I have received very encouraging response to the emails about spiritual democracy. Before I share my understanding of this concept, I would like to clarify a basic point. There are two different perceptions about Islam today, and spiritual democracy is relevant only to the first.
The first version dominated the Muslim thought from 1887 to 1953. Its followers included Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Jamaluddin Afghani, Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Iqbal, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and many others. On their behalf, Iqbal summarized the purpose of Islam in these words:
“Give man a keen sense of respect for his own personality, let him move fearless and free in the immensity of God’s earth, and he will respect the personalities of others and become perfectly virtuous.” (Iqbal, 1909)
This, according to Iqbal, was the unique idea which Islam contributed to human thought and which did not exist before the advent of Islam.
Since 1953, a different perception has gradually become dominant in Muslim thought and has also been recognized by the academia in the West. We may call it conservative Islam, but whatever name it is given, the basic idea behind it is that a human being cannot be let alone and needs to be constantly supervised by authority figures.
This is actually an antithesis of the spirit of Islam. It is a recycling of the pre-Islamic worldview, if we are to believe Iqbal, who said:
“The opposite view, the doctrine of the depravity of man held by the Church of Rome, leads to the most pernicious religious and political consequences. Since if man is elementally wicked, he must not be permitted to have his own way: his entire life must be controlled by external authority. This means priesthood in religion and autocracy in politics.”
It should not surprise us that this pre-Islamic “doctrine of the depravity of man held by the Church of Rome” manifested itself in the Muslim world soon after independence: some of our religious elite must have been influenced by the European masters during the long night of colonialism (and Iqbal anticipated this as “the religion of slaves” in 1927, in Persian Psalms).
The difference between these two perceptions of Islam is important to be remembered. “Spiritual democracy” is “the ultimate goal of Islam” only according to the first perception. This needs to be clarified before any meaningful discourse on this issue can take place.