Thursday, February 03, 2005

leadership : an islamic perspective



“We wished to be Gracious to those who were weak and oppressed in the land and elevate them to the position of leaders and inheritors of the land.”

God Almighty Allah and his last prophet (SAW) have made assuming responsibilities and positions of leadership incumbent upon Muslims. The Quran declared that the whole of humanity was created to the station of Khalifatullah. The prophet (Peace Be upon Him every time his name is mentioned in this paper) prescribes Amirship even in any situation where there are two or more Muslims in company, in a gathering or embarked on a specific activity. The collapse of the Khalifate robbed Muslims of a central institution and a symbol of power. It eroded the cohesive nature of the Muslim community and left them without effective leadership. The so-called Muslim State became but a carbon copy of the Westphalian nation-state, and its political leadership became more and more detached from the ideological and practical framework of the Quran and The Sunnah. According to Abdul Wahl Hamid (1989:114) a Muslim leader should be:

· God-Conscious (Mutaqi) and having respect for and a commitment to uphold the moral and legal code of Islam, the Sharia.
· Knowledgeable in the Sharia, especially its main concerns its values and principles to be able to deal with the issues as they arise on the basis of sound knowledge. In addition, he should have competent and specialist advisers also rooted in the knowledge of the Sharia
· Having appropriate mental and physical ability such as courage, sagacity, and strength in addition to personal qualities that would inspire trusty and confidence in people
· Responsive to the needs of the people.

Hamid notes that often the political leaders of Muslims have their roots in alien, hereditary or nepotistic practices that have no sanction in Islam, and are often at odds with the scholars of the community. He therefore suggests that that the ideal situation is for leaders to be scholars and for scholars to be leaders, actively involved in political processes. Currently the Sheiks, Imams and the ulema bodies dominantly play a leadership role mostly confined to spiritual and personal matters, often ignoring broader community, ideological and developmental issues. Islamic institutions and organizations should play their role in presenting a comprehensive understanding of Islamic leadership that capacitates the entire Muslim community to take leadership on broader community and world issues.

For instance, within the context of Azania \ South Africa Muslims should take a center stage in the efforts towards national reconciliation, nation-building, moral regeneration, cultural reclamation, and socio-economic reconstruction. It is therefore important that the leadership training programs and broader education mechanisms of the Islamic organizations and institutions should move from a value-neutral model that emphasizes rule-following to a qualitative value-based model that put emphasis on higher order mental skills which includes understanding and critical thinking.

An emphasis should be placed on experiential, exposure and activity-based learning that engages participants in worthwhile activities that creates learning, discovery and rediscovery moments for them. Discovery-inquiry, dialogical, interactive and experiential approaches to learning are more appropriate to follow in an Islamic leadership training program than the teacher-centered, rote learning, recall and regurgitation methods. Group discussions, group tasks, collective brainstorming and evaluation of the program by the participants as well as collective identification of the issues and strategies to deal with those issues will go a long way in inculcating a sense of leadership among individuals involved in a leadership program. Allocation of duties, tasks and responsibilities to all participants in the program provide worthwhile, learning and discovery moments for the participants.


There are a variety of theories on leadership, with various definitions of leadership and explanations of the different models and styles of leadership, traditional leadership, charismatic leadership, legislative leadership, liberal and autocratic styles of leadership, and so on. These theories examine the means, processes and procedures by which people assume positions and roles of leadership as well as the means, processes and procedures by which the ruling receive the consent of the ruled. In other words, they focus on the means and processes by which the authority of the leader receives popular acceptance and legitimacy. The questions raised are whether people inherit or are appointed or elected to positions and roles of leadership or whether the skills, attributes, characteristic and personalities of leadership are inborn, acquired or learnt.

