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The Institution of Consultation during the Reign of Rightly Guided Caliphs
Political Issues
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Tariq Haashmi)


The rightly guided caliphs had two sources of guidance before them: the examples set by the Holy Prophet (sws) and the clear and unambiguous directives of the Holy Qur’ān and the Hadīth. These sources guided them as to how to establish their political system and enact laws. We will first refer to the Qur’ānic verses which provided a basis of the political system set up by the Companions (rta) followed by the relevant prophetic traditions and the example set by the rightly guided caliphs.

The Holy Qur’ān says:

أَمْرُهُمْ شُورَى بَيْنَهُمْ (٣٨:٤٢)

Their system is based on mutual consultation. (42:38)

This fundamental injunction of the Holy Qur’ān has further been explained by the Holy Prophet (sws) in the following words:

ابو سلمة أن النبي صلي الله عليه و سلم سئل عن الأمر يحدث ليس فيه كتاب ولا سنة فقال ينظر فيه العابدون من المومنين

Abū Salamah reports that the Holy Prophet (sws) was asked how to resolve an issue which has neither been discussed in the Qur’ān nor in the Sunnah. He said: “The pious among the Muslims should ponder over it [and decide what to do.]”1

This question has been further explained in another tradition:

عن علي قال قلت يا رسول الله أن عرض لي أمر لم ينزل قضاء في أمره ولا سنة كيف تأمرني قال تجعلونه شورى بين أهل الفقه والعابدين من المومنين ولا تقض فيه برايك خاصة

Narrated from ‘Alī: “I asked the Holy Prophet (sws) how I should decide upon a matter presented to me when it has neither been discussed in the Qur’ān nor is precedented in the Sunnah.” He responded: “Discuss the issue with pious believers and the experts of Islamic law. Do not base your decision on your understanding alone.” 2

This principle of consultation assumed the central position in the khilāfah (i.e. political system evolved by the rightly guided caliphs). Public opinion was, therefore, not only considered necessary in the formation of the political system but also in running the state affairs. Abū Bakr (rta), the first caliph of Islam, was elected with the active will of the Muslims after due consultation. After assuming the chair of khilāfah, he discharged his political responsibilities and decided collective affairs, which were not dealt with in the Qur’ān and the Sunnah, through consultation with the major Companions (rta) who enjoyed the confidence of the majority Muslims and who were considered best among their peers in knowledge and piety. The following tradition recorded in Sunan al-Dārimī depicts Abū Bakr’s attitude in this regard:

حدثنا ميمون بن مهران قال كان أبو بكر إذا ورد عليه الخصم نظر في كتاب الله فإن وجد فيه ما يقضي بينهم قضى به وان لم يكن في الكتاب وعلم من رسول الله في ذلك الأمر سنة قضى به فإن أعياه خرج فسأل المسلمين وقال أتاني كذا وكذا فهل علمتم ان رسول الله قضى في ذلك بقضاء فربما اجتمع إليه النفر كلهم يذكر من رسول الله فيه قضاءا فيقول أبو بكر الحمد لله الذي جعل فينا من يحفظ على نبينا فإن أعياه ان يجد فيه سنة من رسول الله جمع رؤوس الناس وخيارهم فاستشارهم فإذا اجتمع رأيهم على أمر قضى به

Maymūn Ibn Mahrān narrates: When a dispute was brought before the caliph Abū Bakr (rta) he would first look for guidance in the Book of God and decide it in the light of relevant divine command if he found one. If he found out that the matter was not discussed in the Holy Qur’ān and came to know that the Holy Prophet (sws) had set an example in that particular matter he would decide in the light of the prophetic Sunnah. If, however, he did not find guidance in the Sunnah as well, he would then bring up the matter before the Muslims. He would ask them whether any among them knew if the Holy Prophet (sws) had said something concerning the issue at hand. Sometimes many people came forward and told him that the Holy Prophet (sws) had in fact decided such a matter. At this he would say: “All gratitude is due to God. Here in the ummah are men who have preserved the prophetic knowledge.” If however he did not find any prophetic Sunnah dealing with the issue, he would call upon the leaders of the people and those prominent among them and seek their opinion. When all of them reached a decision, he would implement it.3

