Demystifying Prophethood, Theocracy, Democracy and Dictatorship


August 17, 2015

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Today, Egypt’s al-Sisi imposed strict anti-terrorism laws.

The laws establish special courts and offer additional protection from legal consequences for military and police officers who have used force.

They also impose the death penalty for anyone found guilty of setting up or leading a terrorist group.

Rights groups say the legislation will be used by Mr Sisi to crush dissent.

Some of the provisions in the laws would be agreeable to many Muslims or non-Muslims alike, who believe in rule of law and national security. But, what I find utterly offensive in these laws is total disregard for the reality and the truth. Journalists can be fined between 200,000 and 500,000 Egyptian pounds (£16,300-£41,000; $25,550-$64,000) for contradicting official accounts of militant attacks. The original draft of the law was amended following domestic and international outcry after it initially called for a two-year prison sentence. So, the new laws suggest that only journalists with financial resources or backing can have the luxury to stick to the truth, if it opposes the official account.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi

General Abdel-Fattah-el-Sissi, the military ruler of Egypt

Does the military dictator speak for the Egyptian military, his Western masters, Egyptian Muslims, Islam, the Western political philosophies or the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights? The short and quick answer is that in someways he is product of all of the above and speaks in some sense for all of them. Because of the complexity of politics in the so called Muslim countries and the ground realities, simple concepts like what is Islam, what is prophethood and what is a theocracy, democracy or dictatorship become elusive, confusing and shrouded in mystery.

This article aims at demystifying these concepts.

Just like the Egyptian ground reality is an amalgamation of many schools of thought and civilizations, one could argue that many of the laws in USA are derived from Judeo-Christian tradition or even Islam, Confucianism and Buddhism. Does it make USA a theocracy?

Short answer is ‘no!’


A frieze, designed by Adolph Weinman, on the north wall of the US Supreme Court depicts great lawgivers of the Middle Ages. This includes the Holy Prophet Muhammad

The above is a frieze, designed by Adolph Weinman, in 1930s, on the north wall of the US Supreme Court, which depicts great lawgivers of the Middle Ages.

Among these great law-givers there are at least four prophets as recognized by the Muslims, Muhammad, Moses, Solomon and Confucius, may peace of Allah be on all of them.

Does this make US a theocracy? I am afraid not. As US constitution and US Supreme Court can borrow wisdom from any where, including the prophets, but submit to no human religious authority and only yield to logic and rationality.  The US constitution lays special emphasis on the principle of checks and balances in governance, a principle all too often violated in dictatorships and theocracies.

US is generally called a republic, but, I would like to use  it as one of the best examples of a democracy.  It is not perfect, but, for most citizens the best country in the world to live in.

Let me quote from Encyclopedia Britannica, the definition of theocracy and democracy before we proceed with our discussion.

Democracy, literally, rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratiā, which was coined from dēmos (‘people’) and kratos (‘rule’) in the middle of the 5th century bc to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens.

Regarding theocracy, Britannica has the following to say:

Theocracy, government by divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided. In many theocracies, government leaders are members of the clergy, and the state’s legal system is based on religious law. Theocratic rule was typical of early civilizations. The Enlightenment marked the end of theocracy in most Western countries. Contemporary examples of theocracies include Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Vatican.

Mosque of Madinah, first built in 1 AH, 623 CE

Mosque of Madinah, first built in 1 AH, 623 CE by the Holy Prophet Muhammad

For the Muslims, any discussion on the topic of governance has to start with the prophethood of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

Muhammad, may peace be on him, had his first revelation, when he was 40 years old, after that he lived for 23 years. There is consensus among the Muslims that during his ministry he was getting constant revelation from all knowing Allah and all Muslims were expected to yield to his decisions, which covered not only private personal life, but, also public life. This is called prophethood.

What followed immediately after him is instructive to understand the concept of both theocracy and democracy, at least for the Muslims.

Abū Bakr purportedly was the first male convert to Islam. His prominence in the early Muslim community was clearly marked by Muhammad’s marriage to his young daughter ʿĀʾishah and again by Muhammad’s choosing Abū Bakr as his companion at the time of migration to Medina, the Hijrah, in 622.

He was also called al-Ṣiddīq (Arabic: “the Upright”) (born 573—died August 23, 634), he succeeded to the Prophet’s political and administrative functions, thereby initiating the office of the caliphate. But, he was not a prophet and did not claim any special revelations from Allah.  The constant revelation granted to the Prophet Muhammad, had come to an end, at least for the foreseeable future.

When Abu Bakr became a Caliph after the demise of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, it was a change of guard, a change from prophethood to either a theocracy or a democracy.

