Imam Ali’s letter to the governor of Egypt in 658 CE serves as an example for all government leaders regardless of their faith, covering wide-ranging topics such as how to treat people, especially the poor citizens, how to choose his staff, who to appoint as judges, how to select his advisors, how to select the chief justice and other members of the judiciary, distribution of revenues, appointment of clerics, having conferences with people (aka town hall meetings), entering into peace treaties, and much more.
For those of you who may not be familiar with him, Imam Ali was the cousin of Prophet Muhammad and his son in law. He was the 4th Khalifa after the passing of Prophet Muhammad and considered the first Imam by Shia Muslims.
February 27th, the 13th of the Islamic month of Rajab, was his birthday anniversary, prompting me to search further for this illuminating letter, sent to Malik Al-Ashtar, a companion of him after he was appointed the governor of Egypt in year 658 CE. It is a very detailed letter, full of instructions on various aspects of governance.
It was true some 1400 years ago, and perhaps even more true now when we see Muslim rulers who are essentially corrupt tyrants and examples of bad governance. The instructions apply equally to the ruling elites right here in the United States and rest of the western world.
This is my longest blog post. I have tried to skim the letter to include some of the salient points but shrinking it any further would not do justice to the enlightenment this letter provides. I am including some excerpts from the letter, but will summarize first some of the key take home messages.
- Be a fair and just ruler.
- Choose the most qualified, honest, and pious men for his administration.
- Warnings against nepotism.
- Supervise the activities of his appointees and officers fully, for he is responsible for their actions and misconduct.
- Consult with his staff on important issues, and not issue authoritative orders made solely by himself.
- Fight against corruption, injustice and evil usages of authority against citizens.
- Maintain constant communications with his staff.
- Be kind but punish the murderers and other criminals.
- Be fair to the traders, while paying special attention to the poor.
General instructions on good governance:
- 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.
- Remember that the citizens of the state are of two categories. They are either your brethren in religion or your brethren in kind. (i.e the human race)
- 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.
- 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 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.
- Maintain justice in administration and impose it on your own self and seek the consent of the people.
- To the best of your ability cover the weaknesses of the public, and God will cover the weaknesses.
- The worst of counselors is he who has served as a counselor to unjust rulers and shared in their crimes. So, never let men who have been companions of tyrants or shared their crimes be your counselors.
- Never take counsel of a miser, for he will vitiate your magnanimity and frighten you of poverty. Do not take the advice of a coward either, for he will weaken your resolve. Do not take counsel of the greedy: for he will instill greed in you and turn you into a tyrant. Miserliness, cowardice and greed deprive man of his trust in God.
Classes of people
- Remember that the people are composed of different classes. The progress of one is dependent on the progress of every other, and none can afford to be independent of the other. We have the Army formed of the soldiers of God. We have our civil officers and their establishments, our judiciary, our revenue collectors and our public relations officers.
- The general public itself consists of Muslims and other subjects and among them of merchants and craftsmen, the unemployed and the indigent. God has prescribed for them their rights, duties and obligations. They are all defined and preserved in the Holy Quran and in the traditions of his Prophet.
- Then there is the class of the poor and the needy, whose maintenance is an obligation on the other classes.
- Your advice to the army will be of no avail, unless and until you show affection to both men and officers, in order that they might not regard the Government as an oppressive burden or contribute to its downfall.
- It behooves you to select for your Commander-in-Chief one who imposes on himself as a duty, the task of rendering help to his men, and who can excel in kindness every other officer who has to attend to the needs of the men under him.
Turn to God for guidance
- Turn to God and to His prophet for guidance whenever you feel uncertain as to what you have to do. There is the commandment of God delivered to those people who He wishes to guide aright:
- “O people of the Faith! Obey God and obey His prophet and those from among you who hold authority over you. And refer to God and His prophet whenever there is difference of opinion among you.” (The Qur’an 4:59)
Selection criteria for the chief justice
- Select as your Chief Justice from the people, one who is by far the best among them – one who is not obsessed with domestic worries, one who cannot be intimidated, one who does not err to often, one who does not turn back from a right path once he finds it, one who is not self-centered or avaricious, one who will not decide before knowing full facts, one who will weigh with care every attendant doubt and pronounce a clear verdict after taking everything into full consideration, one who will not grow restive over the arguments of advocates and who will examine with patience every new disclosure of fact and who will be strictly impartial in his decision, one who flattery cannot mislead or one who does not exult over his position. But it is not easy to find such men.
- Once you have selected the right man for the office, pay him handsomely enough, to let him live in comfort and in keeping with his position, enough to keep him above temptations.
Rest of the judiciary system
- After the selection of your chief judge, give careful consideration to the selection of other officers.
- Never select men for responsible posts either out of any regard for personal connections or under any influence, for that might lead to injustice and corruption.
- Of these, select for higher posts, men of experience, men firm in faith and belonging to good families. Such men will not fall an easy prey to temptations and will discharge their duties with an eye on the abiding good of others. Increase their salaries to give them a contented life.
- But whenever any of them is accused of dishonesty and the guilt is confirmed by the report of your secret service, then regard this as a sufficient to convict him.
- Great care is to be exercised in revenue administration, to ensure the prosperity of those who pay the revenue to the state, for on their prosperity depends the prosperity of others, particularly of the masses. Indeed, the state exists on its revenue.
