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What are the characteristics of the head of state and rulers according to Islam?

Islam does not establish provisions about how the Muslims should constitute a political organization due to the fact that it has a universal and flexible structure that can appeal to all time, place, and cultures; Islam only imposes fundamental principles and tenets, and leaves the details of the matters to the wisdom, experience, conditions, and time. Therefore, Islamic scholars had not focused on a particular form of a state or regime but rather concentrated on how to elect and dismiss a head of state (imam/caliph), his rights, duties, and especially the characteristics he should have. Aside from the literature of Al-Ahkam as-Sultaniyyah and Siyasatnama, the books, which had been written about Islamic ethics, studiously focused on the topic about what kind of characteristics should the rulers and primarily the head of state have in details. 

Without a doubt, in order for such rulers, who hold great power and opportunities and have the duties of ruling the people, governing the country, and establishing the law, must have some superior abilities and qualifications compared to ordinary people in order to perform their duties properly. In this article, we are going to focus on the requirements of being a ruler not only by using the verses of the Quran and hadiths as a base, but also referring to the work which had been written in this field. Please be advised that some of these will be “minimum requirements”, while others will be “superior requirements”. 

1- Competency and Merit

Undoubtedly, one of the most fundamental principles urged upon in Islam about the ruling is the consigning of the affairs in the hands of competent people. Surah An-Nisa established a discipline about the distribution of all kinds of public duties with the following lines: “Indeed, Allah commands you to render trusts to whom they are due” (4/58). Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had said “When honesty is lost, then wait for the Hour (Doomsday)” to his companions one day, and upon receiving a question on how would that be possible, he had replied: “When the power or authority comes in the hands of unfit persons.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Knowledge, 3).

The following hadith in Sahih Muslim describes what kind of punishment awaits the inadequate people who take over the ruling on the Day of judgment: “Authority is a trust. And on the Day of judgment, it is a cause of humiliation and repentance except for one who fulfills its obligations and (properly) discharges the duties attendant thereon.” “Sahih Muslim, Book 020, Number 4491)

Briefly, competency and merit mean the ability to successfully perform duties, responsibilities, and other work that comes together with the undertaken mission by the rulers. To make it more clear, all of the rulers and primarily the head of state must be decorated with enough knowledge and intelligence in order to perform their duties properly; power and capability to protect the rights of the people who are under their wings in order to see their needs; intention and determination to sustain rights and justice; leadership characteristics in order to manage and steer the people who back them. 

Imam Al-Juwayni had stated that the most important qualification for the head of state is sufficiency(competency, merit), and also explained that other qualifications would be used to complete the sufficiency and overcome the other deficiencies. (Al-Juwayni, Ghiyath al-Umam, p. 315)

2- Sense of Responsibility

As it is well known, rulership is an office that brings very broad authorities and rights together. However, these authorities and rights will bring many cases of abuse and corruption in case they are not balanced with duties and responsibilities. And this will make the rulers despots and tyrants in due time. That is why Islam highlights responsibilities rather than authority and rights and reminded the rulers of their heavy responsibilities. 

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had stated the following in one of the well-known hadiths about the responsibilities of the rulers: “Beware. Every one of you is a shepherd and everyone is answerable with regard to his flock. The Caliph is a shepherd over the people and shall be questioned about his subjects. (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Ahkam, 1; Sahih Muslim, Bk 20, Number 4496) The word translated as “shepherd” is actually “rai”. This word means “the one who watches over, protects”. The reason for the shepherds to be called a “rai” is due to their responsibilities towards the animals he herds. It is aimed to provide the meanings rather than the literal meanings with such metaphors and representations. And the hadith emphasizes the responsibilities of the rulers over the people and underlines that they cannot take arbitrary actions with a fluent, collective, and great representation. And the following hadith focuses on the ethereal extent of the matter: “Allah will question them about their ruling over those He put under their guardianship.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Enbiya 50; Sahih Muslim, Imara 44)

The following words of Umar, which had been committed to paper for poetry by Mehmet Akif, is a great example of the sense of responsibility: “If a wolf steals a sheep near Tigris; Allah’s justice will ask Umar about it.”

Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, who had been selected as the fifth caliph due to his perfectness about the ruling, had employed himself with the needs of the people throughout his caliphate and spent his nights with tears until the morning together with prayers and worship. Upon his wife’s question to him about why he pushes and tires himself this much, he had replied that Allah will question him about the situations of the poor, needy, captive, oppressed, victimized and other ones; he had also been afraid of the Prophet (PBUH) complain about him concerning these people, and thus stated that in order not to have any shortcomings in the presence of Allah and the Prophet (PBUH) not to present any evidence against himself. (Abu Yusuf, Kitabu’l-harac, p. 26)

3- Justice

If there was a question requesting the shortest possible answer about the duty of the rulers, the answer would be “securing justice” in a nutshell. In fact, the principle mentioned the most both in Quran and hadiths is justice. “O David, indeed We have made you a successor upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth and do not follow [your own] desire, as it will lead you astray from the way of Allah.” (Surah al Sad, 38:26) This verse of the Quran shows that the most important requirement of the government is justice. However, it is a fact that no one could expect justice from an individual who is not just himself. 

Since the ruled will be affected whether the ruler is just or not, the Prophet (PBUH) had stated the following; “Justice is good but it is better if it exists in rulers.” (Daylami, Musnadul Firdaws, 3/92) When the seven groups of people are listed who will be under the shadow under the ninth heaven on the Day of Judgment, the first group is cited to be the “fair leaders”. (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Adhan 36; Sahih Muslim, Zakat 91) In another hadith, our Prophet (PBUH) had stated that the most beloved and nearest of people to Allah on the Day of Resurrection will be the just leader, and the most hated of people to Allah and the furthest from Him will be the tyrannical leader. (Sunan At-Tirmidhi 1329=

In another narration, our Prophet (PBUH) had stated the following about justice being the greatest reason for the salvation: “Even ruling ten people, the one will be brought with his hands encircled his neck on the Day of Judgement. Whether his justice will untie him or tyranny will destroy him.” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, 5/284)

Al-Mawardi explained justice with his following words: “Justice consists in being true in speech, manifest in his fulfillment of a trust, free of all forbidden acts, careful to guard himself against wrong actions, free of all doubt, equitable both when content and when angry, chivalrous and vigorous both in his deen and his worldly affairs. If, however, he is lacking in any of these qualities, his testimony is not accepted, his words are not accepted and his decisions are not executed. (Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya w’al Wilayat al-Diniyya, p. 113)

The opposite of justice is tyranny and desecration. According to this, the individual who loses his fairness is named a fasik (who sins openly) and tyrant. Allah states in the Quran that Abraham would be the leader (imam) of the people, Abraham asked for leaders from his descendants thereupon; however, Allah commanded: “My covenant does not include the wrongdoers.” (Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:124) Muhammed Hamdi Yazir interprets this verse: “Allah commanded that such tyrants will be absolutely deprived of such opportunity and Imamate is only entitled to the just ones. This verse is an evidence that a tyrant is not competent for the Imamate and it is necessary to remove an individual from the Imamate who is just in the beginning and starts oppressing at a later stage. Since there are multiple meanings of the plural names that have definiteness suffix, “az-zalimin” word includes all of the tyrants that will show up until the Day of Judgment. (Muhammed Hamdi Yazir, Hak Dini Kur’ân Dili, 1/492)

Imam Al-Juwayni questioned how an individual could embrace all of the affairs of the Muslims when not even scared of Allah after pointing out that a fasik individual, who uses taqwa and hamartophobia in the name of justice but actually deprived of such qualities, cannot be trusted for a dime and even the properties of this individual’s own son. According to him, the one, who cannot resist his/her own mind, an-nafs al-ammarah (a level to nurture nafs), and desires, and whose judgment is not capable of managing oneself, cannot rule over the Muslims. (Al-Juwayni, Giyasu’l-umem, p88/311)

4- Knowledge

By knowledge, the ulama actually means that the ruler should possess sufficient religious intelligence. Moreover, the majority of the scholars stipulated that the head of state must be capable of interpreting Islamic law; meaning the head of state should have enough religious knowledge in order to make provisions out of the verses of the Quran and hadiths. While some of them state this as a condition for being superior, some of them approve people who are less competent may also take over this duty if there is nobody who is capable of interpreting Islamic law. 

