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What is the role of Shura in an Islamic polity?

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Islamic Researcher based in Pakistan. Masters Graduate in Islamic Studies.
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In a Nutshell:
Shura is a political consultation process where the caliph (ruler) takes advice from elected members of Majlis Shura (Advisory Council). The majlis shura is not sovereign, having no powers to change the laws of Shari’ah. Its purpose is to make new laws in the realm where there is no clear command in the holy Qur'an and Sunnah and to assist the government in the implementation of Shari’ah to serve the cause of Islam.

Introduction

Shura (Arabic: شُورَىٰ‎, shūrā) is an Arabic word for "consultation". Shura, in its simplest form, as an Islamic principle, calls upon Muslims to gather and, through articulate debate and sound reason, form productive opinions and strategies of implementation in matters of importance.

Evidences

وَالَّذِينَ اسْتَجَابُوا لِرَبِّهِمْ وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَأَمْرُهُمْ شُورَىٰ بَيْنَهُمْ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ يُنْفِقُونَ
And those, who hearken to their Lord, and observe Prayer, and whose affairs are decided by mutual consultation, and who spend out of what we have provided for them. (Qur’an 42:39)

فَبِمَا رَحْمَةٍ مِنَ اللَّهِ لِنْتَ لَهُمْ ۖ وَلَوْ كُنْتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لَانْفَضُّوا مِنْحَوْلِكَ ۖ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الْأَمْرِ ۖ فَإِذَا عَزَمْت َفَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَوَكِّلِينَ
And it is by the great mercy of Allah that you were kind towards them, and if thou had been rough and hard-hearted, they would surely have dispersed from around thee. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them, and consult them in matters of administration; and when you have decided upon a course of action then put your trust in Allah. Surely, Allah loves those who put their trust in Him. (Qur’an 3:159)

قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ "‏ إِذَا كَانَ أُمَرَاؤُكُمْ خِيَارَكُمْ وَأَغْنِيَاؤُكُمْ سُمَحَاءَكُمْ وَأُمُورُكُمْ شُورَى بَيْنَكُمْ فَظَهْرُ الأَرْضِ خَيْرٌ لَكُمْ مِنْ بَطْنِهَا وَإِذَا كَانَ أُمَرَاؤُكُمْ شِرَارَكُمْ وَأَغْنِيَاؤُكُمْ بُخَلاَءَكُمْ وَأُمُورُكُمْ إِلَى نِسَائِكُمْ فَبَطْنُ الأَرْضِ خَيْرٌ لَكُمْ مِنْ ظَهْرِهَا
When your leaders are the best of you, the richest are the most generous among you, and your affairs are consulted among you, then the surface of the earth is better for you than its belly. And when your leaders are the worst of you, the richest are the stingiest among you, and your affairs are referred to your women, then the belly of the earth is better for you than its surface." (Tirmidhi 2266)

The Prophet (saw) said:

“Whenever people consulted among themselves, they were guided properly in their affairs, and when they abandoned consultation, they were led astray.” (Ru’h al Ma’ni)

It is reported that once Umar (ra) was asked about what to do when there was no clear injunction in the Qur'an and Sunnah; he replied:

“Do mutual consultation and follow the majority opinion.” (Tabqat Ibn Saad)


Illustrations

It is mentioned in Qur’an:

وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً ۖ
And when your Lord said to the angels, I am setting on earth a khalifah. (Qur’an 2:30)

Why did Allah state his placing of a khalifah on earth to the assembly of angels? Was it intended to consult them? Or was it just to inform them? Or was it to know their opinion?

As a matter of fact, the need for advice arises where all aspects of the issue are not clear to everyone or one is not completely satisfied with one's knowledge and insight, so other intellectuals and sages are consulted, or when the rights of all are equal then it is mandatory to seek their opinion, as is customary in the general councils of the world.

