Islam in the age of liberalism and democracy

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

No doubt, modern Liberalism is the dominant political ideology in the world today and therefore one of the greatest intellectual challenges for Muslims. As such, it is important for Muslims to understand the philosophical basis of this ideology and how it might contradict or agree with Islam.

Liberalism has its origin in the writings of classical liberals such as John Locke, Adam Smith, and the American Founding Fathers. These writers emphasized new political ideas in order to correct the excesses of monarchy and religious strife, such as constitutionalism, separation of powers, limited government, free market economics, and freedom of religion.

Indeed, some of their principles directly coincide with Islamic teachings. For example, Islam guarantees freedom of religion and opposes forced conversions.

Allah said:

لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ

There is no compulsion in religion. The truth is clear from error.

Surah Al-Baqarah 2:256

Likewise, Islam advocates a system of checks and balances upon the ruling authority such that the ruler is not a law in himself, but rather he is subordinate to a constitutional law based upon Islamic principles.

Allah said:

وَلَوْلَا دَفْعُ اللَّهِ النَّاسَ بَعْضَهُم بِبَعْضٍ لَّفَسَدَتِ الْأَرْضُ وَلَٰكِنَّ اللَّهَ ذُو فَضْلٍ عَلَى الْعَالَمِينَ

Were it not for Allah to check some people by means of others, the earth would have been corrupted but Allah is full of bounty to the worlds.

Surah Al-Baqarah 2:251

Al-Hasan reported: A man said to Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, “Fear Allah, O leader of the believers! By Allah, the matter is not as you said!” The people rushed to the man and they said, “Do not criticize the leader of the believers!” When Umar saw them crowding around the man, he said:

دَعُوهُمْ فَلا خَيْرَ فِيهِمْ إِذَا لَمْ يَقُولُوهَا لَنَا وَلا خَيْرَ فِينَا إِذَا لَمْ تُقَلْ لَنَا

Leave him alone. There is no goodness in him if he does not say it to us, and there is no goodness in us if we do not listen.

Source: Ta’reekh Al-Madinah 1235

Islam is compatible with many principles of classical liberalism and even democracy defined in this manner.

Sheikh Salman Al-Oadah writes:

When we talk about democracy from the vantage point of Islamic Law, we must first define what we mean. If we mean that we can use a democratic approach to government to override the laws of Islam, to permit what Allah has forbidden and prohibit what Allah has made lawful, then we are talking about something that is impermissible in Islam. If we go further and believe that doing so is improving upon Islam, then we fall into unbelief… If, however, we mean to use a democratic approach merely as a system of governance that we employ within the context of Islamic Law, using it only for matters that are open to interpretation, juristic discretion, and human decision making, then there is nothing wrong with it. And Allah knows best.


Although there may be disagreement among the details of each individual philosopher’s ideas, this broad agreement with Islam is due in part to the classical liberals’ belief in God and in objective morality. Their belief in liberalism was not absolute, but rather it was subordinate to their belief in “natural law” or the “law of nature’s God.”

In fact, the very idea of liberal democracy depended upon public acceptance of a shared ethical worldview. The American Founding Fathers understood this when they initiated their ambitious democratic project.

George Washington, the first president of the United States, said in his farewell address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.

Source: Farewell Address 1796

John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote:

Statesmen… may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our people in a greater measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty. They will only exchange tyrants and tyrannies.

Source: Letter to Zabdiel Adams, June 21st 1776

Certainly if the citizens of a democracy do not adhere to some shared moral vision, they will elect unprincipled and corrupt politicians who will fulfill their desires instead of the public good. The much touted “separation of church and state” was only meant to prohibit forced conversions and religious persecution, rather than removing religious values from government. The classical liberals understood this all too well and they strongly warned us about abandoning traditional virtues.

However, modern liberalism has morphed into a very different ideology than those of the classical writers. It is impossible to generalize about all liberals, but a dangerous and ascending current within the movement relies upon moral relativism, or the idea that there is no absolute, universal morality. Without a doubt, Islam rejects such an interpretation of liberal democracy.

