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What does Islam Want: Autocracy, Oligarchy or Democracy? – an exposition of Ghamidi’s understanding
Dr. Junaid Hassan
What does Islam Want: Autocracy, Oligarchy or Democracy? – an exposition of Ghamidi’s understanding1


Islam’s Principle for State Governance

The fundamental principle for Islam’s desired form of governance is laid down as follows:


وَأَمْرُهُمْ شُورَى بَيْنَهُمْ

 (Amruhum shura baynahum)

Their collective system is based on mutual consultation. (Qur’an 42:38)


The pronoun ‘هُم’ 2 (their) in this verse refers to true believers, as it portrays one of their prominent qualities. The context is as follows:


فَمَآ أُوتِيْتُمْ مِّنْ شَيْءٍ فَمَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا وَمَا عِندَ اللَّهِ خَيْرٌ وَأَبْقَى لِلَّذِيْنَ آمَنُوْا وَعَلَى رَبِّهِمْ يَتَوَكَّلُوْنَ. وَالَّذِيْنَ يَجْتَنِبُوْنَ كَبَائِرَ الْإِثْمِ وَالْفَوَاحِشَ وَإِذَا مَا غَضِبُوْا هُمْ يَغْفِرُوْنَ. وَالَّذِيْنَ اسْتَجَابُوْا لِرَبِّهِمْ وَأَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَأَمْرُهُمْ شُوْرَى بَيْنَهُمْ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ يُنْفِقُوْنَ.

So, whatever you have [O people] is only the [paltry, fleeting] wherewithal of this worldly life. But far superior and durable is what God has in store for those who believe and put their trust in their Lord; who abstain from grave sins and gross indecencies, and forgive when angered; those who respond to their Lord’s call, uphold the [mandatory] prayer, whose system is based on mutual consultation, and who donate from what We have provided them. (42:36-38)


Regarding the importance of this principle of consultation, Muhammad Asad in his translation and commentary on the Qur’an writes:

 ‘“Whose rule (in all matters of common concern) is consultation among themselves;” this particular qualification of true believers [was] regarded by the Prophet’s Companions as so important that they always referred to this surah by the key-word “consultation” (shura) […]. [I]t lays down the principle that all their communal business must be transacted after mutual consultation.’3


The three-word sentence amruhum shura baynahum (42:38) encompasses an ocean of meaning. It is a typical example of the conciseness found in the Qur’an, demanding deliberation and elucidation:

The first word is ‘أَمر’ (amr), which has been used in several meanings in the Qur’an. Its usage and context evidently suggest that, here, it connotes ‘system’. This connotation results from the extension of its most popular meaning, ‘directive’. When a directive relates to many people, it defines its boundaries and brings about certain rules and regulations. In that case, this word is applicable to directives pertaining to the formation of political authority, the directives emanating from that authority, and to the governance of the entire community through such directives. To encompass all these aspects, we can more explicitly use the term ‘collective system’4. In the same connotation, the Prophet’s aunt Safiyyah bint ‘Abd Al-Muttalib (رضي الله عنها) used this word in one of her couplets as follows:


الا من مبلغ عني قریشًا

ففیم الامر فینا والإمار


‘Hark! Who will deliver my message to the Quraysh that if they do not accept our nobility and eminence, they should tell why is the collective system in our hands? And why are we considered worthy of consultation?’


Since the Qur’an has not qualified the noun amr by any adjective except annexing it to a third-person pronoun, it shall be understood to incorporate every aspect of the collective system. Thus, municipal problems, national and provincial affairs, political and social directives, legislative rules, delegation and abrogation of power, appointment and dismissal of public representatives (rulers), interpretation of communal rulings of Islam, and all other collective affairs shall be subjected to the principle specified in this verse.

