The Prophet Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)
A Role Model for Leaders in the Modern and Post-Modern World and Beyond
Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid
Bismillâhi-r-Rahmâni-r-Raheem, Bismillâh, Alhamdulillâh
Allâhumma salli wa sallim alâ sayyidinâ Muhammadin, wa alâ âlihi wa sahbih
There are no greater challenges today than to love sincerely, to submit sincerely, and to believe sincerely, for we live in a world filled with disease. Social, mental, environmental, and spiritual problems plague the post-modern era, and we must learn to find strong, effective, and skilled leadership to combat them. Exercising leadership today is not easy task. When Allah bestows on us the ability to lead, as indeed He bestows upon each of us, in whatever form our responsibilities take, we find that we need practical tools. These tools originate in love, and take shape in the respect, trust, and humility that characterize a Muslim leader.
We are encouraged to love the Prophet Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). If we love someone whom we imagine is always near us, assisting us and guiding us through the example of his life, if we carry with us an image of this man who we are told was of sturdy build, with thick, wavy hair, a full beard, a fair complexion framing a pleasant smile, and large, dark eyes; this man who was kind, truthful, patient, and tolerant; then from our feeling of nearness to him, we will have respect for him. When we have respect for him, we will have trust in him. When we have trust in him, we will follow him.
- Qul ‘in kuntum tuh.ibbuun Allaaha fattabi’uunii yuh.bib-kumu-llaahu wa-yaghfir lakum dhunuubakum – wallaahu Ghafuurur-Rah.iim
Say, (O Muhammad, to humanity): If you love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful (Qur?an 3:31).
There is more to following the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) than feeling love for him. We need results in the world we live in. We need results hour by hour in our daily lives.
Part of the amanah-the trust given to us by Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’alaa)-is the duty of leadership. Leadership has a collective, global dimension, as Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa)makes clear when He says,Waltakum-minkum ‘ummatuny-yadcuuna ‘ilal-khayr…
Let there be of you an ummah to call to the good… (Qur’an 3:104). It also has specific, day-to-day dimensions; for example, the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said,
- When three are on a journey, they should appoint one of them as their leader.
Leadership is primarily a responsibility to guide others. It requires a psychologically compatible relationship between the leader and those whom he or she leads. This in turn requires trust and fairness, patience and justice, compassion and tolerance, understanding and perhaps even love. In Islam, these attributes which we associate with Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa)are also seeded in our own ruh. Our fitra (our essential nature)is good. If we can guide on the basis of that fitra, without our guidance being adulterated by the influences of dunya, then we will lead towards goodness and away from that which is bad, evil, or destructive.
Every Muslim has leadership responsibility in some way: as a parent, teacher, manager, head of an organization, employer; in each of the many roles that we play. If Islam is a way of life (not just a religion separate from daily life), then fulfilling our duties consciously is part of that way of life. We become conscious leaders by understanding not only our responsibilities, but the adab and the examples of leadership that are put before us, primarily by the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
The Modern/Post-Modern Context for Leadership
The American society that surrounds us is fragmented, self-indulgent, ill with material selfishness. Familiar roles and ways of life that many of us carry from earlier days in other countries and cultures do not apply well here. Many influences are acting upon us, including the influences of ignorance that have pervaded institutions of knowledge. Bearing this in mind, we can see that today it is perhaps more important than ever that Muslims develop their abilities to lead.
Increasingly, Muslims are seeking and expressing a collective identity, not only in Muslim societies, but also within non-Muslim societies and in the global arena. We are seeing the growth of Muslim political action committees and civil rights groups, such as AMC and CAIR. In addition, more Muslims are exercising leadership in the global marketplace, as Islamic multinational corporations set up offices throughout the world. Global Islamic investment portfolios and Islamic banks in Europe and Asia are growing. In sum, society today is having to deal with Muslims not just on an individual or regional political basis, but as a sophisticated presence in the global landscape. Yet, disparity exists between the oft-used label “Islamic” and the lack of identification with one voice, one agreed-upon understanding, and one agreed-upon leadership of the ummah.
Modernism and post-modernism have significantly influenced Muslims’ ability to have a positive effect. First, modernism drew an artificial line between the intellect and spirituality, replacing belief in God with belief in rationalism, determinism, and individualism. Modernism also fostered the rise of materialism and the breakdown of the extended family.
