One of the areas of my responsibility was the
Commissary. This was the company owned department store from where you got your
weekly supply of food and practically everything else you needed. It had a
small frozen foods section, rough wooden shelves with rice, flour, lentils and
other groceries stacked on them, farming tools, alcohol and beverages, tea,
sugar, condiments and flavors, seeds, and fertilizer for the vegetable gardens
that most people had. There was a small display of regular shirts, pants, and
Dishikis. Basic needs for everyday life in the mining town. Since this was the
only store in town, it did good business. All the stuff came across the Berbice
River by the bus or up the river by barge. The object of the Commissary was not
to make profit and some things were even subsidized by the company. It was more
a social obligation as well as a necessity if you wanted to run a mining town
in the middle of the rain forest.
One day, thanks to one of the periodic economic crises
that we used to go through, there was no rice in the store for several weeks.
Things got pretty bad as rice is a staple of the Guyanese people. Kwakwani
being a mining town in the forest had the advantage that most people had
vegetable gardens where they grew cassava, bananas and tapioca, so nobody was starving
but tempers were high. Their anger was
really against the government of President Forbes Burnham, who was Head of the
PNC (People’s National Congress), but in a communist (called socialist, but
really communist) dictatorship the first thing you learn is to keep your mouth
shut about the Party and the President. But anger must be vented. So, the most
convenient target was the Company and its Management; though everyone was fully
aware that the Company was as helpless as they were individually both in
creating the financial crisis as well as in resolving it. Actually, come to
think of it, a shortage of rice in Guyana was like a shortage of coal in New
Castle. It was more a matter of distribution than of production. The two major
agricultural exports of Guyana were rice and sugar and so not having rice in
the country was ridiculous. But that is exactly what happened on this occasion.
So, people were very angry.
Then one day, rice came. The store keeper,
Griffith, unloaded it and packed it into 2 kilo bags, stacked them on the
shelves and was ready to open the store. A crowd had collected in front of the
store and like most such situations, a combination of old resentment, misplaced
anger, and short tempers, things started to get a little hairy. Griffith phoned
the Office and I took his call. He said, “Yawar, things are bad here. Looks
like there will be a riot and they will break into the store and loot it. They
are calling for Nick. Is he there?” Nick had gone to Linden that day for a
meeting and hadn’t returned. So, I said, “Nick is not here, but I will be with
you in five minutes.” Griffith sounded very doubtful. He said, “Man!! These
guys are sounding nasty. I ain’t know if you can handle it.” Now say that kind
of thing to a 24-year-old with red blood in his veins and what do you get?? Off
I went to the store. The store was about a kilometer down the hill from
the Admin. Office and so I was there in less than the five minutes that I
The store was built on a concrete plinth platform
with steps on either side which you had to climb up to get to the door. I
parked my Land Rover to one side and walked up to the crowd. They let me through,
and I climbed up the stairs and stood on the platform and what do I see? A huge
crowd of men and some women, all shouting and cursing (and boy, could those
Kwakwani people curse!!) …. many men with guns slung on their shoulders and
cutlasses in their hands. Now these guns and cutlasses really meant no harm in
themselves as that was the way the men went to their farms in the jungle. As it
was evening, they were all headed there and had stopped by the store. But the
mood was ugly, and the guns and cutlasses were there.
I raised my hand and the noise died down. I said,
“The rice is here. We are sorry for the shortage, but you know this is not in
our hands. But it is here now. Please form a line and come and get it in an
orderly manner.” There was a moment’s silence as I said this. Then the shouting
started again. “Ya rass coolie man wanna come and tell a’we Guyanese how to
live?? Who the rass is you to tell a’we anytin?” I realized that this was not the normal
Kwakwani Guyanese I was listening to. Somebody had started this ‘we versus the
foreigner’ thing and it was catching on. This was the beast of the mob, which
has a mind of its own. At times like this, I believe that if you face the
situation with courage you are taught what to say. Later you can analyze it and
wonder why you said what you did. But at that time, it is spontaneous and
right. I let them shout for a few seconds and then yelled at them, “You wanna
come and loot this store, you gotta kill me first.”
My worry was never about my life but that I would
fail in my task. I could not believe that Kwakwani people would harm me; that
is the normal Kwakwani person. But this was a mob. It was entirely likely that
they would call my bluff and I would die. They would regret it later, but I
would be dead. All it needed was for someone to fire from the crowd or throw a
cutlass and the deed would be done. Mobs give their members the immunity of
invisibility and people can do strange things in such circumstances. The
situation was definitely getting out of my control and I was wondering what to
do, when suddenly Morris Mitchell (Chinee, the truck driver who I had mentioned
earlier) jumped up onto the platform. He was also on the way to his farm, so he
was wearing a much-used shirt, jeans, his cap backwards on his head, cutlass in
his hand. Chinee was a big man. He was well over six feet tall and weighed more
than 200 pounds, all muscle. His wrists were a foot wide (or at least they
looked like they were) and his hands were like shovels. I remember one day he
was sitting in my office and lazily squeezed a tack (nail) into a piece of hard
green-heart wood that I used to keep as a paper weight. Squeezed it into the
wood. Not hammered—squeezed. Get it??
Well, he jumped up onto the platform and in a
voice that was used to being heard over the roar of truck and bulldozer engines
shouted, “A’yo raas lisen and lisen good. You wanna kill dis baay? You gotta
kill me fus. And a’yo raas know, I ain’t gonna die alone. So, who ready??” As
in any mob situation, there is a critical incident that changes the mood. This
was the one here. Suddenly someone started laughing and said, “Man Chinee.
Yawar a’we baay man!! Nobody ain’t gonna do nothn to he! A’we just mad at the
company man!! Anyway, the rice dey ere an so leh we go’n get it. Stand in a
line folks. We ain’t ga all night!!” And that was that. All that camaraderie apart,
the reality is that if Morris Mitchel had not stood by my side, there is no
saying what would have happened. Seeing him with a cutlass in his hand had a
sobering effect and broke the mood of the mob and people came to their senses.
As I say, Guyana is beloved to me because of its people. Amazing people who
would cheerfully put their own lives on the line for a friend.
The incident did not end there for me. When Nick
got back, instead of a pat on the back, I got my ear burned off for being a
hero. Nick was angry at me for putting my life in danger for no good reason. He
wouldn’t believe that the Kwakwani people wouldn’t have harmed me. He said he
knew mobs and that they had a life and will of their own. People did things in
the mob frenzy which they may well regret later, but the damage would be done.
He was angry, but said he respected my courage and standing on principle and
that he would personally ‘fry my butt’ if I ever did such a thing again. It was
said with so much love and concern for me that I only grew to respect and love
the man even more. He said to me, “Your father told me to look after you
when he left you here and I gave him my word. If you had died today what would
I tell Dr. Baig? Never do this kind of thing again. You hear me?” “Yessah! I
hear you.” I heard you that day and I hear you every time I think of you. I
hear your words, I hear the tone, I hear the love, the responsibility, and the
honor. I hear it and I bless you and thank AllahY that He
gave me you as my first boss so that I could learn from you how to be a man.
And He is witness that you taught me very well. Nick was a father to me in a
strange land where I was alone, and I loved him like my own father.
That is one of the many lessons that I owe to Nick. Another was in
hospitality and consideration. The first time it happened I was astonished.
Then it became a regular feature. One weekend Nick called me and asked me to go
over to his place. When I walked over, I saw that he had a pen full of live
chickens (about 10-12 in all) and a knife. He said to me, “Ya-waar, can you
please slaughter these in your way? I will put them in the freezer so that we
are sure we give you these when you come over to our place to eat.” What do you
say to such a man?
To return to our story, these were the days of President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham’s presidency. The PNC (People’s National Congress) was supreme. Race was the underlying thread in any conversation. I was not counted because I was a foreigner. But when I was among strangers, who took me to be Guyanese thanks to my fluency in Creolese, I could sense the tension. There was a lady in Kwakwani Mines Office called Patsy. Patsy was the secretary of the Mines Manager (the Big Boss), George Shultz as well as the District Coordinator of the ‘Party’. So, she was a big noise. Patsy was several years older than I was and didn’t like me one bit and tried initially to make trouble for me by embarrassing me. One day she called out to me in a loud voice, ‘Comrade Baig, do you know the meaning of screw?’ There was an immediate hush and an expectant silence. All the typist girls in the room looked up waiting to laugh their heads off expecting me to beat a hasty embarrassed retreat. But to their surprise and Patsy’s consternation, I turned around and said, ‘Patsy, you want me to tell you or you want me to show you?’ The office collapsed into shrieking laughter. You must see a West Indian African laugh to know the meaning of laughing. The whole body laughs, not just the mouth. And the person literally throws himself around the room, shrieking in delight. It got so loud that George Shultz came out of his office to see what was going on and on being informed, he joined in, much to Patsy’s disgust. But she learned her lesson and that was the last time she tried that trick with me. However, that was not the last of her attempts to make my life difficult.
Patsy would take time off on the pretext of ‘party
work’ and disappear, leaving her work with others who resented this, but did
not have the courage to tackle her. One day she did her usual disappearing act
and then ended up in the Kwakwani Club having a drink during working hours. I
was passing by and saw her and suspended her pending investigation. Patsy, as I
mentioned, was the PNC District Coordinator and behaved as if she was the
country’s President. Since she was in real life a secretary and that too in my
office, I tried very hard to convince her that she had to at least pretend to
work. But to no avail. So finally, I issued her a warning letter. That was like
stepping on the tail of a mamba. Given her political powers, this was a slap in
the face that she was not going to take lying down.
Next morning Nick called me to his office.
He had a grave look on his face. He asked me, ‘What happened between you and
Patsy?’ I told him about the drinking incident and the following suspension
pending investigation, which was according to the rule book. Nick was aware of
Patsy’s doings himself but told me that the Minister of Mines had called him
and asked him to enquire. I explained what I had done and Nick being a man with
moral courage, supported me. He called the Minister and explained what had
happened and why. I am amazed today, having seen a great deal of the world,
how, given the political situation in Guyana of those days, Nick could have
stood up for me. He taught me a lesson of standing up for your subordinates
when they are right, and I will remember all my life. This is Nick for you. A
man that I admire, respect, and love with all my heart.
The matter did not end with that because the lady
in question would not let it rest. She demanded that I withdraw the suspension
– I refused. So once again the Minister called Nick and said that he wanted to
meet me. Nick said to me, ‘I just had a call from the Minister of Mines, Cd.
Hamilton Green. Comrade Green wants to see you.’ I asked, ‘When?’ Nick said,
‘Now. So, get ready and go. Patsy has complained to him about you. I will
support you in this so don’t worry but you must satisfy the Minister. Otherwise
things can get difficult (he meant that I could summarily be sacked and sent
back to India).’ But there was no escape as I was also not willing to back
down from my stance, which I was completely convinced, was right. It was also a
matter of asserting my authority without which my life would not have been
I arrived in Georgetown late in the afternoon
after a 4-hour drive. I entered the ante-room where Cd. Green’s secretary sat.
I introduced myself but it appeared that I was famous. They all knew me. I was
not sure if I should be happy or alarmed about this. She told me, ‘Show your
face through that window and he will open the door.’ The window was a little
sliding shutter. I moved it aside and looked in as instructed. I saw a huge
mahogany desk with an African gentleman sitting behind it, manicuring his
nails. All the tools for this high precision job were laid out before him. He
saw me peering through the glass and reached under the table top and pressed a
button which released the lock so that I could go in. The door clicked shut
behind me and there I was in the presence of the Honorable Minister of Mines,
Cd. Hamilton Green himself.
I realized that the whole office was furnished and
arranged to intimidate and put the other at a disadvantage. Cd. Green’s
manicuring was the strangest thing that I had ever seen and to this day I can’t
think of why he did it. I remained standing. He looked me up and down and then
gestured for me to sit. I took a chair a couple of seats away from him and
waited for the crucial interview to begin.
‘So, Mr. Baig, you are from India?’
‘What do you think of Mrs. Gandhi?’
‘I think she is a good leader Sir. She is good for
‘But some people don’t seem to like her, no?’
‘Isn’t that the case with most strong leaders
‘Yes, that is true.’
Then he came to the point of the interview. “So,
what’s the issue with our friend Comrade Daniels in Kwakwani?”
