Learning to Lead

Learning to Lead

In the Light of the Quran and the Sunnah

By Binte Aqueel, Hina Jamal, J. Samia Mair and Sadaf Farooqi

While Muslims often complain about having a crisis of leadership, paradoxically, there seems to be no dearth of self-proclaimed leaders – people, who think they have everything required to lead the community and are ready to fight for it.

Today, countries, groups, organisations and Masajid have become mired in an ugly struggle for power. Often, a person stands up to fill an essential leadership void in the community, considering himself/herself best fit for the role. Campaigning, electioneering and lobbying are often followed by dirty politics, mudslinging and rivalry. Soon, all those involved in the noble bid to provide a good leadership seem to have lost their goal somewhere in the fight for power. All that matters now is their or their party’s winning at any cost.

Sounds familiar? Sadly, this is the dilemma many countries and organisations face. The quest for good leadership often brings out greed and lust for power not only in country politics but also in the college and work life groups. Everyone wants a leadership position, and they are prepared to go to any lengths to acquire it.

Seeking Leadership

Interestingly, Islam discourages the practice of seeking leadership. In Islam, leadership is an Amanah (trust) and a huge responsibility. The early Muslims used to cry, when they were given a position of authority, out of fear of not being able to discharge it properly.

The Prophet (sa) is reported to have said that anyone, who seeks leadership, is not fit to assume it. Once, two men entered upon the Prophet (sa). One of them said: “O, Allah’s Apostle! Appoint me as governor,” and so did the second. The Prophet (sa) said: “We do not assign the authority of ruling to those who ask for it, nor to those who are keen to have it.” (Bukhari)

Abu Hurairah (rta) has narrated that the Prophet (sa) said: “You people will be keen to have the authority of ruling, which will be a thing of regret for you on the Day of Resurrection.” (Bukhari)

The Prophet (sa) advised Abdur Rahman Ibn Samurah (rta): “Do not seek to be a ruler, for if you are given authority on your demand, you will be held responsible for it, but if you are given it without asking for it, then you will be helped (by Allah) in it. If you ever take an oath to do something and later on you find that something else is better, then do what is better and make expiation for your oath.” (Bukhari)

This is not to say, however, that taking up a leadership role is wrong or discouraged. Indeed, the Prophet (sa) encouraged his followers to take up a responsibility, when it was entrusted to them. He said: “Whoever is given responsibility of some matter of the Muslims but withdraws himself, while they are in dire need and poverty, Allah will withdraw Himself from him, while he is in dire need and poverty on the Day of Requital.” (Abu Dawood)

It is discouraged to seek a leadership position out of greed and desire for power. Actions are based on intentions, and we must not doubt anyone’s intentions.

Empowerment and Delegation

Life is an ongoing cycle of events, one of which is that all leaders are eventually replaced. For such transitions to be as smooth as possible, a leader should prepare his subordinates to be able to efficiently take on leadership roles in the future, which bring added responsibilities, require the ability to make critical decisions, and need excellent interpersonal skills to win over hearts of people.

Some leaders tend to follow autocratic and dictatorial leadership styles, thinking that these cast greater awe over a workforce and thus attain better performance.

Clearly, this methodology is in clear contradiction to the style of leadership of Prophet Muhammad (sa), who was an exemplary leader. He was humble, mild-mannered, friendly, approachable and easy to talk to. Moreover, he empowered his close companions to be capable enough to carry on his mission after his demise.

I would like to elaborate on his style of ‘Empowerment and Delegation’ in the light of Ahadeeth regarding the appointment of Muadh Bin Jabal (rta) as the governor of Yemen.

