How to Lead People Justly and Fairly – A Letter of Caliph Ali bin Abu Talib to Malik Al-Ashtar

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“Know, O Malik, that I am sending you to a land that has been through many regimes, both just and unjust. People will look at your administration with the same critical eye with which you have looked upon previous administrations, and will speak of you in the same way as you have spoken of those other rulers before you….

Remember that righteous men are recognised by what God utters about them through the voice of His creatures.

Let your most cherished treasure be your accommodation of good deeds, and this treasure can be collected only through keeping your desires under control, abstain from what is not permitted to you, no matter how ardently you may desire it.

For those placed under your rule, cultivate compassion, kindness and love; do not become a predatory beast, seeking to devour them and regarding that your success. Among them there will be two categories of persons; those who will be your brethren in faith, and those who are nonetheless God’s creatures, like you and liable to mistakes…extend to them forbearance and forgiveness as you seek it yourself from God. Do not exult in meting out punishment. Do not act precipitately when in anger; try instead to avoid and suppress anger.

Never say to the subject people that ‘I am your lord and ruler and you must bow down to my command’. Such an attitude will corrupt your heart, weaken your faith and invite disorder and destruction. And if authority and power breed in you pride and arrogance, call to mind the might and majesty of God above you…thus will your arrogance be curbed and your wayward senses recover the right path.

Do not challenge the might of God and do not ever doubt His sovereignty, for He humbles the proud and humiliates the arrogant. When dealing with matters concerning yourself or your close relatives or those among your subjects for whom you have a liking, remember to observe justice with God and with mankind. Otherwise you will tend to tyranny and oppression….Nothing turns away God’s blessing and attracts His vengeance more surely than tyranny and oppression.

You should always prefer the path of rectitude and moderation, the path of all embracing justice, the path that will best win the willing consent of the people. Remember that the contentment of the common people washes away the displeasure of the highly placed, while the latter is easy to suffer if the common man were contented. Remember that it is the person of position, status and privilege who are the burden for the ruler in times of affluence, who are the least helpful in adversity, who are resentful of justice, who are ever importunate in their demand, who are the least grateful of favours granted them, who are stubborn in their refusal to listen to reason if their demands cannot be satisfied and who are the least steadfast when conditions alter adversely.

And it is the common people who are the pillars of faith, who constitute the true community and the strength against the enemy. Of them, therefore, you must maintain close contact.

Everyone has failings, and it behoves a ruler to cover them. Do not pry into people’s weaknesses which are not apparent; try to correct the faults that come to light and leave the people’s secret faults to God’s judgement. Loosen every knot that makes for mutual ill-will and hatred among the people and remove every cause for mutual calumny and enmity.

Do not be hasty in lending your ear to the back-biter for he is false and deceitful, though he comes in the garb of the well-wisher. Do not take counsel from the miserly, for they will dissuade you from benefaction and make you dread poverty, or with the cowardly, for they will weaken your courage and resolve at critical times, or with the greedy, for they will incite you to amass wealth through exploitation and oppression.

Miserliness, cowardice and greed are different traits but they all flow back from lack of faith and trust in God. The worst of counsellors is he who has been in the service of oppressive rulers and a party to their misdeeds. Do not take such men as Ministers, for they are helpers and associates of tyrants. You can find a person who is intelligent and resourceful but who will not be carrying a burden of sins…only such men should you take as your companions in your private as well as your public life.

And among them prefer those above all whom are likely to tell you unpalatable truths without hesitation and to refuse to cooperate with you in doing anything that is disapproved by God. Take for your companions from God fearing and truthful persons and train them not to flatter you or ascribe to you any good for which credit is not given to you.

Excessive praise tends to make one vain and arrogant. Do not treat good and bad men alike, for that will discourage the good and encourage the bad. Give every man the position that his deeds and conduct merit….goodwill can be engineered among the subjects only if the ruler treats them kindly and graciously, removes their genuine difficulties and makes no demands on them which is not possible for them not to fulfil.

For the administration of justice, select the best available persons…who are not confused and agitated by the abundance or complexity of lawsuits or vexed and provoked by the quarrelsome conduct of parties, who do not cling to their mistakes, who do not persist with untruth after seeing the truth, who are not inclined to covetousness, who are not content with a superficial understanding of a matter, without fully considering matters to find out the truth, who are completely impartial and above all fear and favour once they have ascertained the truth and whom praise does not make vain and cannot corrupt. Such persons are indeed few.

Having selected them…pay them well…give them such a position in the State that no courtier or executive officer can dare harm or influence fear and favour once they have ascertained the truth and whom praise does not make vain and cannot corrupt.

And fear God in respect of the backward and depressed classes who have no support. These are the poor, the indigent, the incapacitated and the beggars, some who stretch their hands in supplication and others whose very look proclaim their needs In God’s name, look after them and be mindful of the responsibility entrusted to you. Fix a share for them from the public treasury…

You have been appointed guardian of the rights of all, and the concerns of position and power should not make you neglect them. That you have discharged many important duties will be no excuse for neglecting small ones. Do not therefore overlook the poor or turn away from them in pride and arrogance. Be specially mindful of those who are unable to reach you, who are a distasteful sight and whom others dismiss with disdain…

Treat them in such a way that you will be able to plead it before God on the Day of Judgement. And look after orphans and the aged who have no source of support and who do not beg. Set aside a part of your time for those who seek your assistance, and during this time give yourself to them entirely. And remember not to stay aloof from the people for any length of time….

Rulers are surrounded by persons who are close to them but who are often selfish, grasping and dishonest….never make grants of land to any of your courtiers or relatives. They will no doubt desire to benefit from their privileged position, but you will earn a stigma in this world and the hereafter.

There is provision for all with God, and every section of the community has a claim on its ruler for its necessities and welfare. If you enter into an agreement with an enemy or have offered him protection, carry out the agreement and honour your word with your very life.

Of all the obligations placed upon man by God there is none which the entire world is so unanimously agreed about, in spite of differences in thought and outlook, as the fulfilment of one’s word.

Avoid vanity, do not pride yourself on what you consider your fine qualities and do not let flattery and sycophancy please you, for it is in this way that satan contrives to set naught the good deeds of the virtuous.

Do not permit hoarding. If a country is prosperous and happy, it can carry any burden. A country is ruined only when its people are in straitened circumstances, and this straitened condition usually arises from the greed of the ruler and his agents who are afraid of losing their position and privileges and heedless of the lessons of history, are anxious to amass quickly as much wealth as they can.

Do not make a show of any good that you may do to the people, nor ever think that what you have done is too much, nor go back on the promises you make to them. Set aside your best time for communion with God, though all that you do is for God if your motive is pure and it makes for the welfare of the people.

Do not appropriate to yourself anything to which all have an equal right and do not neglect the rights of others which are manifest, for it is your responsibility to see that rights are respected, and a time will come when all affairs will come to light and you will be called to answer for the oppression of the weak.

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