“Sir”, I said, “to put it politely, her attitude
at work is an embarrassment to the Party that she represents. She does not
work, plays politics, throws her weight around, and generally behaves as if she
owns the place. I believe this is not the impression that the PNC wants to
create among the people. I tried every way I could to convince her to be a good
example that would be worthy of someone who is the District Coordinator, but
she will not listen. So eventually, I had no alternative but to suspend her. I
tried to advise her, but she is a strong woman.’
‘Strong woman, eh!’ He laughed. ‘Like Mrs. Gandhi
maybe! So how do you like Guyana (Giyaana – is how he and most Guyanese
‘I like it very much Sir.’
‘You don’t miss your country?’
‘Everyone misses his country Sir. But Guyana and
Guyanese have been so good to me that it feels like home. I have friends here
who are like my own family. So, I don’t miss my country too much.’
‘Good of you to come Mr. Baig. It was nice to meet
All the while Mr. Green continued to manicure his
nails; filing, pushing back the cuticles and occasionally clipping an
uncooperative piece. Strange way of conducting a meeting, I thought to myself.
But such are the ways of the high and mighty. To give him his due, however, he
was a fair man and gave me a chance to explain myself and then accepted the
explanation when it made sense. I’m not sure how many people in his position in
other countries would have been equally patient and understanding with a
twenty-four year old foreigner who had taken a stance against one of their own
I thanked him, walked the length of the table, the
door buzzed as I came to it and opened, and I walked out. The secretary smiled
at me and I left, returning to Kwakwani close to midnight and the matter was
closed. The letter stuck and was not withdrawn and the lady in question toed
the line. The Minister it seems told her where to get off. In the process, I
acquired a huge amount of ‘respect’ because I had managed to make the reprimand
stick by convincing none other than the Minister himself and because there were
a lot of other poor sufferers who were delighted that the lady got what was
coming to her. They did not have the power to do anything about it but were all
silently rooting for me. There was an important lesson for me to take away; if
you win, you will find that you have a lot of supporters. If I had been
reprimanded by the Minister and ordered to withdraw the letter, then I don’t
know how many of my supporters would have stood on the same side of the street
when they saw me coming. Winners have many fathers and losers none.
Two other lessons from this incident; the
importance of building a good case and the importance of putting it in a way
that makes sense to the listener from his perspective. ‘What’s in it for me?’
is a tune that everyone listens to. It’s about speaking the truth but doing it
in a way that makes sense to the listener in ways that are important to him.
Nick, needless to say, was delighted.
Next morning when I went to see Nick he was
smiling and said, ‘Whatever you said to Hamilton Green, Patsy seems to have got
an earful from him and I don’t think you are going to have any problems with
her again.’ And that is indeed what happened. Mr. Green was a just man and
understood what I told him and acted upon it immediately.
My friend asked me a question; Where are the statesmen? Where have they all gone? For the sake of some clarity, I defined statesmen as people who were highly respected for their integrity, were highly ethical and moral and showed long-term vision for their people and countries and spent their lives in helping their people achieve that vision and not in amassing personal wealth. When I did my back-of-the-envelope analysis to see when this lifeform existed, I came to the period 1800’s-2000’s; a period of roughly 200 years. To give this a more appreciable face, take Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of this period and Nelson Mandela as the last statesman standing. With his death in 2013, they became extinct. So, what happened? What went wrong? How is it that there was a time when like the Woolly Mammoth, statesmen walked the earth but today they don’t. How is it that they failed to reproduce their kind? Is it because like the climate change that killed off the Mammoths; cultural, psychological climate change, made statesmen of the like of Lincoln and Mandela, perhaps icons to worship but not to emulate?
I did a back-of-the-envelope recall of history. What I haveis as follows: Starting from the beginning of recorded history, we have states which were the property of rulers and their families. These rulers amassed wealth through conquest. It was a simple grab-what-you-can strategy, aided by ever more powerful weapons and military organization and tactics. That gave rise to the so-called ‘Great Conquerors’ starting with Alexander of Macedonia, and on to Julius and Augustus Caesars of Rome, Cyrus of Persia, Pharaohs of Egypt, Umayyads (Abbasids didn’t do any conquests), Genghis and his sons and grandsons, Ottomans, Saffavids, Moghuls, Spanish, British, French, Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, the Vatican (directly and indirectly) and the list goes on. All of them did one thing very well; i.e. wage war. They looted, plundered and colonized. Revenue sources for them were two; immediate plunder of warfare followed by taxation of the subject people. It is not for nothing that it is called ‘spoils of war’. War spoils. Never builds. All this continued to World War I and in a slightly different way, since nation states had by then taken the stage, it continued until World War II.
to be noted here is that the purpose of all war was conquest of territory, loot
and subsequent tax revenue. In some cases, this was open and blatant. In others
it was called ‘civilizing barbarians’, ‘Holy War’, ‘Crusade’, ‘White man’s
burden’ and so on. Soldiers benefited both from the spoils of war which they
looted on their own and what the ruler dished out when the counting was done.
In the case of most rulers, their people were given land in the conquered
territory and settled there as a prize of war for them and as a safety measure
for the rulers. In the case of the Roman Empire as well as many others, this
significantly changed the demography of the region and enabled better policing
of those territories as well as tax collection. In short therefore, rulers
ruled and amassed wealth because their people were willing to support them at
the cost of their life if necessary, in exchange for the crumbs from the table.
World Wars, came the period of decolonization. Freedom struggles started in all
colonies. Some won their freedom after long, protracted and bloody conflict.
Other colonies were freed because they were no longer financially viable to
maintain as they had been bled dry and now the colonizing countries had to
spend their own money to maintain the colony. So, they granted them ‘freedom’.
These freedom struggles shifted the focus of people from materialism (amassing
wealth through conquest) to higher goals of freedom, nation building, social
change and realigning values. People had to and were ready to submit their
personal aspirations to the higher goals of nationalism and patriotism. Freedom
is heady stuff. It was during this period that we see the likes of Lincoln and
Mandela; my two symbols of the kind of leader that one can call ‘statesman’ and
not merely ‘politician’. There were others but these will suffice for this discussion
especially as they bracket the period between 1800 and 2000.
with the wars and in many ways fueled by them, the Industrial Revolution
metamorphosed into the military industrial complex that we are familiar with
today, producing myriad products and services for mass consumption. Apart of
course from weapons of war. People needed funds to buy stuff and that fueled the banking
system. It is not that there were no banks before World War II. Banking was well
established with almost the same financial instruments from the time someone
had money and someone else needed it. Jesus spoke about the bankers and money
lenders. Shakespeare wrote about them. The Roman Empire ran its entire commerce
through bankers. Medieval European monarchs, to a man (or woman) were in debt
up to their gills. But after the World Wars and successful freedom struggles, banks
became accessible to the common man and woman through what we know as
‘Commercial banking’. Money was made available, not for any altruistic reasons,
but because owners of products needed a market for their produce and banks
enabled those whose desires (or needs) exceeded their means, to achieve those
desires by enslaving themselves to a payment schedule for the rest of their
lives. That kept them out of trouble as they were too busy paying to worry
about anything else, which suited those who ruled the roost. Rome invented the
circus. We invented Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood. Both serve the same
purpose. Keep people distracted and steer thought into the channels that the
establishment wants them to think along. Add to this all the TV shows, football,
cricket, shopping, advertising, social media, FB algorithms; all things that I don’t
think I need to explain to anyone today. But do reflect on them to understand
how you and I are fish on the end of the hook, enjoying the taste of the bait,
not realizing that we are there for one reason only; to be reeled in for the
fisherman’s sport and profit. Shopping, sports and sex are the formula from the
beginning of recorded history to keep the population subjected, distracted and
interesting thing is if you look at the demographic of the rulers, you will see
that it has not changed at all, except perhaps for the kind of clothes they
wear. That changed from chainmail covered by ermine and mink, to business
suits. The ‘mailed fist’ became more symbolic but no less lethal. Pre-World
Wars and down through the colonial period, the ‘ruling class’ was a small group
of men (with the very rare woman) who ruled with only one motive; personal
profit. The cost didn’t matter at all. If it meant annihilating an entire
population (Aztecs, Incas, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals,
Hottentots, Bushmen, 2 million Indians…not end of list), then it was done by
whatever means it took ranging from arranging a famine to smallpox infected
blankets to simply separating the head from the body. Millions of Africans were
enslaved and transported across the ocean to give their life and blood to build
someone else’s nation. The list of what was done in the name of profit is well
documented for the one who is interested in reading. It is not my purpose to go
into it here.
profit motive continues, though the means have changed. Now the chains are
greed and debt. The result is the same i.e. profit for the ruling class. That
is why things that are clearly harmful to society are legal and are sold at a
premium. I mean all kinds of addictive substances like alcohol, cigarettes,
tobacco products, human bodies, gambling in many forms, the latest being
football and cricket, porn (including child porn) … once again an endless list.
Consumer perception is manipulated and influenced to make them buy this or that
product and buy more. The infamous pharma racket is a case in point among many
others. All to make profit, which is the final decider. I can’t forget to
mention the biggest of them all, manufacture and sale of weapons of mass
destruction. That is by far the most profitable which gives the best ROI. That is
the reason there is more money invested in death than in life; in weapons
research and manufacture than in cancer research and cure. When production and
sale of weapons of mass destruction is a mainstay of the economy then all
values, morals and peace vanish behind the smoke of bursting bombs and burning
homes. Manufacturing weapons of mass destruction is the most immoral,
despicable and abhorrent thing to do and has no moral justification. It must be
stopped. It is the only reason for wars and as long as it exists wars will happen,
and peace will remain an illusion. When
people who go to work in these factories turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what
their effort, energy, intelligence and industry are creating and do it in the
name of supporting their families, we must know that there is something very
seriously wrong with our society.
hold on, nothing is wrong. It is business as usual. Wars happens because wars
make profit. Peace doesn’t happen because peace doesn’t make profit. Hate sells
because hate makes profit. Love doesn’t sell, because love doesn’t make profit.
It is not about good or evil. It is about profit. Whatever makes profit is
good. Whatever doesn’t, isn’t. It may not be called ‘evil’, but it certainly
won’t get any traction, funding, facetime, airtime or any kind of time. That is
why global warming, water conservation, clean drinking water, alternate energy,
poverty alleviation are all dragging and will continue to drag because they
don’t make profit.
all this have to do with statesmen, which is the subject of this essay?
It is my
conclusion that the world hasn’t changed very much, if at all from the
beginning of recorded history to the present moment. The ‘Statesmen Period’,
was a brief interlude thanks to some special circumstances while the ruling
class changed their ‘clothes’. When they were done, they took charge once
again. They moved from direct control by military conquest to indirect (but
equally strong) control through debt. The latter has proved to be even more
profitable because it obviates the necessity of spending money to administer
another land, collect taxes, fight insurgency from time to time, maintain your
own administrators and myriad other elements of colonization. Much easier and
cost effective to allow local rulers to do your work and we don’t pay for their
sins. Taxes are replaced by sale markup with the benefit that the population
gladly and willingly pays out, while they resent being taxed. Losing colonies
worked out very well, thank you very much. All you need to do is build
attractive tax-collection centers, aka Shopping Malls and revenue flows in. However,
where the inflow of revenue is threatened for any reason by anyone, the mailed
fist does the job. When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” Fredrick
Bastiat. Armies cross borders to open the doors of commerce. While they are
there, they help themselves to whatever they can; a well-known soldier’s
prerogative. Compliant local rulers are supported and protected, no matter how
brutal or corrupt they may be. Non-compliant rulers are removed, very publicly
and brutally, both to clear the blockage as well as to demonstrate to potential
aspirants what their fate would be if they dared to buck the system. As
Fredrick Bastiat once again said, ‘When plunder becomes a way of life, men
create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that
became extinct because there is no need for them any longer.
hasten to mention what we can all see clearly, ‘the people’ are very happy with
the current system. The beauty of materialism is that like cigarette smoking,
the gratification is instantaneous while the harm is invisible. You draw the
smoke into your lungs and feel so refreshed and relaxed while some more alveoli
are filled with carbon and your lungs are primed for cancer. Only, you can’t
see it happening, so it is easy to ignore, especially since you are addicted to
smoking. We are all addicted to materialism, violence, promiscuity,
sensationalism, instant gratification of desire. We are blind to the harm this
does to us personally as well as to our society. We don’t care that our way of
life is disastrous for those who share this planet with us, animals, birds,
insects, or even the earth, air and water. We simply don’t care.
heroes are those who make the most profit. I challenge you to ask anyone to
name the top five leaders that he/she admires, and I will guarantee you that it
will be businessmen. Buffet, Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Dell – or some such
combination, but businessmen. Ask what about them that they admire, and they
will mention net worth. Which means the money they have. Not their character, learning,
wisdom, compassion or anything else. Just the amount of money they have. I have
asked this question umpteen times. Not once did anyone mention a great
scientist, social activist, philosopher, theologian, scholar, poet, dramatist,
artist, surgeon, astronaut, researcher or teacher. It is as if such people and their
contribution have no value. By our choices, we have trashed centuries of contribution
that ennobles us and raises us from merely grubbing for money. None of the
qualities which make us uniquely human seem to count. Only money. Only profit.