Ibn Abbas has narrated: “The Prophet sent Muadh (rta) to Yemen and said: ‘Invite the people to testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and I am Allah’s Apostle, and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has enjoined on them five prayers in every day and night (in twenty-four hours), and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has made it obligatory for them to pay the Zakat from their property and it is to be taken from the wealthy among them and given to their poor.’” (Bukhari)

According to another narration: “When Allah’s Messenger (sa) sent Muadh to Yemen, he went out with him whilst Muadh (rta) rode his riding beast and Allah’s Messenger walked beside him giving instructions. When he finished, he said: ‘Perhaps, Muadh, you may not meet me after this year, but perhaps, you may pass this Masjid of mine and my grave.’ Muadh wept from grief over the departure of Allah’s Messenger. The Prophet then turned facing Madinah and said: ‘Those nearest to me are the pious, whoever they are and whenever they are.’” (Mishkat)

These Ahadeeth make the following points clear:

  1. When a delegation is going off on a long journey, the leader should personally see them off.
  2. The leader should give simple, concise and role-related instructions to the delegate during their final meeting, as reminders of what work lies ahead for the delegate and its importance.
  3. The leader is humble, i.e., he does not mind walking or standing at a lower level than his delegate.
  4. The leader must be honest, when expressing his emotions to his subordinate.
  5. The leader should console his subordinate, when the latter is expressing grief.
  6. There should be love and compassion between a leader and his subordinates, especially in careers related to Dawah and religious instruction.

We can see how perfectly our Prophet (sa) combined the delegation of a leadership role to a subordinate with human compassion, empowering a future leader while simultaneously expressing his love and humility as a leader. He was, perhaps, the only man in history, who brought about the greatest of change in mankind in the shortest time period.

Best Religious Leaders – Close to People

Have you ever tried to contact a qualified, respected Islamic scholar or religious authority figure for some personal issue? These scholars have busy schedules of delivering talks and lectures in institutions and homes, travelling abroad often for conferences and, hence, are often hard to reach. When the common man endeavours to get in touch with them, more often than not, it is an uphill task involving numerous phone calls and/or unanswered emails. Private counsel with them is elusive – no more than a fleeting Salam or handshake following their Dars, before they hurriedly whiz off to their next engagement.

We must remember that a religious leader is a human being just like us. He or she needs time to rest, relax, leisurely hang out with family, sleep, attend to personal errands, read, study, respond to correspondence, plan itineraries and meet relatives. If they were to give private counsel to anyone, who wants to talk to them at any time during the day, they would be constantly pre-empted. Moreover, idleness and over-socialization is common in our culture. People tend to linger to chat about useless topics long after having discussed the required issue. If a religious leader were to give in to every lay-person’s demands on their time, it would not be long before they would not be able to continue their Dawah work.

It is, therefore, all about maintaining a critical balance between work and human compassion. Could it be that religious organizations’ leaders today have allowed themselves to become so overburdened with commitments, that they do not have time for even genuine requests for a sympathetic ear? Is this not against the Sunnah of our Prophet (sa)?

I find this food for thought. Why do our leaders move around with entourages and employ assistants for trivial personal tasks such as ironing clothes, whereas the best leaders of our Ummah, who had to juggle many more balls in the air, such as planning battle strategies, meeting foreign dignitaries and catering to multiple spouses/children, never hired personal assistants?

The proof of the Sahabas’ humility is the way they’d roam the streets at night alone, in their positions as Ameer-ul-Mumineen, to see what was going on at ground level. Prophet Muhammad (sa) never sat at a level higher than his company, except to ascend the pulpit for a sermon. His clothes made him indistinguishable from his companions to a newcomer, who set eyes on him for the first time.

Is this not something worth pondering over?

Here are a few tips that might restore the Sunnah of compassion for laymen for our leaders:

  1. Gain knowledge of the Prophet’s (sa) life and how he handled situations.
  2. Cut down on commitments, so that you have a few days a week with nothing on the agenda.
  3. Spend time with your family – every day.
  4. Play and converse with children randomly.


Our Prophet (sa) and those of his companions, who later became leaders, were always accessible to the common man, even poor old women or slaves, who stopped them in their tracks with personal complains. Let us endeavour to emulate their example, when and if we ever occupy a leadership role in our lives, because they were the best of our Ummah.

Leaders in the Business World

The unfortunate situation arising in the United States – and I suspect in other non-Muslim populated countries as well – is that when given the choice between conducting a transaction with a business run by a Muslim and a business run by a non-Muslim, many Muslims (and others) choose the non-Muslim business. And even when there may not be a choice – such as a Halal food store – it is only out of necessity that Muslims frequent it. Why are Muslim-run businesses not always the first choice? In one word-leadership.

