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Essay On The Islamic Perspective On Usury, Or Riba--with An Essay Review
Interest Rates: An Islamic Perspective
(Please scroll down to read a review of this essay)
In Islam there are things that are Halal or permissible and things that are Haram or prohibited. If things are declared Haram, then Muslims dont ask for a reason, but all things have their reason and whether to tell the reason or keep it from us is the wisdom of Allah. For some things one of the reasons is clearly given and in some we comply and only speculate about the reason or wisdom behind the prohibition. In the case of Interest Rates it is both, in that the reasons are stated in the Quran and by the Prophet and that even so there are still reasons we do not comprehend or are not given to us. Interest rates are prohibited in Islam and in many other religions and are also called usury. The Islamic perspective on interest rates is that they are a kind of riba or usury, and therefore a danger to the individual, society and the economy as a whole, and that the world would be better without them.
Riba is the Arabic word for usury. Riba differs from usury by a small factor and that is the amount. Interest rates are but a kind of riba, of which there are many kinds. Unlike the old times, there are now different kinds of riba, of which some are clearly riba and some are not so conspicuous and need careful studying. The relationship between these terms and their definitions are explained by Moulana Hosein, who states that Riba is usury. Usury is commonly understood as the lending of money at illegally high rates of interest. But riba, or usury, in Islam is the lending of money on interest, regardless of the rate of interest! (1). Riba is the broadest of the terms and Interest Rates are specific. Interest Rates are the rates in which interest or riba are taken. So in the old times borrowing money and having a small interest on it is not usury as long as the interest is small and legal. In Islam interest is prohibited regardless of the amount. As stated in the Quran Those who devour usury will not stand except as stands one whom the Evil One by his touch hath driven to madness. That is because they say: Trade is like usury, but Allah hath permitted trade and forbidden usury (Al-Baqarah: 275). So taking money from the bank on interest is also prohibited.
Whether it is a new car, a dress or a dream house, people always want new and mostly expensive things. So when they see what they want, but cannot pay for, it becomes a wish. That wish becomes reality when they pass by the bank and see the Take a loan now and buy what you want or Get a credit card and buy now, pay later posters. Little do they know that what they are getting into are overwhelming debts and interest rates. So they go into the bank, sign a few papers and, voila!, now they have a new car they cant pay for. Months go by and the credit card bill or loan interest statement comes in and they are in serious debt. The psychological and physical effects of debt start to happen. They cant sleep from the stress and are depressed. They get into physical depression and become unable to get out of bed or function as they normally would. Also stress-related heart conditions can start to affect them. Many people turn to drugs and alcohol and many turn to suicide (Psychological & Physical Effects of Debt 1). So from a wish becoming reality and from living a dream becoming living through a nightmare, it ends with death. Was it worth getting that new car or house even if it did not end with suicide?
Now imagine a society in which everyone is in debt and cannot pay for it, everyone is stressed and depressed and is hearing the news of suicides. How will society be like in that situation; will they be a unified community looking out for one another or will everyone think of themselves? Will there be charity among them and will they help each other overcome this debt crisis? The answers is no, obviously after the explanation of the individuals state of mind. There will be people in the society who are immune to what is happening and it doesnt affect them, and they are the lenders, since interest rates make the poor people poorer and the lenders richer by sucking the wealth which belongs to others. They will grow richer at the expense of those who if not already poor will eventually become so (Hosein 1). This is a serious danger to the society of which the individuals are building blocks. So if the building blocks are deteriorated and worn out, then what will happen to the society is that it will be just an empty shell pretending to be a community.
Nowadays the economy is mostly based on interest rates and loans, so in other words it is based on speculative money. Almost all countries are in debt even the so called economic powers like the United States and United Kingdom. The USA has a 53.5% of GDP debt which is approximately 7.55 trillion dollars while the United Kingdom has a 68.2% of GDP debt which is approximately 1.44 trillion dollars (The World Factbook 2). These debts are even increasing faster with interest rates. All these debts and interest rates have their effects on the economy. Having an economy based on interest rates results in inflation and unemployment among other things (Bleher 2). It may also lead to economic recessions and crises. The Great Depression is the most famous economic crisis that shook the whole world and one of its causes was interest rates. Also the recent financial crisis of 2007-2009, which is considered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, was in part caused by loans and interest rates. Governments are trying to control economical problems by using interest rates. Solving a countrys economical problem with interest rates is ineffective, since interest rates are what made these problems (Bleher 2).
A world without interest rates or riba is how it should be, a world where all loans are at zero interest and all debts stay the same and dont increase over time. Loans should be given to those in need as a helping hand, not for gain. People will then live happier, more fulfilling lives away from the stresses of ever-increasing debt. Societies will be like families, each individual helping the other. The economy will be stable and in expansion, hopefully. Also the huge amounts of money spent on servicing debts could be used to pay them off if interest rates are zero and debts are not growing (Bleher 1). Without interest rates money will have Allahs blessing as stated in the Quran Allah will deprive usury of all blessing, but will give increase for deeds of charity: for He loveth not creatures ungrateful and wicked. (Al-Baqarah: 276). Without interest rates people and governments use other means to make money other than depending on interest rates which destroy to make money.
In conclusion the perspective of Islam on interest rates or riba is that they are Haram or prohibited. Also that they are a danger to the individual by making him take what he cannot pay for, therefore piling debt on himself and then his eventual psychological, physical and financial downfall. Their danger to the society is that they make the community incoherent and broken up, thus creating the lack of charity and helping between the people. They also make the poor of the society poorer and the rich lenders richer by sucking at their wealth. The dangers of interest rates on the economy are that they cause inflation and unemployment and on a bigger scale recessions and crises. The world without interest rates would be a much better place by which the individual would have a happier life, the society more like a family helping each other, and the economy stable and in expansion. Interest rates are thorns causing pain and getting deeper unless pulled out to relieve the pain.
