January 19, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 786

Salafi-Jihadi Cleric Abu Basir Al-Tartusi Presents His Position on Democracy: The Principle of the Rule of the People Is Heresy – But Some Mechanisms of Democracy Can Be Adopted

January 19, 2012 | By D. Hazan*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 786


Prominent Salafi-jihadi sheikh Abu Basir Al-Tartusi recently published on his website a long article in which he set out his position on democracy and elections. In it, he rejected the philosophical underpinnings of democracy, namely the principle of the rule of the people, but argued that it is nevertheless permissible to adopt some of the tools and procedures of democracy, such as elections, consent by majority, and public oversight of the authorities – which, he argued, actually originate in Islam. Referring to the situation in post-revolutionary Egypt, he said that the Salafis should join the political arena so as not to leave it to "men of evil," and in order to promote their ultimate goal of implementing the laws of the shari'a in the country. It should be noted that a similar position was earlier endorsed by the moderate Salafis in Egypt, as justification for their decision to join the political arena following the revolution.

Al-Tartusi's Fatwas on Libya and Egypt

Al-Tartusi's article was published as a follow-up to two fatwas he published recently, which likewise touched on issues of democracy (though they avoided a comprehensive ideological discussion of these issues). In one, published October 7, 2011, he proposed amendments to Libya's draft constitution, which was approved in August 2011 following the ouster of Qadhafi. The fatwa emphasized that Libya must be defined as an "Islamic state" (or even as a "civil Islamic state") that is based on the Islamic principle of shura (consultation), rather than as a "democracy," which, according to Al-Tartusi, is inferior to the Islamic concept of shura. The sheikh also emphasized that the Islamic shari'a must be the sole source for legislation, since relying on any other source of authority is an act of heresy.[1] The second fatwa, dated November 25, 2011, called on the Egyptian citizens to support a Salafi candidate, Hazem Abu Isma'il, in Egypt's upcoming presidential elections, because his victory would help preserve the achievements of the Egyptian revolution, and would have many advantages for Egypt and for the Arabs and Muslims at large.

These fatwas are noteworthy in that they come out against the accepted Salafi-jihadi approach which absolutely opposes the existence of man-made laws and constitutions, as well as any participation in elections and in political systems that are not based explicitly and exclusively on the shari'a. This approach is evident, for example, in a fatwa issued February 28, 2010 by Sheikh Nasser Al-Din Al-Baghdadi, a member of the shari'a committee of the Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad website. Asked whether it was permissible to vote in the Iraqi elections which were about to take place, the sheikh replied: "The elections are based on the system of democracy, and democracy is a religion that is not the religion of Allah... [Participating in them] is blatant heresy... It is [our] duty to eliminate [the system of] democracy, which contravenes our religion, and cleave to the real and pure monotheistic faith."[2]

Al-Shinqiti's Response to Al-Tartusi's Fatwa on Egypt

Al-Tartusi's fatwa on the Egyptian elections prompted a similar reaction from Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad. On December 5, 2011, the website posted a fatwa by another member of its shari'a committee, prominent Salafi-jihadi sheikh Abu Mundhir Al-Shinqiti, in which he addressed this issue "in order to prevent fitna." He stated that Al-Tartusi's fatwa was insufficiently supported with evidence from the Islamic sources. He also pointed out that Al-Tartusi is not the only Salafi sheikh who once ruled against participation in elections but is now supporting them, and said: "All these sheikhs [who changed their mind] are wrong, because they are disregarding the reason for the prohibition against [participating in] elections. Before, they said [correctly] that... taking part in elections means taking part in a polytheistic regime. Is there any reason for us to deliberately embrace polytheism?" Al-Shinqiti asked whether these sheikhs believe the issue of elections to be a matter for ijtihad (personal interpretation by the jurisprudent). If they do, he said, why did they attack the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for participating in the elections? Doesn't the Muslim Brotherhood have the right to practice ijtihad too, he asked, adding that perhaps these sheikhs believe that in the past, the issue was not a matter of ijtihad, but that today it is.

Al-Shinqiti also attacked Al-Tartusi for not explaining his change of heart regarding the issue of elections, and for confining his arguments to saying that the election of Hazem Abu Isma'il would help preserve the achievements of the revolution – when the goal of implementing the shari'a is in fact far more important. He explained that Al-Tartusi and other clerics can err, since they are only human, and that it is the duty of other clerics to correct them. The mistake, he added, is accepting everything they say without demanding proof, because, in matters of jurisprudence, proof is what matters. Moreover, the main virtue of the Salafi stream is its members seek proof for their beliefs instead of following traditions blindly.

