If we consider the history of the Arab world, a single piece of writing emerges as an important asset on the political front; the writing of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. His father, Abu Talib, who raised and supported Muhammad himself, also encouraged the same principles in his own children. The relationship between Ali and Muhammad, though they were thirty years apart, is best described by Ali: ‘Certainly, you know my position of close kinship and special relationship with the Prophet of Allah (pbuh)’. (Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 190). When Muhammad announced his Prophethood, Ali was the first to stand by him, ’surely the first to testify him’ (Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 37), and continued to show him lifelong support. It is no surprise, then, that Ali is considered the successor to Prophet Muhammad in his knowledge., both ‘masters of speaking’ (Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 230).
His knowledge was not only theological, but political. In his four and a half years of governance, he did not only teach principles of governance and justice but enacted them. Equally, these principles would be passed to many members of his government, the most prominent of which would be in a letter to Malik Ashtar, upon his appointment as the governor of Egypt.
This letter is recorded in many texts, one of which is in the compilation of sermons, letters and short sayings collected by Syed Razi (AH 970-1017), given the name of the Nahjul Balagha. The letter, oft numbered ‘Letter 53’, is considered by many ‘an ingenious treasure’ (Jonas Feller, Just Governance, pg. 38).
Within this book, we present the English translation of this letter, a source of inspiration as an ideal constitution for Islamic governance. The content serves to detail the duties and rights of the ruler and various members of the state as well as multiple classes of society. It builds upon the foundation of the prophetic ‘Constitution of Madina’ but is by no means limited to the Islamic faith alone. Instead, it reads as a universally applicable statement of ethics as much as politics.
Applicable to this day, its universality is exemplified in its many appearances in general political commentary. Consider, for example, the speech of Kofi Annan of the United Nations in December 1997:
Imam Ali, the fourth Khalifa after Prophet Muhammed, instructed the governor of Egypt to rule with mercy and tolerance towards all his subjects:
"... Let the dearest of your treasuries be the treasury of righteous action... Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness for your subjects. Be not in the face of them a voracious animal, counting them as easy prey, for they are of two kinds: either they are your brothers in religion or your equals in creation."
The letter would be highlighted again by the United Nations, in its ‘Arab Human Development Report 2002’, outlining one of six principles of governance from Imam Ali:
‘Choose the best among your people to administer justice among them. Choose someone who does not easily give up, who is unruffled by enmities, someone who will not persist in wrongdoing, who will not hesitate to pursue right once he knows it, someone whose heart knows no greed, who will not be satisfied with a minimum of explanation without seeking the maximum of understanding, who will be the most steadfast when doubt is cast, who will be the least impatient in correcting the opponent, the most patient in pursuing the truth, the most stern in meting out judgment; someone who is una by flattery and not swayed by temptation and these are but few.’
Aside from global organisations, the letter has also garnered attention from academics and writers. The Christian Lebanese historian and author of the widely acclaimed book, ‘The Voice of Human Justice’, George Jordac, writes:
‘There is no chapter in the charter of the U.N. which is not running parallel to the rules laid down by Ali. In fact better and more useful things are found in the instructions given by him….
Firstly, the charter of the United Nations was drafted by thousands of intellectuals belonging to almost all the countries of the world whereas the Alavi rules were enunciated by only one person viz. Ali son of Abu Talib.
Secondly Ali arrived in this world fourteen hundred years ago.
Thirdly those who drafted the U.N. charter or in fact collected the requisite material for it indulged in too much extravagant talk and self-praise and boasted that world was indebted to them on this account. On the contrary Ali showed humility before God and was modest before the people. He did not seek greatness or superiority. He always prayed to God and also wished the people that his acts of commissions and omissions might be overlooked.
The fourth reason for the difference which is more important than the three enumerated above is that many nations, out of those which participated in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and endorsed it, violated this declaration and started armed conflicts to nullify and destroy it, but wherever Ali placed his foot, and whenever he said anything, or unsheathed his sword, he did so to destroy tyranny and oppression and leveled the ground to march forward on the path of truth and justice. So much so that he met his martyrdom in defence of human rights, although during his lifetime he had already been martyred thousands of times.’ (The Voice of Human Justice page 137).
As aforementioned, this translation is based partly upon the translation of Rashid Turabi, a renowned scholar of the Indian subcontinent, commissioned to do so by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah following the 1947 independence of Pakistan.
From the birth of a new state to a global plea for justice, the following letter has enduring applications, relevant even to the modern day.
