History has catalogued many successful leaders. Some have been great in military affairs, others in political governance. Many of them, however, were self-serving and quite willing to use cunning, deception, and all manner of unscrupulous dealings to obtain and keep their positions of power. In our contemporary times, similarly, our leaders too often betray the trust of their offices. We see political leaders who are prone to wrongdoing, often at the behest of powerful elites, more concerned about maintaining some political advantage or self-interest rather than doing what is right or what is in the best interest of a people, a nation, or the world community.
The maxim “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is as true today as it has been throughout history. Many leaders compromise their moral and ethical values by succumbing to the pull of pride or greed or hatred. There are countless examples of leaders whose downfalls were presaged by their baser instincts. Napoleon, arrogantly believing that he could not fail in his military campaigns, ignored the repeated warnings of his advisors against invading Russia, and in the Russian Campaign of 1812 his army lost more than 350,000 troops and suffered a humiliating defeat.
As to the corrupting influence of greed, the problem is worldwide. Transparency International, a global non-profit and non-governmental organization, works to expose and end global corruption. A report in 2004 listed leaders in various countries who, during the previous 20 years, had allegedly embezzled money from their nations. They note that there were most likely many more, but these were the more well-known ones. They include:
1. Former Indonesian President Suharto ($15 billion – $35 billion)
2. Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos ($5 billion – $10 billion)
3. Former Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko ($5 billion)
4. Former Nigerian Head of State Sani Abacha ($2 billion – $5 billion)
5. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic ($1 billion)
6. Former Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier ($300 million – $800 million)
7. Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori ($600 million)
8. Former Ukranian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko ($114 million – $200 million)
9. Former Nicaraguan President Amoldo Aleman ($100 million)
10. Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada ($78 million – $80 million)
One may notice that Western countries are not listed above. What takes place in the West is a more hidden “embezzlement” of wealth. Michelle Chen, writing in The Nation in 2018, stated, “Wherever you live in the world, here’s a newsflash: You’ve been robbed. Not by a hidden bandit, but a global kleptocracy: the super-rich who’ve managed to rob the poor blind in every corner of the globe for the past seven decades. And a research team led by pioneering economist Thomas Piketty, the World Inequality Lab, has mapped out how that theft has played out on a global scale. Not surprisingly, America was near the top of the list in terms of how unequal our country is, in addition to being far richer as a whole than any other nation.” In recent times, one individual stands out as being motivated by greed and boldly unashamed to admit it. In a campaign speech in 2016, Donald Trump stated, “I like money. I’m very greedy. I’m a greedy person. I shouldn’t tell you that, I’m a greedy – I’ve always been greedy. I love money, right?” He might be the only politician to admit that, but, of course, humans are prone to greed. Prophet Muhammad (s) said, “If the son of Adam had a valley full of gold, he would want to have two valleys. Nothing fills his mouth but the dust of the grave; yet Allah forgives him who repents to Him” (Sahih Bukhari). Many have greed in their hearts once having tasted the allurements of wealth and privilege. The Prophet spoke about this: “Beware of luxury. Verily, the servants of Allah do not live luxuriously” (Musnad Aḥmad).
Demonstrating how hatred can misguide a leader is the example of Richard Nixon. Seen as a dishonest, paranoid man while occupying the presidential office, subsequent release of documents over time confirmed that perception. He was revealed as having a “political enemies list” which was described in a memorandum written by John Dean, White House counsel for the Nixon administration. He said that those on the list were individuals against whom the Nixon administration would use federal machinery and means such as tax audits to “screw our political enemies.” In taped recordings released by the Nixon Presidential Library, he is heard talking to his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig in 1972: “Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times.”
Arrogance, greed, and hatred are pitfalls of human character. It is not surprising since the corrupting influences of the lower self (an-nafs-ul-ammarah) lead the oblivious or heedless individual to seek satisfaction in base desires. And the ignoble desires can lead to one using power for one’s own aggrandizement.
Motivations in Pursuing Positions of Power
Studies about motivations that individuals have in pursuing positions of power posit two main types of motivation: “personalized” motivation is defined as primarily self-serving, egoistic, and at times even anti-social. Personalized power motivation is correlated with the desire to attain prestige and to acquire wealth and material possessions; “socialized” power motivation is primarily concerned with using its influence to improve the well-being of the commonweal, to use power in a responsible fashion to bring about a positive impact on the lives of all, collectively and individually.
Prophet Muhammad (s) is a historical figure whose motivation was revealed as a sublime purity of heart and soul, who embodied the traits that make for great leadership, and who held himself impervious to the corrupting influence of power.
Purity of Motivation.
The Prophet said in the well-known hadith, “Actions are but by intention and every man shall have but that which he intended…” (Bukhari and Muslim). Indication early on in his mission that he was acting solely for the sake of God in his role as messenger, leader, teacher, and mercy to humankind, is the story of how the Prophet’s uncle pleaded with him to end the persecution they were subjected to by giving up his mission. The head of the Quraish had come to Abu Talib, Muhammad’s uncle, to warn him that either his nephew stop preaching Islam or the Quraish would fight Abu Talib and Muhammad until the tribe prevailed and the Muslims were dead. When Abu Talib related to the Prophet what the Quraish leader had told him and conveyed that the pressure of persecution was weighing heavily upon them, the Prophet answered him, “O uncle, by Allah, if they put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left hand to end this affair – until Allah prevails or I die for His cause, indeed I will never leave it.” His purity of intention, the most noble of motivations, are borne out by the full scope of the Prophet’s words and actions throughout his lifetime.
Prophet Muhammad (s) is the best example of a “socialized” power motivation and its concern with using its influence to improve the well-being of the people, to use power in a responsible fashion to bring about a positive impact on the lives of all people. The Prophet said, “None of you will truly believe until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (Bukhari and Muslim). This principle was on spectacular display so many times throughout the Prophet’s life. Whether with material goods or with spiritual guidance, the Prophet gave freely to the people, wanting only to bring them benefit. Anas (r) reported, “A man once begged from the Prophet and he gave him enough sheep to fill a valley. He [the man] returned to his people and said, ‘Enter Islam, for by God, Muhammad gives with no fear of poverty!’ People would go to the Prophet wanting only worldly goods and would find before the day was out that their religion had become dearer and more precious to them than the whole world” (Muslim).
In this era of standing up for social justice, corruption should be seen as the great injustice it is, one which compromises the common good and hinders the principle of safeguarding the rights due to all people. How serious is corruption? The Prophet said, “There is none amongst the servants [of Allah] who was entrusted with the affairs of his subjects and he died in such a state that he was dishonest in his dealings with those over whom he ruled, that Paradise is not forbidden for him.” And the Qur’an is very clear: “…whoever defrauds shall bring with him the what he misappropriated on the Day of Resurrection, when every human being shall be paid in full what he has earned and shall not be wronged” (Qur’an 3:161).