Consultation and the Question of Political Oversight
  • Thu, 01/01/2004
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Islam pays careful attention to consultation in the political decision-making process. It exhorts us to engage in it, instructs us on how to do so, and provides us with practical steps for its implementation. Indeed, there is a chapter of the Qur’ân entitled al-Shûrâ “Mutual Consultation”, which shows us just how important this institution is to the Muslims, thus dealing a blow to the tyranny of opinion in any and every sphere of human life.

Before investigating this question of whether – and to what extent – political oversight should be applied to the consultative process, we need to look briefly at some of the meanings that Islam brings to the concept of consultation.

Consultation is mentioned in the Qur’ân in two contexts. The first is where it establishes the principle of governance and the lawfulness of government as an institution. The second way in which consultation is discussed is in the context of the administration and execution of governmental duties.

When discussing consultation in respect to the basic principle of governance, the Qur’ân addresses the Muslims as a whole: “And those who have responded to their Lord and establish prayer and whose affairs are determined by consultation amongst themselves, and who spend from what we provide for them.” [Sûrah al-Shûrâ: 38]

When consultation is brought up in the context of the administration and execution of governmental duties, the Qur’ân addresses the Prophet (peace be upon him) directly: “And if you had been rude and harsh-hearted. They would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them, and consult them in affairs. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely upon Him.” [Sûrah Al `Imrân: 159]

We should pay particular attention to the wisdom employed by the Qur’ân in the way that it sets forth the institution of consultation as a legal principle. It ties it in with the religious institutions of prayer and charity, mentioning it in the midst of those two acts of worship. This is because in carrying out our formal prayers, we respond to Allah’s command by uniting with our fellow Muslims in word and deed. Consultation, likewise, is a response to Allah’s command that secures the unity of the Muslims in their stance on some matter. Prayer is mentioned in the context of an active verb “…establish prayer…” conveying the meaning of initiating something or renewing it. This is suited to the fact that it is a devotion that we carry out in congregation five times in the course of every day and night.

By contrast, the Qur’ân mentions consultation in an informative sentence “…and whose affairs are determined by consultation…” conveying the idea of something that is firmly established and constant. If, for instance, it is sometimes obligatory for the wealthy to provide for the poor and sometimes merely recommended, the same is not the case with consultation. It is obligatory for the Muslims at all times, whenever they are faced with some situation requiring their attention. Consultation comes into play whenever a decision needs to be made that falls within the scope of human discretion. It does not apply to matters already determined by the sacred texts.

In this verse, consultation is mentioned after prayer and before charity. There is a good reason for this. Establishing communal prayers obligates people to come together and cooperate. Likewise, when a Muslim has an opinion that might bring some benefit to his brethren or ward off some harm from them, it is his duty to share that opinion with them so they can consider it, discuss its pros and cons, and determine its suitability as a course of action. As for spending wealth, it follows in importance. A good opinion yields its benefits on an ongoing basis whereas the benefit of money spent in charity is generally narrower of scope and shorter-lived.

The phrase “…and whose affairs are determined by consultation…” is general in meaning, applying to all the Muslims’ affairs. The phrase “…among themselves…” points out that consultation requires more than one individual or more than one faction. It also indicates that consultation is something that goes on between those who participate in it and that it is not to be circulated to the broader public.

Turning our attentions to the second verse – the one discussing consultation in the context of administration and the execution of governmental duties – we see that it is a command: “…consult them in affairs”. Scholars of the Hanafî and Mâlikî schools of Islamic Law consider this command to be establishing a legal obligation. Shâfi`î and Hanbalî scholars consider it to be a strong legal recommendation.

All of them agree that the verse is addressing the Prophet (peace be upon him). They also agree that what the verse is telling him is not exclusively for him, but applies to all Muslims. Therefore, if it had been obligatory for the Prophet (peace be upon him) to consult his Companions though he – as a Prophet receiving revelation – was not in need of their guidance, it follows that consultation is even more of an obligation for others.

On the basis of all of this, we can see that consultation is an essential principle in the life of the Muslims. It applies to the family, in deciding matters like when to wean children. Allah says: “And if they (the parents) both desire weaning through mutual consent and consultation between them, there is no blame upon either of them.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 233] It applies on all levels of community life up to questions of national importance like determining who is going to be the head of state and drafting or amending the national constitution.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) engaged in consultation in matters concerning his family, like the time when his wife `A’ishah was slandered. He did so on the community level when he discussed with the inhabitants of Madinah the possibility of their waiving their claim to half the city’s date production in order to placate their enemy – a suggestion that they rejected. He did so on matters affecting society at large, like matters of war and peace.

Consultation is something innate to human nature from the time Allah created Adam (peace be upon him). Indeed, Allah relates to us how the angels engaged in it at the time Adam was created:

And when your Lord said to the angels: “Indeed I am going to establish a vicegerent in the Earth.” They said: “Will you place therein one who will cause corruption therein and shed blood, while we celebrate Your praises and glorify you?” He said: “Indeed, I know what you know not.” And He taught Adam the names of all things, then He presented them to the angels and said: “Inform me of the names of these if you are truthful.” “They said: “Glory be to You! We have no knowledge except what you have taught us. Indeed, it is You who are knowing and wise.” [ Sûrah al- Baqarah : 30-33]

Allah knows His creation best. He is in need of nothing and no one from among what He created. Nevertheless, He presented the angels with His will to create Adam (peace be upon him) showing that that consultation would be a natural quality of humanity – something that took place from the very inception of human existence. It would remain something familiar to human beings, something that they would yearn for in its absence. People naturally like it when they find others who share their views.

