Trust: Prophet Muhammad’s lessons in leadership
Trust being lost, all the social intercourse of men is brought to naught — Livy (Roman historian)
During his hidden years in Mecca working with merchant-caravans, probably as a caravan leader, Muhammad acquired a new name: al-Amin, the trustworthy one. The same root, incidentally, gives the English word amen, often used at the end of prayers, an expression of hearty approval. We can only guess what it was about the character or conduct of Muhammad that gave rise to this attractive sobriquet, but there is a clue. In 622 CE, while making ready for his migration from Mecca, Muhammad – in danger of his life – delayed long enough to dispose of some money that had been deposited at his house.
For centuries, the whole life of Mecca centered on its caravan trade. Everyone in Mecca, rich and poor alike, including women landholders (of whom there were a number), was anxious to have a stake in this lucrative business. The powerful families grew richer and more influential with each annual expedition; and the poorer families saved every available dinar in order to share in these commercial ventures. The merchants of Mecca formed themselves into a syndicate, pooling their capital to equip the caravan, and then shared proportionately in the returns from their joint enterprise. Usually a single person would be asked to constitute himself the banker for the occasion, receiving deposits from everyone interested in a particular expedition, and then administer the funds as economically as possible. Most probably it was Muhammad’s consistency and scrupulous honesty in this role that earned him his reputation for trustworthiness.
A young widow in Mecca by the name of Khadija bint Khuwaylid more than once entrusted her investment money interest in a caravan into the keeping of Muhammad. She was so impressed by him professionally, and attracted to him personally, that she sent him a proposal of marriage.
Muhammad accepted her proposal. It was one of the wisest decisions he made. She was his only wife for 25 years until her death (620 CE). She bore him Fatima and sons (none survived) and other daughters. And she was the first person to believe in Muhammad’s prophethood.
No man is a prophet in his own land, said a proverb already ancient in Muhammad’s day. He would know the truth of it, for he had to endure years of rejection and even hostility from most of his fellow townsfolk. Through all these trials and tribulations in Mecca, Khadija was Muhammad’s chief stay and support. She knew her man and believed him as only a woman in love can. Perhaps these words of the French historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville about his wife may well express what Muhammad felt about his wife: ‘She softens, calms and strengthens me in difficulties which disturb me but leave her serene.’
Meaning of honesty and integrity
Clearly, then, Muhammad was a man with a reputation for integrity. That word, from the Latin integer whole, is especially appropriate for Muhammad as far as Muslims are concerned, for in its primary meaning integrity implies unity that indicates interdependence of the parts and completeness and perfection of the whole. Human beings are like stones, some Muslims say, and Muhammad is as the only ruby among them.
Honesty means a refusal to lie, steal or cheat in any way. Integrity goes a mile beyond honesty: it implies trustworthiness and incorruptibility to a degree that one is incapable of being false to a trust, responsibility or pledge. A leader with integrity is like the English poet William Wordsworth’s ‘Happy Warrior’:
This integrity extends through the entireness or wholeness of the character. It is found in small matters as well as great, for allegiance to truth is tested as much by small things as by those that are more important.
Notice the centrality of the value of truth, as evidenced by a firm adherence to truth in all things – in the concept of integrity. Khadija mentioned Muhammad’s ‘truthfulness’ – that he habitually spoke the truth – as well as his ‘trustworthiness’, but in fact these two virtues go hand in hand. If you tell the truth, people will trust you; if you lie and the other person finds out, then trust will be diminished if not lost forever.
Why does truth or veracity, honesty and high principle matter in a leader? The reason is simple. Leaders who are true and always speak the truth create trust. And trust is vital in all human relations, professional or private.
You can see why Muhammad insisted upon integrity in those who were chosen to be leaders in the Umma, the growing Muslim community. There was to be no place for any form of bribery or corruption: not that this prohibition was – or is – easy for man is “violent… in his love of wealth” (Qur’an 100:8).
I will stand surety for Paradise if you save yourself from six things: telling untruths, violating promises, dishonouring trust, being unchaste in thought and act, striking the first blow and taking what is bad and unlawful –Prophet Muhammad (s)
Perhaps of all Muhammad’s successors, it was the second caliph, Umar, who is the chief exemplar of integrity in Islam. Although he lacked Muhammad’s humour and charm, Umar matched him in scrupulous honesty and uprightness in matters financial, his passion for impartial justice and his adherence to the simple, open and approachable Bedouin style of leadership. Numani, the authoritative biographer of Umar, emphasises his unbending integrity: “Here, we must note that all the Caliph’s efforts in this regard would have counted for little if he had not himself led by example. He stressed repeatedly that, as regards the Law, he stood on an equal footing with any other individual. He claimed no special privileges or exemptions as caliph. He proclaimed, instead, that his powers were limited and his exercise of them subject to scrutiny and criticism.”
Regarding public funds, Umar said: “I have no greater right on your money [i.e. public funds] than the guardian of an orphan has on that orphan’s property. If I am wealthy, I shall not take anything. If I am needy, I shall take for my maintenance, according to usage. You people – you have many rights on me which you should demand of me. One of those rights is that I should not collect revenues and spoils of war unlawfully; the second is that the revenues and spoils of war that come into my possession should not be spent unlawfully; another is that I should increase your salaries and protect the frontiers, and that I should not cast you into unnecessary perils.”
Integrity reflects the oneness of God
This is a further reflection, especially for Muslims. The simple message of Muhammad was in Arabic tawhid, the oneness of God: Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He does not beget, nor is He begotten; And there is none like Him. (Qur’an 112:1-4)
For believers, God has self-evidently many qualities or attributes, or ‘names’ as they are called in the Islamic tradition. Encouraged by the Qur’an (Q7:180; Q17:110; Q20:8), Muslims selected 99 of these attributes of God describing this perfection, from the Qur’an and traditions. Referred to as ‘the most beautiful names of God’, they describe a range of characteristics that balance the power of God (the Creator, the Sovereign and the All-Knowing) with His love and mercy (the All-Loving, the Most Gracious and the All-Forgiving). The names are frequently memorised and used in prayers. One name that has been hidden by God is Ism Allah al-a’zam, ‘The Greatest Name of Allah’. Yet all this unfathomably rich diversity is encompassed in an essential unity: “Say: He is Allah, the One…”
Integrity, you could say, within this tradition is the counterpart of tawhid in a person’s life and character. If man is made in the likeness of God, then personal integrity reflects the oneness of God.
Adair is a British academic who is a leadership theorist and author of more than 40 books on leadership.