After assuming the office of Caliphate Abu Bakr’s first address was as follows:

I have been given the authority over you, and I am not the best of you. If I do well, help me; and if I do wrong, set me right. Sincere regard for truth is loyalty and disregard for truth is treachery. The weak amongst you shall be strong with me until I have secured his rights, if God wills; and the strong amongst you shall be weak with me until I have wrested from him the rights of others, if God wills. Obey me so long as I obey God and His Messenger. But if I disobey God and His Messenger, you owe me no obedience. Arise for your prayer, God have mercy upon you.[1][2]

In talking about the rights of weak, he was recognizing democratic principles of good governance.

The title and scope of his office were not set in stone and evolved over time. “Abū Bakr (reigned 632–634) relied greatly on ʿUmar and nominated him to succeed him,” says Encyclopedia Britannica, “As caliph, ʿUmar was the first to call himself ‘commander of the faithful’ (amīr al-muʾminīn).”

Abu Bakr and Umar had no intention to create a theocracy or a dictatorship. It is reported that Abu Bakr once told the people of Medina that they would be consulted in every matter and nothing would be done without their unanimous consent (Tabri, Vol. 1).

Seventh century Arabia was a primitive society. Abu Bakr and Umar were trying to implement the most rational understanding of the Islamic teachings in a society, where there was no other adequate source of knowledge or wisdom.

After Umar, Uthman and Ali were elected to the office of Caliph and then according to a great majority of the Muslims, Caliphate became misguided. But, how do we know that those who came after the first four were misguided and the first four were righteous?

The fact of the matter is that Ali was the caliph between 656 and 661 CE and he died in 661, for the next 19 years the only Caliph that the whole of the Muslim Empire, which now rivaled the Romans Empire, saw was Muʿāwiyah ibn Abī Sufyān; who lived till April 680. He was the only legitimate ruler for those 19 years and now to call him as non-righteous is only an artifact of history and there were no genuine tools to determine his illegitimacy, when he ruled effectively all these years and at his passing established the Umayyad dynasty of the caliphate,[3][4] which ruled for another 70 years or so.

Just like there are good and bad American Presidents there were good and bad Muslim Caliphs. Here is the list of Ummayad Caliphs with their years:

Caliph Reign
Caliphs of Damascus
Muawiya I ibn Abu Sufyan 28 July 661 – 27 April 680
Yazid I ibn Muawiyah 27 April 680 – 11 November 683
Muawiya II ibn Yazid 11 November 683– June 684
Marwan I ibn al-Hakam June 684– 12 April 685
Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan 12 April 685 – 8 October 705
al-Walid I ibn Abd al-Malik 8 October 705 – 23 February 715
Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik 23 February 715 – 22 September 717
Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz 22 September 717 – 4 February 720
Yazid II ibn Abd al-Malik 4 February 720 – 26 January 724
Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik 26 January 724 – 6 February 743
al-Walid II ibn Yazid 6 February 743 – 17 April 744
Yazid III ibn al-Walid 17 April 744 – 4 October 744
Ibrahim ibn al-Walid 4 October 744 – 4 December 744
Marwan II ibn Muhammad (ruled from Harran in the Jazira) 4 December 744 – 25 January 750

The Muslim historians did not have much praise for the first seven of the Ummayyad caliphs, but, the eighth one, Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, became an exception.

Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (2 November 682 (26th Safar, 63 AH) – February 720 (16th Rajab, 101 AH)) (Arabic: عمر بن عبد العزيز‎) was an Umayyad caliph who ruled from 717 to 720. He was also a matrilineal great-grandson of the second caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab and enjoys the tiles of Umar II and the fifth righteous Caliph. Whether a leader is effective or righteous is a human construct that history issues otherwise there is no specific Islamic yard stick to determine that.  The fact of the matter is that Islam does not prescribe any specific political system, but obviously, the Muslim groups and countries do have leaders that is a human need and not a Quranic prescription.

An unbiased and balanced study of the Caliphate from the death of the prophet in 632 till the death of Umar II in 730 will help the Muslims grow from a vulnerability in having an unconscious bias towards Caliphate or theocracy, towards enlightenment, by finding and sticking to what is the best in good governance, democracy and secularism and what they offer, for the common man, human rights and women rights.

Blessing is in not what the office is called, but, how it upholds compassion, justice and good governance.

Fast forward to the 20th and 21st century and many a Muslim country, including Saudi Arabi, Iran and Pakistan, unlike USA, emphasize religion of Islam and the Holy Quran, in their constitution, as the supreme authority, leaving little room for human wisdom and human political experience over the centuries, both in the Muslim and the non-Muslim world.

When we yield and surrender our rationality to a book, however profound, we create a theocracy, where rhetoric, deceit and conspiracy become the order of the day, as rationality has been put aside, as any book can be interpreted in countless different ways, to serve the interest of any political party or any shrewd politician or dictator.

