Honeybees and consultative politicsWritten by Wan Naim Wan Mansor
As a year passed since the pivotal YEAR after the pivotal 14th General Election, the need to inculcate the practice of consultative politics is more crucial than ever.
The political weight of the right-wing Malay interest groups, now lumped together as a large opposition bloc, has significantly increased.
This is in response to frequent political contestations pitting the sentiment of the majority and the newly growing voices of the minority.
Consultative politics, defined as the willingness to engage and consult with the population or key stakeholders, can be a mitigating remedy for the delicate political dynamics at hand.
The practice of consultation, often associated with the Quranic term shura, is at the heart of Islamic political philosophy.
Shura and its derivative musyawarah is the focal theme of two verses in the Quran; “and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves” (al-Shura, 42:38), and “So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter” (Ali Imran, 3:159).
Fascinatingly, the Quran followed an ingenious approach in addressing the matter, by alluding to an unsuspecting creature from the animal kingdom, the honeybees.
This is evidenced by the literal translation of shura, which “is to extract honey from its source”, and how a significant portion of the Quran’s discussion on shura is elaborated in a chapter explicitly named as The Bee (Arabic: An-Nahl) — another key chapter on the subject is literally entitled Ash-Shura.
One might intuitively consider ants — which are commonly associated with order, uniformity, diligence, and discipline — which the Quran also refers to in some parts, as a prime candidate for a political model if one were to pick from nature; and the Quran has incidentally, also a sura titled al-Naml (the Ant).
Yet the ‘buzzing’ complexity and elaborate social system of the honeybees arguably resemble more the human reality of dealing with diversity in an ever-changing world.
It was Basma I. Abdelgafar, a female Islamic scholar from Canada specialising in public policy, who first elaborated and highlighted the significance of honeybees in the Quran and its linkage to modern consultative politics.
Basma underscored the importance of shared or collective interests; in the case of honeybees, this is manifested in finding the right home for the colony.
The Quran alluded to this pressing need of finding a home for the bees in the chapter, The Bee (An-Nahl), by describing the various sites that bees could inhabit, including hills, trees, and human-made buildings.
The Quran proceeds to state that it is God Himself that inspires bees to follow a certain decision-making process (An-Nahl, 42:69).
While this may not be true for humans, for honeybees, finding the right home is a matter of life and death.
It is due to this fact that the honeybees’ decision-making process must gather as much information as possible and involve as many colony members as possible.
Such a decision should not be left to chance or trial and error.
Basma argues that this highlights the importance of consultation, despite seemingly a more complex process, in matters of public or collective interests, especially in high-stakes issues.
Thomas D. Seeley, in his groundbreaking book, Honeybee Democracy, listed in detail the specific criteria for a home — such as cavity volume, entrance height, the direction it faces, entrance size, and the presence of threats or predators.
Honeybees first fly en masse to the surrounding locations in search of a place that best fits their criteria.
Coming back home, they engage in a form of “direct democracy” in persuading other colony members of the best location using an open dancing competition in which information is conveyed via complex sign language.
Each honeybee will then self-verify the proposed location and then proceed to persuade others. In time, the best locations will garner the most support while poorer locations gradually fade as they become less promoted.
Seeley outlines five key principles demonstrated by the honeybee that humans can emulate in decision-making processes.
First, is the need to prioritise collective goals or public interests.
Second, the importance of the distribution of power where a group can gather and filter as much information possible without undue influence from certain quarters, including leaders.
Third, the benefit of seeking diverse opinions and solutions.
Fourth, the virtue of persuasion via constructive debate.
Fifth and lastly, the use of a threshold in which fast and efficient decision can be reached without sacrificing legitimacy and consensus.
Undoubtedly, a lot remains to be learned from honeybees, as well as the complexity and depth of the Islamic principle of consultation (shura).
In summary, like honeybees, the outcome of shura, or consultative decision-making, should also be “just as beneficial, sweet, and illuminating for mankind.”
Published in: New Straits Times, Monday 17th June 2019