We don’t see any need for statesmen.
But do we need statesmen and women, whether or not we see the need for them?
question to ask in this context is, ‘Was the world a better place when Abraham Lincoln
and Mandela were in positions of power or when George Bush (and now Donald Trump)
and Jacob Zuma were in power?’
I say we
need statesmen like an alcoholic needs a deaddiction clinic. The alcoholic
won’t accept it, but without it he will die and take his family down with him.
We need people who are not focused on profit alone but who can show us how we can
gain quality of life by focusing on ethics, values and morals. The challenge is
to demonstrate this in ways that will still make profit for them. Statesmen
happened because circumstances enabled, even enforced, the natural selection of
the best to deal with the great goal of freedom. As I said, freedom is heady,
and it is a goal that people are willing to work for. Political freedom we may
have achieved. But freedom from poverty, corruption, discrimination, injustice,
oppression are all goals which remain on the horizon, unachieved. What we need is
statesmen (and women) who will address these goals and enable us, as a global
society, to achieve them. If circumstances create statesmen, I submit that
those circumstances exist even today. If only we can recognize and address
them. The tragedy is that as in my analogy about smoking, instead of recognizing
that materialistic pursuit of profit at any cost as the cancer it is, we seem have
created a mindset where it has become an aspirational goal. That is why I suggested
the test of asking about who our icons are. That will tell us what we aspire to
Today the challenge is to bring about a change in perception where people learn to see the benefit (profit in perhaps non-monetary terms) in compassion, justice, empowering the weak, alleviating poverty, education, public health, alternate energy, husbanding resources, conservation and such world building (not merely nation building) goals. It is to inspire and lead this new effort that we need statesmen and women. When we begin to see that we are all interconnected in a very real sense and that we can only swim together or we will sink, that we will hopefully be prepared to change the destructive lifestyles that we have become used to. Aspiring statesmen and women must invent ways to convince people to make this change. For that they must first believe and then they must lead by example. Each statesman is guided by his/her religious/nonreligious philosophy. Therefore, it all depends on which philosophy is guiding him/her. Statesmanship can be constructive/destructive. It all depends whether destructiveness will be called statesmanship! The world listens with its eyes. It doesn’t care what you say until it sees what you do. Statesmanship is about creating a need for value-based leadership and then fulfilling it. Statesmanship therefore must begin within ourselves. Within our families and neighborhoods. We need to inculcate values of care and concern, kindness and compassion, the willingness to extend ourselves for the sake of others, and to find personal fulfillment in it. We must understand that it is uniquely human to work to help others who can’t help us and to work for a time that we will not live to see. After all, that is the definition of vision. Given access to technology and open source material, I believe that all that a child needs today are literacy and numeracy. That takes less than one year of learning. After that the child has access to anything in the world that he or she wants to explore. To decide what that should be, the child needs a value system, a criterion for judgment and decision making. That is why value education is so critical. That is why skills of critical thinking, decision making, communication, conflict resolution and a sense of trusteeship are so essential. Sadly, almost nobody teaches them in any school curriculum and even more sadly both parents and people running schools, don’t see the need. Children are the voiceless victims of their elders’ apathy.
what must change. The statesman within must be nurtured and allowed to flower
so that appreciable change can happen in the world. The reality is that true
happiness doesn’t lie in a shopping mall or buying stuff or in consumerism. It lies
in seeing the smile on a face where you had seen tears a little while earlier
and to know that you were the reason for that change. That is truly inspiring,
motivating and satisfying.
“Er! Ahem!! Excuse me, you may not have noticed but something is happening. My neighbor has imported a man-eating tiger to eat her mother-in-law.
She wants her MIL to become a MEAL.” (Ugh! Bad pun – or whatever).
“What after the tiger has finished the offending mother-in-law?”
“Well, my neighbor hasn’t thought about it that far. Maybe she thinks the tiger will conveniently disappear into the woodwork.”
“I don’t think so. It is a man-eating tiger. Not a mother-in-law eating tiger. I don’t think it cares about who it eats as long as it is human. Then it will be your neighbor herself, then her family and then you and me.”
“Er! Ahem!! I am not sure it is a good idea to say these things.”
“50 Muslims killed at Friday prayers in #NewZealandShooting by far-right fanatics”, say the headlines. Why do they call them ‘far-right’? They are far-far-wrong. It is not semantics. ‘Right’ has a nice ring to it. Right is just, justifiable, correct, accurate, fair and good. Killing 50 worshipers is none of these things. And then the man livestreams the killing. Let us begin by calling the animal by its correct name which is ‘fascism’. Not far-right, but fascism. Remember what happens when you don’t name the disease. Six million Jews died to teach us a lesson. Millions of Germans, otherwise ‘good’ people I suppose, remained silent and watched it happen. These Jews were not killed by rampaging hordes of barbarians. They were clinically murdered by scientists who developed ever more efficient ways to do it. Just like the man in New Zealand who not only killed innocent people but livestreamed his actions.
Social media platforms which don’t get tired of telling you how state-of-the-art their technology is and how it can catch and identify every message, allowed the video of cold-blooded murder, to travel all over the world, unremarked for many hours after it happened and until someone protested about it. When someone can livestream murder of worshippers at prayer you know depravity has sunk to its lowest level. As I said, something is happening.
What is that something?
That something is the rapid normalization of hate. Hate has suddenly been legitimized and given pride of place. I lived and worked in America and among the things I taught there is the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 is the act which gives the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) authority to sue in federal courts when it finds reasonable cause to believe that there has been employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Yet today none other than the President of America himself, mocks, condemns and expresses hatred against Americans and others on all these bases. And apparently that is acceptable. The truth is that hatred has been stoked and nurtured at every level and it is international. That is what we must accept if we want a cure.
Just to recollect; the gunman who killed worshipers in Quebec, Anders Breivik in Norway, Donald Trump’s brazen anti-Muslim rhetoric, Boris Johnson’s vilification of Muslim women, Tommy Robinson, Katie Hopkins, Jayda Fransen, Paul Golding are all given prime time slots on mainstream media and allowed millions of followers on social media. In India, the rise of fascist views has grown in tandem with extremist Hindu groups supporting Trump and attacking Muslims. This is tacitly supported by a total lack of action against the criminals thereby encouraging them to do more. Israel routinely shoots Palestinian men, women and children. No comments. Communist China imprisons, rapes and tortures over a million Uighur Muslims in the name of fighting extremism. Allegedly peace-loving Buddhists of Myanmar, led by the infamous Aung San Suu Kyi, slaughter and dispossess their Rohingya Muslim citizens with impunity. The list is endless, but this will suffice for what I need to say.
Killing and abusing Muslims has always been justified and easily explained. Just as killing Jews was accepted and justified all through Medieval times. The reality is that there were no Syrian or Iraqi or Libyan or Palestinian refugees until America and its allies created them. Most refugees today are escaping the hell that has been created in their homelands by wars and strife foisted on them by nations seeking resources, selling arms and seeking exploitation. In the same breath as demanding peace, Western nations manufacture and sell weapons of mass destruction to the vilest dictators on the planet or use them in their own personal pursuit of commerce and diplomacy through the barrel of a gun. The comment I heard which is ‘stand-up comedy standard’, is what one of the ‘leaders’ said about a sale of F-16’s, ‘It was not meant to be used in combat.’ Well, what else do you use it for? To take your girlfriend to the movies? I recall a poster when JFK was assassinated. It had a picture of a gun in a square frame and the caption, “This is made for one thing only.” At least someone then, spoke the truth.
The point I want to make is not for those individuals, leaders or groups perpetrating these crimes. I am speaking to the vast majority; people who remain silent even though they are well aware of what is happening. That is why I began with my man-eating tiger analogy. Hatred is a man-eater far more voracious than any poor tiger. Hatred is fire and it burns anything in its path. Hatred is fire and the result is always ash. It doesn’t matter why the fire was lit. Whether it was lit as an act of worship or to cook food or keep warm or anything else. It can do only one thing, burn. And the result is always ash. I ask you, is this what you want to bequeath to the world? To your own children?
Some very heartwarming and encouraging reactions to the horrific incident in New Zealand. Overwhelming support from local communities for the victims and their families. Spontaneous outpouring of love and kindness and courage. Thousands of calls to the mosques where people were killed. An unprecedented clear statement of courage by the Prime Minister who called it an ‘Unprecedented premeditated terrorist act.’ I must admit that I was waiting for the usual, ‘stressed out man with personal problems’, definition that is usually used for all white male terrorists. But God Bless her, she said it like it is. Similar statements by the Head of New Zealand Police which is doing an amazing job of bringing the perpetrators to book. No police force in the world can be expected to anticipate and prevent every crime. But every police force in the world can and must investigate crime when it happens and prosecute the criminal and aid the victim. When that is not done, the police are as culpable as the criminal, if not more.
What I want to say to you is this. Get out of denial. There is a change happening in the world and it is the same the world over. Fascism is gaining roots and is being nourished by those who benefit from it. But even more by your silence. Fascism and cowardice are a lethal combination and you will be the casualty. You think your silence and hiding in your hole will save you? It won’t. On the contrary that is what allows fascism to grow ever stronger until the bell tolls for you one day. Pastor Neimoller’s words are, perhaps even more relevant today. “First they came …” is a poem written by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes the following text as one of the many poetic versions of the speech:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Yes, it is wonderful when we see good reactions from people after a horrific incident happens. But what we need even more is proactive action. Proactive action by all of us. We need to stand up and speak out. We need to get out of our safe little nests and speak out against those who seek to use hatred to divide us so that they can benefit. We must speak out against all hatred, no matter who it is directed against. Antisemitism is as wrong as Islamophobia or any other form of hatred. Not less or more. But equal. This means it must be condemned equally. Those who seek to promote it must be rejected, lambasted and castigated. Whoever they may be. Without exception.
We must send the snakes of hatred, racism, fascism back into their holes. We must recognize the obscenity of hate speech and be ashamed of it. It is time to speak up. We must show our support for justice, compassion, mutual respect and human dignity at the ballot boxes. We must hold the media accountable for fanning the flames of hatred and for giving hate speakers and xenophobia mongers, public platforms from which to propagate their venomous ideologies. The easiest and most powerful way to bring media to heel is to switch off your TV, cancel your advertisement or subscription for the press. You have the right to choose. Nobody can force you to choose against your will. So, choose. Choose life, dignity, peace, prosperity and economic development. Remember that not one of those will come from killing people, spreading hatred, or supporting fascist agendas of self-serving leaders.
For how long the denial? We are going back towards fascism. It’s the Muslims today but really it is all of us. If we don’t fight it, it will consume us and then we’ll have only ourselves to blame. Islamophobia is Xenophobia, is fascism, is racism; the blatant hijacking of society by a few because the majority are too lazy to speak up and stand for what they know to be right. I don’t want to be among them. I will speak and I will stand up. Even if I am alone. Especially if I am alone.
If you don’t want to burn, help to put out the fire. It is as simple as that.
Text of speech delivered at the AGM of the Jamiat ul Ulama, South Africa in 2006
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
Indeed, all praises are due to Allahﷻ, we praise Him, we seek His help, we ask for His forgiveness, and we rely solely on Him. We seek His refuge from the evil in our souls and from our wicked deeds. Whoever Allahﷻ guides, no one can misguide. And whomever Allahﷻ allows to be misguided (leaves alone to follow his own desires), no one can guide. I bear witness that there is no one worthy of worship except Allahﷻ, He is One, with no partners, and I testify that Muhammadﷺ is His Messenger and His slave.
