Leadership Challenges from Islamic Perspective

Editor’s Note: Contemporary world renowned Islamic scholar Dr. Tareq al-Suwaidan has given a landmark speech on leadership. The delivery was presented in a conference at Malaysia on 22 February, 2014. He has challenged some conventional ideas on leadership, specifically from Islamic perspective. Muslims usually do a common mistake by considering all sorts of leadership from a uni-centric point of view. Actually the status of a leader and loyalty towards any leadership has to be different in different aspects. So in congregational prayers, in social movements, in administrative purposes, in theoretical discourses or in a battle field etc. pattern of leadership must be quite different. Dr. Tareq has focused on it extraordinarily.

This video lecture has been scripted by Md. Habibur Rahman Habib for the CSCS readers. Bangla translation also available here.


Leadership is the topmost problem of present Muslim world. It is very important to have a strategic plan for building leadership for the revival of the Muslim Ummah. Islam is the greatest ideology, religion and the way of life. But Muslims are backward today.

One day I was talking to Sheikh al-Qaradawi about the need to put together a strategic plan for the revival of the ummah. The basic questions that I have asked him are: what are the details that are needed, how we train our people, build institutions etc. He said something that really amazed me. He said, ‘Dr Tareq, I am illiterate in this issues’. So I jumped from my sit that this is Sheikh al-Qaradawi, the greatest scholar of today! He said, ‘Oh! This is too much. Don’t mock me and I will not mock myself. I am totally illiterate when it comes to this issues. So you lead this issue, Dr. Tareq. I will collect the scholars so that they will listen to you and you train them on this.’

This was done later on. I gave them a small presentation that how to make a strategic plan for the ummah.

Strategic Plan

There are four components for any strategic plan-

  1. Understanding the present,
  2. Putting a clear picture of the future,
  3. Have a plan to move from present to future &
  4. Understanding the resistance that will stop you from reaching that future and overcoming that resistance.

I will like to start from the present. Five major problems facing the Muslim ummah.

  1. Our un-Islamic Behavior,
  2. Inefficiency,
  3. Backwardness,
  4. Al-Fikr (Intellectual understanding) &
  5. Leadership.

1. Our un-Islamic Behavior: We are Muslims but we do not behave according to Islam. This is in all parts of life. I am taking about our un-Islamic behavior in our families, towards our spouses, towards children, on streets, on cleanliness even in worship.

2. Inefficiency: Muslims should be productive, very efficient as individuals, as families, as institutions, as countries. Unfortunately we are not.

3. Backwardness: Muslim should be progressive, should lead science, technology, knowledge, education, economy, competitiveness etc. We have done these in our history. But today we are not progressive, we are backward in almost every part of our life. Of course there are exceptions, but overall we are backward.

Looking deeply into this three problems I found that although these are major problems but truly they are symptoms of a bigger problem. There are two bigger problems that produce these symptoms –

  • Al-Fikr (Intellectual understanding)
  • Leadership

If you have the true intellectual understanding and true leadership then you can solve all of these major problems and you can guide your nation or ummah or organizations etc. towards competitiveness and leadership of the world.

4. Al-Fikr (Intellectual understanding): Intellectual understanding contains many important issues including –

a. Al-Aqidah (faith): If you have a wrong Aqidah or faith then the whole thing is built on false premises.

b. Values and ethics: Values and ethics are part of intellectual understanding.

c. Understanding of life around you and the world: Of course you have your understanding of life around you and life in the world. But if you are controlled by conspiracy theory, then you have the whole answers wrong.

d. Understanding your role as an individual: Part of intellectual understanding is understanding of your role as an individual.

e. To have a life plan: And of course if you do have the right understanding then you must have a life plan.

5. Leadership (leadership, training and teaching): Beside al-fikr or intellectual understanding the other issue is leadership. If you have the wrong leadership then they will lead you in the wrong directions. So I started doing a major work, which is leadership training. To do leadership you need to understand, what is leadership? When it comes to leadership theory and understanding, I have my theory on the issue. It is not only a theory it is a combination of theories. I have found that there is a huge difference between training and teaching. When you teach, you transfer knowledge but when you train then it has three major components –

i. You transfer knowledge
ii. You improve skills
iii. You change mentalities

 I hope when we do this three things in training that will change your behavior and performance. So the goal of training is to change behavior and to change performance by adopting change in three things – knowledge, skills and mentalities.

