Democracy and Religion: Iranian Islamic Republic Experience

Democracy and Religion: Iranian Islamic Republic Experience

The Islamic republic in Iran introduced a new political model named “religious democracy” which is of great importance for those who try to harmonize religion with modern institutions...

by: Yahya Fozi (Ph.D. Political Science)


 The Islamic republic in Iran introduced a new political model named “religious democracy” which is of great importance for those who try to harmonize religion with modern institutions. This new model, in fact, has risen as a certain and independent political philosophy and governance method in the face of modern models. In fact, the idea of “religious democracy” challenges thesis like “End of History”[1] and “End of Ideology”[2] which regard western democratic systems as the greatest human work and his absolute fate in social-political arena and introduce the modern age as an end to the role of religion and ideology in public parts of human life. This writing tries to answer questions about the theoretical principals of this political model as well as characteristics of religious democracy in post-revolution Iran. To answer such issues we first explore different views about the relationship between religion and democracy as a theoretical debate.

 A.     Religion and Democracy; different views

There are different views about the relationship between religion and democracy. Some believe in inconsistency of these two and calling the religious democracy a paradox,[3] they point that democracy is based on equality; freedom and the voice of majority while religion does not accept them (regard all humans as equal. They believe freedom of thought is limited in Islam and the third important issue is that they say the voice of majority could not found rules in Islam since God is the only legislator there.)

There is a second view which believes in consistency of Islam and democracy. They try to redefine the Islamic principles in order to prove that Islam and democracy are in no fundamental contradiction.[4] They say Islam is the source of freedom and equality too and defends the voice of majority in social fields. They reject the first view by explaining some rules on inequality through jurisprudence on one hand, and on the other they say that such rules are mostly in judicial and some certain fields which do not limit political participation They believe that freedom is not limited in Islam but it is a divine gift to the human being. They also try to defend the voice of majority through Shora (Consultation) and Bay'at (Oath of allegiance) concepts as well as the principle of commandment of good and prohibition of evil. This group believes the voice of majority can set examples for religious rules and also be the foundation for undefined issues.

There is also a third view which believes since there is no absolute definition for democracy and religion, their consistency or inconsistency depends on how we define them. They say democracy has no unique form and political thinkers and writers have named different models for it.[5]

There is also not a unified reading for religion where some views accept more space for reasoning with a better flexibility toward modern issues while others give no space to reasoning and introduce some inflexible religious approaches. Absolutely each of these views could set different relationship between religion and democracy. Thus we could not speak of consistency between Islam and democracy but should think of consistency or inconsistency between some certain forms of each.

Some intellectuals believe democracy is different from liberal democracy and there aren't essential relations between them.[6] But try emphasis on the paradox of public discourse in this society because there are a challenge between individualism values in the liberalism and populism value in the democracy.[7] Therefore, democracy is a tool or kind of human experience to reduce mistakes and a tool to realize national will, and so if we define “the ruling of national will” as the essence of democracy,[8] then realization of this national will would be closely related to culture and traditions of that certain nation .The ruling of national will in a secular nation would be completely different from its form in a religious nation. 

 So democracy needs a complementary political culture to be stabilized.[9]  In order to have a stabilized democracy in religious nations we need a relationship between democracy and their religion. Democracy needed connection to traditions and culture of that nation so in religious nations we should speak of religious democracy while in liberal nations, liberal democracy is defined. Thus what sets differences among democracies is the cultural background where democracy is founded.

Since liberal democracy is framed by liberal values. And any action challenging these values is not acceptable, then religious democracy will be framed by religion and the governing values would define differences among these two democracies.

Hence religious democracy, due to its roots in religious traditions, could be the proper model for establishing popular, effective and modern governments in religious nations. Post-revolution Iran tried to activate this political model,

 B.     Theoretical principles and characteristics of religious democracy in Iran

After toppling of Shah’s regime by Islamic revolution in Iran, the debate on alternative government raised among intellectuals who mostly circled around the kind of relation between Islam and the proper system. While some groups spoke of popular democratic republic or Islamic democratic republic, which was some sort of social or liberal democracy, Imam Khomeini (s) and a great part of Islamist groups defended Islamic republic which in fact was a new model trying to establish relations between Islam and democracy and its defenders believed in the third mention theory that democracy is a tool that could be used to realize national will in a religious sphere .the Theoretical principles  and  characteristics of religious democracy in Iran will be discussed below.

Imam Khomeini (s) defended democracy as a political tool when he said “republic, as it is everywhere regarded republic”[10] but he emphasized that this republic is based on constitutions which are Islamic rules.[11] He added “when we say republic, it means both conditions for the elected and the current rules in Iran are based on Islam and the shape of republic is elected by people and the republic would be as it is everywhere else”.[12] He emphasized that republic would be the form of governance and Islam will fill its content which is divine rules.[13] 

In fact he believed democracy is different from liberal democracy and it has changed pictures through history and served different ideologies like socialism or liberalism,[14] so it could be a functional frame for accepted rules and traditions of the nation it serves. So Muslims also could use democracy to govern their nations and even the Islamic democracy could prove superior to others and remove   their shortages due to its human nature.

