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 craft in obtaining and keeping 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. But we are witnessing the awakening of the masses, the rising up of a force that can potentially sweep the globe and demand leaders who are honest, sincere, and committed to social justice.
He was the best example of a leadership style that teaches and guides by being a good model, inspires others rather than dictating, and empowers others rather than diminishing or demeaning anyone
In studies about leadership, a “socialized” power motivation is one that 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. If we consider this as the foundation for great leadership, there are a number of traits that then build on that foundation and form the edifice of exceptional influence and authority. These include: self-confidence; a commitment to core values; genuine caring about one’s followers; tenacity of purpose and courageous action-orientation; intelligence, resourcefulness, and creativity; insight into people and situations and the ability to form respectful, empowering relationships; willingness to share decision-making and to be influenced by others.
We can make a powerful case that one 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, is the beloved Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, peace be upon him.
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 ease the burden of persecution 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 lifetime.
Exemplary Traits of Personality and Character
The purity of motivation demonstrated by Muhammad was matched by the exemplary traits of personality and character that made him so beloved by his companions and by Muslims around the world in the 1400 plus years since he lived. If we look at the traits that are commonly enumerated in studies and analysis of great leadership, we see that the Prophet embodied all of them.
The Prophet’s self-confidence was based in tawakkul, complete trust in, and reliance on, Allah SWT and knowing that all things in one’s life are according to His Will and Wisdom. “Then when you have decided on a course of action, put your trust in Allah; Allah loves those who put their trust in Him. If Allah helps you, no one can overcome you. If he forsakes you, who is there after that who can help you? In God then let believers put their trust” (Qu’ran 3: 159-160). The Prophet’s utter trust in Allah led him to a confidence that was unassailable but nevertheless centered in humbleness. Thus he avoided the arrogance and pride that often beset leaders. This self-confidence exemplified the Qur’anic description of the servants of Allah, that they “are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!’” (Qur’an 25:63).
Prophet Muhammad’s adherence to moral and ethical principles was evident throughout his life, both before and after the inception of his mission
When the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah was being written, the Prophet was drawing up the terms of the treaty with Suhayl ibn Amr, the Quriash envoy. The Prophet instructed Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, to write, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent.” Suhayl objected, saying “I do not know this. Write down, ‘In Your name, Our Lord.’ The Prophet told Ali to write that and then to write, “These are the terms of the peace agreement negotiated between Muhammad, God’s Messenger and Suhayl ibn Amr.’ Suhayl objected again, saying, “Had we accepted that you are God’s messenger, we would not have fought you. You have to write down your name and your father’s name.” The Prophet told Ali to write “These are the terms of peace agreed by Muhammad ibn Abdullah and Suhayl ibn Amr.” According to the narration of Al-Bara bin Azib (Bukhari), Ali replied, “I will not be the person to rub it [“it” meaning the words, “Muhammad, God’s messenger”] so the Prophet rubbed it out. And Suhayl’s wording was used.
What is evident here is that the Prophet was not acting out of ego, but out of his pure dedication to the cause of Allah SWT. With the confidence of that noble mission, he was humble and willing to accede to the other negotiator’s stipulations since it did not compromise Islamic precepts and allowed the treaty to be put in place.
Social Justice and Commitment to Highest Ideals
Prophet Muhammad’s adherence to moral and ethical principles was evident throughout his life, both before and after the inception of his mission. This can be summed up by Aisha’s reply to someone who asked about his morals. She said, “His character and morals were the Qur’an” (Muslim, Ahmad, Abu Dawood). There is a line of prose above the Prophet’s tomb in Medina, penned by the scholar Abdullah Al-Haddad: “A might prophet whose nature was that character which God has extolled in the best of Books.” The Qur’an confirms this: “You have indeed in the Apostle of God a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for anyone whose hope is in God and the Final Day and who engages much in the praise of God” (Qur’an 33:21).
From the very beginning of his mission, Muhammad (pbuh) advocated for social justice
From the very beginning of his mission, Muhammad advocated for social justice. This brought the full brunt of hatred and desire for revenge from the Quraish elites. The Prophet called for taking care of the needy, providing for widows and orphans, ensuring that the rights of women not be impeded by men, or slaves by their masters, or the ruled by the rulers. In all ways, he was the inveterate champion of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed.