From whatever point of view we analyze this matter according to the conditions of today; restricting the knowledge only to the religious knowledge means nothing but narrowing down the matter. Although it is very important for the ruler to have knowledge about religion, it is also very important to have enough knowledge in order to carry out the duties focusing on political, economic, sociologic, legal, and international affairs matters flawlessly. It is especially important for the head of state to know how to govern and administrate. 

When Dawud had told the Israelis that Allah had appointed Saul (Talut) as the king of Israel, they had been very surprised and claimed that they had deserved this duty more than him. To justify for their objection, they pointed out the slimness of Saul’s property and wealth. And their Prophet had replied and justified Saul to be appointed as a king for them by stating that Allah endowed him with great wisdom and a strong body. (Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:247) This verse of the Quran shows that wisdom and physical sufficiency are prioritized for being the head of state; not the ancestry or the material wealth. 

Similarly, after Joseph asked the king of the period, “Appoint me as the head of treasury of this country”, he pointed out his worthiness of this position by stating, “For I will protect your properties well (hafiz), and have great knowledge of management and ruling (alim).” (Surah Yusuf, 12:55) Similarly, Solomon had requested from Allah to grant him a kingdom such will not belong to anybody after himself (surah Al-Sad, 38:35); in another verse of the Quran, it was pointed out that he was endowed with great power of judgment and knowledge. (Surah Al-Anbiya, 21:79)

Ibn Khaldun, who states that there are four requirements for the individual who is to be appointed as the caliph (head of state); knowledge, fairness, competence, and normal functioning sense organs. (Ibn Khaldun, Muhaddime, 1/273)

When political and ethical philosophers such as Al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd listed the qualifications that must be possessed by the head of state, they insistently focused on knowledge and wisdom. The view of Plato arguing that the head of state must be a philosopher had an influence over their opinion. Because, philosopher means an individual who chases truth, tries to understand the property with its literal meaning, and sees knowledge and wisdom as the greatest goal. Thus, when Ibn Rushd had listed the qualifications, he pointed out that the head of state must be naturally prone to the theoretical sciences; possess strong cognizance and understanding; be disposed to study science and different fields of science. (Ibn Rushd, Telhisu’s-siyase, p. 140)

5- Being Honored with The Trust and Love of the People

The hadith narrated by Umar is very important on this matter: “The best of your rulers are those whom you love and who love you, who invoke God’s blessings upon you and you invoke His blessings upon them. And the worst of your rulers are those whom you hate and who hate you and whom you curse and who curse you. (Sahih Muslim, Bk 20, Number 4573; Al-Tirmidhi, Fiten 77)

According to the Quran, after Moses helps the daughters of Shuaib for watering the livestock, one of the daughters advises their father to hire Moses and shows his strength and trustworthiness as a reason. (Surah Al-Qasas 28:26) Similarly, after the king states about Joseph, “Bring him to me. I will appoint him exclusively for myself”, and points out that he is a man of honor and is very trustworthy (mekinun emin). (Surah Yusuf, 12:54) There is no doubt that these verses of Quran highlight trustworthiness as the most important characteristics the individuals should posses who are to be rulers or officers. 

Furthermore, many of the verses of the Quran points out that the prophets are trustworthy and reliable messengers. And the way to win the trust of the people lies behind being honest, faithful to the promises, being transparent, and never deceiving anybody. And being truthful is especially important for a head of state. Ibn Rushd points out that a head of state should love the truth and truths but hate lies. Because according to him, the one who loves trueness will love what is right, and the one who loves what is right shall not lie. (Ibn Rushd, Telhisu’s-siyase, p. 140)

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) indicates how vital righteousness is for the head of state with his following hadith: “There are three types of people that Allah will not talk to them on the Day of Judgment nor will He mention them nor look at them and they will be tormented severely: an older adulterer, a lying king, and a poor but still arrogant person.” (Sahih Muslim, Iman 171)

Trust and reliance will bring love concomitantly. And it will not be possible for the people to be loved who are not trusted. It is not possible for the rulers, who cannot manage to build bridges of trust and love between themselves and the people, and thus cannot get the support of the people, to perform their duties duly.

