Democracy and Shura
Sadek J. Sulaiman
Sadek Jawad Sulaiman (Sadiq Jawad
Sulayman) was born in Mutrah, Oman, in 1933. Like many Omanis who came of age in pre-oil
Oman, he left his country in the 1950s and was working as a journalist in Kuwait prior to
his return to Oman in 1973. From 1976 until 1983 he worked for Oman's Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, where he was Director of Political Affairs (1977-79) and Ambassador to the United
States (1979-83). Since 1983 he has divided his time between Washington and Oman.
[The following] was first presented as a talk in August 1996 at the Al-Hewar
[Dialogue] Center in Washington, DC, a discussion group of Arab intellectuals, diplomats,
and businessmen. The conditions for public discussion and debate are often more open for
Muslim and Arab intellectuals in Europe and North America than in the Middle East itself,
so that the talks, newsletters, and publications generated by these groups often have a
significant impact in the Middle East.
Sulaiman's direct comparison between the Quranic Principle of Shura and
democracy as it has developed in the United States may at first appear unexpected.
Sulaiman explains: "Many Arabs understand democracy as a slogan. Only by
understanding it in history and practice does its compatibility with Shura emerge"
(Interview with Dale F. Eickelman, November 9,1996). For readers from the Arab Gulf, the
argument that the "logic of Shura, like the logic of democracy, does not accent
hereditary rule, for wisdom and competence are never the monopoly of any one individual),
or family," is bold and innovative, reflecting a new dimension in religious and
The subject of this discussion is vital
for initiating a change in Arab public life, for the relationship between democracy and Shura
touches the essence of our national existence (qawmiyya). It determines the quality of our
civic experience and the world we would like to leave for future generations. For this
reason the subject merits our full attention.
literally means rule by the people, and this distinguishes it from any pattern of
governance not deriving its legitimacy from the people's choice. Americans define
democracy in the words of their sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln: "Rule of the
people, by the people, for the people." The definition I usually offer is
"public participation in decisions affecting public life."
This participation can be either
direct or indirect. In direct participation, the people decide the results by a majority
vote. They discuss the issue at hand, then reach a decision representing the collective
wisdom. Something akin to this happens in "town meetings." A clear example is
when people vote on a "proposition" a term Americans use when an issue
that has generated considerable controversy is referred to the public for resolution.
Proposition 187 on immigration in California is a notable example of direct participation.
Another is the referendum by which Canadians rejected the separation of Quebec. With
indirect participation, the people do not specifically decide issues but elect people to
represent their views and make decisions. The elected representatives perform this task
within the written parameters of a constitution.
The American constitutional system is based on indirect participation,
and the republican system in American constitutional law is centered on the principle of
representation. It is appropriate to note, however, that the dynamism of the media in
recent years has generated more direct participation in policy-making and legislating. The
influence that media talk shows and opinion polls have on elected officials is
Democracy's core principle is equality, the affirmation that all people
are equal. Any discrimination among people on the basis of race, gender, religion, or
lineage is inherently invalid. All people are endowed with inalienable human rights. To
secure these rights, governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed.
The chief characteristics of the democratic system are:
1. Freedom of speech, whereby citizens are able openly to state their
views on public issues without impediment or fear, regardless of whether such views are
critical or supportive of the government. In the democratic system, it is important for
officials to know how the people feel about policies they adopt and decisions they make.
2. Free elections in which citizens regularly, in accordance with
precise and constitutionally protected procedures, elect people they entrust with the
affairs of governance. Elections legitimize all levels of representation, from the city
council to the presidency of the state.
3. Majority rule and minority rights: In the democratic system,
decisions are made by the majority, based on the general conviction that the judgment of
the majority is more likely to be right than that of the minority. But majority rule does
not give a free hand to the majority to do as it wants. Embedded in the democratic
principle is the commitment that certain fundamental citizens' rights shall not be
violated for example, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly,
and the free exercise of religion.
4. Political parties in the democratic system play an important role.
By means of political parties, people freely associate on the basis of their convictions
about how to achieve a fulfilling life for themselves, their family, and their posterity.
5. Separation between the legislative, the executive, and the
judiciary, whereby constitutional checks and balances among these three branches of
government prevent potential exploitative practices.
6. Constitutional authority is the supreme authority on the validity of
any statutory law or executive directive. Constitutional authority means supremacy of the
rule of law, not the rule of individuals, in the resolution of any public matter.
7. Freedom of action for individuals and
groups, provided they do not infringe on the common good. From this derives the freedom to
own property, the freedom to work, the freedom to pursue personal goals, and the freedom
to form various associations and corporations.
