Community Paper Session: Educating for Skilled Leadership Introductory Remarks by Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid

As the Muslim population in the United States grows, attention is turning to ways in which Muslims might begin to hold leadership in proportion to their numbers. The 2000 AMC essay competition posed the question Why should Muslims run for public office? When 100 Muslims nationwide won office in the 1996 elections, we applauded the expansion of our leadership role. We welcomed Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s invitation to Muslims to pursue careers in the State Department, and were delighted when a Muslim judge was recently appointed to a Maryland District Cout.

But while these steps are noteworthy, we fail to appreciate the breadth of leadership as presented in Shariah if we define it solely in terms of public office or role in government. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said,

    Each of you is a guardian, and each of you will be asked about his subjects.

Leadership in Islam is not reserved for the elite; it is the position of the common Muslim. Each of us exercises leadership in some if not many spheres. As scholars, parents, teachers, researchers, managers, entrepreneurs, or simply neighbors, we each hold roles to which others look for initiative, guidance, or supervision, or upon which they depend for their well-being.

Ironically, public perceptions of Muslims’ abilities to guide, initiate, supervise (govern), or support others well-being have been seriously damaged by Muslims themselves. Bearing the title “leader” has yet to guarantee that individual Muslims will live up to the description given by Allah when He revealed:

    Wa jacalnaahum a’immatañy-yahduuna bi’amrinaa wa awhaynaaa ilayhim ficla-l-khayraati wa’iqaama-ssalaati wa’eetaaa’a-z-zakaah’
    And we made them leaders, guiding people by Our command, and We sent them inspiration to do good deeds, to establish regular prayers, and to practice regular charity…(Qur'[an 21:73).

Nor have Muslim leaders consistently exemplified the ummah enjoined upon us by Allah:

    Wa-ltakum-miñkum ummatuñy-yadacuuna ilaa-l-khayri wa ya’muruuna bi-l-macruufi wa yanhawna cani-l-muñkar’
    Let there be from you an ummah to call to the good, enjoin right conduct, and forbid indecency’ (Qur’an 3:104).

A primary directive is to find among us those people who have strong enough voices, sufficient respect, and adequate wisdom to fulfill these Qur’anic mandates’and if we are not yet of those people, to strive to be among them.

We cannot reiterate “all Muslims are one community” as if this proves that all Muslims today share the same perspectives and aspirations. We cannot talk about “Muslim leadership” as if there is a unified, monolithic community of Muslim followers, or as if all Muslim leaders are cast in the same mold. Rather, in addressing Muslim leadership today, we must be careful to identify the communities and leaders we are discussing, and to recognize the directions in which those leaders are leading their communities. In addressing the role of Muslims within the United States, we need to honestly ask ourselves: what would inspire communities to look towards us for leadership? Or, to put it bluntly: why would a non-Muslim American want to follow a Muslim leader?

Leadership in Islam means leading people away from (not towards) narrow cultural mentalities, local or tribal conflicts, possessiveness of territories, and exploitation. It means guiding society toward a higher ethical and moral standard, more global concern, more compassion, more creative thinking. It is to engage in da’wa: not to convert people to Islam, but to hear the calls for Islam and to respond. What are the calls for Islam in today’s world? Needs for peace, justice, equity, human rights, and education — all these should evoke Islamic responses, for Islam offers the best answers to questions arising out of the challenging areas of modern life. We inspire, benefit, and qualify for the respect of others in our multifaith society when we respond to these needs pragmatically and skillfully. But as the Qur’an reminds us,

    ‘Allaaha yahdee mañy-yashaaa’; wa Huwa aclamu bi-l-muhtadeen.
    …it is Allah Who guides the person who wills [to be guided]; and Allah is fully aware of all who would let themselves be guided (28:56).

Therefore, laaa ‘ikraaha fi-d-Diin (“There is no compulsion in religion”) (2:256).

Conversion is relevant to leadership only insofar as any person who aspires to lead according to Shari‘ah must convert his or her own un-Islamic ways of thinking and acting into Islamic thoughts and actions. If each of us, in our own spheres of responsibility, manifests Islam, then based on the power of our commitment, based on the lessons we learn in trying to live our faith, based on the strength and support of a united community, and based on our individual and collective efforts to continually sustain, improve, and refine ourselves, we can hope that those who come into contact with us will find their lives changed for the better.

No Muslim scholar can doubt that Islam offers tools to ameliorate social ills, to guide applications of science and technology, to address the moral and ethical issues of our age. But Muslims have fallen short in demonstrating what we have to offer. In response to this failure, let me propose several criteria for a mode of Islamic leadership that will inspire multifaith communities in the United States to accept us, to listen to us, to participate with us, and to welcome our participation.

