Sadek Jawad Sulaiman

Shura constitutes one of the four cardinal principles in the Islamic perspective on socio-political organization. The other three are justice, equality, and human dignity.

Shura is also a central issue in the on-going debate among Muslims over political reform. In the Arab world, even the most conservative powers that be (and they are many and various) have come around — after prolonged recalcitrance I might add — to recognize the shura imperative in public life. This is mainly because they have begun to see the inevitability of accommodating at least some measure of shura reform. But they still have to be dragged — kicking and screaming, as it were — every step of the way.

What is the shura principle in Islam? It is, as I see it, essentially parallel to the democratic principle in Western political thought, having analogous aspects and about the same tendency or direction. It is predicated on three basic precepts. First, that all persons in any given society are equal in human and civil rights. Second, that public issues are best decided by majority view. And third, that the three other principles of justice, equality and human dignity, which constitute Islam's moral core, and from which all Islamic conceptions of human and civil rights derive, are best realized, in personal as well as public life, under shura governance.

Shura, as a principle, is rooted in the Quran itself. The Quran has presented shura as a principle, and not as a system, of governance. The distinction is important to note, because the Quran thereby has left it to successive generations of Muslims to continue to strive toward a more perfect realization of the shura principle.

In the Quran, two modes of political consultation are mentioned. In the one, the Prophet Muhammad is asked to consult with his companions, but, ultimately, to decide on his own. In the other, the community of the faithful is described as the one that (among its other attributes) administers its affairs by mutual consultation. In the one, consultation is mandated but is not binding; in the other, it is depicted as constituting the very process by which binding decisions on public matters are reached. In the one, the Prophet is personally involved, in the other, it is the community deliberating on public matters collectively. The conservative, not to say reactionary, view on shura recognizes it only as discretionary, non-binding consultation. This view, needless to say, is the one the powers that be, presumptuously comparing themselves to the Prophet, find more to their convenience. But it is the more progressive and, I submit, more authentic view of shura as a binding decision-making process that is gaining ground in the contemporary Islamic thrust for reform.

What precisely supports this latter position? What is there in the Islamic jurisprudential framework that favors the broader rather than the narrower interpretation of shura?

For an answer, let us review some fundamental Islamic precepts that rarely receive due consideration in discussions about political Islam. I am using the term "fundamental" here advisedly, realizing full well the undeserved notoriety this term has gathered when used in relation to Islam. But I use it nonetheless, because the legal precepts involved here are more than peripheral in Islamic jurisprudence. Only by understanding these precepts in the context of an overall framework, can one, I believe, begin to grasp the fullness and coherence of the Islamic perspective on governance. I shall cite the original Arabic terms for these constructs, then give their translation in English.

In the first place, Islam stipulates "rida al awam", that is, popular consent, as a prerequisite to the establishment of legitimate political authority, and ijtihad jama'i, that is collective deliberation as a requisite to the proper administration of public affairs. Beyond that, Islam stipulates "mas'uliyah jama'iyyah", that is, collective responsibility, for maintaining the public good of society. And by affirming all humans as equal before God, Islam stipulates equality before the law; for to claim parity before God and disparity among ourselves is plain hypocrisy. Finally, by rejecting man's subservience to anyone but God, Islam stipulates freedom as the natural state of man, hence liberty within the limits of law is an Islamic stipulation. The famous rhetorical question asked by the second Khalifa, Omar Ibn Al Khattab, "When (implying by what right) ... when did you enslave the people, knowing that they were born free by their mothers?" speaks volumes about Islam's innate resentment of anything that arbitrarily violates personal freedom.

