Leadership and Modesty

Humble leaders become successful and, more importantly, attain the pleasure of Allah Subhanahu wa Taʿala.


Modesty means ‘not to hold high esteem of oneself,’ and ‘not to belittle others.’ It is ‘not to be conceited’ and ‘not to consider oneself superior.’ Arrogance, esteeming oneself better than others, showing off and being conceited are all bad habits.

Our Prophet Sallallāhu Alayhi Wasallam said, “Allah (swt) told me that you should be so humble towards one another that no one should boast to anyone else.” “Whoever is arrogant, Allah will bring him down low and whoever is humble out of respect and reverence to Allah (swt), Allah raises him up.”

Modest leaders are among the most beloved servants before Allah (swt). Our Prophet (saw) said: “The just and humble governor is the shade and spear of Allah upon the earth. His deeds are raised to the degree of seventy siddiq (truthful)’s deeds.”1

Prophet Muhammad and Modesty

Our blessed Prophet (saw) and Angel Jabrail Alayhissalam were sitting together. Our Prophet looked into the sky and saw an angel descending. Jabrail said, “This is an angel who has never descended to the earth since its creation.” That angel came to our Prophet and said: O Muhammad! Your Lord has sent me to you; and He asks, “Do you want Me to make you a King Prophet or a Servant Prophet?” Jabrail said to our Prophet, “O Muhammad, be modest for your Lord’s sake.” Whereupon our Prophet said, “I want to be a Servant Prophet, indeed.”2

Our prophet was a very modest man. He did not want his companions to stand up to show their respect for him when he came upon them. He did not have a special seat to sit in gatherings. He used to sit wherever he finds empty. When someone who did not know him joined in the gathering used to think he was one of the companions.

One day a man started to tremble out of fear in his presence. Realizing this, the messenger of Allah said, “Calm down, I am not a king. I am the son of a Quraishi woman who used to eat dried meat.”3

Our Prophet did not discriminate people as wealthy and poor, or free and slave; he used to value every person. This manner of him helped some people to become Muslim.

When the son of Hatim al-Tai, Adiy, came into the presence of the Prophet, he placed a cushion for Adiy to sit on and our Prophet sit on the ground. Seeing the modesty of the Prophet, Adiy said “I testify that you do not long for lordship or malice on the earth.” And he became a Muslim.

Caliph Abu Bakr and Modesty

Four great caliphs of our Prophet were modest people too. They never became conceited because of their position.

Abu Bakr Radhiallahu ʿanhu, who is the most virtuous after the prophets, said the following in his first sermon after he became the caliph:

“O people, I have been selected to rule over you though I am not the most worthy among you. Help me if I am in the right; set me right if I am in the wrong. The weak among you shall be strong with me till insha Allah his rights have been vindicated; and the strong among you (if they are unjust) shall be weak with me till, if Allah wills, I have taken what is due from him. If a nation gives up the struggle in the way of Allah (swt), He makes them despicable. If fornication and evil prevail among a society, Allah send a disaster to them. When you see that I am steadfast and obey Allah and His Prophet; then obey me, when you see that I turn aside from the right path, do not obey me. May Allah’s mercy be unto you.”4

Muslim American writer Hisham at-Talib asks, “If you were elected Khalifah, what would you add or take out from this speech of Abu Bakr (ra)?”5 This is such a speech that there is not a single sentence to be added or taken out. Still, how many leaders are there today to say, ‘I have been selected to rule over you though I am not the most worthy among you.’?

Some might think, “If I were not worthy (of ruling), Allah (swt) would not make me to rule.” However, Pharaohs and Nimrods, who declared themselves deities, ruled over people in the past. Moreover, corrupted people like Yazid became Khalifah as well. People who are known with their extreme tyranny like Hajjaj bin Yusuf (The Tyrant) became the rulers of Muslims.

Someone who has become an administrator must give up arrogance and consider the administration to be a matter of test. “Will I be able to make the best of this position or carry out my duties properly?” he should ask himself and feel the fear. As the reward of administration is great, the punishment is severe, too.

