Shura and Democracy: Similarities and Differences*

This paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), Washington DC, November 19, 1999.

Let met state at the outset the conclusion to which this presentation is supposed to lead: democracy and shura share the ideal of egalitarian politics and popular political participation, but differ significantly in relating participatory government to the overall purposes of social organization and political action.

In saying this I am mindful of the fact that the ideal of democracy has been expressed in various forms, and is being implemented today through different models. It is therefore quite appropriate for one to speak of shura as a framework for an Islamic democracy.

Let met state at the outset the conclusion to which this presentation is supposed to lead: democracy and shura share the ideal of egalitarian politics and popular political participation, but differ significantly in relating participatory government to the overall purposes of social organization and political action.

In saying this I am mindful of the fact that the ideal of democracy has been expressed in various forms, and is being implemented today through different models. It is therefore quite appropriate for one to speak of shura as a framework for an Islamic democracy.

I am also mindful of the fact that there is no consensus among Muslim scholars on the nature and scope of a participatory government under the system of shura. Opinions vary from the anti-democratic, anti-participatory, indeed anti- shura, of the ultra-traditionalist ulama on one extreme, to the opinions of those who insist that shura is an Arabic term of what the Greek would call demo kratia.

Given the absence of consensus, the position I am presenting today can be easily challenged as a personal and non-representative. But then the same could be said about any theoretical exposition of ideals and ethos. Theoretical statements should, I suggest, be judged on the basis of their intellectual appeal rather than political representation.


There is a little I should say about the similarities between shura and democracy other than stressing that they both emphasize the need to involve the people, who are the subject of the policies formulated by the ruling institutions, in the decision making process. I wish, nonetheless, to dispel the doubts of the skeptic regarding the Islamicity of the principle of popular participation.

It is true that contemporary Muslim awareness of the vitality and viability of popular political participation is due to the exposure of contemporary Islamic thought to the modern West and its democratic institutions. But this should not be used to negate the Islamicity of egalitarian politics. Islamic revelation has laid strong emphasis on the practice of shura, or mutual consultation. The Quran has made it abundantly clear that practicing shura was an important duty of the Muslim and a crucial component of what constitute a believing person. The believers, the Quran proclaims, are those “who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation (shura)” (42:38).

Yes the Quran does not spell out the conceptual or procedural aspects of shura. Indeed it does not even define the term, but takes it for granted that the word is well understood by its recipients. Political involvement was part and parcel of the practice of the people who received the revealed word. Islam was revealed to an egalitarian society of free spirits. The value it proclaimed not only reaffirmed the egalitarian ethos of the pre-Islamic Arabs, but went all the way to liberate them form the vestiges of parochialism, racism, and ethnocentrism. This fact has not been lost by one of the greatest minds of modern times. G.W.F. Hegel noted, in describing the spirit of Islam that

The leading features of Mohammedanism [Islam] involve this—that in actual existence nothing can become fixed, but that everything is destined to expand itself in activity and life in boundless amplitude of the world, so that the worship of the one remains the only bond by which the whole is capable of uniting. In this expansion, this active energy, all limits, all national and cast distinctions vanish, no particular race, no political claim of birth or possession is regarded—only man as a believer.[1]

When we turn to examine differences between democracy and shura, or if you will democracy in the context of modernist and Islamic worldviews, three problematic areas become evident: (1) the essentially nationalistic structure of the democratic order, (2) limits on individual freedom, and (3) the scope of legislative power.


The democratic ethos, which the Enlightenment espoused, was universalistic in intent and tone. The Enlightenment scholars spoke of the people, of man, and of humanity. Rousseau, for one, began his social contract by proclaiming that “ man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”[2] Similarly, the Declaration of Independence announced the intrinsic freedom of humanity: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

But the universal language of freedom and equality of humanity was later subverted by the nationalist ethos. Nationalism succeeded, particularly in Europe, not only in excluding non-nationals from equal consideration under the law, but it stripped them from their very humanness. It might be interesting to note that the acceleration of colonialism coincided with the rise to power of democratic institutions in France and England. Indeed one can find examples of a complete disregard of the dignity and rights of non-citizens even in the country where modern democracy was born. One such an example is the Secret Evidence Act passed by the Congress in 1997, which permits in this free and democratic country the incarceration without trial of non-citizens. Democratic nationalism has been, and continues even today to be, a powerful tool for one group to exploit another without having to completely abandon its celebrated commitment to the values of democracy and human rights.

An Islamically based democracy will find it difficult to justify exclusion on ethnic and national grounds, although such a democratic system will have to grabble with the question of how to prevent attempts to use religion as a tool for control and exploitation. I believe that this is a doable task that requires special attention from the scholars of Islam.

One possible solution for avoid exclusions on religious basis is to confine religious and cultural legislations to the community level, while gearing state legislation to issues of common good and societal concerns.


