A case study on the leadership of Imam Ali is most appropriate in order to gain a true appreciation of the Islamic concept of leadership. How great must his conduct have been, such that thousands of years have passed and the United Nations in the year 2010 uses his words to chide Muslim nations on how to conduct themselves?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. The question then arises: where are the honest leaders? Although it would be predictable to disparage the West for its apparent lack of moral leaders, in this case charity begins at home, and the Muslim world continues to produce leaders that easily outdo even the worst Western politicians.
Instead of having responsible and innovative presidents, prime ministers, and even clerical bodies, the Muslim world is plagued by leaders searching for their own self interest at the detriment of the people they are charged with ruling. While society has reached the peaks of industrial and technological achievement, our leadership resembles more and more the ignorance of the pre-Islamic times. Where does this blindness come from? It stems from our society’s inability to recognize the greatness of the leadership of the Twelve Purified Imams (peace be upon them) and establishing them as the standard of leadership.
Each of the Twelve Imams maintains a level of just and ideal leadership that is beyond reproach. However, not all of the Imams were given the ability to rule due to the usurpation of their rights by the tyrannical forces of the time. Therefore, a case study on the leadership of the first Imam, Ali son of Abu Talib (peace be upon him), is most appropriate in order to gain a true appreciation of the Islamic concept of leadership. How great must his conduct have been, such that thousands of years have passed and the United Nations in the year 2010 uses his words to chide Muslim nations on how to conduct themselves?
During his brief era as caliph, Imam Ali emphasized that he should serve those under his rule, rather than them servicing him. In today’s world, the masses have little voice in how things are operated, and most often their wishes are not respected even in so-called democratic societies. Imam Ali’s dress was humble and modest compared to today’s world leaders, who spend untold fortunes on their apparel. Imam Ali’s clothes were patched up so heavily one of his companions made an observation. The Imam replied, “This dress of mine is remote from pride, and it is deserving to serve as a model for Muslims.” (Akhlaq Aimmah)
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 favor one class of society over another, and lawmaking is controlled almost exclusively through lobbyists. People on an individual level have lost any value and honor 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 fulfill 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.” (Ibid.)
Imam Ali further made great strides to ensure his governors and officials were free from corruption and greed and treated people with dignity, honor, 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 favor, and the low should not be despondent of your justice towards them.”
At a time where bureaucratic corruption is 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.
In 2002, the United Nations in its 2002 Arab Human Development Report, 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:
“Malik! You must never forget that if you are a ruler over them, then the caliph is the ruler over you, and Allah is the Supreme Lord over the caliph. And the reality is that He has appointed you as the governor and tested you through the responsibility of this rulership over them. Never think of raising yourself to such a false prestige that you can declare war against Allah, because you cannot ward off His Wrath, and you can never be free from the need of His Mercy and Compassion.”