On Society and Rulers

Allah Almighty provided His creatures with a great societal order of life appropriate to the traits of them all. Our Lord wished humans, whom He created as the most honored of creation, adorned with both material and spiritual beauties, to live in harmony with the whole. Thus it is said in the Qur’an, “And the heaven, He raised it high, and He set up the balance, that you might not transgress the balance.”[1]

Our Lord created the human being to be more dependent on other human beings than most creatures are dependent on each another. Humans have always been inclined to live in communities, from clans to empires: we do not live in isolation. In order to guide this inclination in a harmonious way, it is essential to have leaders who can steer society wisely, and who are capable of maintaining a balanced relationship between those who govern and those who are governed.

When societies are examined with wisdom, it can be seen that governors and governed are mirrors reflecting each other’s images. Thus, all societies, from a nuclear family or a small group to an empire, take shape in parallel with the physical and psychological capacities of their rulers. At the same time, rulers develop as persons in parallel with their society’s overall capacities. If those who govern are virtuous and skillful, their society prospers in an atmosphere of peace and welfare. If they are not, their society flounders in material and social distress. On the other hand, if a society improves, it develops righteous rulers; if a society goes astray and loses its moral values, selfish rulers come to power, because rulers are also the outcome of the entire social system.

Therefore, when things are not going well, both governors and governed should take responsibility for their own failures first, and start by improving themselves. The primary social principle of the Islamic mystical tradition is to examine one’s own behavior closely while tolerating the behavior of others. This approach is valid not only for personal development, but also for societal development. It is said in the Qur’an:

… Surely Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change it themselves…(Ra`d 13:11)


This is because Allah has never changed a favor that  He has conferred upon a people until they have changed their own condition…(Anfal 8:53).

As it is made clear in these verses, the divine mercy and blessing with which a society is endowed are conditional on that society’s remaining on the right path. Whenever a society ignores Allah’s grace, Allah’s mercy departs from it. And then, as the Prophet remarked, “In that place, it is better to be under the ground than above it.”

So if we wish to live in a good society with righteous rulers, we should live our own lives in a manner that pleases Allah. For as the Prophet once warned, “People are ruled as they deserve.”[2] The following story makes this point.

When Hadrat Ali (r.a) was stabbed to death by the extremist Ibn Muljam, people rushed to his side. Some of them asked him, as he was drawing his last breaths, to appoint a leader for them. But he told them, “I am leaving you in the same way that the Messenger of Allah left us. Before the Prophet died, we asked him to do the same thing that you are asking me. He told us, ‘Allah will give you good leaders if He sees good in you. And Allah gave us Abu Bakr (r.a) as our leader because He saw good in us.”[3]

Many troubles emerged during the government of Hadrat Ali (r.a). He was once asked: “O caliph! Why is that more troubles have occurred under you than occurred under your predecessors?”

Hadrat Ali (r.a) replied, “They served as rulers for people like me, while I serve as a ruler for people like you!”

By these words he meant that rulers can only govern according to the quality of their subjects. Yet the same principle applies to subjects, whose acts are conditioned by the quality of their rulers. Hadrat `Umar (r.a) said in this regard, “People follow the path and manner of their leaders. People follow the straight path as long as their leaders follow the straight path.”[4]

Indeed, people generally follow their leaders and take examples from them. Here are some illustrations from history.

Walid ibn Abdul-Malik, an Umayyad caliph, was keen on majestic buildings. His people copied him and began to value majestic buildings.  Then in every circle and walk of life, people began to talk about majestic buildings.

Sulayman ibn Abdul-Malik, another caliph, loved elegant food and drink. People of his era wasted their time talking about food and drink.

`Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz, another caliph, was a committed and pious person. People of his time valued devotions. They talked about prayer and competed over how many verses from the Qur’an they had memorized, how many extra fasts they had kept, and how many needy people they had served.[5]

Indeed, the acts and characteristics of rulers are internalized by their societies sooner or later. Thus the good deeds of rulers influence society widely in a positive way, while their bad deeds influence society widely in a negative way. As the  proverb says, “Fish start to stink from the head.”

Since this is so, governors and leaders of every kind, from heads of households to directors of associations and corporations, and from local officials to national administrators, should pay utmost attention to setting a good example. They should be aware of their responsibilities. Sheikh Edebali said to `Uthman Ghazi, “Never forget that being in the upper class will not make you safer than being in the lower class.”

When Hadrat `Umar (r.a) put a public ban on some behavior, he used to begin by exercising that rule in his family first. He would ask his family members to come together and make the following announcement: “I have just forbidden the people this and that. People watch over you as wild birds watch over flesh. If you do not obey this rule, they will follow your example. I swear by Allah that if one of you ignores this ban, I will punish that person more than I punish any other person. Now you are free to obey or not to obey.”[6]

It is a notable fact that a society advances in all aspects only when its rulers fulfill their mission with great care. These instructions of Sulayman the Magnificent, the great Ottoman Sultan, to Governor Ghazi Bali Bey show how seriously he took the work of government.

