Shura and The Islamic Vision of Democracy

By M. Riaz Khan, Ph.D.

Islamic Scholar Tariq Ramadan on Growing Mideast Protests and "Islam & the Arab Awakening"

The essence of democracy is the representation of the members of a political or social unit in managing its affairs. Essentially, a simple majority, by a head count of those who participate in the process, constitutes that representation and legitimizes all policy formulations and actions thereupon. Modern democracies are built on this model. Despite the nobility of its concept and many virtues, a major weakness of the model is that an individual considers himself minuscule in the big picture and ineffective in influencing the behavior of those who are entrusted with the responsibility of leading the unit. Thus, the apathy factor keeps a significant segment of the population from participating in the process. Overall, it is a small but organized minority, comprising of interest groups, opinion makers and the like, that makes decisions for a disenchanted majority by default and charts out its future.

Islam, however, is the pioneer in introducing the widely cherished concept of consultation in conducting common affairs. But the applications of this concept are broad. The Qur'an says: "… those who… conduct their affairs by mutual consultation…[Q, 42: 38]. Consultation is referred to here as the best quality of the believers and an important pillar of the Islamic way of life. The emphasis on consultation is obvious from the name of this particular sura (chapter) of the Qur'an as "Ash-Shura," which mean the Consultation. Conducting the affairs of collective life without the facilitation of this discourse is not just a way of ignorance, but an express violation of the law prescribed by Allah (s).

Interestingly, the context of affairs referred to above is unspecified and, therefore, is not limited to a particular environment. In principle, any decision that has implications for the lives of others must be made through consultation. The smallest social congregation of humans comprises of two individuals; husband and wife, for example. Accordingly, the process of consultation in Islam, as numerously demonstrated by the Prophet Muhammad (s), begins at the family level and continues to the highest level of national and international issues. In all open matters, where specific directives have not been issued by Allah (s), the obligation of engaging in consultation for the Prophet (and the followers) is clearly stated in the Qur'an: "…(O Muhammad)…consult with them (followers) upon the conduct of affairs…[Q, 3: 159].

Consultation is a wise approach for at least three reasons. First, it is an injustice to decide a matter by using personal opinion ignoring those whose interests are involved. Justice demands that all parties concerned be consulted; and in the case of a large number of people, their trustworthy representatives should be part of the consulting process. Second, a person deprives others of the benefits of exchange of ideas because he selfishly wants to seize the rights of others, or he is simply an arrogant creature. Morally, both qualities are repugnant for a Muslim. Third, and most importantly it is a grave responsibility to make decisions in matters where others' interests are at stake. No conscientious person, who fears accountability by his Creator, can dare carry this burden all by himself. He would meticulously deploy the means of consultation for reaching a broad based decision that would best serve everybody's interests. Should a judgmental error occur, no one alone would be held accountable.

These considerations enable one to fully understand that consultation is a necessary demand of morality that Islam has taught to man. A departure from it is an act of immorality. The Islamic way requires that the opinion of all members should be solicited in every collective affair, big or small. This rule applies to family, tribe, community, city, and the country as a whole. The head of the government should be chosen by the common consent of the people, and he should conduct the national affairs in consultation with the leaders of opinion, whom the citizens regard as people of integrity and vision.

The principle of consultation as enshrined in the piece of the Qur'an [42: 38] by itself demands several things. The people, whose rights and interests relate to collective matters, should have full freedom to express their opinion and they should be kept duly informed of how their affairs are being conducted. The rulers must be accountable to those they serve and people should have the power to change their rulers if found incompetent or dishonest. The person who is to be entrusted with the responsibility of conducting the collective affairs, should be appointed by people's free consent, and not through coercion, temptations, fraud or deceptions. The election processes of modern democracies are plagued with such tactics. The advisers to the head of the state should be from those who enjoy the confidence of the nation and they should have full freedom to express their opinions. The opinions of the adviser should, however, be based on their knowledge and must conform to their faith and conscience. For consultation to have any meaning, the advice which has consensus or public support must be accepted by the rulers and followed through; otherwise, consultation will be an exercise in futile.

With all the significance placed on consultation in any Islamic setting, it must also be kept in view that this consultation is not open ended or autocratic in its nature. Rather it is subject to the Shari'ah and common bounds legislated by Allah (s): "It is for Allah to give a decision in whatever you differ…, " [Q, 42: 10] and "…if there arises any dispute among you about any thing, refer it to Allah and the Messenger…" [Q, 4:59]. According to this general principle, consultations can be held in Shari'ah matters with a view to determining the correct meaning of a text or verse and to find out the ways of implementing it so as to fulfill its requirements in letter and spirit. Consultations in order to render an independent judgment in a matter, which has already been decided by Allah (s) and His Messenger, would constitute a defiance against Allah (s) and a rebellion against His injunctions.

Just as consultation is required in mutual affairs that affect collective life, imposition in any matter on people against their will is also prohibited with equal force. It is resoundingly declared: "there is no compulsion in Deen…[Q, 2: 256]. In other words, people cannot be forced to live against their will, including religion and government, and they cannot be denied of their right to choose either. This is the foundation of the Islamic democracy, which was laid down by the Prophet (s) himself. He established the first Islamic State in Madina and governed it as its head by virtue of being the Prophet of Allah. Despite ample opportunity, he passed away, however, without naming his successor. There cannot be a better example of instituting democratic traditions than this particular practice of the Prophet(s). He set the record and gave a clear signal to his followers that in Islam leadership is neither hereditary nor an appointed position. He intentionally left that office open, allowing people to exercise their right to choosing their own leader.