This leads to questions about the relationship between creed, race, gender, tribe, class or social strata and leadership or whether family and social upbringing, biological, genetic, socio-cultural and environmental factors or individual initiatives are the determinants of leadership abilities. Some of the questions raised by the various theories on leadership are:
· Where does leadership start? Are leaders born or made? Is leadership a matter of fate, choice or calling?

· What makes a leader? Society, culture, the family, upbringing, and education? Are leaders self-made?

· How do we define a leader? What is the difference between a leader and a manager?
· What are the principles and etiquette of leadership?

· What are the characteristics and qualities of a leader? What are the skills required in leadership? What are the issues involved in leadership?
All the questions raised above are an attempt to gain knowledge about leadership as a concept and a phenomenon so that one can begin to utilize that knowledge about leadership in his or her attempt to assume the position and role of leadership. It is easier to assume the position and role of leadership when you know what leadership entails.

The same goes for assuming the responsibility of being a propagator of the faith, a teacher, social worker, trade unionist, and so on and so forth. An educator has to equip himself with knowledge about education as a concept, phenomenon and a discipline and practice, the daee has to have knowledge on Dawah and the trade unionist has to empower himself or herself with knowledge on trade unionism and the issuers involved in trade unionism.
In other words, the teacher should find and be the answer to the question, what is a teacher? What is teaching? The trade unionist must know about trade unionism and being a trade unionist. The key word here is knowledge.

The focus of that knowledge is the individual and his or her world – the self. Knowledge of the self and the world! For me this is what sum up leadership. Self knowledge and knowledge about the world around is the foundation and cornerstone of leadership and is -at the same time- the subject and object of leadership. Actually, knowledge is the foundation of everything. The prophet Muhammed (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be showered Upon Him every time his name is mentioned in this booklet) said “ Whoever wants to inherit the here-now world (Dunniya), let him go and get knowledge (study, learn) for it. Whoever wants to inherit the hereafter (Aakhira), let him go and get knowledge (study, learn) for it. And whoever want both the world an the hereafter let him go and get knowledge for it.” The Qur’an pose the rhetoric question to men and women with discerning minds;” Are those in the know and those who do not know the same?” As it is the case with any other thing you can think of, the foundation to leadership is knowledge and the beginning is self-knowledge and self-mastery. After a careful scrutiny of the various definitions of leadership and a critical reading of the Quran and ahadith as well as a microscopic analysis of the world in which we live, I have arrived at the following definition of leadership:

“Knowing, understanding, accepting and coming to terms with yourself and taking responsibility to better yourself and your world, understanding, accepting, tolerating others, and empowering, enabling others to come to terms with themselves and to learn to take responsibility for bettering themselves and their environment.”

From this definition it is succintly clear that assuming a leadership position and role should starts with knowing yourself and the world in which you live. It should proceed with getting in touch with the people and being part of their world so that you may help them to assume the responsibility of changing themselves and their world.

One can never have complete self-knowledge and self-appreciation without a thorough grasp and comprehension of his or her origin, inalienable and intrinsic nature of humanity and its purpose in life –the reason and object of human existence.

From the Qurannic story of the creation of the human being and various verses of the Qur’an and various ahadith we learn that:

¨ Humanbeings come from a single non-gendered entity or being called “soul” \ Nafs and from it were created man and woman. From the two emerged different nations and tribes who constitute a single human family, the most favored component of which is the family of believers in God Almighty Allah- whose ultimate criterion for perfection and excellence is God-Consciousness \ Taqwa and righteousness.
· Human beings were created in the noblest of all forms, wrapped in godly attributes that they should be the Khilafat \ Viceroys of God Almighty Allah on earth.
· The ultimate purpose of human beings in life is that they should manifest Godly attributes through their righteous deeds, godly character, and wholesome surrender to His will.
· Human beings are INTRINSICALLY imbued with godly, positive, optimistic, creative, constructive attributes, and have been blessed with the gift of intellect and choice. Human beings can decide their reality and their world by the choices, decisions and actions they take, and can use their intellect to build or to destroy, to purify or corrupt their souls and their environment, to better or to worsen themselves and their world.