Rasoolullahﷺ said: “The best speech is the Book of Allahﷻ and the best guidance and example is that of Muhammadﷺ. And the worst of all things are the newly invented things (in religion), for every innovation is error and misguidance.” [Reported by Muslim] and in another narration, “every newly invented matter (in religion) is a bid’ah and every bida’a is a misguidance and every misguidance is in the (hell) Fire.” [Reported by At-Tirmithi].
I want to begin by quoting from one of the greatest of our Ulama in India, Allama Syed Sulaiman Nadwi (RA) who said: “The thing that has spread ignorance and misguided the most is the differentiation between Dunya and Deen. The work of Deen was declared to be different from the work of Dunya. The orders of Allahﷻwere separated from the orders of Caesar (world, government). The way to succeed in Deen was stated to be different from the way to succeed in Deen. Students of Islam, this was the biggest mistake that was made but its veil was torn apart by the light of the message of Muhammadﷺ. It (the message of Islam) showed that to do the work of the Dunya with good intention and sincerity according to the way permitted by Allahﷻis Deen. That means that living in the Dunya doing its work, but according to the orders of Allahﷻis the essence of religion (Deendari). People think that to sit in seclusion in a cave on a hilltop, engaged exclusively in Dhikr and worship, living a life of self-selected poverty away from people, is Deendari (piety). And to spend time with your friends, family, parents, children, to help them in worldly matters or to help yourself, is Dunyadari (worldliness). Islam wiped out this false belief and clarified that to fulfill your worldly responsibilities, earn your living and participate in the affairs of the world according to the orders of Allahﷻis in fact Deendari (piety).” Syed Sulaiman Nadwi.
I am here to invoke the right that Allahﷻ has given me, as a follower of Islam, to go to the Ulama and ask them to lead me on the path of righteousness. This is my right upon you. And I ask you with humbleness, to give me my right.
I have heard from all the Ulama that I have listened to and read, that Islam is a complete way of life and not merely a way of worship. There is guidance in Islam for every aspect of life that an individual leads, irrespective of the boundaries of time and space. I have also heard that this Islamic way of life is good for all time, until the Hour is established. About you, the Prophetﷺ said (approximate meaning of the hadith): “The Ulama are the inheritors of the Anbiya (Messengers). The Anbiya don’t bequeath dinars and dirhams. They bequeath knowledge. So, whoever acquires knowledge is indeed fortunate.”
What is unstated in this hadith but is its soul is what the Ulama are supposed to do with the knowledge that they have. The Anbiya showed people the way and taught people what they knew. They did not simply collect the knowledge from Allahﷻ and keep it to themselves. They did not merely become storehouses of knowledge but established markets of the knowledge where it could be learnt and benefited from. That was the duty of the Anbiya, to spread the word without fear of anyone. And Allahﷻ promised to protect them as long as they carried out this duty.
Al Ma’aidah:67 O Messenger, proclaim the (message of Islam) which has been sent to you from your Rabb. If you did not do this, you would not have fulfilled and proclaimed His mission. And Allah will defend you from the people (who mean mischief). For Allah guides not those who reject Faith.
About the mission of Rasoolullahﷺ Allahﷻ said:
Al Ahzab: 21 You have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of life) for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the Praise of Allah.
There are two critical points in this ayah:
That the life of Rasoolullahﷺ is the best example of the Islamic Way of Life.
That Islam is a Way of Life and not merely a way of worship but the way to lead one’s entire life in all its aspects.
It is essential to keep this perspective in mind as you read the rest of this document.
Historical Perspective – Europe and Christianity
In medieval Europe a combination of the pressure of kings to act at will and the self-serving politics of the Church resulted in a formal division between the Christian Church and the State. What added to this, especially when scientific education became popular (ironically as a result of the contribution of Muslim scientists) was the alienation of the common people from Biblical knowledge because the Bible had been changed by its guardians and no longer made sense to a scientific mind. They found that what their religion said was so divorced from the reality that they had only two choices left to them. Either to discard all religion (which is what Darwinism, Marxism and the various atheistic theories did) or to hold religion as something ceremonial to respect but not as something that can actually be used in real life. Most people made the second choice. So, they went to Church on Sundays and listened to sermons but during the week they continued to live their lives in accordance with their own personal desires. They found nothing contradictory or ridiculous to sit in the same pew with their live-in boy or girl friend and listening to a sermon about faithfulness in marriage and against extra-marital sex.
The State allowed the Church to operate freely in the area of theology, narrowly defined as the study of the Bible, rituals of worship (baptism, marriage and funerals etc.) and preaching. All these were acknowledged as the responsibility of the priests and the State and common people would not ‘interfere’ in them except to provide funding at their will. Priests were given the right to raise funds for their work (building churches, running Sunday schools, seminaries and monasteries, publishing religious literature and missionary work of preaching). All considered to be ‘good work’ which it was the role of the church and priests to do. So also, it was their role to be pure and celibate (extreme form of ‘purity’) and for the women among them to be modest and covered from head to toe (nuns) and to be engaged with only charity and such matters and leave the world and worldly matters alone.
The unspoken condition was that the Church and its priests refrained from ‘interfering’ (criticizing, correcting) in the lives of the kings and common people. If the Church toed this line, it got State sponsorship. When it refused (as in the case of Henry VIII – who founded the Anglican Church as a breakaway from Catholicism in the 16th century. The Church of England broke with Rome, largely because Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon), people simply went ahead and either found some ‘cooperative’ priests who were willing to legitimize their wrongdoing. Or they went ahead and did what they wanted to anyway. This only served to enhance the divide between the Church and the common people and gradually the role of the Church was reduced merely to the symbolic.
Historical Perspective – The Muslim World
Interestingly the same kind of division happened in the Muslim world. Some reasons were the same; i.e. the recalcitrant attitude of kings and common people about following the precepts of the faith in areas where these conflicted with their own desires. Ulama who disagreed with Muslim kings and Khulafa were brutally persecuted, even murdered. Ulama who were cooperative and allowed things which they had no right to allow, simply to please their masters, were praised, supported and enriched. Common people went fatwa shopping and praised those Ulama who legitimized their wrongdoing or at least did not openly criticize it. This unfortunate trend continues to this day.
In the face of severe persecution, Ulama retreated from the limelight and took refuge in their Khankhas and restricted themselves to protecting and teaching the scriptures. They deliberately stayed away from matters of a worldly nature and perhaps unconsciously or in times of intense persecution even consciously, agreed to separate their activity from the real world and retreated into their Madaaris and Khankhas. They confined themselves to the study and teaching of the Qur’an and Hadith, rituals of worship and its related aspects (births, marriages and deaths) and some specific issues of Fiqh. They became and created super specialists in the religious texts with no attempt to look at their application to fast changing external realities of society. And they also unconsciously and without that intent, started preparing ‘priests’; students whose role was seen as being confined to Imaamat in masajid and teaching in Madaaris. Interestingly, they even called the Darul Uloom or Ja’amia Islamia, a ‘Seminary’ and its Nazim or Muhtamim, ‘The Rector’. It is interesting to note that no attempt was made at least to be distinct from Christian Religious institutions in nomenclature.
All scientific and current knowledge was shunned and considered as being beneath the dignity of Ulama to study. Therefore, Ulama and students became less and less knowledgeable about science and technology, economics and politics and appeared as being ‘ignorant’ in society. Since they did not (and still don’t) understand science, technology and current knowledge, most of them have no idea how to use it to benefit Islam or Muslims. Or to ‘translate’ theology to help ordinary Muslims understand its relevance to their lives today. The same attitude was applied to all worldly subjects and so gradually the leadership of the world passed from the hands of the Ulama into the hands of others.
Until the 19th century students went to an A’alim to learn a particular branch of theology. When they finished there, they went to someone else to learn another branch. When formal Madaris were established (in the 20th century), they simply brought several Ulama, each an expert in his branch of theology, together in one place. The curriculum simply followed the earlier method of learning where each A’alim taught in his expert area with no reference to what another A’alim would teach the students in the next period.
For example, if students of a class are doing the Tafsir of the Ayaat of Sura Al Baqara relating to interest-based financing and the writing of contracts in their Qur’anic Tafsir class, they do not necessarily study the Kitaab ul Buyoo’ in their Hadith class. Nor do they study the (Principles) Matha’il of Fiqh to do with business, contractual dealings, financing and its current forms in the world. Therefore, to connect one branch of theological knowledge with another and then to interpret it in the context of current social realities is something that is simply left to the student’s ability with predictable results. Not surprisingly this has created a disconnect for ordinary Muslims between what Islam teaches and the questions they face in their daily lives.
Ignorance as always breeds fear and so also in this case where there is a universal phobia (though not always acknowledged) among the Ulama about science and technology. Ulama forgot that the Qur’an itself encourages the person to research in the creation and recognize the signs (Ayaat) of Allahﷻ. The Qur’an teaches the way in which this is to be done; the sequence of guidance without which one sees the signs of the Creator yet fails to recognize Him in those signs. It was the responsibility of the Ulama and to show the world the right way to research scientific knowledge, but they did not shoulder this responsibility. Instead they discarded scientific knowledge and called it a source of misguidance, without recognizing that the danger lay in the method of teaching by the secularists, not in the knowledge itself. This increased the alienation even more.
The liberal atmosphere in universities became another cause to criticize and fear them and so Muslim students were discouraged from going to university. Strangely there was no attempt to go to university and change the atmosphere to one that is more oriented towards learning. There was a strange lack of confidence in our own theology and our ability to persuade or influence anyone about the Islamic way of life. That is why there was the unspoken fear that if our students went to university they would get ‘corrupted’ while the fact that they could conceivably have influenced others, was neither acknowledged nor even considered possible. Sadly, this attitude exists even today in many quarters.
The Qur’an on the other hand encourages scientific research and education and also teaches the way in which this must be done. It teaches the sequence that must be followed in order that scientific education becomes a source of guidance and strengthening of Imaan. It draws attention to the fact that if this sequence is not followed, then there is danger of the student going astray.
Allahﷻ describes those people who He calls People of Understanding (Ulul Albab). It is important to understand this description and see if we fit it or not as we consider ourselves to be intelligent.
A’al Imraan:190-91 Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are indeed Signs for People of Understanding. They are those who celebrate the praises of Allah standing sitting and lying down on their sides and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth (with the thought): Our Rabb! Not for nothing have you created (all) this! Glory to You! Give us salvation from the penalty of the fire.
Please notice that Allahﷻ uses the term WA and not AU when he connects His Dhikr with scientific research وَيَتَفَكَّرُونَ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ. Teaching theology and scientific knowledge are not antagonistic or mutually exclusive in Islam, but one leads to the other and strengthens the other. The Qur’an teaches the methodology to do this so that the student sees the signs of Allahﷻ in the world by means of this knowledge. But somewhere we lost this connection and lost our position as leaders in science and technology. We lost this because we did not follow the Qur’an. Not because we lost the scientists in wars. If the sequence that the Qur’an teaches is followed, then mankind has no alternative but to recognize Allahﷻ in His creation and to exclaim in wonder and amazement at the Majesty of the Creator;
“O Our Rabb! Not for nothing have you created this. Glory to You. Give us salvation from the penalty of the fire.”
On the other hand, when science is taught from an atheistic or secular perspective, as if there is no Creator, then it perpetuates this lie. Students get confused. Their basic questions can’t be answered. They confuse the “Why” with the “How”. They fail to learn the purpose behind the created thing and remain engrossed in its nature. This can lead to an irreligious attitude and an alienation from Islam and the message of Allahﷻ. Unfortunately, our Ulama due to their own ignorance of science and technology looked at these branches of knowledge with suspicion and did not even think of becoming its teachers in the Qur’anic way. Secularists on the other hand taught science from an atheistic perspective and the division between the average Muslim and Ulama widened.
Strategy for the future
There is much that needs to be done and many changes that need to be made if the Ulama are to take the leadership role in the Ummah and the world. In my view there are three major steps that need to be taken. The implementation strategy for each can be worked out in detail.
Accepting the mantle of leadership for the Ummah and the World
This is the first requirement in my view from which everything else will flow. Unless Ulama accept that it is indeed their responsibility to lead the world in every sense of the term, no change can take place in the current situation where they merely seem to consider it their duty to preserve and teach theology alone. If Islam is indeed a way of life (Nizaam-e-hayaat) and not a system of belief (Nazariya) alone, then it is essential that we learn to talk about the whole of life in all its aspects, social, political, economic and personal. The religious aspect permeates all of these and is not something to be spoken of or dealt with in isolation as happens today. We accept this in principle and in word, but we do nothing about implementing this in our teaching.