Written for Malik al-Ashtar an-Nakha'i, when the position of Muhammad bin Abi Bakr had become disturbed, and Imam had appointed Ashtar as Governor of Egypt and surrounding areas; it is the longest document and contains the greatest number of beautiful sayings.
In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
This is what Allah's servant, Ali, Ameerul Momineen, has ordered Malik bin al-Harith al-Ashtar in his instrument (of appointment) for him, when he made him Governor of Egypt for the collection of its revenues, fighting against its enemies, seeking the good of its people and making its cities prosperous. He has ordered him to fear Allah, to prefer obedience to Him, and to follow what He has commanded in His Book (Quran) out of His obligatory and recommended commands, which, without following, one cannot achieve virtue, nor (can one) be evil, save by opposing them and ignoring them, and to help Allah the Glorified, with his heart, hand and tongue, because Allah whose name is Sublime takes the responsibility for helping him who helps Him, and for protecting him who gives Him support. He also orders him to break his heart off from passions, and to restrain it at the time of their increase, because the heart leads towards evil unless Allah has mercy.
Be it known to you, O Malik, that I am sending you as Governor to a land which, in the past, has experienced both just and unjust rule. Men will scrutinise your actions with a searching eye, as you used to scrutinise the actions of those before you and speak of you even as you did speak of them. Surely, the virtuous are known by the reputation that Allah circulates for them through the tongues of His creatures. Hence, the richest treasure that you may covet should be the treasure of good deeds. Keep your desires under control and deny yourself that which you have been prohibited from, for, by such abstinence alone, you will be able to distinguish between what is good to them and what is not.
Develop in your heart the feeling of love for your people and let it be the source of kindliness and blessing to them. Do not stand over them like greedy beasts, who feel it is enough to devour them. Remember that the citizens of the state are of two categories. They are either your brethren in religion or your brethren in kind. They are subject to infirmities and liable to commit mistakes. Some indeed do commit mistakes. But forgive them as you would like God to forgive you. Bear in mind that you are placed over them, as I am placed over you. And then there is God even above him, who has given you the position of a Governor in order that you may look after those under you and be sufficient unto them. And you will be judged by what you do for them.
Do not set yourself against God, for neither do you possess the strength to shield yourself against His displeasure, nor can you place yourself outside the pale of His mercy and forgiveness. Do not feel sorry over any act of forgiveness, nor rejoice over any punishment that you may mete out to anyone. Do not act hastily during anger if you can find a way out of it.
Do not say: “I am your overlord and dictator, and that you should, therefore, bow to my commands”, as that will corrupt your heart, weaken your faith in religion, and create disorder in the state. Should you be elated by power, don’t ever feel in your mind the slightest symptoms of pride and arrogance, then look at the power and majesty of the Divine governance of the Universe over which you have absolutely no control. This will curb your haughtiness, cure you of your high temper and bring back to you your wisdom which had gone away from you. Beware! Never put yourself against the majesty and grandeur of God, and never imitate His omnipotence, for God has brought low every rebel of God and every tyrant of man.
Let your mind respect through your actions, the rights of God and the rights of man, and likewise, persuade your companions and relations to do likewise. For otherwise, you will be doing injustice to yourself and injustice to humanity. Thus, both man and God will turn unto your enemies. There is no hearing anywhere for one who makes an enemy of God himself. He will be regarded as one at war with God until he feels contrition and seeks forgiveness. Nothing deprives man of divine blessings or excites divine wrath against him more easily than cruelty. Hence, it is that God listens to the voice of the oppressed and waylays the oppressor.
The way most sought-after by you should be that which is the most rightful and which is the most universal, by the way of justice and achieves the satisfaction of the majority. The discontent of the masses sterilises the contentment of the privileged few, and the discontent of the few loses itself in the contentment of the many. Remember the privileged few will be more burdensome to the ruler in the comfort of life, they will not rally round you in moments of difficulty: they will try to side-track justice, they will ask for more than what they deserve and will show no gratitude for favours done to them. They will feel restive in the face of trials and will offer no regret for their shortcomings. It is the common man who is the pillar of religion, the power of the Muslims and the defence against the enemies. So, live in close contact with the masses and be mindful of their welfare.