Essay Review courtesy of The Essay Judge:
Thank you for submitting your essay for review. While there are a few grammatical infelicities, some of which I have taken the liberty of silently editing, your writing is generally clear enough, with one crucial exception: your handling of terminology is a bit awkward. I suggest that you completely revise the paragraph beginning Riba is the Arabic word for usury, in which you define your terms. I think you make matters more confusing than they need to be, at least if I am right in thinking that all you want to say is Riba is usury, but in Islam usury is not the charging of exorbitant interest, but the charging of any interest whatsoever (its not clear to me, in any case, why you feel the need to say more than that).
Concerning the argument of your essay, it was unclear to me what you consider its most important foundation: economic theory or religious doctrine.
On the one hand, you seem to want to imply that it makes economic sense to abolish the charging of interest rates. In this respect, the argument is based on 1) the negative consequences of a debt-laden society and 2) the possible health and expansion of an economy without riba.
Concerning (1), you rely too much on speculation or mere assertion. In the paragraph beginning Whether it is a new car, for instance, you imagine a dire scenario and present it as representative. It would be more compelling here simply to cite some statistical or scholarly evidence on the negative impacts of indebtedness; you dont need to tell a dramatic story, you need to present a strong, fact-based argument. As an example of using mere assertion instead of argument, consider the paragraph beginning Nowadays the economy etc. You state here that the Great Depression was caused in part by interest rates but dont explain why you think that. The same could be said of your assertions concerning the 2007-2009 financial crisis. Perhaps in the latter case the point is obvious, since it was, after all, a credit crisis, but adding a sentence or two explaining how the credit crisis came about could only strengthen your argument. I note that you use Bleher as an authority here, which is good, but you should go further and explain why Bleher holds these views and why you think they are right.
Concerning (2)--the part of your argument that relies on speculation--there is not much to say, except that speculation is never in itself very compelling. If you had an example to offer of a healthy economy that works without charging interest on loans, then perhaps the speculation would have some weight; or if you could offer an argument as to why you think anyone would offer loans without charging interest, that would help too.
On the other hand, you want to argue that it makes moral or religious sense to abolish usury (understood as riba). I think generally you are on surer ground here, although obviously you are relying to some extent on your readers sharing your values or beliefs when you say that a usury-free economy will have Allahs blessing. Of course, you can and do also make some ethical arguments that dont depend on your readers accepting Islamic doctrine, and I think in a revision of your essay, these kinds of arguments should be the focus of your essay. But that depends, of course, on what you consider the main purpose of your essay. Your purpose seems to be to justify the Islamic perspective, and Im suggesting that the strongest side of that justification would be the ethical justification.
Finally, while you have organized your essays development reasonably well, that logical organization is not as obvious to the reader as it might be, which makes it difficult for your reader to follow the progression of your argument. How about including in your introduction a flat statement of your argument? Something like: The Islamic perspective on charging interest is justified on economic grounds and on ethical grounds. It is justified on economic grounds because X, Y, Z. It is justified on ethical grounds because A, B, C.
Hope this helps a bit. Best, EJ.
Submitted by: Remsai
Last updated on September 9, 2012
Effective Leadership Steps for Strategy Implementation in Islamic Organizations
By Rafik Beekun
Planning without implementation is useless. In some Islamic organisations, there is no defined concept of long-term planning. Others, who do so, are normally faced with the problem of “analysis-paralysis”, spending too much time on fine tuning their business plans. The result is simple; there appears to be too much ado about nothing. Only few Islamic organisations are implementing their strategy effectively. In this article, the author highlights the generally accepted principles that he believes are necessary for effective strategy implementation in the context of Islamic organisations including Islamic financial Institutions.
Leadership can be defined as “a dynamic relationship based on mutual influence and common purpose between leaders and collaborators in which both are moved to higher levels of motivation and moral development as they affect real, intended change.” (Rost, 1991). At the same time, Burns  defines leadership as “leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations — the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations — of both leaders and followers.”
Both definitions stress the transformational dimension of leadership whereby you, as the leader, and your followers enrich each other. Whereas transactional leaders approach followers with an eye to exchanging one thing for another (e.g., jobs for votes, board positions for donations), transformational leaders recognize the needs of potential followers and seek to fulfil their higher-order needs. They strive to engage the follower’s full person in order to engender mutual inspiration and elevation.
The transformational dimension is very much a part of the Islamic paradigm of leadership, which stresses the reciprocal enrichment of the leaders and the followers. In fact, Islam demands that you, as a leader, pay attention to your followers’ needs. In a hadith (no. 2942) reported in Sunan Abu Dawud by Abu Maryam al-Azdi, the Prophet (s) said:
If Allah puts anyone in the position of authority over the Muslims’ affairs and he secludes himself (from them), not fulfilling their needs, wants, and poverty, Allah will keep Himself away from him, not fulfilling his need, want, and poverty.
Concurrently, your followers must provide you with sincere and impartial feedback, support you, and help you orient yourself toward the good. Umar (r) said: “May God have mercy upon anyone who points out my faults to me.” In fact, your followers are responsible for following your directives as long as you behave Islamically, and for disobeying you when you do not. According to a hadith reported by Sahih al-Bukhari (no. 5.629) and narrated by Ali (r), the Prophet (s) said: “Obedience (to somebody) is required when he enjoins what is good.”