These elements are
common to any bona fide democratic system. They are particularly well articulated in the
American constitutional system under which we live and whose characteristics, as a great
and unique experience in the formation and evolution of nations, we try to understand.
The essentials of the American democratic experience were present at
its origin but expanded in scope and evolved in application over time. For example, even
though the principle of equality as a foundational idea was firmly established in the
Declaration of Independence in 1776, the right for free men to vote on an equal basis was
not granted until 1850. Black males were not allowed to vote until the fifteenth
constitutional amendment in 1870. Females, both free and slave, were not given the right
to vote until the nineteenth constitutional amendment in 1920. Finally, the poll tax was
not abolished until the twenty-fourth constitutional amendment of 1964.
Thus we see that the American state, one considered an exemplar of
democratic systems, although based on a constitution, did not have its constitutionality
complete at birth, nor is it complete today. This is because the democratic principle,
although recognized as a universal human principle since ancient times, continues to
demand better fulfillment in the experiences of all nations. We also see that the
democratic principle is one thing and our endeavors to realize its requirements something
else. In this latter sense, there is no such thing as an ideal democratic society. We must
distinguish, on the one hand, between societies that uphold the democratic principle and
endeavor to attain its fulfillment and societies whose rulers reject the democratic
principle, exercise autocratic rule and privilege, and deny equality as a moral
As a concept and as a principle,
Shura in Islam does not differ from democracy. Both Shura and democracy arise from the
central consideration that collective deliberation is more likely to lead to a fair and
sound result for the social good than individual preference. Both concepts also assume
that majority judgment tends to be more comprehensive and accurate than minority judgment.
As principles, Shura and democracy proceed from the core idea that all people are equal in
rights and responsibilities. Both thereby commit to the rule of the people through
application of the law rather than the rule of individuals or a family through autocratic
decree. Both affirm that a more comprehensive fulfillment of the principles and values by
which humanity prospers cannot be achieved in a non-democratic, non-Shura environment.
I do not see Shura as rejecting or
incompatible with the basic elements of a democratic system. The Qur'an mentions Shura
as a principle governing the public life of the society of the faithful rather than a
specifically ordained system of governance. As such, the more any system constitutionally,
institutionally, and practically fulfills the principle of Shura or, for that
matter, the democratic principle the more Islamic that system becomes.
There are cultural specifics rooted in the history of every nation that
might justify differences in how the democratic principle is applied, but no Arab or
Islamic cultural specifics that explain the level of civic degeneration with which we
Arabs are afflicted today. It is neither an Arab particularity nor an article of the
Islamic faith that freedom of speech be suffocated in our national experience, that our
people be denied free elections, that our affairs be conducted without the benefit of
consensus, and that peaceful political activity be forbidden to our masses. It is neither
Arabic nor Islamic that our nation's fate should rest in the hands of a few persons
unbound by constitutional restraints.
Some people claim that Arabs are not yet ready for democratic or Shura
governance and that they do not appreciate the democratic principle and values needed to
embrace the rule of law, as opposed to the rule of individuals. Such a claim is perverse,
unfair, or bad judgment. Any nation that emerged from the civilization of Islam was
enjoined to exercise Shura. Such nations were nurtured with the principles of
justice, equality, and human dignity, values which sustain and enhance the human
experience. Such nations simply cannot be less qualified to exercise democracy than other
I regard democracy and Shura as synonymous in conception and
principle, although they may differ in details of application to conform to local custom.
They reject any government lacking the legitimacy of free elections, accountability, and
the people's power, through the constitutional process, to impeach the ruler for violation
of trust. The logic of Shura, like the logic of democracy, does not accept
hereditary rule, for wisdom and competence are never the monopoly of any one individual or
family. Likewise, Shura and democracy both reject government by force, for any rule
sustained by coercion is illegitimate. Moreover, both forbid privileges political,
social, economic claimed on the basis of tribal lineage or social prestige.
Shura and democracy are thus one and the same concept. They prod
us to find better and better realizations of the principles of justice, equality, and
human dignity in our collective socio-political experience. These principles merit
implementation in national life across the entire Arab homeland. Let us hope that Shura
or democracy the choice of terms makes no difference will find supporters who
aspire to a new Arab renaissance.
This article was translated and introduced by Dale F.
Eickelman. It will appear in the forthcoming Liberal Islam: A Reader, Ed.
Charles Kurzman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). It is printed here with the
permission of Messrs. Sulaiman and Eickelman.
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