What is Shurah?

Shurah comes from an Arabic word shara whose original meaning, according to classical Arabic dictionaries was to extract honey from hives.  The word then acquired secondary meanings all of which are related to that original one. One of these secondary meanings is consultation and deliberation. The way consultation and deliberation bring forth ideas and opinions from peoples’ minds must have been seen to be analogous to the extracting of honey from hives.  It might also have been thought that good ideas and opinions were as sweet and precious as honey.

According to this purely linguistic meaning, shurah is no more than a procedure of making decisions. It can thus be defined as the procedure of making decisions by consultation and deliberation among those who have an interest in the matter on which a   decision is to be taken, or others who can help them to reach such a decision.

The important matter on which shurah is made can be either a matter which concerns an individual, or a matter which concerns a group of individuals, or a matter that is of interest to the whole public. Let us call the first as individual shurah, the second as group shurah, and the third as public shurah.

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Thus, formally understood, shurah has nothing to do with the kind of matter to be decided upon, or the ba­sis on which those consulted make their decisions, or the decision reached, because it is a mere procedure, a tool you might say, that can be used by any group of people – a gang of robbers, a military junta, an American Senate or a council of Muslim representatives.

There is, thus, nothing in the concept which makes it intrinsically Islamic. And as a matter of fact, shurah in one form or the other was practiced even be­fore Islam. An Arab Bedouin is reported to have said, “Never do I suffer a misfortune that is not suffered by my people.” When asked how come, he said, “Because I never do anything until I consult them.” It is also said that Arab noblemen used to be greatly distressed if a matter was decided without their shurah.  Non-Arabs also practiced it. The Queen of Sheba was, according to the Qur’an, in the habit of never making a decision without consulting her chieftains.

What is democracy?

What is democracy? The usual definition is rule, kratos, by the people, demos. On the face of it, then, democracy has nothing to do with shurah. But once we ask: “How do the people rule?” we begin to see the connec­tion.

‘Ruling’ implies ruling over someone or some group, and if all the people rule, over whom is it that they rule?  (Barry, 208)

The answer on which almost all democracy theorists are agreed is that what is meant by rule here is that they make basic decisions on matters of public policy. How do they make those decisions? Ideally by discussion and de­liberation in face-to-face meetings of the people, as was the case in Athens.


Democracy, then, has also to do with decisions taken after deliberation. But this is what an Arab would have described as shurah. It might be thought that there still seem to be some differences between shurah and democracy, because the latter seems to be confined to political matters. But the concept of democracy can easily be extended to other aspects of life, because a people who choose to give the power of decision-making on po­litical matters to the whole population, should not hesitate to give similar power to individuals who form a smaller organization, if the matter is of interest to each one of them. The concept of democracy can be and is, therefore, ex­tended to include such groups as political parties, charita­ble organizations and trade unions. Thus, broadly under­stood, democracy is almost identical with shurah. There is thus nothing in the primary or extended meaning of democracy which makes it intrinsically Western or secu­lar. If shurah can take a secular form, so can democracy take an Islamic form.

Islam and Secular Democracy

Basic Differences

What is it that characterizes shurah when it takes an Islamic form, what is it that characterizes democracy when it takes a secular form, and what are the differences between these forms, and the similarities, if any? What would each of them take, if put in the framework of the other? I cannot go into all the details of this here. Let me concentrate therefore on some of the vital issues which separate Islam and secularism as world outlooks, and therefore give democracy and shurah those special forms when placed within their frameworks.

Let us understand by secularism the belief that re­ligion should not have anything to do with public policy, and should at most be tolerated only as a private matter. The first point to realize here is that there is no logical connection between secularism and democracy. Secularism is as compatible with despotism and tyranny as it is compatible with democracy. A people who believe in secularism can therefore without any violation of it choose to be ruled tyrannically.