To sum it all, all human beings are capable of assuming a leadership position and role in the world, because the whole of humanity was created for the purpose of being Allah’s representatives on earth. It is therefore incumbent upon individuals to assume positions and roles of responsibility and leadership for the sake of humanity and creation. This is a part and parcel of Jihad, striving in the path of Allah-which is compulsory upon all Muslims. Muslims have no choice but to assume leadership, because they have a compulsory mission to enjoin people to doing good and forbid wrongdoing.


The first step to assuming leadership and making others assume positions and roles of leadership is to know that human beings are intrinsically good, positive, creative, constructive and optimistic beings imbued with the Godly qualities of Truth, (Haq) Love, Mercy and Compassion (Rahma), Justness etc.

It is the environment and the choices that people make within and about their environment that decides whether they are leaders or victims of the situation and slaves and captives to the environment. To take the choice between being imprisoned to the environment and being an agent of change one has to know the intrinsic beauty and dynamic, internal strength and power with which he or she is imbued with by virtue of being a human being, and try to recognize the same in others.
In other words, s\he has to struggle to ensure that the forces of positivity and optimism within him or her and others overpower and subdue the forces of negativity and optimism. All the attributes, characteristics and skills of leadership are within reach and grasp of every human being through self-knowledge, self-examination, self-development and self-mastery as well as a critical reading, understanding and interrogation of the immediate environment and the world around and other Humanbeings.

Some people are born or grow in a family, academic and socio-cultural, organizational environment well disposed towards the development of these attributes, characteristics and skills or have outward personalities that easily facilitate their assumption of leadership roles and responsibilities. Others do not have the same.

Nevertheless, no human being is trapped to a social, economic or political the position or condition in which he or she find himself. By virtue of the gift of intellect and choice a human being can bring changes to himself or herself and his environment. It all starts with the choice to better one’s character, personality, behavior, and actions, and to improve his or her talents and skills. This includes the choice to discover and rediscover some of the traits, characters, skills, talents and abilities which you seem to be lacking. Lacking something is a mental state and not a physical state. Whatever you lack can be gained. It all starts in the mind. In short, leadership is a matter of choice, decision and action. You choose to discover, rediscover and develop your leadership abilities. You decide to assume your leadership position and role and your take action within the leadership role or position you have assumed or have accepted after it was offered to you. Yes, leadership can also be assumed on the basis of an opportunity offered and presented to someone to lead. Opportunities have to be availed and presented for people to take leadership positions. The conducive environment should be created for people to assume leadership and act in their leadership roles and positions.
However the choice and decision to assume leadership and act in the leadership role and position offered, presented to a person is an individual choice and decision, and relies on the actions of the individual. The family, society, community and organizational environment are not the decisive factors in deciding \ making leaders. There is a leader in all of us. All that we have to do is to unearth the intrinsic leadership and creative virtues, qualities and attributes lying within us.
Knowing ourselves and coming to terms with the lighter and darker sides of our past and present, and getting in touch with our inwards and outwards strengths and weaknesses.


To assume leadership responsibility you have to learn to know, understand and accept yourself as you are. You have to take responsibility for changing those aspects of your behavior and personality that can be changed and be at home with part of yourself that does not have to be changed or is difficult to be changed. You have to learn to know, understand, accept and tolerate others as they are and be non-judgmental about part of themselves which cannot be reconciled with your own values and viewpoint.

Self-knowledge is the foundation of leadership. Self-knowledge results in self-assertion, self-confidence and self-actualization. Self-knowledge prepares you to reach out to others. Self-knowledge prepares you to seek knowledge about the world around you. Self-knowledge prepares you to seek knowledge about others. Leadership begins with the knowledge about oneself and the environment \ world and proceeds with the radiation and use of that knowledge to change one’s conditions and the world for the better.


