Is Democracy The Same as Shura in Islam?

Recent events in the Muslim world, triggered by the “Arab Spring” have ignited much debate and discussion about the role of Islam in daily life. Part of this debate is whether or not Islam is compatible with the modern world or not.

Islam, with its unique forms of worship, social organization, political structure, and economic principles are attacked and villified as backwards, archaic, oppressive, and impractical. Time and again, whether in the Gaza Strip, Pakistan, Turkey, or Lebanon, or more recently in Tunisia and Egypt, Muslims have expressed their support for Islam and desire to see it in governance. However, amongst some Muslim groups and organizations, there is a tendency to try to reconcile Islam with “modernity” and make Islam seem compatible with the status quo. One of the issues that Muslims find themselves trying to reconcile with the West is the issue of democracy. They cite the Islamic concept of shura (consultation) to prove that Islam has a place in the modern world and that the concept of democracy, rather than being a colonial tool to spread the corrupt Capitalist ideology, is a part of Islam.

Islam and democracy are often compared to each other, notably because of the Islamic concept of Shura. Shura, or consultation is a well-established, and highly-regarded tenet of Islamic governance. Shura is the verbal noun of the verb ”shawara,” or consulted. It means seeking an opinion from the one who is consulted. The Khaleefah or any lawful authority can undertake Shura. Allah (swt) said to His Prophet (saw) in the Qur’an:

”And do consult them in the matter…” TMQ 3: 159

Abu Hurairah (ra) said, ”I have not seen anyone more willing to consult others then the Messenger of Allah (saw) in the consultation of his companions.”

Both Shura and democracy involve seeking an opinion from people. This is the only similarity.

Since democracy entails ruling by majority opinion, some conclude the Islamic shura and democracy are in essence, the same thing. But before concluding that their outward similarities mean that they are equal, it’s important to understand the reality and key differences of each one.

There are 3 points to consider when comparing democracy to Islam:

1) Shura is never considered in matters of legislation.
In matters of halal and haram, the opinions of the people holds no value. Allah warns about deviating from His rulings:

”Therefore fear not men but fear me and sell not my verses for a miserable price. And whosoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, such are the disbelievers” TMQ 5: 44.

Furthermore, the ruler is specifically warned not to follow people’s opinions in matters of revelation:

”Rule between them by that which Allah has revealed to you, and do not follow their vain desires”  TMQ 5: 49

A simple example of this principle can be explained as follows: in Islam, if the Khaleefah sought shura of the people regarding eating pork, eating it would never become halal, no matter how many people voted for it. The same goes for every other ruling. This is because Islam does not allow humans to determine halal and haram themselves, it orders them to use their intellect and exert themselves to understand and uncover rulings for actions that the Shariah has not specifically addressed.

Democracy on the other hand is built upon the concept of majority rule, without any guidance from the Creator. Democracy gives man the right to decide that sodomy is not a crime. This example alone illustrates the stark contrast between Islam and democracy.

The Prophet (saw) clearly refused to consider the people’s opinion in matters of ruling.  During the treaty of Hudaybiyah, the Sahabah were concerned that the terms of the agreement were slanted to favor the Quraish and unfair to the Muslims. They expressed their opinions very strongly to the Prophet (saw), because they thought that this treaty would humiliate the Muslims. Nevertheless, he (saw) rejected the opinions of all the Sahabah in order to sign the treaty of Hudaybiyah in obedience to the command of Allah (swt).

In the case where a ruling is not explicitly stated in the Quran, Sunnah, analogy, or concensus of the Sahabah, the Khaleefah may solicit expert opinions of the people. That point is covered next.

2) The expert opinion is taken, regardless of the majority or minority, in matters where an intellectual judgement is required about some subject.

