Islamic Rules of Order: The Link Between Classical and Contemporary Approaches to Good Governance


[This is the nineth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Good Governance in Islam: Classical and Contemporary Approaches held in Herndon, VA. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

Islamic Rules of Order:
The Link Between Classical and Contemporary Approaches to Good Governance

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D. , Minaret of Freedom Institute


Anyone who has been involved in the creation or operation of any Islamic institution is aware of the resistance to the adoption of specific rules of order. More than once I have endured the experience during the formation of a new Muslim organization of having someone rise and vociferously object to the adoption of Robert’s Rules of Order on the grounds that they are Western innovation and inappropriate for a Muslim organization. “All innovation is bid`a, and all bid`a leads to hellfire,” they will piously warn.

Good governance, whether of political, commercial, or civil society institutions, requires a solid, agreed-upon, set of rules of order. Muslim organizations in particular have an intense need for rules of order that Muslims can understand and easily accept. The purpose of this paper is to make the case that my book The Islamic Rules of Order (IRO)[1] can fulfill that purpose. Legal, historical, and pragmatic arguments will be presented to demonstrate that IRO provides a link between the classical and contemporary approaches to good governance that builds on the solid foundation of the Qur’an and sunnah while taking advantage of modern developments in parliamentary procedure.


The intensity of the resistance to the adoption of rules of order by Muslim organizations can be quite deep. Usually it manifests itself in the form of the point that the Qur’an and the Sunnah sufficient and need not be supplemented by any rules of order let alone rules devised by Western colonial powers. Was not General Robert, the author of the most famous and widely used rules of order a military man? This strongly held aversion combined with a much more broad unfamiliarity with rules of order puts knowledgeable and experienced community leaders in an awkward situation. I know of at least one case in which an imam resorted to trickery in order to have his new masjid adopt Robert’s Rules of Order. He convinced them to incorporate into their Constitution the incorporation of the rules of order used by a certain Chicago Muslim organization, without telling them that the rules so incorporated were in fact Robert’s.

Adding force to this resistance is the fact that there are a number of legitimate complaints that can be raised against Robert’s Rules of Order. The fact that Robert’s Rules are not directly guided by the Qur’an and Sunna is the least of these objections. More generally, Robert’s Rules can become very opaque in the very cases where they are most needed to allow a deliberative resolution of serious controversy. The existence of ambiguous terms like “to table” and the use of what can only be called jargon, such as “call the question” to mean “to close debate,” further exacerbates the problem.


Henry Martyn Robert is often credited with the systemization of the rules of order. Rules of order, like so many forms of law, depend heavily on custom and in the bodies where their importance is most recognized, such as parliaments, they evolved as a form of what in Islam is called `urfi, or customary, law. Robert realized that these rules needed to be written down when he “was asked to preside over a church meeting and realized that he did not know how.”

Written rules of order are more ancient than that. Perhaps the first recorded attempt at rules of order was those of the Emperor Ashoka twenty-three centuries ago, when he “tried to codify and circulate what must have been among the earliest formulations of rules for public discussion…. He demanded, for example, ‘restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolling of one’s own sect or disparaging of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even in appropriate occasions.’”[4]

The Knights Templar had written rules of order in the twelfth century.[5] This was a time when many innovations entered the West from the Muslim world and one wonders whether the rules of order, like checks (a financial innovation carried over to the West by the Knights Templar), may have had its origin in the Muslim world.

Modern rules of order are derived from the “parliamentary law” of the British parliament, that is, from its customs and procedures. The British parliament itself also dates back to the twelfth century. Robert’s Rules, which dominates in the United States, is a variation on the “Westminster procedure,” which dominates in the British countries (except Canada). While Robert’s Rules are the best-known codification of the rules of order, The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure[6] and Demeter’s Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure[7] are also in wide use.

The purpose of the rules of order is to facilitate public debate. Even meetings that adopt no formal rules of order find themselves using the terminology associated with them (such as “make a motion”). Formally adopting a set of rules makes meetings and organizations operate more smoothly as long as they do not let the formality of the rules get in the way of the conduct of business.


