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lessons in islamic leadership

ahmer feroze
19 november 2006

many individuals today aspire to leadership roles without quite knowing what the
position entails. coupled with this, is the fact that many of us root for these same
personalities and yet are devoid of any criteria on how to assess the respective individuals
suitability for leadership. of course islam and piety should be necessary prerequisites, but
the complexity of tasks and the challenging nature of many missions requires a more
comprehensive assessment of the dimensions of leadership.
in a series of articles i set out to explore islamic perspectives on the topic of leadership.
this is based on a series of case studies featuring appraisals of past muslim leaders and
their personalities.
this first article seeks to draw out the lessons participants in the field of politics, dawa'ah,
social work and enterprise can learn from omar bin al
khattab'cccccccccccccccccccccccccxcs ccccccccccccccccccccccguidelines in the selection
of leaders and evaluating their performance.

part 1 - omar bin al khattab:

selecting and evaluating leaders

the accounts of omar bin al khattab's interaction with his governors make celebrated
reading for muslims the world over. indeed his thoughts and perspectives on leadership
could be the basis of a substantial thesis in its own right. however for those practically
engaged in the revival of islam they should provide an invaluable reference point for
judging leadership.

during omar's rule, the islamic khilafah grew at an unprecedented rate, taking
mesopotamia, parts of persia from the sassanids (effectively ending that empire), and
taking egypt, palestine, syria, north africa and armenia from the byzantines. it
necessitated an organisation of the state in which governors (wulaa) would have
extensive portfolios of responsibility, large tracts of land, key strategic areas, sizeable
budgets and expansive populations to administer. it was imperative that leaders of the
right calibre were selected to achieve this task of governing. c
lesson 1 don't rush to judgement - have a rigorous scanning process

in critical roles of responsibility for the muslim ummah too often there is a rush to
judgment in appointing leaders. omar bin al khattab displayed a meticulous and
dispassionate process in selecting leaders.

near the end of his life omar expressed a deep concern for who would succeed him as
khalifah of the muslim ummah. in a candid discussion with the eminent companion
abdullah ibn abbas, he shared his views on the suitability of the leading candidates that
were being discussed.

when questioned by abdullah ibn abbas on ali's (ra) credentials omar replied,
"he is surely suitable for it, but he is a man with a sense of jest and i consider that if he
took charge of your affairs he would not lead you to the path of truth that you are
familiar with."

for uthman (ra) he stated "if i were to designate him, he would have (his family) banu abu
mu'ayt, lords of the people and the arabs would not turn to him but to strike off his neck."

on the candidacy of talhah (ra) he said "he is proud: allah would not trust this affair of
the ummah of muhammad (saw) to him, considering what he knows of his pride."

with respect to zubayr (ra), omar's thoughts were "surely he is a brave man but he asks
about the saa' and mudd measures in the baqi market - is this a man to be trusted with
the affairs of the muslims?"

for sa'ad ibn abi waqqas (ra) he concluded "he is not the one - he is a warrior well able to
defend his squadron but as for being in authority, no!"

and finally for abdur rahman ibn awf (ra) omar argued, "yes you have mentioned the best
of men but he is weak." ¹

these 6 candidates were the highest regarded companions of the prophet (saw), promised
paradise in their own lifetimes (ashar wa mubbashir) and yet omar provided a
devastating critique of each. the question that should be raised is, why?

the heart of the matter for omar was that the question of leadership was core to the well
being of the ummah. omar was not maligning the characters of these great companions
for idle gossip, rather he was engaged in a critical analysis of their suitability, which
obviously required an assessment of their weaknesses as well as the obvious
acknowledgement of their immense qualities. for a group acknowledged as the 'best of
the best' amongst even the companions - to have their abilities subjected to such intense
rigour should provide an immense lesson to muslims today. rigour should always be
applied when we judge smeone’s leadership credentials.
through omar's rigour we can conclude that for important positions there needs to be an
open and candid assessment of candidates. there is no point stating the obvious, in terms
of highlighting an individuals positive points -but rather a balanced perspective is
required through analysing the weak points. it should be noted that this needs to be
performed with the purest of intentions and with the correct islamic adhaab

another point to glean is the absence of sentimentality in judging the suitability of an

individual's case for leadership. often favouritism and a tidal wave of emotion can propel
an individual into positions of authority, yet had this candidacy been examined bereft of
these influencing factors perhaps a different course would have been adopted.
key to this scanning process should be consultation. omar was not shy of seeking the
advice of others in making decisions. selections of governors would be subjected to
discourse and counsel of key sahaba. this forum provided valuable insight prior to
making decisions. it was a sign of his strength and that of that generation of muslims that
he could draw upon the advice and counsel of key companions such an uthman bin affan,
ali ibn abi talib, saad ibn abi waqqas, abdur rahman ibn awf. omar even sought advise
from youngsters such abdullah ibn abbas.