These are authentic Islamic positions, stressing popular consent, collective deliberation, shared responsibility, personal freedom, justice, equality, and dignity of the human individual, all conceived within the shura framework of governance. Conversely, any thorough and objective reading of Islam would show that by its intrinsically egalitarian perspective, Islam rejects all kinds of autocratic authority or privilege; that it rejects hereditary rule, for no particular lineage has monopoly over competence and integrity. "The best person you can employ," says the Quran, in the words of a thoughtful daughter counseling her father "is the one who is competent and honest." Surely, in the weighty matter of governance, the people ought to be able to employ, through election, those they deem the most competent and honest amongst them.

At the root of the Islamic constitutional framework, is the fundamental notion of ummah, the nation, which constitutes the social basis of Islamic polity, and the body through which members perform collective responsibilities and attain collective well-being. The ummah is bound together by a common moral outlook, and a common commitment to do what is right and shun what is wrong. The significance of this lies in the absence of any racial, territorial, political, or any other exclusionism. The ummah of Islam, as such, encompasses the entire Muslim populace living anywhere on earth, and it also includes peoples living in the Islamic lands, who though not formally Muslim, are nevertheless at peace with Islam. This all-inclusive notion of the ummah comes through clearly in the directive that the fourth Khalifa, Ali Ibn Abi Taleb gave to Malik Ibn Al Ashtar Al Nakha'i, upon dispatching him as governor to Egypt at a time when Egypt was more Christian than Muslim. Ali wrote:

Know, O Malik, that I am sending you to a country which has been subjected before you to both just and unjust rulers, and so the people will judge you in the same way that you now stand in judgment of your predecessors. Therefore, let good works be your true assets. Discipline yourself, and covet not that which is not rightfully yours. Train your heart to feel compassion for the people, to love them and be kind to them. Do not behave like a ferocious beast toward them, snatching away their sustenance, for the people are of two categories: they are your brothers in religion and/or your fellow human beings".

Next comes the concept of khilafah, which means God's delegation of authority to the ummah to maintain peace, justice and prosperity on earth. The concept is universal in that every individual member of the ummah is legally obligated to ensure the proper execution of the delegated authority. Representative governance, through which alone this collective obligation can be properly fulfilled, thus becomes constitutionally mandatory in Islam. Absolute, cosmic sovereignty belongs to God, but sovereignty on earth He has delegated to the ummah, the people, through the mandate of istikhlaf. By collectively enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong, the ummah would move ahead, achieving unprecedented heights in human development.

Third is the precept of bay'ah, basically a form of electing or confirming the khalifa, or the chief executive. It is comprised of two steps. The first step is called bay'ah khassah, and it is tantamount to a nomination process through private consultation. The second step is called bay'ah a'mmah, that is popular acceptance of the nominee. Since acceptance was expressed by handshaking with the khalifa-designate, those dissenting were free to withhold the handshake. Thus dissent is recognized as a political right.

We now come to the fourth and central constitutional principle of shura. It is important to make two observations here. The first is that the etymological form of shura, derived from the root shawr, or advice, means mutual consultation in its widest scope — a collective deliberation in which all parties are exchanging counsel. The term shura, as such, is to be distinguished from the term istisharah, which means one side seeking counsel from another, and from the term tashawur, which means mutual consultation but on a lesser scale than that envisioned in shura as a nationwide participatory political exercise. For instance, in my country, Oman, the present assembly was first named al majlis al istishari, and only several years later renamed as majlis al shura, thereby claiming a more democratic posture.

The second point to observe is that, in the context in which the term has been used in the Quran, shura consultation is predicated on equality among those consulting in order to arrive at a collective decision. This clear Quranic depiction of the shura as essentially a decision-making process among equals has to be distinguished from the notion that depicts shura as merely an optional exercise in the seeking of non-binding counsel by the ruler, acting from a superior position, from those of his subjects with whom he may choose to consult. This rather disparate version of shura, claimed by the rulers and conceded by the clergy has historically co-opted real shura, thereby condemning Muslim and Arab political life to centuries of despotic rule. However, current Islamic scholarship is showing increasing inclination to restoring shura to its full-fledged legitimacy in the Muslim public life.

