Government and democracy mean different things in different parts of the world and in different cultures, says HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal. In Islam, God’s will is supreme. But the will of the people must also be expressed. Finding the right institutional structures and systems to achieve this – and to balance stability with development – is a challenge for Muslim states. But it must be addressed from within the Muslim world, not from outside

At a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2003 I addressed a question to Tom Friedman, who was chairing one of the panels on democracy and Islam.

My question was whether Friedman considered the election of president George W Bush, without a majority, to be democratic or not. He answered that Bush had been elected by a majority of the electoral college.

I persisted in asking him if he considered that the electoral college was a democratic way to elect a president. Friedman became heated and asked me if we in Saudi Arabia had any democracy at all. I said no, and that was why I was asking. He replied that the electoral college was democratic because that was done by the consent of the American people.

A few days later I arrived in London to take up my post as Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. At the time, the issue of whether the UK’s House of Lords would be an elected body was being decided by the House of Commons. The Commons decided that they would rather keep their noble peers as an appointed lot, and I asked many of my British friends whether it was democratic to deny the people of Britain the right to elect the members of the Upper House.

Many of my friends answered with an explanation that the Commons did not want the Upper House to gain equal sovereignty with them, fearing that that sovereignty would allow the Lords to ask for more power and authority.

I asked if that was democratic, and the answer I received was that the Commons represented the will of the people – and, therefore, that their action was democratic.

A couple of months later, more than a million and a half people marched in the streets of London, expressing their opposition to the war in Iraq. All the opinion polls at the time indicated that more than 75% of the British public opposed the war. And yet, the government of Tony Blair declared war on Iraq, regardless of the people’s opposition.

Again I asked whether the Blair government had acted democratically or not. The answer that I received was that the British people could express their will at the next election, and that prime minister Blair would discover the consequences of his actions then. In all of these examples of democracy, procedure, sovereignty and policy, the overriding factor that gave them the democratic stamp of approval was that they were done with the consent or by the will of the people.

In Islam, God’s will is supreme. God set for mankind a list of dos and don’ts – halal and haram – that we have to follow. What is not proscribed is halal – in other words, doable.

No system of government was prescribed by God. But he set standards of conduct for us that can lead us to select a system that best suits us. The major standard for Muslims is consultation – that “their affairs are decided between them by mutual consideration”. When the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) died, His followers consulted between themselves and chose a group among them, an electoral college, to select a leader, who then received the Baya’ah which is a contractual agreement based on two pillars: offer and acceptance.

The offer is made by the people of Ahal ulhal Walaqd (those who untie the knot and tie it), who are the electoral college. It is obligatory upon the candidate for leadership to declare his acceptance.

All the people came to Abu Bakr, the successor to the Prophet, and said to him: “We give you the Baya’ah, according to the Book of God (the Quran) and the Sunnah (Example and Path) of the Prophet.”

This contract is defined clearly in Islam. The ruler is responsible for the application of God’s Law (the Shariah) and the well-being of the people. The people are responsible for following the leader in everything except in what clearly contradicts God’s commandments.

If the people withdraw the Baya’ah from the leader, he is removed, and another leader, who is given the Baya’ah, succeeds him. For a leader to be selected, he must possess certain qualities that are equally well defined. He must be faithful to God, just, courageous and of sound body and mind.

The electoral college – the Ahal ulhal Walaqd, representing the recognised leaders of society – is also clearly defined. Their qualifications are fairness, good education, to be accepted and respected by the people, and to be prominent leaders in the community, each according to his skill and profession.

Another major characteristic of a Muslim state is tolerance – which can be seen clearly in the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. There are many sayings that reflect this. For instance: “the truth is from your Lord; let him who will, believe; and let him who will, reject”.

“There is no compulsion in religion” is another. Or the following: “O mankind, we have created you from man and woman, and we have made you into communities and tribes so that you may know each other. Those to whom God is generous are the pious ones among you.” In a Muslim state, non-Muslims can practice their religion freely. Examples of this are countless in the history of Islam.

Justice is the third major standard that God set for us. God describes himself as “The Just” in many verses of the Quran, and he enjoined the Prophet Muhammad to be just in many other verses of the Quran.

“Justice is the core of governance” is a saying of the Prophet. The judiciary is independent in an Islamic state, and to be a judge is one of the most prestigious and honoured positions in Muslim society. It requires the most stringent of qualifications. Chief among these are fairness, vast knowledge of the Quran and Haddith (sayings of the Prophet), and independence.

Throughout Muslim history there have been many successful efforts to systemize government. The Khilafah, or succession to the Prophet as an institution, was systemized and defined, and it lasted for more than 1,400 years.

Ministerial departments and regional governorships were equally systemized and institutionalized, as were the judiciary, the armed forces, the police and municipal authorities.

Where we Muslims have failed is in systemizing and institutionalizing the process of the Baya’ah and how it is given and withdrawn. We have also failed to institutionalize and systemize an instrument of checks and balances between the ruler, the people and the judiciary.

We need to make sure that the ruler is accountable to the people and the judiciary, that the judiciary is accountable to the people and the ruler, and that the people are accountable to the judiciary and the ruler.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we started reforming our government system in 1993. We issued the Basic Law, which systemizes the following areas of government: the Line of Succession, the Shura Council (Consultative Assembly), the rights of each citizen and the form of government (Islamic).

In September 2003, the Council of Ministers, acting upon the decision of the Consultative Assembly, issued a decree that set in motion the elections for the municipalities of the Kingdom in a year’s time.

Half of the members of each municipality will be elected. The other half will be appointed. Elections to the other councils, the provincial assemblies and the Consultative Council will follow.

This electoral process is looked upon as the process through which the Kingdom will have institutionalized and systemized the expression of the people’s will. The suffrage is universal, and the checks and balances will follow when the people have expressed their will.

In 1964, the Kingdom went through the crisis of replacing one king with another. The Islamic system worked smoothly. Ahal ulhal Walaqd – who were the Royal Family, the religious scholars, the Council of Ministers, the notables of the towns and the tribal chiefs – came to a consensus that the Baya’ah that they had given to the reigning king would be withdrawn from him and given to the Crown Prince.

The system worked because our leaders, including the Ahal ulhal Walaqd, were driven by an overriding belief: the belief that their responsibility is not simply to themselves and to the people.

They firmly believed that they had a higher responsibility: a responsibility to God. They had to uphold the teachings of God and follow in the Prophet Muhammad’s way in order to make sure that God’s will is supreme.

All systems of government, democracy included, are tools by which man can achieve harmony, prosperity and progress. Each society has basic responsibilities, not only to maintain stability within its ranks. It must also act to allow for its own evolution and development. In the Muslim world that evolution and development must come from within, not from without.

HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal
HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal is the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United Kingdom and chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.