New Islamic Directions

By Imam Zaid Shakir

Qualities of an Exemplary Leader

Posted in notes by Imam Zaid Shakir on 2008-04-02

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

فبما رحمة من الله لنت لهم و لو كنت فظا غليظ القلب لانفضوا من

حولك فاعف عنهم و استغفر لهم و شاورهم في الأمر فإذا عزمت

فتوكل على الله إن الله يحب المتوكلين  القرآن ٣:١٥٩

Owing to Mercy from God, you were gentle in dealing with them [your companions]. Were you harsh [and crude], hard of heart; they would have fled from you. Therefore, pardon their abuses, seek [God’s] forgiveness for them, and consult them in the affair. Once you have resolved on a course of action [be decisive] and trust in God. Surely, God loves those who trust in Him. Qur’an 3:159

This verse contains a wealth of instruction to guide those who are leaders, and as Muslims we should all be leaders. The Prophet mentioned, “All of you are shepherds, and each of you will be asked concerning his flock.” [1] Let us examine some of the implications of the verse relevant to leadership.

Owing to Mercy from God… God is reminding His prophet, peace upon him, that the mercy he displays, in fact all of the virtues or favors that he enjoys are all from God. This is a critical point for any leader to realize, because of the propensity of those in positions of leadership to assume that they are in those positions because of something they have done. While it is certainly true that in many instances, hard work and perseverance have assisted a particular individual in his or her rise to the top, even the possession of those qualities is due to God.

Acknowledging this at the very beginning of our affair is one of the keys to real power as it helps to render us humble, and humility before people unlocks for that person the power of God. The Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, mentioned in that regard, “No one humbles themselves for the sake of God except that God elevates him.” [2]

Those who doubt the efficacy of such an approach—forgetting this was the way of our Prophet Muhammad, peace and mercy of God upon him—should consider the insights offered by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great. He mentions what he calls Type 5 Leaders. They are those exceptional leaders who lead companies in their transition from being good to great. [3] They combine personal humility, which is essential for gentleness in one’s dealings, with intense will. This unique combination of virtues is the essence of the message this verse is presenting to us, as we shall see.

Recognizing that everything comes from God is also one of the keys to gaining an increase in good things, for we can not gives thanks for a blessing we do not recognize. In recognizing God for blessing us with the qualities that may have helped us to become capable leaders, we are able to thank Him for those blessings. Hence, we are subject to a rule He has established to govern our etiquettes in responding to a blessing, If you give thanks [for my blessings] I will increase you in them… (14:7)

Recognizing that everything comes from God also helps us to realize our limitations. We come to understand that we must work hard to accomplish our goals. However, at the end of the day, we do not control the outcomes of our strivings. As soon as we can accept that fact we instantly gain peace of mind, for we do not endeavor to burden ourselves with things beyond our control. Furthermore, when in positions of leadership, we are less likely to look for oftentimes innocent parties to blame for failures that occur. This helps to create a healthier and more productive work environment for everyone.

you were gentle in dealing with them [your companions]. “Gentleness does not exist in anything except that it beautifies it, and it is not removed from anything except that it defiles it.” [4] In many instances when we are in a leadership position we try to impose our authority on others. In some instances this only engenders stubborn rebellion and opposition. In others it brings about grudging compliance. Neither situation is healthy. Gentleness, on the other hand encourages willing compliance.

Were you harsh [and crude], hard of heart; they would have fled from you.  Here God is telling His prophet, peace upon him, that despite your charisma, your concern for the believers and all of your other positive characteristics, were you harsh and hard-hearted, your companions would have left you. Therefore, you must avoid those characteristics. This is a lesson for us in terms of how we should approach leadership and positions of authority.

People who are harsh in their leadership styles oftentimes demand respect. They should be mindful of the fact that respect that is demanded is seldom lasting, and it is never sincere. People who are gentle in the appropriate situations, compassionate, empathetic and magnanimous command respect. Respect that is commanded is sincere and lasting.

