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A More Detailed Look at the Qur`anic Principle of Shura (Consultation)

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(1983)


In a previous article, it was shown that military dictatorship, though it is unfortunately acceptable to many Muslims, has absolutely no legitimacy in Islam; for, it violates basic Islamic principles, notably the principle of shura or consultation. Now in the present article we look at this lofty Qur'anic principle in greater detail, discussing some of the questions that arise in its practical application. Our discussion will center around the following four basic questions:

a) Who should be consulted?

b) What matters should be decided by consultation?

c) How should consultation be carried out?

d) Is consultation a religious obligation?

 

Who should be consulted?

One of the Qur'anic verses formulating the principle of consultation reads:

"their (i.e. Muslims') affairs are conducted by consultation among them" (42:38)

These words quite naturally suggest that all Muslims be involved in the process of consultation. For, if we restricted consultation to any particular class or group in the Muslim society, then consultation cannot be said to be among Muslims (bayna hum) as the Qur'anic words require, but will be among members of the particular class or group to which it is restricted. We are led to the same conclusion by the Islamic principles of justice, equality before the law and brotherhood among men, since these noble principles would be manifestly violated if we systematically excluded a section of the Ummah from the process of consultation.

The practice in the Muslim society of the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and the rightly guided caliphs also points in the same direction. During almost the entire ministry of the Prophet (pbuh) most of the Muslim resided in the same city in which the Prophet (pbuh) himself resided, either Makkah or Medina. They were in constant touch with each other and with the Prophet (pbuh). In Medina, where Muslim numbers gradually increased to thousands, Muslims daily visited the mosque of the Prophet and between the prayers, if need arose, they talked about various matters that concerned them. They also made their views on these matters known to the Prophet (pbuh) who was easily available to them and who had been divinely instructed to take counsel with them (3:159). We can thus say that in an informal sort of way all members of the first Islamic society in history were directly involved in the process of consultation.

After the departure of the Prophet (pbuh) from this world, the affairs of the Ummah (Muslim community) continued to be conducted by a process of consultation involving all Muslims, although, now because of a tremendous increase in the number of Muslims, the method of consultation underwent some change, becoming out of necessity somewhat indirect: the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) who, because of their association with the founder of Islam and their noble character, naturally enjoyed great prestige and trust in the Ummah, first consulted with the people and then consulted among themselves to reach decisions on public matters.

We must recall that the Companions were scattered throughout the vast Islamic lands and as a group they were in touch with the entire Ummah. Almost every Muslim knew at least one of the Companions as a teacher, army general or city administrator. Daily they met the people in the local mosque, where, as in Medina in the days of the Prophet (pbuh), the people discussed matters of their concern and made their views known to the Companions in their midst. In matters that were within their jurisdiction the Companions duly took these views into account while on other matters they passed people's views on to the regional governors or to the central government in Medina. In this way, during the time of the rightly guided caliphs, the affairs of the Ummah were run by persons who enjoyed widespread trust and confidence among the people and were in constant and close consultation with them.

It was only after the first four caliphs that consultation began to be restricted or ignored. By this time, most of the Prophet's (pbuh) leading Companions had passed away and there did not naturally emerge among Muslims a similar group which automatically enjoyed widespread trust among the people and could take charge of the affairs of the Ummah. At this stage of Muslim history the requirement that the Muslims' affairs are to be run by "consultation among them" could have been fulfilled only if an electoral process had been found whereby a group of trusted persons could be creditably chosen, and confidently entrusted with the affairs of the Ummah. However, it is one of the most tragic facts of history that before Muslims could develop and apply such an electoral process, kingship entered Islam and severely restricted the role of consultation in Islamic societies. Not only kings and sultans now came to power without any consultation with the people but they also in large measure ignored it in running the affairs of the state after coming to power. The best they ever did was to consult persons in their own circle of supporters, although even then they reserved the right to set aside any recommendations if these recommendations did not suit them.

In their violation or perversion of the Qur'anic principle of shura (consultation) the rulers were greatly helped by officially-sponsored "ulama" who gave legal rulings and even forged traditions in the blessed names of the Prophet and his Companions justifying the rulers' corrupt policies. Some of these misguided legal rulings and forged traditions are still believed by many Muslims and military rulers who exploit them to the fullest to maintain their un-Islamic and repressive hold on power.

