The term “democracy” is taken from the Greek language and literally means “the rulership of the people”.
We should bear in mind that direct participation of the entire populace in the government is virtually impossible. It was so in the days of the ancient Greeks when the state was very small and it is even more so in the much larger states of today. The solution for this has been some form of representative democracy wherein representatives carry out the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of the government on behalf of the people who elect them. These officials always claim to be carrying out the will of their constituencies. Democracy cannot flourish except in an atmosphere of freedom of opinion and a multiplicity of political parties.
Since it is unlikely that all of these representatives are ever going to agree with each other, democracy today is the rule of the majority out of the small group of representatives who are elected to government.
Even with this, there is still no consensus among those nations that call themselves democratic on a number of important principles relating to what democracy entails. For one thing, there has historically been – and still is – considerable disagreement over who has the right to vote and who has the right to seek political office. Some set the minimum voting age at eighteen, others at 21. Women have been excluded from elections in certain democratic countries, blacks in others. Some countries prohibit people in the armed forces from participating in elections.
Democracy takes many forms. There is republican democracy, parliamentary democracy, and even constitutional monarchies that are considered democracies.
We should also be aware of the fact that the term “democratic” is often used merely as a term of praise or ridicule among various political factions. One person or faction is described as either democratic or undemocratic, depending on whether its supporters or detractors are speaking.
When we talk about democracy from the vantage point of Islamic Law, we must first define what we mean. If we mean that we can use a democratic approach to government to override the laws of Islam – to permit what Allah has forbidden and prohibit what Allah has made lawful – then we are talking about something that is impermissible in Islam. If we go further and believe that doing so is improving upon Islam, then we fall into unbelief.
Allah says: “The rule is only for Allah. He commands that we worship none but Him.”
Allah says: “Is it the rule of the times of ignorance that you desire? Who is better than Allah at ruling for a people who have certainty of faith?”
If, however, we mean to use a democratic approach merely as a system of governance that we employ within the context of Islamic Law, using it only for matters that are open to interpretation, juristic discretion, and human decision making, then there is nothing wrong with it.
And Allah knows best.