Leaders who are fair and gentle attract talented individuals, while those that are harsh are usually intimidated and threatened by talented people and generally repulse them. Their insecurity is sensed by talented people who are secure within themselves. This leads to them shying away from harsh individuals. This in turn leads to a corrupt or incompetent inner circle developing around leaders who demand respect through harsh treatment and crude mannerisms. The Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, mentioned that when God desires good for a leader He gives him a good circle of advisers. The opposite is also true. [5]

In the long run, magnanimity will always trump tyranny. Tyranny may achieve temporary victories, but the fruit of those victories is bitter and the season of its harvest is very short. This is true in interpersonal relations as well as in relations between nations. We have to strive to be people who at every level are committed to being open-hearted and magnanimous in our character.

Therefore, pardon their abuses…  We should be quick to pardon others, where our rights are involved, or where the transgressions we observe arise from ignorance. One of the greatest lessons we enforce upon ourselves when we are quick to pardon is that perfection is God’s alone. Recognizing that, we do not expect perfection from ourselves, nor do we expect it from others. We do strive for perfection and constant improvement. However, we realize that perfection is simply not our lot in life. When our parents, spouses, children, employees, coworkers, and others understand that they have room for error in their dealing with us they are more relaxed and therefore less likely to err. This is a simple yet unappreciated truth.

Also, we have to understand that when we are merciful and forgiving, we invite God’s mercy and forgiveness into our life. God mentions in the Qur’an, O believers! Verily, among your spouses and children are those that are enemies unto you. If you pardon them, overlook their faults and seek forgiveness for them; then you should know that God is Oft Forgiving and Most Merciful [to you]. (64:14)

Our Prophet reminded us, “The merciful people are those God will show mercy to…” [6] This tradition involves a promise and a principle. It is especially relevant for leaders, for those leaders who show no mercy, will be shown no mercy—neither by God, nor by those they oppress if they ever gain the upper hand over them. One rare exception is the mercy our Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, showed to the members of his tribe, Quraysh, once he was given authority over them.

Seek God’s forgiveness for them…  When we seek God’s forgiveness for someone we are acknowledging that there is only so much we can do for them. After that we are implicitly saying that we are deputing their affair to God, who can do so much more for them. We are also letting them know that we are concerned for their ultimate wellbeing and salvation.

When this message is conveyed to our subordinates we will find them most happy and committed, ready to serve, for they understand that we do not just see them as an asset to be exploited, rather we see them as a servant of God who we can help along on the road to salvation.

And consult them in the affair.  Mutual consultation is one of the pillars of social relations in Islam. As the saying goes, “Two heads are better than one.” The more people we can involve in a project or decision, the more thorough our approach to that project or decision will be. Islam has high respect for the idea of due diligence in public decision-making methodology. We should deliberate and consult before making what will sometimes be far-reaching decisions. One of the reasons for our contemporary weakness is that we have gotten away from this idea.

Here the Prophet, peace upon him, who is divinely guided in religious affairs, in the broadest sense of religion, is encouraged to consult his companions because he is laying the foundation for effective rule and leadership to guide those succeeding him. However, we will only be the beneficiaries of the wisdom he bequeathed to us if we implement those teachings in our lives. This area of endeavor is no exception.

We should also understand that a team will always accomplish more than a single individual. These instructions will help us to build strong teams. We should also understand that “good” can always be “better.” One of the first things mentioned by Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him, upon assuming the Caliphate, was, “If I do well help me to do better.” Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with him, was sending out two messages. The first was that I can always do better but only with your help. The second was an invitation to get involved. Good leadership does not wait for involvement to happen, it actively encourages it.

Once you have resolved on a course of action [be decisive]…  Once a course of action has been chosen it must be accompanied by decisiveness. Great leaders are decisive, after due diligence has been exercised. The greatest of all leaders, the five great prophets, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are described as Ulul ‘Azm the possessors of decisive resolve. No one will follow an indecisive leader. Decisiveness is a function of will. This is the second quality mentioned by Collins in, Good to Great.

In confronting the challenges before us as Muslims in this country we should understand that resolve is one of the qualities we will need to have. God mentions in the Qur’an, You will surely be tested in your wealth and your lives and you will hear from those given the scripture before you and from the idolaters much abuse. If you patiently persevere and remain mindful of God, [you should know] that is a manifestation of resolve. (3:186)

As we listen to the defamation of our religion and the slander of our Prophet, peace upon him, we should not allow that to dishearten us or turn us away from the good works we are doing. We should persevere, we should forge on, and we should realize that we are not violating any laws nor transgressing against any of the principles upon which this nation was founded—even thought the nation itself oftentimes does not honor those principles.