Although you may behave in accordance with Islamic precepts and enjoin the good, you might also become too engrossed in your duties as a leader and thus make yourself inaccessible. Indeed, leaders of Islamic organisations are sometimes perceived as aloof and/or unapproachable once they reach a certain level of success. Collins (2003) analyzes the leadership style of some of the world’s best corporate leaders and uncovers a dimension that he calls level 5 leadership. In contrast to those high-profile leaders who thrive on personality cults, Collins indicates that level 5 leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will (e.g., Umar (r) and the personal humility he displayed while travelling to Jerusalem to receive its keys). The degree of humility and access suggested by level 5 leadership are critical to the effective implementation of an Islamic organization’s strategy.
One of the best integrative models of effective leadership is inextricably connected with transformational leadership, level 5 leadership, and innovation. This model (based on Kouzes and Posner’s 1995 seminal work, TheLeadership Challenge) consists of five basic practices that you, as a leader, can adopt. We will now discuss the leadership practices suggested by this model in the context of strategy implementation.
1. Challenging the Process
Leadership is an active and dynamic process. The founders of the Muslim Students’ Association of the USA and Canada were true pioneers at a time when Islam was just beginning to spread in America. Malcolm X, after discovering true Islam during his pilgrimage to Makkah, did not hesitate to do a complete turnaround: He started rethinking his previous beliefs based on black superiority and then began to proclaim the universal message of Islam. He paid dearly — with his life, in fact — for speaking and living the truth.
While ineffectual leaders sit around and react to events, successful Muslim leaders seek Allah’s help and challenge the status quo. In challenging the process, you have to be innovative. At times, you will need to redefine the process in a way that tears down the physical and mental barriers that others have imposed on the Muslim community. For example, dynamic Muslim leaders in India refuse to allow non-Muslims to label and classify Indian Muslims as “untouchables.” When redefining the situation of Muslims, be careful not to overstep Islamic boundaries, as several people and groups have done recently.
While challenging the process, search for opportunities both inside and outside your organisation or business. Look for ways to change or improve the status quo. These new opportunities may include an innovative new service or activity, reorganisation, or a realignment of the organisation’s mission. To make this search fruitful, follow Allah’s shura mandate, and consult with all manner of people, regardless of whether or not they belong to your organization. Even if you do not always agree with them, make it a point to listen to your most demanding critics. The most effective Islamic leaders that I work with use shura as part of their daily decision-making heuristics. Employing this process enables your followers to provide critical insights, since they are often the ones closest to the problem areas and know what does and does not work.
Experiment and take risks while challenging the process with the understanding that you may not always succeed. Each failure, however, can be viewed as a learning opportunity. For example, let’s assume that you are learning how to play soccer. If you stand behind the ball but do not try to kick it, what have you learned? How can you improve your soccer skills? Similarly, if you have never opened your community’s mosque up to members of other faith-based communities, how can you learn to work with them? You cannot shout for public help in times of need when you refuse to honour their request for your assistance. Go on; try, experiment, and fail if need be, but get up and improve. The example of the Prophet (s) being pelted with stones at Taif and coming near defeat at Uhud should serve as a constant reminder of the need to rise above temporary setbacks and to keep on trying fisabilillah.
While challenging the status quo, you, as a leader will often encounter many challenges. For example, you may be assailed by your fellow Muslims more viciously than by members of other faith-based communities. At times, your family may be harassed. You may even be asked to step down as president or CEO. You may pay dearly for seeking to make a positive difference, and may wonder why you are making such sacrifices when no one appreciates them. Before giving up and accepting the status quo, remember the following hadith of the Prophet (s) narrated by Abdullah ibn Umar and reported by Al-Tirmidhi (hadith no. 5087) and lbn Majah:
He who mixes with people and endures the harm they do is better than he who does not mix with them or endure the harm they do.
Leadership is about sacrifice and paradigm shifts. Muhammad (s) challenged the worldview of jahiliyyah and encountered many obstacles. Jesus, Noah, Moses, Lot, Abraham (peace be upon all of them) were beloved by Allah, but this did not make them immune to suffering. Syed Qutb and Malcolm X paid with their lives, but never backed down. Muhammad Ali lost his world boxing title, even though his conviction was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Anwar Ibrahim spent years in jail and paid with his reputation and health. Challenging the status quo is never easy, but reaching the vision outlined by your strategic plan may demand no less of you. In a hadith narrated by Abu Sa’id Al Khudri and Abu Hurayrah and reported in Sahih al-Bukhari (hadith no. 7.545), the Prophet (s) said:
No fatigue or disease, no sorrow or sadness, no hurt or distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.
2. Inspiring a Shared Vision
When challenging the status quo, you need to have a vision of what you want your organisation to accomplish. This is your main task. This vision is the source of your organisation’s mission statement and long-term strategy. In addition, you must involve your followers and increase their commitment to the vision. Engaging in shura can help fine-tune the vision. You can also pray salat al-istikhara to ask Allah to validate the content and direction of the orgahisation’s future direction. Once the vision is developed, effective leaders work to commit themselves to it and then to communicate it to others so that they can share it and align themselves with it. The general idea is to share your vision with your organisation’s members in order to increase their commitment to its implementation. To help others share the vision, explain it to them using “simple images or symbols or metaphors that communicate powerfully without clogging […] communication channels […].”
