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By Lamya Hamad
The onset of 2011 witnessed an unexpected wave of protests that swept through the Middle East. Citizens struggled to topple authoritarian and tyrannical governments that had trampled on their rights for decades.
The domino effect that ensued after the first protests in Tunis caught the world by surprise. The desire for democracy and justice were undoubtedly the driving forces behind this movement. Some countries in the region have already begun shaping their legislation in a way that reflects democratic values. Although the process will take time, the expected outcome is a system that allows all citizens to actively participate in the development of their country’s legislation and government. There is no universally accepted and defining model for democracy, which leaves room for nations to mold and customize their governments in a way that mirrors democratic concepts in each nation’s cultural and religious contexts.
Democratic values have been present for thousands of years, embedded in cultural and religious practices that might have been lost to history. In Islam, there are many documented instances of active participation of the people with the leaders of their time. This began with the Prophet Muhhammad (pbuh) as he was directed by God to seek consultation from his followers and companions while making important decisions.
Consultation is an integral concept in Islamic leadership and is known as Shura.
Modern Middle Eastern countries have been blind to this key concept in Islam, which ultimately protects governments from regressing into corruptive and totalitarian regimes because of the continuous and direct involvement of the people.
As Michael Hamilton Morgan writes in Lost History, “Shura was the tradition Muhammed [pbuh] valued, according to which decisions that affect the community are to be made in consultation with members of the community. In fact, one chapter of the Quran is named Al-Shura, referring to a verse that states that those close to God should conduct their affairs by due consultation with others.”
Now, the Middle East has a chance to form new governments and modify constitutions. It is the perfect time to re-establish shura, a cornerstone teaching of Islam that was once inherently implemented in governance from the time of the Prophet (pbuh), and his close companions.
Shura in the Political Sphere
Shura is a crucial part of the Islamic political system. It allows common people to participate in the decision-making process. It helps create a society that engages actively with leaders.
Consultation is important in building a solid relationship between the leader and the people ensuring that the leader does not go astray or regress into an authoritarian government. God encouraged the Prophet (pbuh) to use shura:
Those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular Prayer; who (conduct) their affairs by mutual Consultation; who spend out of what We bestow on them for Sustenance (Quran 42:38)
There are several examples of the Prophet taking counsel from his companions and following their opinions.
The Prophet (pbuh) held many councils of war before going into battle. At one point, he believed that they should fight only if the enemy entered Madinah. However, his companions opined that they should go out and meet the army. The Prophet accepted the latter opinion even though they lost. Despite this, God revealed shortly afterwards a verse which stressed the importance of shura:
It is part of the Mercy of Allah that thou dost deal gently with them. Wert thou severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about thee: so pass over (Their faults), and ask for (Allah’s) forgiveness for them; and consult them in affairs (of moment). Then, when thou hast Taken a decision put thy trust in Allah. For Allah loves those who put their trust (in Him). (Quran 3:159)
In the next battle, the Muslims decided to stay put in Madinah. The Prophet (pbuh) again consulted his people regarding the best way to protect themselves against the enemy. Many suggestions came, including one which required the building of an extensive trench. The Prophet (pbuh) agreed to this option and actively participated in its construction. This time, they won.
The Prophet (pbuh) used both consultation as well as consensus when making decisions. However, the opinion of the majority was not always taken if it conflicted with the tenets of the faith or went against the overall benefit of the people.
At the same time, when the Prophet (pbuh) acted according to the commands of God, he did not heed to opposing viewpoints. For instance, when a seemingly disadvantageous treaty was signed with the Meccans, his people vehemently opposed it. However, the Prophet (pbuh) stuck to the decision and eventually his companions realized that the treaty worked in their favor.
This indicates a key principle in shura: it must not contradict or override the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), known as Sunnah.
The Quran and Sunnah combined represent a binding constitution for Muslims, much like the constitution of countries. Just as governments adhere to the constitution when passing new laws, the constitution being the superior document, a similar process is at work here. The basic tenets of this divine constitution cannot be violated by anyone, not even leaders or popular movements. This means that the powerful cannot manipulate the system to their own advantage. Certain rules and principles must be upheld and cannot be overruled, such as, basic human rights like equality.
The Ethics of Leadership
The Prophet (pbuh) and his close companions all maintained strong moral ethics while in positions of authority. Omar, the second caliph, has particularly left a legacy of leadership which modern leaders can learn much from. Upon assuming the role of Caliph, he said: “In the performance of my duties, I will seek guidance from the Holy Book, and will follow the examples set by the Holy Prophet and Abu Bakr [the first Caliph]. In this task, I seek your assistance. If I follow the right path, follow me. If I deviate from the right path, correct me so that we are not led astray.”
Addressing the needs and concerns of the people was no doubt paramount in his reign and under the rule of other close companions of the Prophet (pbuh). In fact, Omar was even keen on safeguarding the well-being of animals, he would say, “If a mule stumbled in Iraq, I would be afraid that Allah [God] would ask me, why did you not pave the road for it Omar?”
As illustrated in A History of Muslim Civilization by Abiva and Durkee, Omar “expected his leaders to live up to ethical standards.” The list below shows some of the criteria a leader should have according to Omar.
1. No nepotism or hereditary succession.
2. The people should be able to reach the leader easily to voice any of their concerns or suggestions.
3. The ruler should seek counsel, accept criticism, and be willing to rectify his mistakes.
4. The army exists to protect the people of the nation, not protect the leader from the people.
The above examples of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Omar give us priceless models in governance. Not only was shura and consultation key in their rule, they also upheld high morals and ethics. Every living entity was given importance, be it animal or human, which created an empowered society where the rights of its subjects were paramount and people were given the opportunity to thrive. These standards are especially relevant for our world today in our quest for democracy.