Suppose they choose to have a democratic system. Here they have two choices:

  1. They can choose to make the people abso­lutely supreme, in the sense that they or their representatives are absolutely free to decide with majority vote on any issue, or pass or repeal any laws. This form of democracy is the antithesis of Islam because it puts what it calls the people in the place of God; in Islam only God has this absolute power of legislation. Anyone who claims such a right is claiming to be God, and anyone who gives him that right is thereby accepting him as God. But then the same thing would happen if such a secular community accepted the principle of shurah, because they would not then exclude any matter from its domain, and there is nothing in the concept of shurah which makes that a vio­lation of it.
  2. Alternatively those secular people can choose a form of democracy in which the right of the people to legislate is limited by what is believed by society to be a higher law to which human law is subordinate and should not therefore violate. Whether such a democracy is com­patible with Islam or not depends on the nature and scope of the limits, and on what is believed to be a higher law.

In liberal democracy not even the majority of the whole population has the right to deprive a minority, even if it be one individual, of what is believed to be their inalienable human rights. Belief in such rights has noth­ing to do with secularism, which is perfectly compatible, as we saw, with a democracy without limits. There is a basic difference between Islam and this form of democ­racy, and there are minor differences, but there are also similarities.

The basic difference is that in Islam it is God’s law as expressed in the Qur’an and the Sunna that is the supreme law within the limits of which people have the right to legislate. No one can be a Muslim who makes, or freely accepts, or believes that anyone has the right to make or accept, legislation that is contrary to that Divine law.  Examples of such violations include the legalization of alcoholic drinks, gambling, homosexuality, usury or in­terest, and even adoption.

When some Muslims object to democracy and describe it as un-Islamic, it is these kinds of legislation that they have in mind. A shurah without restriction or a liberal shurah would, however, be as un-Islamic as a liberal or an unconstrained democracy. The problem is with secularism or liberalism, not with democracy, and will not therefore disappear by adoption of shurah instead of democracy.

Another basic difference, which is a corollary of this, is that unlike liberal democracy, Islamic shurah is not a political system, because most of the principles and values according to which society is to be organized, and by which it should abide, are stated in that higher law. The proper description of a political system that is based on those principles is that it is Islamic and not shurahic, because shurah is only one component of it.

This characteristic of Islam made society immune to absolute tyranny and dictatorship. There have been Muslim rulers who were despotic, but they were so only in that they were not chosen by the true representatives of the Muslim people, or that they were not strict in abiding by some of the Islamic teachings; but none of those who called themselves Muslim rulers dared, or perhaps even wanted, to abolish the Islamic law.

This emphasis on the law stood in the way of absolute tyranny in another way. It gave the ulama so much legislative power that it was their word, and not that of the ruler that was final on many matters. An interesting section of one of al Bukhari’s chapters reads: If the ruler makes a decision that is contrary to that of people of knowledge, his decision is to be rejected.

Walter Lippman considers it a weakness of democracy that it laid more emphasis on the origin of government rather than on what it should do. He says:

The democratic fallacy has been its preoccupation with the origin of government rather than the processes and results. The democrat has always assumed that if political power could be derived in the right way, it would be beneficent. His whole attention has been on the source of power, since he is hypnotized by the belief that the great thing is to express the will of the people, first because expression is the highest interest of man, and second because the will is instinctively good. But no amount of regulation at the source of a river will completely control its behavior, and while democrats have been absorbed in trying to find a good mechanism of originating social power, that is to say, a good mechanism of voting and representation, they neglected almost every other interest of men. (Rossiter, 1982, p. 21)


So much for the basic differences, we now come to the similarities, and some of the less basic or minor differences.

Islam and liberalism share certain values, basically those which the concepts of democracy and shurah entail.