 After training so many people we have found that when you train older people then you can transfer knowledge easily and improve skills easily but there is a huge resistance in changing mentalities. So I took the training down into lower ages. Accordingly we did training for high school and university students and this is much better. So again we took it much lower. We started training middle school students on leadership and the results are much better. So went further down and we started to train elementary students on leadership and we got huge success. So we took it down and now we have three nurseries for leadership training. Best age to train on leadership is between two and six. This is my theory.

Introduction to Leadership

Definition of Leadership:

This is my own definition on leadership and that is – “the ability to move people towards goals.”

So, first of all leadership is ‘an ability’, it is not a science, not a knowledge. If you read one thousand books on leadership, you will not become a leader. You must have the specific ability. Of course reading will help but it will not make you a leader.

The second word come here is ‘moving people’. How do you move people? There are five major ways to move people-

  1. Luring people: By positions, by money, by wealth, by Jannath etc. you may lure people.
  2. By using threats: You may lead them by threats. If you don’t do this then I punish you. And people will respond to threats.
  3. Public speaking: If you have the ability for public speaking then you can lead.
  4. Ability of persuasion: This is more effective and more lasting.
  5. By being the role model: You can lead people by presenting yourself as a role model to them.

Which of the five, our prophet (sm) used? All of them. So a leader knows how to use them, even by threats. Because some people will not move except by threats. You use threats justly and wisely but you must use them occasionally to move people.

The third word is ‘people’. A better word than people is followers. The ability to move your followers. But because followers have negative connotation. So I change it to people.

The last word here is ‘goals’. Is it important that the goals of a leader are good goals for them to lead? Can a leader lead with bad goals? Of course they can. Most leadership is bad leadership. So we must understand what bad leadership is and how does it function, how do we deal with it. There are three kinds of bad leaders.

  1. Leaders who have bad goals: If you have bad goals then you have bad leadership. Whether this goals are bad goals in generals or you are using your leadership for your personal benefits (which most leaders unfortunately do). That’s what corruptions come from.
  2. Leaders with bad ethics: Those who don’t adhere to the good ethics and morals, of course they will become bad leaders.
  3. Leaders who are inefficient: You might have good goals, good ethics but if they are inefficient then they are a bad leader.

Is leadership by born or acquired?

So a major question comes – is this ability born with you or is it acquired?


After doing a full research and full study not only on leadership but also on history I have come to a model that there is only one percent who are born leaders.

Example of that, Amr Ibn al’Aas (r.) was a natural born leader. Umar Ibn al’Khattab (r.) says about Amr Ibn al’As (r.) that Amar should not walk on this earth except as a amir (administrator), he can’t be a follower. He must lead always.

Another example of that is Khalid Ibn al’Walid (r.). As you know Umar Ibn al’Khattab (r.) changed Khalid Ibn al’Walid (r.) and appointed Abu Ubaidah (r.) to be the leader of the army when the battle of al’Yarmouk was happening. The battle was led by Khalid Ibn al’Walid (r.) against the Romans. Abu Ubaidah (r.) knows that Khalid Ibn al’Walid (r.) is outstanding, specialized leader. There was no one like Khalid in military leadership. So he appointed Khalid Ibn al’Walid (r.) in the shurah of the army and gave the following decision. If the shurah differs then Khalid’s opinions should be taken, no matter how many against him. So he (Khaled) continued to lead even when he was not the commander-in-chief.

But Khalid Ibn al’Walid (r.) didn’t stop at that. He took it further because he was a by born leader. One day after the battle of al’Yarmouk, Khalid (r.) commanded a part of the army and attacked a Roman village without the permission of Abu Ubaidah (r.). Then Abu Obaidah (r.)said his famous word about Khalid (r.) that Khalid appointed himself as a leader. He can’t be but a leader. Among the leaders there are natural born ones like al’Khulafa ar’Rashidun, Khadija, Fatima, Ayesha, al’Hasan, al’Husain.