We posit that difficulties posed by terminology or provisions of modern parliamentary procedure that some Muslims deem unIslamic may be overridden by express clauses in the bylaws or constitution of particular Muslim organizations. The practical implementation of such a resolution faces two primary challenges. The first is that intransigent minority that refuses to believe that a non-Muslim institution can possibly be reformed to become a part of an Islamic institution. The second is that the best known of the Western rules of order, Robert’s Rules, are in fact truly confusing and cumbersome.

To the first challenge we shall argue that the Qur’an is not a set of rules of order, and the institution of rules of order has a precedent in the Medina Compact, so Muslims who negotiate the bylaws of their own organizations are following the example of the Prophet (saw)’s example. The Qur’an demands that Muslims engage in shûrah (consultation) in their affairs, yet does not specify precisely how such consultation is conducted.

The IRO itself is the response to the second objection, as it includes reforms to Robert’s Rules that have been promoted by the American Parliamentary Association and adds additional changes both from my experience as a parliamentarian for both Muslim and secular organizations and my study of historical and modern Muslim efforts to deal with the issue of good governance.


The Qur’an is not a set of rules of order. It is not even a formal constitution as it gives no specifics for the institutions of government or administration. That the earliest Muslims understood this is well documented in Islamic history by the degree to which leaders like Omar ibn Khatab freely adopted institutions of lands they conquered and incorporated them into the Islamic system is also demonstrated by wholesome procedures introduced by Ali during his tenure as the commander of the faithful, as well as by reforms introduced by pious later leaders like Omar ibn Abdul Aziz. The Prophet himself set a precedent for the institution of rules of order in the Medina Compact, so Muslims who negotiate the bylaws of their own organizations are following the Prophet’s example.

There is consensus among Muslims that we must engage in shûrah (consultation), yet there is an ongoing debate as to the meaning of shurah, let alone as to the rules on how such consultation should be conducted. Does shurah mean that an autocratic leader or ruling elite should have audiences with their subjects to give a hearing to their concerns? Or does it mean that the people themselves should vote on election of their leaders, on the policies to which their leaders must be bound, or even directly vote on bills and tax rates? And in any case what sort of notice is required? What are the terms of debate? How much time must be allotted to each person consulted? The answers to these questions are open. The Islamic precedence we must follow only requires us to be fair and just in the formulation and implementation of such rules; they do not specify the rules themselves.

In a paper I gave at a previous IIIT summer Institute,[8] I argued for a correspondence principle that would govern how we analyze Islamic precedents when we seek to formulate rules for current matters. This principle requires that our understanding of the prophets interpretation of the general principles enunciated in the Qur’an allow for his actions to be a correct application of those principles (although not necessarily the only correct application of those principles) in his time and place without necessarily being the only, the best, or even the correct application in our current circumstances. The rules in IRO have been vetted under this principle.


Employing IRO presents a reasonable extrapolation of the classical understanding of the Maqasid (higher objectives of Islamic law) effective in modern life. The enumeration and articulation of the Maqasid and a number of variations. For simplicity I shall stick with the classical five. Also for simplicity I shall restrict myself to a single example of how the rules of order served each of the five.

Life. The rules of order incorporate within them the laws of the broader society which for Islamic organizations and governments will of course include the Qur’an. The Qur’an absolutely defends the life of all innocent people. What of those people who are not deemed to be innocent but may be guilty of a capital crime? It is in such cases that the right known in the West is “due process” becomes critical. Especially in the case of the Arab spring states, if they truly wish to distance themselves from the practices of the dictatorships they have overthrown in excusing the murders of the civilian population under the guise of fighting terrorism or rebellion or whatever fitna, it is essential that rules that will ensure that you process of people accused are formulated and followed. The fair application of any such rules requires that all incidental rules including the rules of order be respected. It is especially in such weighty matters that respect for the rules of order emerges not only with respect for the rule of law but with the respect of life itself.

Religion. Respect for religion as an element of the higher purposes of the law must include both respect for the importance of religion in social or institutional affairs and also respect for freedom of religion. The IRO serves both purposes by incorporating respect for the Koran and the Sunna within itself and by incorporating that respect for freedom of religion which is inherent in Islamic law as to the treatment of minorities. When the Islamic rules of order are applied to governments, the rights of protected minorities are fully protected. When applied to Muslim institutions of civil society that have some non-Mulsim members, the terms of membership for non-Muslims are totally voluntary, and therefore an explicit statement of their rights and obligations as provided by the founding documents of the organization are essential. Only such explicit statement of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities (as was found in the Medina compact or in various treaty negotiations between early Muslim rulers and the populations of the areas they had liberated from the various empires of the day) can assure that they will function freely and comfortably within a Muslim organization.

