[Part 3 of 4]
‘Amruhum shūrā baynahum’: Common Criticisms and Misconceptions
In the preceding discussion, we introduced the Quran’s principle for governing a collective system of Muslims as amruhum shūrā baynahum1 (42:38). Then, we delineated its corollaries as understood by Ghamidi. Regarding this understanding, here, we shall introduce and analyse some common criticisms and misconceptions.
01. Verse 3:159 as a fundamental rule for governance
Instead of 42:38, the following verse is usually regarded as a fundamental rule for governing a political system of Muslims:
وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الْأَمْرِ، فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ. (آل عمران ٣: ١٥٩)
[K]eep consulting them in collective affairs; then once you have made up your mind, put your trust in God. (Quran 3:159)
On its basis, it is argued that a ruler must take counsel in matters of statecraft; nonetheless, they cannot be obligated to accept a majority opinion or even unanimous consent of people.
Political system, however, is not under discussion in this verse, but the aftermath of the battle of Uḥud . The context evidently shows that the antecedents of the pronoun ‘them’ are the Hypocrites, and the addressee is Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). As the head of state, he is advised to continue being lenient with them, overlook their transgressions, and not to exclude them from consultation, even though the battle of Uḥud had fully exposed the malice of their hearts.
As for why consultation is specifically mentioned in this verse, Mawlānā Islahi  explains that being a prophet of God, Muhammad (ﷺ) needed no advice in religious affairs. However, as a man of excellent dispositions and a role-model for fellow humans, he frequently consulted his Companions (رضي الله عنهم) in political, administrative, strategic, and other such matters. Before the battle of Uḥud, too, he counselled with them on whether to fight from within the town or meet the enemy outside. The believers, being brave and committed, opted for the second strategy while the Hypocrites first. Because their wish was rejected by a majority opinion, the Hypocrites spewed their ire in various ways. One of their groups, comprising three hundred men, backed out on the way to the battlefield. Another group, although unwilling, went to war but, as the Muslim army was defeated, launched defamatory propaganda against the Prophet. They alleged that Muhammad (ﷺ) was a false prophet, who misused the trust of and ruined his people for the sake of his personal ambitions; they had advised him to fight from within the town, but he did not pay heed and got many of their brethren slaughtered at an ill-suited battlefield; he is, therefore, no less than a traitor. Even after all this, God intended to grant respite to the Hypocrites to mend their ways. So, He said:
فَبِمَا رَحْمَةٍ مِنَ اللَّهِ لِنْتَ لَهُمْ، وَلَوْ كُنْتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لَانْفَضُّوا مِنْ حَوْلِكَ، فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الْأَمْرِ، فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ، إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَوَكِّلِينَ. (آل عمران ٣: ١٥٩)
It is out of God’s mercy [O Prophet] that you have been gentle with these [Hypocrites]. Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would have scattered away from you. So, pardon them, pray for their forgiveness, and keep consulting them in collective matters. Then once you have made up your mind, put your trust in God, for God loves those who rely [upon Him]. (3:159)
An indirect lesson may be drawn from this verse that those at the helm of affairs ought to be gentle, forbearing, forgiving, and farsighted. But it cannot be understood to be laying down a principle for the political system of Muslims, unless cut off from its context .
02. Does the verse 6:116 contradict 42:38?
Another verse of the Quran is often presented to negate the implications of 42:38, namely 6:116:
وَإِنْ تُطِعْ أَكْثَرَ مَنْ فِي الْأَرْضِ يُضِلُّوكَ عَنْ سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ، إِنْ يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا الظَّنَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا يَخْرُصُونَ. (الأنعام ٦: ١١٦)
Most of those on the earth are such that if you were to obey them, they would lead you astray from the path of God. They only follow [their own and other people’s] conjectures and do nothing but guess [based on those conjectures].2
Seen in its context, this verse implies that even though most people are rejecting the Prophet’s (ﷺ) call to monotheism and insisting on polytheism, their numbers are no proof of their veracity. They are blindly following polytheistic tradition, based on speculation and superstition. Thus, rather than following in their footsteps and straying from the path of God, one should base one’s faith and practice on reason and evidence. Instead, however, people typically follow celebrated personalities and traditions which, as said, may not be backed by anything but conjecture. This implies that a local or global majority is no criterion to discern truth from falsehood. Rather, blind following of the clamour of a majority is bound to, sooner or later, lead one astray .