A fifth precept is that of wikalah, which means representation, basically a legal construct according to which one may appoint a deputy for acting on one's behalf concerning matters in which representation is valid. In the constitutional context, it can mean electing deputies to represent the electorate in the affairs of governance.

Furthermore, there are the two legal rules of kifayeh and wajib which further define the principle of political representation in Islam. According to the rule of kifayeh, human obligations are classified in two broad categories: personal and collective. Personal obligations that cannot be delegated to another person, such as paying zakat (obligatory charity) are referred to as fard-ayn. Collective religious and social obligations that can be delegated, are termed fard-kifayeh. Political representation belongs to this second category, and as such becomes an Islamic obligation.

The rule of wajib, that is, obligation, in essence means that any measure or device necessary to the fulfillment of enjoined Islamic obligations becomes itself a religious obligation, provided, of course, that such a measure of implementation itself is legally correct. Since government by mutual consultation is an obligation in Islam, and since it is practically impossible for the entire populace to attend directly to the daily affairs of the state in order to fulfill this obligation, the creation of a permanent representative body on behalf of the members of the ummah becomes an Islamic requirement.

There is finally the right of exercising civil disobedience when the ruler is found to be in violation of some basic precept of Islam. In the constitutional context, where peacefully possible, this calls for abrogation of the bay'ah, a measure that is tantamount to impeachment and dismissal from office. This right was expressly affirmed by the first Khalifa, Abu Bakr Al Siddique, upon being confirmed by consensus as successor to the Prophet. Said he addressing the community present in the Medina Mosque: "I have been given authority over you, but I am not the best among you. Obey me so long as I obey God in the administration of your affairs. Where I disobey God, you owe me no obedience."

Upholding this very principle, the second Khalifa Omar said: Where I do right, assist me; where I do wrong correct me.

Thus, the ideas of constitutionalism and representative governance are well rooted within the Islamic socio-political perspective. They have their basis not only in Islam's ethical imperatives of justice, equality, and the dignity of the human being, but also in its well-established legal precepts. Granted that these precepts have traditionally been narrowly defined, and historically hardly ever applied after the first four khalifas, they have never been openly challenged or denied by either the ruling regimes or the traditional schools. Recent Islamic scholarship has tended toward a broader understanding of these precepts and in some cases has in fact offered broader constructions. For example, since Muhammad Abdou, Rashid Ridha and others expounded their reformist ideas in Egypt a century ago, not only has the authenticity of shura come to be more widely recognized, but the scope of its application has come to be viewed as essentially at par with that of modern democratic systems, incorporating all the main elements thereof, such as people's sovereignty, popular elections, separation of powers with built-in checks and balances, political pluralism, legal opposition, and freedom of speech.

Let me now pose the question: Must Muslims look for a specifically Islamic basis for adopting democratic governance?

In my considered judgment, the answer may well be yes, for at least two reasons.

The first reason is that, for Muslims, the religious dimension of existence extends to encompass the whole of life. As such, all issues of social, economic or political significance must ultimately be related to the basic Islamic conceptions and shown to be in accord therewith in order to gain unreserved public acceptance and support.

Conversely, the most damning thing that can be said about a proposed policy or direction is that it is in contradiction with Islam. When the Islamic outlook on science in the earlier part of this century was still generally negative, Muslim reformers moved to prove from the Quran that all knowledge was essentially from God, and that science was a faculty that God required Muslims to achieve. When modern education was suspect, particularly for girls, the reformers authentically reminded the recalcitrant of the Prophet's injunction: "Learning is an obligation for every Muslim, male or female."

More recently, through proper ijtihad, that is, scholarly deliberation, significant legislative reform has been enacted in some Muslim societies concerning personal and family law, an area where reform has historically been very difficult to achieve. In the political and economic fields, in the absence of established constitutional constraints, Islamic egalitarian principles have been frequently invoked in protest against tyranny, corruption, exploitation and greed.