Dignity. If the rules of order have any underlying objective beyond utilitarian purpose of facilitating debate and decision-making, it is that the process of debate and decision-making be conducted in such a way as to defend the dignity of the participants. It is when people attempt to debate without any rules governing the process of decorum that dignity is most will suffer.

Property. As with the protection of life due process is essential to the protection of property. Consider the example of an organization deciding whether to increase its dues. The IRO would prohibit such an increase without due notice. Were the majority to be allowed to increased dues on the spur of the moment, without notice, it could disenfranchise members unable or unwilling to pay the increase. Such an action would be a form of theft.

Knowledge. Because the IRO enhances the transparency of governance it serves an essential function in protecting respect for knowledge. An entire chapter is devoted to finances in order to assure financial transparency and to impede corruption, including a discussion of the U.S. Justice Dept.’s “Best practices” guidelines.

Family. Since family units are of such a size and nature as to be exempt from the necessity of having their own rules of order (beyond the customary laws of a given society), there would seem to be little that IRO can contribute to this subject. However, I shall be so bold as to suggest that even if the specific rules of order and IRO are unnecessary for a nuclear family unit, the principles that they serve are appropriate within the family. The main function of the family unit is the raising of children so they can fulfill their obligations as responsible adults once they’re grown, where better for them to learn Islam rules of order and within the family household. Why not have family meetings to engage shurah about those issues that directly affect all family members?


The IRO serves the purpose of facilitating the development of Islamic, democratic institutions in a manner firmly harmonized with the Sharia and pertinent to current constitutional debates in the emerging Islamic democracies of the “Arab Spring.” Perhaps these issues are best demonstrated by the negative example of the shortcomings of recent events in Egypt that violate both the spirit and the letter of the IRO. Holding parliamentary elections, for example, before a constitution was written was foolish. It was justified in the eyes of those who favored it by the need for an elected governing body to demonstrate the success of the revolution. The dissolution of the parliament by an edict of the military proved that such progress was a complete illusion. The same goes for the election of a president for a Constitution defining his presidential powers place. The election was held only after some of the most popular candidates were eliminated from the competition, and even though the militaries hand-picked representative was defeated in the runoff, it was only after the military had stripped the presidency of almost all authority. This demonstrates the importance of having a constitution in place to run your government or institution before you begin any other serious business. This requirement is in fact in the IRO. Egypt’s desire to immediately have the broader society take control away from the military would have been better served by a popular election of the constitution writing committee, rather than first elect a parliament whose authority was hotly disputed by the various factions, a dispute  which the military was able to appropriate for its own purposes. Even as we meet the newly elected president, absent any powers granted by an as yet to be written constitution and stripped by the military of most of the powers granted to his office by the same military is trying to restore the dissolves parliament. All this should make it clear why it is important to write the rules of any game before play begins.


IRO serves the purpose of facilitating the development Islamic, democratic institutions at firmly harmonized with the Sharia and effective in modern life. It provides a rebuttal to those who object that the Qur’an and sunnah is sufficient and also attempts to resolve problems with the most commonly used rules of order, to make a handbook that is reasonably easy to understand and apply. It is my hope that it will not only facilitate good governance of American Muslim civil society institutions but also be useful in the Arab spring during the critical phase of transition from the deposed dictatorial regimes into newborn democratic Islamic institutions for the governance of those societies.

[1] Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, The Islamic Rules of Order (Beltsville: amana, 2008). [IRO]

[2] Adapted from Appendix D in Ahmad, op. cit.

[3] “Short History of Robert Rules,” The Official Robert Rules of Order website, (5/2/06) (accessed 2/18/08).

[4] Amartya Sen, “Passage to China,” The New York Review of Books 51 (12/2/04) 19. (accessed 6/2/08).

[5] J.M. Upton-Ward, The Rule of the Templars: The French Text of the Rule of the Order of the Knights Templar (Studies in the History of Medieval Religion) (Rochester: Boydell, 1992).

[6] Alice Sturgis, The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure, 4th Edition (NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001).