On the other side another one percent who are naturally born followers. They cannot be leadersand cannot learn how to be a leader. Example of this kind is Abu Dhar al’Ghifari (r.). Abu Dhar al’Ghifari (r.) was the fifth man who accepted Islam. He was among the greatest Muslims. Prophet (sm) says about Abu Dhar (r.) that this earth is not walked upon and the sky did not cover any one who tells the truth more than Abu Dhar. Ali (r.) says about Abu Dhar (r.) that Abu Dhar is a path full of knowledge. With such a tremendous status, Abu Dhar (r.) never led anything at all. He did not even led a group to collect Zakat. He tried once, he came to the prophet (sm) and said ‘Oh! Prophet of Allah, give me a position.’ He wanted to serve and help. He had the right attitude. But it is not enough. Someone’s sincerity, attitude etc. does not make him or her a leader. Prophet (sm) said ‘Oh! Abu Dhar you are a weak person and if there are two people, the another person is the leader, not you.’ Now the question is, could he acquired leadership? Could he learnt to be a leader? If he could, he had the best teachers in history, prophet (sm), Abu Bakkar (r.), Umar (r.). But the fact is that they could not teach him how to be a leader.


I see, eight to nine percent are in the middle. They are not born leaders or born followers. They have some characteristics of a born leader. If we train them to be leaders then they will become leaders. Now if we train them in their early years then their chances are much higher. So it depends on how early they get the training, who trains them, what is the curriculum they use to train them, how did they train them etc.

Now a question comes – how do we know this people and what are the signs? This people are the greatest resources more than oil, gas or anything else for any country or group. Unfortunately many countries, many groups or parties don’t use this resources and sometimes crash this resources!


The third introduction I would considered is the most important. And that is the difference between leadership and management. I have heard some sayings like ‘all leaders are managers but not all managers are leaders.’ It’s just nonsense. Not true. To answer this let me focus on the major difference between leadership and management.

Leaders’ focus on two things – on relations and on the long term future at least five years ahead. While managers’ focus or concentrate in short term results. In any organization, the higher you go the more of leadership you will find. The lower you will go the more is management. So the correct answer is every person has some leadership and some management quality in him or her. But the higher you go the percentage of leadership becomes gradually higher and vise-versa. So even if you are at the highest position you are doing some management. And if you go in lower then you do some leadership but most of your work will be management. So ‘all leaders are managers but not all managers are leaders’ does not reflect on kind of understanding.

Unnecessary Connections

There are some unnecessary connections that are imposed on leadership. People somehow whether in theory but more in practice connect things with leadership that has nothing to do with leadership. I want to break these connections:

  1. Leadership with Knowledge
  2. Leadership with Taqwa
  3. Leadership with Seniority
  4. Leadership with Age
  5. Leadership with Gender
  6. Leadership with the Body

1. Leadership with Knowledge: Do not connect leadership with knowledge. People sometimes appoint a Sheikh in leadership. Because he is the most knowledgeable. What does it have to do with leadership? It has nothing to do with leadership. Now remember, Abu Dhar (r.) was a path full of knowledge but he was never a leader. While Khalid Ibn al’Walid (r.) had a very little knowledge. Because he was the leader of the army, he would had to lead the daily prayers. Actually he had mistaken in the short surahs. He had a huge problem with ‘qul ya aiuhal kaferoun’ because it has repetition in it. And after the prayers he would turn to the army and he would say ‘I was so occupied with Jihad, I had no time for Quran.’ Khalid (r.) was a leader with no knowledge. Abu Dhar (r.) was full of knowledge but incapable of leadership. So do not appoint people in leadership positions because of their knowledge or the degrees they have. Knowledge has nothing to do with leadership. I know there are parties who are built on this but it is very clearly wrong.

2. Leadership with Taqwa (Piety): Don’t connect between leadership and taqwa (piety). There are brothers or sisters who are pious, they pray at night, memories Quran etc. What does it have to do with leadership? These are for them. Al’Imam Ahmed Ibn Hunmbl was asked a specific question – if we go to war should we be led by a great strong leader but he has major sins or a weak person but has taqwa (piety)? Clear answer of Imam Ahmed, ‘a weak person who has taqwa (piety), his taqwa is for himself but his weakness will reflect on his army or his people. So, be led by the one who is strong even if they have sins.’ So today in the Islamic movement, people attack some people, he is not very pious, he has mistaken, he has wrong ideas etc. These has nothing to do with leadership. He or she can be a better leader than an alim who is pious but not a good organizer. Piousness is for the person himself not for their followers. So don’t connect that with leadership.

