The Ruler and Society (1)

The Ruler and Society (1)

Professing God's Unity and accepting Muhammad (PBUH&HP) as His prophet bring in their wake innumerable consequences. If the Quran is God's Word and Muhammad His chosen messenger (PBUH&HP) who "speaks out not of caprice"(1) their instructions concerning all things must be obeyed. Faced with these facts of their faith, the Muslims soon developed a complicated science of the Shari'ah or Divine Law, a science that embraces every dimension of human conduct, including the political.
One of the earliest and best expositions of Islam's explicit and implicit instructions concerning government and its role in society is 'Ali's instructions to Malik ibn al-Harith al-Nakha'i, surnamed al-Ashtar ("the man with inverted eyelashes") because of a wound he received in battle. He was one of the foremost Muslim warriors in the first few years of Islam's spread and one of 'Ali's staunchest supporters. He advised 'Ali against making a truce with Mu'awiyah at the battle of Siffn and was poisoned on his way to assume his post as governor of Egypt in the year 37/658 or 38/659, shortly after 'Ali became caliph following the assassination of 'Uthman.(2)

Since these instructions form part of 'Ali's Nahj al-balaghah, they have been discussed by all the more than 100 commentators on the text. I have made extensive use of two of the most famous of the commentaries. The first is by Ibn Abi-l-Hadid (d. 655/1257), a historian who was attached to the Abbasid court in Baghdad. His commentary is one of the earliest, and because of its thoroughness and exactitude forms the basis for many of the later commentaries. The second is by Ibn Maytham al-Bahrani, a well-known Shi'ite scholar and theologian who died in 679/1282-3. In addition I have profited from the glosses of the nineteenth century reformer Muhammad 'Abduh (d. 1905) and one or two other modern Commentaries which are mentioned in the notes.
Imam 'Ali's Instructions to Malik al-Ashtar

Imam Ali (PBUH) wrote these instructions to al-Ashtar al-Nakha'i when he appointed him governor of Egypt and its provinces at the time the rule of Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr was in turmoil. It is the longest set of instructions (in the Nahjal-balaghah). Among all his letters it embraces the largest number of good qualities.

Part One: Introduction (3)  
This is that with which Imam Ali (PBUH) the servant of God and Commander of the Faithful, charged Malik ibn al-Harith al-Ashtar in his instructions to him when he appointed him governor of Egypt: to collect its land tax,(4) to war against its enemies, to improve the condition of the people and to engender prosperity in its regions. He charged him to fear God, to prefer obedience to Him (over all else) and to follow what He has directed in His Book-both the acts He has made obligatory and those He recommends(5) - for none attains felicity but he who follows His directions, and none is overcome by wretchedness but he who denies them and lets them slip by. (He charged him) to help God-glory be to Him-with his heart, his hand and his tongue,(6) for He-majestic is His Name-has promised to help him who exalts Him.(7) In addition, he charged him to break the passions of his soul and restrain it in its recalcitrance, for the soul incites to evil, except inasmuch as God has mercy. (8)

Part Two: Commands and Instructions Concerning Righteous Action in the Affairs of the State
“Know, O Malik, that I am sending you to a land where governments, just and unjust, have existed before you. People will look upon your affairs in the same way that you were wont to look upon the affairs of the rulers before you. They will speak about you as you were wont to speak about those rulers. And the righteous are only known by that which God causes to pass concerning them on the tongues of His servants. So let the dearest of your treasuries be the treasury of righteous action. Control your desire and restrain your soul from what is not lawful to you, for restraint of the soul is for it to be equities in what it likes and dislikes.

Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness for your subjects. Be not in 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. Error catches them unaware, deficiencies overcome them, (evil deeds) are committed by them intentionally and by mistake. So grant them your pardon and your forgiveness to the same extent that you hope God will grant you His pardon and His forgiveness. For you are above them, and he who appointed you is above you, and God is above him who appointed you. God has sought from you the fulfillment of their requirements and He is trying you with them.

Set yourself not up to war against God,(9) for you have no power against His vengeance, nor are you able to dispense with His pardon and His mercy. Never be regretful of pardon or rejoice at punishment, and never hasten (to act) upon an impulse if you can find a better course. Never say, "I am invested with authority, I give orders, and I am obeyed," for surely that is corruption in the heart, enfeeblement of the religion and an approach to changes (in fortune). If the authority you possess engender in your pride or arrogance, then reflect upon the tremendousness of the dominion of God above you and His power over you in that in which you yourself have no control. This will subdue your recalcitrance, restrain your violence, and restore in you what has left you of the power of your reason. Beware of vying with God in His tremendousness and likening yourself to Him in His exclusive power, for God abases every tyrant and humiliates all who are proud.
See that justice is done towards God(10) and justice is done towards the people by yourself, your own family and those whom you favor among your subjects. For if you do not do so, you have worked wrong. In addition, as for him who wrongs the servants of God, God is his adversary, not to speak of His servants. God renders null and void the argument of whosoever contends with Him. Such a one will be God's enemy until he desists or repents. Nothing is more conducive to the removal of God's blessing and the hastening of His vengeance than to continue in wrongdoing, for God harkens to the call of the oppressed and He is ever on the watch against the wrongdoers.(11)

Continue in the Article: ( The Ruler and Society (2) )



1. (53:3)

2. See the article "al-Ashtar" in the new Encyclopedia of Islam.

3. The division into parts and the headings of parts two, three and four are taken from the commentary of Ibn Maytham.

4. The land tax (kharaj) was collected on the basis of the land's produce. See the Encyclopedia of Islam (new edition), vol. 3, pp. I030-s6.

5. Fara'id wa sunan. The first very often refer to those acts which are commanded by God-such as the five daily prayers, fasting during the month of Ramadan, etc.-in which case they are contrasted with the sunan, meaning the commands of the Prophet, which are divided into the commands he gave orally (qawl), the acts he performed (fi'l) and the acts he allowed others to perform without criticizing or protesting (iqrar). Here, however, since both kinds of acts are said to be mentioned in the Quran, the meaning is as translated.

6. 'With his heart', or through firm belief; 'with his hand', or through holy war and exertion in His path; and 'with his tongue', or through speaking the truth, commanding the good and forbidding the evil" (Ibn Abi-l-Hadid, vol. I7, p. 3I)

7. Cf. Quran (47:7)"O believers, if you help God, He will help you and confirm your feet", and other similar verses, such as (22:40).

8. Nearly a direct quotation from Quran (12:53) "Surely the soul incites to evil, except inasmuch as my Lord has mercy."

9. "I.e., oppose Him not through acts of disobedience" (Ibn Abi-l-Hadid, vol I7, p- 33)

10. "I.e., Perform for Him the worship which He has made encumbent upon you and the requirements of intelligence and tradition" (Ibn Abi-l-Hadid, vol. I7, p- 35)-

11. Cf. Quran (91: I4): "Surely the Lord is ever on the watch."