Regarding 42:38, it urges people to run their political or collective affairs by mutual consultation and in case of a dispute, settle that through a majority vote. But how can a majority opinion, based usually on the so-called ‘herd mentality’ rather than truth, be decisive? Such a question, for one, confuses settling moral matters (involving truth/falsehood) with deciding collective disputes, which are not generally of moral nature . In case a collective issue happens to be a moral one and a majority of Muslims or its representatives make a wrong choice therein – considering it right, let us positively presume, as per their conscience and understanding – it shall indeed be enforced as per 42:38. Yet, the following points should also be concurrently kept in consideration:3
- Such enforcement would only be a means – albeit peaceful, prudent, principled, and pragmatic – to settle a public dispute, maintain order, and smoothly run the system.
- Consensus does not render a morally or otherwise wrong decision right. Even a unanimous consent of all humankind is no criterion to discern truth from falsehood or right from wrong in any field – be it religion, philosophy, science, or politics. For that, the only criterion is the voice of our conscience, reason, and evidence, as indicated in 6:116.
- As one enjoys freedom to choose between right and wrong in individual matters4, God has granted the same freedom to a community in collective matters. This freedom is an integral part of God’s grand plan, according to which this world is designed to test humankind. In this fleeting world, therefore, when individuals and communities use their freedom to intentionally or unintentionally act contrary to the will of God, it does not befit believers to show despair, frustration, or impatience. They ought to put their trust in God and appreciate things in a larger perspective. Therein, transitory transgressions of nations in this world are no more than a drop of water in the ocean of eternity.
- If an individual or a minority believes that the majority or its representatives have made a morally or otherwise false decision5, it is not only the former’s right but, under normal circumstances, responsibility to disagree with that, point out its flaws, compassionately admonish its adherents, warn them of its ill-consequences with goodwill, and try to win their hearts and minds.6
- Beyond that, however, religion neither gives any prerogative to a minority nor puts any responsibility on it. Once the Prophet was asked what to do if such individuals are appointed rulers who would demand their rights but usurp the rights of people. In consonance with the Quran7, he advised the asker to refrain from rebelling and continue obeying the overall state law, reminding that ‘upon them will be the burden of what they do and upon you of what you do’ (, no. 4783). At another occasion, he said, ‘Hark! If a ruler is appointed over you, and you find him do something in disobedience to God, you should detest that but not withdraw yourself from his obedience.’ (, no. 4805) Similarly, he said, ‘There will be rulers over you, some of whose actions you will find good and some evil. One who dislikes [their evil deeds] shall have no blame [on the Judgement Day], and one who exhorts [them against these] shall also remain safe, but [not] one who is pleased with and conforms to [these for worldly gains].’ (, no. 4801)
- However, if people’s representatives approve a law or give an edict obligating one to act in disobedience to God8, one is not obliged to obey it. On the contrary, a believer must humbly refuse to do so and bravely face any consequences of non-compliance. Although the Quran (42:38 & 4:59) directs believers to resolve political disputes through a majority vote and obey those elected as their representatives, it makes their obedience subservient to the obedience of God and His Messenger. Thus, the rulers lose their right of being obeyed, at least on religious grounds, when they cross a certain limit. Explicitly, that is, if they commit open disbelief (discussed later) or require a believer to disobey God. Thus, the Prophet said, ‘A Muslim must, whether they like it or not, listen to and obey their ruler, unless they are ordered to sin. In that case, they shall neither listen nor obey.’ (, no. 4763)
To conclude, one is bound to, sooner or later, fall astray from God's path if one decides to blindly follow others or the clamour of a majority in moral or religious matters (6:116). By following 42:38, however, no such obedience or following occurs: believers are not only allowed but required to use reason, disagree with a wrong verdict of a majority, and refuse to act accordingly if it necessitates them to sin. The two verses, therefore, are in complete concord with each other.
