Islam and secular liberal democracy: Part 1 – The reality of the early democracies

In an exclusive four-part series on liberal democracies, the Islamic world view and whether Muslims should vote in secular elections, Abdullah al-Andalusi begins by explaining the origins of the earliest democracies.  

The UK General Election is round the corner, and the question of participation in democratic elections for Muslims living in the West, is once again raised. This issue notably comes only once every 4-5 years in most Western countries. The problem with this unresolved debate, I believe, is due to ignorance on the circumstances, consequences and significance of voting in a secular liberal democracy. Furthermore, the current Muslim discourses concerning how Muslims should act, when living in a liberal democracy, contains much confusion.

The purpose of this four-part series is not to argue for or against voting, but rather to set out with some clarity, the reality of secular democracies, the reality of the Islamic world view, and compare democracy with Islam’s prescribed political system.

This extensive piece does not issue an Islamic verdict on whether Muslims should participate in the democratic process; this is something for readers and scholars to decide. This article merely attempts to shed some light on democracy, and the Islamic world view on ruling, legislation, and the past precedence of similar situations of Muslims under non-Muslim rule. Hopefully, the elimination of misconceptions, the clarification of the issues, and the presentation of facts, will help frame the debate and inform further discussion.

The  Islamic government model of Caliphate, is portrayed by Democracy advocates, as ‘too ancient for the modern world’. This is strange considering that Democracy is, at the time of writing, just under 2,500 years old. It is older than Islam by over 1000 years, but generally considered a ‘modern’ system of ruling government despite this.

In order to understand what Democracy is, we need to first consider what gave rise to it, what it originally signified, and if there are any lessons this could tell us about whether it is a good form of government or not.

The Origins of Democracy – Athens 462 B.C. – 146 B.C

Democracy is, at the time of writing, just under 2,500 years old. It is older than Islam by more than a thousand years, but generally considered a ‘modern’ governing system.

Democracy began in ancient Athens
Democracy began in ancient Athens

Democracy began in ancient Athens as a response to constant factionalism and infighting between the aristocrats of Athens. Acting as an arbitrator, Solon, an Athenian statesman and poet, instituted a set of reforms to grant levels of power to Athenians based upon their ownership of property – with Aristocrats at the top being elected by the two lower grades of power, but stopping short at the working class (Thetes), who had no power to elect. After many upheavals, and changes over centuries, the social reforms completed by Ephialtes in 462BC led to common suffrage (ability to vote on laws and policies) regardless of wealth.

It is theorised that common suffrage was only granted to all Athenian citizens, because of the existence of slavery of non-citizens, especially from foreigners, who were used by citizens to perform menial tasks. Cynthia Farrar, professor of Political Science for Yale University noted:

‘The beginnings of Athenian self-rule coincided with Solon’s liberation in the sixth century B.C. of those who had been ‘enslaved’ to the rich. The enfranchisement of the local laboring classes was succeeded by the development of chattel slavery, the enslavement of, in large part, foreigners. Many foreigners were regarded as naturally slavish; tyrant and master were linked in the Greek perception of Persian despotism.”[i]

It could be argued that modern enfranchisement of the poor into modern democratic voting systems, only started in the mid-19th century to early 20th century for most Western countries, notably occurred in imperial states due to the use of cheap labour provided by their foreign colonial subjects.

However, Athenian democracy is substantially different to modern Western liberal democracies. In Athenian democracy, all citizens could vote on laws and policies – what we would call referendums today. No one was elected into power, but rather people were chosen by random lottery to serve in a position of magistrate or jury. A magistrate would oversee the day to day running of the city, while a jury member would vote on court cases (there were no judges). Magistrates who were perceived to be incompetent, negligent or corrupt could face the risk of being executed by court, if a majority of people called for it.

The Athenian system would be best described as a “direct democracy”, where people were considered the ultimate sovereigns, legislators and rulers of their own affairs.

The ‘Democracy’ of the Roman Republic (509 B.C. – 27 B.C.)

The Roman’s system was a Republic, which is different from a Democracy (but would later in modern times become synonymous. A Republic does not allow full direct voting from citizens on law making or decision taking in policies, but rather allows ‘some’ citizens to elect representative officials, to represent them in the discharging of these duties.

The Roman republic was governed by three bodies, the senate, the legislative councils and the magistrates. The senate was appointed from a small number of aristocratic families; they made foreign and military policy, and directed domestic policy.