  • InclusiveIt is not enough to accept others; we need to strive actively for inclusivity. Americans typically view inclusivity as a criteria for public acceptance. Exclusivity not only goes against the grain in a society that prides itself on being multicultural, pluralistic, and democratic, but it goes against the grain of the open, inviting, and fulfilling aspects of Islam. We are told in the Qur’an:
      Wa laa tusaccir khaddaka li-n-naasi wa laa tamshi fi-l-‘ardi marahaa; inna-Llaaha laa yuhibbu kulla mukhtaaliñ 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 boasters (31:18).

    Instead, we are guided to

      Udacu ilaa sabeeli Rabbika bi-l-hikmati wa-l-mawcidhati-l-hasanati wa jaadilhum bi-llatee hiya ahsan.
      Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good exhortation, and reason with them in the best way (16:125).

    Part of ‘calling…with wisdom’ is to express ourselves and to participate in society in ways that enable non-Muslims to feel included in our values, in our objectives, and in our activities. There must be willing acceptance of the legitimacy of the dogma and the doctrine of Islam, but we must present and utilize that doctrine in ways that are accessible to non-Muslims as well as Muslims.

  • Values-BasedWe can make our activities, language, and goals more inclusive by stressing the values that we share with people of many backgrounds and faiths: core values of family, knowledge, compassion, peace, justice, respect for all life and for the Creator of that life. When we speak from these values, we create a foundation for dialogue to which everyone can relate. Conversely, if we fail to communicate our standards and values in ways others understand, we have no right to expect them to seek out our participation, let alone to look to us for leadership.
  • FulfillingWe need to share the inner knowledge and contentment that we experience as Muslims. Certainly if we have chosen to become or to remain observant of our faith, it is because we have found some personal fulfillment. In a 1999 article on spirituality in the United States, Winifred Gallagher observed that ‘as middle age looms, as it does for 75 million baby boomers, certain questions grow more insistent: “Is this all there is? What’s the point of life?” (“New Breed of Spiritual Seekers: Looking for God Beyond the Borders of Organized Faith,” MSNBC, 1 April 1999). Responding to this trend, we will “reason with [others] in the best way” when we not only reason intellectually, but allow ourselves to express the reasons that come from the heart. Many of us have sought spiritual fulfillment and found it in Islam; many around us seek the same. Islam can speak to their yearning, if we present it in language that they can understand.?
  • ServicefulA Muslim leader is a servant, working first and foremost towards the betterment of society.
      Inna-Llaaha ya’muru bi-l-cadali wa-l-‘ihsaani wa’eetaaa’i dhee-l-qurbaa wa yanhaa cani-l-fahshaaa’i wa-l-muñkari wa-l-baghy. Yacidhukum lacallakum tadhakkaruun.
      Allah commands justice and the doing of good and liberality to kith and kin, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice, and rebellion. He instructs you that you may receive admonition. (Qur’an 16:90).

    Islam has a distinguished history of commitment to social justice. Muslims do not bury themselves in scholarly pursuits or lucrative careers, commuting between home and office, going to the masjid to pray, but otherwise remaining in isolated enclaves. We have always been engaged in both outreach and ‘in reach’: involved deeply in the fabric of our societies, working to improve the world around us starting at the very core of institutions, structures, and ways of thinking and acting. Melding modern individualism with Islam’s communitarian orientation, we must recognize that each of us has an individual role to play in the collective society.

    Islam makes clear that efforts to improve society should benefit all people, not just Muslims. The Prophet (sal) said,

      He is not a person of faith who eats his fill when his neighbor is hungry.

    The Prophet (sal) did not just say, “his Muslim neighbor.” The person who can guide themselves and others out of ignorance, out of fear, and out of deprivation is a true leader, whatever his or her title and whomever he or she serves.

  • CreativeIn addition, we need to show that Islam is progressive. The word Shar (from the same root as Shari’ah) means a broad boulevard. Whoever presents Islam as narrow, ethnocentric, and culturally limited does not understand. We need to be open to learning from different cultures, for we can benefit from many models.
  • Forward LookingLast: our homes and schools must produce young people who are educated, confident, and secure and safe, for it is they who will expand and sustain Islamic leadership in the future. It is not enough to educate our children about Islam; we must help them understand the Qur’an and Sunnah in the context of being part of a global society, understanding the terminologies of post-modern political and social discourse, participating in the information revolution, and being voices of tolerance, compassion, faith, trust, and reliability.

In sum, educating for Islamic leadership means more than preparing Muslims to run for public office or assume government positions. It means providing the skills to participate: to exert positive influence and provide guidance in addressing the issues that affect all people in our society.

AMSS Annual Conference, Georgetown University, 15 October 2000