Obviously, none is required here because Allah is the Creator of the universe, He is the All-wise and all-knowing. Angels or jinn and human beings are all His creatures. No one can dare to ask Allah about any of His deeds, why did you do it and why did you not do such a thing? As said in Qur’an by Allah himself:

يُسْأَلُ عَمَّا يَفْعَلُ وَهُمْ يُسْأَلُونَلاَ
He shall not be questioned as to what He does, but they shall be questioned. (Qur’an 21:23)

Indeed, consultation here was neither intended nor required. Nevertheless, a form of consultation has been created here for Muslims to extract the Sunnah of Consultation and recognize its significance from this event.

The importance of shura can be further highlighted by the fact that Allah commanded the Prophet (saw) to conduct his affairs through consultation. He says:

فَبِمَا رَحْمَةٍ مِنَ اللَّهِ لِنْتَ لَهُمْ ۖ وَلَوْ كُنْتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لَانْفَضُّوا مِنْحَوْلِكَ ۖ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الْأَمْرِ ۖ فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَفَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَوَكِّلِينَ
And it is by the great mercy of Allah that you were kind towards them, and if you had been rough and hard-hearted, they would surely have dispersed from around thee. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them, and consult them in matters of administration; and when you have decided upon a course of action then put your trust in Allah. Surely, Allah loves those who put their trust in Him. (Qur’an 3:159)

The Prophet (saw) frequently used to consult companions in various matters of importance. There are countless examples of Shura in practice during the lifetime of the Prophet(saw). Some are as follows:

1. During the Battle of Badr, the Prophet(saw) sought the consultation of his Companions regarding the strategic placement of the heavily outnumbered Muslim army. The place where Muslim armies first encamped Hubab Ibn ul-Mundhir inquired about that: O Messenger of Allah, is this the spot which Allah has inspired you to occupy so that we can’t move from it or it is a matter of stratagem of war and the product of consultation. When the Prophet (saw) said it was a stratagem of war and consultation then He pointed out: it is not a good place to stop in. Let us continue and encamp by the nearest well of water and make a cistern full of water and destroy the other wells then we can fight our enemy. Prophet (saw) approved of Ibn al-Mundhir’s idea set up a camp at a different location. (Seerah Ibn Hisham)

2. In the battle of Uhud, Prophet (saw) made al-Shura (the general Assembly of the Muslims of Medina) to consult them as to how to face the enemy, whether to defend the city from inside or fight in the open field. Abdullah bin Abi, the leader of Munafiqun suggested to stay in Madina and defend the city. The Prophet (saw) had the same opinion. But most of the companions, many of whom were young Muslims suggested fighting in the open field. The Prophet (saw) accepted the opinion of majority. (Seerah Nabi, Shibli Noumani)

3. In the Battle of Khandaq (ditch) the Prophet (saw) convened a military council and accepted Salman's proposal of digging a ditch around the vulnerable areas of Medina and executed his suggestion. (Tarikh al-Kamil, Vol. 2)

4. In the Battle of Tai’f, the Prophet (saw), in accordance with suggestions by some of the military officers, changed the location of their headquarters. (Maghazi, Waqidi, Vol. 3)

5. Some other events include the policy regarding the prisoners of badr, terms of treaty of Hudaybiyyah, method for calling to prayers in mosque etc.

The Prophet (saw) in spite that his actions were guided by revelation was the one who most often consulted his companions. Hasan al Basri have put it most rightly that “Indeed, Allah Almighty did not command his Prophet (saw) to consult his companions because he needed their opinions. Rather, he (saw) intended for them to recognize the blessing in consultation.” (Adab al-Shari'ah, Vol. 1, p. 326)

Shura and the Islamic polity

Allah alone is the Malik ul-Mulk (Master and Lord of all), and Shari’ah (Islamic law) constitutes the law of the land in an Islamic state. Shura is an integral feature within the institution of Islamic polity and Islamic State. It is the commandment of Allah, revealed in the Qur'an to the Prophet (saw) that matters of importance not clearly stated in the Qur'an and Sunnah should be decided through mutual consultation. This fundamental requirement of mutual consultation provides the very basis for building an egalitarian form of government because it embraces mutual accountability. It serves to eliminate the idea of an authoritarian form of government, rejects unilateral decision making, and demands the participation of the people.