One of the most obscene rulings given by some officially-sponsored "ulama" in the past is that Muslims cannot rebel against a Muslim ruler no matter what he does. This means, for example, that if a hypocrite Jew calls himself a Muslim, joins the army of a Muslim country, rises to the top position in the army, seizes power by force, and then systematically moves to sell the country, the Muslims can do nothing but watch the destruction of their country. Apart from the obvious absurdity of such a ruling, it is also contradicted by a ruling of Hadrat 'Umar who, we can safely assume, knew more about Islam than the court "ulamas" of later kings and sultans. It is reported that during the meeting at Saqifa, where Hadrat Abu Bakr was nominated as the first caliph, Hadrat 'Umar said: "You are free to kill anyone who calls for the leadership of himself or others without consulting the Muslims." In another report 'Umar's son, 'Abd Allah bin 'Umar, relates that before his death his father told the people he appointed for choosing his successor: "You must kill anyone of you who claims command over you without consulting the Muslims."(1) Thus at least against those rulers who come to power without due consultation, Muslims are free to rebel.

It is now time that we undo what through the centuries autocratic rulers and their court ulama have done. We must return to the simple Qur'anic teachings about justice, equality of all men and women before the law and the need for genuine shura (consultation) and realize that all Muslims in an Islamic society have the right to participate in the running of their affairs through a process of consultation.

 

What matters should be decided by consultation

After having considered above the question as to who should be involved in the process of consultation let us now address ourselves to the second question raised above, namely, what matters should be decided by consultation. Again, the only natural and sound way of understanding the Qur'anic words "their affairs are run by consultation among them" is that there must not be any restriction in principle on the matters to be decided by consultation among Muslims, in other words that Muslims should decide all matters by consultation. One restriction that comes to mind and is often mentioned is that matters already decided by the Islamic Shariah should not be subject to consultation and that the results of shura should not be in conflict with Islamic teachings. But a moment's reflection would show that this is not really a restriction in principle to consultation, for in a Muslim society it has already been freely decided that the teachings of Islam will be respected at all times. By declaring la ilaha illa Allah Muhammad ar-rasul Allah (there is no deity by God Alone and Muhammad is His messenger) members of a Muslim society have already held a sort of referendum and unanimously voted to live by Islam. Thus on matters decided by the Islamic Shari'ah (Law and jurisprudence) a consultation has in a way already taken place and led to the conclusion that on those matters Islamic decisions are to be followed and, furthermore, that the results of shura will in no way conflict with Islamic teachings.

Here, of course, there arises the question of interpreting Islamic teachings, for, although all Muslims agree that they should live by Islamic teachings, they may often understand some of these teachings in different ways. In some cases it may be possible for various groups or individuals in the society to follow their different interpretations of Islam, but in other cases it may be necessary that the society as a whole reaches a single decision. For example, there is nothing wrong or harmful if various Muslim groups prayed according to their particular interpretations of the Prophetic Traditions. But clearly if the question arose whether in a particular international conflict, war or peace with compromise is the Islamic course of action then a Muslim society as a whole must reach a decision. How are we to arrive at a single decision when this second type of questions of interpretation arise? The answer given by the fuqaha (Muslim jurists) from the earliest days is: by consultation.

Thus in principle there is no restriction on what is subject to consultation. There, however, remains a practical difficulty, namely, the difficulty of consulting millions of people in all the numerous small or big matters that arise in the collective life of a people. This difficulty can be circumvented by deciding important matters through consultation with all (adult and mentally sound) members of the society (in the form of referendums, elections, etc.) while leaving other matters in the hands of competent persons who demonstrably enjoy the trust and confidence of the people.

If all matters are to be decided by shura, the same must be true of the important matter of choosing a ruler or a governing body. Hadrat 'Umar, therefore, expressly stated in the historic meeting at Saqifa that the divine "command (in the choice of the caliph) is shura." Commenting on this Mohamed S. El-Awa of the University of Riyad says:

"Thus, no ruler is to be chosen and put in power without the will of the Ummah. Nor shall the Ummah be deprived of this right under the pretence of preserving its unity, protecting its interests, reviving its glories or any similar claims. In this respect, the decree of 'Umar b. al-Khattab was very clear when he advised that anyone who tried to force himself or someone else into a position of command without the consent of Muslims based on consultation with them must be punished like those who stir up dissention (fitnah) on earth, that is, `you are free to kill him'."(2)

Some military generals after they seized power in a Muslim country have in the past stated that they were trying to establish a government like that of Hadrat 'Umar in their country. A truly noble intention but one in which unfortunately these generals could not possibly be sincere, for it is clear from the above that by seizing power and holding onto it through military force they in fact did great violence to Hadrat 'Umar's Islamic political thinking. In fact, their actions were a crime that according to Hadrat 'Umar's view is punishable by death. The same is true of those self-styled "leaders" who by-passed the Muslim people and even urged these military generals to seize power without due consent of people. Some of them even claimed that they enjoyed "tacit" support of their people but this claim is falsified by their own reluctance to hold elections, for why would they hesitate to hold elections if they really thought that they had the support of the people? It only stands to reason that the support for a ruler should be more than supposedly "tacit"; it should be demonstrable, for only then can he enjoy that genuine trust and confidence of the people which is required in Islam and is needed for governing effectively.