3. Leadership with Seniority: Do not connect between leadership and how many years they had been with the organization. Seniority has nothing to do with leadership. This are very clear in contemporary social science and in Islamic history of leadership. Abu Dhar (r.) embraced Islam in the first year of Islam. Khalid Ibn Walid (r.) or Amr Ibn al’As (r.) embraced Islam at the end of seventh year of Islamic calendar. The difference in Islam in number of years between Khalid (r.) and Amr (r.) in one side and Abu Dhar (r.) on the other side is twenty years. But they led and Abu Dhar (r.) never led.

Another example, Khalid Ibn Walid (r.) led in the battle of Mu’tah, four months after his accepting Islam. Where in the contemporary Islamic movements are we ready to let anyone who joins us in four months becomes a leader of anything? The prophet (sm) was so advanced in understanding leadership and applying it! Who do that four months only?

Amr Ibn al’As (r.) led the battle of Zatus Salasil, five months after his Islam. In the army of Amr Ibn al’As (r.) was Abu Bakkar (r.) and Umar (r.). In that battle Amr (r.) did several things that really angered Umar Ibn al’Khattab (r.). So he objected there against Amr (r.). And Amr (r.) insist it and forced Umar (r.). Amr (r.) was leading Umar (r.). So Umar (r.) was so angry, he did not accept. So he went to Abu Bakkar (r.) and said ‘don’t you see what Amr is doing? Why are you silent about it?’ Abu Bakkar (r.) answered in a very calm and strong way – ‘Umar, if he wasn’t better than you in this position the prophet (sm) would not appointed him.’

So it is very clear. Where is seniority here? In the battle of Mu’tah the prophet (sm) appointed a panel of leaders: Ja’far Ibn Abi Talib(r.), Zayd Ibn Haritha(r.), and Abdullah Ibn Rawahah(r.). When they all were killed the flag of Muslims fell down. Who took the flag? It was taken by Thabit Ibn Al’Akram (r.), an elderly Muslim who had fought in the battle of Badr. Those who fought in Badr were considered as the pardoned ones and the best Muslims. So Thabit (r.) took the flag and went directly and put it in the hand of Khalid (r.). He said, ‘Khalid you lead’. Khalid (r.) said, ‘my master you are better than me in Islam and you are older than me in age. Moreover you are among the people of Badr’. Thabit (r.) said, ‘don’t question it Khalid. I only took the flag for you and you are better than me in this issue’. So Khalid (r.) led. It is the understanding of prophet (sm) and the companions that mere seniority has nothing to do with leadership.

4. Leadership with Age: It is very clear in Islam. Khalid (r.) and Amr (r.) were very young compare to Abu Dhar (r.). But the greatest example is Usama Ibn Zayd (r.). The prophet (sm) appointed him to lead an army one week before his death. The army was organized and was gathering outside Medina. In the army of Usama (r.) were Abu Bakkar (r.) and Umar (r.). Usama at that time was seventeen and half years old. Some of the companions objected to his age. The major objection came from Umar (r.). He said, ‘he appointed a boy to lead us’! The objection become more and more. It reached to the prophet (sm). In the speech of prophet (sm) before three days of his death he spoke about many issues and said about this issue as well ‘you object to the leadership of Usama, I swear by Allah, he was created to be a leader as much as his father was created to be a leader.’ It proves that there are some who are born leaders. So don’t connect age with leadership.

5. Leadership with Gender: Don’t connect always leadership with men or women. Women are better than men in three issues that relate to leadership and men are better than women in some issues. These three major issues are –

Women like to make shura (consultation) more than men. It is proven and it is in the Quran. In the story of queen Bilqis with Suleiman (pbuh), when she received the letter from by the bird. She said in front of her advisor, ‘I will not decide on any issue without consulting you’. While men prefer dictatorship and this is also in the Quran. The advisors said, ‘we are mighty and strong, it is up to you do whatever you want’. She proposed to have a democratic decision, but they preferred to have a dictatorship.

Women are more creative than men that helps women to be a leader. So if you need creative answers get women to be involved because they will give you better answers.

When women plan they have better insight and longer insight than men. But the problem is that women don’t plan enough, they waste a lot of time on trivial issues. And that’s why men lead.

On the other hand men is proven to be better than women on a major issue and that is decisiveness. Men are more decisive than women. Which means that when we need to take a decision and we have collected all the information, men will decide in such a situation but women will ask for more time. If I have an advice for our sisters and daughters, decide. What distinguishes true leaders is ‘decisions at times of ambiguity’.

