View Full Version : The Islamic State - A Conceptual Analysis

Ansar Al-'Adl
05-03-2005, 09:47 PM

This issue keeps coming up frequently, so I'm going to make this article a sticky.
Shoora and Democracy: A Conceptual Analysis

Dr. Ja`far Sheikh Idris

What is shoora?

Shoora 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, shoora 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 shoora 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 shoora, the second group shoora, and the third public shoora.

Thus formally understood, shoora 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 shoora 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, astasheerahum.. “ It is also said that Arab noblemen used to be greatly distressed if a matter was decided without their shoora. 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 shoora. 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 shoora. It might be thought that there still seem to be some differences between shoora 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 shoora. There is thus nothing in the primary or extended meaning of democracy which makes it intrinsically Western or secular. If shoora can take a secular form, so can democracy take an Islamic form.

Islam and secular democracy

Basic differences

What is it that characterizes shoora 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 shoora 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 God; in Islam only God 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 shoora, because they would not then exclude any matter from its domain, and there is nothing in the concept of shoora 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 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 shoora without restriction or a liberal shoora 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 shoora instead of democracy.

Another basic difference, which is a corollary of this, is that unlike liberal democracy, Islamic shoora 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 shooraic, because shoora 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 (Rossiter, 1982, p. 21) :

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.

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 shoora 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 shoora 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 shoora, it follows that absolute democracy, democracy that is not constrained by those values, is a contradiction in terms.

Islamic shoora 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 al-Madina. 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, ala ghayri mashoorati-n min al muslimeen, then neither he nor the man to whom he gave allegiance should be followed (Bukhari, al Muharibeen)

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 exemplary Caliphs were chosen in different ways.

Is the Islamic state democratic?

Can a country that abides by the principle of shoora 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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Ansar Al-'Adl
11-11-2005, 03:29 AM
Towards an Islamic Concept of Democracy
Dr. `Abd Allah Nâsir al-Subayh
Member of the Teacher’s Board, al-Imam University (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

“Democracy” is a powerful and attractive word. This holds true for the people of the Middle East, since their societies have come heavily under the influence of Western ideas and cultural values. For many, democracy has come to represent freedom, advancement, peace, stability, and prosperity. For some, it represents the very embodiment of all that is good.

The media contributes greatly to this general positive attitude towards democracy. The media links the word “democracy” to a vast number of concerns, depicting it as a sort of magic potion with the power to cure a myriad of social ailments. As a result of the media hubbub, many people have fallen into what might be called “the democracy trap”, by which I mean their belittling and totally disregarding their own cultural context to clear the way for an abstract ideal that is completely divorced in practice from the cultural reality in which they live.

The way to avoid this trap is to fully understand and appreciate the critical analysis that is brought to bear by leading democratic theorists with respect to the shortcomings that exist in both the conceptualization of democracy and its practical application.

Democracy is not the embodiment of all that is good. Nor is it something bad. The problem is that some of those in the Muslim world advocate democracy are unable to see it except within the superficial confines of a single ideological pattern tied in their minds to a single mode of practice. In the minds of such people, democracy means nothing other than parliaments and elections. This line of thinking can only result in a charade – the mere outward trappings of democracy. Then there are those who oppose democracy, conceiving of it as the absolute rule of the people which must necessarily be rejected. Their rejection, however, can only result in the absolute rule of a single, oppressive dictator.

In practice – as well as in theory – democracy is not a monolithic idea with a single mode of practical expression. There is a variety of approaches to democracy that have come about as a result of the different philosophical backgrounds and particular circumstances of the various societies wherein it has been adopted.

When democracy first developed in Athens over two thousand years ago, it was the people choosing to govern their own affairs instead of letting a tyrant do it for them. Democracy was a way to for them to do away with tyranny so that the people could express their will as to how they would govern their city.

The democracy of Athens was known as “direct democracy”. The idea of democracy evolved since then into what we know as “representative democracy”. This is the form that democracy takes in our present era. It, in turn, conceptualized and applied in various different ways.

Many theorists make a distinction between the philosophy and values that form the basis for democracy and the machinery by which the will of the people is ascertained – in other words, the means by which governance is carried out. They see democracy on its own unable of realizing its social objectives. They speak about principles of democracy that need to be realized as well, such as: the rule of law, freedom of speech, separation of powers, transparency of government, and secularism.

