How do we know what virtuous leadership is, according to the Islamic worldview? We see so much corruption in the world today and leaders seem more interested in popularity and personal gain than principle and virtue. So, what are some principles of Islamic leadership?
The first principle is that Allah SWT provided for us a role model to emulate.
Allah SWT appointed a human being, the best of created beings, as the final messenger of Allah. And to the final Messenger, Allah says: “Those [prophets] were guided by Allah, so follow their guidance. Say, ‘I ask no reward of you for this [Qur’an]— it is a reminder to the whole world’” (Qur’an 6:90).
What did the prophets and messengers do with regard to their responsibility of conveying the message of the Creator to their nations? Their messages were clear, simple, and direct, without sugarcoating and without complex ideas or philosophies. The message was consistent: worship the one true God, the One alone deserving of worship, and associate none with Him. Prophet Muhammad followed in the footsteps of the previous messengers; but he is the final figurative brick of a great edifice of divine guidance, the final chosen human being, and the one responsible for being a leader not just for one generation but for the rest of time.
When he received the first divine message in the Cave of Hira, Prophet Muhammad (s) did not know what was happening and was naturally afraid. When he rushed to his wife Khadijah for comfort, she indeed comforted him and reminded him that he was a good person, and that God would never forsake him. She mentioned his traits of honesty, upholding family ties, and helping others. When she took him to her cousin, the elder Waraqa, who was well versed in the previous scriptures, he asked about what happened in the cave and immediately understood what the supernatural occurrence was. The being in the cave was none other than the Great Angel [angel Gabriel]. Waraqa said, “This is the same one who keeps the secrets, whom Allah had sent to Moses. I wish I were young and could live to the time when your people would kick you out.” Allah’s Messenger asked, “Will they kick me out?” Waraqa replied in the affirmative and said, “Anyone who came with something similar to what you have brought [i.e., a message from God] was treated with hostility; and if I should live till the day when you are kicked out then I will support you strongly.”
One point must be emphasized: anyone who wants to bring about change must recognize that no prophet or messenger – and they are the greatest of people – was unopposed. Hostility and opposition are unfortunately expected in this world when one preaches and lives according to the truth. A leader in Islam recognizes that their mission of righteousness and truth will sometimes be challenged, and that one must be strong and steadfast no matter the situation. That is emulating the role model as embodied by Prophet Muhammad (s).
A second principle of Islamic leadership is emphasizing that power and success are from Allah.
Leaders who trust in Allah attribute success to Him [“…and my success is from Allah…” (11:88)], they thank Allah for all blessings, and they have humility while trusting fully in Allah’s power. For example, with the blessings Dhul Qarnayn was given, he said, “This is a mercy from my Lord.” He knew that true power, success, and provisions do not come from human beings. The opposite example is that of Qarun, who was blessed by Allah with significant wealth, and he attributed it to his own intellect and knowledge instead.
On a personal level, this principle should be connected to one’s livelihood, wealth, health, family, and so forth. Everything good is from Allah, and we take all measures and engage in all efforts while, at the same time, trusting completely in Him. This principle is exemplified when a parent teaches their child that their blessings are all from Allah, and that correct attribution is liberation from ego-worship. When Allah says, “Whoever puts his trust in Allah, Allah will suffice him…” (Qur’an 65:3), we are reminded to internalize the reality that Allah is truly sufficient for us. Without Allah, we have nothing. “If Allah helps you, none can defeat you. But if He denies you help, then who else can help you? So, in Allah let the believers put their trust” (3:160). When the time comes, we leave this world. Or while still alive, our material blessings might be lost. No created being or that which he possesses is permanent. What is permanent is success in the sight of Allah SWT.
A third principle is that a leader does not compromise on Islamic principles.
In the Qur’an, Allah SWT tells Prophet Muhammad (s) to say that “… I only follow that which is revealed to me, and I am not but a clear warner” (46:9). That, along with so many other sources of evidence, let us know that the Prophet would never compromise the truth.
When the Prophet (s) started conveying the message of Allah, he could have accepted the offer of the Quraysh to be their king, justifying it to himself with the idea that he would later convince them of the divine message. He could have also compromised the message as they requested and then tried to unite with them and gradually make changes later “as allies.” He could have addressed social ills and aimed to be a reformer to first gather large support, and then later utilize the strength in numbers to present the divine message. But he did not compromise the truth. When the people of Ta’if wanted to accept Islam without giving charity, he could not accept their offer. When Quraysh offered him power, wealth, and authority, he refused all bribes. When they told him that they would worship his Lord for one year and then he would worship theirs for one year, he refused.
Even when his uncle – who loved him and protected him – mentioned various offers to him on behalf of the pagan elites, he refused without any vagueness, stating, “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.” Prophet Muhammad, in the footsteps of previous messengers, conveyed the truth without compromise, even though that meant that he and his followers would continue to be persecuted relentlessly. This is one of many proofs of his integrity and uprightness as a prophet. Throughout his prophethood, he was absolutely unwilling to compromise the truth, and it is because it is not permissible for any human being, including the messengers, to change something that is ordained by the Creator.
Similarly, today, the believer who is pleasing to Allah leads himself and the community to goodness regardless of opposition, challenges, requests to water down the message, etc. A genuine leader in Islam cannot be bribed; he will never engage in corrupting the message. He is unwilling to compromise the truth in order to gain more followers, conversions, or any other end. Ultimately, the leader is distinguished by his principled stance that matters that are fixed in Islam (ordained by Allah) can never be changed.
Furthermore, we are reminded that principled leadership avoids the ego-based traps of seeking fame or fortune. Islamic leadership is about the truth, it is about bringing guidance to the people and advancing goodness and justice in the world. Allah SWT tells us in the Qur’an, “And if the truth had followed their desires, verily the heavens and the earth and whosoever is therein would have been corrupted…” (23:71).
The Prophet (s) set an example for his followers and for all believers for all times. He is indeed the role model Allah SWT has provided us. And so, any true Muslim leader knows that, even though he demonstrates complete dedication to his role and function, all power and success is from Allah SWT. And the virtuous leader, whether the head of state, the imam of a mosque, or the head of the family, always stands firm for the truth (al-haqq); he never compromises the truth. “And that is because Allah is the Truth…” (Qur’an 31:30).