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 worshiping 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”.
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 …”.
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).
This article is from Reading Islam’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.