And trust in God…    God never disappoints. When we trust in Him, we will never be disappointed. People will eventually disappoint us, in real or perceived ways. Although those disappointments usually do not result in any permanent damage to our relationships they can be frustrating.  When we place our trust in God we remove this great cause of our frustrations.

When we trust in God, we also are less demanding of people. This is one of the ways to encourage others to do more for us in a spirit of willful volunteerism. What is given voluntarily is given sincerely. Sincerity is a quality that helps bring blessings to our actions. Ultimately, the value of our actions is associated to the blessings they contain, and not their abundance.

God loves those who trust in Him.  If God is for us no one can be against us. As leaders we want God on our side. This is one of the keys in moving from good to great, for when we ally ourselves with God we ally ourselves with the source of all strength and power. Trusting in God is just one of the things we can do to invite His love. He mentions in the Qur’an, Verily, God loves those who do good. (2:195) Surely, God loves those who turn to Him in repentance. (2:222) …and God loves those who purify themselves. (2:222) God loves those conscious of him. (3:76) God loves those who manifest excellence in their faith. (3:134) God love those who are patient. (3:146) Verily, God loves those who rely on him. (3:159) God loves those who are just. (5:42)

Hence, trusting in God, being good and excellent in all of our affairs for His sake, turning to him in repentance, being conscious of Him, purifying ourselves, patiently persevering and being just, these are all qualities and actions that invite God’s love into our lives.

When we are beloved to God then, as He mentions in a sacred tradition (hadith qudsi), “I become the hearing with which he hears, the sight with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps and the feet that convey him. [In this state] if he were to ask anything of Me, I would grant it. And were he to seek my protection, I would protect him.” [7] This does not mean that God becomes a part of us. However, it does mean that He will bless us to use all of our faculties in ways that are pleasing to Him.

What could be better or more beneficial for us than this?


[1] Al-Bukhari #893

[2] Al-Tirmidhi, #2029

[3] Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 17-40

[4] Abu Dawud, #2477

[5] Al-Bukhari, #7198

[6] Al-Tirmidhi, #1924

[7] Al-Bukhari, #6502



By ayesha on April 2, 2008 at 1:54pm

As Salaam Alaikum Imam Zaid, Thank you for this uplifting article. Your commentary on the ayat is comprehensive and well explained. This is a very beneficial reminder of how each of us should behave. May God reward you for your work and dedication to teaching.

By Muhammad on April 4, 2008 at 5:36am

Asalamu Alakum.. This is AMAZING, beyond words. In one Ayah so much can be derived. Please would you do more Tafseer and give us practical advice on how to behave in life. Also I have one question, how do we maintain steadfastness in times when everything seems to be against us. This is based on the statement which you said: "we listen to the defamation of our religion and the slander of our Prophet, peace upon him, we should not allow that to dishearten us or turn us away from the good works"

By Muhammad on April 4, 2008 at 5:43am

Sorry I forgot to add, There are always a few "black sheep" in the community which Muslims a bad name. Thus how do we show Islam promotes peace and moderation, whilst the extremist muslims seem to taint a distorted picture of Islam.

By Abdullah on April 4, 2008 at 8:51am

Asalamu Alakum Great article. I understand that we should seek forgiveness for those that throw abuse at us. However, what about praying against those that harm, e.g when the 70 Qura were killed. Does this oppose the principle of mercy? Wasalam

By Mariam Nazir on April 6, 2008 at 7:04pm

as salaam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuhu Dear Shaykh Zaid Shakir hafidhu Allah insha'allah, Allah subhaanahu wata'ala ALONE is sufficient as exemplary leader insha'allah. So since he has given his word to us in the Quraan and raised you up as a leader over us and a scholar, why don't you have a poll on your site and let us vote for you as our leader insha'allah to put his word into effect insha'allah? If you'll lead we'll follow insha'allah! Allah subhaanahu wata'ala is your ONLY advisor insha'allah. This is the key to success insha'allah. jazak allah khayrun as salaam alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuhu Your sister Mariam Nazir

