Shura and Democracy between Likeness and Dissimilitude

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loubna flah

Realised by: Flah Loubna

(Researcher in Discourse and Islamism)

The term Shura has always existed in the glossary of Islamic studies and in the textbooks of Islamic education across the Muslim world. Yet, this lexeme came into a noticeable prominence in the past decades under the mantle of political advocacy articulated mainly by the exponents of Islamism in what appears as an expression of insubordination towards the claims of secular democracy. The recuperation of the geographical territory in the aftermath of independence prompted juvenile Muslim states to rehabilitate their fractured identity. The novelty brought by Western colonization and the uncertainties about the role of religion in politics engendered deep divisions in the Muslim world. The present article does not aim at lauding the merits of secular democracy nor does it argue for the uncritical endorsement of a particular reading of Shura, the chief aim of this essay is to raise awareness about the contrast between these two paradigms and the prospects it may yield for politics in the Muslim world. As a matter of fact, the terrain between what democracy has to offer and what the premise of Shura can unfold political practice wise remains unexplored.

Shura and Islamism

The Islamist ideology emerged as a defense mechanism against the state of dislocation engendered by the brutal incursion of the colonizer in a number of Arab countries. The reconceptualization of a faith-based system guided by a “certain” interpretation of the Islamic law that lacks unanimity among Muslims was seen as the panacea to the loss of internal homeostasis. Within this perspective, the endorsement of a religious mode of governance in the post-independence Muslim state falls into two different trends: A trend that calls for a narrow reading of the scriptures heavily inspired from the first Islamic state founded by the Prophet (PBUH) in 622 CE, whereas the second plead for a contextualized approach to religious texts. In this context, Shura as other religious paradigms became the “lexical property” of a number of Islamists across the Muslim world.

Positions about Shura

The reference to Shura in the Quran and in the Prophetic tradition does not delineate a steadfast mode of political governance. Shura in the Quran is articulated as a broad principle of governance and decision making that remains greatly adjustable to varying contexts. At the lexical level, Shura is derived from the verb “Istashaara” which means the solicitation of advice from another person. In the legal sense, it is a process of deliberation that is aimed primarily at the democratization of power in the course of decision making, hence preventing unilateralism and monopoly of power. Shura is enunciated as a recommended maneuver in the process of decision making through the involvement of experts and well informed people along with the entity in charge of issuing the final decision. Democracy on the other hand, is generally defined as the rule of people, though the expression of popular sovereignty unfolds several models of representation.

The Patterns of Shura

Back in the pre-Islamic era, critical decisions were issued after mutual consultations amidst the members of the tribe’s council which represents an example of representative democracy. Dar Nadwa was the center of discussions about war issues, market and trade relations as well as social issues including the validation of marriage and divorce. [1]According to Al Sulami, author of the book West and Islam, Shura is propounded in the Quran as “a comprehensive concept without imposing a specific mould, leaving that to the Umma[2] to determine according to its junctures and circumstances”[3]. The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have consulted with different people on different issues namely war, peace affairs and his own private affairs. For instance, the Prophet (PBUH) has repeatedly consulted with his companions regarding the issue of war prisoners during the battle of Uhud[4] and in the battle of the Khandaq[5] . It is noteworthy here that the validity of Shura itself in matters of politics is not a bone of contention among scholars. The main point of divergence hitherto concerns the patterns of Shura that is advocated in Islam. The disagreement pertains to the criteria underlying the formation of the Shura council itself. In the Sunna (the prophetic tradition), the members solicited for advice were often the close companions of the Prophet known for their piety and wisdom. In other instances, the Shura council included representatives from different tribes. Another opinion argues for the absence of a well established institution such as the Shura council where the process of Shura is officially undertaken.

Contrasting Shura and Democracy

As regards to the democratization of political decisions, Shura and democracy cross roads but they differ greatly in their foundational paradigms. Western democratic values are secular in essence whereas the principle of Shura is anchored in a religious frame of reference. The intersection between the principle of Shura and democracy is not a fortuitous juxtaposition. It stems from the historical encounter between these two value systems. The colonization of a large number of Muslim countries has forced the two models to interact with each other. The common thread between Shura and Democracy is their respective propensity towards power sharing, the democratization of power decision and the preclusion of totalitarianism. Yet the major difference between Shura and democracy resides in their core referents. Democracy emerged in Western history as the celebration of the individual and the achievement of popular sovereignty whereas Shura is deeply anchored in the Islamic perspective. The Shura-based system is grounded in the primacy of divine law over popular sovereignty. Within this perspective the process of legislation is expected to align with the stipulations of the Islamic law before its enforcement. Nevertheless the dominance of an idiosyncratic approach to the religious text may engender a religious autocracy that dismisses the right to disagreement and dissent as it was the case for Sudan under the rule of Turabi. Having said that, it is also noteworthy that the tendency of secular democracy to “secularize” the public space engenders other patterns of discrimination which constitutes a breach of democracy itself, a case in point the discrimination against the visibility of Islam in France. The parallel between Shura and Democracy is an irrefutable fact imposed by history. Democracy was propounded as the cure-all recipe that is likely to absolve Muslim countries from their state of “backwardness”. Nevertheless, the implementation of democracy was faced with structural and normative impediments fortified by the monopoly of the ruling elite to whom a democratic “façade” benefits more. Contrariwise, the elaboration of Shura into a full-fledged institution was repeatedly thwarted by the struggle over power that marked Islamic history in the past centuries. Both democracy and Shura are susceptible to offer viable prospects for Muslim societies if the former is tailored to fit the Islamic specifity and if the latter is more elaborated through Ijtihad (diligence) and well grounded contextualization.


[1] Al Sulami, MishalFahm ( 2003). The West and Islam. Routledge: London. Print. pg. 38.

[2] Umma : The Community of Muslims.

[3]Al Sulami, MishalFahm ( 2003). The West and Islam. Routledge: London. Print. pg. 40

[4] Uhud: Battle opposing Muslims from Medina and Abu Sufyane from Mecca in 625 CE.

[5] Khandaq: A fortnight-long siege of Muslims in Medina by Arabs and Jews in 627 CE, Al Sulami pg.44

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