The legislative councils which made laws, were open to citizens to participate in, but of various grades, who were from the aristocratic class, exclusively being part of the top council, and those with no property (plebeian, or ‘plebs’), being consigned to the lowest council (the Plebeian council) with the most limited powers in the hierarchy.

The senate in a Roman republic
The senate in a Roman republic

While the senate remained under the control of aristocrats until the end of the republic, the ‘plebs’ gradually gained more powers within the Roman republic until they gained the power for their council’s rulings to make domestic laws that would affect all Romans of all grades (287BC). Although Rome didn’t have a written constitution, they generally abided by laws, traditions and past-precedents that limited and controlled the activities of all. Therefore the Plebeian Council couldn’t make a law that abolished the citizen caste/grade system, but they could make laws that provided some protection for plebs against the other citizen castes/grades.

The magistrates had differing ranks, and held powers that formed the functions of day to day government. The plebs could elect lower rank magistrates, while the Aristocratic Patricians could elect the highest ranks. This was a form of ‘representation’ where the people elected into government, were elected to represent the people.

Over time, the Roman republic trended towards an increasing enfranchisement of the lower ranking citizens in legislation and limiting the powers of the other grades and aristocrats – until due to stability and security concerns, the republic was usurped by a popular ‘dictator’ and transformed into the Roman Empire led by emperors.

Criticisms of Democracy by the Ancient Greek Philosophers

The famous Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, heavily criticised democracy. He was a student of Socrates – the man literally killed by an Athenian democratic vote for ‘corrupting the youth’ because he dared to question and differ with Athenian democratic values[ii] (probably like how Muslims in the West who differ and question ‘British Values’, ‘French Values’ are treated with disdain and best, or escalating campaigns by Western governments to silence them at worst). Plato considered democracy as part of an inevitable degradation of human society, ultimately ending up in a dictatorship. History would bare him out on this, as both Rome and the Ancient Greeks eventually succumbed to strengthening security apparatuses that ended up in rule by dictatorships.

Plato considered democracy as one of the four ‘unjust constitutions’ man can live under, including timocracy (mixed rule of nobles and non-noble wealthy), oligarchy (rule by wealthy) and tyranny’. He considered that timocracy would gradually change to an oligarchy, then a democracy (rule by the majority – who most likely are the poor), then ultimately a tyranny. Plato considered democracy worse than the first two and a prelude to the last.


Plato also argued that democracy is an anarchic system, as the criteria of what is good and bad will be based upon majority tastes, not a consideration of truth. Therefore, greed and altruism will assume equal footing in a democracy – decided based solely on what a majority decides. Plato and the Athenian orator, Cleon[iii] and the Ancient Greek historian Thucydides[iv] further argued that democracy couldn’t be trusted, since the people who make decisions are the common people who spend their time busy in their professions and employment, and due to their time constraints, do not possess enough specialist knowledge, nor understand the greater political picture, and cannot discern what is the best policy or law. They will therefore be ruled by shallow understanding, sensationalism, and dominated by powerful orators, or demagogues, who will have an ability to affect public mood, and entice with promises, leading to failure[v] and injustice and being swayed to private interests. Plato argued that both dictatorship and democracy, lead to forms of slavery[vi].

Aristotle categorised Democracy as one of the three ‘deviant constitutions’ (parekbasis) and not one of the three ‘correct constitutions’.[vii] His criticism of democracy was based upon the fact that it moved towards personal gain and self-interest of groups of people, and not the development of virtue and achievement of good.

Dr Loren J Samons, a professor of Classical Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Brown University, stated:

‘No classical Greek poet, historian, or philosopher known to us began his work with the premise that democracy or even “liberty and equality” were the most important elements in human government or society. Most, in fact, criticized democratic government or the principles behind it. The modern desire to look to Athens for lessons or encouragement for modern thought, government, or society must confront this strange paradox: the people that gave rise to and practiced ancient democracy left us almost nothing but criticism of this form of regime (on a philosophical or theoretical level). And what is more, the actual history of Athens in the period of its democratic government is marked by numerous failures, mistakes, and misdeeds—most infamously, the execution of Socrates—that would seem to discredit the ubiquitous modern idea that democracy leads to good government. Anyone turning to Athens for political lessons must confront the facts that democratic Athens dominated and made war on the states most like itself, suffered two internal revolutions, exiled or executed many of its own leaders, squandered vast public resources, and preserved its autonomy for less than two centuries. Athenian democracy should not be separated from the larger picture presented by Athenian society and history’.[viii]