The believers, who advocate theocratic principles, seem to take comfort in the observation that the Quran is the word of all knowing God, so they cannot go wrong yielding to divine wisdom. That is indeed true, but, they fail to realize that the Quran may be infallible, but our understanding of the scripture is varied, multiple and always potentially fallible, even in the best of the circumstances. So, by making theocratic statements in our constitution we are giving supremacy to potentially fallacious understanding of a scripture to cumulative human wisdom, accumulated over the centuries.

Even a theocracy often wants to follow rational ideas, as a result the difference between it and a democracy may not be immediately obvious. But, it becomes obvious whenever the society reaches a watershed moment, when they have to either follow a present or past religious authority or something rational and logical or at least what appears to be rational to the majority of the society, at such moments nations are tested and they either vote for theocracy and religious authorities or logic, rationality and utilitarian principles that help the society grow.

I will illustrate by only two examples below, in the interest of space, how over zealous adoption of the so called Shariah laws leads to irrational and senseless ground reality.


Munawar Hasan

My first example comes from a video interview of Munawar Hasan, previous Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious-political party, akin to Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I saw this interview about a year ago. He is considered one of the most learned scholars and proponent of Sharia Law, in Pakistan. He said in the interview, defending the so called Hudood ordinances in vogue in Pakistan that if a woman is raped and does not have four male witnesses, regardless of other circumstances, she should better be quiet and not pursue her case. He ruled out DNA evidence for such cases as DNA is not mentioned in the Holy Quran. The learned scholar did not suggest, how the victim should negotiate with the potential witnesses before the legal hearing in presence of strict Purdah requirements, to make sure that they are not going to deviate from their original testimony. He suggested that if she does not bring four witnesses then by acknowledging sexual contact she becomes deserving of 100 lashes.

Such lack of insight and empathy should send shivers down the spine of every sensitive human being! Here is the video in Urdu:

My second example of misinterpretation of Shariah Law is linked here: India’s Muslim women fight to end triple talaq law that yields instant divorce.


150 years on, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address still has the power to inspire

Abraham Lincoln defined democracy some 150 years ago, in his two minute legendary Gettysburg address, in the following words: ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ Theocracy, in contrast, in my opinion, is often a rule over the people by the Mullah for the Mullah, like Munawar Hasan.

The Muslims will be best served to limit Islam and prophethood to personal spheres of life and in the public sphere give the concepts of human rights and justice the top priority. Any political party can drive good ideas from Islam or other sources and all religions talk about justice and respect for other humans and the Golden rule. But, the political parties should not be allowed to dress themselves with religious symbolisms, as that invariably only serves to complicate the issue and does not help the Muslim masses.

The political parties should only be allowed to brag about what they have done for the fellow citizens and not about how much they love the Prophet or the Quran, for that creates theocracy.

These are precisely the reasons, why the Muslim Times has always promoted secularism in every country of the world.  Islam and prophethood of the Holy Prophet Muhammad encompassed both the private and the public during his time, but, for this day and age, I believe,  his model is meant only for our private lives.  This is not my idea but divine wisdom for God did not prescribe any method of government after his prophet and only emphasized the important principles of good governance.  The public life is to be handled by human wisdom, gained by centuries of experience, both in the domain of the sacred and the profane.

But, the irony is that when we talk about democracy in the Muslim countries, the concept is de facto only a vehicle for making them serve the Western interests. The Western powers sometime promote democracy in the Muslim countries and sometimes military dictators, for example, the current military ruler in Egypt. In Pakistan we saw a popular, democratically elected leader Zulifqar Ali Bhutto over thrown by General Zia-ul-Haq by US support, in the same vein, as the popular and democratic Iranian leader Mussadiq was replaced by a dictator, Shah of Iran, who ruled from  16 September 1941 until his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution on 11 February 1979. The rulers change in the Muslim countries under the dictates of their Western masters, but, one thing remains constant the service of the Muslim countries to the West.

So, the rational Muslims in these countries presently do not have the luxury of a real choice to choose, between a democracy or a theocracy. Beggars cannot be choosers, since they lost to the West militarily, technologically and economically a few centuries back.

But, the Muslims living in non-Muslim countries do have some real choices to make. They can choose between rationality that are the Western constitutions or the so called Shariah Laws. Same is true for the Muslims in India and China, to pursue the secular constitutions.

Those living in the so called Muslim countries should resist temptations to fight or resist their governments, dictators, kings or what ever form they may be in, be resigned to their fate and continue to educate themselves better and to pursue human rights and immigration to the West, when ever possible, where they can be truly free of the Western oppression, through their proxies, be they the royal family of Saudi Arabia or General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt.




Additional Reading

Do Muslims Prefer Camels Over Modern Cars?

Reason or Orthodoxy: Which One Should Rule?

Shariah and Constitution: A Personal Journey