- You should regard the proper upkeep of the land in cultivation as of greater importance than the collection of revenue, for revenue cannot be derived except by making the land productive.
Treatment of Trade and Businesses
- Treat businessmen and artisans well, and advise others to do likewise. Trade and industry are the real sources of profit to the state and the suppliers of consumer goods.
- Visit every part of the country and establish personal contact with this class, and inquire into their condition.
- But bear in mind that a good many of them are intensely greedy and are inured to bad dealings. They hoard grain and try to sell it at a high price and this is most harmful to the public. It is a blot on the name of the ruler not to fight this evil. Prevent them from hoarding, for the prophet of God had prohibited it.
- See to it, that trade is carried on with the utmost ease, that the scales are evenly held and that prices are so fixed that neither the seller nor the buyer is put to a loss. If in spite of your warning, anyone should go against your commands and commit the crime of hoarding, then deal him appropriately with a severe punishment.
And take care of the poor
- Beware! Fear God when dealing with the problem of the poor who have none to patronize them, who are forlorn, indigent, helpless and are greatly torn in mind – victims of the vicissitudes of time.
- For God’s sake, safeguard their rights, for on you rests the responsibility of protecting their interests.
- Do not treat their interests as of less importance than your own, and never keep them outside the purview of your important considerations.
- Seek your reward from God by giving to each of them what is due to him and enjoin on yourself as a sacred duty the task of meeting the needs of such aged among them as have no independent means of livelihood and are averse to seek alms.
Stay in touch with your people- town hall meetings!
- Meet the oppressed and the lowly periodically in an open conference and conscious of the divine presence there, have a heart-to-heart talk with them, and let none from your armed guard or civil officers or members of the Police or the Intelligence Department be by your side, so that the representatives of the poor might state their grievances fearlessly and without reserve.
- For I have heard the prophet of God say that no nation or society, in which the strong do not discharge their duty to the weak, will occupy a high position.
- Bear with composure any strong language which they may use, and do not get annoyed if they cannot state their case lucidly. Even so, God will open for you his door of blessings and rewards.
Keep your connection to God
- Do not forget to set apart the best of your time for communion with God, although every moment of yours is for Him only, provided it is spend sincerely in the service of your people.
- The special time that you give to prayer, is to be devoted to the performances of the prescribed daily prayers. Keep yourself engaged in these prayers both in the day and in the night.
- When you lead in congregational prayer, do not let your prayer be so lengthy as to cause discomfort to the congregation or raise in them the feeling of dislike for it or liquidate its effect.
- Make this clear to yourself that those immediately about and around you, will like to exploit their position to covet what belongs to others and commit acts of injustice. Suppress such a tendency in them.
- Make a rule of your conduct never to give even a small piece of land to any of your relations.
- Deal justice squarely, regardless of whether one is a relation or not. If any of your relations or companions violates the law, mete out the punishment prescribed by law, however painful it might be to you personally, for it will be all to the good of the state.
Maintain Peace and fulfill your obligations for the Treaties
- Bear in mind that you do not throw away the offer of peace which your enemy may himself make. Accept it, for that will please God. Peace is a source of comfort to the army, it reduces your worries and promotes order in the state.
- But Beware! Be on your guard when the peace is signed for, certain types of enemies propose terms of peace just to lull you into a sense of security only to attack you again when you are off your guard.
- But, if under the peace treaty you have accepted any obligations, discharge those obligations scrupulously. It is a trust and must be faithfully upheld and whenever you have promised anything, keep it with all the strength that you command, for whatever differences of opinion might exist on other matters, there is nothing so noble as the fulfillment of a promise.
- This is recognized even among non-Muslims, for they know the dire consequences, which follow from the breaking of covenants. So never make excuses in discharging your responsibilities and never break a promise, nor cheat your enemy. For breach of promise is an act against God, and none except the positively wicked acts against God.
- Beware! Abstain from shedding blood without a valid cause. There is nothing more harmful than this which brings about one’s ruin. On the Day of Judgment it is this crime for which one will have to answer first.
- Murder is a crime which is punishable by death. If on any account the corporal punishment dealt by the state for any lesser crime results in the death of the guilty, let not the prestige of the state stand in any way of the deceased relations claiming compensation.
- When the people as a whole agree upon a thing, do not impose your own will on them and do not neglect to discharge the responsibility that rests on you in consequence. For, the eyes of the people will be on you and you are answerable for whatever you do to them.
- Keep your anger under control and keep your hands and tongue in check. Whenever you fall into anger, try to restrain yourself or else you will simply increase your worries.
- It is imperative on you to study carefully the principles which have inspired just and good rulers who have gone before you. Give close thought to the example of our prophet, his traditions, and the commandments of the Holy Qur’an and whatever you might have assimilated from my own way of dealing with things.
- Endeavor to the best of your ability to carry out the instructions which I have given you here and which you have solemnly undertaken to follow. By means of this order, I enjoin on you not to succumb to the prompting of your own heart or to turn away from the discharge of duties entrusted to you.
- I seek the refuge of the might of the Almighty and of His limitless sphere of blessings, and invite you to pray with me that He may give us together the grace willingly to surrender our will to His will, and to enable us to acquit ourselves before Him and His creation, so that mankind might cherish our memory and our work survive.
Portions of this article were adapted from www.al-islam.org