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demurral

Reader comment on item: A Democratic Islam?

Submitted by Peter Herz (United States), May 8, 2008 at 11:52

I demurr to seeing all pre-modern religions as undemocratic. Yes, they are if the popular will is the highest good and the arbiter of whatever is to be taken as right; no, if democracy is simply what Aristotle meant by politeia--the rule of the many for the common good.

Josephus gave us the term "theocracy" to describe ancient Israel, and he meant simply rule by God. In Israel's long history, we see a tribal federation (under the judges), a monarchy (Saul to the Babylonian captivity), a satrapy of other powers, and a kingdom under a priestly dynasty (the Maccabbees). The Old Testament enjoins the king's subjection to Torah (Dt. 17) and Samuel's warnings about royal prerogative (I Sam. 8) have been taken by many devout readers as a warning and a near-curse on Israel rather than a catalogue of legitimate royal rights. Indeed, such an understanding of Scripture informed Calvinist opposition to absolute monarchies in the 16th and 17th centuries, and provided an underpinning to later North Atlantic polities formed by Calvinist peoples.

However, the Reformed (Calvinist) Christians took the doctrine of original or birth sin very, very seriously, and the arguments of such Reformed political writers as Beza, Hotman, Marnix van St. Aldegonde, DuPlessis-Mornay, and Rutherford make it clear that absolute monarchy was wrong because no one sinner (and we are all sinners) can be trusted with too much power. Islam, if the Da'wa boys are right, has no doctrine of original sin. Perhaps this is a reason why it is prone to both violent and autocratic government--to say nothing of wild conspiracy theories. Doctrine probably counts for something here.

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