lesson 2 build a framework for assessing competency

central to omar's decision on leadership was the issue of selecting those leaders who were
˜competent' and `trustworthy'. it was this relentless quest to find the right blend, that lead
omar to remove the governor sharhabeel ibn hassana and replace him with mu'awiya bin
abi sufyan. sharhabeel has been a competent leader from the time of khalifah abu bakr,
yet omar still chose to make a leadership change. sharhabeel questioned omar as to the
reasons and his reply was "because one man is better than the other man."

² omar simply wanted the best for each role and felt mu'awiya skills in
governing were more competent than those of sharhabeel.

indeed part of omar policy on rotating governors would also be

attributed to his desire of constantly seeking the best personnel. this
culture of constantly seeking the best was a form of 'political
darwinism' where only the fittest and most competent would rise to
governing positions. it is arguably the key factor in ensuring the
relative stability and problem free politics that omar's khilafah was
characterised by.

some one asked omar, "what is your criterion for selecting a man for
appointment as a governor?" omar said, "i want a man who when he is
among men should look like a chief although he is not a chief, and
when he is a chief, be should look as if he is one of them."
indeed in the analysis of the candidates for khalifah we get a fuller understanding of some
of the characteristics omar was seeking. he prioritised seriousness and even though no
one could dream of doubting ali's (ra) commitment to the cause of islam, omar felt he had
a sense of jest and so was not fully persuaded of his merits. such were the high standards
of excellence amongst the companions!
omar wanted leaders who would not be prone to being easily swayed. a factor that
counted against abdur rahman bin awf in omar's judgement. it was perhaps something
that counted against uthman in omar's view, given the strength of bani ummaya.

a leadership role would exacerbate a sense of pride in a person and omar witnessed some
of this in talhah's personality, so he ruled out endorsing him.
omar's own preference for khalifah was reported to be saalim mawla abi hudayfah (the
freed slave of abu hudaifah ibn utbah) had he been alive at the time, for encapsulating all
these qualities.
what we should understood from omar's views is that leadership roles are too important
just to make a cursory note of someone's piety and then to begin pushing for his
nomination. a set standard, criteria and assessment is required for all leadership positions
and only thereon should decisions be made. those involved in a leadership process should
therefore build a framework for assessing competency and stick to it.

in today's day and age appointees to positions of responsibility at many levels have no
clear, transparent and visible standards by which they are held to account. as such they
are often free to stay in authority often mired in mediocrity and infecting all those around
them with it.

lesson 3 be harsh on nepotism - start with your own family!

if there is one problem that is a perennial bane of muslim countries, political parties and
organisations, it is the presence of nepotism. how often do we witness a leader come in
and make bold promises of change only to start by filling positions of authority with his
or her nearest kith and kin?

take pakistan as a classic example, on becoming pm benazir bhutto appoints her husband
asif 'mr 10%' zardari as finance minister. her successor nawaz sharif appoints his younger
brother shahbaz sharif as chief minister for punjab, the most significant province of the
country. the royal families of the middle east have institutionalised mediocrity through
hereditary rule - good or bad a saudi has to assume the throne in saudi arabia, whereas an
al sabah must take the reigns of power in kuwait. but this problem is not restricted to state
governance. take the opposite end of the spectrum - the local community mosque.
selection to a mosque committee is often dictated by a fiercely parochial braderi
structure, closeness to a particular tribe or nomination by a mosque elder irrespective of
ability. this is despite the fact that many mosques have an abundance of attendees more
than qualified to administer affairs.
contrast this with omar's stance when he was seeking the appointment of a governor for
kufa. if he appointed a man who was harsh and stern the people complained against him.
if he appointed a softhearted man, the people took advantage of his leniency. omar
wanted his sahaba to advise him regarding the selection of a right man for the office of
the governor of kufa. one man advised the appointment of abdullah bin omar - omar's
son. omar issued a harsh rebuke
"may god curse you, you want that i should expose myself to the criticism that i have
appointed my son to a high office. that can never be".