3. Enabling Others To Act
Followers do not succeed (or fail) by themselves. They need servant-leaders, namely, leaders who are not so preoccupied with their self-serving ambitions that they cannot place other people’s interests above their own. If a person is using an Islamic organisation for self-promotion rather than to enable others to lead, he/she can cause serious damage. In a hadith reported in Al-Tirmidhi (hadith no. 1345), Prophet Muhammad (s) said: “Two hungry wolves let loose among sheep are not more destructive to them than a man’s greed for property and self-aggrandizement are to his faith.” Note that the follower can also be a “hungry wolf’ in sheep’s clothing. This is what Ali (r) was stressing when he wrote to Malik al-Ashtar:
Never take counsel of a miser, for he will vitiate your magnanimity and frighten you of poverty. Do not take counsel of a coward also, for, he will cheat you of your resolves. Do not take counsel of the greedy too: for he will instill greed in you and turn you into a tyrant. Miserliness, cowardice and greed deprive man of his trust in God. The worst of counselors is he who has served as a counsellor to unjust rulers and shared their crimes.
As a Muslim leader, you need to have the right intention (niyyah). Are you truly leading this organization, or just holding on desperately to a leadership position because you are the founder? If you are the former, focus on helping those around you succeed without being concerned about your own personal gain or prestige. If you are the latter, step down; there are so many other opportunities to do good work for the cause of Allah. You will learn how good your followers are only when you give them the freedom to succeed and become a servant-leader.
Servant-leaders are transformational leaders who actively foster collaboration by serving. Your hard work, and the help provided by your followers, makes things happen. To build collaboration among your followers, promote frequent interaction. Hold a meeting every two weeks. If organisational participants are geographically dispersed, hold a conference call at least once a month. Kouzes and Posner (1995) point out that some organisations with superior leaders hold a staff meeting every morning, although this may not be feasible or even desirable in all situations. By stressing superordinate (organisational) long-term goals and payoffs over short-run objectives and benefits, seek to remove any kind of strategic myopia that causes your followers to emphasize their functional, departmental, or committee goals at the expense of the organisation’s goals. Ensure that your organisation’s reward system promotes teamwork over individualistic efforts. Finally, foster collaboration by nurturing trusting relationships between yourself and your followers, provided that you have selected them with care.
Trusting your followers to resolve problems will energise them and enable them to come up with solutions that you may never have imagined. Followers must be able to see their work as meaningful and significant, and must be encouraged to take ownership of a task or a responsibility. An excellent example of what followers can do when entrusted with responsibility comes from Motorola (Kouzes and Posner, 1995). From 1987-92, this global company trained its workers to focus on quality. Hosain Rasoli, a technician involved with power transformers, had often asked himself how the transformers performed in the field. As part of the program, he was entrusted with improving the transformers’ quality. After gathering information about the weakest components, he convinced the development engineers to redesign the parts. This resulted in a 400 percent improvement in product reliability. Rasoli became Motorola’s Mr. Power Amplifier.
Besides fostering collaboration, you have to strengthen others through empowerment and delegation. Both concepts share the same idea: power is an expandable resource. The more power you share with your followers or employees, the more power you have and the more you have strengthened them. This is the core of transformational leadership. In strengthening others, you are placing yourself in their shoes and stepping into their reality. Consequently, any demand that you make of them is a demand that you make of the whole group or organisation. Muhammad (s) was a leader who joined others in doing what he asked them to do. For example, he helped to build his mosque in Madinah, helped out around the house, and participated in the digging of the ditch prior to the battle of Ahzab. By being willing to work with your subordinates of any aspect of a project or job, you demonstrate to your lower-level employees or workers that you do not feel that only they should perform the worst and/or most difficult tasks; rather, you make them feel empowered and energised through your leadership style.
While strengthening your followers, work at raising their level of commitment to the cause. Delegation is critical here, for the more responsible they feel for a course of action, the more committed they will become. Some leaders use a “signing up” ritual, whereby a person agrees to do his/her best. Another way of building up their commitment level is by making choices visible to others. Just as at Aqaba, where the Muslims pledged their loyalty to the Prophet in public, have the Muslim brother or sister commit to performing a task in front of the group or committee. The more visible the choice, the more committed people will be to that course of action. On the other hand, guard against too much attachment to a previous course of action. Muslims who have committed themselves to a previous task may pursue it even if the project is not working out and they keep receiving negative feedback. If a follower becomes too attached to a continuously underperforming project, rotate him/her out and assign somebody else to it. This will pre-empt escalation of commitment to a previous course of action, a direction which which may no longer be warranted in light of changing circumstances.
Once you have delegated a task, the follower may not be able to carry it out. You should make sure to provide him/her with feedback designed to improve his/her performance in the future. Fight your desire to reprimand your follower immediately, for according to Kouzes and Posner, the best leaders allow their followers the space and time to learn from their mistakes, whenever feasible. Islam concurs with this approach, as indicated by the Qur’anic verse revealed after the near defeat of Uhud:
It is part of the Mercy of Allah that you do deal gently with them. Were you severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about you; so pass over (their faults) and ask for (Allah’s) forgiveness for them; and consult them in affairs (of moment). Then when you have taken a decision put your trust in Allah. For Allah loves those who put their trust (in Him). [Qur’an, 3:159]
Similarly, Aisha (ra) narrated and al-Tirmidhi reports, that Muhammad (s) stated
Avert the infliction of prescribed penalties on Muslims as much as you can, and if there is any way out let a man go, for it is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.
4. Modelling the Way
Your task is not done after developing a shared vision and empowering others, for now you must lead by modelling the way. First, be clear about your beliefs. By practicing what you preach, clarify to your followers what core values and behaviour should be emulated. The Prophet did this, and all current Muslim leaders and followers should follow his example. By using the word khuluq (a derivative of akhlaq [ethics]) to characterise Muhammad (s), Allah describes our beloved Prophet as a timeless, virtuous model for all:
And you stand an exalted standard of character. (Qur’an, 68:4)
While modelling the way, remember that the level of your followers’ maturity will affect the degree and speed at which they follow your example. Given the different levels of follower maturity and the nature of the task, break goals down into small, manageable chunks so that you can achieve small wins. These wins are important, because they give your followers self-confidence and thus have a multiplier effect.
