TURGEV TALKS
5 min readSep 12, 2021

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Who is the just leader?

An introduction to the course KINGS AND MYSTICS by Ibtisaam Ahmed.

Political leaders seeking advice is a common motif in the premodern world and for Muslim political leaders, counsel would often be sought from the people of tasawwuf. In fact, this practice begins very early on in the tradition and we find a clear example in the following exchange between Umar ibn Abdalaziz and Hasan al-Basri.

Umar II was the eighth Umayyad caliph and ruled between 717CE/99AH to 720CE/101AH. He wrote to Hasan al-Basri asking for a description of a just leader. Hasan al-Basri was a scholar, judge, commentator on the Qur’an, expert of Hadith and a man whose inner knowledge was so immense that many turuq trace their spiritual lineage through him. He was born in Madinah around 642CE/21AH to a father who was the former slave of Zaid ibn Thabit and a mother who was the servant of Umm Salama. Hasan al-Basri’s great knowledge was of course due to his association with the Companions and the direct transmission he received from them. By the time he settled in Basra after the Battle of Siffin, Hasan al-Basri was known to have had many of the sciences of Islam converge upon him — the outward law as well as knowledge of the inward. It is therefore no surprise that he was approached for advice by Umar II. The letter describing the just leader still survives and appears in Volume I of Al-Iqd Al-Farid:

“Be it known to you, O Commander of the Faithful, that Allah instituted the just ruler to be the redress of every wrong-doer, the discipline of every unfair person, the correction of every corrupt man, the strength of every weak one, the justice of every wronged being, and the refuge of every frightened individual.

The just ruler, O Commander of the Faithful, is like a shepherd who is tender toward his camels and kind to them; he takes them to the best pastures, prevents them from going to dangerous places, defends them against wild beasts, and protects them from the harms of the heat and the cold.

The just ruler, O Commander of the Faithful, is like a father who feels compassion for his children, works hard for them when young and teaches them as they grow older, earns for them during his lifetime, and saves for them after his death.

The just ruler, O Commander of the Faithful, is like a tender mother who is dutiful and kind to her baby, who bears him and gives him birth unwillingly, who brings him up as a child, staying up at night when he does, and being quiet when he is at rest; she suckles him for a time and then weans him, she rejoices when he is healthy and is saddened when he is in pain.

The just ruler, O Commander of the Faithful, is the guardian of orphans and treasurer of the poor, educating the young among them and providing for the older ones.

The just ruler, O Commander of the Faithful, is like the heart among the other body organs: they are healthy if the heart is healthy, and sick when the heart is sick.

The just ruler, O Commander of the Faithful, is the one who stands between Allah and his servants; he listens to what Allah says and conveys it to them, he looks to Allah and makes them look too; he is led by Allah and he leads them. Therefore, O Commander of the Faithful, in relation to the realm given to you by Allah, may He be exalted and magnified, do not be like a servant whose master entrusted him with his wealth and dependents, but who wasted the wealth and drove away the dependents like tramps, thus impoverishing his master’s family and frittering away his wealth.

Be it known to you, O Commander of the Faithful, that Allah has prescribed punishments to act as deterrents to wicked deeds and vile acts. So if these deeds and acts are committed by those responsible for implementing the punishments, what will happen? Allah has prescribed punishment as a means to better living for His servants. So if the one who should be doing justice to them kills them, what will happen? And remember death and what follows it, O Commander of the Faithful, when you will have no adherents and no supporters to help you against it; so provide for it and for the great terror that follows it.

Be it known to you, O Commander of the Faithful, that you have a home other than the one you are in now. In it you will abide for a long time. Your loved ones will abandon you and leave you in it all alone. Provide for it that which will remain with you. “On the day when a man flees from his brother, and from his mother and his father, and from his wife and his sons.” [Quran. 80:34–36]

Remember, O Commander of the Faithful, “… when what is in the tombs is resurrected, and what is in the breasts is gathered” [Quran. 100:9–10], secrets will become manifest, and the Book “… leaves out nothing small or great but has recorded it” [Quran. 18:49].

Now, O Commander of the Faithful, while you still have time and before the arrival of the appointed hour of death and loss of hope: do not rule Allah’s servants as the ignorant do, and do not behave with them as oppressors do, the way the domineering arrogant ones conduct themselves with those they deem to be weak, for they observe no covenant or compact of protection. Otherwise, you will end up bearing your burdens and other burdens too, and you will carry your loads and other loads too. Do not be deceived by those who enjoy what causes you misery and those who eat good things in this world of theirs, for you will then lose your good things in the Hereafter. Do not look at your power today but look rather at your power tomorrow, when you are captive in the snares of death, standing before Allah, may He be exalted, and in the presence of the angels, the prophets, and the apostles, when “All faces shall be humbled before the Living, Self-Subsisting One” [Quran. 20:111].

O Commander of the Faithful, although I have not achieved in my sermon what earlier men of intellect have, I have not withheld advice and sympathy from you. Consider this letter of mine to you as would a healer who gives his beloved to drink bitter medicine because he hopes for the cure and good health it will bring about. Peace be upon you, O Commander of the Faithful, Allah’s mercy, and His blessings.”

Therefore, this practice of taking counsel from the people of tasawwuf and keeping company with them would later be emulated by many emirs, sultans, caliphs and princes. This course explores the relationship between rulers and the men they took as their spiritual guides, or shaykhs. How and why were “holy men” accepted into the inner realm of political power and why did ambitious leaders submit to their guidance and teachings? In this course we will consider four leaders from four different regions, in four different time periods and trace the story of kings and mystics.

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