Post-modernism arose partly from a recognition of the problems with modernism. Post-modernists have reacted against the division of secular and spiritual, but kept the I-centered world view. We find today attempts to re-introduce a sense of hagiography, myth, and quasi-spirituality, coupled with values such as tolerance, pluralism, dialogue, utilitarianism, community service, and environmental protection. But the post-modern mentality remains skeptical of (if not negative towards) religious models. Instead, it promotes a “buffet-style spirituality and ethics,” where individuals are free to pick and choose elements from diverse traditions: a little Zen Buddhism, a little nostalgic Judaism or Catholicism, a little supposed Sufi dancing or Tai Chi. (Note that Islam is usually not included-at least in this form of aberration.) Post-modernism also encompasses our era of information technologies and unprecedented scientific and medical discoveries, such as the Human Genome Project, medical technologies that extend human life, and bio-chips that may one day meld humans and computers.
Life today seems to be rapidly changing, although the changes are confined within a fairly limited and destructive environment. What makes us in awe of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is that there is no aspect of human society today that he did not deal with 1420 years ago. In contemporary terms, we would say that he was a sociologist, a psychologist, a military commander, an international leader, a manager, a physician, a head of state, a philosopher, and a visionary (just to name a few of his roles). Through him, we see Islam as a comprehensive way of life. We see the shari’ah being lived, and we can extrapolate standards by which to operate and to evaluate the degree to which we are living the Islamic way of life successfully.
What principles of leadership can we draw from the example of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)? Once we recognize the principles, what criteria can we use to examine how well we are following them? Every time we aspire to uphold an ideal, we need a feedback mechanism. We need to learn to evaluate how well we are following that which we espouse. Today I would like to briefly outline several Islamic leadership principles and accompanying criteria for their evaluation. Countless guidelines may be extracted from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam); but given limited time, I will focus on just five principles.
Leadership Principle #1: Accountability
The Prophet Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) demonstrated that all good guidance must be rooted in submission to Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’alaa).
- Laa hawlaa wa laa quwwata illaa bi-Llaah.
There is no power and no strength but in Allah (Hadith).
We begin there, and that is Who we are accountable to.
When an instruction or guidance came from Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa)to the heart of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), he internalized and manifested it. It was as if the instruction arose from within himself. This is what we might call the highest level of obedience. The lowest level (which many of us may be familiar with) is reluctantly responding to what we have been asked to do. The second level is doing it, but with some hesitation as to our ability to obey. The next level is responding gladly. And again, at the most refined level of obedience, the instruction arises as if it is coming from within ourselves, in harmony with the Divine Will.
We must aspire towards the highest level: towards the same level of obedience and trust as the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) had. Leadership has very little to do with being in control, and a great deal to do with keeping our hearts and minds open to the guidance of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’alaa).
This process begins with a sincere accounting of ourselves. The Prophet (salla-llaahu alayhi wa sallam) said,
- H.asibu anfusakum qabala an tuhasibu; wa zinu ca?malakum qabala an tuzanu calaykum.
Account for yourselves before you are accounted; weigh your actions before your actions become a weight upon you.
Before we can lead anyone else, we have a little certified private accounting to do. (This is my new definition of CPA: Certified Private Accounting.) We know from the Prophet’s example that prayer and meditation are valuable opportunities to account for ourselves. The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) also practiced accountability through daily circumstances.
Abu Daud (rad.iy Allaahu ‘anhu) narrated a Hadith (possibly da’iif, but with a useful message nonetheless). He said,
- “I bought something from the Prophet (salla-llaahu alayhi wa sallam) before he received his prophetic commission. As there was something still due to him, I promised him that I would bring it to him at a place, but I forgot. When I remembered three days later, I went to that place and found him there. He said, “I have been here for three days waiting for you.”
Before the battle of Badr, as the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was reviewing the ranks of soldiers, he gently prodded one of them on the belly with an arrow to move him back into line. The companion said, “O Prophet of Allah! You have hurt me!” The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) immediately lifted his shirt and said, “Do the same to me” (whereupon the companion kissed him in the same spot) (Lings 146).
Are we as committed to accounting for ourselves before Allah (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), to honoring our agreements, and to receiving feedback? These are measures of how well we are living up to the criteria of accountability.
Leadership Principle #2: Humility
Leaders today often seem more concerned with political power or wealth than with ethics, knowledge, values, and human well-being. Muslim leaders are no exception. In fact, some are arrogant and naive enough to think they can “capture” Islam for themselves. Claiming to represent all Muslims, they often institutionalize their own prejudices (mostly cultural), bigotry, and accusatory natures.