Imam Bediuzzaman Said Nursi addresses his nafs (lower self) as follows:

“O my conceited nafs! You resemble a grape-vine. Don’t be proud! The vine did not attach bunches of grapes itself. Someone else attached them to it. O my hypocritical nafs! Do not become vain, saying: “I have served religion.” According to the meaning of the saying, ‘Allah strengthens this religion by means of sinful men;’ it was because you were not purified. Indeed, you should know yourself to be such a sinful man, and that your duty and worship is thanks for past bounties, the function of your nature, the obligation of your creation, and the result of art; know this and be saved from vanity and hypocrisy!”6

Caliph Omar and Modesty

Omar Radhiallahu ʿanhu was a man of discipline and dignity. For this reason everyone was afraid of him. However, he was a very modest person. That is why people used to both love him and did not hesitate to tell him strait to his face what they thought was right. People knew that the Caliph would not get angry at them when they were right, and he would not oppose their idea but accept it.

One day Omar (ra) was addressing people. He told them not to increase the mahr (a mandatory required amount of money or possessions paid by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage for her exclusive use). But one woman opposed: O Omar! You don’t have any right to talk like this. Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an, ‘If you have given one of them (even so much as amounts to) a treasure (as mahr), do not take back anything thereof.’ (Nisa, 4:20)” And Omar (ra) said upon this: A woman debated with Omar, and she defeated him. He gave up the idea of doing what he had wanted. It is narrated that he said, “Woman knew better than Omar (about this).”

Had Omar been a conceited man, he would have scolded that woman, silenced her, and even punished her. On the contrary, he accepted his mistake in front of people and said, “Woman knew better than Omar.”

Some conceited administrators think that accepting one’s mistake will tarnish their authority; thus, they try to present themselves as infallible. They never want their mistakes to be revealed. However, this causes widespread resentment among the society; and it harms their authority as a result. Those who see their faults and resort to fixing them, on the other hand, gain the love of the people and restore the authority. Our Prophet said, “Whoever is humble, Allah raises him up; and whoever is arrogant, Allah will bring him down low.”7

Omar (ra) was one of those who restore their authorities with modesty. Hasan al-Basri, a great imam from the tabi’in, narrated the following:

One man came and said to Omar (ra), “O Omar! Beware of Allah,” and he continued to talk for a while. Upon that, one of the people present there said, “Give it a rest! You talked too much (and disturbed the leader of Muslims).” However, Omar (ra) said: Let him speak. If they do not talk (and say the truth), there is no khair (goodness) in them. And if we do not accept the truths they speak, there is no khair (goodness) in us.8

It is shocking that a man in the street comes to Omar (ra), whom everybody is afraid of because of his discipline, and says “O Omar! Beware of Allah.” That man built up his courage to talk like that only thanks to the modesty and justness of Omar (ra). And it is astonishing indeed that Omar (ra) did not get angry at the man; on the contrary, he prevented the other man stopping the man speaking. Which Muslim leader would act like that today?

When conceited and oppressive people govern countries, people are afraid of their administrators. And communication problems between subordinates and seniors emerge. This leads to greater problems in the future. Troubles increase and grow. Even the small problems, which can easily be solved at the beginning, turn to be big troubles impossible to overcome.

Fear destroys the communication among people. Modest leaders are open to the ideas of others. Breaking the fear barrier is only possible because of their modesty.

One day Omar (ra) was passing by Decran area close by Makka. Looking around that place he said, “O my Lord! How great You are! Once I used to shepherd camels around these parts. When I got too tired and kneeled down, my father would beat me. But today I am at the highest rank. I am ruling over the Muslims; and not bowing to anyone but Allah (swt).”9

Omar (ra), who was a shepherd when he was young, did not get conceited saying “I worked hard and I deserved to be a caliph, and I got this high rank,” when he became the Caliph. He regarded it as a favour and blessing of Allah (swt).

Today many administrators claim that they have been assigned to their positions by their own efforts. This naturally causes pride and arrogance.

Caliph Ali and Modesty

When he was a governor, Ali Radhiallahu ʿanhu used to walk in the bazaar alone, help and give directions to those got lost, assist the weak, stop by those shopping and recite the verse “As for the abode of the Hereafter, We will assign it to those who do not seek arrogant power on earth nor cause corruption and disorder. The (truly desirable) outcome is for the pious.” (Qasas, 28:83) And “This verse was revealed about the people who have more power than others and rule with justice and modesty,” he would explain.10

Modesty and Help of Allah

Modest leaders find people who will help them when they are in need; but their greatest helper is Allah (swt). Arrogant and conceited people are deprived of the grace and help of Allah (swt). Muslims’ defeat in the Battle of Hunayn is a striking example of this.

