Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Leadership Process in Islam

Leader's Chair
According to Islam, the two primary roles of a leader are those of servant-leader and guardian-leader. 
Leadership in Islam is a trust.

Often, it takes the form of an explicit contract or pledge between a leader and his followers that he will try his best to guide them, to protect them and to treat them fairly and with justice. Hence, the focus of leadership in Islam is on integrity and justice.

Given the recent emphasis on ethical behavior in the leadership literature (Kouzes and Posner, 1995), an examination of the moral bases of leadership from an Islamic perspective may provide some interesting insights for the field of leadership in general. In this paper, we will examine what leadership is from an Islamic perspective, discuss the moral dimensions of leadership and uncover the characteristics of leaders and followers as suggested by Islam.
1- Defining Leadership in Islam

To begin with, Muslims base their behavior as leader and/or as follower upon the Word of God as revealed in their Book, the Quran. They believe that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace be upon him), has modeled the way for Muslim leaders and followers for all times. This belief is supported when God says the following about Prophet Muhammad:

{And you stand an exalted standard of character.} (Al-Qalam 68: 4)

Prophet Muhammad’s example, then, is what both Muslim leaders and followers seek to emulate. According to the Prophet Muhammad, leadership in Islam is not reserved for small elite. Rather, depending upon the situation, every person is the “shepherd” of a flock, and occupies a position of leadership. Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said:

"Each of you is a guardian, and each of you will be asked about his subjects." (Al-Bukhari)

In most circumstances in life, Muslims are urged to appoint a leader and follow him. According to the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims must appoint a leader during a trip, select a leader to lead the prayer, and choose a leader for other group activities. Leadership, then, can be depicted as a process by which the leader seeks the voluntary participation of followers in an effort to reach certain objectives. This definition suggests that leadership is essentially a process whereby the leader guides willing followers. At all times, a leader must remember that he cannot compel others to do things against their will.

{Let there be no compulsion in religion.} (Al- Baqarah 2: 256)

Leadership Roles from an Islamic Perspective

According to Islam, the two primary roles of a leader are those of servant-leader and guardian-leader. First, the leader is the servant of his followers. He is to seek their welfare and guide them towards good. The idea of a leader as a servant has been part of Islam since its beginning, and has only recently been developed by Robert Greenleaf:

“The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. […] The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?” (The Servant, 7)

The Prophet Muhammad has emphasized a second major role of the Muslim leader: to protect his community against tyranny and oppression, to encourage God-consciousness and taqwa, and to promote justice:

"A commander (of the Muslims) is a shield for them." (Muslim)
Whether as servant or as guardian, a Muslim leader may make use of certain bases of power to be effective. Islam recognizes the existence of power, but suggests an etiquette for its use.

Leadership and the Bases of Power

Leaders who possess valuable expertise and information have expert power with respect to their followers who need this information to perform their task.
Power is “the ability to marshal the human, informational, and material resources to get something done.” (Power, 10)
“Five bases of power” (The Bases, 150) are usually mentioned in the leadership literature; the Islamic perspective of leadership incorporates all five, but views them differently.

Legitimate Power

Legitimate power is associated with one’s position in the organization. Generally, Islam discourages Muslims from actively seeking positions of authority. Campaigning for a position of power may imply that one is enamored with the position for one’s own advancement or some other self-serving reason. Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said:

"Do not ask for a position of authority, for if you are granted this position as a result of your asking for it, you will be left alone (without God’s help to discharge the responsibilities involved in it), and if you are granted it without making any request for it, you will be helped (by God in the discharge of your duties)." (Muslim)

An exception can be made to this injunction when a person sees a situation in which there is a potential crisis or disaster. Should he have the expertise required to help others in this situation, he may seek a specific position so as to provide assistance. For example, Prophet Joseph (peace be upon him) asked for such a position when he requested the King of Egypt to be placed in charge of the granaries. A deed, accompanied by the right intention, is within the parameters of Islam.

Reward Power

A leader who has position power may also control organizational rewards, including pay raises, desirable work assignments, or promotions. The same holds true for Islam. It is noteworthy that the Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab used to pay state officials high salaries. He wanted to ensure that they would not get tempted by bribes. By treating his appointees equitably, Omar became one of the most outstanding Islamic leaders.

