This is a fascinating story.
Pakistan’s premier female poet Fahmida Riaz, read a letter by the fourth Caliph, Hazrat Ali while browsing through a translation of Nahaj ul Balagha. Today via email, she narrated how she was “so touched, and felt so angry for not knowing about it all my life, because really no one talks about the real jewels of Muslim history,they would rather conceal it from one generation after another”. She took notes from the ancient text and recently quoted it in her paper presented at an Urdu Conference held at Heidelberg, Germany.
On her current sojourn in the USA, she showed this text to Dr. Patricia Sharpe who was impressed enough to put it on her website under the title GOOD GOVERNANCE EARLY MUSLIM STYLE.
In her email Fahmida writes further that “Another American friend in Santa Fe is writing a book for the National Geographic about the achievements of Muslim thinkers and men of the sciences and letters. I showed him the text and he has asked me to forward it to him so that he may include it in his book. ‘The Americans should know about it ,’ he wrote. I have sent him the text, sighing to myself, “..and so should the Muslims”.
But really, what are we ever told about Islam or Muslims other than chopping of arms and killing of infidels? Or we are informed that Muslims once had a great empire, a brutal picture of conquest and subjugation of the so-called “infidels”. What do we know of H Ali, except that he was very brave with a legendary sword? Pretty little.
And writes Riaz: “here is this document, written by him,1500 or so years ago. The sheer beauty of his thought, the largesse of his great heart, the incredible refinement of his mind! It takes your breath away and brings tears to your eyes. And then, his understanding of the class structure of society..long before anyone in the world paid attention to the composition of society! All this is so incredible.
The other ancient classics about governance that come to mind ….tell you how to invite your enemy to dinner and then stab him in the back. They tell you how to perpetuate your RULE. In comparison, H. Ali is telling you how to create a State that provides the greatest opportunity for the people to be happy.. . So great was this man that even being remotely associated with him is an honour that we hardly deserve though we are all born in the fold of his faith.
Another thought that comes to haunt you: Hazrat Ali was so close to the Prophet (pbuh) that he could never say what he did not believe to be the Prophet (pbuh)’s own will…? ….O my God! Then in what unworthy hands his teachings fell! How unfortunate it is for us, ….”
I wanted to share this excitment and sadness of Fahmida on this space.
Here is the entry in Patricia’s blog where she has reproduced sections of letter and also improved the translations available online:
George W. Bush seems to think that the US political system must be replicated in structure and spirit in order for people to enjoy a decent political system. In fact, the Muslim world also has traditions and texts which establish the principles of good governance. Below are quotes from one such document, a document that might profitably be added to all basic political science syllabi. A close reading might also provide insights and terminology for American public diplomats tasked to engage Muslims in a dialogue about the universal human interest in fair, honest and competent government.
Ali bin Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, wrote a long letter of guidance after appointing Maalik al-Ashtar to be Governor of Egypt. He advises the new governor that his administration will succeed only if he governs with concern for justice, equity, probity and the prosperity of all.
The passages excerpted below illustrate the timeless applicability of Hazrat/Imam* Ali’s admonitions. The letter itself is contained in the Nahjal Balaagha, which is a collection of the letters and speeches of the fourth Caliph.
Manifest religious tolerance: Amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: those who have the same religion as you [and] are brothers to you, and those who have religions other than yours, [who] are human beings like you. Men of either category suffer from the same weaknesses and disabilities that human beings are inclined to; they commit sins, indulge in vices either intentionally or foolishly and unintentionally without realizing the enormity of their deeds. Let your mercy and compassion come to their rescue and help in the same way and to the same extent that you expect Allah to show mercy and forgiveness to you.
Equity is best: A policy which is based on equity will be largely appreciated. Remember that the displeasure of common men, the have-nots and the depressed persons overbalances the approval of important persons, while
the displeasure of a few big people will be excused…if the general public and the masses of your subjects are happy with you.
The rich always want more: They are the people who will be the worst drag upon you during your moments of peace and happiness, and the least useful to you during your hours of need and adversity. They hate justice the most. They will keep demanding more and more out of State resources and will seldom be satisfied with what they receive and will never be obliged for the favor shown to them if their demands are justifiably refused.
A healthy society is interdependent: The army and the common men who pay taxes are two important classes, but in a well faring state their well-being cannot be guaranteed without proper functioning and preservation of the other classes, the judges and magistrates, the secretaries of the State and the officers of various departments who collect various revenues, maintain law and order as well as preserve peace and amity among the diverse classes of the society. They also guard the rights and privileges of the citizens and look to the performance of various duties by individuals and classes. And the prosperity of this whole set-up depends upon the traders and industrialists. They act as a medium between the consumers and suppliers. They collect the requirements of society. They exert to provide goods….Then comes the class of the poor and the disabled persons. It is absolutely necessary that they should be looked after, helped and provided….at least the minimum necessities for well-being and contented living….
Ensure an honest judiciary: You must select people of excellent character and high caliber with meritorious records….When they realize that they have committed a mistake in judgement, they should not insist on it by trying to justify it….they should not be corrupt, covetous or greedy. They should not be satisfied with ordinary enquiry or scrutiny of a case but…must attach the greatest importance to reasoning, arguments and proofs. They should not get tired of lengthy discussions and arguments.They must exhibit patience and perseverance…and when truth is revealed to them they must pass their judgements….These appointments must be made…without any kind of favoritism being shown or influence being accepted; otherwise tyranny, corruption and misrule will reign….Let the judiciary be above every kind of executive pressure or influence, above fear or favour, intrigue or corruption.
Poverty leads to ruination: If a country is prosperous and if its people are well-to-do, then it will happily and willingly bear any burden. The poverty of the people is the actual cause of the devastation and ruination of a country and the main cause of the poverty of the people is the desire of its ruler and officers to amass wealth and possessions whether by fair or foul means.
Corruption undermines national well-being: I want to advise you about your businessmen and industrialists. Treat them well….They are the sources of wealth to the country….One more thing….you must keep an eye over their activities as well. You know that they are usually stingy misers, intensely self-centered and selfish, suffering from the obsession of grasping and accumulating wealth. They often hoard their goods to get more profit out of them by creating scarcity and by indulging in black-marketing.
Stay in touch with the people: You must take care not to cut yourself off from the public. Do not place a curtain of false prestige between you and those over whom you rule. Such pretension and shows of pomp and pride are in reality manifestations of inferiority complex and vanity. The result of such an attitude is that you remain ignorant of the conditions of your subjects and of the actual cases of the events occurring in the State.
Peace brings prosperity: If your enemy invites you to a peace treaty….,never refuse to accept such an offer, because peace will bring rest and comfort to your armies, will relieve you of anxieties and worries, and will bring prosperity and affluence to your people. But even after such treaties be very careful of the enemies and do not place too much confidence in their promises, because they often resort to peace treaties to deceive and delude you and take advantage of your negligence, carelessness and trust. At the same time, be very careful never to break your promise with your enemy; never forsake the protection or support that you have offered to him, never go back upon your word and never violate the terms of the treaty.
History reveals all: Do not reserve for yourself anything which is a common property of all and in which others have equal rights. Do not close your eyes from glaring malpractice of officers, miscarriage of justice and misuse of rights, because you will be held responsible for the wrong thus done to others. In the near future your wrong practices and maladministration will be exposed and you will be held responsible and punished for the wrong done to the helpless and oppressed people.
*The honorific changes, depending on whether the reference derives from the Shia or Sunni tradition. Note also that I changed British spelling to American, have modified some awkwardnesses common to translations into English and have altered some punctuation for clarity’s sake.
Images at the top are from here