On the leadership of Imam Ali (AS)

Written by  Published by:Shiite News
Published in Articles
Monday, 05 October 2015


The history of mankind has witnessed many leaders over the ages. Many of these leaders achieved leadership through might or inheritance and some were chosen as leaders because of certain outstanding qualities that they possessed. Among the latter group there have also emerged some leaders whose works and contribution to humanity cannot be limited to any particular time or place; and their lifestyles, their works and the sayings of such heroes continue to inspire and motivate people, generation after generation.

Within the Islamic realm, Amir al-Muminin, Ali ibn Abu Talib is one such unique leader who stands out among all other leaders. His wise sayings and sermons which are contained in his book Nahjul Bhalagh continue to enlighten many societies today.

On the auspicious occasion of Eid Ghadir Khum, largely celebrated within the Muslim world to mark the day Imam Ali’s authority and leadership was proclaimed by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) at his farewell Hajj, we proffer here a case study on the leadership of Imam Ali which gives a true appreciation of the Islamic concept of responsible leadership.

Suffice to say this article is largely inspired by the United Nations Arab Human Development Report of 2002, which quoted six sayings from Imam Ali as an advice to world leaders who lack all the virtues and glory possessed by Imam Ali.

The quotes came from Imam Ali’s directive to Malik al-Ashtar, his appointed governor of Egypt. The words of the Imam provide a comprehensive framework of ethical governance. We further ask ourselves; How great must his conduct have been, such that after thousands of years have elapsed, the United Nations in the year 2002 uses his words to chide Muslim nations on how to conduct themselves?

The answer to this question lies in the fact that Imam Ali greatly emphasised the responsibility of leadership and the virtue of just and benevolent rule. His advice to his officers and the governors of the various provinces that made the Islamic realm are the documents that deserve devotional study and practical application. His writings are, for all intents and purposes, a charter for just rule. He emphasised all those qualities of leadership that are today sneered at and purposely avoided.

Arguably the most precise advice on responsible leadership is contained in Imam Ali’s directive to Maalik al-Ashtar, upon taking governance of Egypt. Imam Ali’s letter to Malik, is a precis of the principles of administration and justice as dictated by Islam.

In it he touches on the duties and obligations of rulers, their chief responsibilities, the question of priorities of rights and obligations, dispensation of justice, control over secretaries and subordinate staff; distribution of work and duties amongst the various branches of administration, their co-ordination with each other and their co-operation with the centre.

This letter is on one hand the Gospel of the principles of administration as taught by the Holy Qur’an, a code to establish a kind and benevolent rule, throwing light on various aspects of justice, benevolence and mercy, an order based on the ethics of Divine rulership where justice and mercy are shown to human beings irrespective of class, creed and colour, where poverty is neither a stigma nor a disqualification and where justice is not tainted with nepotism, favouritism, provincialism or religious fanaticism; and, on the other hand, it is a thesis on the higher values of morality. In it he advised:

“Let it be known to you, Maalik, that I am sending you as a governor to a country which has seen many regimes before this. Some of them were benign, sympathetic and good, while others were tyrannical, oppressive and cruel. People will judge your regime as critically as you have studied the activities of other regimes and they will criticise you in the same way as you have censured or approved other rulers.

“You must know that a good and virtuous man is known and recognised by the good that is said about him and the praise which God has destined him to receive from others. Therefore, make your mind the source and fountain-head of good thoughts, good intentions and good deeds. This can only be attained by keeping a strict control on your desires and yearnings, however much they may try to incite and coerce you.
“Remember that the best way to do justice to your inner self and to keep it out of harm is to restrain it from vice and from things which the ‘self’ inordinately and irrationally desires. Maalik!

“You must create in your mind kindness, compassion and love for your subjects. Do not behave towards them as if you are a voracious and ravenous beast and as if your success lies in devouring them.”

Imam Ali made great strides to ensure his governors and officials were free from corruption and greed and treated people with dignity, honour, and kindness as he told his officials:

“Behave humbly with the people, keep yourself lenient, meet them with a big heart, and accord them equal treatment, so that the high should not expect injustices from you in their favour, and the low should not be despondent of your justice towards them.”