He believed the main difference between Islam and democracies is not in Islam’s inconsistency with freedom and equality but in different views its takes toward such issues compared with materialists. Divine schools, he said, could provide a more realistic definition for freedom and equality due to their more comprehensive conception of human aspects while materialists defend freedom of animally aspects of human because of their view toward humanity thus the main difference between Islamic democracies and others is in their epistemology and worldview since liberalism in its epistemology depends of a self dependent and instrumental human mind while Islam believes mind and revelation in cooperation could provide the correct concept of truth for humankind. Liberalism, also, is humanist and materialist in its worldview while Islam circles around theism and afterlife meanwhile in anthropology, liberalism only thinks of human’s material and natural needs where Islam also thinks of his spiritual happiness. Thus liberal democracy works inside human desires and carvings while Islamic democracy works inside divine rules which are based on material and spiritual needs together, designed for his completion. Second main difference in Islamic democracy could be its higher goals (like human happiness and human making) while liberal democracy has no higher goal and is a kind of struggle to keep the current situation.

The religious democracy founded on these theoretical assumptions in Iran, has the following characteristics:[15]

  1. 1.      Public acceptance of founding religious political system

In the aftermath of Islamic revolution in Iran, Imam Khomeini (s) insisted on holding referendum about foundation of Islamic republic. Then Iranian public decided with a 98% majority for the religious political system.

  1. 2.      Public acceptance of Constitution based on observing Islamic rules

Imam Khomeini (s) ordered fast ratification by public representatives and then the Constitution were ratified by the majority of Iranians in a direct referendum. The Constitutions insisted on Islamic rules in governing the nation with dependence on public voice. Based on this Constitution, a person who is knowledgeable and capable of executing Islamic Law (Fiqh) is elected by public as a leader, thus public elect the leader, also elect president and representatives.

  1. 3.      Emphasis on equal and free political participation

The right for equal and free political participation provided in the Constitution Women and religious minorities had an equal and even outstanding in this system. Minorities have more representatives compared with their small population. Women have important and equal role in legislation and despite some traditional problems, statistics show a growth in political and social participation of women in post-revolution Iran where some jurisprudential rules have paved the way.

Meanwhile, Iran has gained an outstanding position among many countries for over 30 elections for president, parliament and guardian council members as well as local elections, over the past 30 years.

  1. 4.      Supervisory  Mechanisms

Supervision over power is of main characteristics in this democracy which enjoys internal mechanisms like virtue of authorities beside powerful external mechanisms like supervisory organizations, press, political parties, and civil institutions which are on grow after the Islamic revolution as different channels to criticize the government.

 5.      Relation between Religious Law and voice of majority

Since ruling is only for God, the question is how to avoid contradiction with the principle of legislation by public representatives? The answer in Iranian Islamic Republic is that regulations approved by representatives are further discussed by Jurisprudents in the Guardian Council for any inconsistency with Islamic rules thus in fields with no clear religious rule, including a vast part of issues, the voice of majority and reasoning by experts plays an important role and additionally the Shiite jurisprudential rules which are based on reasoning, primary  and secondary rules, time and location can reason new rules with high flexibilities. All mentioned factors provide the Islamic democracy with great power to come over modern issues.


The Iranian religious democracy, in general, is based on an instrumental and methodological view toward democracy. The main claim in religious democracy is to establish a government based on majority religious values because It believes the democracy is stable only when reaches out of political borders to become an inner part of individual and social life. This would happen in Islamic societies only when the democracy is rooted in Islamic traditions and customs. In other words observing the cultural situation and realities in Islamic societies, the best and most stable democracy is religious democracy.


[1]   Fukuyoma, Francis, the End of History and the Last Man, the free, New York. 1992

[2]  Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, pp. 59-69

[3]  Sayyid Qutb -Ma'alim fi al-Tariq, Milestones, Egypt Kazi Publications 1964 & Hassan al-Banna, “Why Do the Muslims Fight” contained in Jihad in Modern Islamic Thought A Collection, ed., Sheikh Abdullah Bin Muhammad Bin Humaid,

[4]  Forough Jahanbakhsh-Islam, Democracy and Religious Modernism in Iran (1953-2000): From Bazargan to Soroush , Brill Academic Publishers, January 2001

[5]  Held David, Models of Democracy, Second Edition, Polity Press, Greatin, 1996&. Schumpeter, Joseph, capitalism and democracy, 3 ED. Allen and Unwin Pub., 1950 & Giddens Anthony, New Rules of sociological method, Hutchinson, London, 1976 & Giddens Anthony, The Constitution of Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1984 & Arguy Hermet, Culture et Democratic, UNESCO, Orient Albin Michel, 1993

[6]  Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969 & Andrew Vincent, Modern Political Ideologies, Wiley-Blackwell; 2 edition 995 &C. Macpherson The Real World of Democracy-canadian broadcasting corp, 1972

[7]  R.J.Amison, Liberal Democratic Community, Ed. by :W. Chapman, New York University Press.1993 p. 214

[8]   Schumpeter, Joseph, Capitalism and Democracy, 3 Ed. Allen and Unwin Pub., 1950

[10]   R. Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Imam, Tehran, 1378

[11]   Ibid.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Ibid.

[15]  Islamic Republic Constitution

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