As it is important that the head of state must be trustworthy in the eyes of the people for the salvation of the state and the happiness of the people; it is also important for the head of state to trust the people. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) states: “If the ruler treats people with suspicion, he will corrupt them.” (Sunan Abu Dawood 4889) Here is another hadith addressed to Muawiyah: “If you search for the faults of the people, you will corrupt them” (Sunan Abu Dawood 4888) These hadiths prohibit the heads of state to see their people as potential criminals and search for their secret affairs; in other words, it is prohibited to investigate their private and confidential lives. 

6- High Moral Standing

Scholars, who had indited works about the morals and philosophy of Islam, such as Ibn al-Muqaffa, Al-Ghazali, Rumi (Mawlana), Al-Mawardi, Ibn Rushd, Abu Bakr al-Razi and  Al-Farabi, pointed out that the rulers should possess more virtues and merits compared to ordinary people, and explained what kind of moral qualifications they must have. Because when individuals who are immoral, characterless, hypocrite, and marginal people become head of state or ruler, they will not be able to represent their office properly and start damaging their surroundings. Although the works in question include much long advice about the fact that the rulers should be moral, we are going to focus on a few topics we find important.  

Undoubtedly, two of the most important moral virtues a head of state should possess are modesty and meekness. The best example for this is when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had said, “Be calm, for I am not a king. Verily, I am only the son of a woman who ate jerky.” (Sunan Ibn Mājah 3312) to somebody who had trembled with fear before him. 

The following statement of Umar aims at the prohibition of rulers lording it over the people after he had found out that Amr ibn al-As placed a pulpit to the mosque in Egypt: “It has come to my notice that you have built a pulpit by means of which you stand above the shoulders of the Muslims, which is the same as your standing with the Muslims under your heel. I command you to dismantle the pulpit.” (Ibn Khaldun Muqaddimah, 1/358)

Factors such as offices held by the rulers, the power and government they possess, the attention and interest of the people are potential reasons for conceit and pride. Thus, Pharaoh, who had been deceived by these, had found the courage of saying “I am your most exalted lord.” (Surah An-Naziat 79:24). The scholars and believers of Allah, who had been aware of this, had always reminded the people always to be humble; the offices and opportunities they had possessed are temporary; advised them that they will be questioned one day about all of the opportunities they possessed. Because a ruler, who is addicted to his nafs (self) and founders in egoism, will not have the chance to focus on the affairs of his people due to the fact that he will always be busy with contemplating his own accounts and future. 

One of the other most accentuated moral virtues about this matter is for the rulers to keep their distance from wastage and luxury, and not to be addicted to pleasure and taste. A ruler, whose heart is filled with the love of property, office, and reputation, will only be satisfied with palaces, extravagant tables, pompous goods, luxurious cars/planes, and this ruler will waste away the money of the people in order to reach these things. Abu Dhar al-Ghifari confronted Muawiyah because of the palace he had built in Damascus, and told him, “If you are building this palace with your own money, it is an extravagance, and if with the money of the people, it is treason.”

It is only a dream to expect the rulers, who are the slaves of their nafs, to postpone their own pleasures in exchange for social happiness. It is a complete misfortune and disaster for the country due to the fact that it is more important for such rulers to protect their own interests and guarantee their own futures. However, the rulers, who possess supreme politeness, successfully manage to avoid the simple desires of their nafs, and prioritize the interests of the people, are the ones to bring peace, security, and tranquility to the country they rule. 

Another requirement pointed out for the rulers is their willingness towards staying away from the crimes and sins such as taking bribes, favoritism, and corruption which will corrupt the political order altogether. Like Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had damned the people who take bribes (Al-Tirmidhi, Ahkam 9), he had explained that even a tiny needle will be asked for and that individual will be disgraced on the Day of Judgement: “Who from you is appointed by us to a position of authority and he conceals from us a needle or something smaller than that, it would be misappropriation (of public funds) and will (have to) produce it on the Day of Judgment.” (Sahih Muslim, Book 20, Number 4514) According to this information, imagine the situation of the rulers on the Day of Judgment after they siphon off the properties of the people and abuse their trust. 