This idea was expressed by the current United States President Barack Obama in his revisionist reflections on the founding of America:

It’s not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology…

Source: Obama, B. (2006). The audacity of hope. p.444

As the preeminent standard-bearer of this form of liberalism, Barak Obama rejects the idea of objective morality. The purpose of government is not so much to safeguard public morality, but rather to facilitate the desires of people. Reason becomes a tool not so much to identify universal good, but rather to rationalize desires even when they are harmful. How, then, do such liberals have any concept of morality at all?

These thinkers arrive at their moral worldview in the following way. Since objective morality does not exist or cannot be known, each person should be left to define their own concept of good. Hence, the only injustice is to deny or interfere with people’s alleged right to define good for themselves.

For this reason, their political vocabulary focuses not on traditional virtues, but rather on concepts of tolerance, non-discrimination, and diversity. While these terms generally hold positive connotations, their application within the worldview of moral relativism logically leads to numerous disastrous policies including the decriminalization of manifestly harmful behaviors such as pornography, prostitution, drug abuse, adultery, abortion, and sodomy.

Indeed, in the American court decision which deregulated abortion, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy justified himself by writing:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Source: Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, 505 U.S. 833

This was the ruling, in spite of the fact that abortion necessarily denies the life and liberty of the living fetus in the womb of its mother. In other words, the desires of adults outweighed the right to life of unborn children, certainly a dreadful moral conclusion.

We also see this type of reasoning in recent American court decisions redefining marriage to include homosexual couples. In her ruling striking down the constitutionality of traditional marriage, United States District Judge Barbara Crabb declared:

This case is not about whether marriages between same-sex couples are consistent or inconsistent with the teachings of a particular religion, whether such marriages are moral or immoral or whether they are something that should be encouraged or discouraged. It is not even about whether the plaintiffs in this case are as capable as opposite-sex couples of maintaining a committed and loving relationship or raising a family together. Quite simply, this case is about liberty and equality, the two cornerstones of the rights protected by the United States Constitution.

Source: Washington Post

Marriage law is not to be considered on moral grounds or whether such unions benefit children and society, but rather on the limitless embrace of liberty and perceived equality. Once again, we see the desires of adults taking precedence, among other things, over the natural rights of children to be raised by their biological fathers and mothers.

Such moral reasoning is eerily similar to the doctrines of Satanic religions. Aleister Crowley, the infamous Satanist, summarized the “rights of man” by declaring:

  1. Man has the right to live by his own law,
  2. Man has the right to eat what he will,
  3. Man has the right to think what he will,
  4. Man has the right to love as he will,
  5. Man has the right to kill those who would thwart these rights.

Crowley summarized his Satanic creed through a demon (or jinn) who allegedly revealed to him, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” This pernicious doctrine subtly entered the cultural mainstream via Crowley’s influence on popular artists and musicians such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, L. Ron Hubbard, and Jay-Z. As a matter of fact, this is the plan of Satan as revealed in the Quran.

Allah said:

وَلَأُضِلَّنَّهُمْ وَلَأُمَنِّيَنَّهُمْ وَلَآمُرَنَّهُمْ فَلَيُبَتِّكُنَّ آذَانَ الْأَنْعَامِ وَلَآمُرَنَّهُمْ فَلَيُغَيِّرُنَّ خَلْقَ اللَّهِ

Satan said: I will mislead them, and I will arouse in them sinful desires, and I will command them to slit the ears of cattle, and I will command them to change the creation of Allah.

Surah An-Nisa 4:119

At the heart of Satanism is the following of desires in disregard of Allah’s laws and changing His creation. Hence, Satanic religion is founded upon the rejection of objective morality derived from either revelation or natural law, and not necessarily conjuring jinn or performing black magic rituals, although some Satanists do that. Many modern liberals as we have seen actually follow these principles, describing them by different terms, and they do not follow the principles of classical liberalism.

Modern liberalism of this variety continues to increase its appeal among the intellectual elite and their followers in part because it facilitates their base desires and justifies their rejection of self-sacrifice and virtues associated with traditional religious morality. What is good is not always pleasurable, so people find a way to rationalize their passions even in opposition to the greater good.

Allah said:

وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

It may be that you dislike something which is good for you and you like something which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know.