During the khilāfah of ‘Umar (rta), all political and other unprecedented matters were resolved through consultation. The process of consultation and discussion adopted by the caliph has been explained by Shāh Walī Ullāh in the following words:

كان من سيرة عمر رضي الله تعالى عنه أنه كان يشاور الصحابة و يناظرهم حتى تنكشف الغمة و تأتيه الثلج فصار غالب قضاياه و فتاواه متبعة في مشارق الأرض و مغاربها

‘Umar (rta) would consult the Companions (rta) and continue discussing the issues with them until the differences were removed and the people were utterly convinced of the validity of a decision. It is only because of this vigorous process that all the [political and administrative] decisions and religious rulings issued by him have been followed by [future rulers] from the east to the west.4

According to Shāh Walī Ullāh, this institution of consultation was not operative only during the reign of the first two caliphs; the caliph ‘Uthmān (rta) too ran the political and administrative affairs through consultation with the Companions (rta). In his treatise Izālah al-Khifa’, he writes:

تحقيق آنست كه تازمان حضرت عثمان رضى الله تعالى اختلاف مسائل فقهيه واقع نمي شد درمحل اختلاف بخليفة رجوع مي كردند و خليفة بعد مشاورت امري اختيار مي كرد وهمان امر مجمع عليه شد

Research in the issue shows that juristic disputes did not surface till the end of the rule of ‘Uthmān (rta). Whenever a difference of opinion arose, people would refer that to the caliph who would decide on the issue after consultation with the people. A decision reached at thus was followed by all as a collective decision.5

This system of consultation developed largely during the rule of ‘Umar (rta). ‘Allāmah Shiblī Nu‘māni, a meritorious scholar of the Indian Sub-Continent, in his biography of the caliph ‘Umar (rta), al-Fārūq, has devoted many pages to the subject. Since the whole discussion he has offered is based on authentic primary sources like the Tabaqāt of Ibn Sa‘d, Kanz al-‘Umāl of Muttaqī, Tarīkh Umam wa al-Malūk of Tabarī, Kitāb al-Kharāj of Imām Abū Yūsaf etc and is well argued, parts of it are reproduced here verbatim.

While discussing the details of procedure adopted to hold consultations during the rule of caliph ‘Umar (rta), he writes:

The principle of principles in this regard was to call a session of the shūrā. Whenever the caliph faced some administrative problem he would call a meeting of the members of the council of the shūrā. No matter could be decided without being discussed with the council through consensus or a majority vote. The whole Muslim community at that time had two kinds of leaders who truly represented the entire Arab nation. They were the emigrants (Muhājirūn) and the hosts (Ansār). Participation of both groups was mandatory. The Ansār were further divided in two major tribes, Aws and Khazraj. Therefore, members of both these tribes also attended such meetings. We cannot mention names of all members of the shūrā, nevertheless, we all know that the prominent Companions including, ‘Uthmān (rta), ‘Alī (rta), Mu‘ādh Ibn Jabal (rta), Ubayy Ibn Ka‘b (rta), Zayd Ibn Thābit (rta) were member of the council. A herald would call, al-salātu jāmi‘ah (a formulaic expression used for calling the prayer.) When all would gather in the mosque, the caliph would lead them in two raka‘āt optional prayer. Then he would come to the pulpit and briefly introduce them to the issue at hand.