The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is reported to have said:
- Don’t ask for a position of authority, for if you are granted this position as a result of your asking, you will be left alone without Allah’s help to discharge the responsibilities and duties involved in it. If you are granted [authority] without making any request for it, you will be helped by Allah in the discharge of your duties.
The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) set a standard for leadership based on the needs of the moment, not the desire for status. Once when no men were left in the household of a companion who had gone to battle, he helped the family milk their livestock daily. When he was with his companions, he did not insist on making every decision himself, because he believed in Allah’s intention in creating humanity, and he had respect for and confidence in others’ abilities. He epitomized the Qur’anic description of “those…who [conduct] their affairs by mutual consultation… (42:38),” taking the advice of Hubab ibn al Mundhir (rad.iy Allaahu ‘anhu) regarding the wells of Badr, as well as the questionable advice of those who advocated attacking at Uhud (Lings 143, 174)
In light of these examples, one way we might evaluate our own leadership, whether in the home or in society at large, is by noting whether our willingness to take control is balanced by a willingness to relinquish it and to trust in others’ capabilities.
We also might observe the ways in which we show respect, and start to note the degree to which we are consistent in this regard. The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) treated everybody with adab, no matter what his or her job was. Whether the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was in the presence of a shepherd or an calim, a merchant or the head of a tribe, he treated them all with equal respect. It is valuable to ask ourselves: would we?
Leadership Principle #3: Seeking and Sharing Knowledge
Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa)states in the Holy Qur?an:
- …Hal yastawi-lladhiina yaclamuuna walladhiina laa yaclamuun? ?Inna-maa yatadhakkaru ulul- albaab.
…Are those who know equal to those who know not? It is only those who are endowed with understanding that receive admonition (39:9).
- …wa-fawqa kulli dhi ‘ilmin ‘aliim.
…and over every lord of knowledge there is one more knowing (12:76).
The Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) never gave up the pursuit of knowledge. But he made clear that knowledge is to be pursued not simply for its own sake, but rather in a spirit of service to humanity. He said:
- There is no envy except for two:…[one of whom is] a person whom Allah has given wisdom and who acts up to it and teaches it to others.
How can we take these guidelines as criteria for leadership today? One obvious area for application lies in the realm of information technologies.
The information revolution has given us a much more concrete experience of our common destiny as Muslims. But it has also brought to light critical differences among individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions. It has underscored the need for constructive dialogue in order to share knowledge, foster appreciation of our varied perspectives, clarify agendas, and work together to perfect our understanding of the message conveyed by the Prophet Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
Writing in the early 1960s, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) noted that Eastern Muslims were infuriated by some of the teachings that Elijah Muhammad attributed to Islam. He wrote, “…I reminded [these Muslims] that it was their fault, since they themselves hadn?t done enough to make real Islam known in the West. Their silence left a vacuum into which any religious faker could step and mislead our people” (Haley 171).
Forty years later, we have better tools for reaching out, for learning from each other, for expanding our knowledge so that we can guide ourselves, our children, our communities, and others who come to this Path. But still, misinformation (if not disinformation) infects our ummah and encourages flawed leadership.
We can and should use every practical means for correcting misperceptions, from schools and study groups, to the Internet and virtual technology. Because very few of us can claim deep knowledge of Islam, it is best to focus on sharing our expertise in specific areas related to practical, day-to-day applications of Islam (for example, how a Muslim approaches financial transactions). Otherwise, even with the best of intentions, we may pass along information that is not correct.
We can measure our leadership in sharing knowledge by how well we are imbuing the truth about Islam not just in Muslim programs, but in the mainstream Western educational system. Another criteria lies in how well we are demonstrating Islam in the way we relate to one another; our employees or employers; our clients, neighbors, and acquaintances. Perhaps the best way we can share our knowledge is by expressing it through our professions, whether in medical ethics or scholarly research; finance or corporate management; political decision-making or psychological counseling; law and justice or the raising of children.
Leadership Principle #4: Being Responsive
We see in the decisions of the Prophet Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) that sometimes, the same issues were dealt with in different ways depending on the people, the place, the time, and the way information came to him.
Often when people approached him with a complaint, he would seek more information before responding. He would offer a recommendation only when he was satisfied that he had sufficient understanding of the situation.
