What is Shura? and the dangers of “synonymism” with democracy

by b socha

What is Shura? It is commonly translated into English as “council.” And since I have no experience whatsoever with Arabic, it seems that I have entered into a debate-matrix without any shoes on my feet. This entry is organized around a few texts that I have read on the matter. It will be part precise part implication (or, a partial reflection of framing of the democratic debate over the “Westernization” of Islam). As a caveat, I must warn any reader, especially myself, that my knowledge of Islamic law and culture is bare, at best. If I make some vocabularic or terminological mistake, please do point it out to me. I realize that in the fall out of attending middle and high school under Bush, there is considerable room for error on any uneducated American’s part. 

With that said… what is Shura? In the pieces that I discuss today, shura is almost always employed either negatively or positively in the context of democratic debate. 

I looked through Wael B. Hallaq’s (enormously helpful and clear) An Introduction to Islamic Law, a Cambridge Introduction. I was shocked to find that the term was not listed in glossary or the index. At this point, I started to wonder how far afield the term is, and whether or not the resurgent search for a term commensurate with “democracy” is more drawn from reactive impulses than a bona fide relation between the two concepts. 

Urita Shavit’s essay “Is Shura a Muslim Form of Democracy? Roots and Systemization of a Polemic,” (2010) attempts to answer just this question. Since the piece was written in 2010, the opening lines perhaps shed light on the ideological confusion pervading the conceptualization of democratic voice in the Muslim World: “Can the lack of democracy in Arab societies be explained by their religious identity?” [I think that, living in a post Arab-Spring world, we have to reject this hypothesis, even as Shavit only employs it as a foil.]

Shavit reroutes the fallacious dichotomy between Islam and democracy; for if such a dichotomy exists, the conclusion is forgone. Instead, the author wants to focus on shura and the body of scholarly exploration around the term, mostly compiled during the last 40 years. Reference and foundation to “shura” in Islamic discourse comes “mainly on two sentences for the Quran– ‘and seek their council in all affairs’ (3,159) and ‘[for those] whose affairs are settled by mutual consultation’ (42,38).” 

Shavit lists four schools, each with its own interpretation on the role and meaning of shura in law. The following will outline them and their core tenets:

1. Scholars and Activists (strongly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood). In their interpretation, shura is more of a distinctly Muslim duty rather than a right that grants all the merits of a liberal democracy without any of its flaws. Presumably, Islamic faith and law serve as a regulative force against the “flaws” of liberal democracy. This conception of shura allows Muslims to free Islam from arcane traditional notions and interpretations, but does not liberate Muslim societies directly. Rather,shura as council underscores the importance of itjihad (reinterpretation and striving for meaning in changing historical circumstances), so that the people benefit from a highly regulated reinterpretation of Sharia and Islamic law. Much of this scholarship is from Islamic liberals, namely Hassan al-Banna. Here, Shavit surprisingly puts al-Banna in the same ideological framework as Sayyid Qtub, who is usually employed as a marker for the radical departure of liberal Islamism to radical Islamism. However, Qtub also wrote for the “need for shura to reflect the opinions of the nation in its entirety.” 

The constitutive role of “the nation” and “the people” is sorely lacking. For (it seems from my early stage in research) that itjihad is left to determine the extent of inclusion and exclusion of parties from other faiths, not to mention the role of women and disenfranchised groups within the Muslim community. Here, I found Eric Davis’ piece “The Concept of Revival and the Study of Islam and Politics.” Davis outlines the development of the Society of Muslim Brothers from 19th century liberals (chez al-Banna) to its 20th century iterations.

Davis maps out the role of urbanization in Egypt (as well as in the Arab world) that was responsible for the uneven development in inclusion and exclusion of marginalized groups, namely women. MB was largely a product of the rural-to-urban transformation of the petite bourgeoisie. Just as Shavit points out, the MB utilized principles of consultation to liberate themselves and their political programs from historical interpretations while strongly advocating “traditional” roles (of subordination) for women, rural peasantry, and a growing industrial class in the cities. 

Shura, then, seems to be a partial liberation from history for the ends of an emerging hegemonic stratum in Islamic society. In this context, it seems that shura is not analogous to democracy in the Western sense. Given its refusal for universal suffrage and interpretive contingency, it does not clearly outline the governing structure whether it supports timocratic, democratic, or oligarchic regime-types; hence, it is inappropriate to continue to question its roots as a democratic mechanism.

Jihadi-salafis (largely dichotomoize shura and democracy); for lack of research, I have not included them in today’s post.

Liberals who employ shura as a key support for the role of western-style democratic rule. This group isn’t safe from the charge of selective democracy, either. For, as Shavit says, “in the aftermath of the military coup that followed the Isalmic Salvation Front winning the first round in multiparty elections in Algeria in December 1991, Islamists became increasingly suspicious as to whether the West and Arab secular regimes would ever allow them to win power peacefully.” This sort of power struggle between liberal secular regimes and conservative, even radically conservative regimes is not local to shura or Islamic rule. Indeed, I am thinking of the Weimar Republic’s deeply liberal constitution that tolerated its own subversion and demise by the Nazi party, which was democratically elected. 

This raises the more general question of the limit of liberalism: to what extent can secular liberal democracies uphold “universal” rights and freedom of expression without fostering its own destruction. For, it is logical to assume that any Islamist regime popularly elected in a previously “secular” state would suffer extreme augmentation. In a move for self-preservation, wouldn’t it seem (in a pattern not dissimilar from the Muslim Brotherhood) that the secular regime would liberate itself from the historically-contingent apparatus for its own ends while suppressing popular or marginal expression that is antithetical to its own privilege?

4. Long-standing regimes and intellectuals who use shura to legitimize the extant political order. This is clear in diverse regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the latter case, shura has been used by opposition to the king to demand the right of a cabinet. So far, the king’s ambiguous recognition of the need for council (though not binding) has been a means to side-step its actual political formation. In Iran, the unicameral house has employed its right to council by calling in Ahmadinejad for questioning over economic policies (the first leader ever to face such questioning). 


It seems to me, after this brief engagement with shura council and its ostensible relation to democracy, that it is not shura or Islam that poses significant problems to popular will; rather, it is democracy. To be specific, hegemonic prescriptions and definitions of democracy serve to threaten and destroy actually-existing consensus. 

Shavit continues: “Islamist scholars who equate shura with democracy emphasize that, being democratic, Islam calls on people to elect their leadership and that non-elected leadership is illegitimate… People do not have a right to practice shura,  [al-Qaradawi] wrotes; rather, a system of shura is a Muslim obligation. It seems that the central question for both shura and democracy, but more for democracy, is the right to inclusion. If the people cannot practice shura and it must be only limited to representation, is that not a (rather Western) manoeuvre away from democracy toward oligarchic rule?

And, after this, I am less concerned with this application shura as an autonomous concept than with its role as a handmaid of decrepit democracy, at best. In the coming weeks, I will look for examples of support for shura as a universal.