Islam And Democracy: Are They Antithetical? – Analysis

Shûrâ, Or The Principle Of Collective Deliberation

When one evokes the relation between Islam and democracy, (1) the temptation is great to go to texts (Qur’an and Hadîth) and to Muslim political history of experiences of governance with analogies to modern pluralistic systems. (2) Hence the reformist currents of Islamic thought, which intend to promote the principle of shûrâ, which can be roughly translated as “collective deliberation”. On the theological level shûrâ refers directly to the Qur’anic text, in particular to Sûrah 42, precisely entitled “The Consultation”:

’And those who answer the call of their Lord and establish prayer and whose affair being matter of counsel among themselves, and who of that wherewith We have provided them expend. ‘’ (Holy Qur’an, 42 : 38).

On the mythical-political level, it refers to the prophetic city of Medina, in which the Prophet Muhammad was supposed to make his decisions after consulting his companions (saHâba) and even the members of the nascent Islamic community (‘ummah).
Shûrâ, or the principle of collective deliberation, is a principle mentioned both in the Qur’an and in the practice of the Prophet and his Companions. In the modern context, shûrâ has been understood as the Islamic term for what the contemporaries call democracy. Nevertheless, this concept remains obscure despite the publication of hundreds of books and articles on the subject over the past decades. Many aspects of shûrâ have not yet been addressed.

On the principle of collective deliberation and the evidence supporting it in Islamic normative texts, scholars have customarily referred first to two Qur’anic verses concerning the disputatio angelica, i.e. the metaphysical creation of the human order and, therefore, the meaning to be given to the unfolding of humanity.

The eminent scholar Mohamed Tahar Ben Achour (3) has stated that this disputatio has a foundational value in the creation order. We can include in it the principle of Abraham’s deliberation, having received a commandment from God about his son Ishmael. The question of whether Abraham should sacrifice his son was already settled by the divine command, but Abraham nevertheless asked his son: 

 “And when he reached with him [the age of] exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allāh wills, of the steadfast.”
 “(Holy Qur’an, 37: 102).

More generally, from an Islamic perspective, the principle of collective deliberation (4) is necessary for any form of interpersonal relationship. The importance of shûrâ in both the private and public spheres is highlighted in the Qur’an:

 “And it was by God’s grace that thou [O Prophet] didst deal gently with thy followers: for if thou hadst been harsh and hard of heart, they would indeed have broken away from thee. Pardon them, then, and pray that they be forgiven. And take cou nsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when thou hast decided upon a course of action, place thy trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him ‘’ (Holy Qur’an, 3 : 159).


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