After the death of the Prophet (s), a government was constituted on the principles of an Islamic State. The Prophet (s) himself had nurtured a society of righteous people. Each individual of that society had a full understanding of the system of government that would meet the criteria of an Islamic State and fulfill the needs of a Muslim community. Although the Prophet (s) had not given any specific instructions for his succession, the members of the Muslim society had developed the vision that Islam demands a government with the characteristics of governing by consultations. The four caliphs, who successively followed the Prophet (s), reinforced his tradition during their periods as the central pillar of the Islamic system of government.

Two major characteristics of the Islamic system distinguish it from all other democracies. The first difference is in the area of legislation. A general rule in Islam is that: "Allah does not burden any human being with a responsibility heavier than he can bear…[Q, 2: 286]. Formulating laws for other fellow humans is a responsibility that no human being, however brilliant and selfless, is capable to fulfill. Among the major categories of leaders that masses either faithfully or involuntarily follow is that elite class of people in power that lays down the laws for others to obey. Unfortunately, they all suffer from the same array of human weakness as those they aspire to lead. None of them is above the fray of his personal desires and predilections, or possesses the breadth of vision necessary for taking into account the whole gamut of issues relating to human life. These human limitations inevitably lead to the conclusion that the need of impartial and balanced legislation can be met only by the one who is free from these shortcomings and has sufficient knowledge, power and a comprehensive vision of the entire humanity, generations after generations.

The political system of Islam is based on its concept of the universe itself. Allah is the Creator of the universe, man, and all things that man benefits from. Allah defines Himself in the Qur'an: "He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in truth …"[6:73]. Further, He says: "O mankind! Fear your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them spread a multitude of men and women…"[4:1]

On the basis of this concept of the universe, the Qur'an asserts that Allah's sovereignty extends over humans as well and, consequently, the true ruler of man is the same as the ruler of the universe: "Say: Shall I seek another besides Allah for Lord, when He is Lord of all things…?" [6:164] The authority to rule and make decisions belongs to Allah; man must submit to his Creator, and this is the right way: "…The authority rests with Allah alone, Who has commanded you that you worship none but Him. This is the right religion, but most people do not know." [12:40]

For these reasons, the legislative sovereignty also rests with Allah, Who formulates laws for all His creations, including the man, and nobody else has the legitimacy to regulate others. The Qur'an instructs that the obedience must be to Allah and His commands alone: "Say (O Muhammad): Lo! I am commanded to worship Allah, making religion pure for Him. And I am commanded to be first of those who surrender (unto Him)." [39:11,12]

Thus, in an Islamic system, the basic legislative framework has been provided by Allah (s) and cannot be modified. With this major source of political corruption and authoritative practices closed, people need only to choose a person who can implement those laws. As the second highlight of the democratic system of Islam, such a person is not sovereign but subservient of Allah, conforming to the meaning of Khalifatullah (Allah's representative). He must meet the criteria of demonstrated leadership qualities and unyielding loyalty to Allah's Laws and the Sunnah (sayings and practices) of the Prophet(s) - also collectively known as Shari'ah. Without the artificial divide of public and private, personal character shaped by the fear of Allah is the primary qualification for being a leader. Among the disqualifications, on the other hand, is to seek a leadership position. A person may be considered worthy of this responsibility by earning public trust through a track record of selfless public service only. Once elected, the constituents must give their full support to their leader, as instructed by the Prophet (s): "I counsel you to fear Allah and to give absolute obedience even if a slave becomes your leader…"(Abu Dawud /28 ;Tirmidhi). In turn, he is answerable to them for all his actions and relinquishes power if asked.

Full obedience to a leader, who meets the criteria described earlier, is an Islamic obligation. The reason is simple: all of his decisions are made on the basis of guidance directly from the Qur'an or the sunnah of the Prophet (s); otherwise by consultation with the learned in the society. Actions not rooted in the Qur'an or the sunnah or lacked the approval of the Muslim scholarship, at the minimum, are not even contemplated. To ascertain the legitimacy of his actions, he establishes a Majlis-e-shura (Council of advisers, possessing the best talent and the Islamic knowledge). As a result, the collective decisions and policies endure Islamic character that others must follow

According to the Qur'an, the judgment of Allah and His Messenger is the Supreme Law that the believers conform to for the cultivation of their Islamic character. When they are called upon, they are prompt in their response: "The attitude of true believers, when they are called toward Allah and His Messenger to judge between them, is to say: we hear and we obey; and such are successful." [24:51]

In an Islamic society the state recognizes the Legal Sovereignty of Allah and His Messenger and surrenders its authority to the Supreme Law. It accepts the role of vicegerency under the True Ruler. In that capacity, man is Prophet's representative under Allah's Sovereignty and not independent: "O Dawd! Lo! We have set you as a viceroy in the earth; therefore judge aright between mankind, and follow not desire that it leads you astray from the way of Allah…"[38:26]

April / May 2002