The term ‘democracy’ describes a form of government in the modern state in which all power is based on the people. The underlying principle of a democracy is that the people are entitled to a direct or indirect say in determining the leading organs of the state, and in processes of decision-making. This entails both the active and passive franchise, along with participation in state decision-making organs through institutions in civil society.
Islam does not recommend any particular form of government. Even though Islam contains a long tradition of governance that refers back to the Qur’an and – to an even greater extent – to the practices of the prophets, this does not constitute a uniform tradition.
The Ibadi and Mu’tazila schools advocate a form of government based on a right to vote. The Shiites, on the other hand, based on their understanding of the imamate, support the appointment of the head of state. In contrast to these, the Sunnis proceed from the principle of the inviolability of the state, i.e. the state as such is the most important entity, not the person reigning over it. The state is something permanent, while governments are simply temporary. At the same time, obedience to the government is a basic principle.
Save for the fact that Muhammad, as a prophet, held the status of head of state at the same time, the fact that the first four caliphs were elected (period of governance from 632–661) can be interpreted as a sign of the openness of Islam to democracy. While caliphate and sultanate were coupled since the Umayyad Caliphate, and although for centuries public offices were passed along from father to son, this does not mean that Muslims are tied to this form of government. From a theological point of view, discussion concerns less the form of government per se than the uses to which it is put. Among the leading principles in this connection are the values of law, justice, and equality. Mutual consultation is a principle of governance that was recommended to Muhammad in the Qur’an, and that he in turn then recommended to the rulers (cf. At-Tirmidhi). From the point of view of the fundamental sources of Islam, nothing contradicts approaches under which the government of a state is elected by the people and the people’s representatives have a say in decision-making, while the people exert an influence over certain decisions through organizations in civil society. Muhammad demonstrated the high esteem in which he held the will of the majority of the people when he declared that his community as a whole would not go astray (cf. Ibn Majah).