The second reason stems from historical precedent. When parliaments were introduced in some Islamic lands early in this century, it was hoped that they would constrain authoritarian power, shut out foreign interference, and consolidate national independence. But Britain and France, who were democratic at home, worked in the opposite direction abroad by reinforcing the authoritarian rulers whom they had installed on these Muslim lands. In Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, once set up, the new parliaments were not allowed to function freely in response to national aspirations. So openly were they manipulated by the foreign powers that parliamentary democracy came to appear as a travesty in the eyes of the general public. As a result, this failed experience, coming in the wake of the failure of the preceding consultative bodies in both the Ottoman Empire and Persia, left a legacy of mistrust in the democratic process, discrediting it as a vehicle for achieving independence and reform. To be vindicated, and fully accepted, democracy, in principle, must now come to Muslims, particularly the Arabs, not as a cultural import, but as an imperative of civilized life rooted in and supported by the ideas and ideals embedded in their own Islamic heritage.

Some say the reason the new quasi-democratic institutions in the conservative Arabian peninsula states have been introduced as "majalis shura" rather than as parliaments or people's assemblies, is to give them an Islamic aura and thereby make them more acceptable to the public. A more important reason, though, and a sinister one, I suspect, is that as shura assemblies, their autocratic framers hope they will never be required to function as full fledged democratic institutions. If that is the case, the result may turn out to be disappointing to them. As Islamic scholarship continues to reestablish the centrality of shura as a full democratic principle, broadening both its equity and scope, these shura assemblies could in time come under pressure to live up to the full requirements of their shura title.

It is going to take time, however, before the Arab societies in particular become bona fide shura democracies. Like Muslims at large, the Arabs for a long time have missed the significance of Islamic social ethics and thereby remained oblivious of the ethical imperative of representative governance in Islam. Islamic ethics flow from a constant awareness of the principles and values that Islam upholds as essential to human sustenance and growth. The Muslim community is required to concretely express these principles and values the best that it can, in all aspects of its life, personal and communal, private and public, within the ummah and in the ummah's commerce with the other nations of the world. These principles and values are universal, permanent, non-relativistic: the principles of justice, equality, and human dignity, and values such as faith, reason, virtue, knowledge, cooperation, personal integrity, and economic prosperity. A concrete and progressive expression of these principles and values can come about under neither authoritarian nor totalitarian governance, but rather under shura, or democratic, governance that is committed to the supremacy of these principles and values in the life of the ummah. This crucial connection between the Islamic paradigm of an intellectually and morally evolving society, and the necessary vehicle of representative governance to carry it through such evolution, is yet to be sufficiently forged in the Muslim/Arab consciousness.

Will this connection ever be formed sufficiently enough to bring about a genuine shura transformation? I am hoping it will. Speaking of the Arabs in particular, I am encouraged by what I discern as a growing trend among the intelligentsia to re-visit Islam, to re-examine its core intellectual and moral ideas, and to justify demands for reform by indigenous Islamic criteria for shura governance. If the Arab intelligentsia do so ardently and earnestly, they will discover that shura governance is essentially democratic governance — liberating, uplifting, enabling, and conducive to progress. Islam called the Arabs to shura fourteen centuries ago, at a point in history when the rest of the world had but a faint idea about democracy. It is time the Arabs heeded the call and reformed. It is time they caught up with the rest of the world, including non-Arab Islamic societies that are already democratic, or fast democratizing.

Shura, as I understand it, and have stipulated here, is a cardinal principle of governance in Islam. No claim of commitment to Islam, no matter how many mosques are built or pious commentaries broadcast from the state-owned media, can be taken seriously where shura is denied, ignored, distorted, or compromised.

Sadek Sulaiman is the former Ambassador of Oman to the United States. He has spoken about Shura to a number of audiences including at Al-Hewar Center, The School of Islamic and Social Studies, and American University.

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