Friday, May 10, 2019

Exploring how our religious and cultural biases influence our leadership decisions

( Note: The following is an edited version of my presentation for the BYU Management Society's Las Vegas chapter luncheon yesterday. In attendance were a number of political and business figures. )

In the name of God, The Most Compassionate, The Most Merciful

Theological introduction

Islam is an Arabic word meaning "Submission to God". It is our understanding that God has sent forth prophets to different audiences, with variations in priorities, but all conveying the same basic point- surrender to the Divine will. The Qur'an phrases it thusly: " To every people, a guide has been sent." ( Q 13:7)  Those who do the act of submission are called in Arabic "Muslims".

The Qur'anic teaching is that the process of the conveying of those Divine principles found its perfection in the coming of Muhammad as universal model, and in particular the Quranic scripture given through him. 

The Muslim world encompasses a great deal of cultural diversity and understandings, and already we have a clue that diversity existed with God's prophets. Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them both)  were both sent by God, however their practical functions differed. Moses was a lawgiver, while Jesus was a moralist. These are important things to understand when trying to understand the Muslims in their approaches.

Scripture read according to one's needs

The Qur'an, accessible to Muslims everywhere, is read differently by different people because it speaks to us in different conditions. A rather mundane example is that of diet. The Qur'an both disallows and allows the consumption of pork (Q 2:173 and other places). Pork is forbidden in normal circumstances, but allowed in periods of starvation. Syrian scholars have allowed eating cats and dogs, due to the lack of access to food because of the civil war.

Spiritual foundation needed for proper decision making

The Qur'an says "Verily, prayer restrains from immorality and repugnant actions" ( Q 28:45). This shows us that prayer is supposed to influence our decision making process, regardless of what position we are in. 

Muslims pray a minimum of five times daily, at times spread out through the day. Prayer reminds us of God, His presence and it provides us with an injection of consciousness and sense of responsibility. The more you pray, the stronger your fortification will be against immorality, repugnant actions and thoughts.

The Qur'an gives the same basic moral code as found within other religious traditions ( i.e. worship God, prohibitions against killing, theft etc), but what happens when a particular situation arises where we can't figure out the answer to it?

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gave three important statements which answer this question.

Leave off that which gives you doubt for that which gives you certainty. 

Righteousness is good character, and sin is that which wavers in your soul.

Another statement attributed to the Prophet goes even further. A man comes to the Prophet to inquire as to his ( i.e. the Prophet's) definition of righteousness. The Prophet responds "Consult your own heart. Righteousness is that which the soul feels tranquil about, and sin is that which causes unrest in the soul, even though people keep giving opinions in its favor" (An-Nawawi's Forty Hadeeth)

The underlined sentence in Arabic reads Wa in Af-taakan Naasu, wa Aftook.  In other words, Fatwas, a word which has been made famous in recent years by the media. 

These sayings of the Prophet show us that personal judgement is a valid source of guidance, however that judgement can only be applicable, sound and practical when the soul is healthy, nourished properly by sound spirituality. Thinking right would translate into acting right.

The main goal of Islam is the preservation and nourishment of the soul. It is for this reason that Islam forbids alcohol, drugs, gambling and promiscuity. It also encourages modesty in dress, care in speech, clarity in relationships, and cleanliness of body and soul.

Muslims are currently in the month of Ramadan, abstaining from dawn to sunset from food, drink and physical relations. It is a spiritual cleansing. Similarly the religion obligates us to give in charity, which is also traditionally done in Ramadan. 

These acts cultivate the soul, strengthening one's ties with God and should thus provide a firm foundation for making decisions. 


Prophet Muhammad made a statement which would be very shocking for today's political culture. The tradition (hadeeth) asserts that a man came to him, seeking to be appointed a governor. The Prophet replied "By God, we do not appoint someone to this job who seeks after it, or to someone very covetous of it."  

Another hadeeth says "Do not ask for position of power. If you are granted the position without asking for it, you will be helped (i.e. by God) in discharging its responsibilities, however if you attain  it as a result of your seeking, you will be alone as its captive." (Bukhari/Muslim)

I believe these statements indicate the danger of power being held by covetous, narcissistic personality types, persons who have been seeking personal glory. 

I believe the Prophet is saying that those who are already doing community work should be given the roles in an official capacity, in order to make the results of their work more effective.

The early Islamic period saw that governors lived humbly, in apartments next to the main mosque. They would also lead the five daily prayers in the mosque. Their God-awareness made them more aware of their social responsibilities. A beautiful example is in 'Umar b.'Abdul-'Aziz (died 720 C.E.), a ruler who would not even use a government lamp when conducting his own personal business.

Returning to the above-mentioned  Prophetic narrations, how do they work in a world of electoral politics, a world of campaigning for votes and financial support? 

Every society has its own unique political culture, and the truth of the matter is that Islam does not give a systematic or detailed blueprint for governing. Regarding the above-mentioned Prophetic narrations, I believe they provide guidance for attempting to identity the thinking and motivations of the candidates. Has their history been one of of sincere public service, or that of personal aggrandizement?  Those who have been of service, they will be known by their fruits.

Shared interest between religious communities

It seems fair to say that the same overall interests are shared by the various religious communities. Our source materials are different, but the goals are the same, to live in a world where we can make positive contributions, where our children can be safe, where we have the sanctity of life and morals.

The Qur'an says (Q 49:13) that God intentionally made people to be different, and it also says "Be competitive in doing positive actions" ( Q 2:148).

Positive competition creates blessings that are universally felt, in music, literature, sciences, and any other field. The Quranic worldview, if properly understood, eventually puts an end to xenophobia, racism, and any other negative thinking patterns.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan writes in his new book Islam and Good Governance " I understand witnessing the divine as advancing a moral-political vision that is designed to support a polity and politics that pursues the good of others as a divine mandate." 

He also writes " When you struggle for others, you witness their pain, their marginalization, and their needs, and when you act for them, you are acting as a deliverer of divine grace. To serve others without an axe to grind is to worship God as if you see him."