Next comes the wordشورىٰ’ (shura). It is a verbal noun of the form ‘فُعْلی’ (fu’la) and means ‘consultation’. Since it has occurred as a predicate in a nominal sentence, the meaning of this verse does not remain the same as of another verse (3:159), often confused with it: ‘شَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الأَمْرِ فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللّهِ’ (Keep consulting them in matters of public concern; then once you have made up your mind, put your trust in God). If the same meanings were intended here in 42:38, the phrasing should have been somewhat like this: ‘وَفي الاَمْرِهُمْ يُشَاوَرُوْن’ (And they are consulted in matters of public concern). In that case, it was necessary that the society be already divided into the ruler(s) and the ruled. The ruler or head of state could either have been appointed by God, nominated by an infallible leader (as in Shia Islam), or have seized power by force. In either case, once in power, the ruler could only be obligated to consult people before deciding a matter, but not to adhere to a majority decision or even unanimous consent of people. Contrary to this, amendment in the style and symmetry of the discourse especially adopted by the Qur’an to say amruhum shura baynahum demands that

- the appointment of the head of state must itself be based on consultation;

- the state system and the government must be formed and run through consultation;

- everyone, without exception, must have an equal right in consultation;

- whatever is done through consultation can also be undone through the same means;

- in case any consultation fails to reach an agreement, the dispute must be settled by a majority vote; and

- the majority opinion must reign supreme in all collective matters, such that even an elected government should not have the right to reject or ignore it.

The following analogies may help illustrate the difference between the import of the two verses 42:38 and 3:159, respectively. If it is said that the ownership of a house shall be decided by mutual consultation of five sisters, it means that only these five individuals have the prerogative to decide this matter, and all of them have an equal say. It is ideal if they reach an agreement but in case of a split decision, a majority opinion shall prevail. On the other hand, if it is said that, while deciding the ownership of this house, these five sisters shall be consulted, then the implication is that the ultimate decision-power rests in some other hands. That authority, say their father, must consult his five daughters before deciding this matter, but he will not be bound to accept their majority opinion or even unanimous consent. Since first is the case with Islam’s principle for the system of governance, Mawlana [2], while commenting on 42:38, writes:


‘The principle of اَمْرُهُمْ شُوْرٰى بَيْنَهُمْ5 intrinsically demands five things:

First, people, whose rights and welfare collective matters relate to, must have a complete freedom of expression, and they must be kept fully informed regarding how their affairs are being run. If they find any misconduct, deficiency, or negligence in the administration of their affairs, they must have a right to reprove, protest and, if need be, replace the administrators. To conduct people’s affairs by stifling their voice, cuffing their hands and feet, and blindfolding them is sheer dishonesty. No sane person can regard such governance to be in line with this principle.

Second, the person who is to be entrusted to run collective affairs must be appointed by people’s consent, and this consent must be a free one. The consent obtained by coercion and intimidation, bought by tempting and bribing, or grabbed by deception and guile is no consent. A nation’s true leader is not the one who acquires leadership by hook or by crook, but the one who is made a leader by people, out of their free choice and pleasure.

Third, personnel appointed as advisers to the leader of the nation must be those enjoying the trust and confidence of the nation. Obviously, those who acquire representative positions by coercion, bribery, falsehood, artifice, or misleading people can never be acknowledged as true bearers of people’s confidence.

Fourth, everyone involved in consultation must give their opinion according to the best of their knowledge, faith and conscience, and they must have full freedom of such expression. Where it is not so, and consultees are forced to opine against their knowledge and conscience due to greed, fear, prejudice, or peer pressure, there will in fact be perfidy and treachery, rather than compliance with this principle.

Fifth, the proposal given by common consent or a majority must be accepted. That is because if an individual or a group, after listening to others, is free to do what it likes, then consultation becomes meaningless. God is not saying that “in their affairs, they are consulted” but that “their affairs are run by mutual consultation”. Just by taking counsel, the requirement of this saying does not fulfil; for that, it is necessary to run affairs according to what has been settled by consensus or a majority opinion.’

This is exactly what is termed ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic values’ in modern times. Islam, therefore, neither supports autocracy nor oligarchy, but democracy.



[1]       M. Asad, The Message of the Qur’an. London: The Book Foundation, 2008.

[2]       S. A. A. Maududi, Tafhim Al-Qur’an, 6 vols. Lahore: Idarah Tarjuman Al-Qur’an, 1985.





1. This article is primarily based on [18], pp. 495-498; [20], pp. 147-168; [14].

2. Appearing as the suffix ‘hum’ in ‘amruhum’.

3.Brackets mine, but not parentheses.

4.In Urdu, we typically use the word ‘نظام’ (niẓam) in this sense; the term ‘نظم اجتماعی’ (naẓm-i ijtama‘i) can also be used [17].

5.Translated by Mawdudi as ‘[they] run their affairs by mutual consultation’.

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