In liberal democracy there are rights which individuals have as individuals, even if they are in a minority. These rights are said to be inalienable and cannot, therefore, theoretically speaking, be violated, even by the overwhelming majority of the population. Such violation, even if embodied in a consti­tution, makes the government undemocratic, even tyran­nical. One might think that the idea of inalienable rights is not compatible with the basic concept of democracy as rule of the people, because if the people choose, by ma­jority vote, to deny some section of the population some of what the liberals call their human rights, then that is the rule of the people, and it would thus be undemocratic to not to let it pass. But on close inspection one can see that this is not so. It is not so because the concept of democracy entails that of equality. It is be­cause the people are equal in having the right to express their opinion as to how they should be ruled that democ­racy is the rule of the people. But surely individuals have rights that are more basic than participating in decision making whether directly or indirectly. To participate they must be alive, they must be able to express themselves, and so on. There is thus no contradiction between the concept of democracy or shurah and the idea of inalien­able rights that sets limits on majority rule, because the former is more basic to democracy than the latter.

If I am right in saying that these values    are entailed by democracy and shurah, it follows that absolute democracy, democracy that is not constrained by those values, is a contradiction in terms.

Islamic shurah agrees with liberal democracy that among the important issues to be decided by the people is that of choosing their rulers. This was understood from the fact that the Prophet chose not to appoint his successor, but left it to the Muslims to do so, and this was what they did in a general meeting in his town Madinah. When it was reported to Umar, the second Caliph, that someone said that if Umar died, he would give allegiance to so and so as Caliph, he got very angry and said that he would warn the Muslims “against those who want to forcibly deny them (their right)”. He later made a public speech in which he said,

“If a person give allegiance to a man, as ruler, without a consultative approval of the Muslims, then neither he nor the man to whom he gave allegiance should be followed.” (Bukhari)

As far as my knowledge goes the manner in which this public right is to be exercised, is not specified in any authoritative statements or practice. The first four exemplary Caliphs were chosen in different ways.

Is the Islamic State Democratic?

Can a country that abides by the principle of shurah constrained by Islamic values be described as democratic? Yes, if democracy is broadly defined in terms of decision-making by the people.  No, if it is arbitrarily defined in a way that identifies it with the contemporary Western brands of it. Such definitions commit what Holden (1988, p. 4) calls the definitional fallacy.

In essence it is the fallacy of believing that the meaning of ‘democracy’ is to be found simply by examining the systems usually called democracies. A common example of this is the idea that if you want to know what democracy is, you simply have a look at the political systems of Britain and America. There are some deep-rooted misconceptions involved here. Apart from anything else, though, such an idea involves the absurdity of being unable to ask whether Britain and America are democracies: if ‘democracy’ means , say, ‘like the British political system’ we cannot ask if Britain is a democracy.

An example of a definition which commits this fallacy is that of Fukuyama (1992, p. 43)

In judging which countries are democratic, we will use a strictly formal definition of democracy. A country is democratic if it grants its people the right to choose their own government through periodic secret-ballot, multi-party elections on the basis of universal and equal adult suffrage

There was no universal suffrage in Athens where women, slaves, and aliens were excluded; no universal suffrage in America until 1920, in Britain until 1918 or 1928, and in Switzerland until 1971. Fukuyama’s definition would exclude all these, and would apply only to contemporary Western democracies or ones that are copies of them.

I called such a definition arbitrary because it selected, without any rational criterion, only those features   which are common to the Western democracies, but not those on which they differ, and made them necessary conditions for a country being democratic. Otherwise instead of government, it could have said ‘their own president’, but that would have excluded Britain and some other European democracies. It could also have been specific on the periods of time between elections, but that would again have excluded some Western democracies.

Why should the right to form political parties be a condition for democracy?  Suppose that a country gave its people, as individuals, and not as party members, the right to freely choose their government, why should that exclude it from being a democracy?

Why should government elections be periodic? Can’t a country be democratic and set no limit to the term of its ruler so long as he was doing his job in a satisfactory manner, but gave the elected body that chose him the power to remove him if and whenever they thought that he was no longer fit for the job?

Having said all this, I must add that I do not set any great store on the epithet ‘democratic’. What is important to me is the extent to which a country is Islamic, the extent to which it abides by Islamic principles, of which decision making by the people is only one component and, though important, is not the most important.

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