Advice on Leadership from the Hadīth
Among Muslims, Sunnah (with a capital S) is the exemplary moral conduct of the Prophet Muhammad. The formal doctrine of the Prophet’s infallibility elevates his words and deeds to a unique normative status and renders his actions, pronouncements, and decisions supremely authoritative and binding. Sunnah is of central importance to Islamic tradition because belief and praxis are in large part determined by what Muhammad said and did.
Remembering the Sunnah is a critical moral imperative. After Muhammad’s death, the Prophet’s wives and companions preserved the community’s memory of him through the transmission of oral narratives, which were eventually compiled into written reports, called Hadīth (also translated, in this context, as “tradition”). By the middle of the eighth century CE, over one hundred years after Muhammad’s death, large Hadīth compendia began to emerge, assessed and organized according to varying degrees of authenticity. Overall, these Hadīth collections constitute “an authoritative and prescriptive body of material relating to the Prophet Muhammad: it records what the Prophet did and said in order that Muslims may – whether through direct [imitation] of the actions of the Prophet, acceptance of specific Prophetic pronouncements on points of law and doctrine, or the extrapolation of law from both Prophetic actions and utterances – live in accordance with Divine Truth.” After the Qur’ān, Hadīth (the repository of Sunnah)is the next most authoritative source in discerning sharī‘ah, the divinely ordained pattern of human activity.
The following Hadīth are all attributed to Muhammad, and reflect his opinion about leadership, legitimacy, and the importance of political unity. After reading these pronouncements, compare them with scholarly writings on governance presented in the final “Framing the Issues” section.
§ He who obeys me, obeys God; and he who disobeys me, disobeys God. He who obeys the amīr, obeys me; he who disobeys the amīr, disobeys me.
§ ‘The children of Israel were governed by prophets: whenever a prophet died, another became his successor. There will be no prophets after me, but there will be successors, and they will be many.’ They asked, ‘So what do you order us to do about that?’ He answered, ‘Keep allegiance to each of them, and give them what is due them, for God will hold them responsible for what He entrusts to them.’
§ The governmental authority (sultān) is the shadow of God on the earth (zill Allah fi al-ard); all of His servants who are oppressed shall turn to it. When it is just, it shall be rewarded, and the flock must be grateful. When it is tyrannical, the burden is upon it, and the flock must be patient.
§ Whoever dies not having known the imām of his time, dies the death of the Days of Ignorance.
§ Sixty years under a despotic imām is better than a single night of anarchy.
§ My community shall never agree upon an error, so if you should see a disagreement, you must stay with the majority.
§ If anyone sees something hateful in his commander, let him be patient, for no one separates from the community by a handspan without dying the death of the Days of Ignorance.
§ Hearing and obeying are incumbent on a Muslim man, so long as he is not ordered to disobey God. When he is ordered to do that, there is no hearing and obeying.
§ The Messenger of God said, ‘Your best Imāms are those you love, who love you, whom you bless, and who bless you. The worst are those you hate, who hate you, whom you curse, and who curse you.’ We said, ‘Messenger of God, should we not depose them when that happens?’ He said, ‘No, not so long as they perform the ritual worship with you and keep the prayers. When anyone has a ruler placed over him who is seen doing something that is rebellion against God, he must disapprove of that rebellion, but never withdraw his hand from obedience.’
“Book of Government” (Kitāb al-Imāra). Sahih Muslim Hadith collection. Link to resource (accessed April 20, 2010). Author’s Notes: Introduction can be ignored.
Professor of Iranian and Central Asian History, and of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
Outreach Coordinator, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Chicago
1. Based on what you read about the formation of the Muslim community, why would Muhammad be particularly concerned with unity and leadership issues?
2. What do you think is meant by the phrase “Days of Ignorance?” What would the implications of this caution be to followers of Muhammad?
3. What are some of the implications for a society that follows these hadith? Can you think of circumstances where these ideas might work well? Circumstances where they might present a challenge for a society?