Surah Al-Baqarah 2:216

Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

حُفَّتْ الْجَنَّةُ بِالْمَكَارِهِ وَحُفَّتْ النَّارُ بِالشَّهَوَاتِ

Paradise is surrounded by things which are disliked, and Hellfire is surrounded by lusts.

Source: Sahih Muslim 2823, Grade: Sahih

In reality, this ideology is nothing more than a new form of idol worship, wherein idols of wood and stone have been replaced with the concept of “freedom” unrestricted by moral truth.

Allah said:

أَفَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَٰهَهُ هَوَاهُ وَأَضَلَّهُ اللَّهُ عَلَىٰ عِلْمٍ وَخَتَمَ عَلَىٰ سَمْعِهِ وَقَلْبِهِ وَجَعَلَ عَلَىٰ بَصَرِهِ غِشَاوَةً فَمَن يَهْدِيهِ مِن بَعْدِ اللَّهِ ۚ أَفَلَا تَذَكَّرُونَ

Have you seen he who has taken his own desire as his god, and Allah has sent him astray with knowledge and has set a seal upon his hearing and his heart and has put a veil over his vision? So who will guide him after Allah? Will you not be reminded?

Surah Al-Jathiyah 45:23

We might rationalize our selfish desires and justify ourselves, but this will inevitably lead to destruction. For this reason, Allah strongly warns us about following our desires in opposition to His guidance.

Allah said:

وَإِن تُطِعْ أَكْثَرَ مَن فِي الْأَرْضِ يُضِلُّوكَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ إِن يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا الظَّنَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا يَخْرُصُونَ

If you obey most of those upon the earth, they will mislead you from the way of Allah. They follow not except assumption, and they are not but falsifying.

Surah Al-An’am 6:116

And Allah said:

يَا دَاوُودُ إِنَّا جَعَلْنَاكَ خَلِيفَةً فِي الْأَرْضِ فَاحْكُم بَيْنَ النَّاسِ بِالْحَقِّ وَلَا تَتَّبِعِ الْهَوَىٰ فَيُضِلَّكَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ

O David, We have made you a successor upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth and do not follow your own desire, as it will lead you astray from the way of Allah.

Surah Sad 38:26

As such, we have been commanded to follow the Sharia, the life-giving stream of values and morals derived from the Quran and Sunnah, and to suppress our desires that contradict it.

Allah said:

ثُمَّ جَعَلْنَاكَ عَلَىٰ شَرِيعَةٍ مِّنَ الْأَمْرِ فَاتَّبِعْهَا وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءَ الَّذِينَ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Thus, We have placed you upon an ordained way (sharia) concerning the matter, so follow it and do not follow the desires of those who do not know.

Surah Al-Jathiya 45:18

Therefore, Muslims ought to intellectually resist the onslaught of modern liberalism that rejects the values and teachings of the Sharia. Our natural allies in this regard are those who adhere to the traditional virtues we share, such as Jews, Christians, adherents of natural law, moderate liberals, and others. We certainly have much in common with these groups in our opposition to destructive moral relativism.

Likewise, we need to protect ourselves and our families from an unhealthy popular culture of promiscuity, lust, and selfishness promoted through music, movies, and websites. We should strengthen family values and morals and educate our communities with a firm Islamic foundation from which to guard ourselves from specious anti-Islamic arguments. We may have to endure mounting pressure, mockery, and abuse for holding to our values.

Abu Umayyah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

فَإِنَّ مِنْ وَرَائِكُمْ أَيَّامَ الصَّبْرِ الصَّبْرُ فِيهِ مِثْلُ قَبْضٍ عَلَى الْجَمْرِ لِلْعَامِلِ فِيهِمْ مِثْلُ أَجْرِ خَمْسِينَ رَجُلًا يَعْمَلُونَ مِثْلَ عَمَلِهِ

Verily, ahead of you are days of patience, wherein patience will be like grasping hot coals, and the one who does good deeds will have the reward of fifty men who do likewise.

Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4341, Grade: Sahih

Indeed, days will come in which holding onto Islam will be like holding onto a hot coal, as Islam and even traditional religion in general is increasingly viewed as backwards, regressive, intolerant, or even dangerous. Yet, we must remember that the reward for persevering in Islam in such an environment is truly great, and we have nothing to fear from people if we fear only the Lord of the worlds.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.