While the concept of democracy in the Middle East has gained a great deal of attention in the last few years, it is not new. In fact, many historians now think that democracy – in which a public assembly deliberates and chooses for the communal good- originated not in Ancient Greece, as once though, but in the region of Mesopotamia,in what is now Syria, Iraq and Iran, as early as the 20th century BC. John Keane, political theorist and author of The Life and Death of Democracy, has produced extensive works on this concept, studying Islamic texts to derive early Islamic notions of how a government should work. He believes that the Qur’an and other early texts strongly suggests that “Islam poured scorn on kingship, and triggered unending public disputes about the authority of rulers” (Keane 17).
This process of assembly democracy can be most easily seen in the Islamic concept of shura. This concept, found originally in the Qur’an (appearing three times at 3:159; 2:223 and 42:38) and the teachings of Muhammad originated as a decision-making process that was based on “mutual consultations.” The concept is so important that chapter 42 of the Qur’an is titled Surah-ash-Shura. One verse from the Qur’an describes shura as being one of the central characteristics of leadership in Islam: “And it was by God’s grace that thou [O Prophet] didst deal gently with thy followers: for if thou hadst been harsh and hard of heart, they would indeed have broken away from thee. Pardon them, then, and pray that they be forgiven. And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when thou hast decided upon a course of action, place thy trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him” (3:159 Qur’an.) In light of this, the Executive Director of Al-Furqan Heritage Foundation Adil Salahi states, “The lesson in consultative government which he (the Prophet) taught his companions was of paramount importance. They realized, as all Muslim generations would come to realize, that a ruler may have to take an attitude contrary to his own opinion if it meets the wishes of a broad section of the Muslim community.”
In a 2009 talk, Keane describes how mosques, in the first four centuries of the religion, were not only a place of worship, but also a safe haven, market, and public space, where political speeches could be given and men and women were equals. Of course, Islamic culture has in some ways, particularly in the status and treatment of women, departed from the original texts, and today we still find angry backlash to the idea of women being part of the process.
While modern-day shuras have not remained true to the original spirit of the concept, it is still being used in many Middle Eastern governments, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By refining and maintaining the original motive and meaning of shura, Middle Eastern nations can use this consultation process as the solid foundation for free-elected, representative democracy.
There is a common belief among political commentators that a religious state cannot be a democratic one. However, this notion is almost exclusively used in the context of Middle Eastern democracy, and there is little outcry over Western democratic nations with state religions such as Greece or the United Kingdom. Therefore, it can be assumed that the real issue many have is not with religious governments, but with Islamist governments, under the false assumption that the Islam belief system is somehow completely contrary to democratic ideals. The concept of shura is just one aspect of Islam that shows that Islam has a strong history of democratic principles, and that an Islamic democracy can and should be the future of Middle Eastern politics and policy.