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Imam Ali’s (A.S) letter to Malik-e-Ashtar

Kofi Annan, former Secy. Gen. U.N.O, says: “The words of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, O Malik ! The people are either brothers in religion or your equal in creation, must be adhered to by all organizations and it is a statement that all humanity must embrace”
Here is the letter. Letter written by Imam Ali RA to Malik
Be it known to you, O, Malik, that I am sending you as Governor to a country which in the past has experienced both just and unjust rule. Men will scrutinize your actions with a searching eye, even as you used to scrutinize the actions of those before you, and speak of you even as you did speak of them.
The fact is that the public speak well of only those who do good. It is they who furnish the proof of your actions. Hence the richest treasure that you may covet would be the treasure of good deeds. Keep your desires under control and deny yourself that which you have been prohibited from, for, by such abstinence alone, you will be able to distinguish between what is good to them and what is not.
Develop in your heart the feeling of love for your people and let it be the source of kindliness and blessing to them. Do not behave with them like a barbarian, and do not appropriate to yourself that which belongs to them. Remember that the citizens of the state are of two categories. They are either your brethren in religion or your brethren in kind. They are subject to infirmities and liable to commit mistakes.
Some indeed do commit mistakes. But forgive them even as you would like God to forgive you. Bear in mind that you are placed over them, even as I am placed over you. And then there is God even above him who has given you the position of a Governor in order that you may look after those under you and to be sufficient unto them. And you will be judged by what you do for them.
Do not set yourself against God, for neither do you possess the strength to shield yourself against His displeasure, nor can you place yourself outside the pale of His mercy and forgiveness. Do not feel sorry over any act of forgiveness, nor rejoice over any punishment that you may mete out to any one. Do not rouse yourself to anger, for no good will come out of it.
Do not say: “I am your overlord and dictator, and that you should, therefore, bow to my commands”, as that will corrupt your heart, weaken your faith in religion and create disorder in the state. Should you be elated by power, ever feel in your mind the slightest symptoms of pride and arrogance, then look at the power and majesty of the Divine governance of the Universe over which you have absolutely no control.
It will restore the sense of balance to your wayward intelligence and give you the sense of calmness and affability.
Beware! Never put yourself against the majesty and grandeur of God and never imitate His omnipotence; for God has brought low every rebel of God and every tyrant of man.
Let your mind respect through your actions the rights of God and the rights of man, and likewise, persuade your companions and relations to do likewise. For, otherwise, you will be doing injustice to yourself and injustice to humanity. Thus both man and God will turn unto your enemies. There is no hearing anywhere for one who makes an enemy of God himself. He will be regarded as one at war with God until he feels contrition and seeks forgiveness. Nothing deprives man of divine blessings or excites divine wrath against him more easily than cruelty. Hence it is, that God listens to the voice of the oppressed and waylays the oppressor.
“Letter to Malik al-Ashtar” attributed to Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib shares similarities with the teachings of other philosophers and leaders, each text reflects the unique cultural, religious, and historical contexts in which they were written. Here’s a comparison highlighting some common themes found in the “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar” and the teachings of other philosophers:
1. Justice and Fair Governance:
= Imam Ali’s letter emphasizes the importance of justice and fair governance, echoing the teachings of philosophers like Plato, who discussed the ideal city-state governed by justice in his work “The Republic.”
= Similar themes of justice and ethical governance can also be found in the writings of Confucius, who stressed the importance of virtuous leadership and moral integrity in his Analects.
2. Humility and Avoidance of Corruption:
= Imam Ali warns against the temptations of power and corruption, advising Malik to remain humble and avoid exploitation. This sentiment aligns with the teachings of Socrates, who famously proclaimed, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” emphasizing the value of humility and self-awareness.
= Similarly, the Stoic philosopher Seneca cautioned against the corrosive effects of wealth and power, advocating for a life of virtue and moderation.
3. Consultation and Advice:
= Imam Ali encourages Malik to seek advice from knowledgeable individuals and to listen to different viewpoints before making decisions. This idea resonates with the concept of deliberative democracy, where leaders consult with citizens and experts to inform their decision-making.
= The Greek philosopher Aristotle also discussed the importance of deliberation and collective decision-making in his works on politics and ethics, highlighting the value of diverse perspectives in governance.
4. Piety and God-Consciousness:
= Throughout the letter, Imam Ali emphasizes the importance of piety and God-consciousness in leadership. This reflects a broader tradition of religious and spiritual guidance in governance, found in texts like the Bible’s Book of Proverbs or the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism.
= Similarly, the Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, in his “Meditations,” reflects on the role of divine providence and the need to align one’s actions with universal principles of justice and reason.
5. Meritocracy and Virtuous Leadership:
= Imam Ali’s letter underscores the importance of appointing capable and virtuous individuals to positions of authority, regardless of their social status or background. This resonates with the concept of meritocracy, where leadership roles are based on competence and merit rather than hereditary privilege. Similar ideas can be found in the teachings of philosophers like John Stuart Mill, who advocated for a society where individuals are rewarded based on their talents and efforts rather than their birth or wealth.
6. Community Welfare and Social Responsibility:
= Imam Ali emphasizes the responsibility of leaders to safeguard the welfare of the community and ensure the equitable distribution of resources. This aligns with the concept of social justice, which emphasizes fairness and equality in society. Philosophers like John Rawls, in his theory of justice as fairness, argue for a social contract where principles of justice are chosen behind a “veil of ignorance,” ensuring impartiality and consideration for the least advantaged members of society.
7. Ethical Leadership and Personal Integrity:
= The “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar” highlights the importance of personal integrity and ethical conduct in leadership. This mirrors the teachings of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, who proposed the categorical imperative as a moral principle that guides ethical decision-making based on universal maxims of duty and respect for human dignity.
8. Empathy and Compassion:
= Imam Ali’s letter underscores the importance of empathy and compassion in governance, urging leaders to consider the needs and concerns of the marginalized and vulnerable members of society. This aligns with the teachings of philosophers like Mahatma Gandhi, who emphasized the principle of ahimsa (nonviolence) and advocated for leaders to lead with love and compassion for all beings.
9. Wisdom and Prudence:
= Imam Ali’s advice to Malik emphasizes the importance of wisdom and prudence in governance. This aligns with the teachings of philosophers like Aristotle, who viewed practical wisdom (phronesis) as essential for making sound judgments and achieving virtuous action in political affairs.
10. Balance of Rights and Responsibilities:
= The letter to Malik underscores the need for leaders to balance the rights and responsibilities of individuals within society. This echoes the social contract theories of philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that legitimate political authority arises from a mutual agreement among individuals to uphold their rights and fulfill their duties for the common good.
11. Continuous Learning and Self-Improvement:
= Imam Ali’s emphasis on seeking advice and listening to different viewpoints reflects a commitment to continuous learning and self-improvement in leadership. This aligns with the philosophical concept of episteme (knowledge) as a lifelong pursuit, as advocated by thinkers like Plato and Socrates.
12. Ethical Decision-Making and Consequentialism:
= The “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar” encourages leaders to make ethical decisions based on principles of justice and righteousness, rather than solely focusing on outcomes or consequences. This contrasts with consequentialist theories, such as utilitarianism, which prioritize the greatest good for the greatest number. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant argued for deontological ethics, where moral duties are determined by rational principles rather than the consequences of actions.
13. Leadership by Example and Integrity:
= Imam Ali’s letter emphasizes the importance of leaders setting an example through their actions and personal integrity. This resonates with the concept of ethical leadership, where leaders demonstrate honesty, transparency, and moral courage. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle also stressed the importance of virtuous character in leadership, as exemplified by the ideal of the philosopher-king.
14. Social Contract and Government Legitimacy:
= The letter to Malik al-Ashtar touches upon the concept of government legitimacy, emphasizing the importance of just governance and the consent of the governed. This idea aligns with social contract theories proposed by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that political authority arises from a mutual agreement among individuals to form a society and abide by its rules.