Before his call to prophethood, Muhammad ibn Abdullah was known by his people as an honest and trustworthy person. He was given the epithet Al-Amin, meaning “the trustworthy” by his kinsmen as he was seen as honest, fair, and true to his word. This trustworthiness, of course, continued throughout his life, whether in personal dealings or in relations with other communities, both with allies and foes. Once a treaty was entered into, the Prophet faithfully abided by it even when it brought him great pain such as the stipulation in the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah that any young Muslim who left the Quraish to join Muhammad in Medina and did so without their father’s or guardian’s permission, would be returned to the Quraish.
Throughout his life, the Prophet’s humbleness was apparent. He certainly was the most honorable of human beings and had more responsibility than anyone by carrying the mantle of prophethood. Yet he never conveyed that he was better than others, never sought to be privileged more-so than anyone else, or ever behaved in an arrogant, domineering way. It is related in Khulasat As-Siyarr that once the Prophet (pbuh) was traveling with some companions and when it was time to prepare food, he asked them to slaughter a sheep. One man said he would do it, another said he would skin it, and a third said he would cook it. The Messenger of Allah said, “I will collect the wood for the fire.” They said, “No we will do that for you.” The Prophet answered, “I know that you can do it for me, but I hate to be privileged. Allah hates to see a servant of His privileged above others.” And the Prophet went and collected firewood. When dignitaries came to visit the Prophet, they could not at first tell which one he was because of his humbleness, avoidance of any ostentation, or accepting of any privilege. In fact, he did not allow that people stand up for him when he approached a gathering, or that any person walk behind him. He was the best example of a leadership style that teaches and guides by being a good model, inspires others rather than dictating, and empowers others rather than diminishing or demeaning anyone.
Aisha (RAA) said, “The Messenger of Allah, whenever he is given the opportunity to choose between two affairs, he always chooses the easiest and most convenient. But if he is certain that it is sinful, he will be as far as he could from it. He has never avenged himself; but when the sanctity of Allah is violated, he would. That would be for Allah’s sake, not for himself. He is the last one to get angry and the first to be satisfied. His hospitality and generosity are matchless. His gifts and endowments manifest a man who does not fear poverty” (Bukhari).
The Prophet was also the most eloquent and fluent but was unpretentious and straightforward in his manner of speaking. He would often remain silent for a long period, and when he spoke it was decisive and to the point at hand. If he heard some news of a person’s inappropriate or bad behavior, he would never name the person, but rather would say, “Why do certain people do such-and-such…” He never focused on or sought out the shortcomings of others. Neither did he disparage people. On the contrary, he was patient and forgiving, always looking to teach and inspire the people to improve themselves, and his own speech and conduct were the best example.
The Prophet (pbuh) lived in the most modest and simple manner. When he was at home with his family, he was cheerful and pleasant, exemplifying his pronouncement that “A believer gets along well with others and is easy to get along with” (Al-Daraqutni). If he was served by anyone, he was the first to serve others. When he was not attending to his prophetic duties, he was helping with the domestic chores and responsibilities. He used to repair his own shoes, mend his own clothing, and milk the goats. The household servants were fed and clothed the same as the Prophet and his family. He toiled alongside the other men in digging a ditch on the northern side of Medina before the Battle of the Trench in anticipation of the approaching 10,000 men from Arab and Jewish tribes. Likewise in building the mosque in Medina, he labored with the others to build the square enclosure with palm trunks and mud walls.
Fairness was another surpassing trait of Prophet Muhammad. In arbitrating a dispute between individuals, Muslim or non-Muslim, friend or enemy, rich or poor — it mattered not to him as only a fair arbitration and equitable resolution was important. Even before the call to prophethood, people would bring their disputes to him. While in Medina, the pagans and the Jews accepted his arbitration, knowing he would not skew his perception and decision by bias of any sort. Throughout his life, he operated according to the Qur’anic ordinance, “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others toward you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just; that is next to piety…” (Qur’an 5:9).