03. Did Abū Bakr Al-Ṣiddīq (رضي الله عنه) violate amruhum shūrā baynahum?
Some argue that Islam allows an emir to act like an autocrat and veto a majority decision or even unanimous consent of people. To substantiate their claim, they present two of Abū Bakr’s decisions as a head of state: 1) his offensive against those who refused to pay zakat, and 2) his dispatchment of Usāmah b. Zayd’s (رضي الله عنه) battalion to attack the area where the battle of Muw’tah was fought.
This argument holds no water. As the head of state, what Abū Bakr had to do in both these cases was already settled by the Prophet (ﷺ), and no believer could even think of disagreeing with that. Thus, no consultation was required therefor, nor any took place, nor Abū Bakr acted like an autocrat. However, when he was about to execute what was ordained, some individuals expressed practical concerns. Like a true statesman, he convincingly addressed those concerns and, then, went on to fulfil his responsibility. In modern terms, Abū Bakr can be thought of as a prime minister, about to execute a state law backed by the parliament (comparable with representative-chiefs at that time). About that, some citizens raised certain questions which Abū Bakr, before doing the needful, persuasively answered (, pp. 40-44):
Regarding the first, some individuals informally expressed reservations about the enforcement of law against the zakat-deniers. They argued that doing so would be against expediency and prudence; besides, they supported their view by citing a hadith. In response, Abū Bakr asserted that they had misconstrued the hadith due its brevity. He explained its purport by another hadith, explicitly expressing the relevant directive of the Quran (9:5)9. The directive clearly obligated Abū Bakr, as an emir, to take action against the zakat-defiers from among the ex-Polytheists.10 This satisfied the critics and an offensive was then hurled without dissent.
Regarding the second, the Prophet himself completed all arrangements for the Battalion of Usāmah, selected its personnel, specified its goals, and wished to send it as soon as possible. Its departure, however, was delayed because of the worsening health of the Prophet. After he passed away, some individuals argued that the circumstances were not right for its dispatchment, so it should be detained as a measure of expediency. Abū Bakr, as their new emir, refused to accept this argument, contending that he could not dare roll back what the Messenger of God had resolutely initiated. Such a refusal is far from a violation of amruhum shūrā baynahum. It would have been so had the objection been raised by a majority of Muslim chiefs, to which Abū Bakr had refused to pay heed.
1 ‘Their collective system [shall be] based on mutual consultation.’
2 This translation is based on personal communication with Ghamidi.
3 See ; ; “Parliament kī Balādastī” in , pp. 224-227.
4 See, for example, verses 2:256, 13:40, 18:29 & 64:12.
5 Examples of that may be taxation in addition to zakat, which may be impermissible in one’s view but not that of a majority; implementation of, say, a Hanafi law in some matter, which may be correct in a majority’s opinion but not that of all religious schools; a law obliging men to grow beards or women to cover heads, which may, as per the Quran (9:5), be considered beyond the jurisdiction of the state; unconditional permission of abortion, which may be labelled ‘murder’; or legitimation of homosexuality, which is difficult, if not impossible, to defend on religious grounds.
6 See the Quran 9:122, 9:71, 103:1-3 & 16:125-126.
7 ‘O people! Obey God and His Messenger, and those given [political] authority among you.’ (4:59)
8 I.e., for instance, to go to an unjust war or kill an innocent person.
9 ‘After this [declaration on the day of ḥajj], when the [four] forbidden months are over, kill these Polytheists wherever you find them, and [for that] seize them, besiege them, and lurk in wait for them in every ambush. But if they repent, perform the prayer, and pay zakat, then leave their way free. Indeed, God is ever-forgiving, ever-affectionate.’
10 Abū Bakr is reported to have said that even if no one was willing to fight them, he would do so alone. Such statements are not statements of law, to be taken literally, but figurative expressions of determination and dedication towards fulfilling one’s obligations (Ghamidi, pers. comm).
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