Another example of this abuse occurs when the competency and merit are substituted with favoritism and partisanship for the civil service assignments. In fact, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had explained that should people transfer their duties to less competent people, they will be considered as if they betrayed Allah (SWT), His Apostle (PBUH), and all of the Muslims. (Hakim, Al-Mustadrak, 4/104)

7- Supervising People’s Affairs

The Prophet (PBUH) had explained the most important characteristics of the rulers in his following statement: “Whoever is concerned for the needs of his brother, Allah (SWT) is concerned for his needs, and whoever relieves a Muslim of a burden, Allah (SWT) will relieve him of a burden from the burdens of the Day of Judgement, and whoever covers the faults of a Muslim, Allah (SWT) will cover his faults on the Day of Judgement. (Jami At-Tirmidhi vol. 3, 1426; Abu Dawud, Harac 13)

On the other hand, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) denigrated the rulers who misguide and deceive the people in the following hadiths: “The only fear I have for my Ummah are astray leaders (who will lead them astray)” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, 5/278); “If any ruler having the authority to rule Muslim subjects dies while he is deceiving them, Allah will forbid Paradise for him.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 89, Number 265; Sahih Muslim Bk 1, Number 0262)

The following hadith explains to what extent the head of state and rulers should take care of the people under their rulership: “As long the one appointed a ruler for the Muslims among my Ummah protects and looks after the people he rules the way he protects and looks after his family, shall not even smell the fragrance of Paradise.” (Al Mu’jam Al Kabir Tabarani, el-Mu’cemu’l-sagîr, 2/137)

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had reminded that the head of state should be soft on the people and adopt fair treatment in his following hadith: “Oh Allah! Treat those the same who contempt and raise difficulties after taking over duties concerning my Ummah, and treat those the same who treats them well after taking over the duties concerning them.” (Muslim, al-Imarah, 19)

When Izz ad-Din Kaykawus, one of the sultans of the Seljuqs of Rum, had requested advise from Rumi (Mawlana), Rumi replied the following: “What advice should I give? They have made you a shepherd and you act like a wolf. They have made you a watchman and you act like a thief.” (Ahmet Eflaki, Legends of the Sufis, 1/413)

When the head of state and rulers, who are entrusted with the lives and properties of the people, start threatening these values themselves, they will end up deceiving the people just like mentioned in the hadiths above. Imam al-Ghazali assiduously pointed out that the head of state must be easily accessible, must not wall the people in and create Mabeyni Humayun (office of the private secretary for the Ottoman Empire), and stated that the time spent by the head of state for the peace and happiness of the people is more virtuous than supererogatory prayer. (Al-Ghazali, The Counseling Kings, s. 85)

8- Other Requirements

Further to aforesaid, it had been pointed out that the person who would be taking the responsibilities of being a head of state must be healthy and in good physical shape; have the features of being a Muslim, adolescent, and intelligent, and the status of the people who had been slaves or captives had been a matter of debate since it had been stated that the individual must be free for the responsibility. 

Another debate about being a head of state had been the matter of masculinity. While the majority of the ulama class had stipulated this requirement judging from some of the hadiths; the others had argued that females also can be qualified as a head of state by referring to the verses of Quran about Al-Malikah Balqīs, the Queen of Sheba.

Especially the first-period Islamic scholars had stated that the head of state should be a member of the Quraysh tribe but scholars such as Imam Al-Baqillani and Ibn Khaldun had interpreted the matter in a different way and stated that this requirement is not mandatory or valid for the future periods. 

We would like to content ourselves with this short explanation since further separate studies are required due to the fact that there is a lot of debating going on around this matter, and it is a fact that some of them do not have any practical value today. However, we would like to state that these requirements are directly related to performing the duties in excellence, and they do not concern the essence of the matter.

Turkish version of this article appeared at TR7/24.com

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Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.


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