Letter 53 of Nahjul Balagha by Imam Ali is one of the most eloquent pieces of literature I have ever read. In it, he writes to Malik al-Ashtar (who governs Egypt on his behalf), and gives him advice on how to treat the people. When I was appointed Head of Department in my school, I read this letter in order to learn how to lead people ethically. It is my manifesto on how to treat people in my workplace and beyond.
When one reads this masterpiece, it would not even seem too far to suggest that this letter could solve the world’s problems in its turmoil today; it should resonate with any human with a conscience that is alive. It is no wonder then that Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations at the time, referenced it in a statement on the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of Human Rights. The beauty of this letter is in the fact that it is universal, timeless and can be applied in any walk of life, whether you are in a position of leadership or not.
Here are 14 pieces of advice from the letter that we can all implement, especially if you are in a position of leadership.
1. Even if you are a leader, you are just a servant of God
“This is what Allah’s servant `Ali, Amir al-mu’minin (commander of the believers), has ordered Malik ibn al-Harith al-Ashtar in his instrument (of appointment) for him when he made him Governor of Egypt…”
Imam Ali opens with pure humility. Although the leader of a vast empire, Imam Ali reminds everyone that there is no power except God and that he is nothing but the servant of God. Imam Ali is often the master of bringing people back down to earthand he does so in a subtle way here by reminding himself of his position. This is God’s chosen leader on earth yet he is humbling himself before his Lord. Even later in the letter, Imam Ali reiterates this and says not to consider yourself too powerful, because there is a bigger Power above you. It doesn’t matter if you are a CEO of an international company, remember your Lord and this will humble you.
2. Know your audience
“Then, know, O Malik, that I have sent you to an area where there have been governments before you, both just as well as oppressive. People will now watch your dealings as you used to watch the dealings of the rulers before you…”
Imam Ali reminds Malik not to forget previous leaders. When you enter a new environment, it is imperative you are aware of what you are following. People may be sceptical towards you because you are going to be another let-down or, alternatively, you will not live up to the greatness of the previous person. Imam Ali is reminding us not to take the people’s scepticism to heart. Instead, it should motivate you to be better than what was before you.
3. We are all humans that make mistakes; be forgiving
“They are of two kinds, either your brother in religion or one like you in creation. They will commit slips and encounter mistakes. They may act wrongly, wilfully or by neglect. So, extend to them your forgiveness and pardon, in the same way as you would like Allah to extend His forgiveness and pardon to you…”
He then says arguably his most famous quote, but what he says right after should not be ignored. The first part of this quote should be imprinted outside every place of worship. Imam Ali takes off the lenses that separates people based on religion. If we aren’t linked through religion, we are linked through humanness. When one realises this, it is then we can treat each other with respect and mercy. Regardless of what worldview you belong to, you will make mistakes. Imam Ali says to be a forgiving person because we all want God to be forgiving towards us in light of our mistakes. We must mirror the attributes of God to our human capability.
4. Remove negative people from your circle
“The one among the people under you who is furthest from you and the worst of them in your view should be he who is the most inquisitive of the shortcomings of the people, because people do have shortcomings and the ruler is the most appropriate person to cover them.”
Imam Ali says that these people are no good for you. We all know people whose sole purpose on the earth seems to be to criticise people and expose their faults. These people should not be near you. As a leader you, you are the safety net of the people who work for you. Your job is to make sure they flourish in a positive environment and if they have any shortcomings, you keep them in house. Having people in your circle that exposes the faults to others weakens your team and creates an environment of mistrust.
5. Remove the hatred
“Unfasten every knot of hatred in the people and cut away from yourself the cause of every enmity.”
Imam orders Malik to cut ties with any form of hatred, both its root and manifestation. This ties into Imam Ali’s earlier idea of seeing everyone as a human. Once we do that, we can get rid of hatred that causes barriers between people. That is not enough though. Imam says to completely cut off from people and causes that are allowing hatred to occur. In the contemporary world, hatred exists due to several things; religion, race, culture, country etc. These things should not cause hate and if they are, quash them
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