Dr. Ja`far Sheikh Idris, professor of Islamic studies, Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences, Washington, explains shura and democracy wherein he stated: “What is Shura? Shura comes from an Arabic word shara whose original meaning, according to classical Arabic dictionaries, is 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, Shura 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 Shura 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 individual Shura, the second group Shura, and the third public Shura.
Thus formally understood, Shura 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 Shura 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, astasheeruhum.” It is also said that Arab noblemen used to be greatly distressed if a matter was decided without their Shura. 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. In this context, the Glorious Qur’an narrates: “She (the Queen of Sheba) said: O chieftains! Pronounce for me in my case. I decide no case till ye are present with me.” (An-Namal: 32)
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 Shura. 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 people make basic decisions on matters of public policy. How do they make those decisions? Ideally, by discussion and deliberation in face-to-face meetings with 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 Shura. It might be thought that there still seem to be some differences between Shura 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 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 Shura. There is thus nothing in the primary or extended meaning of democracy which makes it intrinsically Western or secular. If Shura can take a secular form, so can democracy take an Islamic form.
Islam and secular democracy
1. Basic differences:
What is it that characterizes Shura 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 Shura 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:
a. 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 Allah; in Islam only Allah has this absolute power of legislation. Anyone who claims such a right is claiming to be God, and any one 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 Shura, because they would not then exclude any matter from its domain, and there is nothing in the concept of Shura which makes that a violation of it.
b. 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 Allah’s law as expressed in the Qur’an and the Sunnah that is the supreme law within the limits of which people have the right to legislate. A true Muslim never makes, or freely accepts, or believes that anyone has the right to make, or accept, legislation contravening the 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 Shura without restriction or a liberal
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 Shura instead of democracy.
Another basic difference, which is a corollary of this, is that unlike liberal democracy, Islamic Shura 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 Shuraic, because Shura 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’ (Muslim scholars) 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.
2. Similarities:
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 Shura</ i> 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 Shura 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 Shura, it follows that absolute democracy, that is not constrained by those values, is a contradiction in terms.
Islamic Shura 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 Al-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 gives allegiance to a man, as ruler, without a consultative approval of the Muslims, `ala ghayri ma Shurati-n min al muslimeen, then neither he nor the man to whom the allegiance is given 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, the rightly-guided, Caliphs were chosen in different ways.
Is the Islamic state democratic?
Can a country that abides by the principle of Shura 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 judging which countries are democratic, we will use a strictly formal definition of democracy. A country is democratic if it grants people the right to choose their own government through periodic secret-ballot, multi-party elections on the basis of universal and equal adult suffrage. It could also have been specific on the periods of time between elections.
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 democratic?
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.