Summing up, Al-Shinqiti said: "Sheikh Hazem [Abu Isma'il] will never be able to implement Allah's shari'a by means of these elections that perpetuate democracy, and I believe that many of the sheikhs who ruled [that people must] vote for him would agree with us that democracy and Islam are incompatible."[3]

Al-Tartusi's Article on Democracy

Several days after the publication of Al-Shinqiti's response, Al-Tartusi posted on his website his "Islamic-political article," in which he outlined his position on elections, this time supporting his arguments with abundant proofs from the Islamic sources.[4] The following are the main points of the article:

The Mujahideen Must Try to Take Government Posts in Which They Can Benefit Islam, including the Post of President

Al-Tartusi began by stating that unfortunately there are some who take a one-dimensional perspective on controversial issues, believing that there is one absolute interpretation, and that anyone who disagrees with it is regressing or deviating from the right path – whereas, in actuality, these issues require a courageous examination informed by knowledge of Islamic shari'a. "It is inconceivable that we should continue to evade [confronting these issues] and enumerating the prohibitions without providing people with legitimate and realistic alternatives," he said, while emphasizing that everything must be backed with evidence from the Islamic sources.

He goes on to say that jurisprudence in a climate of dictatorship, persecution and fear is different from jurisprudence in a climate of freedom, when the land has been liberated and everyone is jointly responsible for its future and resources. "Wartime has rules and laws of its own, and times of peace, quiet and security have rules and laws of their own, and the two must not be mixed," he noted, adding thatviolence and aggression must not be used to pursue goals that can be achieved through dialogue and by peaceful means. Since the Muslim peoples love Islam, he said, the mujahideen must not incur their enmity by waging needless wars against them on the grounds that the revolutions have failed. Instead, he stressed, they must be patient and cooperate with the peoples in dealing with the new reality, and try to take government posts in which they can benefit Islam, including the post of president.

The Constitution Must Include an Ironclad Stipulation that the Islamic Shari'a is the Sole Source for Legislation

Al-Tartusi explained that it was this reasoning that led him to call upon the Egyptians to support Hazem Abu Isma'il for president, "especially since the other candidates have many bad qualities that [could] lead Egypt and its people to disaster and destruction." It would not be wise of the mujahideen, who carried out the revolution and made so many sacrifices, to abandon the scene to "men of evil" and let them reap the fruits of the revolution and lead the country as they please, Al-Tartusi adds. However, he stresses that monotheism is inviolable and that realizing it is the supreme goal, and that all available and legitimate means must be used to in order to fully implement the laws of the shari'a in the Muslim lands. To this end, he says, these laws must be anchored in an ironclad constitutional clause stipulating that "the Islamic shari'a is the sole source for legislation." Such a clause guarantees that "everyone will act under the umbrella of the shari'a, and that shameful and forbidden phenomena that [currently taint] the parliament's actions will be eliminated. Once this happens, all the people will be able to take part in the elections."

Addressing the accusation that he had changed his mind about democracy, Al-Tartusi states: "I have not changed my mind one whit. I continue to pursue my truth, the same truth I have known since I reached the age of reason... In my previous essays and studies, I repeatedly addressed [the issue of] democracy, its meanings and the dangers it poses... This essay briefly revisits this question and presents my position [on it]."

Democracy Stipulates that Man Is Above Allah – Which Is Blatant Heresy; However, Adopting Some of the Mechanisms that Democracy Uses Is Not Heresy

"Democracy has two [main] components. [The component] that defines it as an ideology, religion and philosophy stipulates that man is above Allah and that his will and power supersede the will and power of Allah... This is the main and most important component [of democracy], and it is blatant heresy. Whoever accepts it is outside the fold of Islam... The U.S. and the [other] Western countries want to export this aspect of democracy to the Muslim states, because if it takes root in the hearts of the Muslims, it will distance them from their faith and religion... and also because... it will weaken them, increase their humiliation, and increase their dependence on the U.S. and the West.

"The second component of democracy is its tools and administrative mechanisms, such as elections, voting, government turnover, freedom of speech and criticism, public oversight of the leadership, etc... Whoever adopts this aspect of democracy alone is not a heretic... [However], it is inappropriate to call him a democrat... Such a person may be right in some ways and wrong in others, depending on how he uses these tools...

"[Procedures such as] elections, voting, public oversight of the leadership, and the demand that the leadership be accountable for negligence are not the [essence] of democracy, as some claim, but are mere tools on which that democracy relies... Democracy and the democratic regimes have no monopoly over these tools, because dictatorial regimes use them too. Each regime employs these tools and adapts them to its [particular] character, goals, policies and ambitions – and that is why, in many cases, these tools do not accurately reflect the will of the people or meet the people's needs...