Becoming and creating Standard Bearers of Islam
The gap between the Ulama and the ordinary Muslim is very wide and widening. The gap between the A’alim of Islam and the non-Muslim is beyond description. If the Ulama are to be the leaders of the Ummah and of the world, then this gap must be bridged. It is the responsibility of those who aspire to leadership to create followership. In order to do this, it is not enough, even useless and harmful, to simply sermonize and “talk at” people. It is essential to become and create Standard Bearers of Islam. People who are living, walking, talking, working and visible examples of the excellence of the Islamic Way of Life.
The ayah I quoted about the life of the Messenger of Allahﷻ is a clear proof that this was the intention of Allahﷻ in sending our beloved Prophetﷺ, to demonstrate to the world, what it means to live like a Muslim. He came to SHOW Islam, not merely to TALK ABOUT Islam. So, if we truly want to follow the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ it is essential to translate Islamic theory into practice and give people tools to apply in their lives which will lead to success in this life itself. This is the promise of Allahﷻ, for those who practice the Islamic Way of Life, success both in this world as well as in the next. It is success in this world that is visible and when people see the benefit of Applied Islam, they will not need anyone to exhort them to practice it. It is not enough to merely teach one branch of Islam alone, in isolation.
Social change is not brought about using force. It is created by those who believe in it, practicing it with passion and dedication in a way that demonstrates its superiority over other ways. As in the case of the Montessori teaching methodology or even something as mundane as western clothing (trousers and shirt) people saw those who used them, liked what they saw and adopted it without any compulsion from the original users. So also, in the case of the English language, others were influenced by the native speakers of English who refused to speak in any other language and more and more people started using English in their work, wrote in it, spoke it and today it is a universal language. The same thing is happening rapidly today with respect to Western (especially American) culture. It is changing our values, traditions, customs and ways of relating. All this without any overt force from America. The American way is spreading all over the world simply by Americans practicing those ways themselves, publicly, with confidence and without apology. So even though some of the ways are detrimental to society, they are adopted by the ignorant because they are momentarily pleasant to some.
Let us remember that these influences happen because the originators of all these ways refuse to use any other way and insisted on using their own. They did not compel anyone else. They merely used their own ways themselves. Simply seeing them influenced others to change their own age-old customs, practices and their own ways got relegated to ceremonial purposes. That is why Indian (or local dress in British colonies) dress is worn only on ceremonial occasions while Western dress is worn all through the year. This is just one example. There are many others. The key is to practice Islam confidently and to become its Standard Bearers of Islam in all aspects of our lives.
Let us remember that Muslims know the Why of obedience to Allahﷻ. We need to teach them the How. The reason Islam is not practiced is a tools issue, not an ideology issue. For example, it is not enough to talk about the fact that Abdur Rahman Ibn Awf (RA) who migrated without any resources, started with no capital at his disposal, yet he became the richest man in Madinah in a period of less than 10 years using Halaal means of business. It is necessary to teach people the business model of Abdur Rahman Ibn Awf (RA) so that they can go forward and also become millionaires using Halaal Islamic business methods. If we can’t do this, then telling the story of Abdur Rahman Ibn Awf (RA) is of no practical benefit.
But instead of following the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ who taught the trader how to trade, when we preach without demonstrating or practicing, it creates a credibility gap and leads people to believe that the Deen is merely a way of worship and has no practical use in this life. It is for this reason that Sayyidina Omar Ibn Al Khattab (RA) said that a trader has no right to trade unless he first learns the Fiqh of trade. I ask our Ulama, if we are teaching business management classes in our Madaris and Ja’amiaat. If not, then I ask them to let me know, where the Muslim businessman should go to learn the way the Sahaba of Rasoolullahﷺ did business. The same thing is true of all other aspects of life. Be it teaching and learning, psychology and counseling, law and justice, science and technology, medicine and engineering or anything else. We need to teach people how to demonstrate the Islamic Way of Life in what they do in the world. We need to create Standard Bearers of Islam who will Show the way. To which Darul Uloom or Ja’amia can a person go, to learn the complete Islamic Way of Life – Nizaam-e-hayaat?
Humbly and with respect, I submit that it is the challenge of the Ulama to teach Islam in a way where it is truly seen as the best way of life in all aspects of life. This is what is needed to bridge the gap between the Ulama and the Awwam-un-Naas that currently exists. Our Ja’amiat and Madaris must teach science and technology, business and political science. But they must teach it differently from the way it is taught in secular schools. They must teach it in the Qur’anic way and relate what they teach to the Islamic Way. They must help the students to recognize their Creator through seeing His signs in the world around them. That is the true meaning of Da’awa of Islam. It is essential for Ulama to also create active and vibrant fora for interaction and Mashwara between themselves and intellectuals, professionals, technologists, scientists, educators, politicians and administrators, men and women, from among the Muslims. These fora can be formed on a national basis with local chapters which meet periodically and deliberate on current issues that affect the Muslims in the country and the world.
These fora can also be utilized to influence public opinion and to evolve a concerted strategy for united action. Finally, and most importantly these will be a wonderful way to create a mindshare between the Ulama and leaders of Muslim society and a very powerful way of bringing about much needed social change in the Muslim Ummah.
Become proactive activists for the truth in the socio-political arena
The true face of Islam was seen when the A’alim was also the Khalifa. During the rule of Rasoolullahﷺ, his Khulafa-ar-Raashida, Omar bin Abdul Aziz (R) and other righteous scholar-rulers, Islam shone forth in its true glory as the Right way of leading life. As Allahﷻ said:
Al An’aam: 165 It is He who has made you (His) agents (Khulafa’a) inheritors of the earth: He has raised you in ranks some above others: that he may try you in the gifts that He has given you: for your Rabb is quick in punishment: yet He is indeed Oft-Forgiving Most Merciful.
Let us remember that there is no gift that is more valuable than the gift of Ilm (knowledge) and it is a gift that we will be held accountable for on the Day of Judgment. Let us remember that Khilafat and Wiraasat of the Anbiya come with a responsibility. That is the reason I submit that it is not acceptable for Ulama to seek the comfort, safety and seclusion of their Madaaris and Khankhas while the world is reeling around as if in a drunken state. I submit with all respect that it is the responsibility of those who know the way, to show it to those who don’t know it, even if the ignorant ones don’t have the sense to ask. It is the responsibility of those who know the way to find different ways of gaining the trust of those they seek to lead and then lead them on the right path.
In order to do this, Ulama must address issues on a global plane. The current situation where there is no meaningful collaboration even between Islamic universities and Ja’amiaat around the world is a deplorable thing. Our problem as Ulama and as the Ummah is not that we are not united. It is that we have no strategy for unity, for influencing or for anything else. We urgently and desperately need to think collectively and on a global plane.
The British parliament for example has a Shadow Cabinet where the Opposition Party deliberates on all issues that the Ruling Party is working on and creates shadow legislation in the light of their own ideology. As Muslims, where is our Shadow Cabinet? The same situation prevails about issues of Muslims in different countries. I submit that there is a critical need to set up a Think Tank consisting of Ulama and experts who can think of various issues and suggest proactive steps to deal with them. Our current slowness even in reacting to emerging issues is very detrimental and harmful to us. We not only need to improve our speed of response, but we need to be able to anticipate and act before issues become critical.
Strategies for Change: Some suggestions
In my view the single most critical thing that distinguishes Islam from all other religions and ideologies is its focus and emphasis on knowledge. The only thing that Allahﷻ taught His Messengerﷺ to ask for increase in, is knowledge. It is for this reason that the scholars of Islam have a very special place in Muslim society. For various historical reasons, this place has been lost for many decades. The time has come however where it is essential for Ulama all over the world to realize their real responsibility and arise to take up the mantle of leadership once again.
This paper is respectfully submitted for consideration and lists the changes that I believe are necessary to make if the Ulama of Islam are once again to get the prominence and influence that they had in early Islamic history.
Change in mindset:
Accept the burden of leadership of the Ummah worldwide in all aspects of social, economic, political and personal life. This will involve a lot of soul searching and a major change in the way of thinking and ownership of collective responsibility. I believe however, that no matter how difficult this may seem to be, without a conscious decision to change our positioning, nothing can be achieved. Today the vast majority of Muslims live as minorities in multi-religious, plural societies. Our challenge is to create a model of living with non-Muslims, such that Muslims become highly respected and influential members of society in the same way as the Parsis are in India. Currently we have a shortage of both respect and influence and apparently no idea of how to get either. The Ulama need to show the way. For this the Ulama must have the humility to accept that they need to prepare themselves and go to those who can teach them about worldly matters and study under them. Our current Madrassa syllabus and curriculum is seriously out of date with the current world and its needs. It needs a major overhaul. This means that teachers will need to learn new subjects and new methods of teaching. The good news is that all this is easy to do and mostly will cost nothing at all, as it is all available free of cost. The bad news is that our own fears and egos are our most powerful enemies. But until we overcome our egos, Ulama are going to lose all relevance in society.
Change in image:
Thoughtfully and urgently change the current image that Ulama are people who have nothing to do with this world. Become aufait with international norms, etiquette, and behavior. Network globally with other Islamic and secular universities and research bodies. Participate in teacher exchange programs with them. Network with the media and become spokespeople for the global media. Actively work to create media channels to promote Islamic interests. Become visible in the media in all social interest activity. Make our Ja’amiaat and Madaaris centers of excellence in all aspects; scholastically, socially, environmentally and in terms their facilities. Demonstrate excellence in all aspects of life and behavior in our teaching institutions which must become role models for all teaching institutions.
Change in course curricula:
Review and reform current curricula in all Madaris and Ja’amiaat and focus on application of Islam to real life issues. Teach all branches of knowledge, both religious and modern but from an Islamic perspective. Develop course curricula, teaching methods and material, books and teacher training courses to enable teachers to teach science and technology in a way that reminds students about the Creator. The goal and challenge is to bridge the gap between theology and science and teach science in such a way that the student recognizes the signs of Allahﷻ.
The second and extremely important element is to introduce Tazkiyyatun Nafs (Purification of the Soul) and Tarbiyyatul Akhlaaq (Upbringing with good manners) into the curriculum as a serious subject. To create ways of teaching both and to demonstrate it by having teachers who are steeped in its practice. Values can’t be legislated. They must be inculcated. That is why teacher recruitment and training is the most critical element in this entire process. Any educational institution or system is only as good as its teachers.
Change in methods of teaching:
Encourage innovation, entrepreneurship, enquiry, debate, dialogue, rigor in research, specialization in application of theory, documentation of results and publications of an international standard. Focus on languages, particularly Arabic and English. Focus on technology and all its applications for research, networking, student and teacher exchange, knowledge sharing, teaching and learning. In an age where religious information is easily available to anyone who has access to the internet, the real value addition of going to a Madrassa must be clear to the student.
Change in focus of learning from theory to practice:
Move the current focus from preservation of knowledge to application of knowledge. We are currently like a library of automobile engineering books. But we all walk to work. We need to create the factories that can translate the knowledge in the books into cars on the street. Our focus must shift from mere memorization of Qur’an and Ahadith to their application in real life today. Our challenge is to show by actual practice, how our Islamic Way of Life is superior to every other way and makes a person a winner in both this life and the next. We must show how practicing the Islamic Way makes a person a winner in this life. We must demonstrate the superiority of the Islamic Way to non-believers and to ordinary Muslims. Like sugar which is sweet no matter who uses it, the Islamic Way must be shown to work wonders for all those who use it even if they are not Muslims.
Measure the Quality of religious education
Currently there is no measurement of the quality of religious education. Each Jamia teaches courses with the same names but the output is very disparate. There is no comparison between the quality of students of one institution and another. In short there are no quality methods to measure the quality of education or to compare between institutions. Methods of empirical measurement based on scholastic output must be created. Teachers must be graded on the quality of their teaching.