5. Encouraging the Heart
Succeeding in Allah’s Path is difficult, and Muslims will be continuously tested. Sometimes, brothers and sisters may become discouraged because a strategic plan may look too hard or is taking too long to implement. An appropriate verse or hadith from you during tough times will help them refocus and strengthen their resolve. You, in your capacity as the leader, can never lose hope in Allah, because doing so is tantamount to disbelief. The following admonition from Prophet Ya’qub (a) illustrates this aspect of Islamic leadership:
O my sons! Go and inquire about Joseph and his brother, and never give up hope of Allah’s Soothing Mercy. Truly, no one despairs of Allah’s Soothing Mercy except those who have no faith. [Qur’an, 12:87]
Another inspiring verse is:
So lose not heart or fall into despair, for you must gain mastery if you are true in faith. [Qur’an, 3:139]
A thank-you plaque (with the name of the person spelled correctly!), a dinner to thank everybody, or at the very least a nice card are all very simple but effective ways to thank your followers. People do not work in God’s Cause with a desire to do a bad job or lose. It is up to you to show them that they can win with His help. No matter what, encourage your followers before the project is completely finished. One of the most important tenets of motivation is the “law of effect”: Behavior that is rewarded will be repeated; behavior that is not rewarded will not be. Accordingly, establish targets along the path to a long-term objective. Whenever your followers achieve a target, make it a point to celebrate their accomplishment so that they will be energised to tackle the next segment of the objective or the strategic plan.
This article is copyrighted (2006, all rights reserved), but can be downloaded for personal use by clicking here from “The Islamic Workplace” blog at https://makkah.wordpress.com. It was published in the November/December 2006 issue of NewHorizon from the Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance in London, UK, and is based on Chapter 11 of the book “Strategic Planning and Implementation for Islamic Organisations” by Rafik Issa Beekun. The book was published by The International School of Islamic Thought in 2006 ISBN 1-56564-064-0, and is now available from the online store at “The Islamic Workplace”. Please click here to go to the Islamic Workplace E-Store.
Dr. Rafik Beekun, Professor of Management and Strategy and co-Director, Center for Corporate Governance and Business Ethics, at the University of Nevada, has published in many academic journals. He is the author of Islamic Business Ethics, the co-author of Leadership: An Islamic Perspective, and has conducted training workshops for upper management executives and Islamic workers. Currently, he is the president of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists of North America.
Leadership Lessons From The Qur’an: The Story of Dhul-Qarnayn
by Dr. Iqbal Unus, IIIT and Dr. Rafik Beekun
The Qur’an is a continuing source of Guidance, and the Guidance it offers is in the context of what the reader is seeking. Learning from the Qur’an is a dynamic process and that is why we keep reading it in all sorts of circumstances and need.
The Qur’an teaches us in many different ways, and one of those ways is through the stories of prophets and kings and just plain ordinary people. Again different people at different times in different frames of mind can derive different lesson from these stories. we want to share with you the lessons we have derived about leadership from one such story – the story of Dhul Qarnayn.
Why look for lessons in leadership? Because all of us, as Muslims and Muslimahs, play a leadership role in one setting or another. One of the well known ahadith of the Prophet is: “Kullu kum ra’in was kullu ra’in mas’ool an rai’yatay-hi…” meaning that “Everyone of you is a caretaker, and every caretaker is responsible for what he is caretaker of.” The hadith continues further to give example of caretakers.
The story of Dhul Qarnayn is related in Surah Kahf [Surah 18] in the Qur’an. It is said that unbelievers were trying to test the Prophet Muhammad (s) by asking Muslims to ask him certain questions to which, they thought, he would have no answer, unless he was truly the Prophet. So they asked him about some young people who lived in a cave, and about a man who traveled far and wide, and about soul. This was the occasion of the Revelation of Surah Kahf in which Allah informs the Prophet (s) about the answers to these questions.
We do not really know who was Dhul Qarnayn. Some say he was Alexander the Great, others say he was Cyrus, the King of Persia. It really does not matter who he was in order to derive the lesson his story has to offer.
[1.] The Qura’n says: “They ask you concerning Zul-qarnain. Say “I will rehearse to you something of his story.” [18:83].
Then, it says.,”Verily We established his power on earth and We gave him the ways and the means to all ends. ” [18:84]
Leadership is about delegating authority, and a central principle of delegation is that authority must be delegated with appropriate resources, i.e. the means to accomplish the task one has been delegated with. In the story of Dhul Qarnayn, we are reminded that Allah SWT is the Sovereign. He delegates authority to us in different degrees. He delegates tasks to us, and accomplishes what He Wills through us. But He will not demand the accomplishment of a delegated task without giving us the proper resources to accomplish it. Allah (the Almighty or SWT) says that he established Dhul Qarnayn in the earth and gave him the means of everything, the resources and abilities that may be needed. The other side of this coin is that Allah SWT does not demand from us what we do not have the ability to accomplish, when he says in Surah al Baqarah: “Laa yo kallifall-lahu nafsan illa wus-aa-ha (On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than he can bear.) So, in human terms, this is a lesson for us when we find ourselves in any position of leadership, that we expect the best from those we delegate tasks to, with two conditions: We do not expect more than we know they are capable of delivering, and we give them the material resources and the training needed to get the job done.
