The Issue of Responsible Leadership According to Imam Ali (A.S.)
Sayyed Nadeem A. Kazmi
(Adapted from: Al-Noor, Vol 3, No. 33, Ramadhan/Shawaal, 1414 A.H. - March 1994 A.D. p. 8)
Imam Ali (a.s.) greatly emphasised the responsibility of leadership and the virtues of just and benevolent rule. His advice to his officers and the governors of the various provinces that made up the Islamic realm at the time are documents that deserve devotional study and practical application. His writings are, for all intents and purposes, a charter for just rule. He emphasised all those qualities of leadership that are today sneered at and purposely avoided. For Imam Ali, real-politick was just a slogan. He was convinced that good actions bore good results, and the basis for the loyalty of subjects was the extent to which their rights were guaranteed by law and the actions of the administrators over them.
"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 favour and the low should not be despondent of your justice towards them".
Those who were leaders under Imam Ali were accountable therefore towards Allah, towards their peers and towards the people over whom they exercised authority. The importance of prayer underlined the idea of spiritual leadership as being a part and parcel of temporal leadership. To the Governor of Egypt, Imam Ali advised that he should say prayers at the appointed time and that every act is dependent upon his prayers. In today's world, such advice would be mocked at but in the perfect Islam and wisdom of Imam Ali (a.s.) responsibility of leaders and subjects was equal before Allah. Paying attention to prayer, or communicating with Allah - a power greater than any authority available on this transient and material earth - kept the leader who was in tune with his conscience free from the fettles of pride and arrogance and vanity, and thus free from ignorance, prejudice and subsequent oppression.
But arguably the most precise advice on the responsibilities and qualifications of leadership are Imam Ali's directive to Malik al-Ashtar, Governor of Egypt. In it he stated:
"Habituate your heart to mercy for the subjects and to affection and kindness for them. Do not stand over them like greedy beasts who feel it is enough to devour them (a criticism of government that is too controlled and too controlling) since they are of two kinds: either your brother in religion or one like you in creation. They will commit slips and encounter mistakes. They may act wrongly, wilfully or out of neglect. So extend forgiveness and pardon in the same way that you would like Allah to extend His forgiveness and pardon to you...
Do not say I have been given authority, I should be obeyed when I order, because this engenders confusion in the heart... If the authority in which you are placed produces pride or vanity in you then look at the greatness in the realm of Allah over you and His might the like of which you do not possess even over yourself.
No one among those under you is more burdensome to the ruler, less helpful in distress, more disliking of equitable treatment, more tricky in asking favours, less thankful at the time of giving, less appreciative of reasons at the time of refusal and weaker in endurance at the time of the discomforts of life than the chiefs. It is the common people of the community who are the pillars of the religion, the power and the defence against the enemies. Your leanings should therefore be towards them and your inclination with them.
Unfasten every knot of hatred in the people and cut from yourself the cause of every enmity".
Imam Ali believed in total justice enacted through government. He believed in providing for the elderly, the needy, the orphans, and special counsellors for such people. He was also a champion of open government - and that meant a government that could be approached by every individual citizen in confidence.
"Fix a time for complainants wherein you make yourself free for them and sit for them in common audience and feel humble therein for the sake of Allah who created you. On that occasion you should keep away your army and your assistants so that anyone who likes may speak to you without fear. Tolerate their awkwardness and inability to speak. Keep away from yourself narrowness and haughtiness. Whatever you give, give it joyfully and whatever you refuse do so handsomely and with reason".
Leadership today is lacking in virtue because of the lack of morality and self-correction that Imam Ali (a.s.) considered to be the cornerstone for just and benevolent rule. Perhaps today's leaders could take a leaf out of the writings of Imam Ali - and perhaps this will lead to a new understanding based upon the realisation of limits to power and authority and accountability of leaders.