Subhi Saleh on the Islamic Roots of Democracy

In this video, Subhi Saleh, a leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood (now in prison), speaks to a Brotherhood audience about democracy and Islam.  Saleh, a lawyer, was a member of parliament representing Alexandria from 2005-2010, and was the only civilian member of the Egyptian Constitutional Review Committee in 2011.  This talk took place in 2011 after the revolution, and Subhi Saleh certainly looked forward at that time to the Brotherhood taking the reigns of government through democratic elections, which they did at the end of that year through parliamentary elections and the following year in presidential elections.  This may explain his enthusiasm for democracy in his talk.

Saleh presents democracy as compatible with Islam.  He anticipates the question of whether he is sincere or merely opportunistic, by putting the question to his audience of which kind of government–civil government, dictatorship, or theocracy–is preferred by Islamic jurisprudence (0:09).  They answer civil government and he endorses their answer.  He goes on to reject Liberal Democracy, insisting on a democracy with Islamic guiding, or supra-constitutional, principles.  Then he comes back to the question of sincerity by asking his audience (4:36) whether the Brotherhood makes this claim to dissimulate or out of personal conviction, and he and his audience confirm that they hold these principles out of personal conviction.

Saleh goes beyond presenting democracy as compatible with Islam to calling it an Islamic innovation, claiming that the the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim community implemented the principles of representative democracy centuries before Jean-Jacques Rosseau, in his words.  He draws on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (the sīra) to illustrate the Prophet’s adherence to democratic principles.  Saleh presents Muhammad as so committed to democracy that he followed the will of the majority of his community even when he knew them to be wrong by virtue of his prophetic infallibility.  He finds democratic principles at work in the rule of the first rulers of the Muslim community and polity after Muhammad, the “Rightly Guided Caliphs.”

Of course, the talk raises questions about how exactly Islamic supra-constitutional principles would play out in practical terms.  Who would define what they are?  Who would determine when elected lawmakers had violated them?   Still, Saleh’s embrace of representative democracy is striking.  It is worth comparing it to a talk given by the Salafi shaykh, Muhammad Hussain Yaqub, in the wake of the March 19, 2011 referendum on amendments to Egypt’s 1971 constitution.  The overwhelming yes vote approved proposed changes, but also left in place article 2 of the constitution, which, among other things, made Islam the official religion of the country, something Egyptian Liberals and Coptic Christians wanted to see changed.

Yaqub has no commitment to democracy as such–he compares the victory in the referendum to the Prophet’s admonition to attend Muslim funerals to show the strength of the Muslim community compared to the sparsely attended funerals of the community of Muhammad’s non-Muslim opponents. He does not advocate democracy as a means of reaching decisions or support accepting democratic outcomes that contradict his agenda.

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