Watch over your people. If governors are righteous and pious, their society will follow them. Your people are nothing but your reflection. There are some people who fast by day and pray by night, yet love the wealth of this world too much. Worldly possessions then become the idols they worship. Nothing compares to worldly possessions for leading society astray. Never incline to accumulating wealth! Spend generously whatever you have in hand for people, and do not allow yourself to grow jealous.

The Prophet’s stand and his acts set good examples for rulers as well. He paid close attention to the problems of the Companions, and always took the brunt of  difficult situations. Even the most famous warriors, like Hadrat Ali (r.a), stated that they took shelter with the Prophet at dangerous and risky times. Thus, leadership means taking the lead in making sacrifices. Leaders must be aware that one cannot serve properly without being fully involved.

The Prophet walked along with the weakest Companions to encourage them during long journeys. A merciful shepherd does not leave an injured sheep behind. On the contrary, he cradles it in his arms.

 Community leaders should avoid becoming spoiled. They should never forget that they are servants of Allah. Leaders do the job of cashiers, distributing benefits that do not belong to them, and one day they will be questioned about their honesty in the divine court.

Imam Malik wrote this advice to the caliph of his time:

Hadrat `Umar (r.a), made the Pilgrimage ten times. As far as I know, he spent only twelve dinars on each Pilgrimage. He slept not under a tent, but in the shade of a tree. He carried his leather milk bag on his own shoulder. He wandered around to find out and solve the problems of needy people. When `Umar (r.a) was injured, the Companions rushed to see him and began to praise him. `Umar (r.a), told them, “Whoever believes this kind of praise is undoubtedly deceived. If I had a world made of gold, I would give it away to be free of the fear of the Last Judgment.”

Imam Malik continued:

Hadrat `Umar (r.a) always acted justly. The Prophet gave him the good news that he would be among the dwellers in Paradise. Yet he never rested on this good news, but always labored to do his best in governing the affairs of the Muslims. If such a ruler as Hadrat `Umar (r.a) thought this was necessary, I cannot think what rulers like yourself had ought to do!

The sensitivity and modesty of Tariq ibn Ziyad, the conqueror of Spain, also sets a good example. With an army of only five thousand soldiers, he triumphed over an army of ninety thousand. When the war was over, he walked through the treasuries of the king of Spain and said to himself, “O Tariq! Yesterday you were a slave with a strap on your neck. One day, Allah set you free. Then you became a commander. Today, you conquered Spain. Now here you are in the palace of the king. Be aware! Never forget that tomorrow you will stand before Allah.”

Those who are in charge of a society should regard themselves as slaves employed to meet that society’s needs. My father, the late Musa Efendi, was of the opinion that leaders of society, as servants of the people, were obliged to treat them with mercy, modesty, and affection, and should not allow themselves to become drunk with pride because of their prestigious position. He said:

“Those who serve people in religious matters should be aware that the opportunity of service for religion is a blessing from our Lord. Not many can have this opportunity. There are many people who have every quality needed for serving religion, but they cannot have that chance for accidental reasons, like lack of time and space. So those who serve should be thankful to those whom they serve, since they provide them with such a chance.”

In times when rulers had spiritual consciousness in societal matters, societies improved in both the material and spiritual sense. Rulers can manage this only by taking heed of wise scholars and wise people, and also by having a capable advisory body.

This being the case, rulers should not allow flatterers to brainwash them. They should consult wise counselors who are capable of discerning and raising the real problems of people, and who can suggest strategies for solving them. Consultation with capable advisors is a tradition of the Prophet. Even though he was a messenger of Allah, the Prophet always took the advice of knowledgeable people. In this way he set an example for us.

In order for a peaceful society to be possible, those who are governed must submit to their governors, as long as these govern justly. People should, however, monitor their rulers, and warn them when they go astray.

When he became caliph,  Hadrat `Umar (r.a) asked the assembly, “O people! I wonder what you would do if I do not govern justly?”

One man answered, “O `Umar! If you go astray, we will bring you back to the right path with our sword!”

Hadrat `Umar (r.a) replied, “May Allah be praised that I have friends to guide me if I go astray!”

Hadrat `Umar (r.a) said on another occasion, “The person I like best is the one who tells me my faults.”[7]

Rather than being disdainful when people tell them about their faults and failures, rulers should be open to people’s warnings and criticisms, and use them to help to reorganize themselves in a better way. Meanwhile, ordinary people are supposed to warn rulers sincerely, for the sake of Allah, and also make sacrifices for the benefit of everyone. Responsibility rests not only on the governing few, but on all the individuals who make up a society.

It is a grave religious error not to warn rulers but to tolerate their mistakes. It is a graver error to support them in injustice and oppression. Those who follow unjust rulers in this world will follow them in the Hereafter as well. Everyone should be very careful about whom they follow.

It is said in the Qur’an:

(Remember) the day when We will call every people with their leader; then whoever is given his book in his right hand, these shall read their book; and they shall not be dealt with a whit unjustly.(Isra’ 17:71).


He (Pharaoh, as he led his people to the sea to be drowned in this world) shall lead his people on the resurrection day, and bring them down to the Fire; and evil the place to which they are brought. (Hud 11:8).

