constitution which guarantees mutual laws and obligations of the government and the people, separation of powers, judicial supervision, and support for personal laws and freedoms, especially political laws and freedoms.

The Islamic system has tried to enforce those principles, which are based on fundamental principles of Islam. That is, the nation first formulated a constitution through electing experts. Then it voted for that constitution. The constitution has stipulated separation of powers and is a criterion for grading laws and supporting personal and social rights and freedoms. Also, needed legal institutions for protecting religious principles and the constitution have been taken into consideration.

Perhaps Article 107 of the constitution which stipulates that “the leader is equal to all other peoples before the law” is a prominent example of superiority of law in the Islamic system as the final point of reference.

2.    Republicanism

Islamic and democratic systems are common in that people can play their role in establishing the government and determining its content. However, the Islamic system has restricted republicanism to Islam because “being Islamic” is the true meaning of republicanism from the viewpoint of Islam.

Therefore, “republic” is the outward façade of the Islamic  government while “being Islamic” is its content and the name “Islamic Republic” was one of the main goals people sought in early years after the Islamic Revolution, chanted slogans about it, and voted for it during the first plebiscite after the revolution.

3.    Separation of powers

This principle is one of the most basic principles of democracy which was introduced by the famous French thinker, Montesquieu. After him, separation of powers has remained as a requisite for democratic rule and has been accepted by democratic governments. This principle has also been accepted by the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Article 57 of the Iranian constitution notes: “Ruling powers in the Islamic Republic of Iran include the legislature, the executive and the judiciary which work under the supervision of the absolute guardianship of Muslim jurist and Imam of the ummah according to forthcoming articles of this law. These forces are independent of each other.”

Also, the constitution has delegated a superior power to Imam of ummah compared to the said powers without meaning that Imam’s power being beyond the reach of the law. The presence of a supervising power over the main branches of the Islamic system is very important and has even been recognized by advocates of democracy.

4.    Public rights and freedoms

Some viewpoints show that there are differences among political thinkers about roots of freedom and rights and laws pertaining to them. However, after a certain stage, they reach an agreement. Islam has been a forerunner in establishing such rights and freedoms and contemporary experience of the Islamic Revolution aimed to implement changes that have been considered by Islam in this regard.

Articles 19 to 21 of the Iranian constitution stress on the equality and justice; Articles 23-27 pertain to political rights and freedoms, Articles 34 to 36 pertain to the right to petition, Article 29 is related to social security and Articles 46 and 47 reflect on the right to private ownership. The constitution has stipulated about political rights and freedoms as well as political and social participation that the limits of political and social freedoms are set by the law. Setting limits for political and social freedoms is a requisite for an Islamic system.

Also, people should have the right to vote on various affairs of their country, and this has been realized in the Islamic Republic of Iran through election of the president, members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis), members of other assemblies and so on through public votes.

According to the Iranian constitution, “Absolute rule over the world and humans is for God and it is Him that has given power of self-determination to human beings. Nobody can deprive humans from that God-given right or exploit it for the interests of a certain person or group and the nation shall implement its God-given right.” According to an Islamic constitution legal primary rights and political freedoms are divided into several categories as follows:

  1. Freedom of expression: “Inquisition is forbidden and nobody can be prosecuted or chided simply for holding a specific conviction.”
  2. Freedom of association and parties: The Iranian constitution has recognized activities by political and guild-related parties, associations, and societies; Islamic societies and religious minorities, provided that they do not harm the basic principles of independence and freedom or national unity, or Islamic tenets, and the pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, nobody can be forbidden from becoming a member to such parties or forced to be a member of a specific party.
  3. Freedom of expression: Print media are free to express their positions and viewpoints as long as they do not harm Islam and the rights of other people.
  4. Freedom of protests and demonstrations: Staging rallies and demonstrations without carrying firearms would be of no objection.

These are major forms of freedoms and rights that have been also recognized by democratic systems.