In the present situation when amongst us there does not exist a respected group like the Companions, naturally enjoining widespread trust among the people, the only way a ruler can have demonstrable public support is by coming to power through free and fair general elections or by being chosen by a body which itself derives its authority through such elections. Coming to power any other way or bringing someone else to power will amount to a violation of shura which, according to Hadrat 'Umar's view, is punishable by death.

 

How should consultation be carried out

Thus, to summarize what we have said so far, a Muslim society should run its affairs by a process of consultation that involves all members of the society and covers all matters of public concern. In practice, this requirement may be fulfilled if all the important matters are decided by direct general consultation in the form of referendums, general elections, etc. while leaving other matters in the hands of people's elected representatives, with the whole political process taking place under the supervision of competent persons, learned in Islam and demonstrably enjoying the confidence and trust of the people. The exact form of such a political system based on consultation is something that Muslim law-makers in various Islamic countries need to work out for themselves. Among the questions that need to be considered are:

  • Which matters should be decided by general consultation and which matters may be entrusted to a body or bodies of elected representatives?

  • What should be the ratio of the number of representatives to the population of a country?

  • How will the legislative, executive and judiciary powers be exercised and how will they coordinate with each other?

  • How will the council of Islamic scholars be formed to ensure that the laws and policies of the country accord with Islamic teachings?

Answers to these and other relevant questions have been worked out in detail in at least one Islamic country: the Islamic Republic of Iran. We strongly recommend that interested brothers and sisters read a copy of the Iranian constitutional law and its elaborations. A complete reading of this material will Inshah Allah convince any one that an Islamic society run on the principle of consultation and other Islamic principles is possible.

 

Consultation is obligatory

A great many Muslims are either unaware of the Qur'anic principle of consultation or regard it as one of the less important optional principle of Islam which may be ignored. But the opinion of the majority of Muslim jurists is that Shura is part of aza'im al-ahkam (commandments) which is obligatory on both the ruling authority and the Muslim people.(3)

It is obligatory on the ruling authority in that they should express their views on matters of public concern whenever they have any views, even if they are not asked to express them, that they make sure that the ruling authority assumes power and functions in consultation with them and that they remove a ruling authority which either comes to power without due consultation or operates without such consultation.

The above opinion of the fuqaha (Muslim jurists) is derived first of all from the two Qur'anic verses where shura is expressly mentioned (3:159, 42:38). In the first verse the Prophet (pbuh) is told to "consult them on matters (of public concern)." This is a command and clearly makes shura obligatory for the Prophet. But that means that it is also obligatory for all other Muslim rulers, for the Prophet was in fact least in need of shura. He was bestowed with such wisdom, knowledge, understanding, love and concern for people's welfare as no other ruler ever had in the past or will ever have in the future. Moreover, he enjoyed the benefit of revelation through which difficult matters were resolved by God Himself - a benefit that no subsequent Muslim ruler has enjoyed or will enjoy. Consequently, if shura was obligatory for the Prophet, there is all the more reason that it be obligatory for all subsequent Muslim rulers.

In the second verse (which reads: "their affairs are run by shura among them"shura is treated as an essential quality of the believers. This quality is mentioned among other qualities such as responsiveness to Allah, performing salah (obligatory Prayers), spending in charity, all of which are religious obligations in Islam.

The obligation of shura has several practical implications for the ruling authority as well as for the community at large.

(I) One such implication for the ruler is that he should come to power by the consent of the people. This is because:

Firstly, the coming to power of a ruler is such an important event, both for the ruler himself and for the people that it cannot be outside the scope of the obligation of shura; and

Secondly, a ruler who forces his way to power without due consent of the people has obviously no respect for the wishes and views of the people and therefore any shura that he subsequently practices cannot be sincere and genuine. The Prophet (pbuh) himself, although he was chosen to be a prophet by God Almighty, did not become ruler of the people until they, by their own free choice became Muslims and thus accepted him as their head. Indeed, there never has been another ruler in history whose rule was accepted by the people as freely and as wholeheartedly as that of the Prophet of Islam (pbuh).

