I wrote this for OnIslam.net.
Lessons in Followership from the Companions – 4
Ira Challef, who was mentioned previously in this article, also models five attitudes and behaviors of effective followers and these correspond to what we have explored above:
- Courage to support the leader
- Courage to assume responsibility for common purpose
- Courage to constructively challenge the leader’s behaviors
- Courage to participate in any transformation needed
- Courage to take a moral stand when warranted to prevent ethical abuses
It requires some courage to be straightforward, to speak up, to be honest about one’s stand, to do the right thing even if it seems dangerous and so on. Many of the aforementioned qualities are made possible through courage.
We know how Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) settled himself in the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) house in order to mislead the enemies surrounding the house so that the latter could make a safe exit. This was an act of courage in order to support the leader at a time of danger.
It also takes courage to own up to one’s mistakes and bear the consequences, whereas trying to hide them would set the ball rolling for bad ethics from all other followers too in the future.
8. Obedience to the appointed leader
“O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.”
[Surah An-Nisa, 4:59]
The Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them all) have set a timeless example for us to be strong and independent thinkers while co-operating and abiding by the team rules. They would be straightforward with their opinions and suggestions, but ultimately they rendered power and authority to the leader by respecting his direction and uniting with the group rather than breaking away in disagreement.
We have seen an example from the battle of Uhud which highlights the dangers of disobeying the ameer (appointed leader). There is room for consultation and group discussion, but in the end, as long as the leader does not violate the Qur’an and the sunnah (prophetic example), a true follower is expected to abide, so much so that it has been narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
“It is obligatory for you to listen to the ruler and obey him in adversity and prosperity, in pleasure and displeasure, and even when another person is given (rather undue) preference over you.”
One such example of putting the leader’s decision over personal opinion is from the signing of the truce at Hudaibiya. Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) was upset by the terms set out in the truce.
“Oh Prophet of God! Are you not the Messenger of God?” he asked. “Certainly I am“, said the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). “Are not our enemies idolatrous polytheists?” asked Umar (may Allah be pleased with him). “Undoubtedly they are“, rejoined the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). “Why should then we disgrace our religion?” asked Umar (may Allah be pleased with him). The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “I am the Messenger of God, and I do not act in contravention of His commandments.“
Abu Bakr’s (may Allah be pleased with him) view on the matter was different. “The Holy Prophet knows things better than we do. What the Holy Prophet has done is in the interests of the Muslims. Have faith in God. Do not be critical and hold fast to the stirrup of the Holy Prophet.”
Regardless of this difference of opinion, there was complete obedience towards the decision of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as the ameer and, in the end, there was indeed victory for the Muslims.
In today’s competitive world where it seems that everyone’s ambition is to be at the top, perhaps nobody wants the “Best Follower” award. The average man wouldn’t want to be identified as so-and-so’s sub-ordinate, but rather as a man of his own standing and title.
What we see from the points above, however, is the influence and honor that is borne by positions of followership. Followership can be more difficult than leadership. Many of the crises around the world are due to our inability to honor leadership and be effective followers. Many a leader has been pulled down, not because of his inability to steer, but because of his people’s refusal to jump in the boat.
We have programs to hone leadership skills, but where do we teach followership? What good are the best decision makers without followers to implement those decisions? Poor followership may not be recognized for what it is until the cracks of poor performance, low morale, bad conduct, complaints, and overall group failure start to appear.
As the Vice Principal pointed out, one cannot scramble to positions of leadership without first proving one’s ability to follow – both individually and also in groups.
We are currently dealing with what has been labelled as ‘The Entitled Generation’ of youth. Keeping the disastrous effects of poor followership in mind, perhaps it is time we took measures to inculcate the values of followership in our children from a young age.
This education begins in the home, where parents and elders set up an atmosphere of consultation (shura), thereby exposing the children to and involving them in the family decision-making process.
As Muslims, we must be conscious of the fact that even when we are leaders, we are still followers. So our measure of success is not how well we lead, but how well we carry the legacy that was left for us to imbibe and propagate.
The battle of Badr alone has served us numerous lessons from the valor and commitment of the Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them all) and demonstrated that effective followership is power, rather than weakness. In a match of 313 versus 1000, who wins? Whoever fulfils their role as it is supposed to be fulfilled.
- Fethullah Gulen. The Messenger of God: Muhammad, Revised Edition (USA, The Light, Inc., 2005)
- Nouman Ali Khan. When Muslims Work Together (lecture series)