WORD FOR WORD: Idea of ‘shura’ and beehive —Khaled Ahmed
‘Shura’ comes from the root ‘shwr’. It means beehive and the act of extracting honey from it. A beehive is the most perfect social organisation you can think of. When you consult you are taking the honey of correct opinion out of the beehive of a community
Again and again, our clerical leaders say that democracy is not compatible with Islam. Dr Israr says his revolution, whenever it comes as a result of his teaching of the Quran, will be bloody. After that a caliphate would be established.
Recently (GEO January 22, 2006) Dr Javid Iqbal said that the Arabs rejected democracy because it was not shuraee as recommended by the Quran. In the shura-based system the rulers (ul al-amr) were free to act on their own and no one could oppose them.
We have the word mashwara (advice, consultation) from the root shwr which also gives rise to the word shura (consultation). The Quran says that Muslims should resolve their issues through shura. What is the meaning of the root shwr?
It means beehive and the act of extracting honey from it. This is a splendid etymology. A beehive is the most perfect social organisation you can think of. Unless the bees consult they cannot do anything, including carrying out the command of the queen bee.
In Arabic, honey extracted from the beehive is called al-shawwar. A honeycomb is obviously called al-mishwara. The same root gives us our very common word for consultation: mushawarat. The person who gives us advice is called mushir.
The act of consultation is then a kind of squeezing of the honey from a beehive. The piece of wood that is used for extracting honey is called al-mishwar. From this another word takes birth: ishara (the act of pointing).
We don’t use the word shurawi for what used to be the Soviet system of government, but in Iran and Afghanistan the Persian word used for it is Shurawi. In fact, while we could not coin an Urdu word for communist, there always was a Persian word for it: shurawi.
Interestingly, when we say mushir we mean adviser. Strictly speaking, it should mean the one consulted. Because of this ambivalence our Supreme Court once held that consultation should be binding. If you are not going to take the advice, why consult?
Advice comes from a Latin background meaning literally from seeing. It is a result of what one thinks or sees. Consult, which comes together with many words like counsellor, consul, etc, means hold together.
Consult is therefore closer to shura than advice. In the case of the Soviet Union, the name was given to the system because of its basic unit the soviet where communities consulted and produced an opinion for the central government.
Sa- is another Aryan prefix meaning together. So when you join it with vet (speaking) you get speaking together which is what you get when you attend a soviet. In Russian, soviet is common advice.
All societies have memories of the consultative function. All utopias are models of direct democracy, but they are impractical for today’s conditions. That’s why utopias quickly decline into tyrannies. The caliphate is a utopia.
In Afghanistan, the caliphate killed itself through tyranny. In Iran, the Imamate will have to democratise itself if it is to survive. In all cases, the Muslims must be intellectually ready to adapt, reinterpret, and readapt.
The system of panchayat in our countryside is a consultative body based on the panch presumably carrying the weight of five people or a landholding spread over five measures. Jirga is the tribal version but here again the big landowner or the warlord tends to dominate collective opinion.
Elders used to be the yardstick of a consultative system. In Rome senate was the beginning of a democratic system. At times the senate dominated the ruler. Senate is from the same root that gives us senior and senile! *