The precedent set by the Prophet of conducting affairs with mutual consultation, was strictly followed by first four caliphs. Two important occasions of such meetings of Shura are cited from the period of Umar (ra).

Conquering some part of Persia, Umar (ra) placed a ban on further advance. When Yazdjird became the new emperor of Persia, he attacked Muslim lands. To meet the challenge, Umar announced war against Persia and made it known that he himself would command the Muslim army. After preparations, he made Ali in-charge in his absence and left Medina. When his army reached al-Sirar, a spring three miles from Medina, he was informed that his army men were disputing whether he should personally command the army or not. The general mood of the army seemed to be that they wanted him to continue with his command of the army. However, Umar called for a meeting of counsels (ahl al ra'y) and discussed the matter with them. First there was some difference of opinion among them, but later they agreed that it was not advisable for the Caliph of so young a state to command the army by himself. After the meeting of al-Shura, Umar addressed the army men. His speech is important for he outlined some very basic principles of al-Shura. He said:

"Verily Allah, the Honored and Great has united through Islam all its believers and bound their hearts together in it. Among themselves the Muslims are like a body, of which if one limb is afflicted the other cannot escape the consequence. And on that account, it is enjoined upon the Muslims that their affairs should be settled by consultation among them and among the masters of counsel, the common people must follow those who are in authority, support them and approve of their measures. Those who are in authority must follow those who are superior in counsel, support them and approve of their measures. In the matter of the conduct of war those in authority are bound to follow those who are superior in counsel."

Umar, then informed his army men of the decision of al-Shura and told them that he personally wanted to lead the army against Persia and for that reason he left 'Ali in charge in his absence, but now after the decision of Shura, he was bound to follow it. (Tarikh Tabari, Vol.3)

Another important occasion where several meetings of shura took place was about the land of Sawad (the rural area of Iraq). When Iraq and Syria were conquered, Umar distributed the war booty (ghanimah), but hesitated to distribute the captured land. He wanted to create a regular source of income to meet state expenses. Also he did not want to deprive its real possessors of their lands, for he thought that it would make them offended which would eventually undermine the stability of the Caliphate in the future. The soldiers were demanding the distribution of the land among themselves. Umar presented the problem before the council of al Shura. The companions were divided in their opinions. Bilal, Abd al Rahman backed the view of military personnel and asked for the distribution of the land. They argued that the Prophet (saw) distributed the captured land of Banu Qurayzah and some of Banu Nadir among his soldiers. Uthman and Umar himself and some others were of the opposite view. They argued the Prophet did not distribute the captured land of Mecca, Wadi al-Qura' and some land of Banu Nadir, but left it with its real possessors. The meeting of Advisory Council (Majlis al-Shura) was adjourned after some lengthy discussions and could not reach to a final conclusion. Umar continued with his efforts to find support for his point of view and finally he came across the following verse of the Qur’an:

مَا أَفَاءَ اللَّهُ عَلَىٰ رَسُولِهِ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْقُرَىٰ فَلِلَّهِ وَلِلرَّسُولِ وَلِذِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَالْيَتَامَىٰ وَالْمَسَاكِينِ وَابْنِ السَّبِيلِ كَيْ لَا يَكُونَ دُولَةً بَيْنَ الْأَغْنِيَاءِ مِنْكُمْ ۚ وَمَا آتَاكُمُ الرَّسُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَاكُمْ عَنْهُ فَانْتَهُوا ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۖ إِنَّ اللَّهَ شَدِيدُ الْعِقَابِِ لِلفقَرَاءِ الْمُهَاجِرِينَ الَّذِينَ أُخْرِجُوا مِنْ دِيَارِهِمْ وَأَمْوَالِهِمْ يَبْتَغُونَ فَضْلًا مِنَ اللہِ وَرِضْوَانًا وَيَنْصُرُونَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الصَّادِقُونَٗ وَ الَّذِينَ تَبَوَّءُوا الدَّارَ وَالْإِيمَانَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِمْ يُحِبُّونَ مَنْ هَاجَرَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَا يَجِدُونَ فِي صُدُورِهِمْ حَاجَةً مِمَّا أُوتُوا وَيُؤْثِرُونَ عَلَىٰ أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَلَوْ كَانَ بِهِمْ خَصَاصَةٌ ۚ وَمَنْ يُوقَ شُحَّ نَفْسِهِ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَٗ
What God has bestowed on His apostle (and taken away) from the people of the township, belong to God, to His apostle and to kindred and orphans. The needy and the wayfarer, in order that it may not (merely) make a circuit between the wealthy among you, (some part is due) to the indigent emigrants (Muhaji’reen) but those who before them had homes (in Medina) and had adopted the faith, show their affection to such as come to them from refuge. And those who come after them say our Lord forgive us and our brethren who came before us into the faith and leave not in our hearts rancor against who have believed. (Qur’an 59:7-10)

