Basis of good governance
THE multi-faceted personality of Hazrat Ali has attracted mystics, seekers of knowledge and the truth for different reasons over the centuries.
Some have been awed by his valour on the battlefield, others by his eloquent oratory and others still by the strength of his character, a reflection, as it is, of the insan-i-kamil (the perfect man) in light of Quranic standards and the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) example.
Yet while all these attributes of Hazrat Ali are no doubt praiseworthy, today, as we observe his martyrdom anniversary, we should also reflect on Hazrat Ali’s views on what good governance should be, as enunciated in his celebrated letter to Maalek Al Ashtar, his governor-designate to Egypt.
This is all the more important in the current age, when much of the Muslim world is ruled by unrepresentative autocrats who do not fail to use brutal methods to crush their own people. And even in countries such as ours where the democratic project stumbles along, good governance — or the lack of it — is a perpetual concern.
While many theorists over the ages have issued treatise on statecraft, many of these are not underpinned by any moral and ethical anchors, while some are plainly motivated by the lust for power and control. Hazrat Ali’s instructions — issued 14 centuries ago during his caliphate — on the other hand, combine the spiritual with the temporal, imbuing the art of governance with a gnostic outlook.
He addresses issues as varied as welfare of the people, organisation of different branches of government, appointment of judicial officers, tax collection, guidelines for traders and merchants as well as military organisation. The overriding theme of the letter is justice and the fact that governance is a divine duty and that failure to conduct the affairs of state in an ethical, judicious and compassionate manner will require an explanation both in this world and the next. Perhaps this is why Hazrat Ali’s letter to
Maalek should be required reading for all Muslim heads of state, government and lawmakers as well as the citizenry.
Among the first instructions to Maalek is the fact that a ruler must treat the people with kindness. “You must create in your mind kindness, compassion and love for your subjects. Do not behave towards them as if you are a voracious and ravenous beast and as if your success lies in devouring them”.
Whilst today many Muslim countries, including Pakistan, are being consumed by the fires of sectarianism and inter-religious hatred, Hazrat Ali advised Maalek Al Ashtar to recognise the plurality of the citizenry and deal with citizens on the basis of humanity. “Remember, Maalek, that amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: those who have the same religion as you have; they are brothers to you, and those who have religions other than that of yours, they are human beings like you…. Let your mercy and compassion come to their rescue and help in the same way … that you expect Allah to show mercy and
forgiveness to you”.
Politics today is patronage-driven, with many of those in power working hard to enrich themselves, their relations and their cronies. However, Hazrat Ali warns that nepotism is sure to lead to tyranny. “So far as your own affairs or those of your relatives and friends are concerned, take care that you do not violate the duties laid down upon you by Allah and do not usurp the rights of mankind. Be impartial and do justice to them because if you give up equity and justice then you will certainly be a tyrant and an oppressor”.
Pointing to the roots of internal dissensions, Hazrat Ali advises Maalek to work towards mediating disputes between different groups. “Do not give cause to the people to envy each other (man against man, tribe against tribe or one section of the society against the other). Try to alleviate and root out mutual distrust and enmity from amongst your subjects”.
When selecting ministers and officers, he advises that “select honest, truthful and pious people as your companions. Train them not to flatter you and not to seek your favour by false praises because flattery and false praises create vanity and conceit and they make a man lose sight of his real self and ignore his duties”.
Regarding the rights and welfare of the disabled Hazrat Ali says “then comes the class of the poor and the disabled persons. It is absolutely necessary that they should be looked after, helped and well-provided for”.
At another point Hazrat Ali emphasises the rights of the poor when he says: “Therefore, be very careful of the welfare of the poor…. Do not be arrogant and vain against them. Remember that you have to take particular care of those who cannot reach you … and whom society treats with disgust…. You should be a source of comfort, love and respect to them”.
While the relationship between taxation and representation was highlighted much later in history, Hazrat Ali spoke of the rights of the taxpayer. “A state really lives upon the revenues collected from the taxpayers. Therefore, more importance should be attached to the fertility of land than to the collection of taxes…. The ruler who does not pay attention to the prosperity of his subjects and fertility of the land but concentrates only on collection of revenues, lays waste the land and consequently ruins the state.”
Despite the passage of 14 centuries, these words remain as relevant as ever and provide the basis for a just socio-political order.