[2.] The Qur’an continues, ” One (such) way he followed until when he reached the setting of the sun He found it set in a spring of murky water: near it he found a People: We said: “O Zul-qarnain! (you have authority) either to punish them or to treat them with kindness.” He said: “Whoever does wrong him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before). But whoever believes and works righteousness he shall have a goodly reward and easy will be his task as we order it by our command.” ” [18:85-88]
Leadership is constantly tested. Here Dhul Qarnayn is put to the test. He is established in authority and he has been given the capacity to do anything, and he is asked now to decide what he will do with a people whom he has apparently overpowered. He shows the discernment of a good leader – distinguishing between those who are righteous and those who are not. He shows the leadership qualities of fairness and justice. The wrong-doers must be punished, but good people must be rewarded and honored. Notice the two stages in each case. In the wrongdoers’ case, first punishment comes from him, and a greater punishment comes later from Allah SWT. In the case of good people, first they will get the best of rewards from him, and on top of that he will speak to them kindly. So the difference between treatment of the good and the bad is significant as it should be.
[3.] The Qur’an then says, “Then followed he (another) way until when he reached (a tract) between two mountains he found beneath them a people who scarcely understood a word. They said: “O Zul-qarnain! the Gog and Magog (people) do great mischief on earth: shall we then render you tribute in order that you may erect a barrier between us and them?” [18:92-94]
Leadership is not exploitative. When Dhul Qarnayn meets a people who speak a different language and are obviously strangers to him, he treats them with a sense of service, not greed. Even though they themselves offer to pay for him to erect a protective barrier against foreign attackers, Dhul Qarnayn does not demand more, he does not even accept what he is willingly offered because he does not want to exploit their weakness. Maybe if they fought him and lost, he may expect something from them, but not when they basically surrendered and exposed to him their weakness. So like a good leader, he is generous. In his generosity also, he remains humble, because he remembers that even what he has is given to him by Allah SWT, and says so. He also realizes that the power that Allah SWT has blessed him with is only a means to serve Allah. He serves Allah through being a servant-leader to his people, i.e. taking care of their needs.
[4.] He said: “(The power) in which my Lord has established me is better (than tribute): help me therefore with strength (and labor): I will erect a strong barrier between you and them:[18:95]
Leadership is about teamwork because leaders cannot accomplish anything without their followers (and of course Allah’s help). After telling them what he has from Allah SWT is better than what they can offer, Dhul Qarnayn tells them that he will help them if they will help him in the task, and work together as a group. This action does three things that good leaders do in accomplishing their mission: (1) Asking the people to help him dignifies the people by making them a partner in solving the problem, (2) it give them a stake the success of the solution, and (3) it also give them a sense of responsibility for owning and maintaining the solution they have arrived at. It is also important to note that he asks them to help him with what they do possess, which was their strength.
[5.] “Bring me blocks of iron.” At length when he had filled up the space between the two steep mountain sides he said “Blow (with your bellows).” Then when he had made it (red) as fire he said: “Bring me that I may pour over it molten lead.” [18:96].
Dhul Qarnayn also displays another characteristic of his leadership and ability to accomplish things, by clearly laying down the process and acting on it stage by stage methodically. This is what he does: (1) He informs them and prepares them for the task, (2) he seeks their commitment and tells them what he will accomplish with their help, (3) he completes the first stage by having them bring blocks of iron to be placed between the mountains, (4) he lights the fire and asks them to blow on it,(5) he completes the next stage by having them bring copper to pour over red hot iron. The wall is then ready, with his knowledge and wisdom working hand in hand with the people’s strength and commitment. Please notice that in the above ayat, Dhul Qarnayn also displays that a good leader is also a good follower: He asks them to follow his directives, and he also participates actively in the action. Most importantly, he models the way: a leader is in the vanguard when he needs to model the most challenging and difficulty behaviors. Indeed, he himself takes charge of the most dangerous task by personally pouring the molten lead over the blocks of itron. We can practically outline a method of performance and accomplishment for our daily task based on Dhul Qarnayn’s methodical conduct in this situation.
It is worth noting here that the people referred to here did have the resources like iron and copper but lacked the knowledge to use them. This tells us that we have an obligation to learn how to use whatever resources we may be blesses with. Thus the advancement of science and technology and other forms of knowledge that can help us benefit from our resources is an Islamic obligation on Muslim societies.
We also note that barrier that Dhul Qarnayn erected and how did it show his mastery over the technology far ahead of his time. So, Dhul Qarnayn’s scientific and engineering knowledge and skills is part of the mean that Allah SWT gave him when he established him in the earth. It is then natural for Muslims to regard technical knowledge as a gift from Allah to be accepted, cultivated, promoted, advanced and used in their own lives and in service to others. The clear and specific reference in the Qur’an to this great engineering project tells us in no certain terms that it is the Islamic way – to solve human problems with God-given technical knowledge and wisdom.
[6.] Thus were they made powerless to scale it or to dig through it. He said: “This is a mercy from my Lord: but when the promise of my Lord comes to pass He will make it into dust; and the promise of My Lord is true.” [18:97-98]
Again like a good leader, having accomplished his task – to build a barrier that will prevent foreign invaders – he remembers and reminds the people that the true source of all accomplishment is Allah SWT. He tells them: (1) what he has accomplished is due to the Mercy of Allah SWT, (2) just like everything else this accomplishment will perish when the Final Day comes, alerting them that the Final Day is still the ultimate truth. In a way, he is sharing his humility that even his great accomplishment is no match for the power of Allah SWT. It is important to note that the above lessons in leadership are congruent with some of the leading recent advances in leadership theory, and we will summarize them here:
- When delegating a task, make it possible for your follower to succeed by providing him/her with the means to accomplish his/her task (House, Path Goal Theory of Leadership; Hershey and Blanchard).
