The United States boasts about democracy as being an invention which it has spread all over the free world.
According to facts of history, democracy is not an American invention.
It is thought that democracy was first practiced in Rome BC where the Caesar was elected by the members of the Senate. But this Roman experience could easily be detected as an incomplete democracy, as the senators themselves were representatives of aristocracy and social elites who did not voice the common Romans as much as they voiced their own caste.
No matter how short lasting and incomplete the Roman experience might have been, it was highly priced for being a privilege to all humanity and a step forward towards more mature ones.
The First Democracy
The first true democracy which addressed the public at large, especially in sensitive issues like electing the ruler, was recorded immediately after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
When the Prophet Muhammad felt he was dying, he wanted to settle the issue of his successor to prevent people from having splits among themselves; specially that the newborn state he established in the Peninsula was full of not only various but also historically rivaling ethnic, tribal and political factions.
Deep inside him, Prophet Muhammad wanted his best friend and companion during the Hijrah (emigration from Makkah at the time of the Prophet), Abu Bakr, to succeed him, but he could not have had his wish outspoken because this would have gone against people’s human right to choose their ruler.
He only asked Abu Bakr to lead the people, during his last illness, in the congregational prayer in a symbolic gesture of his wish. He did not do any more to let people understand his will, which if he had declared frankly, people would have obeyed blindly.
But for the Prophet, more important than having Abu Bakr as a successor was to educate his citizens the principle of democracy as the only cornerstone for building a modern state which guarantees social justice and national security.
Although most people understood the gesture, yet others insisted on practicing their right to choose.
Two Main Political Parties
At the time of the Prophet’s death, the main political parties in Madinah were the Muhajirun, or the emigrants — mainly those who emigrated with him from Makkah to Madinah to escape tyranny — and the Ansar, or the supporters. These were the inhabitants of Madinah who received him and his people, hosted them and divided their own wealth among them.
After the Ansar had collected themselves together, on hearing the news of the Prophet’s death, their leaders held a meeting in the colonnade or “thaqifat Bani Saad” which is a special place for public congregations, and they prepared their nominee, Saad ibn Ubadah, for the position of a successor.
Their good reason for claiming the position in their campaign was that the Prophet made Madinah the capital of the huge Islamic state; therefore it became logical that the ruler should be one of its inhabitants.
In an eloquent oration, their nominee Saad ibn Ubadah listed proofs of his privilege, he said:
“You the people of Ansar, you have a privilege in Islam that no other tribe has got. Muhammad lived more than ten years among his people in Makkah calling them to worship God and abandon worshipping idols, but they did not believe him except for very few men who could not protect him or his religion or even protect themselves against oppression. But Allah has favored you with these honors of believing in Him and His Messenger, supporting the Prophet and his companions, elevating His religion and fighting His enemies…”
The Muhajirun leaders, who hurried to the colonnade to participate in the meeting, started their campaign by an oration given by Abu Bakr himself to assert the Muhajirun’s right to the position.
When Abu Bakr was leading the campaign, he did not think of himself as a candidate but he was running it in favor of Umar ibn Al-Khattab as the party candidate.
Election Fever Heats up
In modern election campaigns, nominees bring about all possible scandals of their rivals even if they have to spy on their private lives, and if they don’t find any they don’t scruple to fake ones. Ends always justify means.
But Abu Bakr ran his campaign in a different way. In his impressive oration, the prelude did not go for elevating his own party or nominee but rather for mentioning the privileges of the rival one of Ansar.
And then he started listing his reasons for claiming the position. He said:
“You all know that the Prophet said ‘If all people choose to walk in a certain valley while Ansar choose to walk in another, I’ll take the same valley of Ansar‘. You Ansar deserve whatever good I may say about you. But the Arabs will not admit this position except for the tribe of Quraish (to which the Muhajirun belonged) Quraish is the center of the Arab world as for both place and kinship.
Then he took the hand of Umar and asked people to swear allegiance to him.
Such logic succeeded in attracting voters from the other camp to join Al-Muhajirun side, one said “Yes, Muhammad is from Quraish and his people have the right to succeed him, so don’t argue with them about it.”
Umar stood and asked the public:
“Don’t you know that the Prophet gave the precedence of leading the prayers to Abu Bakr?”
“Yes,” they replied.
“Does anyone feel comfortable to precede the one whom the Prophet gave the precedence?” he asked.
“No, no one does,” they said.
It was apparent that the general public opinion was going towards the Muhajirun party. But who was their candidate?
There was a short argument between Abu Bakr and Umar about who is going to be the Muhajirun’s candidate, as everyone of the two was willing to leave it to the other.
Abu Bakr said to Umar “You are stronger than me”, but Umar answered, “But you are better than me, and my strength will be for your sake”.
At that moment everyone in the colonnade stood to take Abu Bakr’s hand and swear allegiance to him. On the following day while the people were attending the prayer, Umar stood and asked the public for a general allegiance to be added to the selective allegiance that the political elite who attended the colonnade’s meeting gave the day before.
Having guaranteed the first principle of democracy, namely free public election, the new ruler, or Caliph, passed to the second which is freedom of expression.
In his first oration after he was elected, Abu Bakr said “You people, Although I’m not the best among you, I have been chosen to be your ruler, if I do right help me and if I do wrong correct me …”.
Running Out of Time
After Abu Bakr’s death, the general consent over the character of Umar to succeed him saved time and procedures, but after Umar’s death there was again a need for election. Although he had the desire to have Ali ibn Abi Talib succeeding him, Umar couldn’t impose his wish on the subjects.
Before he died, Umar had felt the absence of consensus around certain candidates and he was afraid of splits that may lead to a civil war, so he listed the names of six candidates and asked people to choose among them.
He gave the candidates the ultimatum of three days to settle the issue among the public to prevent any possible turmoil that might happen. His keenness over the security of the society made him strictly give the authority for the state’s chiefs to kill the six candidates in case they disputed in a way that set the society on the fire of a civil war.
One of the six candidates, Ibn Auf, withdrew — although his chance was excellent — in order to run the election from outside. In a feverish race with time, he went through the city door by door knocking and taking votes.
He took the votes of army members outside the city. He was doing his job even at night time to catch up with the dictated ultimatum.
In the last stage, votes went equally to two nominees; Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib There was a need for a second round, but votes were equal too while time was running out.
As Umar expected, people began to feel restless and there was a fear of rout due to the delay. One of the chiefs asked Ibn Auf to give his vote and settle the issue.
Feeling that his vote will settle the matter and that it is a veto for one candidate against the other, Ibn Auf tried his best to make his choice based on objective criteria rather than emotional.
He summoned Ali in front of the public and asked him:
“Do you swear by God to rule according to what is dictated in His Book and according to the Sunnah of His Prophet and the model examples of the two previous Caliphs?”
“I hope I can, I’ll try my best to do so.”
Then Ibn Auf summoned Uthman and asked him the same question and the latter answered “Yes, I will”. Therefore, Ibn Auf swore allegiance to Uthman and so did everybody.
This is the history of true and mature experiences of democracy which took place 1400 years ago. And still there are other lessons to inspire of how modern states could be built in the model of the Democratic Republic of Muhammad (peace be upon him).