Coercive Power

Besides controlling organizational rewards, a leader in a position of authority also controls group sanctions. Islam recognizes the legitimacy of coercive power, but suggests that it should not be used to coerce followers towards evil. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad once said that:
"Obedience (to the leader) is required only in what is good." (Al-Bukhari)

 Placing emphasis on the role of the leader as servant, Omar was quoted as saying to the people: “I have appointed over you governors and agents not to beat your bodies or take your monies, but rather to teach you and serve you.”

Expert Power

Leaders who possess valuable expertise and information have expert power with respect to their followers who need this information to perform their task. For example, in a prayer congregation, a person may be chosen to lead the prayers because of his knowledge of Islam. There is no clergy in Islam.

Referent or Charismatic Power

A person has charisma when others wish to follow him because they are attracted by his personality. Born leaders are usually charismatic. Ethical charismatic leaders, such as Prophet Muhammad and all other Prophets (peace be upon them), use power for the benefit of mankind, learn from criticism, work to develop their followers into leaders, and rely on moral standards. A recent, very charismatic American Muslim leader was Malcolm X. Many embraced Islam in the USA after listening to, or reading about him.

“[Malcolm X’s] life showed me something eminently more useful than skilled oratory: what role religion could play as one approached this race-conscious society. He provided an example of how a man could use conviction as a powerful instrument to change the course of life--one’s own and others.” (American Jihad, 16)

To serve God, a Muslim leader is to act in accordance with the injunctions of God and His Prophet, and must develop a strong Islamic moral character.
Given how Islam views leadership and power, what will ensure that a Muslim leader behaves ethically? The moral bases of Islamic leadership are expected to provide the inner core that guides leaders.
2- Moral Bases of Islamic Leadership

Leadership in Islam is rooted in belief and willing submission to the Creator, God. It centers on serving Him:
{And We made them leaders guiding (men) by Our Command and We sent them inspiration to do good deeds, to establish regular prayers and to practice regular charity; and they constantly served Us (and Us only).} (Al-Anbiya’ 21: 73)

To serve God, a Muslim leader is to act in accordance with the injunctions of God and His Prophet, and must develop a strong Islamic moral character. This moral character will be reflected by his increasingly strong belief in God as he progresses through four stages of spiritual development: 

Iman (faith), Islam, Taqwa (God consciousness) and Ihsan (excellence). Each stage is now discussed in terms of how it affects a Muslim leader’s behavior.

Iman (Faith)

At the core of Islamic moral character is iman or faith in God. Faith implies belief in the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. A leader with a strong faith will consider himself and all his possessions as belonging to God. He will bow his ego, his ideas, his passions and his thinking to God. Faith also implies belief in the life hereafter and in one’s ultimate accountability for one’s deeds. A leader with a firm faith will not dodge responsibility for his actions, and will continuously emphasize good deeds. To reinforce this idea, the Quran links faith with good deeds no less than 60 times.

Although Muslims consider it desirable to appoint a leader with faith, it may not always be possible to find such a person. An organization may have to choose between a strong Muslim with weak leadership skills and a strong leader with moderate/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 to a key leadership position. This issue was explained by Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiya:

"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 were not a strong Muslim, his shortcomings can be made up through shura or the consultative process of decision making."


Building upon faith, Islam is the second layer of the moral personality of an Islamic leader and followers. Islam means the achievement of peace with God, within oneself and with the creation of God, through willing submission to Him. As A. Al-Maududi points out so well:

“Iman is the seed and Islam is the fruition.” (The Islamic Movement, 115)

Because of his or her iman (faith), a leader who practices Islam will never see himself as supreme. Ali ibn Abu Talib’s letter to Malik al-Ashtar an-Nukai, the new Governor of Egypt, stresses this point in the following manner:

"Malik, you must never forget that if you are a ruler over them, then the Caliph is a ruler over you, and God is the supreme Lord over the Caliph." (To the Commander, 8)

Taqwa (God Consciousness)

As an individual submits to God through Islam, he develops an awe of God. This all encompassing, inner consciousness of his duty towards Him and this awareness of his accountability towards Him is taqwa. (116)
As pointed out by Mawdudi: “the essence of taqwa lies in an attitude of heart and mind rather than in an outward form.” (118)
The principle of justice must be observed by all Muslims— leaders and followers alike.
When imbued with taqwa, a person’s frame of mind—his thoughts, emotions and inclinations—will reflect Islam. Taqwa will restrain a Muslim leader or follower from behaving unjustly—whether to community members, to customers, to suppliers or to anybody else:
{God commands justice 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.} (An-Nahl 16: 90)

