In Islam even the rule of God's religion cannot be imposed by force. In a well-known verse of Surah al-Baqarah it is said:
"Let there be no compulsion in religion (la ikraha fi ad-din)." (2:256)
As a result of this principle, if there are non-Muslims in an Islamic society they cannot be forced to become Muslims or follow Islamic law. Only people who freely accept Islam are bound by its blessed and noble teachings. Now, therefore, if God's rule cannot be forcefully imposed on people by anyone, how can a Muslim dictator have the right to impose his rule by military might?
In the exemplary period of the four rightly guided caliphs it was simply unthinkable that any individual, however good or great, would take over power by the use of military force. The four caliphs themselves were elected heads of state who enjoyed widespread support and respect. Hadrat Abu Bakr was elected in a free and open public gathering while Hadrat Omar, Uthman and Ali were elected by councils of trusted elders of the community. When the rightly guided caliph Amir Mu'awiyah nominated his son as the ruler, the Prophet's own grandson, Hadrat Imam Hussain, protested and as we all know gave his life rather than accept the rule of a man who, among other faults, did not come to power through proper means, i.e. through the election and support of the people.
This practice of the prophet's leading companions was in fact based on explicit guidance of the Holy Qur'an which requires that affairs of the Muslim community be run by public participation. In a chapter entitled Shura (consultation), the Holy Qur'an says of the Muslims that:
"...their affairs are run by mutual consultation." (42:38)
Even the Prophet Muhammad himself, who came in this world with an authority from God, is commanded in the Qur'an:
"...to take counsel with them (i.e. the people) in matters (of public concern)." (3:159)
It is clear from the above that in Islam, power primarily belongs to God and the people. even the Prophet's authority was derived from these two primary sources of power. When he spoke or acted as a messenger of God his authority was derived from God and when he spoke or acted as the head of the community his authority was derived from the people, by whose "counsel" he was bound. Since after the Prophet Muhammad died there is to be no other messenger or prophet of God, no one else will ever be able to speak or act with the authority of God and, therefore, from now on all Muslim rulers are as rulers (though not as individuals) completely bound by the counsel and will of the people.
In conducting shura in a society, effort should be made to involve as many members of the society as means of communication allow at a given time. Also, shura should be used in reaching decisions in as many matters as possible.
The first matter to be decided by shura in an Islamic society is, of course, the question of who will govern the society. A government that comes to power without due shura has no legitimacy in Islam, even though it conducts some shura in other matters. Consequently, the practice of Muslim dictators who first seize power by military force and then institute a "majlis-e-shura" or a controlled form of basic democracies through which only opinions favorable to the ruler are allowed to exist has absolutely no validity in Islam.
The views expressed above are not just the views of this insignificant writer. They are also the views of a majority of reputed Islamic scholars of all ages and places. Manlana A.A. Mawdudi (whose followers once unfortunately allied with a Pakistani military leader Zia's dictatorial rule) speaks for all these scholars when he writes:
"Every person in an Islamic society enjoys the rights and powers of a khalifa of God and in this respect all people are equal. No one takes precedence over another or can deprive him of his rights and powers. The agency for running the affairs of the state will be formed in accordance with the will of the people and the authority of the state will only be an accretion of the powers of the people delegated to it. Their opinion will be decisive in the formation of the government which will be run with their counsel and in accordance with their wishes. Whoever gains their confidence will undertake the duty and obligation of the caliphate on their behalf: and when he loses this confidence he will have to quit and bow before their will. In this regard the political system of Islam is a perfect form of democracy - as perfect as a democracy can ever be." (Islamic Way of Life, p.44)
Of course, an Islamic society differs from a Western democracy in the important respect that while in the latter people make their own laws and constitutions, in the former, laws and constitution are based on divine guidance. But this in no way means that the will and wishes of the people count any less in an Islamic society than in a Western democracy, since if the Islamic society is formed on the Qur'anic principle: "there is no compulsion in religion" (2:256), then it is only by the free choice and wishes of the people that the society will derive its laws and constitution from the guidance of God as given through His blessed messenger.
Why some Muslims are not enthusiastic about democracy
Democracy is as much a requirement of Islamic teachings as prayer, zakat, abstinence from alcohol, usury, fornication, etc. Yet while every Muslim will agree that Islam enjoins prayer and zakat (welfare tax) and forbids alcohol, usury, fornication, etc., a great many Muslims would not say with the same categoricity that Islam requires a democratic system of government for a Muslim society. There are two reasons for this phenomenon.
First, democracy is a term most often used in the non-Muslim secularist West. For this reason, many Muslims have the impression that the idea of democracy is a peculiarly Western idea which is alien to Islam. But if, as we have shown above, Islam requires that the government of a Muslim country should have the confidence of the people and that its affairs should be run by public participation, then the idea of democracy is not at all alien to Islam but it is part and parcel. It is one of those ideas that happen to be present in both the Western tradition and Islam. If we do not like the term democracy, we can use some other term (such as shuriyyah or ummatism) but we cannot reject the democratic principle itself. Such a rejection would be tantamount to a rejection of an aspect of Islamic teachings.
Second, democracy is a very difficult system to preserve. Muslims could not preserve it beyond the time of the four rightly guided caliphs, after which the political power passed into the hands of autocratic rulers, sultans and kings. It then became dangerous to refer to the democratic principles of the Qur'an and to their practice by the leading companions of the Prophet. Ulama (Muslim scholars), therefore, spent more and more time talking about personal aspects of the Islamic religion - prayer, zakat, fasting, hajj, inheritance, etc., and avoided mentioning socio-political principles of Islam. As centuries passed under these conditions, people got used to having sultans, kings and dictators, so much so that now many of them are not even sure that dictatorship is totally un-Islamic.
Lesson from history
It is not only Islam that teaches us to adopt a democratic approach in running our affairs. History also teaches us the same lesson.
If we glance through past and recent history, it will become quickly obvious that more democratic nations, in which rights of the individual are better respected, prosper in the long run and become victorious over less democratic nations. Thus in the early days of Islam, Muslims respected the individual rights and enjoyed popular elected governments. As a result, they prospered and were victorious over autocratic Persian and Byzantine empires. In the colonial times, Western democracies prevailed over most of the Asian and African countries that were all ruled despots. More recently, democratic Britain and the U.S.A. won against Nazi Germany ruled by one man. India, with a stable democratic system, has defeated and dismembered Pakistan which has mostly been ruled by military dictators. Democratic Britain defeated military-ruled Argentina in the Falklands, despite the fact that Britain was many times further away from the battlefield than Argentina. Revolutionary Iran, governed by a popular leadership and an elected majlis, won extraordinary victories over Iraq's despotic ruler, Saddam Hussain. And, of course, democratic Israel has been inflicting for the past many decades humiliating defeats on the richer and more populous Arab countries ruled by dictators and kings. One could continue the list, but the examples cited should be enough to teach us that if Muslim societies are to become strong, independent and prosperous societies, then their people will have to dispose of the ruling dictators and kings and take control of their affairs in their own hands. If they do not do so, then further disintegration of the Ummah and more and more humiliation and defeats from our enemies are inevitable. God has placed the future of the Muslim Ummah in the hands of its peoples.