The one among people who should be kept at a distance from you and is the worst of them in your view is he who peers into the weaknesses of others. After all, the masses are not free from weaknesses. It is the duty of the ruler to shield them. Do not bring to light that which is hidden, but try to remove those weaknesses which have been brought to light. God is watchful of everything that is hidden from you, and He alone will deal with it. To the best of your ability, cover the weaknesses of the public, and God will cover the weaknesses in you which you are anxious to keep away from their eyes. Unloose the tangle of hatred in the public and cut away from yourself the cause of every enmity. Feign ignorance from what is not clear to you. Do not make haste in seeking confirmation of tale-telling, for the tale-teller is a deceitful person appearing in the garb of a friend.
Never take counsel of a miser, for he will hold you back in your magnanimity and frighten you of poverty. Do not take the counsel of a coward also, for he will weaken your resolve. Do not take counsel of the greedy, for he will instil greed in you and turn you into a tyrant. Miserliness, cowardice and greed deprive man of his trust in God.
The worst of counsellors is he who has served as a counsellor to unjust rulers and shared in their crimes. So, never let men who have been companions of tyrants or shared their crimes be your counsellors. You can get better men than these, men gifted with intelligence and foresight but unpolluted by sin, men who have never aided a tyrant in his tyranny or a criminal in his crime. Such men will never be a burden on you. On the other hand, they will always be a source of help and strength to you. They will be most considerate towards you, and the least inclined towards others. Choose such men alone for companionship, both in privacy and in the public. Even among these, show preference to them who have a habitual regard for truth, however trying to you at times their truth may prove to be, and who offer you no encouragement in the display of tendencies which God does not like His friends to develop, even though they may be according to your wishes.
Keep close to you the upright and the God fearing, and make clear to them that they are never to flatter you and never to give you credit for any good that you may not have done: for, the tolerance of flattery and unhealthy praise stimulates pride in man and makes him arrogant.
Do not treat the good and the bad alike. That will deter the good from doing good and encourage the bad in their bad pursuits. Keep everyone in the position which is his due. You should know that the most conducive thing for the good impression of the ruler on his subjects is that he should extend benevolence towards them, lighten their hardships and avoid putting them through unbearable troubles. So, cultivate goodwill amongst the people, for their goodwill alone will save you from troubles. Your benevolence to them will be repaid by their trust in you, and your ill-treatment by their ill-will.
Do not disregard the noble traditions established by our forbearers, which have promoted harmony and progress among the people; do not initiate anything which might minimize their usefulness. The men who had established these noble traditions have had their rewards, but the responsibility will be yours if they are disturbed. Try always to learn something from the experience of the learned and the wise, and frequently consult them in state matters so that you might maintain the peace and goodwill which your predecessors had established in the land.
Remember that the people are composed of different classes. The progress of one is dependent on the progress of the other, and none can afford to be independent of the other. We have the Army formed of the soldiers of God. We have our civil officers and the secretaries, our judiciary, those engaged in law and order, our revenue collectors from the other subjects and the common Muslims, traders and the men of industry, and then the lowest class of the needy and the destitute. God has prescribed for them their rights, duties and obligations. They are all defined and preserved in the Holy Quran and in the traditions of his Prophet.
The army, by the grace of God, is like a fortress to the people and lends dignity to the state. It upholds the prestige of the faith and maintains the peace of the country. Without it the state cannot stand. In its turn, it cannot stand without the support of the state. Our soldiers have proved strong before the enemy because of the privilege God has given them to fight for Him; but they have their material needs to fulfil and have therefore to depend upon the income provided for them from the state revenue. The military and the civil population who pay revenue, both need the co-operation of others – the judiciary, civil officers and the secretaries, who pass judgements about contracts, collect revenues and are depended upon in special and general matters. And these classes cannot exist except with the traders and the men of industry who provide necessities for them, establish markets and meet the needs which others cannot provide for themselves.
And then there is the lowest class of the poor and the needy, whose support and help is an obligation on the other classes. Allah has provided sustenance for every one of them. Every class has a right on the ruler according to what is needed for his prosperity. The ruler cannot fulfil his duty from God properly except by striving, seeking help from God, adhering himself to the right and doing so with patience, with all that is light or hard.
Put in command of your forces the man who in your view is staunchly faithful to their God, their Prophet and your Imam, most chaste of them in heart, the highest of them in tolerance, one who is slow in getting enraged, amenable to pardon, kind to the weak and demonstrates firmness against the strong. Provocation should not raise his temper and weakness should not hold him back.