We find that Pharaoh consulted with his people regarding what to do with Moses (peace be upon him). It says in the Qur’ân:

He said to the notables around him: “Indeed, this is a learned magician. He wants to drive you out of your land by magic, so what do you advise?” They said: “Postpone the affair of him and his brother and dispatch summoners to the cities who will bring to you every learned magician.” [Sûrah al-Shu`arâ’: 34-37]

Likewise, Bilqîs, the Queen of Sheba, consulted her people, saying: “O esteemed ones, advise me in my affair. I will not decide a matter until you testify to me.” [Sûrah al-Naml: 32]

In our present day, people have been diverted from engaging in consultation and even from knowing how to engage in it out of their love to dominate and their loathing to hear anything that disagrees with their own predilections and desires. This tendency is an aberration from human nature and not something natural. Even a tyrant hastens to consult with others when matters become too difficult for him.

Consultation was carried out in the best possible manner – and was indeed the order of the day – during the era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. This had a positive effect on Muslim society. Abû Bakr consulted with the other Companions in how to combat the apostates and in dispatching the army under the leadership of Usâmah.

`Umar b. al-Khattâb, in his turn, followed this precedent, setting up a council of six Companions to determine who would succeed him after his death and a council of 50 Companions from Madinah to supervise his conduct. He often wrote to his governors in the various provinces, commanding them to consult with the people in their affairs.

In Islam, the institution of consultation includes both men and women. The injunctions of Islamic Law – its commands and prohibitions – apply equally to men and women except where the law explicitly states otherwise, like in certain rulings concerning inheritance, testimony, and maintenance. The principle of consultation is not one of these exceptions. The Prophet (peace be upon him) consulted with his wife Zaynab in the matter of `A’ishah’s defamation. He consulted with his wife Umm Salamah in how to deal with the reluctance of the Companions to abandon their pilgrimage during the events of Hudaybiyah.

In consideration of the importance of consultation and the gravity of the matters in which it is applied, oversight of the head of state and of the members of the consultative council is something completely sanctioned from an Islamic legal standpoint. Such oversight is merely holding people to account when there are shortcomings – or suspected shortcomings – in their dispensation of their duties, with respect to their ability to carry out those duties and their conduct in doing so.

Such oversight is from the sincere advice that our faith is an embodiment of. The Prophet said: “Religion is sincere advice.” [Sahîh Muslim (55)]

It also comes under the duty of enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “You should enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and take the one who does wrong to account and swerve him to the truth and hold him to the truth, or Allah will cause your hearts to strike out against one another.” [Sunan Abî Dâwûd (4336), Sunan al-Tirmidhî (3047), and Sunan Ibn Mâjah (4006)]

All of the backwardness that the Muslim world suffers from today can be traced back to people’s autocratic tendencies regarding their own viewpoints, their abandonment of deciding their affairs by consultation, and their unwillingness to accept advice; indeed, often severely censuring any attempt by others to offer them advice.

We need to look again at the verse: “And if you had been rude and harsh-hearted, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them, and consult them in affairs. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely upon Him.” [Sûrah Al `Imrân: 159]

One of the interesting points to be drawn from this verse is that it does not pertain merely to the Muslims who are upright and pious. Its ruling applies even for those who are sinful. This is indicated by the linguistic context of the verse as well as by looking at the circumstances in which it was revealed.

Consulting with all sorts of people placates the hearts especially of those who are sinful. It shows the magnanimity and sincerity of those in authority to the governed. Also, by consulting with those who are disobedient, the reasons for their disobedience can be discovered.

Allah, in this verse, has made the order for consultation as general as possible, embracing all aspects of life in peace and in war.

Al-Bukhârî gave to one of the chapters of his Sahîh the following heading: “The heads of state who succeeded the Prophet (peace be upon him) and their consultation of the trusted people of knowledge concerning permitted matters and their acting upon the easiest suggestion”.

Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) once said to Abû Bakr and `Umar: “If the two of you were to get together and consult with each other on something, I would not contradict you.” [Musnad Ahmad (17533)]

The Prophet (peace be upon him) died without detailing a particular form for consultation to take. He knew that new situations would develop in the future bringing new challenges and he recognized that the ways of politics would necessarily have to change. What is best suited for one age may not work so well for another. This was be especially true when the domain of the Muslim realm expanded outward from the Arabian Peninsula, bringing people of different cultures and different faiths into direct contact with one another. It is even more true today, with the world becoming so interconnected that it can rightly be described as a global village.

Supervision and oversight of the process of the consultative process, is part of its correct implementation. All individuals and agencies that are involved in it need to be monitored for any possible failings and shortcomings ensuing from the dispensation of their duties, especially those who work in the capacity of scholars and decision makers.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Whoever among you sees something wrong, he should change it with his hands. If he cannot do so, then with his tongue. If he cannot do so, then in his heart, and that is the weakest of faith.” [Sahîh Muslim (49)] What is meant by changing it “in the heart” is for a person to clear himself of the act and to refrain from condoning it in any way.

If the legislations set down by the state are in accordance with Islamic Law, the consultative council can only act upon them on that basis. Otherwise, it will be wrong for them to do so. Allah says: “It is not for a believing man or woman, when Allah and His Messenger decide a matter, to have any choice in their affair.” [Sûrah al-Ahzâb: 36]

Allah says: “Nay, by your Lord! They will not believe until they make you (O Muhammad) the judge in their disputes among themselves and then find within themselves no discomfort in what you decide and submit to it fully.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 65]