This morning I experienced an unexpected pleasure. When I boarded the shuttle bus to go to the airport, I found myself seated beside my good friend Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, former head of the Islamic Society of North America. When I asked Sayyid about Dr. Ingrid Matson, a mutual friend, who is currently completing her term as president of ISNA, he told me that an election is underway to choose Ingrid’s successor. Then reminiscing began. Sayyid recalled the protest raised by Muslim clerics in the US when ISNA began electing its officers. “This is not Islam!” they protested, “This is not the way we do things.”
Sayyid described the ponderous conversations that had to go on, careful studies in the Quran, and meticulous efforts to distinguish between Islam as a religion and Islam as a culture. Democracy was not a part of Islamic culture, but it was not inconsistent with Islamic religion. The dialogue and the studies that accompanied them ultimately resulted in broad-based Muslim support for democratic elections to determine the officers of ISNA. But that was not the end of the matter.
Next questions arose about the voters, specifically whether or not women should be allowed to vote. Again a process of study and conversation was launched. And, again democracy prevailed. Women could vote. But, then, a question arose about whether or not Muslim women could be elected as leaders of the organization. Once more—the same process unfolded and eventually concluded with the same result—democracy in action.
Sayyid was smiling broadly as he observed, “Just imagine; what it has taken some people generations to do, I have seen done in my lifetime!” Of course, this man was a major factor in facilitating such dramatic progress.
I suggested to my friend that the insight embraced by his people also has an application in a different direction. Christianity is no more synonymous with democracy than Islam is with a specific form of government. Democracy is not a contradiction to Islam any more than a government other than democracy is a contradiction to Christianity. Indeed, most of my Christian predecessors have experienced a form of government other than democracy.
Sayyid and I exchanged compliments about the work each of us does, embraced, and said we would see each other soon. What great insight from a trusted friend on a morning in which, because of a series of late hours, it was difficult to get up and get started.