Day to day affairs of less political significance were decided by this council. When, however, some more crucial matter arose the whole community of the emigrants and the hosts would be called for. Only after unanimous approval of both parties, the matter would be decided. For example, when Iraq and Syria were conquered, some of the Companions (rta) insisted that all the conquered lands should be distributed among the warring soldiers. The gravity of the issue called for a grand meeting. All early converts among the emigrants and the hosts, ten senior tribal chiefs of the Ansār, five from Aws and five from Khazraj, participated in the meeting. The meeting lasted many days. People spoke expansively and expressed their views boldly. We quote certain sentences from ‘Umar’s speech delivered at the occasion in order to acquaint the reader with the essence of the responsibility of khilāfah and the power and authority vested in the caliph at that time:

أني لم أزعجكم إلا أن تشركوا في امانتي فيما حملت من أموركم فإني واحد كأحدكم و لست أريد أن تتبعوا هذا الذي هواي

I have not bothered you except that I wanted you to help me carry out the responsibility you have put on my shoulders. I am only a human being like you. I do not want you to follow my desires in matters like these.6

In the battle of Nahāwand, the Persians gathered a large and well equipped army. Some Muslim leaders thought the level of their extensive preparations demanded that the caliph himself should command the army. A general meeting of the council was called again. Many prominent figures from among the Companions including ‘Uthmān (rta), Talhah Ibn ‘Ubaidullāh (rta), Zubayr Ibn al-‘Awwām (rta), Abdur Rahmān Ibn ‘Awf (rta) etc expressed their views. All of them were of the opinion that the caliph’s participation was not affordable. Then ‘Alī (rta) rose and spoke for these people. At last, it was decided that the caliph would not command the army. Similarly, issues like salaries of the soldiers, set-up of the administrative offices, appointment of the governors, the rights of non-Muslims, the tariffs imposed on them and many other related issues, as recorded in the books of early Islamic history, were determined after thorough discussion in such consultative meetings of the council.

The meetings of the council were not held merely for the sake of entertainment. Nor were people, from whom opinion was elicited, consulted in order to show generosity to them. On the contrary ‘Umar (rta) made it clear to all, on various occasions, that no one enjoys the right to rule without consultation. He said:

لا خلافة إلا عن مشورة

There is no khilāfah without mutual consultation.

The sessions of the shūrā were held whenever an important issue surfaced. There was, however, a parallel institution – a council –, which worked as a forum of discussion over everyday administrative matters. This council would meet daily in the mosque of the Prophet (sws). Only the emigrant Companions (rta) would participate in it. Dispatches from different provinces and the far off districts reaching the capital would be presented by the caliph before this council. If anything called for discussion, people were invited to give their view and vote for or against some view. The issue of imposing jizyah (tax) on the Zoroastrians was discussed and determined in this council. Balādhurī, in one of his chronicles, discusses the proceeding of one of such meetings.

كان للمهاجرين مجلس في المسجد فكان عمر عنه يجلس معهم فيه و يحدثهم عما ينتهي إليه من أمور الآفاق فقال يوما ما أدري كيف أصنع بالمجوس

There was a council of the emigrants whose meetings were held in the mosque. ‘Umar (rta) used to attend its meetings. He would put before the council dispatches from far flung areas. One day he said: “I do not know how to decide the issue of [imposing jizyah] on the Zoroastrians?”7

During the reign of ‘Umar (rta) not only important national affairs were decided in such consultative meetings of the council (shūrā) but also the appointment of the provincial governors and administrators were made according to the wishes of the respective towns. In this regard, Shiblī writes:

Before appointing governors in Kūfa, Basrah and Syria, ‘Umar (rta) asked the people of the respective lands to name individuals of outstanding character, piety, honesty and sound understanding from among themselves who could be appointed as their ruler. Consequently, ‘Uthmān Ibn Farqad from Kūfah, Hajjāj Ibn ‘Alāt from Basrah, Ma‘an Ibn Yazīd from Syria were elected by the people of the respective towns. Accordingly, ‘Umar (rta) appointed these persons as the governors of their respective cities.8

A khalīfah can no doubt insist on his personal opinion in some important and crucial political affairs regarding which he is absolutely convinced that his understanding and opinion is right and that abandoning it for some other view would threaten the existence of the state. However, he has to be clear all the time that he is not infallible. Therefore, he should never insist on his personal opinion and understanding and should never impose his view over the view of the majority of the people from whom opinion was elicited or their consensus in issues subject to ijtihād and particularly those which relate to the public good.  If a khalīfah considers his view, on an issue subject to ijtihād, to be absolutely correct and impeccable this means he claims infallibility on his part.