Keep yourself in close contact with people from families of established reputation, virtuous households and glorious traditions. And then people of courage, valour, generosity and benevolence; for such are the salt of society and the springs of virtue.
Care for them with the tenderness with which parents care for their children, and do not consider anything that you do to strengthen them as too great nor consider anything you have agreed to do for them as insignificant, even though it may be small, because this will make them your well-wishers and create a good impression of you.
Attend to every little of their wants, not resting content with helping them with major necessities, for sometimes timely attention to a little want of theirs brings them immense relief, though their major necessities are such that they cannot be ignored.
From amongst the commanders of your army, the one who should have the highest position is he who renders help to his soldiers equitably and spends from his money on them, and on those of their families who remain behind, so all their worries converge on the one worry of fighting the enemy. Your kindness to them will turn their hearts to you.
The fact is that the real happiness of the administrators and their most pleasant comfort lies in establishing justice in the state and the manifestation of the love of their subjects, but the subjects’ love manifests itself only when their hearts are pure. Their sincerity and faithfulness will be proved if they gather around you to support your government, when they bear your authority without considering it an unbearable burden on their heads and when they do not constantly wish your rule to come to an end.
Continue to satisfy their needs, praise them and recount the good deeds of those who have shown such deeds. The mention of such good actions will inspire the brave to braver actions and induce the timid to deeds of bravery, God willing.
Appreciate the performance of every one of them, do not attribute the performance of one to the other, and do not minimize the reward below the level of the performance. See to it you do not show favours to one who has done nothing but merely counts on his family position, and do not withhold proper rewards from one who has done great deeds simply because he holds a low position in life.
Turn to God and to His prophet for guidance whenever you feel uncertain as to what you must do and matters which appear confusion to you. There is the commandment of God delivered to those people whom He wishes to guide aright: “O people of the Faith! Obey God and obey His Prophet and those from among you who hold authority over you. And refer to God and His Prophet whenever there is difference of opinion among you.” To turn to God is, in reality, to consult the Book of God; and to turn to the prophet is to follow his universally accepted traditions.
Select as your Chief Judge from the people, one who is by far the best among them – one who is not obsessed with worries, one who is not enraged by disputes, one who does not insist on a wrong decision, one who is not burdened by accepting the true path, one who is not self-centred or avaricious, one who will not decide before knowing full facts, one who will weigh with care every attendant doubt and pronounce a clear verdict after taking everything into full consideration, one who will not grow restive over the arguments of advocates and who will examine with patience every new disclosure of fact, one who is most fearless when the judgement becomes clear. Flattery should not make him vain and he should be one who does not exult over his position. But it is not easy to find such men.
Then, very often check his decisions and pay him handsomely enough so that he has no excuse worth hearing, and there remains no occasion for him to go to others for his needs. Give him a position in your court so high none can even dream of coveting it and that he remains safe from the harm of those around you. You should have a piercing eye in this matter, because this religion has formally been a prisoner in the hands of vicious persons when action was taken according to passion and worldly wealth was sought.
Thereafter, give careful consideration to the selection of your civil officers. Appoint them after due trial. Never select men for responsible posts either out of any regard for personal connections or under any influence, for that might lead to injustice and corruption.
Of these, select for higher posts, men of experience, men of modesty, belonging to good families and firm in faith. Such persons possess high manners and untarnished honour. Such men will not fall an easy prey to greed and will discharge their duties with an eye on the consequences. Increase their salaries to give them a contented life. A contented living is a help to self-purification. They will not feel the urge to usurp the earnings of their subordinates for their own upkeep. They will then have no excuse either to go against your instructions or misappropriate state funds. Keep a watch over them, and have people who report on them who should be loyal and upright men. Your watching their actions secretly will urge them to preserve trust and to be kind to the people. Be careful of the treacherous assistants. But, whenever any of them is accused of dishonesty and the guilt is confirmed by the report of your secret service, then regard this as sufficient to convict him. Let the punishment be corporal, recover what he has misappropriated, put him in a place of disgrace, label him as deceitful, make him wear a sign of disrepute for his offence.
Great care is to be exercised in revenue administration, to ensure the prosperity of those who pay the revenue to the state, for the prosperity of others depends on the revenue and its payers. Indeed, the state exists on the revenue and its payers. You should regard the proper upkeep of the land in cultivation as of greater importance than the collection of revenue, for revenue cannot be derived except by making the land productive. He who demands revenue without helping the cultivator to improve his land, inflicts unmerited hardship on the cultivator and ruins the state. The rule of such a person does not last long.