Thus, to guide those who govern in good directions is part of the responsibility of people of faith. The great jurist Imam Abu Yusuf wrote his book on taxation, Kitab al-Kharaj, to advise Caliph Harun al-Rashid. In it he wrote,

“Never lose your enthusiasm for establishing justice within the sphere of sovereignty Allah has granted you. The happiest shepherd on the day of our judgment before Allah is the one with whom his flock is pleased. Never go astray! If you do, your people will follow you in the same direction. Never give orders arrogantly, nor judge angrily. When you face a dilemma where you must choose this good of this world or the good of the next, choose the good of the next. Do not forget that this world is transient, while the next world is eternal.”[8]

Since people copy the attitudes and behaviors of their rulers, and rulers also adopt attitudes and behaviors according to the taste of their people, every private person and every member of government should make an effort to stay in the path of the righteous. The talent of a mechanic may be understood from the state of the machine he repairs. A machine that a mechanic cannot repair is proof of his ineptitude. Society is also a kind of machine. The governors of a society are its mechanics. When things are persistently wrong with it, they should regard themselves as responsible. This is true not only for those at the very top, but for all the members of a government. Rulers must be alert to the wrong acts of the people in their administrations, and watch over their weaknesses and faults.

It is almost impossible to find someone who is happy as he is, and almost everybody blames that on other people’s shortcomings. Yet all of us, governors and governed, should be thinking about our own shortcomings. When we increase the number of good people in a society we are trying to improve, that society will improve spontaneously, both materially and spiritually. It will then, with divine help, promote better rulers to power. Meanwhile, if rulers are not happy with their societies, they had better question themselves and endeavor to improve themselves rather than complaining about their people.

Murad I, who was martyred at the battle of Kosova, was an Ottoman sultan who combined the worldly and the spiritual sultanates in his heart. He sets an example for questioning oneself first. Murad found his army in the middle of a stormy battlefield in Kosova. It was so stormy that the line of sight was very short, and there was extraordinary confusion and carnage. Murad prayed two cycles of prayer and sought refuge in Allah. O Lord,” he prayed in tears. “If this stormy weather is because of my sins, please do not punish these sinless soldiers because of me! Please do not let me cause their deaths!” The storm ceased, and his army won a great victory. Afterwards, Murad began to supervise the care of the dead and wounded on the battlefield. During his tour of inspection he was stabbed to death by an injured Serbian soldier.

Society advances, with the help of Allah, only through our questioning and improving ourselves. There are, of course, exceptions to prove the rule. For example, Allah sent messengers to introduce reform when the masses went astray. Thus, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was sent expressly to transform a merciless and quasi-wild society that worshipped idols and buried its daughters alive. This was a blessing from Allah. It is not possible to explain this intervention of Allah by examining the nature of pre-Islamic Arab society. The only explanation for the manifestation of divine law is Allah’s grace.

We cannot, however, expect a new door of that sort of blessing to be opened. After the coming of the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad (pbuh), the sending of messengers was complete. Now human beings are left with the mission of improving spiritually by ourselves.

We have plenty of opportunities to improve ourselves spiritually. One of our priorities in this respect should be to enliven our institutions for the education of future leaders. A wise person observed, “The most important difference between major nations and minor ones is the existence of a group of well-educated people.” It requires a group of thoroughly educated people to satisfy a society both materially and spiritually. Only the properly educated can eliminate terror and establish a just society.

All human enterprises take shape and gain importance according to the personalities and characters of those who move them forward. Only individuals of good character and strong personality are qualified to lead masses of people well. Only great leaders can bring out the greatness of a society. Therefore it should be our top priority to educate such future leaders. The late Turkish poet Necip Fazıl said in this regard, “A tree that does not sprout is nothing but dead wood.” And friend of Allah remarked, “Give birth to the ones you need!”

Muslims need to prepare new generations with firm faith, awareness of history, and readiness to serve the Ummah. Otherwise, it is a divine law that Allah will take back the blessings previously granted. The chronicles of other nations offer vivid witness to this principle on many of their pages.

If we first of all engrave love of Allah and His messenger in our own hearts, we will be able to educate a new generation of leaders who love them also, and who will be capable of making sacrifices for the nation. Only then will society be able to observe how real Muslim identity may be established.

May our Lord grant that Muslim leaders in all governing bodies, high and low, develop a keen and responsible awareness of their task! May Allah help us all to bring up faithful generations who will work earnestly to advance society both materially and spiritually, serving our nation and all Muslims throughout the world!


[1]       Rahman/55: 7-8

[2]       al-Suyuti, al-Jami` al-Saghir, II, 82.

[3]       al-Hakim, III, 156/4698.

[4]       Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Manaqib, 223.

[5]       Ahmet Cevdet Paşa, Kısas-ı Enbiya ve Tevarih-i Hulefa, İstanbul, 1976, I, 717; Tabari, Tarikh al-Umam wal-Muluk, Cairo 1939, V, 266-267.

[6]       Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Manaqib, 266.

[7]       al-Suyuti, Tarikh al-Khulafa’, 130.

[8]       Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-Kharaj, Bulak 1302, p. 3-4.