That the khalīfah must always pay heed to the views of the majority or the consensus of the members of the council can be proved by a number of arguments.

First and the most important argument in this regard is the one pointed out by Abū Bakr Jassās, the author of Ahkām al-Qur’ān, in which says that the process of consultation by its very nature requires that the views expressed by the majority should rule. To say that Islam has obligated the khalīfah to consult the matters with the people in order that the people consulted thus may feel encouraged is not understandable. According to the author of Ahkām al-Qur’ān such empty consultation would hurt the feelings of the members of the shūrā rather than addressing them. It rather borders with insult and is heartrending.

The second argument that can be offered in this regard is that the opinion of a group surely has less probability of error. Therefore, it would be only prudent that the khalīfah does not reject the opinion of the majority in favour of his view. How can he be absolutely sure of the impeccability of his view in an issue which is subject to difference of opinion?  Why are all the others necessarily wrong? Both views are equally exposed to the danger of being erroneous. In this case, the view of the majority is more likely to be correct than that of the individual. Therefore, the sharī‘ah always gives express preference to the view of the majority against that of the individual. A ruling reached at through ijmā‘ decisively prevails over the personal opinion of a person.

The third argument for the case of consultation is based on the fact that during the period of the rightly guided caliphs we do not find a single instance where an issue was brought before the members of the shūrā who after exercising their minds and intellect reached at some conclusion by majority vote or through consensus and then their view was not adopted.  Not to say of the rightly guided caliphs, it can be said with surety, that the Holy Prophet (sws) himself never ignored the views of majority of the Companions (rta) in spite of the fact that neither did he needed to consult them to that level nor was he bound by the sharī‘ah to do so.

Those who believe that the caliph is not bound by the sharī‘ah to follow the opinion of the majority and therefore can veto their decision, be it based on a majority vote or on consensus, present two examples to establish their point from the practice of the first caliph Abū Bakr (rta). They cite the issue of use of force by him against those who refused to pay the zakāh to the state and the issue of Syrian expedition under the headship of Usāmah Ibn Zayd. The viewpoint held by Abū Bakr (rta), in each issue, has been misunderstood. This, therefore, calls for an explanation of his stance in both the cases.

First, we take up his decision to fight those tribes who refused to pay the zakāh. A group of the tribes, who had denounced the religion of Islam, after the death of the Prophet (sws), did not convert from Islam completely. They agreed to offer the salāh but refused to pay the zakāh. Abū Bakr (rta) decided to force them into paying the zakāh. This, according to him, was a clear and an unambiguous directive of Islam. Therefore, he did not put the matter before the shūrā for discussion. He, on the contrary, considered it his religious duty to implement, as the caliph, the rule of law in this regard just like he had to make the citizens of the state obey other manifest sharī‘ah directives like the prayer, the fast, penal laws, and the like. He decided on the basis of his understanding of the sharī‘ah to fight those who do not pay the state the zakāh.

When people came to know about this decision of the caliph, some of them approached him and said that the religion of Islam was in infancy and the number of its enemies is so great and therefore powerful that it would be impossible for the nascent state to fight the whole of the Arabian peninsula. They held that considering this ground reality it would be better that the caliph does not fight the people who at least agree on offering the salāh. He should thus show lenience to them and let them practice whatever part of religion they can. These people also presented a prophetic saying in support of their viewpoint:

أمرت أن أقاتل الناس حتى يقولوا لا إله إلا الله فإذا قالوها عصموا مني دماءهم و أموالهم إلا بحقها و حسابهم على الله

I have been directed to fight these people until they declared that there is no god but Allah. When they have made such a declaration, they would have saved from me their life, their wealth, except what is legally due. The accountability of their inner-faith is upon God.9

Abū Bakr (rta), in response to this, stated that the zakāh is one of the corollaries of the same declaration they are supposed to make.

When the people found that Abū Bakr (rta) would not desist from his decision and that he was firm they approached ‘Umar (rta) and persuaded him to talk to the caliph on the topic. At this, ‘Umar (rta) too spoke with the caliph. In response to his objections, the caliph explained the narrative referred to above in the light of another one of the same subject.

سمعت النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم يقول أمرت أن أقاتل الناس على ثلاث شهادة أن لا إله إلا الله و إقام الصلواة و إيتاء الزكوة

I have heard the Holy Prophet (sws) say: “I have been directed to fight these people on three issues, declaration of God’s unity, establishing prayer, and paying of the zakāh.”

Abū Bakr (rta) then said:

By God, besides whom there is no God, I will not accept anything less than that. If these people will hold a rope that they used to give to the Holy Prophet (sws) in zakāh, I will continue fighting them until God, the best of judges, decided among us. If I do not find any support in my war against these people I will fight them alone.

This explanation from the caliph and his expression of determination satisfied the people. At last, they marched on those who refused to pay the zakāh. They successfully forced the defiant tribes in making them pay the zakāh to the state treasury. Later on this step from the caliph was greatly appreciated by the people. Abu Rajā’ ‘Atārwī (rta) narrates:

I observed ‘Umar (rta) kissing the forehead of Abū Bakr (rta) in a large gathering and repeatedly saying: “May my life be sacrificed for your sake. If it were not for you we would have been annihilated.”10

The above quoted incident, a deep analysis would show, leads to certain conclusions which follow:

1. The question of fighting with those factions who had refused to pay the zakāh after the demise of the Holy Prophet (sws) was not presented before the shūrā in the first place. It was therefore not a disputed issue among the shūrā members and the caliph. Only those issues may be presented before the shūrā for discussion which pertain to independent judgment because the sharī‘ah is silent over them. The sharī‘ah stance on the question of fighting those who refused to pay the zakāh was clear to the caliph. According to the sharī‘ah, in an Islamic state, one does not enjoy the right of citizenship when one refuses to pay the zakāh to the state treasury. This is a clear directive of the sharī‘ah. That is why it was not incumbent upon Abū Bakr (rta) to present the issue before the shūrā for discussion before taking a stance on the subject. As a caliph of the Muslim state, his only responsibility was to promulgate the will of the sharī‘ah, and so he imposed the will of God without hesitation. A caliph is, for example, not supposed to seek the advice of the shūrā before taking rebels to task who start openly massacring innocent citizens of the state. The caliph, in such situations, has to implement the Qur’ānic penalty prescribed for the recalcitrant and those who create a law and order situation in the land.

2. Those opposing him were indeed not able to fully understand the prophetic saying. When Abū Bakr (rta) explained the real implication of that relatively less clear narrative with the help of another fuller narrative all were satisfied. It goes without saying that there could be no more authentic source of Prophetic knowledge than what was reported by Abū Bakr (rta).

3. Abū Bakr’s saying that he would fight those who refused to pay the zakāh even if no one was by his side, does not signal his wishes to overrule the shūrā but expresses his determination to fully enforce the clear and express sharī‘ah commandments, the most pressing responsibility of a caliph in the Islamic state. The ruler is expected to be ready to lay his life in the enforcement of the commands of the Almighty Allah. He is bound to follow the decision of the majority only in issues over which the sharī‘ah is silent and are therefore subject to ijtihād.

