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Shūrā

By:
M. A. Muqtedar Khan
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Shūrā

Many of the scholars and activists who see democratic principles in Islam have singled out the principle of shūrā to illustrate their point. Shūrā is a consultative decision-making process that is considered either obligatory or desirable by Islamic scholars. Those scholars who choose to emphasize the Qurʿānic verse “and consult with them in affairs [of the moment]” (3:159) consider shūrā obligatory, but those scholars who emphasize the verse that says that “those who conduct their affairs by counsel” (43:38) are praised, consider shūrā desirable. The first verse directly addresses a particular decision of the Prophet and speaks to him directly, but the second verse is more in the nature of a general principle. Perhaps this is the reason that traditional Islamic scholars have never considered consultation as a necessary and legitimizing element of decision-making. The second verse may have been given more significance also because it occurs in the chapter entitled “Al-Shūrā.”

There is no doubt that shūrā is an Islamic way of making decisions, but one thing remains unsettled: is it necessary and obligatory? Will an organization or a government that does not implement a consultative process become illegitimate? Muslim scholars have not provided a definitive answer, although a growing number of Muslim intellectuals agree that consultative and consensual governance is the best governance. Experts in jurisprudence, however, are often conservative or ambivalent on the topic. This reluctance may be the result of an inadequate definition of those who deserve to be consulted, the specialists or the general population. Some of the jurist specialists provide consultation for authoritarian rulers, and this may serve as an alternative or obstacle to the development of mechanisms for consultation involving the general population more democratically.

Parliaments in Muslim countries increasingly use the term “Shūrā” in their names. Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Oman have used the phrase majlis al-shūrā (consultative council) in the names of their parliaments.

Shūrā as an Islamically privileged idea provides an important means of legitimizing the establishment of parliamentary democratic practices in the Muslim world. It is important to note, however, that there are some fundamental differences between shūrā—as currently understood by Muslim scholars—and parliamentary processes.

Unlike shūrā, democracy allows modification of foundational texts. One can amend a constitution but not the Qurʿān or the sunnah. On the face of it this should not be a problem, because Muslims are by definition supposed to accept the primary sources of Islam. In practice, however,one is dealing not with the sources but with interpretations of the sources, and the process of shūrā may be subordinated to a historical understanding of Islamic texts.

Muslim organizations, international and local NGOs, and even mosque management committees are relying increasingly on the idea and the process of shūrā in making both important and routine decisions. The word shūrā is proliferating in Islamic management discourses. Muslims in the West, especially in North America, have merged shūrā and democracy in the bylaws and the procedures that govern their organizations.

See also DEMOCRACY.

Bibliography

  • El-Awa, Muhammad S.On the Political System of the Islamic State. Translated by Ahmad Naji al-Imam and edited by Anwer Beg, pp. 89–90. Indianapolis, Ind., 1980.
  • Esposito, John L., and John O.Voll. Islam and Democracy. New York, 1996.
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