in fact abdullah ibn omar probably could have made a competent governor. he was highly
thought of amongst the best sahaba of that day. but to omar the damaging effects of the
ummah perceiving nepotism more than outweighed any potential benefits abdullah ibn
omar could bring, which is why he never considered him for such a post in his lifetime.

indeed we can see omar's foresight on the issue of nepotism in his comments about
uthman's candidacy for khilafah. again, uthman is widely rightly acknowledged as a giant
of islam. but omar believed that uthman's closeness to his clan and generosity of heart
would potentially open up the avenue of for nepotism through members of his family
taking advantage of his position as khalifah. in hindsight omar's judgement was proved
correct as many troublemakers in his era used this as an excuse to cause dissent within
the khilafah. leadership is too important to be tainted by the poison of nepotism.

lesson 4 be vigilant of the culture of the elitism

it is often stated that many aspiring individuals come into public life with the intention of
doing good, but the quagmire of modern day politics corrupts them. as is often quoted
about the washington based politicians they "come to do good but stay to do well."

muslim organisations can suffer from elitism that pervades their organisation creating a
cancer that eats away at its fabric, detracts from the task of leadership and creating a loss
of purpose.

omar was always keen to avoid the cancer of elitism infecting the body politic of the
sahaba. ayad bin ghanam was the conqueror of the jazira, the land between the tigris and
the euphrates in the upper part of iraq. he served as the governor of jazira for some time.
later he was transferred to egypt.

omar once had a report that one of his governors ayad had built a bath for himself and
had an exclusive group of people whom he associated with, which the wider ummah were
excluded from. the impression amongst people in his wilaya was that there was a barrier
and distance between the ruling elite and themselves.

omar sought disciplinary action against him. he invited him back to madinah and
entrusted him with task of shepherding sheep and would specifically direct him to march
with his flock long distances. at the end of this period, he questioned a visibly exhausted
and perspiring ayad as to whether he still maintained a desire to have an exclusive bath
for himself and a specific coterie of advisors. needless to say ayad had learnt his lesson.

again what matters in this incident is not specific means by which omar sought to
discipline ayad, but the ethos he was trying to build in all his governors. one, which
would oblige them to focus on the task and be men who were servants of the people. ayad
bin ghannam took heed of his warning and later turned out to be one of the best
governors of omar's rule.

lesson 5 draw up a leadership charter and hold your governors to account on it

omar drew up a charter on a code of conduct for his governors. he would then get them to
sign it and have witnesses observe this. amongst the key articles he stipulated was that
governors should not eat expensive food
governors should not wear soft clothes
governors should not have doors on their houses
governors should not ride burdoona (an expensive animal used for
transportation) 3

the conditions themselves do not matter for today's day and age. what is far more
important is the logic behind them. omar did not want there to be a barrier or distance
between the governors and the governed. whilst the elite could afford and ride the
burdoona, omar banned its usage by his governors for fear of the signal it would send to
the ummah. perhaps the parallel today would be of leaders, governors and ministers
arriving in bullet proof mercedes benz with tinted windows!

the common man should see no difference between himself and that of his amir except in
piety, responsibility and more importantly competency. stripped to its bare, it created the
undercurrent within the state that politics and governance was the domain of all, not a
particular leadership or a class of citizen.

by banning his governors from having doors, was his way of enforcing 'an open door
policy'. sa'ad ibn waqqas, a senior companion enhanced as one of the 10 promised
paradise by the prophet, once built a door on his house. this actually was designed to
shield him from the noise pollution that would come from his house being situated in
close proximity to the local market. even this was not a valid excuse for omar who sent
the sahabi muhammad ibn maslamah to have it burnt down. thus ensuring those standards
were visibly upheld regardless of the consequences to the sensibilities of the governors,
even if they were highly reputable companions.

the question we should ask is whether the leadership we encounter, whether at a national
or local level is ever held to account. simply nominating and electing an individual is not
enough “ the tough part is the constant accounting of a leader. having a leadership charter
ensures that the leader and the lead are clear in terms of the standards expected.
ahmer feroze


¹ ibn ishaq narrates from az-zuhri cited in al ahkam al sultaniyyah -

imam mawardi

² anwar al awlaki – the life of ummar bin al khattab – al basheer
3 ali thalabi – seerah of omar bin al khattab cited in anwar al awlaki – the life of
ummar bin al khattab – al basheer publications

"our lord! give us in this world that which is good and in the hereafter
that which is good, and save us from the torment of the fire!" (the holy
qur'an 2:201) ameen