A good leader runs a business that has courteous, hard working employees, quality products and services and satisfied customers. The leader sets the tone for those underneath him or her. If the leader is hardworking, ethical and fair and expects the same from the employees, the business will have a good reputation. If the leader does not demonstrate these qualities, or if the leader does have them, but does not require the same of employees, the business will not.

There is no excuse for a Muslim not to be a good leader in business. The Quran and Sunnah give ample guidance on what constitutes a good leader. And unlike many other systems of belief, Islam sets forth what is ethical, responsible and Islamically acceptable in the business context. For example, a multitude of Ahadeeth provides guidance on this issue, including these few:

“The merchants will be raised up on the day of resurrection as evildoers, except those who fear God, are honest and speak the truth.” (At-Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, Darimi and Baihaqi)

“God show mercy to a man, who is kindly when he sells, when he buys and when he makes a claim.” (Bukhari)

“If anyone sells a defective article without drawing attention to it, he will remain under God’s anger.” (Ibn Majah)

“If anyone keeps goods till the price rises, he is a sinner.” (Muslim)

More generally, as Muslims we are expected to exhibit excellence in everything we do -“Allah has made excellence obligatory for everything.” (Muslim) Our businesses should set forth the paradigm of business practices. Business schools should teach case studies on Muslim-run businesses to their students. Our business leaders should be highly sought after for advice. Indeed, Allah (swt) tells us that we set the example for others: “Thus, We have made you a just nation, that you be witnesses over mankind and the Messenger be a witness over you.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:143)

The sad reality is that many of us, in the business context and elsewhere, do not rise near to the level of conduct that Allah (swt) expects from us. Even worse, many of us do not even try. And by not doing so, we miss a great opportunity for Dawah – something that is incumbent upon all of us.

Despite some popular misconceptions, Islam was spread by Muslims, who followed the Sunnah and the guidance of Allah (swt) – those, who showed what it truly means to be human. Their exemplary and just conduct as merchants in the market-place set forth a brilliant example for the non-Muslims of the time. In a world so preoccupied with international commerce and making money, business affords us an incredible opportunity not only to better ourselves but to pass the Message onto others.

May Allah (swt) guide the Muslim community and its leaders towards what is right, Ameen.

“Yes, we can!”

Yes We Can

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barrack Obama was criticized for the simplicity of his message: “Yes, we can.” I feel that this is the best and the simplest message a leader can transmit for training and developing an effective and efficient team.

In order for a team to be valuable and competent, we need to analyze the role of the leader, and how a leader guides or coaches the team. We need look no further than Surah Kahf and the example of Dhul Qarnain. Ayaat 83 – 98 of this Surah clearly demonstrate, how a leader should behave for inculcating the following in the team:

  • trust,
  • keenness to achieve results,
  • discipline,
  • effective communication,
  • clear work objectives,
  • ongoing learning.

Let’s analyze these objectives one Ayah at a time.

When Allah (swt) says: “Verily, we established Him in the earth, and we gave Him the means of everything” (Al-Kahf 18:84),it clearly indicates that a person is chosen for leadership, he cannot nominate himself for it. A team must trust that their leader has not forcibly or deceptively gained the position. The second part of the Ayah brings to light that a leader must have the appropriate abilities and knowledge required to lead a team successfully. He must have the ‘means’ and the ‘know how’. The foremost aspect of training team is to make them believe that you have the proficiency to lead them forward.

With words “so he followed a way”, Ayah 85 denotes that a leader must be a guide. He must set a direction for his team to follow. A team keen to achieve results must be given a specific goal and also shown a path to follow for achieving that goal. Training the team to follow this path by default implies that the leader must not only follow that path as well, but must be at the forefront, leading the team down that path.

Ayahs 87 – 88 tell us that a leader must maintain discipline in his ranks: “He said: ‘As for Him (a disbeliever in the Oneness of Allah) who does wrong, we shall punish him; and then He will be brought back unto his Lord; who will punish Him with a terrible torment (Hell). But as for him who believes (in Allah’s Oneness) and works righteousness, He shall have the best reward, (Paradise), and we (Dhul-Qarnain) shall speak unto Him mild words (as instructions).”

