Friday, 15 May 2015

Zulqarnain's leadership - Lessons for humanity

The Quran is a source of Guidance. It teaches you what you want to learn. Today we shall learn few lessons of leadership from story of Zulqarnain. Why leadership? Because all of us are leaders in different capacities. One of the well known ahadith of the Prophet is: “Everyone of you is a caretaker, and every caretaker is responsible for what he is caretaker of.” If you are a father, you are caretaker of a family. Children become caretakers of old parents. If you run a business, people working with and for you become your responsibility. If you are a teacher, students are your responsibility. When you finish education, it is your responsibility to make good use of knowledge you acquired from your teachers. In every capacity, a Muslim man and woman has a leadership role and if taken seriously, it is a responsibility for which we will be accountable.

Last week, expeditions of Zulqarnain were discussed. Today, we shall zoom in on his leadership. Story of Zulqarnain is covered from Ayah 83-99. We shall examine each Ayah and draw pertinent leadership lessons.

Ayah 83-84

“They ask you concerning Zul-qarnain. Say “I will rehearse to you something of his story.”.

”Verily We established his power on earth and We gave him the ways and the means to all ends.”

Leadership is about giving authority with appropriate resources, i.e. the means to accomplish the task one has been delegated with. Zulqarnain’s story reminds that Allah SWT is the Sovereign. He delegate authority to us in different degrees. But He will not demand the accomplishment of a delegated task without giving us the proper resources to accomplish it. Allah gave Zulqarnain a huge task but for that He established Zulqarnain in the earth and gave him the means of everything, the resources and abilities that may be needed. The other side of this coin is that Allah SWT does not demand from us what we do not have the ability to accomplish. So, in human terms, this is a lesson for us when we find ourselves in any position of leadership, that we expect the best from those we delegate tasks to, with two conditions: We do not expect more than we know they are capable of delivering, and we give them the material resources and the training needed to get the job done.

Ayah 85-88

”One (such) way he followed until when he reached the setting of the sun He found it set in a spring of murky water: near it he found a People: We said: “O Zul-qarnain! (you have authority) either to punish them or to treat them with kindness.” He said: “Whoever does wrong him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before). But whoever believes and works righteousness he shall have a goodly reward and easy will be his task as we order it by our command.”


Zulqarnain’s leadership faces a test. He is established in authority and he has been given the capacity to do anything, and he is asked now to decide what he will do with a people whom he has apparently overpowered. He shows the discernment of a good leader – distinguishing between those who are righteous and those who are not. He shows the leadership qualities of fairness and justice. The wrong-doers must be punished, but good people must be rewarded and honored. Notice the two stages in each case. In the wrongdoers’ case, first punishment comes from him, and a greater punishment comes later from Allah SWT. In the case of good people, first they will get the best of rewards from him, and on top of that he will speak to them kindly. So the difference between treatment of the good and the bad is significant as it should be.

Ayah 92-94

“ Then followed he (another) way until when he reached (a tract) between two mountains he found beneath them a people who scarcely understood a word. They said: “O Zul-qarnain! the Gog and Magog (people) do great mischief on earth: shall we then render you tribute in order that you may erect a barrier between us and them?”

Leadership is not exploitative. When Zulqarnain meets a people who speak a different language and are obviously strangers to him, he treats them with a sense of service, not greed. Even though they themselves offer to pay for him to erect a protective barrier against foreign attackers, Zulqarnain does not demand more, he does not even accept what he is willingly offered because he does not want to exploit their weakness. Maybe if they fought him and lost, he may expect something from them, but not when they basically surrendered and exposed to him their weakness. So like a good leader, he is generous. In his generosity also, he remains humble, because he remembers that even what he has is given to him by Allah, and says so. He also realizes that the power that Allah has blessed him with is only a means to serve Allah. He serves Allah through being a servant-leader to his people, i.e. taking care of their needs.

Ayah 95

 “(The power) in which my Lord has established me is better (than tribute): help me therefore with strength (and labor): I will erect a strong barrier between you and them”.

Leadership is about teamwork because leaders cannot accomplish anything without their followers (and of course Allah’s help). After telling them what he has from Allah SWT is better than what they can offer, Zulqarnain tells them that he will help them if they will help him in the task, and work together as a group. This action does three things that good leaders do in accomplishing their mission: (1) Asking the people to help him dignifies the people by making them a partner in solving the problem, (2) it give them a stake the success of the solution, and (3) it also give them a sense of responsibility for owning and maintaining the solution they have arrived at. It is also important to note that he asks them to help him with what they do possess, which was their strength.

Ayah 96


“Bring me blocks of iron.” At length when he had filled up the space between the two steep mountain sides he said “Blow (with your bellows).” Then when he had made it (red) as fire he said: “Bring me that I may pour over it molten lead.”

Another characteristic of leadership is the ability to accomplish things. Zulqarnain got the things done in a methodically fashion. This is what he does: (1) He informs them and prepares them for the task, (2) he seeks their commitment and tells them what he will accomplish with their help, (3) he completes the first stage by having them bring blocks of iron to be placed between the mountains, (4) he lights the fire and asks them to blow on it,(5) he completes the next stage by having them bring copper to pour over red hot iron. The wall is then ready, with his knowledge and wisdom working hand in hand with the people’s strength and commitment.

Not only asks them to follow his directives, he also participates actively in the action. He himself takes charge of the most dangerous task by personally pouring the molten lead over the blocks of iron. We can practically outline a method of performance and accomplishment for our daily task based on Zulqarnain’s methodical conduct in this situation. His scientific and engineering knowledge and skills is part of the mean that Allah SWT gave him when he established him in the earth. It is then natural for Muslims to regard technical knowledge as a gift from Allah to be accepted, cultivated, promoted, advanced and used in their own lives and in service to others. The clear and specific reference in the Qur’an to this great engineering project tells us in no certain terms that it is the Islamic way – to solve human problems with God-given technical knowledge and wisdom.

Ayah 97-98

Thus were they made powerless to scale it or to dig through it. He said: “This is a mercy from my Lord: but when the promise of my Lord comes to pass He will make it into dust; and the promise of My Lord is true.”

Again like a good leader, having accomplished his task – to build a barrier that will prevent foreign invaders – he remembers and reminds the people that the true source of all accomplishment is Allah swt. He tells them: (1) what he has accomplished is due to the Mercy of Allah SWT, (2) just like everything else this accomplishment will perish when the Final Day comes, alerting them that the Final Day is still the ultimate truth. In a way, he is sharing his humility that even his great accomplishment is no match for the power of Allah SWT. It is important to note that the above lessons in leadership are congruent with some of the leading recent advances in leadership theories.

To conclude, these are not just stories, these are signs for those who understand.
Inspired by works of Dr. Iqbal Unus and Dr. Rafik Beekun