"The U.S. and the Western countries are very careful not to export this aspect of democracy [i.e. the tools] to the Muslim lands... out of fear that [the people] will elect a government or a regime that is not to their liking, or leaders who will not serve their interests in the region... Therefore, in order to prevent this, they frequently interfere [in the affairs of Muslim countries], and use the numerous effective tools at their disposal to improve the chances of some group or party they like, at the expense of some group or party they do not like... That is why they often support dictatorial regimes, [even] while calling for democracy..."

Democratic Tools, Like Elections, Actually Originate in Islam

"These [democratic] tools and other worthy mechanisms actually originate in Islam. However, in the absence of an Islamic regime... and as a result of the war that the tyrants and the enemies [of Islam] have been waging against political Islam for over 100 years, since the fall of the Ottoman caliphate – Islamic jurisprudence regarding the political [implementation of the] shari'a and regarding the [correct] method of governing and managing of the country has atrophied and become ineffective – so much so that we have come to believe that Islam lacks effective tools to govern and manage the country and people's [lives]... That is a bitter mistake that we must not fall into...

"The principles of elections, voting, and considering the majority opinion... are anchored in Islam. [For example,] 'Othman bin 'Affan was chosen as Caliph out of six of the Prophet's Companions who were selected by [the second Caliph,] 'Omar [bin Al-Khattab]. [After] the six were consulted, some of them gave up their candidacy in favor of 'Othman bin 'Affan, and others gave up their candidacy in favor of 'Ali [bin Abu Taleb]... Then, 'Abd Al-Rahman bin 'Awf, who was authorized to choose between the two, began to poll the people of Medina, asking them which [candidate] they preferred... After that, he took the hand of 'Othman bin 'Affan, and said: "We [hereby] swear allegiance to you in the name of the Sunna of Allah and of His Prophet and of the two caliphs who followed him...

"This shows that voting, elections, and asking people who they want as their leader are [practices that are] anchored in Islam and in our Islamic history. They do not constitute a deviation from the Islamic shari'a or a [forbidden] innovation, as claimed by some people that [pounce on] anyone who mentions elections and voting and accuse him of being a democrat... The same is true for the principle of shura [consultation], which is mentioned in many Islamic texts that urge [the Muslims] to implement it, and which uses the tools of elections, voting, and majority [decision]... As our Prophet said in a hadith: 'Your best leaders are those whom you love and those who love you, and your worst leaders are those whom you hate and those who hate you'... This means that [considering] the people's love for, and satisfaction with, the leaders was among the demands of the shari'a, and part of shari'a-based politics, even before it became one of the tools of democracy and of other [systems]. The idea of imposing a leader upon the people by force is alien to Islam, and Islam renounces it...

"Contra to what some claim, the idea of public oversight of the leaders and of leaders' accountability is not exclusive to democracy either, because Islam preceded [the democratic system] and other [government systems] in this domain as well... According to the hadith, the Prophet said: "The best jihad is to speak a word of truth to a tyrant ruler'... According to the Prophet, overseeing the leaders, holding them accountable, and telling the truth to their face is 'the best jihad and the [kind of] jihad most beloved [by Allah].' The Prophet also said that whoever is killed by an oppressive [ruler] for doing these things is a martyr who enjoys the same rank in Paradise as Sayyid Al-Shuhada...[5]

"If the Islamic nation wishes to recuperate from its fall and recapture its glory and its pioneering role in leading the peoples and the nations, it must revive among the Islamic peoples the spirit of overseeing the leaders and holding them accountable... [Otherwise] the leaders become arrogant tyrants, even if they were not such to begin with...

It Is Permissible to Limit the Leader's Term in Office – But Once the Caliphate Is Established, the Chief Caliph Will Rule for Life

"As for government turnover, meaning [the principle of] limiting the leader's term in office and [ultimately] replacing him with another candidate from among the nation – this is one of the problems that require examination and rulings by the nation's religious scholars. My own opinion is as follows:

"1. The rule of the Mahdi and of Jesus, when they arrive, will last their entire lifetimes, because this is explicitly specified in the [Islamic] sources.

"2. The chief Muslim Caliph – who will be chosen through shura and consultation among the Muslims in all their lands after the [Islamic] Caliphate is established – will [also] rule for life, like the first Caliphs of the nation... However, there will be a practical and legal mechanism... for impeaching him should he violate the terms of his office, or should impeaching him be more beneficial than his remaining [in office]. [This mechanism will allow to remove him from office] without bloodshed and without an armed confrontation between the regime and its mechanisms and the people. These constraints ensure the stability and consolidation of the Caliphate...