For a team to complete their job and do it successfully, a leader must train his team to be disciplined, giving out rewards where appropriate and handing out punishments/reprimands when required. This also includes handing out assignments in a just and fair manner, so no member of a team feels overburdened. Honing the capabilities of each member is an essential part of training a group: utilizing each member’s abilities in the appropriate area and providing the members with the opportunity to explore all the aspects of the task at hand. In order to do this, the leader must be ready to accept minor failures by the team members as part of the learning process.

Ayah 93 brings our attention to the fact that a team is comprised of individuals with varying intellectual levels, expertise and skills: “When He reached between two mountains, He found, before (near) them (those two mountains), a people who scarcely understood a word.” When training the team, the leader must establish effective communication among the team members. The leader must provide guidelines/instructions, so that the entire team establishes a common language among themselves, in order to proceed with the task effectively. The leader must train the team and help them acquire the tools, confidence, language skills, etc., required for communicating with people.

Next, let’s look at Ayahs 94 – 95: “They said: ‘O Dhul-Qarnain! Verily! Yajooj and Majooj (Gog and Magog) are doing great mischief in the land. Shall we then pay you a tribute in order that you might erect a barrier between us and them?’ He said: ‘That (wealth, authority and power) in which my Lord had established me is better (than your tribute), so help me with strength (of men), I will erect between you and them a barrier.’” A leader must set an unfailing example for his subordinates: bribery/corruption is not acceptable. Only legal compensation is allowed. For a team to function, spiritual training is an essential part.

Last, let’s look at Ayah 96: “‘Give me pieces (blocks) of iron,’ then, when he had filled up the gap between the two mountain-cliffs, he said: ‘Blow,’ till when he had made it (red as) fire, he said: ‘Bring me molten copper to pour over it.’” A leader must be well versed in the use of latest technology, and then instruct his team in the use of it. In addition, the team must have ongoing professional training, so they are abreast with current and emerging trends in their field.

“The building of this barrier was the truest example of, in the history of man, of compassion and cooperation, between a nation of great wealth and a weak nation…” (commentary of Surah Kahf, Ali Abdur Rasheed), in other words, this models how a leader should behave and by setting an example, train his team to do the same.

Amazing! Allah (swt) has given us the perfect training model, if we only chose to follow it. Yes, we can!

Characteristics of Principle-Centred Leaders

Characteristics of Principle-Centred Leaders

What comes to our mind, when we think of an effective leader: a dynamic and diligent individual who has solutions to every problem; a person, who is courageous and capable enough to take his team to new heights of self-discovery; maybe someone, who is an epitome of self-motivation and high principles?

Anyone, who is entrusted with the responsibility to lead, should possess the eight discernible characteristics of principle-centered leaders. If we wish to excel in our role as a leader, we need to develop the following fundamental principles:

1. They learn continually

Our beloved Prophet (sa) continued to receive revelations till the very last days of his life. His entire life was founded on personal learning and divine guidance. Similarly, it is Sunnah to expand one’s competence and ability to do things. Effective leaders read, seek training, and listen to others. They are curious and eager to develop new skills. They are humble enough to learn something valuable from every person they meet. Most of their learning is self-initiated.

2. They are service-oriented

Remember the time of Masjid-e-Nabawi’s construction, and how the noble companions worked industriously? But rather than just delegating tasks and dispensing orders, who carried heavy rocks right by their side? Who led by example and experienced the same hardship, assuring his team that he was there with them every step of the way? Our beloved Messenger (sa), of course.

The next characteristic tells us the same. If we strive to become principle-centred leaders, we must see life as a mission, not as a career that will begin at the age of twenty-five and end at sixty. An effective leader has nurturing sources within him that prepares him for service. Every morning, he puts on the harness of service, thinking of others.

As leaders, we must have a load to carry. If we only attempt to have an intellectual or moral exercise, we will never develop a sense of responsibility, service, or contribution towards our people.

3. They radiate positive energy

Smile, it’s a Sunnah! It is also a Sadaqah! Principle-centered people have cheerful and pleasant countenances and an optimistic attitude. Their spirit is hopeful and believing.

It is important for one to be aware of his energy; he must understand how to radiate and direct it. When the situation becomes confusing or contentious, a principle-centred leader strives to be a peacemaker and a harmonizer, to undo or reverse destructive energy.