(II) Another implication of the obligatory nature of shura is that conclusions reached by shura are binding on the ruler, for if after shura the ruler can set aside its conclusions whenever he wishes, then shura ceases to be a serious obligatory principle and becomes a meaningless exercise. The binding character of the conclusions reached by shura is also established by the practice of the Prophet (pbuh) who, unless otherwise guided by revelation, used to follow whatever course of action was suggested by shura, even though it conflicted with his own judgment. For example, he engaged in the battle of Uhud on the basis of the general trend of opinion among the people even though he himself preferred to stay in Medina and defend it from inside. The events during this battle proved that the Prophet's own view was more correct and sound. Despite this, the verse commanding shura was revealed after these events and as a comment upon them. In this way the Holy Qur'an meant to teach that even though public opinion can sometimes be wrong, still it is better to run Muslim affairs in accordance with it.

A relevant question that arises here is what should the ruler do if in his view the conclusions of shura are against Islam. This situation can arise in two ways:

a) The prevalent opinion in a Muslim society on a matter is based on an interpretation of relevant texts which conflicts with the interpretation held by the ruler. In such an event the prevalent interpretation is binding on the ruler(4) and he should either accept it or resign. This is because after the Prophet (pbuh), interpretation of the Islamic teachings is a matter to be decided not by any one individual such as the ruler but by the Ummah or by a body of competent scholars who have the trust of the Ummah.

b) There may, however, also arise a situation in which the question is not that of interpretation of basic texts of Islam but of pure rejection by a majority of people of an Islamic principle, injunction or doctrine. An example of this - and probably the only example of this - occurred soon after the death of the Prophet when a majority of people who had recently accepted Islam refused to pay zakah (welfare tax, which is also a fundamental religious duty). They did not do so because they interpreted the Holy Qur'an or the Prophetic Traditions in a particular way but because they simply did not want anything to do with zakah. When such a rejection of an Islamic principle, injunction or doctrine occurs, the society in question immediately ceases to be a Muslim society, for a Muslim society is by definition one that agrees to live by (all) the teachings of Islam. In this case, the ruler and other Muslims with him, who would now be in a minority, should first try their best to convince the people of the error of their position. If they fail in doing so, then they should separate from the majority and start da'wah and jihad in the same way in which they would carry out da'wah and jihad in any other predominantly non-Muslim society. Hadrat Abu Bakr did just that to those who refused to pay zakah, but fortunately, the people saw the light after a single battle.

Actually, the above situation is not very likely to happen again. History has proved that apart from the one incident in the time of Hadrat Abu Bakr (which was the result of temporary ignorance on the part of new converts) the people have generally been keener to live by Islam than the rulers. Therefore, a question more pertinent than the one considered above is: what happens if a ruler refuses to bow to an Islamic principle or injunction. The answer is that people should remove him, with force if necessary, and then try him according to Islamic Law.

(III) The third and last practical implication of the obligatory Qur'anic principle of shura that needs to be mentioned here is that the people must express their views on how certain matters should or should not be handled. For clearly, if people do not express their views, then these such opinions cannot be taken into consideration in running the affairs of the society and shura cannot become a functioning principle. And for people to express their views, they must possess the freedom to do so. No one should in any way be victimized for holding any opinions nor punished for expressing them, except in accordance with laws that are either derived from Islam through prevalent interpretation of Islamic teachings or are legislated with the fullest backing of the people. If any ruling authority restricts freedom of expression in any other way, then people, in fulfillment of their duty of forbidding wrong(5), should move forthwith to correct the situation, by use of force if necessary.(6)


Notes

(1)Al-Musannaf by 'Abd al-Razzaq, Beirut 1972, edited by Shaikh Habib al-Raman al A'azami, Vol. 5, pp. 445, 446 & 481.

(2)On the Political System of the Islamic State, pp. 35-36.

(3)See Mohamed S. El-Awa, op. cit. pp. 89-90.

(4)This of course does not hold in the case of the Prophet (pbuh).

(5)That forbidding wrong is a collective duty (fard kifayah) of the Muslim Ummah is clear from the following verse from Surah Al Imran:

"Let there (always) be a group among you that invites to all that is good and beneficial (al-khayr) and enjoins right and forbids wrong and it is they (who have such a group among them) who will prosper." (3:104)

(6)If peaceful persuasion does not work in stopping public wrong, then the use of force is recommended in Islam. The force that the people can use against a ruling authority bent on doing a wrong may take the form of armed revolution.

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