Standards for Establishing Consent

Political decisions are contractual agreements that bind the whole community. They must be based on participation and consent of those affected to be fair to hold people to- as discussed in Democracy and Self-Determination.

The teaching of the Qur’an about all contractual obligations is driven by the need to avoid conflict and dispute – keeping the peace. This is achieved by ensuring that the liable parties fully consent and understand to their obligations in particular by making sure they are free from ambiguity and coercion. This is discussed further in the page on Islamic Finance.

The key role of the state in keeping the peace is to define a language of law – a jurisdiction. This language defines well known concepts and terminology and what it means in cases of disputes which the courts of the state are charged with settling. In particular this language of law contains the defaults which establish who has the burden to prove what. These defaults form a foundation of norms of behaviour and this language forms a set of well known standards around which people can easily manage their lives without coming into conflict with others.

The Muslim community is charged specifically with telling people to hold to high standards of behaviour and to forbid people from abnormal deviant behaviour in a number of verses reiterating this principle. For example in 3:104:

“Become a society that invites to the best behaviour and tells people to keep to known good standards and to avoid deviant actions”

The day to day work of implementing political decisions is largely covered in this regulation of society based on standards. It establishes rules for trade and the marketplace, transport etc.

Historically in Islam there have been several traditions of Islamic jurisprudence which have built up differing languages of law which we call collectively “the shariah”. These traditional schools of legal thought (madhhabs) each developed not only standards of rulings, but also standard interpretations and rules of interpretation of the evidence to be considered in making the rulings.

While there is a rich legacy in these traditions, they all were built in an environment where the key role of shurah was not incorporated. There is some exception in the Maliki school where a specific role is given to the consensus of “people of Medina”. But, for various reasons to do with political distrust of rulers and difficulties over large distances and many people, this role of shurah became confined to lmited discussions within a particular group of experts in a madhhab.

This lack of shurah as a basis of law making led to a separation of the rulers from the people, with rulers not trusted to make laws. This had its advantages at time, but once it became established practice it led to stagnation of political life, legal thinking and corruption of rulers which led to complete collapse of Islam as a social and political force. Revivals which happened when the rulers embraced Islam as a useful political tool worked for a while, but also foundered. The Ottomans tried to reform Islam in various ways, but never really departed from the Hanafi madhhab, and so never really addressed this lack of Shurah as the key issue.  The modern day Salafi Muslim school reject the madhhabs as a blind adherence to traditional shariah, but their prescription is not to solve the problem by reintroducing shurah as the core principle of law making, but to rely on attempts to determine the consensus of the sahaba – the companions of the prophet. Their consensus, if it can be established was their shurah. They didn’t agree on many things and the evidence is in any case not binding on us. If they agreed to something that is them contracting an agreement.

Muslim communities today need their own agreements to keep the peace and their own process of law making setting standards for all to live by based on consent and full rights of participation in the decision making process.