Ihsan (Excellence)

Whereas taqwa is the fear of God and the feeling of God’s Presence, ihsan is the love of God. This love of God motivates the individual Muslim to work towards attaining God’s Pleasure. The Prophet Muhammad describes ihsan as follows:

"To worship God as if you see Him, and if you cannot achieve this state of devotion then you must consider that He is looking at you." (Al-Bukhari)

The constant feeling that God is watching is likely to prompt any leader or follower with Ihsan to behave at his best. The difference between the Muslims with taqwa and Muslims with Ihsan is concisely explained by Mawdudi with the following example:

"Among government employees, there may be some who perform their duties scrupulously, but who do not demonstrate any additional commitment. Other employees, however, push themselves beyond the call of duty; they are energized, and willing to make sacrifices in the performance of their tasks. Within the context of Islam, the first group of employees are like believers who do what is sufficient and necessary; they are those that have taqwa. By contrast, the second group of employees have ihsan. These are the Muslim leaders and followers who will tirelessly carry the banner of Islam under the most difficult circumstances." (119)

Based on the above discussion of the four layers of Islamic moral character, leaders and followers may be classified depending on what stage they are at: Iman, Islam, Taqwa and Ihsan. The Islamic moral character requires that leaders emphasize the following five key parameters of Islamic behavior: justice, trust, righteousness, the struggle towards self-improvement, and promise keeping.


“Justice is a dynamic characteristic” (The Ethical, 241) which each Muslim must strive to develop whether he is a leader or a follower:
{O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God as witnesses to fair dealing and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. [...]} (Al-Ma’idah 5: 8)
The need to achieve a balance and to take a middle road is quite important in a leader, and is stressed repeatedly by God in the Quran. He describes those “who will be rewarded with the highest place in heaven” as:

{Those who, when they spend, are not extravagant and not niggardly, but hold a just (balance) between those two extremes; [...]} (Al-Furqan 25: 67-8)
Application of Justice to Leadership

The principle of justice must be observed by all Muslims— leaders and followers alike. For example, God admonishes Muslims thus:
{God does command you to render back your trusts to those to whom they are due; and when you judge between man and man that you judge with justice […]} (An-Nisa’ 4: 58)

This is why the Prophet Muhammad emphasized that justice must never be compromised by personal affiliations or other considerations.


Once an individual has accepted to be the leader of a group or organization, he has become their trustee.
This concept of trust stresses the idea of responsibility towards organizational stakeholders, and holds true whether those entrusting something to Muslims are themselves non-Muslims:
{O you that believe! betray not the trust of God and the apostle nor misappropriate knowingly things entrusted to you.} (Al-Anfal 8: 27)

As a core value, trust fits within the overall Islamic etiquette governing social relationships.

Application of Trust to Leadership

Trust is explicitly linked to leadership in the Quran. We refer to the story of Prophet Joseph (peace be upon him). After the king had indicated that he placed great trust in him, Prophet Joseph deliberately asked to be put in charge of the granaries and storehouses, and the demanding task of establishing them and guarding them. As one translator of the Quran, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, points out, Prophet Joseph understood the need to build reserves better than anyone else, and was prepared to take on this task himself rather than throw on to another the burden of restricting supplies in times of plenty.

Once an individual has accepted to be the leader of a group or organization, he has become their trustee. In a for-profit, Muslim organization, the management of the organization is entrusted with the shareholders’ investment. In a nonprofit organization, the management of the organization is charged with watching over the properties in the trust. Consequently, any managerial decision must be balanced with respect to this trust. The concept of trust can be extended to other dimensions of one’s work as a leader or a follower. Should one be wasting time or organizational resources in performing one’s task, one is violating his/her employer’s trust. 


