Deliberations of the Caliphates, most notably the Rashidun Caliphate were not democratic in the modern sense rather, decision-making power lay with a council of notable and trusted companions of Muhammad and representatives of different tribes (most of them selected or elected within their tribes).
In the early Islamic Caliphate, the head of state, the Caliph, had a position based on the notion of a successor to Muhammad’s political authority, who, according to Sunnis, were ideally elected by the people or their representatives, as was the case for the election of Abu Bakr,Umar bin Alkhattab Uthman and Ali as Caliph. After the Rashidun Caliphs, later Caliphates during the Islamic Golden Age had a much lesser degree of democratic participation, but since “no one was superior to anyone else except on the basis of piety and virtue” in Islam, and following the example of Muhammad, later Islamic rulers often held public consultations with the people in their affairs.
The legislative power of the Caliph (or later, the Sultan) was always restricted by the scholarly class, the ulama, a group regarded as the guardians of the law. Since the law came from the legal scholars, this prevented the Caliph from dictating legal results. Laws were decided based on the ijma (consensus) of the Ummah (community), which was most often represented by the legal scholars. In order to qualify as a legal scholar, it was required that they obtain a doctorate known as the ijazat attadris wa ‘l-ifttd (“license to teach and issue legal opinions”) from a madrasa. In many ways, classical Islamic law functioned like a constitutional law.
Democratic religious pluralism also existed in classical Islamic law, as the religious laws and courts of other religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism, were usually accommodated within the Islamic legal framework, as seen in the early Caliphate, Al-Andalus, Islamic India, and the Ottoman Millet system.
Legal scholar L. Ali Khan argues that Islam is fully compatible with democracy. In his book, A Theory of Universal Democracy, Khan provides a critique of liberal democracy and secularism. He presents the concept of “fusion state” in which religion and state are fused. There are no contradictions in God’s universe, says Khan. Contradictions represent the limited knowledge that human beings have. According to the Quran and the Sunnah, Muslims are fully capable of preserving spirituality and self-rule.
Furthermore, counter arguments to these points assert that this attitude presuppose democracy as a static system which only embraces a particular type of social andcultural system, namely that of the post-Christian West. [Citetion needed] See: constitutional theocracy.
Muslim democrats, including Ahmad Moussalli (professor of political science at the American University of Beirut), argue that concepts in the Quran point towards some form of democracy, or at least away from despotism. These concepts include shura (consultation), ijma (consensus), al-hurriyya (freedom), al-huqquq al-shar’iyya(legitimate rights). For example, shura (Al Imran – Quran 3:159, Ash-Shura – Quran 42:38) may include electing leaders to represent and govern on the community’s behalf. Government by the people is not therefore necessarily incompatible with the rule of Islam, whilst it has also been argued that rule by a religious authority is not the same as rule by a representative of God. This viewpoint, however, is disputed by more traditional Muslims. Moussalli argues that despotic Islamic governments have abused the Quranic concepts for their own ends: “For instance, shura, a doctrine that demands the participation of society in running the affairs of its government, became in reality a doctrine that was manipulated by political and religious elites to secure their economic, social and political interests at the expense of other segments of society,” (In Progressive Muslims 2003).
Much debate occurs on the subject of which Islamic traditions are fixed principles, and which are subject to democratic change, or other forms of modification in view of changing circumstances. Some Muslims allude to an “Islamic” style of democracy which would recognize such distinctions. Another sensitive issue involves the status of monarchs and other leaders, the degree of loyalty which Muslims owe such people, and what to do in case of a conflicting loyalties (e.g., if a monarch disagrees with an imam).