Umar ibn Al-Khattab (ra) consulted the Muslims regarding the newly conquered lands of Iraq, whether they should be divided amongst the Muslims as booty, or left in the hands of its people subject to payment of Kharaj. Bilal (ra), Abdur Rahman (ra) and Az-Zubayr (ra) thought that the land should be divided in the same way that the Prophet (saw) divided the land of Khaybar as booty. Umar, however, made Ijtihad upon some ayat in Surah al Hashr to deduce that the land should be Kharaji land. Once Umar heard the views and was convinced with his own Ijtihad in preference to that of the majority, he rejected all other opinions and followed his own expert understanding of the text. During Umar’s Khilafah, he consulted the Sahabah on many issues related to understanding the rules of Islam for new situations, and he adopted the strongest opinion and never the majority opinion. The general consensus of the Sahabah upon this makes it clear that the Khaleefah can consult until he finds the strongest opinion. It is the Khaleefah who decides which is correct and no one else.

The Prophet (saw) followed the opinion of a single expert, Habab bin Munthir (ra), over the selection of the place of the Battle of Badr. It was narrated in the Seerah of Ibnu Hisham that, ”when he (saw) camped at the near side of the water of Badr, Al-Habab b. Al-Munthir was not happy with this place. He said to the Messenger (saw),
‘O Messenger of Allah! Did Allah make you camp in this place where we can’t depart from it, or is it the opinion of war and strategy?’ He (saw) said, ‘It is rather the opinion of war and strategy.’ Al Habab b. al-Munthir said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, this is not the (right) place. Move the people till we come to the side of the water near to the people (enemy), we camp there..’ The Messenger (saw) said, ‘You gave the right opinion.”’

Here, the Prophet (saw) followed the opinion of a single expert without asking for the majority view. When a correct judgement on a subject, whether technical or Shari’ah, is required it is the correct opinion and not the majority that is followed. Only one man, the Khaleefah, has the right to decide which is correct. The ayah of consultation continues:

”…When you decided (azamta), put your trust in Allah” TMQ 3:159

This indicates that the final decision is with ruler and not with the people. This is because the verb ”to decide” used in the text is ”azamta” which means you (singular) decided. If the decision had been for the people then the verb would have been in the form ”azamtum” meaning you (plural). Again, it is seen that Shura and democracy are not the same.

3) The majority opinion is taken for matters of action only
There are many choices the Khaleefah can make between actions that are Mubah (permissible). To invest in schools or hospitals, to appoint this man or that man, to build a motorway through cornfields on the east side of a town or to build it through pastureland to the west, are some examples. It is natural for people to differ when faced with a simple choice between two actions. A technical study would not come up with a judgement that leads to only one right course of action. In such a case, a choice needs to be made which will be subjective to each person.

The Khaleefah can consult the people, and this is recommended but not obligatory according to Islam. The Prophet (saw) decided many matters like this himself, but he also consulted the people such as in the consultation before the Battle of Uhud. The Mushrikeen came to attack the Muslims that day, and the Prophet (saw) and the more prominent Sahabah wanted to fight from inside the city of Madina. However, the majority of the people wanted to go outside to fight the enemy. The Prophet (saw) led the army out from Madinah into the battle in accordance with the wishes of the majority.

In the democratic system of ruling, man has the absolute right to do as he pleases. This is decided by the majority opinion. This demonstrates that democracy is a system of disbelief because it puts man’s will above Allah. While shura is highly encouraged in Islam, it is not an absolute right of the people. The Khaleefah can consult with the people only in permissible matters (”Mubah”). Even then, the majority is accepted only if the matter is one of action and not some specialist subject. If an opinion, such as a strategy of war is needed, then the experts in this field are consulted, even if only one.

This is because the ”correct” opinion is sought, and the majority opinion has no worth here. The difference between democracy and Shura is like the difference between water and fire. We should remember the words of the Prophet (saw) narrated by Muslim and Bukhari about the final hour, ”When Dajjal will appear he will have water and fire with him. The thing which the people may consider as water will actually be fire; and the thing which the people may consider as fire, will be the cool and sweet water.”
May Allah (swt) protect us from the fire.

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