I have an old friend, a true Jordanian. His name is Layth its meaning is Lion. He is senior in terms of age and no longer has the physical strength of a lion yet he is fuelled with the mental energy of a pride of young lions he is passionate about history and tells endless stories that help me to make sense of the world. This article is for Layth.
Before the birth of Islam, the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula were categorised into two groups, Bedouins who lived a harsh desert life who endured severe environmental conditions with herds of livestock as their primary livelihood, and the Settled People, who lived in villages and towns, trade and agriculture was their main source of income.
The Bedouins lived in communities called Ashiras (Clans) and Qabilas (Tribes) that were held together by blood relations and ancestry. Bedouin tribes were independent and power lay in the hands of chiefs (Shaykhs). The son or an adult male relative of the chief would inherit leadership, however democracy ruled and the position was always validated by the council of his tribe’s elders
The chief has a range of responsibilities to the community, he was involved in arbitration of disputes, defence of land and cattle and he was also expected to be generous and accommodating to guests, this generosity brought more power and respect than wealth or assets.
When Islam appeared around 650 AD, it integrated some Bedouin traditions and values particularly the principles of equity and justice, consultation known as Shura, roughly translated as consultation. The Shura is defined as the process of extensive discussion of an issue from all aspects and dimensions and including the selection of individuals with the best given views on that issue
Over the years the influence of the democratic approach of the Shura decreased influenced the preferences of by Persians, Berbers, and finally Ottomans Turks and the British and the original simple desert Arab/Islamic norms and values were abandoned or given new meaning. For example, obedience to those in authority was now interpreted as complete unquestioned subservience and Shura, or the practice of consultation became a form of flattery, and so, the historical development of the Islamic state diluted the original Arab/Islamic view of leadership.
The Story of Umar the Bedouin Leader
Abu Bakr, a founder Arab leader (caliph), died in 634 A.D. Before his death, he was afraid of leaving the community without a leader so, he consulted with his advisors to seek advice about who might replace him as leader after his death, his advisors asked him to nominate a candidate and he selected his deputy Umar, his deputies ratified his choice and Umar became his successor.
Umar followed the instructions of the Qur’an and the Prophet Mohammed however; Umar gave them current and operational meanings to make them applicable in solving the problems of the time. Umar is credited with creating the divan system (Arabic word for an account book) the first known use of divan dates from the reign of ‘Umar I (586-644) and lists the pensions due to Arab soldiers. Umar suggested that soldiers were paid a pension rather than a share of land they had occupied. Umar was probably a master economist.
Despite this Umar never abused his position and led a simple lifestyle. Rather than adopt the pomp and ceremony favoured by the rulers of the time, he continued to live much as he had when Muslims were poor and persecuted.
Many of the leadership qualities that Umar possessed would serve us well in society today. Umar consistently demonstrated the following abilities:
- The ability to engage and involve the participation of others in decision making through shura and stated, “A decision that has been taken without consultation is useless”.
- The ability to empathise with others: One day he saw an old man begging for charity. When Omar asked him why he was begging, it turned out that the man was Jewish, and that he was begging in order to be able to pay his taxes “Oh, my God!” Omar sighed, “We have taxed you when you were young and we have forgotten you when you got old”.
- The ability to listen and accept criticism, Umar when challenged by a woman over a dowry a man should pay to his bride, the woman provided evidence that Umar’s judgement was wrong and he immediately admitted his mistake
- The ability to plan, schedule and organize: He organized the Divan or accounting system mentioned above, and established the financial and tax systems
Umar’s regime lasted next ten years, during which time he stabilized the Islamic nation and expanded the borders beyond the Arabian Peninsula: into Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Umar died in 644, the victim of an assassin’s dagger.