by Tayeb Abedin
Although there were small kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula,
the Arabs did not know of a central government with complex functions
before the Prophet, peace be upon him, formed his state at Medinah.
That state carried functions quite different from any previous
state known to us in history. It was an ideological state whose
primary aim was to propagate Islam and apply God's law on earth.
At its initial state it was formed according to a written constitution
which organised relations between the different communities at
Medinah: Muslims, Jews and Arab pagans. Those communities accepted
the Prophet Muhammad as the supreme judge of Medinah, and accepted
God's word as their law. The communities were not to make peace
with those who fought God's mission and God's believers.
Beside propagating Islam, the Prophet's,peace be upon him, government
carried other functions of a social, economical and educational
nature. In fact there was no aspect of life which escaped the
Prophet's, peace be upon him,attention. People's morals and values
were considered as the essence of the mission and their social
and economical conditions were to be cared for to fulfil that
purpose. Family problems as well as individual ones were not outside
the state's concern. In fact there was nothing which in principle
was outside the state's concern. In this respect the concept of
the functions of an Islamic State is wider than any modern welfare
What is important about the Prophet's, peace be upon him, administration
are not the actual incidents or events which took place, but the
principles which his administration served. That is because those
principles are the same principles which any Islamic State should
fulfil. An Islamic State is not required to copy exactly what
the Prophet, peace be upon him, did, but to try to serve causes
and principles which the Prophet's administration set out for
In other words, there is no particular fixed form for the Islamic
State but there are certain principles, sometimes detailed, which
ought to be observed in any state which claims to be Islamic.
Owing to this important fact, lslamic laws (Shari'ah) are flexible
to suit any community at any time.
The aims of Shari'ah, are the preservation of life, of religion,
of property and of honour. Those aims are to be fulfilled by an
Islamic State according to certain principles, or more preferably
certain constitutional principles such as sovereignty, justice
and equality. One of these principles is also that of consultation
(Shura), and how the Prophet practised it during his administration
needs to be considered in detail.
The idea of consultation or Shura poses four important questions:
1. Is Shura an obligatory action, in the sense that it is a
"must" on a Muslim Imam (ruler) to consult his subjects?
2. If it is a must, who is to be consulted-all the people or
a section of them?
3. In what issues shall people be consulted? -any issue or specific
4. Is the outcome of Shura binding on the Imam? Is he obliged
to follow what most of his consultants agree to, even if it is
different from what he thinks?
I will try to pursue the answers to these questions from what
the Qur'an has said, and from what the Prophet actually did during
his administration at Medinah.
The answer to the first question, "whether Shura is obligatory",
is definitely yes. The Qur'an considers Shura a distinctive feature
of a Believer, in a similar manner as Salat and Sadaqat. Qur'an
"And those who answer the call of their Lord, do their
prayers and whose affairs are by consultations among themselves"
A second verse orders the Prophet, peace be upon him, to consult
"So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult
with them upon the conduct of affairs and when thou art resolved,
then put thy trust in Allah". ('AI lmran'. 159).
The timing of the latter verse is significant. It came after
'Uhud battle when the Prophet consulted his followers and they
gave him what turned out to be a disastrous advice. The verse
came to remind the Prophet that even if consultation sometimes
brings disaster, it should not in general be abandoned. The Qur'an
also condemns every despotic ruler:
"And every froward potentate was brought to naught".
The Prophet, peace be upon him, practised consultation all through
his life in a manner that Abu Hurairah narrated,
"I have never seen any one more consultative with his companions
than the Prophet".
So there is no doubt about the obligatory nature of Shura not
only for the government but within the family too.
The answer to the second question, "who is to be consulted",
is not so clear. The Qur'anic verses quoted above indicate Shura
as a distinctive feature of all believers, just as zakat and prayer.
Once on a certain issue the Prophet, peace be upon him, asked
the opinion of all the men concerned, after the Ta'if battle when
the defeated tribe accepted Islam. The Prophet, peace be upon
him, thought it unbecoming to take booty after they had become
brothers in faith. He asked his soldiers whether they would like
to give back to their brothers what they had taken from them.
They agreed, but the Prophet, peace be upon him, was not satisfied
by the general answer of 'yes' and so he said,
"We do not know who of you has agreed and who has not, go back
till your heads bring us your answer."
