The concept of Shura, literally consultation, in the Qur’an is widely misunderstood and underestimated, and worse yet, misapplied or ignored by many Muslim collectivities. Allah the Exalted has commanded Shura not merely as a thing to do, but as a way of life for all forms of Muslim organizations. I use the word collectivity because it applies to all groupings:wherever there are more than one Muslim involved in any decision-making process, there is the domain of Shura, be it a family, a committee, an entire local community, or an entire country or a political arrangement. Let us ponder the oft-quoted verse of the Qur’an about the concept of Shura: “And their affairs are (a matter of) Shura among them.” [42:38]
While describing some of the salient attributes of believing Muslims, the Qur’an has described Shura as an attitude as being essential to the constitution of any Muslim gathering.
The misunderstanding or abuse of Shura has deep roots and has had disastrous consequences in our history as well as in contemporary Islamic world. Shura exists nominally, as a committee, like a Shura Council or a Shura Committee or a Majlis Shura, in various Muslim countries today, which are nonetheless horrific examples of autocratic one-man rule, be it monarchies or military dictatorships.The same gloomy and deceptive pattern is repeated, though the problem is less severe and situation perhaps more easily fixable, in Muslim organizations, be they businesses, voluntary organizations or masajid.
The settling of a large number of Muslim immigrants in the Western world during the last few decades has allowed an opportunity to these Muslims to establish, for the first time in centuries, communities and organizations from scratch. The structures of custom, economic and political hierarchies that have long constrained the Muslim communities in the Muslim world have been absent in this new world. Even in the traditionally Muslim countries, the old structures of tradition and custom are increasingly breaking down, sometimes with disastrous consequences, but not without some benefits.
This has brought great opportunities and responsibilities to the Muslims today, particularly in the West.Two features of these immigrant Muslims, particularly in the United States, are undeniable: one, they are among the most qualified and prosperous communities of Muslims anywhere in the world, and two, they, on the whole, are also the most culturally and linguistically diverse community. As a result, the potential for experimentation with new forms and habits of organization and creation of truly participative and consultative, that is, Shura-based, communities and organizations on a local scale, is great.
This great diversity in cultures and ideologies or orientations has, naturally, given rise to conflict, which, when resolved successfully, through proper Shura and sincere dedication, has begun to give birth to improved forms and habits of organization. Such successful Muslim communities in the Unites States, to take an example I am more familiar with, are diverse, participative and egalitarian, and hence active, productive and efficient, in achieving their goals. Of course, the prospects of this success are constantly limited and challenged but at the same time also helped by the non-Muslim host societies.
The threat of assimilation into a non-Muslim and secular culture, of losing the truth of our faith in the struggle to maintain a luxurious life or even to merely survive, is substantial.
We are helped, on the other hand, by being a minority in the West in a number of ways.A common threat unites us and gives us a sense of urgency and mission. Most of us truly come to value Islam after we observe non-Islam more closely. Organizationally, the successful examples of functioning democracies in the West, however imperfect, furnish us with reasons to start looking more closely at our own tradition, at the Message of Allah, to find sources and inspirations for more participative ways of organization. It is in this context that this article hopes to encourage the Muslim communities, the leaders and the followers, the Imams and the rest, members of councils, committees and scholarly bodies, to pay attention to the lost essence of Islamic organizations.
The consequences of autocratic, non-participative and stratified societies and cultures have been devastating in Islamic history.We observe this problem in all aspects of Muslim societies: parents and particularly fathers fail to encourage participation and self-esteem in their children, religious leaders fail to eliminate or at least assuage the disparity between themselves and the less advantaged masses, Sufi Shaikhs demand absolute and unthinking obedience from their followers, and worst of all, political leaders act as opportunists and autocrats thus creating desperation, and passivity or violent reaction in the societies. Shura, therefore, is an attitude and a way of life in Islam whose proper understanding holds the key to solving our most pressing problems as the Muslim ummah.