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Amruhum shura baynahum: Common Criticisms and Misconceptions (1)
Political Issues
Dr. Junaid Hassan

In the preceding discussion, we introduced the Qur’an’s principle for governing a collective system of Muslims as amruhum shura 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.

 

1. 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 the political system of Muslims:

 

وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الأَمْرِ فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللّهِ

[K]eep consulting them in collective affairs; then once you have made up your mind, put your trust in God. (Qur’an 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 Uhud [12]. The context evidently shows that the antecedents of the pronoun ‘them’ are the Hypocrites, and the addressee is Prophet Muhammad (sws). 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 Uhud had fully exposed the malice in their hearts.

As for why consultation is specifically mentioned in this verse, Mawlana Islahi [13] explains that being a prophet of God, Muhammad (sws) needed no advice in religious affairs. However, as a man of excellent disposition 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 Uhud, too, he took counsel with them regarding whether to fight from within the city or outside it. 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 (sws) 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 city, 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 مِّنَ اللّهِ لِنتَ لَهُمْ وَلَوْ كُنتَ فَظًّا غَلِيظَ الْقَلْبِ لاَنفَضُّواْ مِنْ حَوْلِكَ فَاعْفُ عَنْهُمْ وَاسْتَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ وَشَاوِرْهُمْ فِي الأَمْرِ فَإِذَا عَزَمْتَ فَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللّهِ إِنَّ اللّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَوَكِّلِينَ

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 [14].

 

2. Does the verse 6:116 contradict 42:38?

Another verse of the Qur’an is often presented to negate the implications of 42:38, namely 6:116:

 

وَإِن تُطِعْ أَكْثَرَ مَن فِي الأَرْضِ يُضِلُّوكَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللّهِ إِن يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلاَّ الظَّنَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلاَّ يَخْرُصُونَ

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 (sws) 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 for discerning truth from falsehood. Rather, blind following of the clamour of a majority is bound to, sooner or later, lead one astray [13].

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 [15]. 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 as per their conscience and understanding – it shall indeed be enforced, according to 42:38. Yet, the following points shall also be concurrently kept in consideration:3

- Such enforcement would be no more than a peaceful, prudent, principled, and pragmatic means 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 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 individuals were appointed rulers who would demand their rights but usurp the rights of people. In consonance with the Qur’an7, 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’ [16], no. 4782). 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 abhor that but not withdraw yourself from his obedience.’ [16], no. 4805) At another occasion, 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 happily complies with [these].’[16], 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 Qur’an (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, at least on religious grounds, the rulers lose their right of being obeyed when they cross a certain limit. Explicitly, that is, if they commit open disbelief 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.’ [16], no. 4763; open disbelief will be discussed later.)

To conclude, one is bound to fall astray from the path of God 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.

 

3. Did Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq (rta) violate amruhum shura 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 Abu Bakr’s decisions as a head of state: 1) his offensive against those who refused to pay zakah, and 2) his dispatchment of Usamah b. Zayd’s (rta) battalion to attack the area where the battle of Muw’tah was fought.

This argument holds no water. As the head of state, what Abu Bakr had to do in both these cases was already settled by the Prophet (sws), and no believer could even think of disagreeing with that. Thus, no consultation was required therefore, nor any took place, nor Abu Bakr acted like an autocrat. However, when he was about to execute what was ordained, some individuals showed practical concerns. Like a true statesman, he convincingly addressed those concerns and, then, went on to fulfil his responsibility. In modern terms, Abu Bakr can be thought of as a prime minister, about to execute a state law backed by the parliament. To that, some questions were raised by individuals, which he convincingly answered[4], pp. 40-44):

Regarding the first, some individuals casually suggested not to enforce law against zakah evaders, as a measure of expediency. To back their view, they also presented a hadith. Abu Bakr argued that they had misconstrued the hadith because of its brevity. He explained its purport by another hadith, explicitly expressing the Qur’an’s directive (9:5) in this regard. The directive obligated him, as the emir, to take action against zakah withholders from among the Polytheists who had accepted Islam.9 This satisfied the critics and an offensive was then hurled without dissent.

Regarding the second, the Prophet (sws) himself completed all arrangements for the Battalion of Usamah, 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. Abu Bakr refused to accept this argument, arguing 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 shura baynahum; it would have been so had the objection been raised by a majority of Muslim chiefs, to which he had refused to take heed.

 

4. Legislation, a prerogative of ‘Ulama#’?

Our clergy insists that, rather than an elected parliament or legislature consisting of the laity, they must have the right to debate about and interpret the shari‘ah, derive communal laws therefrom, and see them enforced. The principle of amruhum shura baynahum, however, rejects this demand. ‘Ulama’s duty, as per the Qur’an10, is to educate, guide, and advise people by interpreting and explaining their religion, not to impose their views on them. No legislation, secular or religious, can thus be done and enforced contrary to the consent and choice of Muslims or their representatives.