In his Islam –the Natural Way, Abdul Wahl Hamid asserts that the acquisition of knowledge is the first and most crucial obligation on the individual because correct knowledge is the foundation of correct action, and false and partial knowledge leads to wrong and disastrous conduct. Knowledge can be false or true, harmful or useful. Useful knowledge includes:

1. Knowledge of the creator
2. Knowledge of humankind and its functioning that will bring it closer to the creator. Such knowledge is related to Ibadaah \ Worship
3. Knowledge of nature which has been made subservient to humanity. This includes knowledge of the physical sciences, the use of reason, observation and experimentation to find out how the world works, to gain knowledge of astronomy for navigation, agriculture, animal husbandry, medical sciences, oceanography for benefiting from the seas and so on.
4. Knowledge of history and geography as we are told in the Quran to travel through the earth and see what has been the fate of earlier peoples and civilizations.
5. Knowledge of the role of the prophets and in particular the last and final messenger of God Almighty Allah, upon whom be Peace, and
6. Knowledge of what is right and wrong. Such knowledge is tiled to aakhlaq or ethics and moral values, and underpins the pursuit and practice of all knowledge.

Our fulfillment of our human and leadership role depends heavily on:
· The type of knowledge we acquire
· The sources and the ways we depend on to acquire knowledge.
· The purpose for which we use the knowledge
Knowledge can be acquired for the sake of power, which in turn can be used for dominance and result in arrogance and tyranny (Knowledge + Power + Arrogance = Tyranny.) On the other hand knowledge can be pursued and practiced with modesty and humility and lead to beauty and dignity, freedom and justice. (Knowledge + Power + Ethics =Justice and freedom. In Islam, the practice of knowledge is connected to ethics and morality –with the purpose of promoting virtue and combating vice, enjoining right and forbidding wrong…. Amr bi-l ma’ruuf wa nah –y’anil munkar.) (Hamid. 1989:27 –28) This is the understanding that should ground your quest for and use of knowledge.


In striving for excellence in leadership and everything you do you have to have a model and example on the basis of which you strive for improvement and progress in your leadership and general life. Every writer \ leader \ thinker has one or two writers \ thinkers \ leaders s\he emulates and receive inspiration from. Whether it is in the field of arts, literature, politics, and economics, etc, human beings need models and examples to be able to come as near as possible to perfection in what they are doing.

The secret to efficient leadership for a Muslim can not but be to emulate and draw inspiration from the leadership and overall personality and lifestyle of the best of examples- prophet Muhammed (PBUH). Asked about the personality and character of the prophet Aisha (May Allah be pleased with her proclaimed “His character was the Quran”. The Quran says, you have in the prophet of Allah the best of examples”.

The prophet (PBUH) said” I was but sent to show humanity the best of characters.”

Some of the major characteristics and principles of leadership that can be deduced from a careful look and examination of the prophet’s leadership and general lifestyle are:
¨ Putting Allah at the center of your life, complete trust in Allah.
¨ The relentless quest for truth, knowledge and justice.
¨ Simplicity, Humility and Self-sacrifice and Compromise for the greater cause. (The example from the signing of the treaty of Hudaiybiya).
¨ Compassion, forgiveness and tolerance (The example of the prophet’s treatment of the woman who used to swear and throw him with objects, etc.)
¨ SABR and insightful vision, looking at the bigger picture (The example from the prophet’s response in the face of persecution at TAIF, etc.)
¨ Subjecting your opinion to the broader mutual counseling and consultation.


