What is it that enables some leaders to continue to be inspirational and not lose followers even when their decisions may not be to their follower’s liking? This is a very critical dilemma of leadership, of walking the tightrope between populist actions and doing what needs to be done and risk losing popularity. In today’s political environment of playing to the gallery, leaders are often held to ‘ransom’ by their followers who give or withdraw support because they don’t like what the leader’s decision. Or don’t understand his wisdom. In modern times, the example of Al Gore comes to mind, where Americans chose George Bush over him for President of America. One can fantasize about how the world would have been different if the author of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, had become President. But that is water under the bridge.

So, what is it that sets a leader apart where even when he proposes to do what his followers either don’t understand or don’t like, they still support him and commit to his way and he doesn’t lose trust in their eyes?

The two finest examples of this in Islamic history are the Treaty of Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah. Let us see the challenges that the leaders faced in each of them.

Suleh Hudaybiyya

I won’t narrate the history of this very famous treaty as it is well known. I will list the challenges that Rasoolullahﷺ faced. They were perhaps the most severe challenges that any leader could have faced, especially one who was the Messenger of Allahﷻ and so the recipient of Wahi (Revelation). He took the people with him on Umrah, naturally with the intention of performing Umrah but thanks to a series of events which obviously he could not have anticipated, he was now in the process of signing a treaty that was so one-sided as to be humiliating for the Muslims. Two of the most difficult to accept clauses were:

1. They must return to Madina without making Umrah

2. If a Muslim left Islam and went over to the Quraysh of Makkah he/she would be given refuge and need not be returned to Madina. But if a non-Muslim accepted Islam and went from Makkah to Madina, he/she must be returned to Makkah and must not be given refuge.

To add to the difficulty, Abu Jandal bin Suhayl the brother of Abdullah ibn Suhayl and son of Suhayl Ibn Amr, the orator of Quraysh had accepted Islam and consequently had been imprisoned by his father, escaped and came to Hudaybiyya having heard that Rasoolullahﷺ was camped there. His father Suahyl ibn Amr was the representative of Quraysh, negotiating the treaty. The clauses of the treaty had been agreed upon but had not been written down yet. He demanded that his son should be handed over to him to be returned to Makkah in chains and Rasoolullahﷺ agreed. He advised Abu Jandal (R) to be patient when he complained that the Quraysh would punish him for accepting Islam. The Sahaba were horrified because what was happening was directly against the custom of giving refuge to a victim and in this case to a fellow Muslim. Yet Rasoolullahﷺ was honoring the clause of a treaty even though it had not yet been signed. He was honoring his word which had been given, the writing of which was merely detail. The Sahaba were very sad and angry.

Sad about not being able to enter Makkah and make Umrah and angry at what the Quraysh were demanding. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) even went the extent of questioning Rasoolullahﷺ. Once again, I will not go into the details here as these are well known. However, I would like to say that his questioning was really the unconscious expression of the doubt in the minds of many others, if not most. It was a cry of anguish in the face of the apparently placid and submissive acceptance of injustice. Yet when all was said and done, the Sahaba stood behind Rasoolullahﷺ solidly and followed him and did as he instructed them to do. And that is the bottom-line and the question that I raise here, ‘What was it about Rasoolullahﷺ that inspired them to follow him, even when his decision was not to their liking?’

To better understand the challenge from the perspective of the followers (Sahaba) let me list some of the obvious doubts that this entire incident raises. I am not saying that the Sahaba had these doubts. Allahﷻ knows what was in their minds and hearts and that is not the subject of our discussion here. This is an objective analysis of one of the most severe tests of leadership in history which is important for us to understand. I call this the ‘final exam’, which qualified the Sahaba in the sight of Allahﷻ to lead the world and Heﷻ opened for them not only the doors of Makkah but the whole of their world. Hudaybiyya was the toughest exam because it was not a test of bravery or physical prowess, but a test of faith and trust. The Sahaba passed it with flying colors.

The doubts that the incident raises are:

1. They believed in Muhammadﷺ as the Messenger of Allahﷻ who received Revelation (Wahi). They believed that one of the forms in which Wahi was received was in a dream. Rasoolullahﷺ had seen in his dream that he was making Umrah with his companions and so, had invited them to join him to travel to Makkah to make Umrah. However, now he was agreeing not to make Umrah that year and was going to return to Madina with them without fulfilling the intention of performing Umrah.

2. They had been taught and believed that Islam was the truth. They had been taught and believed that standing up for the truth and fighting against falsehood was a sacred trust and duty. Yet here they were apparently giving in to blatant injustice.

3. They now faced the prospect of returning to Madina to the taunts of the Munafiqeen who would no doubt cast aspersions on the prophethood and veracity of Rasoolullahﷺ.

4. For Rasoolullahﷺ himself were the questions, ‘If Allahﷻ wanted him to make Umrah, why did this barrier come about? Why did Allahﷻ not open the door for him to make Umrah after directing him to do so in his dream? Why was Allahﷻ wanting him to sign such a humiliating treaty with his enemies? What ‘face’ would he have with his followers who believed in his Messengership? What about his personal credibility as the Messenger of Allahﷻ?’