This proposition does not imply, as commonly misunderstood in the Indian subcontinent, that the parliament should assume the role of a mujtahid (i.e., in this context, an interpreter of the shari‘ah). Far from it. What it implies is that, like in all other fields, ‘ulama’ as doctors of religion will present their interpretations and opinions to the parliament. The parliament, as a body of people’s representatives, will then decide which interpretation to accept and which to reject for law-making[17].

By the same token, some argue that neither people nor their ignorant representatives have the capacity to decide what is right for them; therefore, only experts and intellects ought to have the prerogative to legislate. God, as we have seen, rejects such oligarchy (42:38). Being better informed, the intelligentsia’s duty is to educate, guide, and counsel people, not to snatch their basic human right of self-determination. Even in the matter as important as religion, God has given people the right to choose. This implies that, contrary to what such oligarchists claim, all humans have the capacity to understand even something as complex as theology and discern truth from falsehood [17]. It is, in fact, an insult to human intellect to think otherwise. It is also worth noting that better information is no guarantee of better decision-making for others. Monarchs, for instance, are much better informed than laypersons but history bears witness that, exploiting the very information, they and their agents usurp the rights and resources of people. Hence, the best way forward is that people – whose rights, interests, and welfare collective matters relate to – decide for themselves, and in case of disagreement, resolve it through a majority vote.

To the ‘ulama’s greatest fear, even if a legitimate parliament decides to legislate against or ignoring the shari‘ah, which as per the Qur’an (5:44) is equivalent to disbelief, God has not given a minority or ‘ulama’ the right to stop them by force. As teachers and heirs of prophets, ‘ulama’ ought to earnestly remind their nation of the teachings of Islam; elaborate the rationale and arguments behind them; address any concerns and doubts about them; invite to truth with wisdom, compassion, and goodwill; but, then, rather than acting as warders over people, let them freely accept or reject their call.11 The more Islam there is in the hearts of people, the more it will reflect in their collective system. This only is the natural, robust, durable, and peaceful way to make religion part and parcel of individual and collective lives of people.12

Some religious evidence, however, is often presented to support the claim that it is a duty of true believers to enforce the sharia on the majority, whether it likes it or not. In the text to follow, we shall turn to such evidence and see what it implies.

 

5. ‘Commanding’ good and curbing evil by force

The Qur’an says:

 

وَالْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتُ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَاء بَعْضٍ يَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ

The believing men and women are allies of one another. [Unlike the Hypocrites], they encourage good and forbid evil. (9:71)

 

وَلْتَكُن مِّنكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَأُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

There must be a group appointed from among you, inviting to righteousness, encouraging good, and forbidding evil. [You should diligently do so,] and [remember that] they [who do so] are the ones to attain felicity. (3:104)

 

The Prophet (sws) said:

 

مَنْ رَأَى مِنْكُمْ مُنْكَرًا فَلْيُغَيِّرْهُ بِيَدِهِ، فَإِنْ لَمْ يَسْتَطِعْ فَبِلِسَانِهِ، فَإِنْ لَمْ يَسْتَطِعْ فَبِقَلْبِهِ، وَذَلِكَ أَضْعَفُ الْإِيمَانِ. (المسلم، رقم ١٧٧)

‘He among you who sees an evil ought to rectify it with his hands; if he finds no courage therefore, with his tongue or, at least, he must detest it in his heart, and that is the lowest degree of faith.’ [16], no. 177)

 

Based on such verses13 and the above hadith, it is argued that true believers must command others to do good and stop them by force whenever they are found indulged in evil. Thus, if Muslims are not living by the shari‘ah in individual or collective matters, they shall be forced to do so. It is irrelevant how few such believers are and whether they have a legal authority; whenever possible, they will attempt to fulfil this obligation.

Such an anarchist interpretation is far from the teachings and principles of God’s religion and the practice of His prophets [18], pp. 557-560):

First, the word ‘یَاْمُرُوْنَ’ (ya’murun; root: amr) in such verses does not imply ‘commanding’, but politely inviting and urging each other to good. To ‘recommend’, ‘advice’, or ‘urge’ is a popular meaning of this word, which we know is intended here because both common sense and evidence from within the Qur’an suggest that: We cannot order but only advise others to, say, speak the truth, love God, help the needy, and so on[12]. At another place (3:103), therefore, the Qur’an has substituted the word ‘ya’murun’ with ‘تَواصَوا’ (tawasaw, i.e., to advise each other) while instructing believers to do good and advise each other to patiently adhere to truth and righteousness.

Second, the words used for good (“مَعروف”; ma’ruf) and evil (“مُنكَر”; munkar) signify universally acknowledged good and evil, e.g., truth and lie, charity and theft, honesty and dishonesty, kindness and cruelty, decency and indecency etc. They do not refer to, for instance, listening to music, which may be forbidden in one’s eyes and permissible in another’s. Similarly, they do not stand for rulings of the shari‘ah ([12]; [19], p. 265). That is why the same words are used in the Qur’an (3:110-115) for the People of the Book’s call to good and forbiddance from evil.