One can generalise from this that the ruler should obtain the
approval of individuals when the issue concerns their right to
property. The Prophet, peace be upon him, also used to consult
the tribal chiefs, because they represented their people. Once
when the Muslims failed to capture a caravan of Abu Sufian when
it was returning to Makka, the Prophet, peace be upon him, decided
to make war against the Quraish who came out to protect it.
He asked his followers what they thought of fighting the Quraish.
Two of the Muhajireen -leaders- Abu Bakr al-Siddiq and Al-Miqdad
ibn 'Umar, may Allah be pleased with them, spoke in agreement,
but the Prophet,peace be upon him, repeated his question. One
of the Ansar leaders, Sa'ad ibn Muadh, realised that the Prophet,
peace be upon him, wanted their opinion. He stood up and said
that he would speak for the Ansar, and approved of the idea too.
On another occasion when the Prophet wanted to make a truce
with Gatafan, (a tribe living near Medinah), so as to induce them
not to fight together with the other pagan tribes, he called for
the opinions of Sa'ah ibn Mu'adh and Sa'ad ibn 'Aubadh who were
the heads of al-'Aws and al-Khazraj, the two dominant tribes at
In matters which needed special experience and knowledge the
Prophet,peace be upon him, used to consult those who possessed
it, irrespective of their representative power. In military affairs
he used to consult Khalid ibn al-Walid, Salman al- Farsi and Ali
ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with them all, who were known
for their military acumen.
In general matters the prophet, peace be upon him, consulted
people known for their wisdom and piety. His favourite counsellors
were Abu Bakr, Omar ibn al-Khattab, and All ibn Abi Talib, may
Allah be pleased with them all
Thirdly, "What issues are to be put to consultation?" Here too,
there is not much specification. Theoretically any problem for
which there is no correspondent revelation could be subject to
consultation. The followers of the Prophet,peace be upon him,
used to ask him before they expressed a differing opinion, whether
his action was revealed or merely what he thought best for them.
One could say that the Prophet consulted his followers on almost
all important issues, whether they were of a political nature
or not. He consulted them about waging war on Quraish, he consulted
them on what to do with the prisoners-of-war after the battle
of Badr. One could generalise that every problem which would affect
the community as a whole, or affect some peoples' property-rights
should be the subject of consultation. I have not found any evidence
to indicate that the Prophet consulted his followers when appointing
leaders of armies, district governors, or judges. Perhaps such,
consultation would develop ill-feelings in the Muslim community,
or possibly it should be a prerogative of the ruler to choose
To come to the last question, "is the outcome of the consultation
binding on the Imam?" In all the Prophet's administration there
is not one single case in which he consulted the people and did
not accept the opinion to which they agreed. On the contrary,
there are at least three occasions when the Prophet submitted
to other people's opinions, which differed from his. On two of
these occasions it was without any indication of his being convinced
by what had been said. The first was when ai-Hubab ibn ai-Munzir
told him to change the army- camp before the battle of Badr. The
Prophet agreed and changed the camp. The second case occurred
when many Muslims expressed their wish to fight Quraish outside
Medinah at the battle of 'Uhud. The Prophet's opinion was to wait
for Quraish inside the town so that they would have cover against
them, and that women and youngsters participating in the battle
could disturb the attackers' approach. But the others gave no
other argument than they would be called cowards if they waited
inside the town. The third situation is when Sa'ad ibn Mu'adh
and Sa'ad ibn Aubadh opposed the Prophet's decision to make a
truce with Gatafan. The truce was written but never signed and
when the Ansar chiefs opposed it because they would not accept
its conditions, the Prophet told them to tear up the treaty.
When the Muslims in 'Uhud were defeated, in order that the prophet
and his followers would not regret consultation because it resulted
in a wrong decision, the verse was revealed (Al-Imran 159, quoted
earlier) ordering the Prophet to follow consultation. In a hadith
told by Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah enoble his countenance, the
Prophet ,peace be upon him,was once asked about the meaning of
the word 'resolve', which occurs in this ayah. The Prophet answered
that it meant consulting wise people and following them. So in
my view the outcome of consultation is binding on the imam, whatever
his own opinion.
*Adapted from a Paper presented at a Seerah seminar organised
by the London Islamic Circle, 28 March 1970.