Al-Ghazali, a renowned Muslim scholar of the 11th century from Persia, identified qualities required in kings, ministers and deputies, whose relevance to modern business management is worth exploring. 
Ethics in leadership and management is a topic every contemporary business person has to think about. It doesn’t matter whether you work at a major corporation or head up a mid-market consulting practice. Ethics in leadership matters.

In this article we look at the perspectives of the great scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali who lived 450-505 AH/1058-1111 AD and served under the reputed Nizam al-Mulk.

We highlight some of the advice he gave to rulers and leaders in his own time on issues like good conduct, trustworthiness, and the qualities to look for in a good team.

Like Ibn Khaldun, al-Ghazali’s thought brings forth wisdom that is highly relevant to our current contexts.

Imam Ghazali’s early career

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD)

Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s formal education began at the early age of 7 with a curriculum including the basic sources (usul) of Islam, law, theology, logic, and Sufism. After studying with the great Imam al-Haramain, al-Juwaini, for five years al-Ghazali joined the court of the Seljuq minister Nizam ul-Mulk where he remained for six years. During that time he actively participated in political and learned discussions until he was appointed as a professor to the famous Nizamiyyah school at Baghdad. He remained there for four years and wrote works on fiqh, or Islamic law, which he also taught, together with logic and theology.

Al-Ghazali’s position at the Nizamiyyah brought him influence and rank in political and intellectual circles. His proximity to these circles led al-Ghazali to be linked to the service of the Seljuq Sultans who ruled over the central Islamic lands of Iraq, Iran and Central Asia under the minimal authority of the Sunni Caliph in Baghdad.

The Nasihat

Al-Ghazali’s work titled “at-Tibr al-Masbuk fi Nasihat al-Muluk” or Ingots of Gold for the Advice of Kings. According to Carole Hillenbrand, the Nasihat, or Advice, is part of a larger genre of political writings which dealt with issues of political authority at the time. The Nasihat was addressed to the Seljuq government and its administration. Al-Ghazali dealt with a variety of subjects in the Nasihat such as the qualities required in kings, the character of ministers and deputies, and intelligence.

Al-Ghazali’s Advice to Kings

On good conduct

Al-Ghazali places the burden of establishing the right model of conduct squarely on the shoulders of the king. In other words, management’s example will either create an exceptional organization or a corrupt one. In the Nasihat he tells us, “If a king is upright… his officials will be upright, but if he is dishonest, negligent, and comfort-seeking… officers implementing his policies will soon become slothful and corrupt.”

On accessibility

Al-Ghazali begins this section by citing a saying known to Arabs: Nothing is more damaging… and more prejudicial and sinister for the king than royal inaccessibility and seclusion. In other words, leaders who are not open and accessible to their subjects put a strangle hold on open communication throughout an organization. Whether a company adopts a flat or tiered corporate structure the line of communication to leadership should be known and continually tested to make sure that leadership is engaged with the organization as a whole and that there are no bottlenecks along the line.

In addition to being important for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of an organization a good leader will also realize that it’s important to keep abreast of any information which would affect his/her leadership/management of the company.

On Trustworthiness and self-denial

As a result of corporate scandals at companies such as Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, and others corporate greed, misappropriation of funds, and other such vices have unfortunately become too well known. Executives betrayed the trust of their companies’ employees by enriching themselves and contributing to the downfall of their organizations through bogus accounting and diversion of company funds to their own accounts.

Al-Ghazali relates an account from the life of the Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz. He says that the Caliph sat up one night to study the daily report of the government under a lamp light. At that time one of his household employees entered the room to discuss some domestic issues. Umar ordered,

“Put out the lamp! and then speak for this oil belongs to the public funds and the people’s property ought not to be used except for their business.”

Contrast this with the way executives at companies like Tyco and Adelphia did with their corporate funds and Umar ibn Abdul Aziz’s words speak for themselves.

On appointing deputies

We all know that a good management team is a fundamental element to a businesses success. Good leaders surround themselves with experts and leaders who can be delegated responsibilities and come back with results. Likewise, al-Ghazali wrote of deputies in the context of ministerial posts at the Sultan’s court. He likened the minister of a ruler to the companions of the Prophet (s). To support his case for securing good ministers he wrote that even the Prophet (s) was commanded to consult the learned and wise among his companions.

“And consult them in affairs. Then when you have taken a decision put your trust in God.” (Qur’an 3:159)

Prophets of old even asked God to appoint a deputy for them as in the case of Moses (see Qur’an 20:29-32).

Drawing lessons from the Nasihat

The wisdom shared by Imam al-Ghazali is useful in a variety of leadership and management applications. But when taking lessons from Imam al-Ghazali’s work it’s important to keep in mind that he wrote the Nasihat for the kings and sultans of his day. Many of these rulers were given the Nasihat (sincere advice) because they had or were transgressing the bounds of sound leadership.

Imam al-Ghazali wrote the Nasihat based on the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad (s) who taught that “the religion is sincere advice”. So al-Ghazali linked his advice to a duty taught to all Muslims by the Prophet (s) himself.

In addition, the fact that al-Ghazali linked his theories of political leadership to theology should be considered. In other words, good rulership and leadership were sacred duties for al-Ghazali – performing them well brought God’s pleasure while doing otherwise brought His ire.

Extending this into a business paradigm requires managers and business professionals to first hold themselves accountable for their conduct. In fact, managers are to hold themselves accountable to themselves and their teams. Whether it’s how one conducts him/herself, how accessible they are, or how they build their teams.

Imam al-Ghazali’s advice is useful for anyone in a leadership position.

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