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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