Unequivocal Justice: The ornament of a true leader

Considering the virtues of an Islamic leader, Julia Khadija Lafene discusses the importance of justice as practised by Imam Ali ibn Abi Taleb(a), the exemplary personification of Quranic and Prophetic teachings

Writing about a virtue of Imam Ali(a)  as a leader, I realised that he had  so many virtues that I would find  it difficult to choose one. Upon  reflection, it became clear that he  had one virtue, upon which all the  others depended, and which he  himself recognised was the source  of his extraordinary qualities of  leadership.  At a time when leaders could easily  become tyrannical and dictatorial,  the Imam restrained himself  because of his taqwa (consciousness  of God, with a sense of awe),  bearing in mind at all times that his  authority was delegated to him. ‘He  (God) cannot be called to account  for whatever He does, whereas they  will be called to account’ (Qur’an  21:23). Ali(a) himself explains this  virtue in his letter to Malik al-  Ashtar, the governor of Egypt:  ‘..treat them, those who are under  your protection with your pardon  and forgiveness, just as you would  like and want God to treat you with  His pardon and forgiveness, for  surely you are above them, and the  guardian who has authority over  you [Ali ibn-Abi Taleb] is above  you, and God is above whoever has  appointed you as guardian! And it  is He who has given you authority  over them, and tests you through  them, so do not let yourself declare  war on God….and do not say, “It is  I who am in authority, so I must be  obeyed”’. (Nahj al-Balagha).  The Imam not only gave such  advice, but followed it himself. He  called himself and his governors  ‘guardians’, not rulers, and certainly  not sultans and kings. They only  had the right to rule under the  law of God, which meant following  Quranic injunctions and the  example of the Holy Prophet(s),  of which he had encyclopaedic  knowledge. We may be familiar with  hundreds of accounts of the Imam’s  exemplary behaviour as a leader  but mentioning a few of them  and relating them to the relevant  Quranic verse, as well as to modern  situations, would be noteworthy.  One of the most difficult aspects  of leadership is knowing when  compromise is justified, when to  be lenient and when to be strict in  the administration of justice. The  best leader cannot be weak, but  his power must never be tyrannical.  The Imam has been criticised for  being uncompromising on some  occasions, but usually he was  following the injunctions of the Holy  Qur’an as exemplified in the verses  (6:162-165) – or he was following  the Prophet(s). This required the  caliph to be ultra-scrupulous in  his administration and not to be  swayed by claims of kinship or selfinterest.  In this respect, the Imam would not  compromise on the use of the Bayt  al-Mal, the resources of the state  treasury. When it was suggested  he use it to gain the support of  influential people, he replied: ‘Even  if it were my own property, I would  distribute it with justice, and why  not, when it is the property of God  and when I am His trustee?’  When his brother requested money  from the treasury, he told him it  was ‘the worst type of robbery’.  He also ensured that money  misappropriated from the treasury  was repaid, even if it pre-dated his  rule.  This was closely connected to  the Imam’s insistence on justice.  He would not overlook previous  injustices. His statement, ‘A long  standing right does not become  invalid’, meant that he would never  ignore an old injustice, knowing  full well that God would not do  so [14:42-47]. In modern times,  this is very relevant to the issue of  Palestine. He also said that justice  was superior to generosity, because  ‘justice governs everyone, whereas  generosity concerns only a few.’  Indeed, justice was perhaps the  most important virtue resulting  from Imam Ali’s awareness of God.  Rules were laid down for controlling  civil servants and fighting  corruption and oppression among  officers of the State. In commercial  activities, profiteering, hoarding and  black marketing were prohibited.  Importance was attached to the  equitable distribution of wealth,  the upbringing of orphans and the  maintenance of the disabled.  On the battlefield, the Imam  was always mindful of Quranic  injunctions [8:39-40; 16:125-127]  to give the enemy every chance  to come to agreements, especially  noticeable in the case of the war  with Mu’awiya, where he was  reluctant to make war on fellow  Muslims. He sent many letters  offering negotiations, even when  Mu’awiya denied water to his forces  at the Battle of Siffin, he did not  retaliate in the same way after he  had won the battle.  For Muslim and other rulers in  modern times, it is significant  that the United Nations has cited  Imam Ali(a) as an example of good  leadership. This is particularly  relevant when a state is not  homogeneous, as few are nowadays.  Once Muslim rule began to expand,  they could not base their rule on  tribal or racial affiliation, as some  had tried to do.  The Imam was most noted for  opposing any discrimination of  Arab against non-Arab, or Muslim  against Christian and other  religions, provided they kept their  agreements and did not attack  the Muslims. As he advised Malik,  ‘people are of two categories: they  are your brothers in religion and/or  your fellow human beings’.  In government, the Imam  recommended to his governors  to use the Quranic principle of  consultation [42:38], and he  encouraged them to consult the  young, whose minds were sharper,  as well as the more mature, who  had more experience. He wrote to  Malik: ‘Have a time set aside for  those who need to see you, so that  you can deal with them personally;  and sit with them in a gathering  which is open to everyone, and  act with humility in it for God who  created you; and keep your army  and your bodyguards away from  them, so that they are not wary  of you or pressurised by you…. for  surely I heard the Messenger of God  say, “A nation in which the weak are  unable to claim their rights from  the strong without fear will not be  blessed”’. This was truly ‘Islamic  democracy’ in action!  In conclusion, although modern  leaders are not selected in the  same way as they were in the past,  the principles of just and equitable  rule as exemplified by Imam Ali(a)  are eternally valid, and based on  humility and the consciousness of  a Greater Power.


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