By anonymous in SA on April 7, 2008 at 12:38am

Salaam alaykum dearest Imam, Jazak Allah khair for this article. It was insightful to me because I never thought of myself as a leader. Though I try to embrace the values listed in the article, it never occurred to me that I had to envision myself as a leader. So that's some food for thought. Similarly to Muhammad's question I was wondering if you could give us practical advice on how to patiently perservere in difficult times and more importantly how to put one's trust in Allah (swt). I know from experience that it's easy to say these things but recent events in my perdonal life had me question whether I have internalised and if I really act upon these words. I have a terminally ill parent and when spending time with her and seeing her in atrocious pain, I increased in du'as. Only thing is at one point I broke down and had to ask Allah (swt) where He was when she was going through all this. I'm being honest. Though I do not reject Him nor do I doubt His presence, His mercy and though I understand that du'as are answered in His manner and in His time, I just want to know how to fully put my trust in Him. I don't despair and I don't panick. If anything on the outside I remain calm and very few people have any idea of what is happening in my life. But then inside, it was a mess not too long ago. I realised that I did not really understand how to live what I believed. I truly value your thoughts.

By Hamzah bin Taalib on April 14, 2008 at 1:32pm

Bismillah May Allah increase us all in knowledge of Him. Ameen. In light of your thoughts about resolve, I have a question: How does one know the difference between stubbornly adhering to a bad decision and having resolve with a good decision? More specifically, what are the signs that can show a leader that he has made a bad decision and needs to correct it, or that he has made a good decision and should have resolve and patience with it? May Allah increase your knowledge and your teachings. Ameen.

By raffi on April 15, 2008 at 12:10pm

I have a terminally ill parent and when spending time with her and seeing her in atrocious pain, I increased in du’as. Only thing is at one point I broke down and had to ask Allah (swt) where He was when she was going through all this. I’m being honest. Though I do not reject Him nor do I doubt His presence, =============== raffi

By Tammy on April 18, 2008 at 11:48am

Sallam Imam Zaid: Thank you for this very nice article. However, you mentioned those leadership traits from our tradition. But those priciple do not apply to the cult that we live in here in the US. Most of the leaders here are condescending and use the need of others to persue their goals. Corporate America is all about using lesser individuals to advance self issues and gains. At least in my experience. And people see humblness as a sign of weakness.. I have never met a leader of any organization or company who is humble. I hope that we as muslims take our leadership skills from our tradition instead of those leadership workshops out there..But it is hard to be the leader in the secular environment that we live in. The other issue is about our scholars. Most of them do not want to engage in a religious dialogue with the public. To them they only want to issue fatwas. They are not in touch with the mainstream life and do not understand the challenges we face. And if they do, they build this shell around themselves and are very unapproachable! I think the Muslim scholars have to be the leaders in our communities and should try to do more to be in touch with the mainstream muslims. Thank you again and God bless you!

By altaf on April 20, 2008 at 3:23pm

Imam Ali (AS) letter to Malik Ashtar (included in Nahjul Balaga) brings further clarity to the Islamic teachings of leadership. Maalik! You must create in your mind kindness, compassion and love for your ‎subjects. Do not behave towards them as if you are a voracious and ravenous ‎beast and as if your success lies in devouring them.‎ Remember Maalik that amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: ‎those who have the same religion as you have; they are brothers to you, and ‎those who have religions other than yours, they are human beings like you. Men ‎of either category suffer from the same weaknesses and disabilities that human ‎beings are inclined to, they commit sins, indulge in vices either intentionally or ‎unintentionally and mistakenly without realizing the enormity of their deeds. Let ‎your mercy and compassion come to their rescue and help in the same way and ‎to the same extent that you expect Allah to show mercy and forgiveness to you. ‎You must never forget that if you are a ruler over them, than your wali [Imam Ali ‎‎(pbuh) is referring to himself] is the ruler over you and Allah is the Supreme Lord ‎over the wali. And the reality is that He has appointed you as the governor and ‎tested you through the responsibility of this rule [that He has given you] over ‎them. ‎

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By omrizkiblog on April 5, 2017 at 8:14pm

Assalaamualeykum imam zahid, may Allah please you and guard your health. Mashaallah, excellent explanations and I really really love it. It is very precise and easy to digest. Btw, I was looking for characteristics of good Muslim leader, and I stumbled upon this website, Alhamdulillah. Inshaallah, by learning from this article, it would help me to be a better muslim. If I may, with your permission I would like to share it to my friends and recite this article in my blog because I don't want to lose good resource of knowledge like this one. May Allah bless you upon many lessons you have taught. Thank you. Assalaamualeykum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.

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