Quality measurement parameters must be set up. A good way to understand this is to see that for instance if the passing mark in the graduation exam is 40% what would the institution itself look like if the same passing mark was applied to it. If 600 students complete Daur-e-Hadith, then if 240 become world class Muhadditheen, the institution can only be said to have ‘passed’. We are all aware of what our institutions will look like if we apply this standard today. It is precisely because we have no measurement that those who excel in our institutions are few and far between. This can never change unless we measure the quality of our education on a comparative, continuous basis. For this it is necessary to have a single consolidated examination system. We need to have a Coordinating Council for all Madrassas which among other things must create a common curriculum and conduct a common examination. This must be done at the undergraduate level after which different Darul Ulooms can become centers for tertiary specialization in different disciplines. One can be the place to go for specialization in Fiqh, another in Hadith another in Tafsir and so on. That way we would also have a healthy intermixing of students rather than the present clique-like adherence to one or other of the Darul Ulooms without any interaction with anyone else.
Change in attitude towards money: Become financially self-sufficient:
Ulama need to rethink their attitude to money and actively work to make their institutions financially self-sufficient by the creation of endowment trusts, financial investments that yield return or other such means. The present situation of financial dependency creates a lack of respect in society and poses a serious hindrance to all developmental work that may be envisaged. Transparency of dealing, financial discipline, planning and control are all essential to establish. We need to be able to demonstrate the efficacy and superiority of Islamic Banking over other ways of banking and how it develops society instead of destroying it.
However, in over 1400 years we don’t have a single viable Islamic financial model on a global scale. This is because our focus has never been on application. Instead our own religious institutions are dependent on charity for their existence. Islam did not come to make beggars out of us. We chose to become beggars instead of becoming philanthropists to the world. That is why we have no influence in society. After all who listens to a beggar? This also makes it difficult for us to criticize those who donate to our Madaaris. In some cases, such people are engaged in banking, cigarette manufacture and other Haraam business or engage in clear Israaf in their lives, yet we can’t say anything to them for fear that they will discontinue their donations. This further harms our own image in the eyes of others.
Change in approach to society at large:
Ulama, Ja’amiaat, Madaaris must focus on social work, especially to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, superstition and ignorance. It is essential for Ulama to be visible in all situations of natural or man-made disasters, giving aid to all people who are affected irrespective of their religion. Ulama and their students can run on-going programs at the village level focused at adult literacy, social awareness, alcohol detoxification, women’s issues, marriage counseling and other such matters. For this, courses in Applied Psychology & Counseling, Law, Public Administration, Teacher’s Training, Montessori Education, Entrepreneurship Development, Rural Development, Agriculture & Animal Husbandry and other subjects can be taught or otherwise made available to Ja’amia students. This will not only give them a way of earning a decent living but will also impact society and demonstrate the value of Muslim institutions to the world. Ulama must learn to work with their hands and not consider that to be beneath their dignity. All kinds of skill courses are available, in most countries funded by government, which Darul Uloom students must take so that by the time they graduate, they will have a marketable skill and become financially independent. Then they can teach Islam with courage and integrity without fearing or trying to please anyone other than Allahﷻ.
Change in approach to women
It is a peculiar situation where on the one hand we talk of Islam as being the first religion that actively worked for the emancipation of women and gave women legal, political and social rights in a society where even their human identity was denied. On the other hand, our (especially Ulama’s) attitude towards women is anything but collaborative and equal. We treat women with hostile suspicion and in most Muslim societies deny them the rights that Islam has given them. Local customs, tribal practices and blatant male domination and patriarchy characterize our attitude towards women. We make no effort to involve them in any serious discourse that has to do with any religious, social or political agenda. Yet we make sanctimonious speeches of how one pious woman can change the whole family. No nation can progress or prosper that refuses to allow more than half its population to participate in nation building. It is a choice that we need to make. The situation has come where if we don’t make the choice according to Islam our women will take the choice out of our hands.
Learning to disagree without being disagreeable
It is a sad situation that as times have changed, we seem to have lost the ability to dispute with concern. Over and over again we see instances of Ulama disputing with each other over various matters, some serious, some trivial but doing this almost invariably in ways which divide the Ummah. Ulama take stances which are hard, use language which is harsh and are unbending and unwilling to change their opinions no matter what logic is presented. At the same time, we talk about the way in which our elders and teachers used to dispute, where as a result of the dispute, their hearts came closer and their understanding of the Deen was clearer. Today therefore it is an essential skill for us to learn; to disagree without being disagreeable. To learn to dispute on matters of principle and understanding but ensure that the hearts are always kept free of all rancor. It is essential to delink one’s ego from the argument so that any situation or interpretation can be discussed and dialogued in detail and in depth so that the best possible way of understanding it comes to light and all those involved can agree on this. In cases where an agreement is not possible, when disagreement follows the rules of keeping the hearts free from hatred and personal conflict, then people can agree to disagree yet remain friends.
In the interest of keeping the Ummah together, it is essential that we follow these rules of disputing so that as a result of the dispute the Ummah does not divide even further.
Tazkiyatun Nafs (Purification of the Soul)
It is an accepted principle in agriculture that one must prepare the ground first before any seed can be planted and be expected to germinate, grow and produce fruit. Without proper preparation of the earth the seed will either not germinate at all or be deficient in its growth. Tazkiyya is the preparation of the heart to receive the knowledge of the Revelation. Without this preparation the knowledge will fall on cold stone and leave it unmoved. The fault lies not with the knowledge but with the lack of preparation. Allahﷻ made Tazkiyya a major role of Nabuwwat (Prophethood) when He said:
A’al Imraan 3: 164. Indeed Allâh conferred a great favor on the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from among themselves, reciting unto them His Verses (the Qur’ân), and purifying them (tazkiyyatun nafs), and instructing them (in) the Book (the Qur’ân) and Al Hikmah [the wisdom and the Sunnah], while before that they had been in manifest error.
It is a regrettable fact that in the course of years we seem to have lost the importance of Tazkiyya in our teaching system. We seem to concentrate purely on the external without any focus on the internal or hidden aspect of our worship and actions. There is almost no religious institution which takes care to graduate the students with the help of a trained Shaikh through a ‘course’ on Tazkiyya. The correction of the internal aspects of oneself, Baatini Islaah, is a very important aspect of learning that Rasoolullahﷺ and all those who came after him among the great teachers of Islam paid close attention to. Allahﷻ mentioned this internal aspect of worship in the Qur’an with specific reference to Salah where He said:
Al Mu’minoon 23: 1. Successful indeed are the believers.2. Those who offer their Salât (prayers) with all solemnity and full submissiveness.
Al Ma’oon 107: 4. So woe unto those performers of Salât 5. Who delay their Salât from their stated fixed times,6. Those who do good deeds only to be seen (by others).
This has specific reference to the intention which is an internal aspect of worship that is a condition of its acceptance with Allahﷻ. A lack of sincerity can nullify the best of deeds.
This is further confirmed by the famous hadith of Niyyah narrated by Sayyidina Omar Ibn Al Khattab (RA) which is usually the first hadith in most books where he reported Rasoolullahﷺ as saying: ‘The reward of deeds is based on their intention.’ Intention is an internal matter, not visible to the outsider but something that is so important that the entire deed depends on it for its validity before Allahﷻ.
Allahﷻ said about the internal aspects of reading and listening to the Qur’an:
Zumar 39:23. Allâh has sent down the best statement, a Book (this Qur’ân), its parts resembling each other in goodness and truth, oft-repeated. The skins of those who fear their Lord shiver from it (when they recite it or hear it). Then their skin and their heart soften to the remembrance of Allâh. That is the guidance of Allâh. He Guides there-with whom He pleases and whomever Allâh sends astray, for him there is no guide.
Anfaal 8: 2. The believers are only those who, when Allâh is mentioned, feel a fear in their hearts and when His Verses (this Qur’ân) are recited unto them, they (i.e. the Verses) increase their Faith; and they put their trust in their Rabb (Alone);
I wonder how many times in our Tahfeezul Qur’an class do we ask the student to reflect on what effect the recitation is having on his heart. After all, Allahﷻ described the effect it is supposed to have, so it is only logical and natural that we should reflect and examine if our hearts are also responding in this way or not. If they aren’t then we need to question the state of our hearts and take remedial action to bring them alive. Hardness of the heart is a sickness and must be cured. That is why we need to focus on Tazkiyya before we begin any teaching. Allah said about sins:
Al An’am 6:120. Leave (O mankind, all kinds of) sin, open and secret. Verily, those who commit sin will get due recompense for that which they used to commit.
Al An’am 6:151 And do not go (even) near acts of indecency, open or secret ( al-Fawahish ma zahara minha wa ma batan ).
Allahﷻ called following one’s desires, Shirk and said:
Al Furqan 25: 43. Have you (O Muhammad SAW) seen him who has taken as his ilâh (god) his own desire? Would you then be a Wakîl (a disposer of his affairs or a watcher) over him?
Allahﷻ said that the ones who are successful are the ones who purify themselves. He said:
Faatir 35: 18 …..And he who purifies himself (from all kinds of sins), then he purifies only for the benefit of his ownself.
Al A’ala 87:14. Indeed whosoever purifies himself shall achieve success,
It is clear from these Ayaat as well as many Ahadith and the Seerah of Rasoolullahﷺ that it is essential to pay close attention to Tazkiyatun Nafs if one is to benefit from religious knowledge. In my view it is because we teach Fiqh without attention to Tazkiyya that we produce arrogance and rigidity in the heart of the student. In the current scheme of things, working on one’s own internal issues is left to the student’s own devises. This must be changed forthwith. Without purification of the soul and without a focus on the hidden aspects of worship and conduct, religious education can never be complete. Just as the Salah is not complete with paying attention to its external aspects alone but one must work on developing concentration and dedication until one reaches a level of Ihsaan as described in Hadith Jibreel (AS), narrated by Sayyidina Omar Ibn Al Khattab (RA); no other aspect of Islam will be complete with the external alone.
As time passes not only are our Ulama getting disconnected with the world but more importantly with our own Ummah. Most ordinary Muslims can’t understand, connect or be influenced by our Ulama. This is a situation that must be changed as a matter of the highest priority.
Ulama who believe that they should be leading the Ummah need to ask how Madrassa education (what we teach and how we do it) prepares them to do so. What changes are necessary? Who will make those changes? What will help and what will hinder? What are the consequences of not changing? Time for passionate speeches is over. It is time to clear the smoke and look at the stark reality. Shooting the messenger will only accelerate our own demise. Those who don’t wish to change and those who follow them, will perish together. That is the harsh reality.
What we need is to sit down and face the reality and even more difficult, face ourselves and our attitudes. Believe me, that will be truly painful. But it is like accepting the pain of the surgery to the alternative of death.
When a caterpillar looks in the mirror it does not see a butterfly. Yet hidden in that form is the potential to take the epitome of sluggishness and transform it into the epitome of grace, lightness and flight. The only condition is that the very nature of the thing must change completely. Caterpillars have no choice in the matter. People and businesses do. And therein lies the trap. The trap to remain the way you are, eating leaves and grass, crawling from place to place and thereby miss the opportunity to eat nectar and fly from flower to flower at will. Why would someone choose to be a caterpillar over being a butterfly? Because the status quo is always more comfortable and after all, when the caterpillar looks in the mirror, it does not see a butterfly!!! Also caterpillars are friends with other caterpillars because butterflies don’t crawl. I hope you understand what I am alluding to.
Family businesses need a similar transformation if they seriously intend to become global players in the world market. A transformation that is intrinsic, primordial, intense and painful but which then opens the doors into a world that they did not even know, exists. A world of global influence, great wealth and power and the potential to leave behind a legacy that lives on long after the founders have gone the way of all life. The choice is ours. It is not an easy choice. It is not a quick fix transformation that will happen without serious effort. It is not a course of action that will not meet opposition from other caterpillars. However, as I said, the choice is ours to make.
One thing that I learnt in my practice is that in the East, the family business is more about family than about business. Consequently religion, culture, social norms, family connections, marriage alliances, tradition and manners play a very big role in how the business is run. None of these things may find mention in a conventional business school course but are prime movers for all decision making in the families that eventually hire the products of the business schools. That is why in family business consulting, knowledge of the culture and religion is essential to understand the way in which decisions are made and why they are made. It is only when the consultant is culturally sensitive and knowledgeable that s/he can suggest solutions which are likely to be accepted. I have seen too many cases of Western consultants suggesting good ideas, but which are not accepted because they don’t fit into the cultural/religious context of the family. I have seen families take decisions which were not the best for the business but which were more acceptable in the cultural context.
