Quranic Reflection No 629. Āyat 2: 247 – False criteria for leadership

Bismillāh. 19 May 2023/28 Shawwāl 1444.

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قَالُوا أَنَّىٰ يَكُونُ لَهُ الْمُلْكُ عَلَيْنَا وَنَحْنُ أَحَقُّ بِالْمُلْكِ مِنْهُ وَلَمْ يُؤْتَ سَعَةً مِّنَ الْمَالِ

They said, “How can he have kingship over us while we are more worthy of kingship than him and he has not been given any measure of wealth?”

(Sūrat al-Baqarah, No. 2, Āyat 247)

When Prophet Samuel ‘alayhis-salām told his people that Allah ‘azza wajall had chosen Tālūt (Saul) to be their leader, they protested in the above words. They thought that wealth and lineage were important criteria for leadership. Tālūt had neither. He was not from the tribe of Levi from whom their prophets had come. Nor was he from the tribe of Prophet Yūsuf ‘alayhis-salām from whom their past leaders had also come. Also, he was a poor farmer. The people thought they themselves were more fit to be king than he was as they had more wealth.

Tālūt was a strong person both in his body and his soul. He was tall and physically strong. He was also a firm believer and had wisdom and piety. He was not very well known and lived with his father in a small village near the river. It is interesting to note how Prophet Samuel and Tālūt met for the first time and how the Prophet recognized signs of greatness in him. Tālūt worked on his father’s farm and looked after the animals. One day some of them wandered away. In his search for them Tālūt reached the place where Prophet Samuel was. As soon as the Prophet and Tālūt saw each other, there was an instant connection. The Prophet knew immediately that this was the man whom God had chosen to be the King of his people. The Prophet told Tālūt that the animals were on their way back to the farm and he should not be worried about them. ‘I want to invite you towards a much bigger task’ he told him. ‘God wants you to be the king of people and lead them to victory’. Tālūt was amazed at this but was pleased that God had chosen him. He accepted the position.

Although the people themselves had asked the Prophet to choose a king for them, their protest at his choice – though it was Allah’s choice, not his – shows their lack of understanding of who truly is a good leader. Leadership is necessary in society for political, social, and religious matters. A leader is a source of unity and assistance in a society. But leadership requires certain criteria. The person who leads others must be a virtuous character and should have worked on himself. Amīrul Mu’minīn Imam Ali (a) says: Whoever places himself as a leader of the people should commence with educating his own self before educating others; and his teaching should be by his own conduct before teaching by the tongue. (Nahjul Balāghah, Saying 73).

Our Imams were leaders who were chosen by God and were the best in piety, knowledge, and good qualities. The criteria for their leadership were not based on worldly qualities. An incident from the life of Imam Ja‘far al-Sādiq (a) whose martyrdom we commemorated this week shows how they led by example. During the days of scarcity, when people tried to hoard food and other goods, the Imam asked his household manager Mu‘tab, ‘The price of corn is rising day by day. How much corn is there in our warehouse?’ Mu‘tab replied that the Imam should not worry as there was a large quantity of corn in store. The Imam replied, ‘Give it away to the poor and let us face the situation along with others.’  Then he (a) ordered that pure white wheat flour should not be used in his kitchen and should be mixed with equal quantities of oat flour. ‘We must share misfortune with the needy and the poor as long as it takes, advised the Holy Imam.

The above verse shows how people often are mistaken in their criteria for leadership. We must not fall for such false criteria. Leaders are responsible for taking people towards God and should have the qualities that equips them for that role.

Sources: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh.