Shura, or consultation, embraces every facet of life and is easily adaptable to a variety of different situations. In Islam, it is encouraged not only in the political realm but on a social scale as well, involving families and professional entities. The Quran mentions shura when it refers to those “who (conduct) their affairs by mutual Consultation” (42:38) in the list of people that will have a lasting reward with God. Hence, shura is a binding Islamic principle.
Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (pbuh), used to decide matters of importance, be it within the community or in his home, with the consultation of those around him. He set numerous examples in which he exercised shura, both in seeking advice and heeding it. In this way, he modeled how to be a just leader, an engaging military commander, and a father and husband that continually took counsel from his family. Indeed, shura was an integral process for him and he made it a prevalent practice in his society, fostering dialogue, mutuality, and unity.
From the very beginning of his prophethood, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) sought the counsel of his wife, Khadija. The first experience of revelation left the Prophet (pbuh) confused and he immediately rushed to Khadija for solace. Khadija comforted him and assured him that an honest man like him would not be forsaken by God. She took him to her cousin, Waraqa ibn Nawfal, a priest, who confirmed that Muhammad (pbuh) was a Prophet.
After Khadija’s death, the Prophet (pbuh) did not marry until a lady named Khawla bint Hakeem suggested that he do so for the sake of his children and for his own company. The Prophet (pbuh) asked her to recommend whom he should marry and followed her counsel.
Yet another instance when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) sought shura was on the Day of Hudaibiyah. He had sealed a treaty with the pagan Meccans, which stipulated that Muslims must return without performing the pilgrimage this year. Muslims, who had come prepared for the pilgrimage, were angry and reluctant to abide by this condition. Muhammad (pbuh) told his companions three times to sacrifice their animals and shave their heads, in order to prematurely end the pilgrimage. However, no one listened to him.
Distressed, he went to his wife, Umm Salamah, who advised him to conduct these rites himself first, and his companions will surely follow. The Prophet heeded her suggestion, and as she had predicted, his companions followed suit, resolving the problem.
Similarly, shura among families as a whole – including children – is extremely important. Consultation strengthens the family unit and creates a culture of inclusive decision-making. It also cultivates confidence in children and nurtures a trusting relationship within the family. When shura is one of the family’s building blocks, then it is easier to get through the bumps of life, such as growth stages in children, behavioral changes, economic challenges, loss of loved ones, etc. The Prophet (pbuh) has stated, “The believers with the most perfect faith are those with the most perfect conduct and manners. And the best ones amongst you are those who are best to their families.”
The Larger Picture
The Islamic principle of shura is equally important beyond the family. It is a motivating and empowering factor in anything people undertake – from education to work to social causes to hobbies. It enables individuals to feel that their feedback is valuable and they can make a difference in the larger picture. Hence, in general, shura has a very positive influence on all sorts of professional or voluntary endeavors.
The companions of Muhammad (pbuh) followed his example even after his death. For instance, one of the last decisions he took was to order the young Usama ibn Zayd to lead an army to Syria. However, the Prophet (pbuh) died soon afterwards. Now, some companions suggested that someone more experienced should replace Usama. However, Caliph Abu Bakr refused to sway from the Prophet’s decision. Rather, he humbly approached Usama and requested to keep Umar in Madina to help him with governance.
Some time later, when Umar, the second caliph, was on his deathbed, he instructed that his successor be chosen by mutual consultation among six companions. In general, the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) kept the spirit of shura alive by routinely seeking counsel and giving advice. This practice was so prevalent that individuals also felt free to approach their leaders without fear.
As time has gone by, and with various influences, Muslims in some parts of the world have relinquished this Islamic principle, clinging to rigid hierarchical structures instead. However, shura is a timeless concept which has to be understood and implemented according to the needs of time, place, and circumstances. When properly applied, it becomes essential to the well-being of families and organizations.