This is certainly true for Indian subcontinent and Middle Eastern cultures but may well have elements that apply to other cultures as well. I have focused on these two cultures as I have an ‘insider’s view’ of them and therefore the advantage of knowing extensively how these cultures work. That gives me the benefit of perspective from which I am able to conceptualize the processes involved and help family business owners see the changes that they need to make in order to transform. It enables me to empathize with the specific cultural challenges that they face, the emotional dilemmas, the complexity of multiple roles and multiple role players. It enables me to suggest solutions to them in syntax that makes sense to them and to show them ways of accomplishing the transformation in ways that protect their particular vulnerabilities. Having grown up in these cultures and having studied the languages and theology of the religions, I am also aware of the very different interpretation of time that Eastern cultures have, compared to the West. It is not that time does not have value or that there is no sense of urgency. It is just that time has a different meaning and urgency is interpreted in terms of many different factors that impact on the way business is done in these cultures.
Let me give you an example: One is about a family business in India which is a very large infrastructure corporation that builds highways, airports, bridges and such large projects. This family also has a sugar mill in their village, which they still run though almost always, it makes losses. When I was discussing some issues of the business with the founder, he mentioned this sugar mill. My instant reaction coming out of my own very Western training and business degree was, “Why on earth do you still have that sugar mill? It just doesn’t fit in with anything else in your portfolio and takes up a lot of your personal time and resources while the profits it makes are not worth taking about. Why don’t you just sell it?”
He is a very gentle man. Most unlike the popular profile of the billionaire industrialist that he is. He said to me softly, “Sir, those people depend on us, you see.”
I asked, “Which people?”
He said, “O! The people of our village and other villages in that area. They grow sugarcane and we are the only sugar mill in that whole area. If we close, they have nowhere to sell their produce. This business does not make us money, but it is their only source of livelihood. How can I sell it?”
“But the new buyer will run it and they will have their income,” I said; still thinking with my business consultant hat on.
He simply replied, “But the buyer will not be one of them, you see. I am one of them. They are mine. To the buyer it will be a business. For me this is a legacy. I have to honor it.” And that closed the case.
Family is family: There is always a difference between ‘insiders’ who are family members and ‘outsiders’ who are not related. Some of these differences may be overt as in rules applied differently. Some may be covert and under the surface but still clearly visible to everyone, as in forms of address, precedence, who can go to the Chairman’s home uninvited. In many families the business is treated as an extension of the family home and the same roles of elder and younger apply.
Employees are ‘servants’ and in India the word ‘Malik’ (Owner) is used to refer to the business head. The connotation is not limited to the legal issue of business ownership but is extended to the ‘Malik’ being viewed as the ‘Owner’ of everyone who works for him. Loyalty is therefore a very personal thing and is experienced as such. Someone who is not completely in sync with the ‘Malik’ has really no future in the business. Being in sync is often interpreted as being subservient. This means that any difference of opinion can mean a quick termination of career in the business. For family members this is even more complex because in many cases they have literally ‘nowhere to go’ if they leave the family fold.
Guaranteed employment: Every male (in some families daughters also enter the business) member enters the business as a matter of course, whether there is any need for him or not. So, many don’t even look elsewhere. Many don’t care if they do well at school or not as they are sure of a job. Such default entries later have trouble inspiring and leading executive staff who are career driven. Such staff compare the family leaders to business leaders that they may have experienced in multinational process driven businesses and if they don’t measure up positively, professionals have trouble being led by them. Some professionals play politics and decide not to rock the boat and accept the incompetent family member in order to keep their jobs. There is an overall lowering of standard of leadership in the business and profitability and growth suffers.
Guaranteed career progress and no door marked ‘Exit’:
Like employment, career progress is also guaranteed. After all the family rarely promotes an ‘outsider’ over the head of an ‘insider’. So, the family member will always get his promotion, even if it means that someone else does the work. I have seen many examples of this in the Middle East where the professional manager does the work while the family member is busy fulfilling decorative purposes. Needless to say, the same logic extends to family members leaving the organization. After all, just as you can’t steal from yourself, you also can’t leave yourself. So, no exits for any of the reasons that are guaranteed to send ‘outsiders’ into orbit. This encourages complacency. In some families the incompetent member is shifted to some other part of the business where he proceeds to spread his negative influence, only to be moved elsewhere when he has done sufficient damage. The power of the bad apple must never be underestimated.
Hardship is what hungry Indians have to undergo: When a Western child leaves his food the mother says, “Think of all the starving Indians. Don’t leave your food.” As if by his eating, the bellies of starving Indians would be filled. What I am alluding to is almost all 2nd and 3rd generation family members would never have seen financial hardship. They would never have known what it means to want something but not be able to afford it. For the 1st generation founder it is almost a matter of honor not to allow his family to ‘suffer’ what he may have suffered in the startup phase. The fact that this suffering, built character, resilience, energy, self-reliance and confidence is lost sight of. As a reaction to the hardship that he endured, the founder tries to give the ‘best’ to his children. It is in the definition of ‘best’ that the complexity lies. Usually ‘best’ means easiest, most comfortable, cushiest, most expensive, and most glamorous. This only encourages decadence, self-importance, false sense of security and a love of ease. For Generation 2 & 3 getting money to buy something is a simple matter of asking Daddy or if Daddy is reluctant then asking Mommy to facilitate the process which most mothers are only too happy to do. For many even that is not required because all that they really want is usually given to them on one occasion or other and for the rest there is oodles of pocket money.
The other side of the coin: The ‘Burden of the Family’
Who loses his seat? Who loses his head? Who loses his job? Who loses his home? Who gets paid first? Who takes the first salary cut?
In the case of family businesses, the other side of the coin is the other meaning of ‘Family is after all family’. These are the people to whom the place really belongs. So, they are the ones who in the end will be left holding the can if something goes wrong. Many founders hock everything including their wife’s jewelry, their homes and their reputations to raise funds. If the business fails, they stand to lose everything, while a professional who works in that company simply walks away to another job and talks about the last job as a ‘learning experience’. The potential of loss to the owner is far more personal. He is the one who will pay the price personally for the risk. No matter how dedicated the employee may be he is not personally liable. Similarly, if things get tough the founder is the first one to forego his salary and to take a salary cut while it is a matter of honor for him to ensure that his staff never has to do the same. Rare indeed is the staff member who volunteers to take a salary cut when the going gets tough. This is the single most critical factor that builds the ‘insider’ – ‘outsider’ mindset.
I have seen situations where a close friend who was with the founder at the start got an ‘insider’ status because of how he helped the latter in a tough situation even though he was not a family member. Some of these outsider-insiders become powerful beyond measure and wield authority even over younger family members. This becomes the cause of much heartache among the younger generation, but they can do little about it as long as the sponsor of the insider-outsider is alive. It is this sense of personal commitment to the business that truly distinguishes the owner from others.
Speed is the result of power: Owner versus Employee:
Play by the rules versus make new rules: Another factor in the discussion that we have been having is the power of the owner to decide things. Customers like to deal with owners because they can get decisions fast. The owner has the power to decide, to change rules to make new rules, and choose to do business in new ways. Most employees must follow policy guidelines and so are slowed down, and their hands are tied in some cases. Many owners are very wary of handing over authority to other family members, let alone employees and like to make all decisions themselves. Many take pride in micromanaging oblivious to the fact that this is the biggest barrier to the growth and development of the business. They are themselves involved in all kinds of minor decisions which leaves them little time or inclination to think about the long term or to work on expansion or diversification. In the end of course, everything adds up and the result is not beneficial, to say the least.
One of the interesting things about culture in family businesses is the extent to which the personal culture of the family becomes the culture of the business. For example in India, Africa and the Middle East (and in Indian and Middle Eastern family businesses elsewhere), the joint family culture continues to be the operative, dominant culture in most business families. In this culture hierarchies are rigidly defined, can’t possibly be superseded and are a matter of birth and end with death. The patriarch is the head of the family and remains the head until his death, no matter how old or feeble he may become. He is succeeded by the eldest surviving male member of the family, either his brother or son. And this continues. In this system if you are not fortunate enough to be born early then your turn at leadership will probably never come and there is nothing that you can do about it except to break away. And that is what often happens.
Naturally this does not happen overnight and over time a lot of resentment builds up at imposed authority that is sanctioned by society. Politics within the family also starts up with different people taking sides. Women play a very powerful behind the scenes role where they influence their men in one way or the other. Tradition and social rituals and customs add to the resentment. The family hierarchy dictates social standing and so the younger ones must kowtow to the elders in all public ceremonies and functions no matter how much they may dislike doing it. Boundaries of official and personal interaction are blurred. As one young man from a very prominent Indian business family said in a group once, “The Chairman to you, is Tauji (Uncle-the father’s elder brother) to me. I go home with him, you don’t. I have to touch his feet, you don’t.” What happens in the office becomes an extension of what happens in the home. Causes for resentment can be many and powerful. Loyalties are by blood relationships which sometimes get influenced by marriage. ‘Scion A’ marries the daughter of his uncle and then his ties with that part of the family become stronger. Not that he will be disloyal to his father but when it comes to competing with his brothers, he will have the additional force of the uncle’s side of the family behind him.
For an outsider (consultant) to even understand these dynamics it is almost obligatory to be an insider first. Meaning that you need to know the native language of the family and be from or have a deep understanding of the culture/religion that the family follows. The boundaries between religion and culture are also blurred and many things which actually have nothing to do with the religion but are really elements of the local culture, get the sanctity of religious rituals. And since they have been followed for centuries in cultures that have a high degree of connection with their roots, they have great influencing power. For a Western mind it is very difficult to understand how family history and tradition that is centuries old can have any relevance at all today. But in the East history is a living thing. It may not all be factual, but it is believed nevertheless and gives us a sense of identity and belonging which is highly valued and jealously guarded. Like all things there are two sides to this as well.
On the one hand Westerners are not weighed down by tradition but then they often don’t have a strong sense of identity with the large extended family group. Easterners however have a very strong sense of who they are and what they stand for; things which come very much in handy especially during stressful times. They have a strong connection with their roots and family bonds are very strong. ‘Family’ in these cultures is not merely confined to nuclear relationships but a vast extended network involving marriage alliances and children of what in the West would be several separate families. All are seen as part of the clan and each has its privileges and responsibilities in a rigidly stratified system. In societies where the state does not bear the burden of social security, the family ties are critical to survival. This is recognized and respected and where necessary, enforced. People are not always free to do whatever they want because what they choose to do can jeopardize the whole system and others may suffer the consequences. So, freedom is not experienced in the same way as it is in the West. Mutual responsibility is a big consideration in Eastern cultures. There is always someone to take care of you, but with this comes the burden of tradition and all its boundaries.
Honor is a big part of the equation and public opinion is a living thing that influences decisions strongly. For example, I have seen in several Muslim and Hindu business families (it is amazing how many traditions are similar) that as a mark of respect, the younger members of the family will not sit in the presence of the patriarch or any of his siblings, the uncles, unless invited to do so. Neither will they smoke or even speak or laugh loudly in their presence, even if the elders do, as a mark of deep respect for them. This behavior is expected, rewarded and its absence strongly objected to and even sanctioned when the young one refuses to give up his ‘waywardness’. The conditioning however is so strong that I have personally never seen any instance of anyone defying this tradition of ‘showing respect’ to elders.
The question of course is not about sitting or standing but the carry forward of this tradition of showing respect into the Board room. Which son, who will not even sit in the presence of his father, would or could speak against his father’s point of view, especially in the presence of others? In such a scenario what chance do you think an ‘outsider’ professional manager has of taking a stance opposed to the heavy weights in the family? Professional managers are also judged by the same yardstick, the degree to which they are seen as ‘loyal’. In these cultures, power is derived from your identity, from who you are. Not from what you have or have done. Achievement is important but is second to the position of birth. So, if an elder member is not performing on par in the business, he is almost never questioned, because of his social position. In many families a younger one is put as an understudy to him, but with the unspoken responsibility to take up the slack and see that the commercial results come. It is a very subtle system and for the most part worked well as long as the market remained the way it was, with the future being an extrapolation of the past. However today, when the future is nothing like the past, this system is showing a lot of strain, if not becoming completely out of place. Consequently the need to make the business process driven.
In one very large Indian business family it is the tradition that when the patriarch travels anywhere, one of the managers of the company that he is visiting is always in attendance, 24 x 7. While he is sleeping in the bedroom in the guest house, the manager (and must be a fairly senior one, not some pipsqueak) sits in the living room, watching TV with the volume turned down, right through the night. Every 8 hours the shift changes. Reason? ‘In case he calls.’ It is also the expected form that the head of the location meets the flight and formally ‘receives’ the visiting patriarch or uncles at the airport and sees them off, no matter what time the flight may come in or leave. His wife is expected to be in attendance likewise on the wife of the visitor if she accompanies her husband. This rule extends to the next generation also but with more junior members of the professional management taking the place of the location head.
