Feb 202012

Even before we were introduced to civic organizing, we knew that Islamic values and customs are compatible with democratic principles. However, in the Muslim world, democracy is often associated with western governments and decades of western colonization which produced negative associations with democracy including the language surrounding its meaning.

In addition, the common understanding of democracy defined as “majority rule” or simply the rights of the individual is in contrast to Islamic principles which are focused on justice, doing what is right, and holding community well-being as a primary good.

This reality provides a barrier to making a case for civic organizing.  Members of the Islamic Civic Society of America (ICSA) address these barriers by co-authoring a document called the ICSA Operating Principles which is the primary institutional policy document based upon the compatibility between core Islamic principles and Civic principles. Civic principles are based upon the understanding that democracy is not simply one person one vote but in fact is a civic process that requires individuals and institutions to determine what is right (common good) in the tension between democratic beliefs which apply to everyone and include the right for religious freedom.

Key leaders in the Islamic Civic Society of America are in the process of integrating their institutional operating principles into the way each individual carries out their institutional role:

Core Islamic Principles
  • Five Pillars: Declaration of Faith (Shahadah), Prayers (Salat), Charity (Zakat), Fasting (Sawm), and Pilgrimage (Hajj)
  • Six Articles of Faith: Belief in Allah (God), Angels (Mala’ikah), Divine Books (Kutub), Prophets and Messengers (Rusul), Day of Judgment (Yawm Al-Qiyamah) and Devine Fate (Al-Qadha’ Wal Qadr)
  • Five Essentials of Life: Protection of Faith (Ad-Deen), Protection of Life (An-Nafs), Protection of the Intellect (Al-Aql), Protection of Property (Al-Mal), and Protection of family dignity (Al-Irdh)
  • Five Rulings of Islam: Mandatory (Wajib), Recommended (Mandub), Permissible (Halal), Discouraged (Makruh), and Forbidden (Haram)
  • Four Main Sources of Islamic Legislation: Qur’an (Muslim Sacred Book), Hadeeth (Prophetic Tradition), and Consensus of Muslim Scholars (Ijma’)
Core civic principles as applied to faith institutions

Faith communities should be about developing the moral capacity of the people to produce a just society. Within a democratic society, moral capacity encompasses both religious precepts and democratic principles. The following civic principles are compatible with Islamic principles.

They aim to develop the civic capacity needed for ICSA to carry out its identity.

Human Capacity

We believe that human beings are created as a God’s (Allah) representatives on earth; and that every human being has worth and the capacity to know what is good, to grow in that knowledge, to co-create justice, and to govern for the common good. Every human being has a God-given purpose and gifts for contributing to the common good. All are called to develop both moral and civic capacity in order to fulfill purpose for self within a larger society.

Islamic evidence to support the principle of human capacity to govern for the common good.

“We have honored the sons of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea.” (Chapter, 17: verse 70). God has granted talent to invent means of transportation on sea, land, and air.

“Behold, Thy Lord said to the angels; I will create a vicegerent on earth.” (Chapter 2: Verse 30). Allah gave humans a will or power of choosing which (when used right) gives him to some extent, a mastery over his own fortunes and over nature, thus bringing nearer to the God-like nature, which has supreme master and will.


As long we understand we are God’s representatives on earth—governance by the people—can be a good form of governance to safeguard human dignity and achieve the common good. Governance happens in the tension between democratic beliefs: law and conscience, freedom and equity, diversity and unity. In our congregations and in our society, we need to renew the understanding of democracy as representing God’s rule on earth, and develop the capacity of the people to govern for the good of the whole.

Islamic evidence to support that democracy is a process by which the common good must be discerned in the tension between principles.

Almighty Allah in the Qur’an says that the division of people into tribes, races, and nations is only for knowing one another.

The core principles of Islam and Democracy are compatible as both recognize that importance of and the need to achieve particular principles of law, conscience, equality, freedom, diversity, unity, and justice. Both recognize that, these principles or “goods” are in tension with each other. For instance conscience is good but we have different perspectives in what belief calls us to do. This is true within Islam as it is true in a democracy. Also, the freedom to practice one’s religion is a primary democratic principle but this freedom has to be established within the tension of Islamic and American law. The “common good” has to be determined in the tension between diverse perspectives that is supported by a civic process.

Active Citizenship

We believe that faithful people have an obligation to be active citizens both in their congregations and in the larger society. An active citizen takes on the obligations of a governing member: to participate in public deliberation, decision making, and policy making in good faith to move towards the common good. No matter what structure of authority exists, a citizen cannot abdicate responsibility to govern for the good of the whole.

Islamic evidence to support the principle of faithful citizenship.

A man came to the Prophet Mohammed and asked Him: Oh Messenger of Allah who among the people is the most beloved to Allah? The messenger of Allah (pbuh) answered: “The people who are the most beloved to Allah are those who are more useful to people.” Narrated by Al Tabarani

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “All of you are guardians and are responsible for your subjects.” Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim. The Qur’an and Sunnah direct a message to the people to contribute positively to the earth, and to do what is its beneficial to mankind.

Political Competence

We believe that in order to build the common good, faithful citizens have an obligation to come to the public square to deliberate with others of diverse opinions. Congregations have an obligation to develop the civic competence of members so they can participate effectively. We need to contribute to finding common ground among diverse viewpoints in order to govern for the common good.

Islamic evidence to support the principle of faithful citizenship

Aisha relates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Allah loves that when one of you engages in any work, he should carry it out with proficiency.” The hadîth is related by al-Bayhaqî in Shu`ab al-Imân (5080, 5081 and 5082) and authenticated by al-Albânî.

Islam is a religion that orders its followers to be part and parcel of a working and productive society. The Qur’an says what means: and help one another in goodness and piety, and do not help one another in sin and aggression; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah.] (Al-Ma’idah 5:2) Qur’an and the Prophet Mohammed encourage Muslims to decide their affairs in consultation with those who will be affected by that decision.

Shura is mentioned three times in the Qur’an as a praiseworthy activity, and is a word often used in organizing the affairs of a masque, and an Islamic organization, and sometimes in the name of parliaments in Muslim majority countries in effort to bridge the gap between Islamic heritage and modern democracy.

Shura is basically a consultative decision making process that is considered obligatory by must Islamic scholars. Those scholars who choose to emphasize the Qur’anic verse: “…And consult with them on the matter” (3:159) consider shura as obligatory, while other scholars emphasize the verse in which Allah says “those who conduct their affairs by counsel” (43:38) are praised, consider shura as desirable. Remember that the first verse directly addressed a particular decision of the Prophet and spoke to him directly, but the second verse is more in the form of a general principle.

Institutional Efficacy (capacity)

We believe that a just society is sustained through a strong civic infrastructure in which all individuals and all institutions organize to achieve that end. Congregations should be governing assemblies (“Majlis/Gole”) that build and sustain the civic infrastructure in alignment with institutions from other sectors

The ICSA Operating Principles include standards for governance and specific civic organizing methods for practice that leaders use to advance their principles in their day to day roles. The outcome produces a way to demonstrate that Muslims can be faithful to Islamic teachings while being contributing citizens in our democracy.

As a governing member of the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative, members of the Islamic Civic Society of America use their practice to make a case for the compatibility between Islam and Democracy.

By Peg Michels. Michels is the founder and executive director of Civic Organizing, Inc., a partner in the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative.