There are number of verses in the Qur’an that reveal leadership qualities of Prophet Muhammad. One of these is the following verse:
It is by some mercy from Allah that you have been gentle with them. Had you been rough and hard of heart they would have dispersed from around you. So pardon them, ask for forgiveness for them, and consult them. Then when you have resolved, put your trust in Allah. Allah loves those who trust Him. (3.159)
The verse is clearly referring to people who were around the Prophet and could have left him. The people who were physically close to the Prophet are technically known as his “Companions.” The verse first highlights the mercy and gentleness with which the Prophet treated his Companions. The Prophet’s mercy for the believers in general is mentioned elsewhere in the Qur’an where he is described as being “toward the believers compassionate and merciful” (9.128) and “a mercy for those among you who have believed” (9:61). But he is also described as being “a mercy for all people” (21.107) not only the believers.
Verse 3.159 emphasizes the utmost importance of the Prophet’s being merciful and gentle rather than rough and hard of heart for the success of his mission. It states that, otherwise, even his very close Companions would have deserted him.
The Prophet’s beautiful qualities look even more impressive as the verse tells us more about the different contexts in which he has to exercise them, as it proceeds to command him to “pardon them” and “ask for forgiveness for them.” Clearly, the Prophet was required to show his mercy and gentleness even in situations when his Companions were involved in some kind of wrongdoing and misbehavior that required forgiveness from God and pardoning by the Prophet.
The verse then commands the Prophet to consult with the Companions about decisions he needed to make. These were not decisions about the basics of faith, which are determined by God as revealed in the Qur’an, but about short-term and long-term issues of the Muslim community and the management of the relationships with other communities. The command to the Prophet to consult his Companions had two objectives. First, to seek various views so he can be best informed about the available options. Second, to get buy-in from them for whatever decision he intends to make. This is a genuine consultative process that involves the Companions as participants and the Prophet as the ultimate decision maker.
One well-known example of Prophet Muhammad’s consultative approach to leadership was set in the Battle of the Trench (Ghazwat al-Khandaq). This battle is referred to in Chapter 33 of the Qur’an, which is named “Al-Aḥzāb (The Confederates)” after the confederate armies of Arab and Jewish tribes that attacked the Muslims in Medina. The Prophet discussed with his Companions their defensive options against an army that was 3-4 times their size. Salmān Al-Fārisī suggested digging a trench around Medina that would neutralize the horse- and camel-mounted troops of the enemy. The Prophet agreed to the plan which ultimately proved completely successful.
The essentiality of consultation in Islamic leadership is confirmed elsewhere in the Qur’an in the context of mentioning commendable attributes of the believers:
Those who avoid the gravest of sins and indecencies, and when they become angry they forgive. (42.37) And those who answer their Lord, perform prayer, whose affair is determined by consultation among themselves, and spend of what We have given them. (42.38)
Another beautiful aspect of Prophet Muhammad’s leadership is combining authority and power with mercy and gentleness. This combination is difficult to achieve. Those who are merciful and gentle may fail to become leaders, lacking firmness and decision making skills. On the other hand, those who are in leadership positions find it very difficult to behave with mercy and kindness as they exercise their power and authority.
Needless to say, the leadership qualities the Qur’an promotes are not found in most Muslim political leaders today. Consultation has been replaced by dictatorship, whereas mercifulness, kindness, and forgiveness have given way to brutality and harshness. Furthermore, the leadership that the Qur’an promotes are applicable in various walks of life not only politics, including work and home.