That is why in that corporation it is an unwritten rule only to hire people from the same religious community, who may not be related to the family but because they follow the same socio-religious cultural customs, they understand them and will know what to do and will not resent the servile overtones. On the contrary for them, to be chosen to be in attendance is seen as a sign of high favor and an honor and is a source of perceived power for the individual. Closeness to the seat of power devolves power upon the individual. Many professionals have reported in survey after survey that one of the principal reasons they join family organizations is for the chance to be close to the source of power. In a large multi-national this may never happen. It was not a simple punishment when in the days of old someone was banished from the ‘Presence’. That was almost as good as getting a death sentence. Being banished from the presence of the seat of power meant that you no longer mattered. Not many survived that banishment.
In the Eastern tradition disagreement is often viewed as opposition and therefore by inference as disloyalty. Disloyalty in this system is a capital crime. Nothing is considered worse. And that is why those who are considered loyal are forgiven all other ‘sins’. Things like contribution to the business, demonstrated entrepreneurship, ability to inspire others and take them with you, are all way down on the list of priorities. The last one is also sometimes viewed with suspicion and the individual is seen as a potential threat, especially if he or she is unwise enough to rock the boat. This is one big reason why in most Indian and Middle Eastern family businesses succession is neither planned nor successors consciously developed. Capable successors are feared.
And since there is no legitimate way to succeed the only way is to break away or overthrow the older generation. Our histories are replete with instances of dynasties where rulers lost their seats by virtue of losing their heads, literally, at the hands of their own sons and brothers. There is much confusion in most business families about what to do with non-contributing family members. The only way of ‘taking care’ of family seems to be by keeping them in the business. However negative or incompetent people have a disastrous effect on the morale of others, especially when they are themselves seen as powerful by association with the family. I am not talking about someone who misappropriates funds or does something dishonest. I am talking about someone who is not competent in business and does not produce results. If that person had been a professional, he would have been sacked without question. But if he is a family member, he is usually shifted around from one role to another. All that is achieved is that his attitude spreads. The fact that the only reason he still has a job is because of his family’s name on the door, is not lost on anyone. That such a situation will in the long run destroy the whole business and consequently the whole family will suffer, is something that is conveniently ignored, most often because the family has no process to confront each other constructively. Consequently, family members have a different status in the business no matter what their designation may be and no matter what the official line on career progression may be. The fact remains that the family member has lifetime employment and his family is looked after, no matter whether he is productive or not. Once again social traditions outweigh good business processes with attendant consequences.
Transforming by chance or by choice?
It may seem as you read the above, that given the nature of issues with family businesses it is almost impossible for them to transform their intrinsic character and become process-driven. This is not so. It is eminently possible to transform, and I am going to show you the way to do it but let me say at the outset that it is not an easy job. It is essential to be mentally prepared for the difficulty so that you don’t quit. Some families make this transition because they have no choice since the growth is very rapid and there are not enough children to go around (RPG, Tata). So, professionals are taken in and processes are created. Others transform by choice (Murugappa). The choice is ours. It means basically changing the reasons for prominence, influence and control. It means fundamentally changing the way we think and, in many cases, going against traditions that have the weight of centuries of followership. But unless this is done the transition from person-led to process-driven will never happen and the organization will never be able to unlock its potential to become a market leader.
Facing the Fears
There are two major fears that founders have to deal with if they are to successfully induct key professionals and introduce a process-based approach.
I will lose control of how things are run
I will lose money because the non-family professional will not treat my money the way I do.
Let us see what needs to be done if you are to overcome these fears. To begin with I will not tell you that these fears are unrealistic. They are real and all founders have them. But if you are serious about transformation, then these fears must be dealt with and overcome. The way to do this is detailed below:
I will lose control of how things are run
You will not ‘lose’ control, but you will consciously and deliberately ‘give up’ control to some extent and this is eminently desirable. This is because firstly this is the best way to develop successors and secondly because you need to free up your time to look at bigger issues. If you are involved in daily transactional matters, then the organization will suffer. When you hand over control to a professional, do remember that the incumbent has the education and experience to handle what you are giving him. You are not really taking any substantial risk because you are handing over to a capable person. Secondly you are always there to see what is going on and to help him to perform. While saying that let me pre-warn you that looking over his shoulder constantly or asking him to ‘check with you’ every time he moves, is not the way to do this. You as the founder must learn to trust others. If you are interested in the growth of your business and in attracting the best talent and in leaving a legacy that endures long after you, then you must learn to trust people.
Hire the best. Some founders hire incapable people because they come cheap, then when they fail, they try to tell themselves that delegation is not practical. The fault is not with delegation but with the way you chose the person to delegate to. So, hire the best, because the cost of hiring the best will be more than justified and offset by the quality of their output. Satisfy yourself that the person is capable of the responsibility and then leave him alone to perform. Mutually set goals, agree on measurement parameters and then set in a structured appraisal system. Reward handsomely and give him a stake in his own success. Clarify what kind of reporting you need for your own peace of mind. And THEN LEAVE HIM ALONE. This is very important. Professionals who have not worked with family businesses may take a bit of time getting used to this style, but those who are interested in the responsibility and in learning to work with family businesses will make the effort.
I will lose money because the non-family professional will not treat my money the way I do.
Once again in this case it is a question of trusting that the professional will treat the company’s money with respect. There are two things to do in this case. One is to create a culture of openness and thrift which you reinforce by your own practice. Focus on cost effectiveness, not on cost cutting per se. Always ask and teach people to ask, “What is the return on this investment?” Collect data about cost effective management and give them visibility. Reward people for giving suggestions for cost effective ways of managing and put the suggestions into practice. When you create a culture that continuously focuses on how to make the operation more profitable, then people will not spend money unnecessarily.
The second method which must go hand in hand is effective financial control. Automate and use technology to track all expenses. Get comparative data to see what others are doing. But don’t create bureaucracy. That is the biggest danger in this step. Bureaucracy slows you down and makes you less responsive to the customer. Both are lethal dangers. Good financial controls backed by automation will help you to ensure that your money is not being lost and that it is being used in the best possible way. Once again, leave the professionals to do their work and keep track of their performance through your reporting systems.
In some cases, a third piece of advice has to be given. If you are so wary of delegating and handing over to a professional, then define which aspect of your business are you most worried about handing over to someone else and keep that to yourself. Hand over the rest. Then when some credibility builds, you can think of handing over that ‘critical’ piece as well. But delegation is an absolute MUST.
The key factor in the case of family businesses is not simply to turn around 180° but to do so while keeping the good parts of family traditions alive. Change must be brought about but with the least possible pain.
It must be remembered that in the end decisions are far more ‘personal’ than they are in a Western corporation. In short this means that ‘family will always be family’ still the business must be process-driven. That is why an in-depth knowledge and personal understanding of the social and religious traditions is such an important element of all family business consulting in the East. Family business tends to be more about family than about business. Decision making is not based purely on cost – benefit analysis. Many other factors play decisive roles. Keeping the family together while making any changes is by far the most important consideration of all.
Before I go into the details of that, let me state with all the emphasis at my command that if this transformation does not happen, the business will decline and eventually disappear, taking the family with it. Transforming the business is therefore also more for the sake of the family than for the business. It is in the interest of both to ensure that they give it their full support so that both the family and the business may prosper undiminished from one generation to the next.
‘The business and family love are two different, mutually exclusive things. When the two mix, both self-destruct.’
For more, please read my book: The Business of Family Business
People sometimes look at the misery that surrounds us and ask, ‘Why doesn’t God do something about all the sick and dying and starving people?’ The answer is, ‘God did something already. He created you and gave you the means to feed at least one hungry person, pay for the education of one child, pay the hospital bill of one sick person and so on. If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed one. If you can’t build a school, pay the fee of one child to go to school. It is a common cop-out strategy to blame the external world, in this case God, for all the suffering we see around us. Those who are really serious about wanting to help, don’t blame, but ask themselves, ‘What can I do?’ That is what Islam teaches us. To do something. Not to simply complain. Problems need solutions, not complaints. Compassion is the best basis for a society.
In the life of every man and woman comes a time and a window opens when they have a unique opportunity to make an impact and influence others. To succeed we need to anticipate, prepare and act with courage when it opens
Living life is about making choices- the choice to be a ‘victim’ of circumstances or the choice to do something about circumstances and be their ‘master’. We are free to make this choice – to be a ‘victim’ or to be a ‘master’ – but the choices; each has a different payoff in terms of its consequences. Both stances are subject to the same givens of society, environment, organization etc. But have very different implications in terms of our development and happiness
It is one of the fallacies that people assume: that when we say we have freedom of choice; the choice is free of consequences. This is a myth and like all myths, it is a fantasy and a lie. We have freedom to choose but every choice has a price tag – every choice that we make is the same in this context. Each has a price tag. Foolish people make choices without first ascertaining the price tag and are then surprised, shocked, disappointed and so on, when the time comes to pay for the choice.
To return to our discussion, ‘victims’ are people who complain about adversity, think of excuses, blame others, lose hope and perish. ‘Victims’ can be individuals, groups, communities or nations. The ‘victim stance’ is the same – complain and blame. When ‘victims’ find themselves in difficulties, they look around for scapegoats; for someone to blame. They invent conspiracy theories. They like to live with a ‘siege’ mentality. They try to tell everyone that the only reason they are in the mess that they are in, is because everyone in the world is out to get them. They think that as long as there is someone to blame, they are faultless. They don’t stop to think that no matter who they blame, their problems still exist and that it is they and not whoever they blame, that is suffering.
‘Masters’ on the other hand are people who when faced with difficulty and adversity, first look at themselves to see how and why they came to be in that situation, own their responsibility and then look for solutions to resolve that situation. They have the courage to try new ways and so they win even if they fail. “Masters’ recognize that whatever happens to us is at least in part, if not wholly, a result of the choices that we made, consciously or unconsciously. The result of what we chose to do or chose not to do. Consequently, if we recognize that we created the situation, then it follows logically that we can also create its solution.
The characteristic of ‘Masters’ is that even when they may temporarily be in a ‘Victim’ situation, they quickly ask themselves the key question: ‘Okay so what can I do about this situation?’ This question is the key to taking a ‘Masterful’ stance in life. This is in itself, a tremendously empowering mindset which frees a person from the shackles of self-limiting barriers to his or her development. A ‘master’ never says, ‘I can’t’. She/he says, “I don’t know if I can!” – And in that, is a world of difference. The difference between the shepherd and his sheep.
The key question to ask therefore is, ‘In terms of the challenges that I face today, what do I need to do if I want to be a ‘Master’ and not a ‘Victim’? What is the investment that I need to make in order to succeed? Free fall and flight feel the same in the beginning. But it is the end which spells the difference between life and death. One lands safely. The other crashes and burns. Ignoring the law of aerodynamics does not change the law or its result.
Similarly, in life, in our race to succeed, we may well be tempted to ignore the laws of gain – that gain is directly proportional to contribution. We may be tempted to buy the line that what you can grab is yours to take, no matter the consequences to others. Just as the one in free fall may thumb his nose at the one who is flying, even claiming that he is traveling faster than the flyer – the reality is that his speed is aided by gravity which is rapidly pulling him towards his own destruction. It is not speed therefore which matters. It is the direction of flight and the way it ends.
Compassion, concern for others, a service focus, measuring contribution in the same way that we measure profit, willingness to do what it takes to deliver the best possible quality not because someone is watching but because we consider the quality of our output to be our signature and a reflection of our identity – all these are the real pathways to wealth, influence and prosperity. The critical difference is that prosperity that comes in these ways is sustainable, long lasting and spreads goodness all around.
Prosperity that is sought without regard to those who share the world with us, people, animals, environment; without regard to values, ethics and morals with the sole criterion being the amount of money that can be made is short-lived, has a high cost and spreads misery and suffering, including for the one who was chasing it.
We live in an intensely connected world and the sooner we realize that and start taking care of the connections, the better off we are likely to be. We have seen graphically the results of the alternative – blind pursuit of profit.
‘Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell.’ ~ Madhukar Shukla