One time a Jewish man to whom he owed a sum of money came to him and started to accost him verbally about repaying the debt. Umar (RAA) was present and became enraged at the disrespect shown to the Prophet. But Muhammad rebuked Umar, saying, “It is better that you would advise both of us — me the debtor to repay the debt with gratitude; and him the creditor to demand it in a more becoming manner.” And then the Prophet paid the Jewish man what he owed him and an additional amount.
At the same time, he warned those who came to him with their disputes to be honest in their presentation of their position, saying, “I am only a human being and you bring your disputes to me. Perhaps some of you are more eloquent in their plea than others and I judge in their favor according to what I hear from them. So, whatever I rule in anyone’s favor which belongs to his brother, he should not take any of it, because I have only granted him a piece of hell” (Bukhari). Again, here, we see his commitment to honesty, fairness, and even-handedness.
Other traits such as mercy, leniency, and forgiveness were also central to the message conveyed by Prophet Muhammad, and once again, he practiced superlatively what he preached. The Prophet said, “Gentleness adorns everything and its absence leaves everything defective” (Al-Albaany, Saheeh Al-Jame’). And the Prophet was the epitome of human gentleness and kindness. His benevolence toward people was at the heart of the success of his mission. Once he was giving the khutbah and his grandson came into the masjid. He was very young and was wearing a new red outfit that was long and trailed on the ground. As he approached, he tripped and fell. The Prophet stopped his khutbah, walked down the two steps of the minbar and picked up his grandson and tenderly comforted him. The Arab men of that time were not quick to show tenderness or a soft heart in public. But the Prophet taught the lessons well. He did not hesitate to show that gentle, loving side.
When the Prophet was wounded during the Battle of Uhud, a Muslim near him implored him to curse those who were intent on killing him and annihilating the Muslims. The Prophet answered him, “I have not been sent to curse but as an inviter to good and mercy. O Lord! Guide my people, for they know not.”
In one incident, a man from Medina, Ibaad Ibn Sharjil, was suffering from extreme hunger. He entered a private orchard and picked some fruit to eat. The owner of the orchard caught him and beat him, tearing at his clothes. The poor man appealed to the Prophet who rebuked the owner of the orchard, telling him, “This man was ignorant, you should have dispelled his ignorance; he was hungry, you should have fed him.” The man’s clothes were restored and, in addition, some grain was given to him (Abu Dawood).
When the Muslims were victorious and entered Mecca after twenty years of persecution, torture, and war waged against them, Prophet Muhammad’s mercifulness and forgiveness were elegantly on display. The Prophet pronounced a general amnesty. He addressed the people assembled at the Kaaba, saying “O Quraish, what do you think should be the treatment I accord you?” They answered, “Mercy, O Prophet of Allah. We expect nothing but good from you.” Muhammad then declared, “I speak to you in the same words as Yusuf spoke to his brothers. This day there is no reproof against you; Go your way, for you are free” (Muslim).
Tenacity of Purpose and Courageous Action-Orientation
As already mentioned in the discussion of motivation, the Prophet persevered despite the abject persecution he and his followers endured. He never wavered in his striving to fulfill the mission assigned to him by Allah SWT. While the most humble and modest of men in times of peace, when necessary he had the courage and tenacity to meet any challenge to the well-being of the fledgling Muslim community. He did not fear those who daily avowed their enmity towards him, and despite their voiced intentions to harm or kill him if he persisted in his call to Islam, he moved about Mecca with purposeful conviction. When his followers were suffering terribly by the persecution, he instructed them to immigrate to Abyssinia where, he said, “a king rules without injustice, a land of truthfulness — until God leads us to a way out of our difficulty.” Muhammad stayed behind in Mecca to continue calling to Islam. When the Prophet and his companion Abu Bakr were on their way to Medina, they were pursued by some of the Quraish and took refuge in a cave. Abu Bakr feared they would be found and Muhammad assured him with calm resoluteness that they were safe, saying, “Allah is with us.” One time the Prophet was journeying alone and stopped to rest under a tree. A man from among the opponents of Islam and its followers came upon him and drew his sword, shouting, “Who can save you now from my hands?” The Prophet replied with utter equanimity, “Allah.” In a moment’s time the sword was in the Prophet’s hand and he asked the same question of his aggressor. The man’s demeanor now was humbled and frightened, and the Prophet let him go on his way.