4. They believe in other people

Principle-centred leaders are aware of human weaknesses. Hence, they don’t over-react to negative behaviours. They neither feel vulnerable upon discovering another person’s human weakness nor build up stress within them. They understand that behavior and potential are two different things and believe in the unforeseen potential of all people. Remember Prophet’s (sa) belief in people like Umar (rta), who were initially bitter enemies of Islam? But it was the Messenger’s (sa) belief in Umar (rta) that carved him into the leader, who later conquered that time’s super powers of Rome and Persia.

These leaders also feel grateful for their blessings and compassionately forgive and forget offences. They do not label, pre-judge, stereotype or categorize anyone.

5. They lead balanced lives

Principle-centred leaders are not extremists. They don’t immediately divide everything into either good or bad. They think in terms of priorities and hierarchies, have the power to sense similarities and differences in each situation and the courage to condemn the bad and champion the good. Their actions and attitudes are proportionate to the situation – they are moderate and wise.

They don’t condemn themselves for every mistake. They learn from errors and march on. They live sensibly in the present, carefully plan the future and flexibly adapt to change. For them, success is on the far side of failure. The only real failure is the experience not learned from.

Such leaders read the best literature. They are active socially with many friends and a few confidantes. They share intellectual interests. Physically they are active people as per their age limits. They have a healthy sense of humour; they laugh at themselves and not at others.

They do not intimidate others and are genuinely happy for others’ successes. They are well aware of their own worth; hence, they do not need any manipulative measures for success.

All of the above were modeled by our beloved prophet Muhammad (sa), which makes them absolutely doable and possible!

6. They see life as an adventure

Principle-centred leaders savour life. They do not depend upon the safety of their homes or comfort zones. Their real asset lies in their ability to initiate things, be resourceful, exercise will-power, exhibit courage, march on with stamina and their native intelligence.

They are prepared to rediscover people each time they meet them – they are able to do that by listening, asking questions and involving themselves. They do not label others according to their past successes or failures. A very important quality that they possess is that of flexibility, which enables them to adapt to virtually any situation.

They do not see anyone larger than life. They do not feel an urge to be in awe of the rich, the influential or the famous. They are secure about themselves. They don’t stereotype and categorize people to give them a sense of predictability and certainty.

7. They are synergistic

Synergy is defined as a state, in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts. For instance, two and two make four, but when principle-centred people are synergistic, they create more than four – maybe five or six.

Such people are agents of change. They are able to improve almost any situation they land in. They are productive and creative in ways no one ever thinks of, because they work as smart as they work hard.

When it comes to team initiatives, they delegate work, as they believe in other’s strengths and capacities. They build on their strengths and strive to complement their weaknesses with the strengths of others. They do not feel threatened by their team members, if they happen to excel in some particular area; hence, they do not need to supervise them all the time.

When they negotiate or communicate with their team in any adversarial situation, they always remember to separate the people from the problem. They can focus on the other person’s areas of concern, rather than fight for positions. Gradually, others discover their sincerity, stop holding back and give all they have got. Together, they arrive at a synergistic solution.

They have the courage to work with different kind of team members. Take the example of Prophet’s (sa) companions: Suhaib (rta) from Rome, Bilal (rta) from Habsha, Salman (rta) from Persia and Umar (rta) from Arabia. They had very little in common in terms of ethnic backgrounds and social status. Yet, by celebrating those differences and applying them as strengths, our beloved Messenger (sa) was able to create incredible results. He was able to create synergy!

8. They work on self-renewal

Principle-centred leaders practice regularly and consistently the four dimensions of the human personality: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

They exercise to improve their physical capacity. They exercise their minds by reading purposeful material, solving creative problems, writing and reflecting upon their surroundings. Emotionally, they make an effort to be patient with others, listen to them, offer genuine empathy, love unconditionally, and accept responsibility for their own lives, decisions and reactions.

Spiritually, they focus on prayer, study the scripture, fast and offer charity. They are connected to the Lord on a twenty-four hours basis.

Initially, including these four activities into our schedule take time, but, eventually, their wholesome impact will begin to save our time.