At a time where bureaucratic corruption was a social norm, Imam Ali shared his own allocation of income from the state with the poor and unequivocally stated his position on justice, “By God, even if I am given all the domains of the seven countries with all that exists under the skies in order that I may disobey Allah to the extent of snatching one grain of barley from an ant, I would not do it.”

The heritage of Imam Ali is one of justice and equity, and subsequently, the history of his enemies is tainted by oppression and tyranny. His speech, dress, and actions were humble and just, and his love towards God led his conduct towards righteousness.

Imam Ali believed in total justice enacted through government. He believed in providing for the elderly, the needy, the orphans and special counsellors and such people. He was also a champion of open government, and that meant a government that could be approached by every individual citizen in confidence.

On equality, Imam Ali urged his leaders to show mercy and recognise weaknesses of humans;

“Remember, Malik that amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: those who have the same religion as you have; they are brothers to you, and those who have religions other than that of yours, they are human beings like you.

“Men of either category suffer from the same weaknesses and disabilities that human beings are inclined to, they commit sins, indulge in vices either intentionally or foolishly and unintentionally without realising the enormity of their deeds.

“Let your mercy and compassion come to their rescue and help in the same way and to the same extent that you expect God to show mercy and forgiveness to you. You must always appreciate and adopt a policy which is neither too severe nor too lenient; a policy which is based upon equity will be largely appreciated.”

When appointing people who would represent the Islamic Government, Imam Ali (A) was always uncompromising to his just ideals. He would also cascade the same examples to his representatives to follow, which can be read in another part of the Imam Ali’s (A) letter to Malik al-Ashtar:

“Your worst ministers will be the men who had been ministers to the despotic rulers before you and who had been a party to atrocities committed by them. Such persons should not be taken into your confidence and should not be trusted because they have aided sinners and have assisted tyrants and cruel rulers.

“In their stead you can comfortably find persons who are equally wise and learned but who have not developed sinful and criminal mentalities, who have neither helped the tyrants in their tyrannies nor have they assisted them to carry on their sinful deeds.

“Such persons will prove the least troublesome to you. They will be the most helpful. They will sincerely sympathise with you. If you take them in your confidence they will sever their connections with your opponents. Keep such people with you as your companions in your informal company as well as in official gatherings in audience . . . ”

One of the qualities of a good leader is the need to have the greatest socio-political and socio-economical insight. In an era (7th Century!) more than 1 000 years before the arrival of the renaissance and even before the primitive Feudalistic system had been established in Europe and Asia, Imam Ali (A) describes the structures of how a society works to Malik al-Ashtar:

“You must know, Malik, that the people over whom you rule are divided into classes and grades and the prosperity and welfare of each class of the society individually and collectively are so interdependent upon the well-being of the other classes that the whole set-up represents a closely woven net and reciprocal aspect.

“One class cannot exist peacefully, cannot live happily and cannot work without the support and good wishes of the other.”
Many of the leaders and governments in this day and age depend on hoarding and storing commodities and monies, with the strategy of making gains for oneself or for a limited part of society, however Imam Ali (A) never agreed to this conduct.
Nevertheless, for all of its material progress, modern society continues to suffer from incredible moral lapses, and honest role models and leaders are a distant memory.

The search for leaders free of shameful attributes appears to draw voids as we live in a world increasingly overtaken by gluttony and corruption. While society has reached the peaks of industrial and technological achievement, our leadership resembles more and more the ignorance of the medieval times.

In today’s world, it seems we have convinced ourselves we can only force people and societies into submission through absurd laws and brunt showings of force. Imam Ali’s leadership rejects this concept; instead, the Imam demonstrated that loyalty and respect of the ruled can only be obtained through treating them with respect and sincerity.

Leaders currently favour one class of society over another, and lawmaking is controlled almost exclusively through lobbyists. People on an individual level have lost any value and honour in the eyes of their leaders. Imam Ali would volunteers to help farmers with their farming and would provide social assistance himself to the poor and unfortunate.

On one occasion, when Imam Ali was very sick and unable to deliver food to the destitute of Kufa, his blessed sons, the second and third Imams, offered to fulfil this duty for him. However, Imam Ali’s noble and determined character did not allow this to happen, and he told his sons, “No, the Almighty Allah has entrusted me with the responsibility of this government. Let me perform my duty.”

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