You should remit the revenue in case of complaints of heavy burden of revenue, epidemics, parched streams or lack of rainfall, floods damaging to their crops, drought. Reduce the tax accordingly, so that their condition may improve. Do not mind the loss of revenue, as this investment will return to you one day manifold in the improvement of the condition of your towns, raise the prestige of your state and you will be the object of universal praise. The people will believe in your sense of justice.
The trust you have gained because of the justice and kindness you extended towards them will provide you strength to be used at times of need. After that, circumstances may change that you may have to ask for their assistance which they will bear happily. For a prosperous land can withstand any load.
The ruin of the land is caused by the poverty of the cultivators. The cause of the cultivator’s ruin are the rulers who are bent feverishly on accumulating wealth at all costs, out of the fear that their rule might not last long. Such are the people who do not learn from examples or precedents.
Keep an eye on your establishment and on your scribes. Select the best among them for your confidential correspondence such among these as possess high character and deserve your full confidence, men who may not exploit their privileged position to go against you, do not dare to speak against you in common audiences, are not negligent in presenting communications of your offices before you and issuing correct replies to them on your behalf, do not make any damaging agreement on your behalf and do not fail in repudiating an agreement against you, and who in carrying out their duties can realize their serious position, for he who does not realise his own position can hardly appraise the position of others. Do not select men for such work merely on the strength of your first impressions or your affection or good faith, for as a matter of fact, the pretensions and personal services of a good many who are devoid of honesty and good breeding, may cheat even the intelligence of rulers. You should rather test them by what they did under the virtuous people before you.
In making direct appointments from people, see to it that those selected possess influence with the people and who enjoy the reputation of being honest, for such selection is agreeable both to God and the ruler. For every department of administration, let there be a head, whom no trying task might cause worry and no pressure of work annoy.
And remember, every weakness of any one among your establishment and scribes, which you may overlook, will be written down against you in your scroll of deeds.
Now take some advice about traders and industrialists. Treat businessmen and artisans well and advise others to do likewise. Some of them live in towns, while some move from place to place with their wares and tools, earning their living by manual labour. Trade and industry are sources of profit to the state (and the suppliers of consumer goods). While the general public is not inclined to bear the strain, those engaged in these professions take the trouble to collect commodities from far and near, from land and from across the sea, and from mountains and forests and naturally derive benefits.
It is this class of peace-loving people from whom no disturbance need be feared. They love peace and order; indeed, they are incapable of creating disorder. Visit every part of the country and establish personal contact with this class and inquire into their condition. Know, along with this, most of them are very narrow-minded and awfully avaricious. They hoard grain and try to sell it at a high price, and this is most harmful to the public. It is a blot on the name of the ruler not to fight this evil. Prevent them from hoarding, for the Prophet of God peace be upon him, had prohibited it. See to it, that trade is carried on with the utmost ease, that the scales are evenly held and that prices are so fixed that neither the seller nor the buyer is put to a loss. If, in spite of your warning, should anyone go against your commands and commit the crime of hoarding, then deal him appropriately with severe punishment.
Beware! Fear God when dealing with the problem of the poor who have none to patronise them, the destitute, indigent, helpless and disabled. Among them are some who seek alms and others who, notwithstanding their apparent misery, do not go about seeking alms. For God’s sake, safeguard their rights, for on you rests the responsibility of protection. Fix for them a share from public funds and a share from crops of lands in every area, because in it the remote ones have the same share as near ones. All these people are those whose rights have been placed in your charge. Do not let pride slip them from your mind. Do not treat their interests as of less importance than your own, and never keep them outside the purview of your important consideration, nor turn your face from them out of vanity.
Take care of the affairs of those of them who do not approach you because they are of unsightly appearance or those whom people regard as low. Select from among your officers such men as are meek and God fearing, who can keep you properly informed of the condition of the poor. Make such provision for these poor people as shall not oblige you to offer an excuse before God on the Day of Judgement for, it is this section of the people which, more than any other, deserves benevolent treatment. Seek your reward from God by giving to each of them what is due to him and enjoin on yourself as a sacred duty the task of meeting the needs of such aged and orphans among them, as have no independent means of livelihood and are averse to seeking alms. The discharge of this duty is what usually proves very trying to rulers, although all duties are trying. Allah lightens the burden for those who seek the hereafter and so they endure hardships upon themselves and trust Allah’s promise to them.
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