To be willing to listen, to pursue understanding of what one is hearing, to make decisions based first and foremost on one’s understanding of Qur’an and the Shari’ah: these are criteria for decision-making based on the life of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
The principle of responding may often mean not to respond in the moment, but to seek out the best possible information before a response is given. As communication technologies put us in contact with our global ummah, we are gaining the ability to instantaneously consult those who know more than we do about specific subjects. We need no longer travel for months to reach the khanaqah or zawiyya of a great Shaykh to hear a moment’s truth, nor must we cross oceans to receive the teachings of esteemed scholars. We can now access one another much more quickly-if we are humble enough to recognize our need for understanding and to seek out those who can offer it.
Although the response to a specific issue may take time to evolve, the attitude of the response should always be one of respect, with adab and a commitment to understanding in all but the most egregious breaches of Islamic conduct. We can never really know what motivates an individual until we take the time to hear, to study, to listen, to reflect. Let?s not forget the our Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said,
- “Don’t tell me; don’t tell me; don’t tell me.”
We can also assess responsiveness by considering how well we are acknowledging and addressing the interests of non-Muslims. By the blessing of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’alaa), I have been involved in developing and presenting leadership training workshops for more than 20 years-predominantly in the “secular” world, but based on the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). During the time that I have been active in this field, I have seen a notable shift towards emphasizing qualities like compassion, honesty, patience, self-reflection, respect, and understanding. Americans today are receptive to these terms (albeit with the post-modernist overlay that tries to exclude their religious connotations and place them in the context of a looser, alternative spirituality). Nonetheless, this environment presents an opportunity to bring forth the true egalitarian, values-based, responsibility-based, unified, tolerant attitude that is Islam and that characterized the life of our Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
When the energies of Muslims are focused on exemplifying these attitudes in their service, in their family lives, in their businesses, in all their interactions, then we will be meeting one of the criteria for leadership. But all too often, we find Muslims focusing on the unfortunate sectarian divisiveness that arose early among us, and remains today as a wall between the Truth and the hearts of other human beings.
Leadership Principle #5: Inspiring Others
One of the most beautiful qualities of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was his gentleness and his relentless commitment to a humane way of life. Because he trusted in Allah more than in his own knowledge, perceptions, or experiences, he firmly believed that everything would work out in the long run, if he made his effort. He was a living testimony to
- Laaa ‘ikraaha fid-deen: qat tabayyana-r-rushdu mina-l-ghayy.…
There is no compelling in religion; [the Way of] Guidance is clear [from the way of] error… (Qur?an 2:256).
The essence of the Islamic teachings is universal and recognizable even by those who are not Muslim, let alone Mu?min. The power of the message of Truth is so great that even today, it can pierce the veils of materialism, consumerism, and individualism. (If we doubt its power, we need only reflect on how many people in this room embraced Islam despite being raised in the West.)
Perhaps this is why Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa)in the Qur’an stresses not only the rules of Islam, but the means through which Islam should be communicated. Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa) revealed to the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam):
- Wa laa tusa’-‘ir khaddaka linnaasi wa laa tamshi fil-ard.i marah.aa; innallaaha laa yuh.ibbu kulla mukhtaalin fakhuur.
Do not speak to the people with your face turned away, nor walk proudly on the earth, for Allah does not love any self-conceited boaster (31:18).
Wa qul-li-‘ibaadii yaquulu-llatii hiya ‘ahsan.…
And tell My servants that they should speak in the most kindly manner [to those who do not share their beliefs]… (17:53).
Ud’u ilaa Sabiili Rabbika bil-h.ikmati wal-mawcidhatil-h.asanati wa jaadilhum-billatii hiya ah.san. ‘Inna Rabbaka Huwa Aclamu biman-d.alla can-Sabiilihii wa Huwa aclamu bil-Muhtadiin.
Call unto the way of your Lord with wisdom and good exhortation, and reason with them in the best way. Lo, your Lord best knows those who go astray from this path, and He knows best those who are rightly guided (16:125).
Fa-bimaa rah.matim-min-Allaahi linta lahum wa law kunta fadh.-dh.an ghaliidh.a-l-qalbi laa-nfad.d.uu min h.awlik.
By the grace of Allah, you are gentle towards the people. If you had been stern and ill-tempered, they would have dispersed from around you (3:159).