- Effective leaders are servant-leaders (Greenleaf)
- Leaders do not accomplish anything by themselves; they work through a team of followers. (Dyadic research; team-bulding)
- Good leaders are good followers. (Kouzes and Posner)
- Leaders model the way. (Kouzes and Posner)
- Good leaders are humble and realize that success only comes from Allah. (George)
Please note that several of the above principles are discussed in more detail in the book, Leadership: An Islamic Perspective by Beekun and Badawi available from this blog’s online bookstore.
The Leadership Process of Muhammad (s) from Hadith Sources
by Rafik Beekun
The Hadiths are markers of the behavior of Muhammad (s) as he exemplified the Qur’an for the Ummah. It stands to reason that we can use hadiths to distill the leadership process that Muhammad (s) himself practiced during his lifetime, and which we, as Muslims, are to emulate. The process described below is not meant to be comprehensive or final; there is much that we have yet to learn in the field of leadership, and Muhammad (s) being divinely inspired did much that we have yet to comprehend. Nevertheless, several leadership precepts can still be extracted from the Hadiths, and are listed below. Any feedback would be much appreciated. Please e-mail your comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your comments on the blog.
Please note that the hadiths quoted here were selected from multiple sources, including hadiths quoted on the wonderful blog site: A Hadeeth Blog. Many of the precepts that apply to a leader often apply to followers too. The precepts below are what current leadership researchers and practitioners (e.g. Kouzes and Posner, 1997; George, 2003; Collins, 2003) are now finally claiming as the critical elements of effective leadership: integrity, humility, authenticity, modesty, positive attitudes, competence, etc. For more information, please see the book Leadership: An Islamic Perspective , and the other books in the bookshelf section of this blog. The article below is based on a chapter in my new book, Islam, Management and Finance forthcoming in 2007 from Altamira Press, Insha Allah.
General Leadership Principle:
1. Do not be in a leaderless group; appoint a leader.
When three men travel together, they should make one of them their leader.
Source: Abu Dawud, on the Authority of Abu Sa’id ‘Al-Khudri
A. Personal attributes a leader should develop in himself/herself:
1. Develop competency in the area in which you are leading others.
Whoever delegates a position to someone whereas he sees someone else as more competent (for the position), verily he has cheated Allah and His Apostle and all the Muslims.
Source: Ibn Taymiyya, Assiyasah Ash-Shar’iyya , 1996
2. Stress virtue and behave with integrity.
- Virtue is noble behaviour, and sin is that which creates doubt and you do not like people to know about it.
Source: Nawwas bin Sam’an in Sahih Muslim
- Those who take bribes and those who give bribes are cursed by God.
Source: Bukhari and Muslim, on the Authority of ‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Amr Ibn Al-‘As.
- Greed and faith can never co-exist in the human heart.
Source: An-Nasa’i, on the Authority of Abu Hurayrah
3. Maintain balance and self-control.
Three things are part of the good morals of a believer. When he is overcome by anger, his anger should not drive him to falsehood. When he is happy, his happiness should not take him beyond the bounds of what is right. When he has power, he should not stake a claim to something which is not his.
Source: At-Tirmidhi, on the Authority of Anas Ibn Malik
4. Be proactive and action-oriented especially when confronting evil.
Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart, for that is the minimum that is desirable from a believer.
Source: An-Nasa’i, on the Authority of Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri.
5. Be modest and self-effacing (i.e. Collins’ Level 5 Leadership)
- Hayaa (i.e. modesty) is a part of Iman and Iman shall be rewarded with Paradise. Foul talk is a part of neglect [towards God] and neglect [towards God] shall be rewarded with Hellfire.
Source: Ibn Maajah, no. 4174.
- Faith (Belief) consists of more than sixty branches (i.e. parts). And Haya (This term “Haya” covers a large number of concepts which are to be taken together; amongst them are self respect. modesty, bashfulness, scruple, etc.) is a part of faith.
Source: Bukhari, on the authority of Abu Huraira.
- The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said, “The dearest and nearest among you to me on the Day of Resurrection will be one who is the best of you in manners; and the most abhorrent among you to me and the farthest of you from me will be the pompous, the garrulous, and Al-Mutafaihiqun.” The Companions asked him: “O Messenger of Allah! We know about the pompous and the garrulous, but we do not know who Al-Mutafaihiqun are.” He replied: “The arrogant people.”
Source: Jabir in At-Tirmidhi.
6. Keep your word.
Three are the signs of a hypocrite: When he speaks, he lies; when he makes a promise, he breaks it; and when he is trusted, he betrays his trust.
Source: Abu Hurairah, in Bukhari and Muslim.
7. Maintain a positive and cheerful attitude.
Do not belittle any good deed, even meeting your brother (Muslim) with a cheerful face.
Source: Abu Dhar in Sahih Muslim.
8. Do not meddle in what does not concern you.
Part of the excellence of one’s Islam is his giving up of that which does not concern him.
Source: Abu Hurayra, At-Tirmidhi.
B. Leader-follower interaction
1. Take responsibility for your followers:
- Whenever God makes a man responsible for other people, whether in greater or lesser numbers, he will be questioned as to whether he ruled his charges in accordance with God’s decrees or not. And that will not be all. God will question him even about his family members.
Source: Ibn Hanbal, on the authority of ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar.
- Each one of your is shepherd. And each one of you will be asked about your flock. A ruler also is a shepherd and he will be asked about his flock. And every is a shepherd to his family. And a woman is the custodian of her husband’s house and his children. Thus each one of you is shepherd, and each one will be asked about his flock.
