Why Islamic Leadership must be competent

Posted on May 21, 2011

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Rafik Beekun, theislamicworkplace.com

Many Islamic community organizations, masajids and businesses are often characterized by leadership lacking  any vision and the requisite skills for the job.  As a result, masajids have been reduced to mere prayer halls,  community organizations lack a sense of direction and do nothing really well, and businesses are characterized by nepotism, favoritism and atrophy.  None can remember when their leaders were last evaluated or very few could tell you what criteria their leaders are chosen by except that they must be “practicing” Muslims, dress conservatively and be “mature”–whatever that means.

This emphasis on outward trappings and behavior at the expense of competence has not always been the case in Islam.  As Dr. Jamal Badawi and I  indicated in our book, Leadership: An Islamic Perspective,  choosing a leader of an Islamic organization based solely on iman  is desirable but not the primary criterion;  competence is.   First, it is difficult to assess anyone’s iman since this is entirely a matter between that person and Allah.  External practice of Islam is not necessarily a perfect correlate of iman.  By contrast,  it is relatively easier to determine whether someone is a good manager or someone has above average leadership qualities.  Second, although it is highly desirable to look for a leader with iman, it may not always be possible to find someone who has the requisite skills and is at the same time a strong Muslim.  An Islamic organization may have to choose between a strong Muslim with weak leadership skills or a strong leader with moderate or weak Islamic understanding.  The example of Amr ibn al ‘Aas is to be remembered here.  He had been a Muslim for only four months when he was appointed by the Prophet (saw) to lead the Muslims at the battle of Dhat al Salasil.   This issue was explained by Ibn Taymiyya in his book Assiyasah Ash-Shar’iyya.[1] A leader with weak or inadequate expertise can bring disaster to an organization whereas a skilled leader may advance and help the same organization.  Even if the skilled leader is deficient in Islamic practice, his shortcomings can be made up through the shura process of decision making or through naseeha from others around him.

The importance of competence in Islamic leadership has been further emphasized by the Prophet’s own words.  In a hadith transmitted by Al-Hakim and cited in Ibn Taymiyyah in his great work, Al Siyasatus Shariah Fi Islaahir Raaie war Raiiyyah, our Prophet (s) said:

“Whosoever delegates a position to someone whereas he sees someone else is more competent (for the position), verily he has cheated Allah and His Apostle and all the Muslims.”

Consequently, the current push towards Saudianization or Malayanization or other forms of preferential treatment of one’s indigenous population instead of simply choosing the most competent person wherever he/she is located in the Muslim world is problematic.  And where there is no available competent Muslim, the Prophet (s) himself encouraged us to use competent non-Muslims.

Indeed, in a sound hadith, the Prophet (saaw) hired a polytheist as a guide at the time of his migration from Makkah to Madinah, thus entrusting him with his life and money. The people of the tribe of Khuza‘ah, who included both Muslims and non-Muslims, acted as scouts for the Prophet (saaw). In a hadith reported by Sa‘d, the Prophet (saaw) asked Muslims to seek medical treatment from al Harith ibn Kaldah, who was a disbeliever.[1] However, as Syed Sabiq pointed out, if a Muslim physician is present, one should seek his or her treatment and not turn to anyone else. The same applies when one has to entrust a person with funds or deal with him in business.[1]

Competent Islamic leadership must exhibit a number of  concurrent characteristics beyond having job related skills:

1.  He/she must be a visionary.  Like Muhammad (s) at Khandaq who was, by the Grace of Allah, blessed with a vision of the future destinations of the Ummah,  so too a Muslim leader must be able to visualize the potential of his/her organization 10 or 20 years into the future, and must inspire  others to  start moving  in that direction.  A leader without vision is simply managing the status quo.  This may be why  Ustad Khurram Murad, the founder of Young Muslims in the UK, indicated that Islamic organizations must have a vision towards which they are always aiming themselves during both good times and tough times.  It will, Insha Allah, keep them moving towards the right direction.  The vision of any Islamic organization originates from the leader.

2.  He/she must be willing to seek consultation in matters where he/she is not as competent.  Nobody is equally competent in everything.  As discussed in Leadership: An Islamic Perspective, a leader who is com­petent in one situation may not be competent in another.  The Prophet (saw), except in matters where he had received wahy, would often seek and follow the advice of his companions.  As Afzalur Rahman indicates, “This enabled all his men to take part in discussion and offer suggestions, and in this way the best solution was found by mutual consultation.”[1]  For example, at the battle of Badr, Muhammad (saw) consulted all parties, among both the Ansar and the Muhajirun, with respect to the advancing forces of the Quraish, and selected the place of fighting on the advice of Al Hubab bin al Mundhir.

3.  He/she must be trustworthy.  Leadership in Islam is an amana, and the Islamic leader must be trustworthy. In a hadith reported by Abu Dharr, he asked the Prophet (saw) to be appointed to a public office.  The Prophet (saw) responded by stroking his shoulder and saying,

“Abu Dharr, you are weak, and authority is a trust.”[1]

4.  He/she must have iman and exhibit patience or sabr. In a verse of the Qur’an, Allah explicitly identifies both as two key attributes of leadership:

And We appointed from among them Leaders giving guidance under Our command so long as they persevered with patience and continued to have faith in Our signs. (Sajdah, 32:24)

Overall, then, it is not imperative that an Islamic leader be a “perfect” Muslim since there is no perfect Muslim and it is rare to find a leader who is both very strong in deen and very competent.  However, as competent as that brother or sister is,  he/she must have a modicum of iman even though the strength of his/her iman and level of taqwa may vary over time as suggested  in Surah Al Taghabun, 64:16.


[1] Full references are provided in my books Leadership: An Islamic Perspective co-authored with Dr. Jamal Badawi  and Islamic Business EthicsFurther discussion of this topic is to be found in my upcoming book, Virtue-Centered Leadership: Muhammad as CEO, Insha Allah.

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