It is not accident that the first revelation to the prophet was a command towards reading and reciting as an acknowledgement and celebration of the gift of speech and the use of the pen that Allah blessed humanity with. Knowledge is largely accumulated, acquired and spread by reading, writing and speaking \ reciting. In the world in which we live what you read is very important to your direction in life.
The phrase, “You are what you read” is more than a cliché. Read broadly but make sure that you spend most of your time with books that provide you with inspiration and guidance on how to live your life, and empower you with leadership and other skills. Fall in love with the works of at least one inspiring writer, thinker and scholar. Most importantly, live your life with the Qur’an. Read it with contemplation and strive to understand and put to practice its message. Khuram Murad’s Way to the Quran is one of the books I have personally found to be of great help in my efforts to live with and by the Quran. Abdul Wahl Hamid offers the following advice and hints to following the Quran:

· When you hear God Almighty Allah’s name and His attributes , your heart should be filled with awe, gratitude , love and other appropriate feelings
· When you read of God’s messengers , your heart should have the urge to follow them , and an aversion for those opposed to them
· When you read of the Day of judgment, your heart should long for paradise and tremble at the very thought of hell-fire.
· When you read of disobedient persons and nations that went astray and earned God’s punishment, you should intensely dislike being as they were.
· When you read of the righteous whom God loves and rewards, you should be eager to be like them.

· When you read of promises of good and honor in this world, of forgiveness and mercy, Allah’s pleasure and the hereafter, let your heart be filled with a desire to work for them and to deserve them.
· When you read of those who are indifferent to the Quran, and who turn away from it and who do not accept it or do not live by it, you must fear lest you be one of them, and resolve not to be.
· When you hear summons to obey God Almighty Allah and strive in His way, you should be determined to respond and achieve the peace and happiness that comes from responding. (Hamid 1989:31)

Reading the works of great scholars, thinkers is like walking in the company of great minds, and living your life with and by the Quran is like walking in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammed (PBUH)- The best of examples. Engage in constant thikrullah \ Remembrance of Allah. If praying is talking to God, and meditation is listening to God, then constant Thikrullah (Remembrance of God Almighty Allah) is like seeing God Almighty Allah, which is, living your life as if you see Allah.


Put Allah at the center of your life and making Him the subject and objective of your existence and the reason behind everything you do. In other words, take you leadership and community activities as well as everything you do as part of the steps you take in the journey towards God Almighty Allah. Let your striving for excellence in what you are doing be a conscious and deliberate, concerted effort to wrap yourself in the 99 all-noble attributes and all-beautiful names of Allah. Let it be part of your endeavors to lead and live your life in accordance with the teachings and lifestyle of the prophet (P.B.UH) Let the light of Muhammed be manifest in your exemplary leadership and general lifestyle.

The prophet is reported to have said “Pray as I pray.” To paraphrase him in the context of leadership I will say “Lead as the prophet led.” Most importantly, let’s all make an effort and ask Allah to help us to live as the prophet (Allah’s Blessings and Peace Be Upon him) lived.

* Presented at the leadership workshop jointly hosted the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa and the Islamic Students Forum at Durban Institute of Technology, Steve Biko Campus in 2003.

2 comment(s):

  • For me, the idea of these "scholars, imams, mullahs," or whatever you want to call them being any more involved than they already are, is scary to me. Their stranglehold on the community is already suffocating. Even in north America many of the sheiks and imams promote an identity which is exclusive and repressive.
    Defining a leader as one who is knowledgeable in sharia is not enough. One must be capable of understanding the context and environment which shaped much of the sharia, and also be able to think beyond that to how it relates to the general principles in the Quran. Sharia is often used to justify and promote that which is seen to be stagnating and repressing much of the Muslim world and the ummah at large.

    By Blogger peace4all, at 2/03/2005 11:16:00 AM  

  • I whole-heartedly agree with you that Islam is currently being suffocated by the stranglehold of the "clergy" and their propensity to hide behind the sharia to entrech their monopolization of the right to inteprete the Quran and the Sunnah. A knowledge of the Sharia and the ability to contextualise it to the concrete and tangible historical-material conditions within which we seek to live our Islam is not and should not be the preserve of "the muslim clery".

    By Blogger motjholoko, at 2/04/2005 12:28:00 AM  

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