A glance at the outcomes of civil society, apart from its philosophical themes, or the structure of Western society, which has created it, would prove that those outcomes conform to the Iranian constitution; such themes as superiority of the law and equality of people before it, existence of civil society organizations which have been established by the people in contrast to the political society, political development, freedom, social order, and so forth.

Participation of the Iranian nation in the Islamic system or the role played by people in political and social life of the system is a notable point. Islam has considered a special framework for people’s participation in political affairs, which is even rare among democratic systems and it is the concept of “councils”. No other concept in conventional methods of public participation can be compared to it. Here, we will bring comparative and practical examples of public participation in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the past 20 years.

  1. Less than two months after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iranians took part in a plebiscite through which 98.2 percent of the nation voted for the Islamic Republic.
  2. Afterwards, the nation elected its representatives for the Assembly of Experts which were in charge of formulating the constitution.
  3. Some 99.5 percent of participants in the polls voted positive for the constitution whose text had been disclosed by newspapers, magazines, at universities and mosques, on the streets and through mass communication media.
  4. People have thus far elected five presidents through seven presidential polls the last of which was the ninth presidential election which amazed the world and more than 80 percent of eligible voters took part in the vote. This figure for election turnout is unparalleled, even in democratic countries.
  5. People have, thus far, taken part in five elections for the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis).
  6. Iranians have voted three times for the election of members of the Assembly of Experts. The assembly is tasked with overseeing performance of the supreme leader, as well as appointing or dismissing him.
  7. After agreement of all people to leadership of Imam Khomeini, his successor was chosen through indirect votes. That means, people voted for members of the Assembly of Experts who in turn chose Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei as leader in 1989.
  8. During preceding months, people have chosen their representatives for local municipal councils, as one of the most important manifestations of their political participation and the election, which was a final stage in the realization of self-determination right of the nation, was in line with overall structure of the Islamic system.

Widespread participation of the Iranian people in political affairs proves that the system attaches great significance to this issue and considers it a powerful backing for the government and the leader. Then the supreme leader is the pivot of the Islamic system while councils make its basis. A council is the executive arm of the system and links all other components of the Islamic system including the Majlis, the judiciary, and the executive. In fact, people assert their presence in all state bodies through central councils and implement their right to self-determination. The highest ranking examples of councils in the Islamic Republic of Iran are as follows:

  1. The Expediency Council, which is the highest ranking council in Iran through which general policies are formulated and the highest ranking officials are its members;
  2. Assembly of Experts whose task was explained above;
  3. The Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) which is the legislative body of the Islamic system;
  4. The Guardian Council, which oversees Majlis’ ratification for compliance to Islamic rules;
  5. The Supreme National Security Council, which comprises the highest ranking authorities of Iran and encompasses a number of subsidiary councils;
  6. The cabinet which is the executive arm of the Islamic system;
  7. Local, urban and rural municipal councils.

While political participation in democratic systems is limited to parties, the Islamic system has paved the way for all social and individual activities.

At present, democratic systems are incapable of getting rid of the new form of dictatorship, which is nagging it. On the one hand, political parties use various propaganda gimmicks against their rivals and, on the other hand, their interest groups lobby with the governments and the public opinion in their favor. After gaining power, the political parties implement orders which are given to them and serve the interests of those who have supported them. They include major economic organizations and cartels as well as multinational companies or secret political and ideological forces. This has been called by some Western thinkers as “majority dictatorship”. In fact, when we look at the inside workings of political currents, we see that the apparent “majority” is actually a “minority”.