The Ancient Greek Verdict on Modern Western Democracy

Plato and his fellow Greeks would probably consider modern Western Democracy to be either a Timocracy (like the UK), or elected Oligarchy (like the U.S. system, where a small number of people, ‘politicians’ would decide the affairs of the majority, and seem to come preponderantly from wealthy backgrounds), but not a ‘democracy’ as they would understand it. The Roman’s would also be concerned at the complete separation of citizens from having any say in the law making or deciding policies. Electing representatives, but having no citizen councils that could account the elected representatives, would probably be considered by the Romans to be elected term-limited Tyrannies.

However, Plato’s models of different forms of government and how they change, may contain some predicting ability in how political systems that start out as aristocracies change, considering that Europe and its colonies such as what would later become the U.S.A, started out as rule by an aristocracy (kings and lords), which then became a timocracy (rise of merchants, military-explorers and entrepreneurs), then an oligarchy (rule by the wealthy), ultimately becoming democracy (the poor people in Europe and the U.S.A were only given the right to vote rather late. In the USA the right for everyone to vote, and not just ‘property owners’, was only granted in 1850[ix], and in the UK, the right for non-wealthy individuals to vote, began in grudging reforms from 1867 until full universal suffrage in 1918). However, with the growth of the security institutions, and the gradually erosion of civil rights ‘in the name of security’, could the next stage for Europe be tyranny as per Plato’s prediction?

After the collapse of the Roman Republic into a Imperial Dictatorship, and the loss of Athens autonomy due to foolish wars they initiated, the word ‘democracy’ and any discussion of its implementation would not see the light of day until 1700 years later with the bloody revolutions and civil wars that would give rise to an ancient resurrected concept. But unlike the Roman or Athenian democracies, which were merely procedural systems of ruling that were designed to serve their religion, culture and traditions, democracy would be resurrected from its grave and made to give legitimacy to, in name at least, a new and radical political ideology – secular liberalism.

In part 2, Abdullah discusses the reality of modern secular liberal democracies.




[i] [The origins of Democratic: The invention of Politics in Classical Athens, Thinking, Cynthia Farrar]

[ii] Read more:

[iii] ‘The persons to blame [for the difficulties Athens faces in ruling her empire] are you [members of the Athenian assembly] who are so foolish as to institute these contests, who go to see an oration as you would to see a sight, take your facts on hearsay, judge of the practicality of a project by the wit of its advocates, and trust for the truth as to past events not to the fact which you saw more than to the clever strictures which you heard; the easy victims of new-fangled arguments, you are unwilling to follow received conclusions, slaves to every new paradox, despisers of the commonplace; the first wish of every man among you is that he could speak himself, the next to rival those who can speak by seeming to be quite up with their ideas by applauding every hit almost before it is made, and by being as quick in catching an argument as you are slow in foreseeing its consequences; you ask, if I may say so, for something different from the conditions under which we live, and yet you comprehend inadequately those very conditions; you are very slaves to the pleasure of the ear, and more like the audience of a professional public speaker than the council of a city’. [narrated by Thucydides, The History Peloponnesian War]

[iv] ‘Pericles indeed, by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude—in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them, but, on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction. Whenever he saw them unseasonably and insolently elated, he would with a word reduce them to alarm; on the other hand, if they fell victims to a panic, he could at once restore them to confidence. In short, what was nominally a democracy became in his hands government by the first citizen. With his successors it was different. More on a level with one another, and each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude. This, as might have been expected in a great and sovereign state, produced a host of blunders’

[Thucydides, The History Peloponnesian War]

[v] Although the Athenian general Nicias attempted to dissuade the citizenry by stressing the size and expense of the undertaking they were contemplating, the Athenians voted to launch the Sicilian expedition. Thucydides’ description of the scene is memorable and chilling: ‘All alike fell in love [eros] with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a long-ing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never ending fund of pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that liked it not, feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet. (Thuc. 6.24; trans. Crawley)’

[What’s Wrong with Democracy: From Athenian Practice to American Worship, Loren J Samons 2nd]

[vi] “Excess of liberty, whether it lies in state or individuals seems only to pass into excess of slavery.”

[The Republic, Plato]

[vii] [Politics, book three, part 7]

[viii] [What’s Wrong with Democracy: From Athenian Practice to American Worship, Loren J Samons 2nd]


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