"3. There is no prohibition against limiting the duration of a leader's term in office to a period of five years or so, whether he is [the leader] of an independent country or of a country subordinate to the Caliphate. This term can be extended if the people elect the leader a second time... Since we are living in an era in which trust has been lost and deception prevails... we cannot extrapolate from the period of the Prophet and the Caliphs to the present era... [Therefore] we must ensure the existence of an accessible and easily activated mechanism for impeaching the Caliph and replacing him with another should he violate one of the terms of his office, or should impeaching him be more beneficial than his remaining [in office].

"4. As for province governors, mayors, administrators and civil servants, there is no prohibition against selecting them by means of elections [reflecting] the will of the people, nor is there any prohibition against limiting their terms in office..."

The Principle of Speaking Out Against Oppressive Rulers Is Anchored in Islam; However, Free Speech Does Not Include Freedom to Utter Heresy, As Some Atheists Claim

"[Now for] the principle of free speech and raising the banner of truth: Islam was the first to enshrine this grand principle, placing it on the correct and beneficial path. [It] commanded the believers to shed all fear of the oppressive rulers and their armies, and tell the truth wherever they are... For it is said [in the Koran]: 'Do you fear them? But Allah is most deserving that you should fear Him, if you are believers [Koran 9:13]'... The Prophet counted 'jihad of the tongue' among the kinds of jihad... Naturally, this does not mean that one may liberate one's tongue and utter explicit heresies, or curse Allah and the Messengers... under the pretext of freedom and democracy, as some deviants and criminal atheists [claim]..."

Concluding his article, Al-Tartusi wrote: "In stating the above, I wished to clarify that these [democratic] means are anchored in Islam and do not constitute an innovation or a deviation from the shari'a. On the contrary, Islam was the first to propose them, in their best and most perfect form... The way these principles are implemented in many contemporary regimes is not sacrosanct... Therefore, I charge the best of [our] politicians and reformists to work diligently towards developing these principles and amending them, [thus] bringing them to the required level of legal and ideological [sophistication], so that they benefit the country and the people in the most perfect manner... I present this document to my learned brothers, so that they may sign it if they agree with it... If they do not [agree with it], I will thank them to correct me and guide me with evidence from the Islamic [sources] and with logical [arguments]."[6]

Al-Tartusi's Position Is Similar to That of Moderate Egyptian Salafis

It should be noted that positions similar to those expressed by Al-Tartusi in this article were expressed before him by the moderate Salafis in Egypt, as justification for their decision to enter the political arena after the revolution. Before the revolution, they maintained that democracy is a form of heresy and that electing the leader should be the prerogative of a select group of decision-makers.

Sheikh Yasser Barhami, a prominent leader of the Salafi Da'wa movement in Egypt, justified this turnabout by arguing, like Al-Tartusi, that the Salafis categorically reject the idea of democracy while adopting its political mechanisms. He explained that it is permissible to endorse various philosophies in a selective manner, adopting what is compatible with Islam and serves its interests and rejecting what contravenes Islam. Thus, he said, the Salafis endorse the idea of elections so as not to leave the political arena to the secularists and liberals. They also accept the notion of a parliament and other state institutions based on shura, as well as the notion of subjecting these institutions to the oversight of the people. However, they reject the "heretical" underlying assumption of democracy, namely that the people are the source of legislative power, since, for the Salafis, Allah and the shari'a are the only sources of power and legislation.[7]

*D. Hazan in a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI JTTM Report: "Abu Basir Al-Tartusi: It Is Heresy to Add to the Shari'a Any Other Source of Authority for Libya's Legislation," November 7, 2011,¶m=GJN.

[4] The article is dated December 1, 2011, but was probably posted at a later date in response to Al-Shinqiti's criticism about Al-Tartusi's failure to provide evidence for his positions.

[5] Sayyid Al-Shuhada ("Chief of the Martyrs") is the title of Hamza bin 'Abd Al-Mutallab, the Prophet's uncle, who was killed in the Battle of Uhud (624 AD) and is considered a symbol of courage and heroism.

[7] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), December 12, 2011. For a comprehensive article on the Egyptian Salafis' entrance into politics, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 780, "In the Post-Mubarak Era, Egyptian Salafi-Jihadis Renew Their Da'wa," December 29, 2011 In the Post-Mubarak Era, Egyptian Salafi-Jihadis Renew Their Da'wa.

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