Though these principles and others enjoy the general acceptance of democracy theorists, we find that a number of these principles have come under some serious discussion. Take, for instance, the principle of majority rule. This is an essential principle, without which there can be no democracy. The very purpose of democracy would be lost without it. Nevertheless, a good number of theorists have expressed concern over the possible tyranny of the majority. Some argue that the fear of mob rule was the central issue that preoccupied the American thinkers who drafted the United States Constitution. This is the reason why, at the outset, the right to vote was restricted to certain sectors of society. Women and slaves, for instance, were ineligible to vote.

The discussions and disagreements that exist among political theorists tell us as Muslims that we need to investigate these issues ourselves and work to develop a way to apply democracy in a way that is suited to our Islamic outlook. I suggest, for this purpose, the following:

1. Distinguishing between ideological frameworks and means of governance

We can accept democracy as a form of government and a means of expressing the will of the people without adopting ideological principles and values that are at variance with the teachings of Islam. One of these Islamic values is that the ultimate authority for legislation is the Qur’an and Sunnah. This is not at odds with the concept of democracy, since democracy, as political theorists have pointed out, is a means of governance that cannot exist outside the context of some philosophical framework. As the American political thinker Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out, democracy might be basically a western idea, but it is a vessel that needs to be filled with something. We can, therefore, fill that vessel with contents that are compatible with our faith.

Those who promote democracy today are not content merely to speak about it on its own. They link it to liberalism and individual freedom and claim that any democracy that does not realize these meanings is not a true democracy. If they are permitted to link democracy with other philosophical precepts that they embrace, then others are likewise permitted to do so.

Some might object the authority of the Qur’an and Sunnah conflicts with the basic principle of democracy that the state must be a secular one. We can counter that claim by pointing out the following:

1. We do not have to accept every principle that is advanced as a principle of democracy. We can have our own vision. We can develop a form of democracy that is compatble with our identity.

2. Most forms of modern Christianity do not have a specific code of Law that it is considered a religious duty for Christians to uphold in the governance of their societies. Therefore, secularism on the level of the civic polity does not constitute a revocation of Christian sacred law, since such a law does not exist in principle. What secularism means to Christianity is the abolition of theocracy – the rule of the clergy, the rule of people who claim to speak on behalf of God and on the behalf of Christ (peace be upon him). The clergy in a theocratic system claim to receive direct divine insight and in turn require that other people submit to their direction and their command. The will and the welfare of the people is not a consideration.

Islam is opposed to the idea of a clerical class. Islam views what they practice as heresy, as a situation where a special group of people upon their own authority concoct lies against Allah and a misrepresent the religion.

3. Once it becomes clear to us that secularism poses no conflict for the Sacred Law as understood by Christianity, we need then understand that secularism itself takes many forms. In America the Constitution openly declares the separation of church and state. In Britain, however, we find a different situation, where the Queen is the head of the church and the country tends to the affairs of the official Christian faith.

4. In Islam, the jurists and scholars – people who are often misleadingly reffered to by non-Muslims as “Muslim clerics” – do not possess exclusive access to the truth. They are people who can be debated with, whose views can be contradicted. In Islam, religious authority does not rest with the scholar or jurist; it rests with the Qur’ân and Sunnah. These texts are independent of the people and are to be approached objectively.

There is no single concept of secularism that is accepted by all secularists. If we understand from it that the people are to be consulted and that they have the right to express their opinions and object to what they disagree with – and this is the democratic spirit – then this is one of the basic principles of our Law.

2. Recognition of the excellence of many of the principles of democracy

Among these principles are the primacy of the constitution, transparency of government, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, freedom of speech, respect for human dignity, and the preservation of human rights. These principles embody the true essence and spirit of democracy. Without them, all that can exist is a farse, the mere outward trappings of democracy.

These are principles that Islamic Law calls us to uphold and commands our politicians to adhere to. Whoever wishes to adopt democracy should, first and foremost, embrace these principles. It is deeply regrettable that in many countries in the Arab world where we find the outward appearance of the democratic process, we do not find the reality of democracy.

3. Recognition that democracy is a culture and a social practice

Democracy is not merely a parliament and a ballot box. The practice of true democracy requires freedom of speech and open public dialogue.

4. Democracy cannot exist without public scrutiny

A democracy that cannot be monitored by the people is not a true democracy. Transparency in government administration is essential. All citizens must have equal access to information.

5. Muslims must exercise every effort to develop their mode of government

We must devise our own Islamic terminology that reflects our religion, our heritage, and the requirements of our faith.

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