Righteous behavior is described as follows:
{It […] is righteousness to believe in God and the Last Day and the Angels and the Book and the Messengers; to spend of your substance out of love for Him for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask [...]; to be steadfast in prayer and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which you have made; and to be firm and patient in pain (or suffering) and adversity […]} (Al-Baqarah 2: 177)
These general attributes will now be linked to the attributes that Islamic leaders and followers should embrace.
Application of Righteousness to Leadership

Based on the above verses, several moral attributes of righteous leaders become salient:
  • They act justly and do not allow their personal feelings to hinder justice.
  • They have faith or iman,
  • They take care of those in need, and do so for the love of God,
  • They are steadfast in prayer and practice charity,
  • They observe all contracts, and
  • They are patient no matter what type of adversity they may be experiencing.
In general, then, organization participants of all faiths are entitled to be treated with basic human decency and dignity and with the maximum of fair play and justice. In an Islamic organization, a leader is expected to be sensitive to their needs.

Struggle within Oneself towards Self-improvement

The dimension of inner struggle permeates the very progression from iman to ihsan, and continues thereafter
This concept is portrayed very accurately by the Quran (see chapter 22: 77-8) Prophet Muhammad stressed the importance of this inner striving to improve oneself:

"The believers in the world are in three classes: those who believe in God and His Messenger and do not doubt, but strive with their property and their persons in God's cause; the man whom people trust with their property and their persons; and the man who, when he is about to display greed, abandons it for the sake of God, Who is Great and Glorious." (Ahmad)

The dimension of inner struggle permeates the very progression from iman to ihsan, and continues thereafter.

Application of the Concept of Self-Struggle to Leadership

This principle encapsulates the process of inner struggle towards self-betterment. Leaders and followers practicing this principle are continuously monitoring and evaluating their intentions and actions, and acting to improve themselves accordingly. They work hard at practicing what they say, and encourage others in this struggle for self-improvement.


All Muslims—whether leaders or followers—are urged to keep their promises. They also cannot make promises that are un-Islamic in nature:

{O you who believe! fulfill (all) obligations.} (Al-Ma'idah 5: 1)

Keeping one’s word characterizes a Muslim. Breaking one’s word is tantamount to hypocrisy.

Application of Promise-Keeping to Leadership

Based upon the above discussion, keeping promises is very important for all, and a leader is not exempted from this important principle:

"I bought something from the Prophet (peace be upon him) before he received his Prophetic commission, and as there was something still due to him I promised him that I would bring it to him at his place, but I forgot. When I remembered three days later, I went to that place and found him there. He said: […] I have been here for three days waiting for you." (Abu Dawud)

Now that we have discussed the bases of Islamic leadership, we need to explore what normative attributes are required of Muslim leaders and followers.
3- Leader Characteristics

The characteristics of an Islamic leader affect his/her behavior, and are congruent with the characteristics of effective leaders identified by Kouzes and Posner (1995). We will now relate the top four characteristics identified by these researchers to the Islamic model.
Honesty: Leaders are considered honest to the extent that there is ‘consistency between word and deed.’ They do what they say they are going to do. In the Quran, the Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) is himself labeled as “strong and trustworthy” by one of the damsels (as in chapter 28: 26) and the Prophet Joseph (peace be upon him) is described as one who is truthful. (Chapter 12: 46) Similarly, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to be called Sadiq (the truthful) and Amin (the trustworthy) during his youth.

Why is honesty and integrity so important with respect to leaders? Although Kouzes and Posner (1987) do not provide the reader with an answer, Islam does. Leadership is more than an assignment or a job; it is a trust—as already pointed out earlier.

Followers expect their leaders to remain positive about the future no matter how bad the situation may be
Competence: People are more likely to follow a leader’s directives if they believe that this person knows what he or she is doing. If followers doubt the capabilities of their leader, they will be less enthusiastic in accepting directions from him. As suggested by Hollander (1978), a leader who is competent in one situation may not be competent in another. Except in matters where he had received a direct revelation from God, the Prophet Muhammad would often seek and follow the advice of his companions. As the Indian Islamic scholar, 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." (Muhammad, 170)
Inspiration: Followers expect their leaders to remain positive about the future no matter how bad the situation may be. The leader must never give up or lose hope. An example of how a leader inspires his followers comes from Abu Bakr. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims were in shock. Omar was especially distraught. Abu Bakr calmed him down, and then delivered the following address:

"O People, if you have been worshipping Muhammad, then know that Muhammad is dead. But if you have been worshipping God, then know that God is living and never dies."

Patience: In the Quran, God explicitly identifies patience as one of defining characteristics of Islamic 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.} (As-Sajdah 32: 24)

Indeed, like all other believers, a leader can expect to be tested, and he will need to endure. The example of the Prophet and early converts to Islam during the boycott of the Muslims in Makkah illustrates the need for patience.