The second area where shura diverge with democracy relates to the limitation society may impose on individual freedom. We are all familiar with the distinction Isaiah Berlin[3] made between two concepts of freedom, freedom from social restraints, which he associated with the Anglo-American tradition, and freedom to act rationally, which he attributed to continental political philosophy, whereby to be free means to do what is right.

Both concepts have serious drawbacks. Freedom as a rational expression can be, and has been, used by dominant groups to impose their values and lifestyle on others in the name of reason and rightness. Further, with the advent of post-modern thought, the very concept of reason has come under devastating attacks. It is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to argue out of reason. For the very notion of reason presupposes a set of shared values and believes.

But while freedom qua liberty succeeded, in the context in Western society, in protecting individual rights and dignity, and provided better political stability, it has given rise to forces and modes of life that have been eating at the core of the moral fabric of society. Freedom from social interference is being used as a license for all kinds of corrupt practices. What makes the problem more acute is that there is no Archimedean point in modern culture from which one can evaluate social procedures or pass judgment on social deviance.[4]

A shura system, or an Islamically based democracy, is likely to strike a balance between the two concepts of freedom alluded to above. I am not suggesting here an exercise in wishful thinking. Far from it. Anyone who takes the time to study the historical experiences of the dominant Muslim culture in the first five centuries of Islam can see countless examples of individuals and communities that were able to maintain commitment to a positive form of freedom while continue to embrace diversity, tolerance, and respect for individual choices.[5]


From an Islamic point of view, law is not the total sum of what rational individuals think is right and correct at any specific historical moment, but has transcendental qualities that rise above any historical community. In the liberal tradition, Rousseau came closest to expressing this notion of law. He was quite aware of the importance, indeed the necessity, for a source of law that transcends any historically specific community. Rousseau was also aware of the limitation of human reason, and stressed that human beings need to be guided by a source that can rise over and above historical individuals.

To discover the rules of society that are best suited to nations, there would need to exist a superior intelligence, who could understand the passions of men without feeling any of them, who had no affinity with our nature but knew it to the full, whose happiness was independent of ours, but who would nevertheless make our happiness his concern, who would be content to wait in the fullness of time for a distant glory, and to labour in one age to enjoy the fruits in another. Gods would be needed to give men laws.[6]

The best thing people could do to overcome the human limitations was, he thought, to follow the dictates of the General Will. For Rousseau, the General Will is what people will when they make the common good their final goal. He, however, realized that while the general will, by aiming at the common good, is necessarily good, it could nonetheless be misguided in its judgment. “The general will is always right,” he reasoned, “but the judgment which guides it is not always enlightened.”[7] Such an enlightenment requires that the people “must be obliged to subordinate their will to their reason; the public must be taught to recognize what it desires.”[8]

Not only did Rousseau find himself obliged to invent a fictitious entity called the General Will to solve the puzzle of the incontrovertible source of law, but was eventually compelled to move full circle ending up where he started, i.e. appealing to the very human reason he thought was in need of guidance

Many contemporary Muslim thinkers have experienced the same agony encountered by Rousseau. However, unlike him, many Muslim scholars have become convinced that an appeal to a positive notion of reason is exceedingly untenable, and that the ethos for a political system that embraces the principles of justice, freedom, and equality must be sought in the Islamic ethos.


Democracy and shura share the common aspiration of overcoming political elitism and preventing the control by a select few of the lives of the multitude. Both encounter similar challenges, including a vulnerability to various formulations and interpretations. I should here hasten to add that mine is one possible interpretation of what shura stands for.

I have argued, at least attempted to, that democracy and shura diverge on three grounds, namely the way the two participatory systems conceive of political organization, freedom, and law. But even here one can plausibly argue that what has been presented as areas of difference between two distinctive systems is nothing but a quarrel over various aspects of democracy. In many ways such a statement is not far from the truth. To this I can only say that if democracy is at bottom a system whose intent is to open the political process to popular participation, shura is indeed a democratic system. I would nonetheless add that the principle of popular political participation is bound to undergo significant transformation in its mode of application when embraced by peoples who subscribe to an Islamic worldview.


[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History (New York: Dove Books, 1956), p 357.

[2] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (London: Penguin Books, 1968), p 49.

[3] See Isaiah Berlin, Four Concepts of Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1996).

[4] For a good discussion of this point, see Charles Taylor, “Interpretation and the Science of Man,”in Interpretive Social Science Reader, eds. Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan (CA: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 25-71.

[5] See, for example, Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Sarakhsi, Sharh Kitab al-Siyar al Kabir (Pakistan: Nasrullah Mansur, 1405 A.H.), Vol. 4, p. 1530.

[6] Rousseau, Social Contract, p. 84.

7] Ibid., p.83.

[8] Ibid.

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