Manager decide when everything is clear. But life is not like that. So great leaders decide even if there is ambiguity. They have a sense, a general direction and they decide upon it. Here is a major weakness for women.

I know some will object by bringing the hadith ‘no people will succeed if they are led by a women.’ If you take a decision based on a hadith, you must study the hadith in details. Let me present three issues here.

First, this hadith does not have one version. It has twenty two different versions that are correct hadith, not counting the weak hadith. It is also known in the science of hadith that if you have two versions, you try to interpret the decision that would fit both. You can’t eliminate one if it is correct. For example, in the Quran Allah says in a certain issue that ‘you must free a slave’. In another verse on the same issue Allah says ‘you must free a believing slave’. So what is the decision? You must free a believing slave. Because if you do that you have freed also a slave. But if you free a non-believing slave you have not done the other version.

So back to our hadith. In one of the correct version of this hadith the concerned word is mulk. We know, walao is led by and malaku is queened by. So we are talking about a queen, about the top-most position. So it is not correct to take this hadith and apply it to prohibit women’s membership of the parliament or being a judge etc. Because if they do that they did not apply the other version.

Second, there is a story behind this hadith. The hadith is narrated by Bukhari and the story in short is: Persia was ruled by the Sassanaid for more than one thousand years. Khosrau-I (the then king) became fed up with internal conspiracies. So he gave a very strange order to kill all males of the Sassanaid’s except himself and his crown prince. Only a small boy named Yazdegerd was alive who was later appointed as Kisra, i.e., the king of Persia. He was the king at the time of the battle of al’Qadisiyyah when Muslims are at the time of Umar (r.) fought against them. When he killed all of them. Suddenly his crown prince too died and then he died. So they couldn’t find any man to lead them. Then they choose his daughter to lead them. This news reached to the prophet (sm) and he commented on it, ‘they couldn’t find a man, they will not be succeed, and there is no man among them. No people will succeed if they are led by a women.’ The prophet (sm) has not given an order, he was given a directive from his prophetic insights.

If anyone study shahi al’Bukhair then he will come to know that Abu Ismail al’Bukhari besides being a man of hadith he was a faqi but he did not write a book of fiqah. But he has mentioned his rulings on different issues in the titles of chapters in Sahih al’Bukhari. So he says like ‘the chapter on permissible’ and then he brings the related hadiths, ‘the chapter on haram’ and then he brings the concerned hadiths. So ‘no people will succeed if they are led by a women’- this hadith, where is it in the chapters of al’Bukhari? He has a full chapter on ‘al’Imarah’ or leadership and he has another chapter on ‘an’nabua’ prophesy. This hadith is in the chapter of prophesy, not in the chapter of leadership. So don’t relate leadership with gender. Women can lead anything and they can be in all positions including the president of a country.

6. Leadership with the Body: People’s bodily structure has nothing to with leadership. This is an extra characteristic, that can help but it’s not a necessary condition. Leaders don’t really need charisma. This is told in the Quran as an extra quality in the story of Talut. When a prophet of Israili nation teld them that Allah have chosen a man named Talut to be their next king. They objected it because he is not a member of the royal family and he is not rich. He said that Allah have appointed him as your leader. He (Talut) is huge in body and he has a lot of inherent knowledge.

So some of these can be helpful but they are not necessary or sufficient conditions of a successful leader.


There is a tendency that leaders don’t see their mistakes. Most organizations in the world don’t have good leadership. The better leaders means better performance. It is very clear that the quality of leadership will affect the performance of the organizations or movements. Leadership training is very important to get good leaders. Promoting leadership from within is more successful than outside. So it is better to promote leadership from insight. The model for leadership (general and specialized leadership for example: leader of science, leader of politics, leader of judiciary, leader of intellectuality, leader of military etc.) is a step by step process: – discovery of leadership – then emotional and intellectual development – then leadership training (both generalized and specialized training) – and finally building a leadership nurturing culture.

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কুয়েতি লেখক, ইতিহাসবিদ, ব্যবসায়ী ও মুসলিম স্কলার। আরববিশ্বের পাশাপাশি পাশ্চাত্য মুসলিম সমাজেও তাঁর ব্যাপক গ্রহণযোগ্যতা রয়েছে।


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