Humility: A Muslim leader is to be humble, and must never let his ego get the better of him. Omar, the second Caliph, lived in a simple house. He had no bodyguards for his personal security, and walked the streets of Madinah without any escort. Ali, in his letter to Malik Al-Ashtar an-Nukhai, strongly encourages him to remain humble in his new position as Governor of Egypt, and explains to him why pride and arrogance are to be avoided:

“Never say to yourself, ‘I am their Lord, their ruler […], and I must be obeyed submissively and humbly.’ Such a thought will unbalance your mind, will make you vain and arrogant, will weaken your faith in religion and will make you seek the support of any power other than God’s […].” (To the Commander, 8)

The following story demonstrates how the Prophet exhibited patience and humility when a ban was imposed on the Muslims by others:

"When we complained to God's Messenger (peace be upon him) of hunger and raised our clothes to show we were each carrying a stone over the belly, God's Messenger (peace be upon him) raised his clothes and showed that he had two stones on his belly." (At Tirmidhi)

The willingness to seek consultation: Islam stresses consultation in all affairs. Through the Quranic phrase amruhum shura baynahum and the Prophet’s habit of seeking and accepting advice, the limits on the exercise of power have been set both by the Quran and the Prophet. As Al-Buraey points out, shura (consultation) plays a critical role in administration and management, specifically with respect to decision-making; it provides a restraint on a leader’s administrative power and authority.

4- Follower Characteristics

Follower characteristics also represent an important ingredient in the leadership process. Just as in the case of their leader, the characteristics of Muslim followers affect their behavior. These characteristics correspond to those of their leaders except for the additional characteristics of obedience to the leader and dynamic followership.

Obedience: At all times, the leader must be obeyed. Ibn Omar reported Prophet Muhammad as saying:

"Hearing and obeying are the duty of a Muslim, both regarding what he likes and what he dislikes." (Al-Bukhari & Muslim)

As Muhammad Asad indicates, after a leader has been duly elected, he may “be considered to have received a pledge of allegiance from the community.” As a result, both the majority who voted for him as well as the minority who may have voted against now owe obedience and allegiance. Islam considers obedience to the leader so important that it views any kind of insubordination to be abhorrent unless in very specific circumstances.

Dynamic Followership: Although Islam emphasizes that followers should comply with the directives of their leader, it does not condone blind subservience. On one occasion, Omar was suggesting the quantity of dowry to be fixed at the time of a marriage ceremony. What he said was not in accordance with Islamic principle. A lady immediately stood up and said:

"O Omar, fear God." Hearing her sound argument based on the Quran, Omar realized his mistake and said: “The lady is right and the leader of the Muslims (himself) is wrong." (Ibn Hajar)

Omar’s behavior illustrates clearly that followers in Islam are not to be passive bystanders should the leader err.
Conclusion and an Example of a Model Muslim Leader

The Islamic model of leadership emphasizes khuluq or behaving ethically towards all, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Firmly grounded by his faith in God, and mindful of his role as a trustee, a Muslim leader is expected to be just, behave righteously, strive towards self-improvement, and never break his word. He is to consult with others, especially in areas where he is not competent. He is expected to bear adversity patiently, and remain forever humble.

Such exemplary Muslim leaders are rare. One such leader, President Cassam Uteem of the Republic of Mauritius, has been tremendously effective in a country where Muslims are a minority. Humble, he has refused to stay at the Presidential palace. He has steadily waged a war against corruption, and has championed the plight of the poorest in his country. He is loved by one and all. He believes that humanity can only grow and prosper by accepting the fact of cultural diversity, by learning about their differences as well as by reinforcing the values that they share in common. For him, multi-culturality can only thrive in an open civic society with the full participation of all. In so doing, Muslims and non-Muslims alike will be implementing a critical Quranic injunction, expressed as 'li ta’aarafuu'—to get to know one another—an injunction addressed by God to mankind as a whole, not to Muslims alone:

{O mankind, we have created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another.} (Al-Hujurat 49: 13)

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Leadership and Islam section at the Islamic Workplace blog:
This paper is an excerpt of the book "Leadership: An Islamic Perspective" by Dr. Rafik Beekun & Dr. Jamal Badawi. It is republished with the authors' kind permission. 

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