Intelligence and Creativity
In a time rife with superstition, Muhammad was ever the practical realist. When Ibrahim his beloved son died, an eclipse of the sun occurred. People starting spreading the idea that this was a miracle, a sign in nature of sadness over the death. Upon hearing of these rumors, the Prophet is reported to have said, “The sun and the moon are signs of God. They are eclipsed neither for the death nor birth of any man. On beholding an eclipse, therefore, remember God and turn to Him in prayer” (“The Life of Muhammad” by Muhammad Husayn Haykal).
Another incident demonstrates his quick and natural intelligence. A report was narrated by Abu Huraira: “A bedouin came to Allah’s Apostle and said, ‘My wife has delivered a black boy, and I suspect that he is not my child.’ Allah’s Apostle said to him, ‘Have you got camels? ‘The bedouin said, ‘Yes.’ The Prophet said, ‘What color are they?’ The bedouin said, ‘They are red.’ The Prophet said, ‘Are any of them gray?’He said, ‘There are gray ones among them.’ The Prophet said, ‘From where do you think this color came to them? ‘The bedouin said, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! It resulted from hereditary disposition. ‘The Prophet said, ‘And this (your child) has inherited his color from his ancestors.’ The Prophet did not allow him to deny his paternity of the child” (Bukhari).
There is the well-known story from the seerah at a time before Muhammad’s prophethood that involved a dispute amongst the varying clans in Mecca, each who claimed the right to place the sacred Black Stone during reconstruction of the Kaaba. They brought their dispute to Muhammad and asked him to make the determination as to who should place the stone. He told them to bring him a large cloth. He laid it on the ground and placed the stone in the middle. He then instructed the chieftains of each of the four main clans to pick up one corner of the cloth. When they raised it and brought it close to the spot where it was to be placed, the Prophet took hold of the stone and put it in place. This solution was resourceful and creatively ended the dispute.
Genuine Care and Model Relationships
The Prophet was always acutely aware of the needs of his companions and the people. He preached love and kindness to all people. Abu Qatadah Haris Ibn Rib’i (RAA) relates that the Prophet (pbuh) said, “I stand up for prayer intending to prolong it. Then I hear the crying of a baby and I have to shorten my prayer, being apprehensive that my recitation of a long verse may burden the baby’s mother” (Bukhari).
He always encouraged actions that strengthened the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood. He also understood the power of being friendly, companionable, and caring. He said, “Do not ever waste your good deeds, even by meeting your brother with a frowning face.” He said also “Shaking hands removes hatred and exchanging presents enhances love and ends enmity. Anas reported Allah’s Messenger as saying, “By Him in Whose Hands is my soul, a man does not believe until he wishes for his brother what he does for himself.”
Anas, who was his servant, said: “I served Allah’s Messenger for ten years and he never said to me, ‘uf’ [a vocalization connoting dissatisfaction or disapproval] or ‘Why did you do such-and-such a thing?’ or ‘Why did you not do such-and-such a thing?’” (Bukhari).
The Prophet displayed his deep affection for his companions. He never would be the first one to withdraw his hand when shaking hands, and according to Jarir ibn Abdullah, the Prophet always had a smile on his face. He would take children into his arms and show them genuine affection. At all times the Prophet promoted the ideals of fellowship, encouraging the Muslims to love each other. Umar ibn al-Khattab narrated that the Prophet said, “Indeed among the servants of Allah are people who are neither prophets nor martyrs but whose place both prophets and martyrs will envy on the Day.” Those who were with him asked, “O Messenger of Allah, tell us who they are.” He said, “they are those who loved each other for the sake of Allah though there was no bond of kinship between them and no thought of gain. By Allah their faces shine with light. They are bathed in light…” (Abu Dawood).
