Islamic Studies Democracy and Islam
Abdelwahab El-Affendi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0018


Just as there are numerous versions of democracy (which is why it is called a “contested concept”), the debate on Islam and democracy has polarized participants within Muslim communities and scholarly communities in equal measure. The debates raging in this area fall into two broad categories. At one level, there are internal debates that have been going for over a century within the Muslim world with regard to governance in general and the merits of democracy and its compatibility with Islamic norms in particular. These debates are multifaceted, involving religious scholars endorsing or attacking democratic ideals, politicians advocating or opposing democratization, and secular intellectuals arguing for or against liberal democracy from different ideological perspectives. At another level, there are the academic debates, taking place mainly in the West, but increasingly within numerous institutions with Muslim countries. In addition to tracking and assessing the primary debates, these ‘secondary’ debates often contribute to them. On many occasions, scholarly input (such as early Orientalist writings) has triggered some of the primary debates. The scholarly writings also include a number of empirical studies on the status of democracy in particular regions or countries. The output in both sets of debates has been growing exponentially in recent years, with interesting evolutionary changes and (at times) remarkable shifts in the positions of the major participants.

General Overviews

The bulk of writings on Islam and democracy emerged after the end of the Cold War. Prior to that, democratization in the Muslim world tended to be treated as a subcategory of political development in the Third World, while the internal debate was overshadowed by other ideological debates (over nationalism, socialism, etc.). Works that place the debate within a global context, such as Held 1993 and Keane 2009, thus offer insightful overviews of the ongoing debates from a global perspective, while Taji-Farouki and Nafi 2004 places the debate within the overall context of the evolution of modern Islamic thought. More specific introductions with a focus on Islam and the Middle East include Salamé 1994, Hinnebusch 2006, Ayubi 1995 and Bayat 2007. Binder 1988, by contrast, focuses on liberalism and its prospects. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has published many reports on democratization and democracy promotion in the region.

  • Ayubi, Nazih N. Over-stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris, 1995.

    Ayubi’s ambitious attempt to theorize the Arab state within a Gramscian framework overstretches the point at times, but the book offers many insights into the authoritarian nature of the modern state.

  • Bayat, Asef. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.

    Argues that questioning the compatibility of Islam and democracy misses the point, since the interpretation of religious injunctions is a matter of struggle and competing readings. Basing his work on contrasting political developments in Egypt and Iran, Bayat shows that even the conservative and often antidemocratic Iranian Islamic constitution has been reinterpreted in response to an exuberant democratic movement.

  • Binder, Leonard. Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

    Comprises a direct intellectual engagement with Islamic thought from a liberal perspective, advocating liberalism to Muslims and desperately searching for (and finding) indications of a homegrown “Islamic liberalism.”

  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    The Carnegie Endowment has put out a number of interesting publications on democratization in the Muslim world. It also publishes the monthly Arab Reform Bulletin, which covers many issues dealing with democratization.

  • Held, David, ed. Prospects for Democracy: North, South, East, West. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

    Offers an overview of the current debate on the nature of democracy and where it is heading. Special attention is given to the links (and tensions) between democracy, liberalism, and the free market. The chapter on the Middle East concludes that problems to do with state-building and economic development, rather than religion, are to blame for the “bleak prospects” for democracy there.

  • Hinnebusch, Raymond. “Authoritarian Persistence, Democratization Theory and the Middle East: An Overview and Critique.” Democratization 13, no. 3 (2006): 373–395.

    DOI: 10.1080/13510340600579243

    Offers a summary and a critical overview of standard theories of democratization.

  • Keane, John. The Life and Death of Democracy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.

    A historical overview of the rise and evolution of democracy from a leading authority on the subject, with an incisive analysis and critique of recent developments.

  • Salamé, Ghassan, ed. Democracy without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World. London: I.B. Tauris, 1994.

    Explores the lag of democratization in Muslim regions. The contributors reject the cultural-religious explanation of Muslim “exceptionalism,” and, drawing of a number of case studies from Tunisia to Iran, provide analysis of rates of political change based on diverse factors, including petroleum wealth, population growth, the role of patronage groups, and the private sector.

  • Taji-Farouki, Suha, and Basheer M. Nafi, eds. Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.

    Offers a broad overview of the intellectual ferment within Islam during the last century. El-Affendi’s chapter “On the State, Democracy and Pluralism” (pp. 172–194) presents a concise summary of the Muslim debate on democracy and the state, and there are other informative chapters about gender, minorities, and reformist thought.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.