Third, addresses of the verses 9:71 and 3:104 are not the same. It is evident that the first pertains to individual believers. The second, in contrast, lays down an obligation to be discharged by the rulers, on behalf of the entire Muslim community (See also 22:41). Thus, when these verses speak of forbidding evil, its method cannot be identical. In both the cases, evil will be forbidden by the word of mouth, with due wisdom, courtesy, and good will.14 However, as for using force therefore, a state institution like that of police can certainly do that, but not individuals with no legal authority over others. The Qur’an, the Scriptures and history bear witness that without political authority, God did not allow any of his prophets to eradicate evil from the society by force.

Likewise, curbing an evil by acting against it, as indicated in the above hadith, pertains to an individual’s sphere of authority. For instance, as a head of family, organisation, or state, a person is obliged to take a due action against a universally agreed evil or crime, like theft, fraud, perfidy, adulteration, bullying, harassment, or violence. In one’s sphere of authority, therefore, if one fails to do so without any valid reason but lack of courage, it definitely implies lack of faith. Thus, at another occasion, the Prophet more explicitly said:

 

أَلاَ كُلُّكُمْ رَاعٍ، وَكُلُّكُمْ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ، فَالإِمَامُ الَّذِي عَلَي النَّاسِ رَاعٍ وَهْوَ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ، وَالرَّجُلُ رَاعٍ عَلَي أَهْلِ بَيْتِهِ وَهْوَ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ، وَالْمَرْأَةُ رَاعِيَةٌ عَلَي أَهْلِ بَيْتِ زَوْجِهَا وَوَلَدِهِ وَهِيَ مَسْئُولَةٌ عَنْهُمْ، وَعَبْدُ الرَّجُلِ رَاعٍ عَلَي مَالِ سَيِّدِهِ وَهْوَ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْهُ، أَلاَ فَكُلُّكُمْ رَاعٍ وَكُلُّكُمْ مَسْئُولٌ عَنْ رَعِيَّتِهِ. (البخاری، رقم ٧١٣٨)

‘Each one of you is a shepherd, responsible for one’s flock.
A ruler is a shepherd over people and is responsible for them. A man is a shepherd over his family and is responsible for it. A woman is a shepherd of her husband’s house and children and is responsible for them. A slave is a shepherd of his master’s property and is responsible for it. So, all of you are shepherds, responsible for your flocks.’ [3]
, no. 7138)

 

Without such traditional or legal authority, however, using force to curb, crush, or punish evil itself is evil, leading to nothing but anarchy.

The worst of all wrongs is polytheism (Qur’an 4:48). However, while living in Mecca, the Messenger of God (sws) and his Companions (رضي الله عنهم) never used force to stop the Polytheists from practicing polytheism. So much so that the Prophet prayed amid the idols placed in and around Ka‘bah – the first mosque and a centre of monotheism – but never attempted to destroy them. Does it imply that, according to the above hadith, they had a lower degree of faith? Not at all; they were adherent followers of the Qur’an (6:107): ‘Had God willed, they [the Quraysh] could never have been idolatrous. We have not set you [O Muhammad] a keeper over them, nor are you responsible for them.’

Later, however, when God granted political authority to the believers, the Prophet, as a head of state, did take authoritative measures to curb crime and delinquency. In addition, God obliged the Prophet and his Companions to eradicate polytheism and subdue other religions in the Arabian Peninsula. This obligation, however, has nothing to do with us, as it pertains to a specific ruling of God regarding the obstinate deniers among the direct addresses of a messenger (See the next section).

To conclude, all believers are obliged to invite to good and humbly forbid from evil, as well-wishers of each other. As for using force to stop evil, it depends on whether one has due authority. In the capacity of, for example, a parent or an executive, one is expected to act against a wrongdoing, out of one’s normative or legal authority over certain individuals. Similarly, if believers have a collective system, those at the helm of affairs are obliged to curb crime and injustice by force, as and when required. But, as an individual living in a society, the directive of Islam for a believer is no more than that for the Prophet as he lived as a preacher in Mecca: ‘So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder. You are not at all a warder over them.’ (Qur’an 88:21-22).

 

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1. ‘Their collective system [shall be] based on mutual consultation.’

2. This translation is based on personal communication with Ghamidi.

3. See [21]; [17]; “Parliament ki Baladasti” in [19], pp. 224-227..

4. See, for example, Quran 2:256, 13:40, 18:29 & 64:12.

5. Examples of that may be taxation in addition to zakah, 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 legitimization 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. Abu 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).

10. See 9:122, 16:125-126 & 88:21-22.

11. For details, see [18], pp. 552-557 & 560-579.

12. See “Nafadh-i Shari‘ah”, “Islami Hukumat”, and “Islam awr Riyasat” in [19], pp. 239-245, 191-195 & 196-208, respectively.

13. The following words, more or less, are common in such verses: ‘وَیَاْمُرُوْنَ بِالْمَعْرُوْفِ وَ یَنْھَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنْکَرِ’. The word ‘یَاْمُرُوْنَ’ (ya’murun) here is often translated as ‘they order/command’ instead of, as we have suggested, ‘they encourage’.

14. As per the method instituted by the Prophet (sws), Muslim rulers are obliged to use the Friday sermon to invite people to good and forbid them from evil.

   
 
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