Umar called for another meeting of al-Shura and presented his views before them. Referring to the verse of the Qur'an, he indicated the difference between fa'y and ghani’mah. He said that according to the Qur'an, ghanimah can be distributed among the soldiers, but fa'y is for poor and needy people and is for all generations, present as well as future. Arguing his case, he said that how the conquered cities could be defended if the land was distributed. The Sahabah agreed with him and said: your opinion is correct and the most suitable one. (Maqalat-e-Amini, p. 32)

Significance

There can be no Islamic government without the institution of Shura. Umarbin al-Khattab (ra), the second Caliph said:

لا خلافة الاعن مشورة
There is no Khilafat except that it involves consultation. (Kanz ul-Amal)

Ibn Atiyah said:

“Shura is the basis of Shari'ah laws and fundamental principle of all governmental affairs. Those in authority who do not consult the people of knowledge and religion, have no right to rule and should be removed from their office. There is no disagreement on this point.” (Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami al Ahkam al Qur'an, Vol. 3, p. 249)

Abul-A’la Maudud said:

“Shura is a must in Islam and it is obligatory on the government to consult Majlis e Shura in all important affairs of the government, not clearly stated in the Qur'an and Sunnah of the Prophet.” (Islami Riyasat, p. 407)

The Prophet (saw) said:

“Whenever people consulted among themselves, they were guided properly in their affairs, and when they abandoned consultation, they were led astray.” (Ru’h al Ma’ni)

Hasan al-Basri said:

“By Allah, people are never consulted but that the best option is made available to them.” Then, he recited the verse, “Those who conduct their affairs by consulting between themselves.” (42:39) (Adab al-Mufrad, p. 258)


Framework for Shura

Eligibility:

The purpose of Shura in Islam is to understand the spirit of Shari'ah and make new laws in the light of the Qur'an and Sunnah in matters that are not clearly stated in the former and later. It is therefore, necessary that members of Shura should be those who are well versed in the Qur'an and Sunnah and should be selected through very strict criterion of ability because when Prophet (saw) was asked about who should be consulted in matters not clearly stated in the Qu'ran and Sunnah, he (saw) said:

Collect the righteous and pious people of my Ummah and make consultation and let not matters be decided by a single opinion. (Ma’arif al Qur’an, Vol. 7, p. 706)

Similar narration is also reported that Ali (Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law) once asked Prophet (saw) that how Muslims were to decide, after him, on matters for which there was no direction in either the Qur’anic nor sunnah, he advised that they should not make decisions on the basis of a single opinion but after due consultation among his trusted followers. (Ru’h al Ma’ni)

Accountability:

Unlike the western concept of parliament, Majlis e Shura is not a sovereign body. In Islam, Allah is Malik al Mulk (Master and Lord of all). He alone is Eternal, Absolute, Indivisible and Master of all beings. Men are vicegerents of Allah (Khali’fat Ullah) on earth and Shari'ah is the revealed law of Islam. Its purpose is to guide people to the right path (Sirat e Mustaqeem). The purpose of government in Islam is to implement the Shari’ah. Majlis e Shura is constituted to understand the spirit of Shari'ah and guide the government in its implementation. It has no powers to change or abrogate its laws, or to make new laws contrary to the spirit of the Qur'an and Sunnah. It can make laws only through Ijtihad in the light and spirit of Shari’ah in those matters not clearly stated there. Its members are neither above the law nor have any special powers other than to serve the purpose of Shari’ah.