However, in the political system of Islam, separation of powers has been implemented in full. The powers have been obliged to comply with Muslim jurist, on the one side, while on the other side, they are supervised by the nation. Thus, there is no room for dictatorship either by a jurist or by the president, Majlis, or judiciary. This is due to thoughtful laws that have been compiled in this regard. The constitution has set clear rules in this regard to prevent any form of dictatorship some of which are as follows:

  1. The leader should be just and pious and if he lacks those conditions, the Assembly of Experts should move to remove him. Justice is the opposite of injustice and dictatorship. The constitution has also considered a consultative arm for the leader in the form of the Expediency Council which delineates general policies of the Islamic system. These are practical examples of rules that will rule out any possibility of dictatorship by the leader.
  2. The president and the executive are supervised by the Majlis whose deputies are elected by the people. In addition, the president can be removed or disqualified through the Majlis and agreement of the leader. In addition, the leader can remove the president from his post if the Supreme Court votes for it. Ministers are also under constant oversight of the Majlis. Therefore, neither the president nor his ministers would be able to act in a dictatorial manner.
  3. The Guardian Council oversees ratifications by the Islamic Consultative Assembly and Majlis cannot approve anything without confirmation of the Guardian Council. This is a guarantee against dictatorship by the legislature.
  4. The Muslim nation is tasked with supervision over the government and other powers. In this way, according to the principle of “ordering good and prohibiting vice” people are obliged to make their rulers know that they are being closely watched by them, thus preventing them from inclining toward political and economic corruption.

The above facts prove that the Islamic system is way ahead of democratic governments in supporting the rights and freedoms of people and realizing them and this is a blessing from the Islamic system and the man who rose to provide the nation with worldly means of ensuring their welfare in the Hereafter. Perhaps emphasis put on the fact that conventional democracies are not a role model for the Islamic system is one of the most important proven methods which should be observed by any researcher of political matters. The Islamic system is totally independent in its ideological fundaments as well as jurisprudential basics and political philosophy and the realities of the Islamic system and its divine goals attest to this. Neither opposition to democracy will damage this system in theoretical fields, nor would conforming to democracy do anything to make it stronger.


1.    Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 107, p. 68
2.    Dr. Yahya al-Jamal, al-Anzima al-Siyasiya al-Mu’asir, pp. 127-128
3.    Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 57, p. 47
4.    Fifth chapter of the Iranian constitution, p. 47
5.    The constitution has not relieved the president from responsibility, but has emphasized that he would be held responsible while in most imitative democratic system the head of the government (king or president) are not held responsible and stand above laws.
6.    In view of the Iranian constitution, Article 110, p. 168
7.    Ibid, Article 2,  pp. 24-25
8.    Ibid, Article 6, p. 27
9.    Ibid, Article 56, p. 47
10.    Ibid, Article 23, p. 34
11.    Ibid, Article 26, p. 35
12.    Ibid, Article 24, p. 34
13.    Ibid, Article 27, p. 35
14.    For more information on commonalities between democracy and the Islamic system see: Islamic Political System, Democracy, Aristocracy, and Councils; Ali Mo’men, pp. 64-79
15.    See the article in al-Towhid magazine on the civil society; No. 97, 1998, pp. 5-120
16.    Islamic Republic of Iran Constitution, Article 1, p. 23
17.    Ibid, Article 110, p. 68
18.    Ibid, Article 107, p. 67
19.    Ibid, Articles 62-90, pp. 67-82
20.    Ibid, Articles 91-99, pp. 82-86
21.    Ibid, Article 176, pp. 99-100
22.    Ibid, Articles 134-138, pp. 80-81
23.    Ibid, Article 100, p. 89, Articles 101-105, pp. 90-91; these articles pertain to some assemblies like the Islamic Consultative Assembly.
24.    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 536
25.    Political System of Islam, pp. 125-129
26.    Islamic Republic of Iran Constitution, Article 109, p. 96; Article 111, pp. 98-99
27.    Ibid, Articles 88-89, pp. 80-81
28.    Ibid, Article 110, pp. 97-98
29.    Ibid, Article 91, pp. 82-83
30.    Ibid, Article 8, p. 29
31.    Ibid, Article 6, p. 28
32.    Ibid, about fundaments and goals of the Islamic system, Articles 2 & 3, pp. 24-27


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