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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #32

Chapter 6 Great Nation, Great Leaders (Con’td)

Leadership Qualities of Prophet Muhammad (bpuh)

On rare occasions humanity is blessed with a “complete” leader, flexible enough to assume and excel in multiple roles at different times. One such individual was Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He demonstrated his leadership qualities long before Allah chose him to be His Last Messenger.19 Once when the Arabs were rebuilding the Ka’aba after it was damaged from an earlier flood, there was much rivalry among the participants as to who would have the honor of putting the finishing touch. As usual, the disagreement quickly escalated. Finally, they agreed to ask young Muhammad (before he was anointed prophet) to arbitrate. He immediately sensed the gravity of the situation, fully aware of the disastrous consequences should he make a mistake. He quickly devised a brilliant and equitable scheme for sharing the honor. He asked them to spread out a carpet, and then placed the black stone, the central object of veneration, in the center. He then had a representative from each tribe raised the edge of the carpet to carry the stone to its final spot. Everyone was satisfied; they had all participated in the solemn rite, with no one tribe hogging the honor. They were even more pleased that they had successfully converted a potentially divisive and explosive rivalry into an amicable and cooperative endeavor.

Muhammad intuitively knew the wisdom that honor is never diluted when shared; on the contrary, it is enhanced. Similarly, rivalry can, with ingenuity, be converted to meaningful teamwork, and destructive competition to fruitful cooperation.

His leadership style early in his prophethood was more coach-like. He continued this pattern at Medina after the hijra (migration). His Charter of Medina was significant in that for the first time it clearly defined the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and the attendant responsibilities of each party to the other. Followers had an obligation to follow leaders, and leaders had an obligation to follow the dictates of Allah (be just). Equally important, the Medina Compact was the model of governance for a plural society. Zealots of our faith today conveniently forget this point when they insist that a truly Islamic state has no place for those outside the faith.

Despite his esteemed reputation, the prophet still encountered obstacles—some monumental—in spreading the word of Allah. His divine message of belief in a Supreme Being, equality of humans, and social justice threatened the existing order. He understood the vast implications of his mission and was fully aware of the intense opposition. His forcing the message would only divide his people. He had no intention of destroying his community in order to save it, to borrow a Vietnam-era military maxim. Thus even though he was carrying Allah’s message, he preached initially in secret, and only to his family and closest friends.

Lesser mortals with even smaller mandates from much lower authorities would unhesitatingly and arrogantly trumpet their self-righteousness and charge right ahead, oblivious of the damages and consequences they would wreck.

As the faith spread and the prophet encountered organized armed resistance, we saw another aspect of his leadership—the military commander. The two most celebrated battles he led were the Battle of Badr, in which the Muslims won despite overwhelming odds, and the Battle of Uhud, in which the well prepared but over confident Muslims were nearly routed, with the prophet himself being injured. These exploits attained legendary proportions to instill in Muslims the lesson that victory is not always assured simply because of the justness of the cause, and of the dangers of overconfidence.

To me, the genius of the prophet’s military leadership lies not in the heroic battles he won, rather in the conflicts he avoided. The peace treaty he signed at Al-Hudaibiyah with the pagan Meccans is instructive.

It was the sixth year of the Hijrah, and the prophet had declared his intention to lead his followers on their first pilgrimage to Mecca. He publicly demonstrated his peaceful intent by forbidding them from carrying arms except for their sheathed swords, the traditional accoutrement of desert travelers. To the Meccans, the pilgrimage was a frontal challenge to their authority as custodians of the Ka’aba.

A brutal confrontation was avoided only after a series of negotiations culminating in a peace treaty. Unfortunately it heavily favored the Meccans. Yes, the Muslims avoided war but the price was stiff. They had to delay their pilgrimage to the following year and to stop spreading the faith. Delaying their pilgrimage was a tough sell as the Muslims were already in a heightened state of religious fervor. To be disrupted in one’s pilgrimage is an event of singular significance to Muslims, then and now.

The next year when the prophet gathered his followers for their deferred pilgrimage, the crowd was even larger. More significantly, the Meccans were so impressed with the Muslims’ peaceful mission and tolerant gesture the year earlier that many joined the new faith. Thus what had previously been perceived as a defeat for Muslims and victory for the Meccans, turned out to be just the opposite!

It may be counterintuitive, but the power of peace can often overwhelm the might of the military. Mahatma Gandhi humbled the great British Empire not through the show of force—he had none—but through his peaceful gestures. Likewise, Martin Luther King prevailed by shaming America for failing to live up to its stated ideals. Today, far too many, within as well as outside our faith, fail to appreciate what our beloved prophet dramatically demonstrated over 14 centuries ago.

After Islam was firmly established, the prophet again modified his leadership style. With a cadre of committed companions, he was now more the orchestra conductor, nurturing and bringing out the best among his many disciples. When he died there was no shortage of talent to carry the faith forward. The four Rightly Guided Caliphs—Abu Bakar, Omar, Uthman, and Ali—led Islam to even greater heights. Today over a billion people embrace the faith. There can be no greater legacy to the prophet’s leadership.

In James McGregor Burns’ terminology, leaders like Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) are transforming. They induced metamorphic changes in their followers and society.20 The prophet literally lifted the veil of darkness from the Arabs. They rightly labeled the era before the prophet as the Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance). He transformed the way the Arabs, and later other Muslims, look at each other and at the cosmos.

Transforming leaders effect quantitative as well as qualitative changes. This is contrasted to what Burns refers to as transactional leaders, those who perform the important practical but routine functions. I would refer to them as administrative and managerial staff. I do not belittle their contributions. Transitional leaders may not necessarily lead a nation or organization to greatness, but at least they ensure that whatever gains had been made would not be eroded.

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