15. Ethical Dilemmas and Moral Reasoning:
= Imam Ali’s advice to Malik involves navigating complex ethical dilemmas and exercising moral reasoning in governance. This parallels the philosophical exploration of moral dilemmas and ethical decision-making by thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard, who delved into the concept of existential choice and the individual’s responsibility to make authentic moral decisions in uncertain situations.
16. Leadership and Virtue Ethics:
= The “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar” emphasizes the importance of virtuous leadership, where leaders exhibit qualities such as wisdom, justice, and compassion. This aligns with virtue ethics, a philosophical approach that emphasizes the cultivation of moral virtues and character traits. Philosophers like Aristotle and Confucius advocated for virtuous living and leadership grounded in ethical excellence.
17. Empowerment and Participatory Governance:
= Imam Ali’s encouragement for Malik to seek advice and involve the community in decision-making reflects a commitment to participatory governance and empowerment. This resonates with democratic theories of governance, where citizen participation and empowerment are central principles. Philosophers like John Dewey and John Rawls championed democratic ideals and the importance of inclusive decision-making processes.
18. Human Dignity and Equality:
= The letter to Malik emphasizes the inherent dignity and equality of all individuals, regardless of their social status or background. This aligns with the philosophical concept of human dignity, which posits that every person possesses inherent worth and deserves respect and equal treatment. Thinkers like Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill defended the principles of human dignity and equality in their ethical and political writings.
19. Universal Morality and Golden Rule:
= The letter to Malik emphasizes principles of justice, fairness, and compassion, echoing the golden rule found in various religious and philosophical traditions. This rule, often formulated as “treat others as you would like to be treated,” reflects a universal moral principle present in teachings across cultures and religions. Philosophers like Confucius, Jesus Christ, and Immanuel Kant all articulated variations of this rule in their ethical teachings.
20. Intellectual Humility and Open-mindedness:
= Imam Ali’s advice to seek advice and listen to different viewpoints highlights the importance of intellectual humility and open-mindedness in leadership. This aligns with philosophical traditions that value critical thinking, curiosity, and openness to new ideas. Thinkers like John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Popper emphasized the importance of intellectual humility and the willingness to entertain diverse perspectives in the pursuit of knowledge and truth.
21. Environmental Stewardship and Ethical Responsibility:
= While not explicitly addressed in the “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar,” the principles of ethical leadership and stewardship extend to environmental concerns. Philosophers like Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Arne Naess have emphasized the ethical responsibility of individuals and leaders to protect the environment and promote sustainability. Their teachings resonate with the broader ethical principles of justice, compassion, and intergenerational equity found in Imam Ali’s letter.
22. Civic Virtue and Citizenship:
= The letter to Malik encourages leaders to uphold civic virtues such as honesty, integrity, and public service. This aligns with the classical Greek concept of civic virtue, which emphasizes the moral and ethical qualities necessary for active citizenship and participation in the affairs of the polis. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle discussed the importance of civic virtue in building a just and flourishing society.
23. Respect for Diversity and Pluralism:
= While not explicitly addressed in the letter, the principles of justice and fairness imply a respect for diversity and pluralism within society. Philosophers like John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin have explored the implications of pluralism for political theory, emphasizing the importance of accommodating diverse perspectives and values within a framework of justice and human rights.
These additional comparisons highlight the depth and breadth of ethical, political, and philosophical themes present in the “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar” and its resonance with broader intellectual traditions.
These comparisons deepen our understanding of the ethical, political, and philosophical dimensions of the “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar” and its resonance with broader intellectual traditions and philosophical discourses.
By exploring these additional comparisons, we gain deeper insights into the ethical principles and philosophical foundations underlying the “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar” and its relevance to leadership, governance, and moral philosophy.
By exploring these additional comparisons, we can further appreciate the universal themes and ethical principles that resonate across diverse philosophical traditions and texts, including the “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar.”
While these comparisons highlight some common themes among the “Letter to Malik al-Ashtar” and the teachings of other philosophers, each text offers unique insights shaped by its cultural and historical context. Studying these diverse perspectives can enrich our understanding of ethics, governance, and leadership across different traditions.

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