Source: Bukhari and Muslim, on the Authority of ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar
2. Enable your follower by ensuring there is a fit between his/her competencies and the requirements of his/her assignment.
According to A’ishah, the Prophet PBUH never gave others tasks which were beyond their capabilities.
3. Be kind to your followers:
- It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.
Source: Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1011
- If you show kindness to your servant while employing him in some task, this will weigh heavily in your favour on the Day of Judgement. That will be your reward.
Source: Amr Ibn Harayth
4. Do not not betray the trust of your followers.
When a man tells you something in confidence, you must not betray his trust.
Source: Abu Dawud, on the Authority of Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah.
5. Do not condone or engage in bigotry.
He who preaches bigotry is not one of us. And not being one of us, he may go ahead and fight in the cause of bigotry. He who dies for such a cause is not one of us either.
Source: Abu Dawud, on the Authority of Jubayr Ibn Mut’im
C. Leader interaction with other stakeholders:
1. Do not deceive your (business) partners.
Sa’ib has thus recorded his commendation of the Prophet (s):
In the period of ignorance (i.e. before Islam) when you were my partner in business, you were the finest of all partners. You never deceived me. Neither did you quarrel with me.
Source: Abu Dawud.
2. Step into the reality of your followers, and do not be aloof from the needs of other stakeholders, including the community at large.
None of you (truly) believes, until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.
Source: Bukhari, on the Authority of Anas Ibn Malik.
3. Do not abuse or hurt other Muslims.
Abusing a Muslim is Fusuq (an evil doing) and killing him is Kufr (disbelief).
4. Do not harbor suspicion towards others.
Beware of suspicion, for it is the worst of false tales and don’t look for the other’s faults and don’t spy and don’t hate each other, and don’t desert (cut your relations with) one another. O Allah’s slaves, be brothers!
Source: Bukhari, Vol. 8: No. 717.
D. Follower interaction with a leader:
1. A follower does not support a tyrannical leader.
One who walks with a tyrant, in the full knowledge that he is a tyrant, in order to strengthen him, is such as has already left the fold of Islam.
Source: Al-Bayhaqi, on the Authority of Aus Bin Shurahabil
Ali’s (r) Advice on Leadership to Malik Ashter, Governor of Egypt
Be it known to you, O, Malik, that I am sending you as Governor to a country which in the past has experienced both just and unjust rule. Men will scrutinize your actions with a searching eye, even as you used to scrutinize the actions of those before you, and speak of you even as you did speak of them. The fact is that the public speak well of only those who do good. It is they who furnish the proof of your actions. Hence the richest treasure that you may covet would be the treasure of good deeds. Keep your desires under control and deny yourself that which you have been prohibited from, for, by such abstinence alone, you will be able to distinguish between what is good to them and what is not.
Develop in your heart the feeling of love for your people and let it be the source of kindliness and blessing to them. Do not behave with them like a barbarian, and do not appropriate to yourself that which belongs to them. Remember that the citizens of the state are of two categories. They are either your brethren in religion or your brethren in kind. They are subject to infirmities and liable to commit mistakes. Some indeed do commit mistakes. But forgive them even as you would like God to forgive you. Bear in mind that you are placed over them, even as I am placed over you. And then there is God even above him who has given you the position of a Governor in order that you may look after those under you and to be sufficient unto them. And you will be judged by what you do for them.
Do not set yourself against God, for neither do you possess the strength to shield yourself against His displeasure, nor can you place yourself outside the pale of His mercy and forgiveness. Do not feel sorry over any act of forgiveness, nor rejoice over any punishment that you may mete out to any one. Do not rouse yourself to anger, for no good will come out of it.
Do not say: ” I am your overlord and dictator, and that you should, therefore, bow to my commands”, as that will corrupt your heart, weaken your faith in religion and create disorder in the state. Should you be elated by power, ever feel in your mind the slightest symptoms of pride and arrogance, then look at the power and majesty of the Divine governance of the Universe over which you have absolutely no control. It will restore the sense of balance to your wayward intelligence and give you the sense of calmness and affability. Beware! Never put yourself against the majesty and grandeur of God and never imitate His omnipotence; for God has brought low every rebel of God and every tyrant of man.
Let your mind respect through your actions the rights of God and the rights of man, and likewise, persuade your companions and relations to do likewise. For, otherwise, you will be doing injustice to yourself and injustice to humanity. Thus both man and God will turn unto your enemies. There is no hearing anywhere for one who makes an enemy of God himself. He will be regarded as one at war with God until he feels contrition and seeks forgiveness. Nothing deprives man of divine blessings or excites divine wrath against him more easily than cruelty. Hence it is, that God listens to the voice of the oppressed and waylays the oppressor.
Note: This is only part of the epistle of Ali (r), and the remainder is an amazing treatise on leadership and ethics. The whole document can be accessed here: Ali’s (r) letter to Malik Ashter, Governor of Egypt
1. The Leadership Process in Islam. Article partly based on the book Leadership: An Islamic Perspective which I co-authored with Dr. Jamal Badawi (1999). This book is available from my blog’s e-store. Please click on the store tab at the top of this page.
Video Preview: Leadership from an Islamic Perspective
This video clip is from the Islamic Management Series DVD set. In the first module of this lecture, I am trying to explain the core of an Islamic perspective of leadership.
Please feel free to order the Islamic Lecture Series from the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California [phone number: 714 239 6473 in the USA]. You can also take part in my online Islamic Management Course for a very reasonable price at the following link Insha Allah.
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