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 state.

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 us.

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 ones ?

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 says,

“And those who answer the call of their Lord, do their prayers and whose affairs are by consultations among themselves” (Shura 38).

A second verse orders the Prophet, peace be upon him, to consult his followers,

“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 Medinah.

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 his subordinates.

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. 

The Muslim
April 1970