Leadership is not a thing. It is a process-a process by which a leader seeks the voluntary participation of followers in an effort to reach certain goals and objectives. For Islam to be operant in people’s lives, it has to come from love and yearning. We will know we are being effective leaders when the people whom we influence start arriving at faith themselves, from within.
Educating for Future Leadership
The five leadership principles I have just suggested-accountability, humility, the seeking and sharing of knowledge, responsiveness, and inspiring rather than coercing others-are only a few of the many that we can extrapolate from the life of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam). But I hope even this brief overview sheds light on the attractiveness of the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
It is not incidental that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. People find in it a consistency and positivity that they rarely find elsewhere. Yet, we in the United States need to look towards the needs of the younger generation of immigrant Muslims, many of whom are drifting away from the faith.
In my work with young adult Muslims, a recurring theme in discussions is that whereas their parents may see themselves as Pakistani, Nigerian, Malaysian, Ghanaian, Indonesian, Indian, Senegalese or Iranian Muslims (etc.), the young people see themselves first as Americans. Their questions center around how to maintain their faith, practices, and sense of uniqueness and special responsibility in this society. They love their parents and do not wish to totally reject their culture; but they do not understand family roles as they are lived in other countries, and they certainly do not aspire to exactly replicate their parents’ lives. Often, they know little about Islam-because for them, Islam has always been included on the list of “cultural activities,” not personal choices (and after all, personal choices are what America is all about). Those who have received formal Islamic education often have found it dull, didactic, and more reflective of their parents’ original culture than of the current realities of growing up in the United States.
Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa) tells us in the Holy Qur?an:
- Innal-insaana khuliqa haluu’an….
Verily, the human being is created with a restless disposition (Qur?an 70:19)
To match our restless disposition, education must not only present facts, but stimulate the soul. Memorizing all the behavioral prohibitions of Islam is not the goal of education; nor should the goal be earning a degree or getting a high-paying job. Rather, we need to create the schools, programs, processes, and methodologies that support the inherent search for real knowledge. We must offer our children a broad-based education that stimulates a vessel that can be ever-filled. It must create a mind that is both flexible and receptive, strong and resilient. The fertile fields of the intellect and the heart must be tilled if trust (tawakkul) and faith (iman) are to grow.
It may be hard to conceive of living up to these ideals of leadership in a world of competition, hate, and misunderstanding; a world where genocide rampages through societies as if it were an acceptable way of life; a world where drugs appear in the most remote villages; a world where women and children are disrespected at best, victims of violence at worse. But this is our duty as Muslims, as human beings, as khalifas of Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa)in the twenty-first century. As we re-examine our leadership roles and responsibilities using the standards set by the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), let us pray to Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa)that a light may come on in our lives, enabling us to realize the power, knowledge, and potential that He has given us. Let us develop the trust, nearness, and respect that turn into real, sincere love in our hearts.
O Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa) help us to fulfill our commitment to You, to the ummah, to our society, to this world. O Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa)may all those who do wrong actions in the name of Islam be awakened to their errors and ask forgiveness. O Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’alaa), may no one lead Muslims wrongly, including ourselves.
O Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’alaa), may all the brothers and sisters here today receive Your blessings, and may we come to better understanding among ourselves in the spirit of our ummah and our capacity as sincere seekers of truth. In our broader society, may those who are not Muslims in knowledge, but are Muslims in practice, become truly Mu’minoon in their relationship with You. O Allah (Subhannahu wa ta’alaa) bless all people around the world with peace, and guide rightly our government leaders.
O Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’alaa), enable us to humbly, sincerely, and graciously accept our responsibilities as leaders. Guide us to raise up our children to be “the comfort of our eyes” (25:74). O Allah, enable us to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), the most noble leader of humanity and the best model of humility and modesty, self-control and truthfulness, adab and integrity, patience, perseverance, and love.
- Wa Llaahu lahu ul-h.aqqi wa huwa yahdis-sabil.
H.asbuna Llaahu wahdahu wa ni’mal-wakil.
Wa salli ‘ala sayyidina Muh.ammadin wa ahli wa sah.bihi ajma’iin
wal-h.amdu li-Llaahi rabbi-l-‘alamiin.
Truth belongs to Allah; it is He who shows the way.
Allah, alone, suffices us, and what a fine guardian is He!
Blessings upon our Master Muhammad
and his family and companions altogether
and praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.
Jazakallah khair. Asalaamu aleikum wa rah.matullaahi wa barakatuh.
Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.
Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Kuala Lumpur: A.S. Noordeen, 1983.