As regards the issue of sending the expedition to Syria, it had already been decided by the Holy Prophet (sws) himself. He had in fact selected the army and supervised all the necessary preparation for it. He had hoisted the flag of the army, a formal expression of commencement of an armed offensive. Had it not been for his severe illness, the army would have been on its way to Syria. The Prophet’s unfortunate death hindered the departure. Once Abū Bakr (rta) assumed the office of khilāfah, the first responsibility he felt on his shoulders was to implement the will and order of the Holy Prophet (sws) regarding the expedition which he had carefully planned. He, therefore, proceeded with sending the army as decided by the Holy Prophet (sws). One can easily understand that as a successor of the Holy Prophet (sws) and his trusted companion, Abū Bakr (rta) would have not considered otherwise. What could be more demanding and dearer for Abū Bakr (rta) than to fulfil the wish of the Holy Prophet (sws) and carry out his express orders? He was not obliged to bring this matter before the shūrā for consultation because the issue had already been decided by the Messenger of God. Therefore, when some people expressed reservation on his decision to launch the offensive at that crucial juncture, for they did not see it feasible, he boldly refused to listen to them saying that he would not tie the flag hoisted by the Holy Prophet (sws).

Both these decisions of Abū Bakr (rta), in no way, prove that a caliph can ignore the will of the majority and veto the decision of the shūrā. Contrarily, these examples prove that the caliph cannot suspend clear and express directives of the sharī‘ah. In such matters, therefore, the caliph does not follow the opinions of the members of the council. He enforces the will of God.

The above discussion clearly shows that Islam gives the process of consultation a well-defined form. Rulers are obliged to submit to the decisions of the council. However it needs to be appreciated that during early days of Islamic rule all people from whom opinion was elicited lived in the capital of the state. In the tribal Arabian society leaders of different parties and tribes were selected in a way remarkably different from the conventions of the present age. This made the system of consultation simple and uncomplicated. Since then, the world has gone through much cultural and civilizational changes. In the present day society, any set-up of the institution of shūrā can be introduced which not only matches the needs of the time but also facilitates the accomplishment of the ideals of shūrā in an effective manner. Modern methods of election can be adopted and new reforms can be introduced into the system. Interrelation of the public representatives in the shūrā and the rulers can be defined afresh. This may sometimes require certain legislation which would be perfectly in line with the intent of the sharī‘ah.

(Translated from Islāhī’s Islāmī Riyāsat by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)






1. Sunan Dārimī, No: 117.

2. The author has mentioned only the name of the book, Tabarānī’s al-Mu‘jam al-Awsat without stating the exact reference. I have tried to search through the work but have been unable to find the narrative in this wording. Tabarānī does, however, contain the following version of the narrative:

عن علي قال قلت يا رسول الله إن نزل بنا أمر ليس فيه بيان أمر ولا نهي فما تأمرنا قال تشاورون الفقهاء والعابدين ولا تمضوا فيه رأي خاصة

Reported from ‘Alī that he asked the Messenger of God: “How should we decide upon a matter facing us which the [the sources] do not mention as allowed nor prohibited? What do you guide us to? He [the Prophet] said: ‘You should discuss the issue with pious individuals and the experts of Islamic law and not adopt the view of certain individuals.’” (Tabarānī, al-Mu‘jam al-Awsat, No: 1618)

3. Sunan Dārimī, No: 161.

4. Shah Walī Ullāh, Hujjatullāh al-Bālighah, 1st ed., vol. 1 (Lahore: Maktabah al-Salafiyyah, 1975), 132.

5. Shah Walī Ullāh, Maqsad-i Awwal, Izālah al-Khifā’, 130.

6. Muhammad Hussayn Haykal, ‘Umar al-Fārūq, 9th ed., vol. 2 (Cairo: Dār al-Ma‘ārif, 1986), 268.

7. Shiblī Nu‘mānī, al-Fārūq (Lahore: Maktabah Rahmāniyah, n.d.), 189-191.

8. Ibid., 191.

9. Ibn Hibbān, No: 3926. Variants of this narrative have been recorded in: Bukhārī, No: 25; Muslim, No: 21.

10. This discussion is entirely based on Ibn Qutaybah, al-Imāmah wa al-Siyāsah, vol.1 (Cairo: Sharikatu Maktabah wa Matba‘ati Mustafā al-Bāb al-Halabī wa Awlādihī, 1969), 17.

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