The Prophet was resoundingly respectful and benevolent toward the many Christian and Jewish tribes that he met with or visited in the effort to spread Islam. He invited them to embrace the religion but never engaged in coercion. Those who did not convert were encouraged by the Prophet to follow their Scripture and practice their religion. With regard to relations between the Muslims and and the non-Muslim tribes, the Prophet told his followers, “He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself as his accuser on the Day of Judgment” (Bukhari).
Willingness to share decision-making and to be influenced by others:
After the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah was negotiated, many of the Muslims were unhappy with the terms as they appeared to favor the Quraish. When they then failed to do as the Prophet instructed as to engaging in the rituals of umrah, the Prophet retreated to his tent and shared with his wife, Umm Salama, the disheartening situation. She advised him to go back out and begin performing the rites. The Muslims were moved by his taking action and realized that they should follow suit, which is what they did.
Abu Hurairah (RAA) said about the Prophet, “I have never seen anyone who seeks consultation with his companions more than the Prophet.” Another incident that demonstrates the Prophet’s commitment to shura (consultation) and his willingness to consider the ideas of others and be influenced by them occurred during the Battle of Badr. One of the companions, Hubab ibn Mundhir, who was not known as an outspoken or prominent person amongst the companions, voiced an idea: “O Messenger of God! If you were not ordered by God to be positioned here, let us be positioned around the wells and close up all but one of them in order to prevent the supply of water to the enemy. You set up your camp at the side of that one well and we will encircle you.” The Prophet proceeded with this plan. (Ibn Hisham).
It is clear from all the evidence available in the historical record that the man who revolutionized Arabia fourteen centuries ago did, indeed, operate from a motivation that was rooted in a sublime purity of heart and soul; that he embodied the traits that make for great leadership; and that he held himself impervious to the corrupting influence of power.
It is no wonder that so many non-Muslims who have studied the life of Muhammad have perceived in him that unique confluence of pure motive, unblemished moral rectitude, and unflinching resoluteness of purpose. R. Bosworth Smith delivered a lecture in 1874 to the Royal Institution of Great Britain about Prophet Muhammad. Smith said, “…without a standing army, without a bodyguard, without a palace, without a fixed revenue, if ever any man had the right to say that he ruled by the right divine, it was Muhammad, for he had all the power without its instruments and without its supports. He cared not for the dressings of power. The simplicity of his private life was in keeping with his public life.”
Men of notable achievement so often want to be recognized and recorded in the history books for their attainments. They desire the trappings of aggrandizement and accolade. Military or political, their triumphs awaken in them the stirrings of vainglory. This was not so in the case of Muhammad, the man from the deserts of Arabia who demonstrated “scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission,” as stated by Mahatma Gandhi. Muhammad was fulfilling his mission to be a mercy to humanity — to lead, to instruct, to guide. So the seerah is a positive challenge to Muslims to emulate his example.
It would be a compelling testimony to the legacy of Prophet Muhammad — to his life, his manner of living, his vision for justice and peace —that Muslims be among those who are dedicated to the political awakening of humanity, that Muslims stand up and be counted in demanding leaders who are honest, sincere, and committed to social justice.
The bequeathal of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, calls us to act. And it is the quality of that action that counts. Not anger-aroused action or vengeful action; not action based on hoping to one day have the upper hand and thus wreak havoc and suffering upon those who have done so to Palestinians or Muslims or others; not expediency placed above morality; not the penchant for total warfare in an ultimate “clash of civilizations;” not justifying for a moment a discarding of the lofty and enlightened principles put in place by the Prophet with regard to never killing in times of war women, children, the elderly and more generally, anyone who is a non-combatant. The quality of action required must adhere meticulously to the guidelines put in place by the Qur’an and the sunnah, as embodied by the Prophet in every one of his words and actions.
We can honor the seerah of the Prophet by drawing near to Allah SWT. According to a hadith Qudsi, this is a drawing near until Allah loves the believer in such way that He, Allah, is“…his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks…” (Bukhari). We can honor the seerah of the Prophet by delving deeply within our own souls each and every day until we find that higher power of inspiration — in that nearness to Allah SWT and in the example of His Messenger.
“If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?” -Alphonse de LaMartaine in “Historie de la Turquie,” 1854.