An unprecedented number of Muslim troops had gathered for the Battle of Hunayn. This boosted some Muslims’ pride; and they became conceited and said, “This army is invincible.”  In order to show that it is Him Who makes the Prophet victorious, Allah (swt) made the Muslim army face losses at the beginning of the battle, and then He saved them from defeat.

This is mentioned in the Qur’an: “Allah has already given you victory in many regions and [even] on the day of Hunayn, when your great number pleased you, but it did not avail you at all, and the earth was confining for you with [in spite of] its vastness; then you turned back, fleeing.” (Tawbah, 9:25)

This verse is evidence that the conceited people will lack the grace and help of Allah (swt) and be among the losers. There is another incident about this issue:

Sultan Alparslan was martyred by a castle commander. It is reported that he said just before being a martyr: “Whenever I wage war against my enemy I used to ask for the favour of Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala.  When I climbed a hill yesterday, I felt like the earth beneath my feet was shaking because of the large numbers of my soldiers and the munitions of my army. I intensely felt proud of the power. “I am the sultan of the world. Who can defeat me,” I told myself. But today Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala made me helpless by the hand of a most helpless person.” And he repented.11 [May Allah’s mercy be upon him]

There were a group of people who called out to the Ottoman Sultans “O my Sultan! Long live!” However, just next to that group there were also a group of people who called out “O my Sultan! Do not be proud! Allah is greater than you.”

Conceited administrators claim all the credit for the successes and winnings. This makes them even more conceited. Moreover, they always hold their subordinates and staff responsible for the defeats and failures. Modest leaders, on the other hand, know that they are responsible for the defeat and failure; and the success and victory are first the grace of Allah (swt) and are the results of the efforts of the people around them.

The best leader is the one who can say “We did it!” when a success is achieved, and say “It is my fault!” when a failure occurs.

Imam Bediuzzaman Said Nursi comments on this issue as follows:

“The upper-class gets the credit for the goodness and honour when something is accomplished; but when a failure occurs the lower-class is held responsible for the mistakes. For instance, if an army defeats its enemy, glory and honour are due to the commander, not to the troops. However, if the army gets defeated, the troops are held responsible, not the commander. For example, when a tribe does something honourable, the leader is praised saying “Well done, Hasan Aga!” On the other hand, if the tribe does something bad, the entire tribe is denigrated saying “What a disgraceful tribe!”

Imam Said Nursi was banished to a remote village. Despite extreme difficulties the movement he started with a few students in that village reached to 500 thousand people in just 20 years. Imam Nursi never claimed the credit for this success; instead he gave the credit to his students. He comments on this as follows:

“O my brothers and friends in the service of Qur’an! Just as it would be wrong and unjust to give the honour and entire spoils to the commander of a squad which conquered a castle, it is not true to give all the blessings of the successful services to someone weak like me. It is accomplished because of your collective personality and pens.”12

References:

  1. Kanzu’l-‘Ummal, v.6, p.6
  2. Musnad Ahmad, v.2, p.231
  3. Kanzu’l-‘Ummal, v.6
  4. MuhammadYusuf Kandhlawi, Hayatus Sahabah, Akçag Publication, 2/63-64. – Kanz al Ummal, v.5, p.600
  5. Hisham al Talib, Educational Guide for Islamic Da’wa Volunteers, Koba Publication, 1993, p.59
  6. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Talismans, p.91
  7. Hindi, Kanz al-‘ummal, vol. 3, p.113
  8. Imam Abu Yusuf, Kitab ul Kharaj, Hisar Publication, 2nd Edition, p.40
  9. Ekrem Sagıroglu, Omar (ra), Yasin Publication, p.16, 276,
  10. Kanzu’l-‘Ummal
  11. Cevdet Pasha, The Stories of the Prophets, Bedir Publication, v.2, p.244
  12. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Letters, p.252

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