Freedom:

Shura should be conducted with freedom. Government or ruling party should not compel the members of Shura to follow their opinion, rather freedom should be given to them to express their opinion without any hesitation or pressure.

Consensus:

It’s natural that when people discuss issues with each other, their views and opinion tend to differ with each other. Such difference of opinion cannot be avoided as long as there is freedom of opinion. In Islam, difference of opinion, when it is not for the sake of opposition, but for Is’lah (improvement), is the blessing of Allah. It seems to reflect the meaning of hadith of prophet (saw):

The difference of opinion in my Ummah is the blessing of Allah. (Kashf ul-khafa, 1/64)

When there is a difference of opinion, it is the majority opinion that prevails. To follow the majority opinion is thus a principle of Islamic law. It is reported that once Umar was asked about what to do when there was no clear injunction in the Qur'an and Sunnah; he replied:

“Do mutual consultation and follow the majority opinion.” (Tabaqat Ibn Saad)

Enforcement:

Once the decision is taken in Majlis e Shura, it should be enforced without any delay. As said in Qur’an:

فَإِذَا عَزَمْت َفَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّه
Put thy trust in Allah.

The term عزَمْت as some have interpreted, does not mean that once al-Shura has reached on some decision, later the ruler (A’mir) has a choice to accept or reject the decision. In Islamic Government, there is no distinction between the "executive" and "legislative". The A’mir and his whole body of cabinet ministers are members of Majlis e Shura. They are required to attend all sessions of al-Shura and take an active part in decision making. It is on this basis that it can be said that any decision taken in al-Shura is also the decision of A’mir. Therefore such thinking that the Amir is different from al Shura, or the Amir can veto or reject the decision taken there would be Western than Islamic. 'Ali reported that once he enquired the Prophet the meaning of the term 'azm. The Prophet (saw) replied:

Consult those who possess sound opinion, then follow it. (Ibn Kathir Al-Qur'an w’al Azim, Vol. 1, p. 420)

Obedience:

Obedience to Majlis e Shura is mandatory as long as it runs its affairs in the light of Shari'ah. Qur’an says:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ وَأُولِي الْأَمْرِ مِنْكُمْ
O ye who believe, obey Allah and obey His messenger and those from among yourselves who hold authority. (Qur’an 4:59)

Explaining the above verse, the Prophet said

“That obedience is only in virtue, there is no obedience in sin.” (Bukhari 6830)

In Islamic polity, where the A’mir and the members of Majlis e Shura are required to follow the Shari’ah and work for its sincere implementation as the law of the land, people on the other hand, are duty bound to follow and obey the government. Such obedience is necessary not only for the unity of Muslim community, but also for their progress in this world.

Conclusion

The Islamic System holds consultation as an important aspect and its members are elected on the basis of ability. They do not represent special interest groups or have their self-interests involved, rather their aims and objectives are to serve the cause of Islam. In Islam, there is no ruling or opposition party. The Amir is not representative of a group or party, rather he represents the whole body of Majlis Shura. Matters of importance are discussed by mutual consultation, the members of Shura agree and disagree with their own free conscience, but once the majority opinion is reached on any matter, they collectively support the decision by sacrificing their own individual opinions.

References

IbnHisham, Seerah Ibn Hisham
Bukhari, Adab al-Mufrad
Waqidi, Maghazi
Ibn Saad, Tabqat Ibn Saad
Abdul-Qadir Husaini, the Constitution of the Arab Empire
Abul-Ala Maududi, Islami RiyasatAli Ibn al-Athir, Tarikh Al-Kamil
Ibn Muflih, Adab al-Shariyah
Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Quran w’al Azim
Isma'il bin Muhammad al-Ajluni, Kashf ul-khafa​​​​​​​
Muhammad Alusi, Ruh ul-Mani
Muhammad Shafi, Marif ul-Qur’an
Muhammad Shafiq, The Role and Place of Shura in Islamic Polity
Muhammad Taqi Amini, Maqalat Amini
​​​​​​​Shibli Noumani, Seerat un Nabi


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