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Egypt elections: Sharia can support democracy

In Egypt elections for president today, the role of Islam in government is a big question. But a freedom-based interpretation of sharia can support democracy in the Arab world. Such a form of sharia in the early stages of the Iran Revolution set a precedent – before it was snuffed out.

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The third principle is hifzh al-aql, which means the “protection of thought and freedom of conscience.” There is no “apostasy” here, no punishment for those who “leave” Islam or any other faith.

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Historically, the concept of apostasy was introduced into Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, during the 7th and 8th centuries by theologians seeking to impose a particularly repressive system of belief. There can be no crime of belief.

Sadly, the vision of freedom-based sharia failed to establish itself in Iran. It was quickly replaced by a violent, power-based version following a coup against President Abulhassan Banisadr in 1981, who advocated these principles. But it set a precedent and represents an unfinished project.

Rising Muslim politicians espousing a democratic interpretation of sharia have a solid foundation to stand on. But they and the supporters of this view will need to work hard for its broader acceptance in traditional Muslim societies.

One way to do that is to encourage a more sophisticated use of Ijtihad, or the independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources, primarily of the Quran.
Another is to revive the three principles we’ve mentioned as viable models for discussion in emerging Muslim democracies. And deeper study needs to be done to understand the relationship between Islamic law and religious and political power, and how certain forms of it led to despotism.

The Arab awakening provides renewed hope that this work can flourish. Non-Arab Muslim states such as Indonesia and Malaysia are experimenting in balancing democracy and sharia, and can also provide hope for countries in the greater Middle East.

If citizens keep demanding human rights, sharia in harmony with such rights can blossom.

Mahmood Delkhasteh is a political sociologist, specializing in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, a writer, and democracy activist. Hassan Rezaei works at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, on comparative Islamic law. He is coauthor with A.H. Banisadr of the Persian-language book: “The Koran: Book of the Discourse of  Freedom.”


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