[7] George Demeter, Demeter’s Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure: for the Legal Conduct of Business in All Deliberative Assemblies (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969).

[8] Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, “Methodological Considerations Regarding Approaching the Qur’an and Sunnah in the Context of Contemporary Life,” Third IIIT Summer Institute for Scholars in Herndon, Virginia, July 26 – August 6, 2010, accepted for proceedings publication.

Discussant: Mahmoud Ayoub

Rules of Order is a new phenomenon. Caliphate belongs more to Arab genius that to Islamic thought properly speaking and can lead to a form of small dictatorship. How do we balance? We have the Quaker method of waiting for a consensus, so there is no voting. As Islam quickly became an international power the adoption of foreign elements was normal and natural. These rules may be seen as not Islamic in principle in letter or spirit. If we have to adopt it, we must adopt it with the Islamic call for wasatiyyah (moderation), a matter of maslahah (public interest). I agree we should not reject something simply because it was not formulated by a Muslim. Islam is universal. It took 300 years for Buddhism to be nativized in China. We must be careful as to how to accept and when to reject. Islamization cannot be done consciously; it must be done organically.

Discussant: Jamal Barzanji

IRO really stands for Imad-ad-Dean’s rules of order. It is about decision-making as well as debate, otherwise you could debate forever. If we pay attention to the debate that went into the selection of the first khalîfah, the people of ansar did call for a meeting and when Umar and Abu Bakr came in they were confronted with a new argument. In the Qur’an we have not only shurah, but verses about conducting ourselves in the presence of the Prophet. In Sûrat-al-Hujurât we are told not to raise our voice, and elsewhere to take permission before we leave. How does one transform the Bedouins into a civilized people? For the Islamists to accept democracy is a bigger leap than the acceptance of rules of order. Umar sent a panel of six to go door to door asking, “Who do you want to be the next khalifa?” My problem is that the ummah has been plagued from almost its inception by the threat of dictatorship.

General Discussion.

This is a great initiative, although it cannot carry over to speaking of the constitution. This originates in human action, so we know they have been humanized when they carry over into the actions of Muslims. You overstretch the argument when you take this and relate it to the rough drive of Egyptian transition. We must recognize that there is something at the political level to the will to power above the issue at hand. There are camps disputing the entire order.

We talk about Islamization, but how does it work? The first Muslim to rule internationally was Mu`awiyyah. When a wise man evaded his question about governance, Mu`awiyyah responded that the problem began when Umar departed from Abu Bakr’s precedent.

Even the constitution of the US has been hijacked.

I think this is a great idea to socialize Muslims when they work in secular institutions, but I have two concerns. Are you overstretching your case carrying it to constitutions where stakes are so high? They also give a sense of communal identity. In calling it Islamic rules of order are we falling into the same problem as “Islamic state.” Does it give it an authority you don’t necessarily want to give it?

Earlier generations had a skill we lack. Islamization recently has been taking ideas from other societies and claiming to Islamize them. Initially you said democratization of Islam is impossible and them contradicted it. I’m not sure historians would agree that caliphate is a product of Arab genius. There are different interpretations of my community will not agree to an error. I’m sure we have made many errors.

That as my point and I was referring to khalîfah as an institution as it began in Medina. The verse of Dawud is the only reference to khalîfah as a ruler. History must stand.

You suggested Egyptians should have elected a committee to write a constitution. A technical committee was formed and one of the functions of this elected assembly was to make a constitution and then one elected would supersede it.

People have already agreed in Tunisia and maybe Egypt there has already been a decision on liberal democracy. The struggle is on meeting the needs of people.

This needs more elaboration. Voting needs majority rule, which is problematic in Islam.

I agree that there is a resistance to the rules of order. We have that in the Syrian National Council, but the resistance is not religious; it is cultural by people who do not want to be subjected to democratic rule but want to continue in the position of command. Any human being would say truth is not base on majority but power is.

Ahmad: There is no contradiction. Democracy is a complex notion, and most if its elements — open debate, election of leaders, popular participation, protection of minorities — are not in contradiction to Islamic law. The only element of democracy that is challenged by Islamic law is whether the majority may overrule divine law. These rules of order incorporate that limitation on majority rule and facilitate a transition from outmoded forms of Islamic governance to modern forms of Islamic governance.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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