Truly Hudaybiyya was a test, difficult beyond belief. That is why I call it the ‘final’ exam of the Sahaba.

Wars of Riddah

Before we discuss the reasons for the Sahaba remaining steadfast in their support for Rasoolullahﷺ let me mention another similar incident in early Muslim history which was a landmark for the future of Islam. This was the refusal of many tribes to pay Zakat, after the death of Rasoolullahﷺ. They refused on the grounds that they used to pay it to Rasoolullahﷺ who was no longer present and so Zakat was not due any longer. Abu Bakr Siddique (R) the Khalifa reminded them that Zakat was not a personal payment to Rasoolullahﷺ but was a Rukn (Pillar) of Islam about which Rasoolullahﷺ had declared that anyone who separated Salah from Zakat had left Islam. It was on this basis that Rasoolullahﷺ had refused to accept the Islam of the Banu Thaqeef of At-Ta’aif when they came to him and offered to accept Islam on condition that they be made exempt from paying Zakat. Rasoolullahﷺ refused and declared that both Salah and Zakat were Pillars of Islam and equal in importance and that leaving of either would be tantamount to leaving Islam. On this basis, Abu Bakr Siddique (R) declared war on those tribes who refused to pay Zakat.

The Sahaba were very perturbed about this as it appeared that the Khalifa Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was planning to make war on Muslims. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) asked Abu Bakr (R) how he could consider going to war against Muslims. Abu Bakr (R) said to him, ‘What has happened to you Omar, that you were very tough when you were not a Muslim but have become soft after entering Islam?’ He then reminded him about the ruling of Rasoolullahﷺ about separating Zakat from the rest of Islam and said, ‘Even if they refuse to give a single rope of a camel which is due, I will fight them.’ And that is what he did. In retrospect, it was this single unshakable stance of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) which preserved the integrity of Islam after Rasoolullahﷺ passed away. If he had not taken this firm stand, Islam would perhaps have disintegrated with people deciding to follow whatever suited them. But ask, ‘What is it that made the Sahaba support him even when they disagreed with his decision?’

In the case of Rasoolullahﷺ at Hudaybiyya, one could say that his position as being the Messenger of Allahﷻ was sacrosanct and when you believed that he was receiving Revelation, it was perhaps easier to follow without question. However, Abu Bakr (R) was not receiving Revelation. He was one among them, albeit first among equals, but an equal. Yet they obeyed him even though some or many didn’t agree with his decision, initially. Not only did they obey him, but they put their own lives on the line and enrolled in the conscript army which was the army of the time. Nobody stayed back. Nobody said, ‘I don’t agree and so I am not going to risk my life by joining the army.’ What made them do that?

I believe there were two major factors that operated in both these incidents; i.e. Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah.

1. Trust: An unshakable faith beyond question in the personal credibility of the leader. This faith was based on the character of the leader which his followers had seen throughout his life and which inspired total trust and respect in their hearts. So, while they may have disagreed with the leader in a matter, his personal credibility, his intention that he wished the best for them, his objectivity, truthfulness, commitment to the goal (Islam), impartiality, lack of selfishness, sincerity, desire only to please Allahﷻ were never in question.

2. Respect: The belief that the leader was more knowledgeable, committed and sincere than any one of them. That he understands a situation better than the follower. That his track record shows that even in the past he had been right, when he differed with his followers.

As you can see, these two factors are dynamically linked. One supports the other. And both arise out of one’s conduct. When you live by your principles, you don’t have to keep talking about them. People see them in your life and emulate them in their own. The converse is equally true which we tragically see in our modern-day leadership. Leaders who don’t walk their talk may be obeyed out of fear but are never respected and loved. There is no way that a leader can divorce his personal conduct from his stated principles and expect followers to respect and follow his lead.

Personal credibility which translates to high respect. People trust those they respect. And they don’t trust those who lose respect in their estimation. A leader’s life is public. Every statement, whether made in seriousness or jest, is public. Every action, private or public, personal or involving others, is public. And they all contribute to the overall picture of the leader that people hold in their minds. Image and personal credibility of the leader is built on his walking the talk. People listen with their eyes and don’t care what you say until they see what you do. This is the Brand of the leader. They care less about what is being said, than about who is saying it. ‘How’ also matters, but only after ‘Who’. If people don’t respect the individual, what he/she says doesn’t matter. First the who, then the how and then the what. Seems strange but that is human psychology for you. People must first trust a leader. Then they listen to how he puts across his proposal. Then they think about what he is asking them to do. If the first two, especially the first one (high personal credibility), is strong, people will even go to extraordinary lengths to follow their leaders.

In times of stress, success of the leader depends on the ability of followers to recall and remember the brand. And still obey and follow the leader and commit themselves even when they don’t fully understand why they should commit. And even when they may not agree with some of what the leader is doing. Please note that what I am referring to is not what happens after the leader has explained what he is doing and why he wants their support. I am talking about a time when the leader may not have the time, opportunity or may for reasons of confidentiality, decide on a course of action without consulting his team. Will the team still follow him and commit fully to him and his course or will they hold back, rebel and not support? That is the meaning of faith in the leadership. Like all good things, maybe easier said than done, but like flying, if you want to fly, you must be aerodynamic. There is no alternative.