The common stories about Islam or Muslims have to do with the chopping of arms and killing of infidels. We are told that Muslims had a great empire, after many conquests and subjugation of the ‘infidels’. And what have we learned in the textbooks: Ali (AS) was a brave general with a legendary sword? Have we heard this:

Do not close your eyes from glaring malpractice of officers, miscarriage of justice and misuse of rights, because you will be held responsible for the wrong thus done to others. In the near future, your wrong practices and maladministration will be exposed, and you will be held responsible and punished for the wrong done to the helpless and oppressed people.

Fahmida Riaz is Pakistan’s premier female poet. She became a sensation in the early 1970s when her bold, feminist poetry created a stir in the convention ridden world of Urdu poetry. Riaz was expressive, sometimes explicit, and politically charged. She created a completely new genre in Urdu poetry with a post-modern sensibility. Later, she remained prominent with her defiance of General Zia’s martial law, her exile to India and the continuous evolution of her fiction and poetry.

Since the late 1990s, Fahmida Riaz has discovered Jalaluddin Rumi, the 12th century Turkish poet and jurist, and now an international celebrity. Her recent publication “ Yeh Khana-e aab-o-gil” is a unique translation of Rumi’s ghazals in the same rhyme and meter. Since her navigation of the Rumi universe, she has explored another dimension of her individual and cultural consciousness, where the influence of Islamic scholars and Sufis is paramount.

Last winter, she read a letter by Hazrat Ali bin Abi Talib (AS), the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), while browsing a translation of Nahaj ul Balagha (a collection of sermons, letters and sayings of the Caliph). Later, in an email, she related to her friends across the globe how angry she felt for not knowing about this letter all her life, and how the real jewels of Muslim history were concealed generation after generation.

At the time she was preparing for a Conference at Heidelberg, Germany. Lo and behold, she made a dramatic speech about Ali’s (AS) letter at the international moot. Thereafter she showed the text of the letter to Dr Patricia Sharpe, a US-based writer who was impressed by it and immediately paraphrased and uploaded it to on her website under the title Good Governance Early Muslim Style.

Ali (AS) had written a comprehensive letter  articulating principles of public policy for the guidance of the newly appointed Governor to Egypt, Maalik al Ashtar. In this fascinating directive, Ali (AS) advises the new governor that his administration will succeed only if he governs with concern for justice, equity, probity and the prosperity of all. There is a timeless applicability of this famous letter. Selected passages from the text are reproduced below:

Religious tolerance: Amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: those who have the same religion as you [and] are brothers to you, and those who have religions other than yours, [who] are human beings like you. Men of either category suffer from the same weaknesses and disabilities that human beings are inclined to; they commit sins, indulge in vices either intentionally or foolishly and unintentionally without realising the enormity of their deeds. Let your mercy and compassion come to their rescue and help in the same way and to the same extent that you expect Allah to show mercy and forgiveness to you .

Equity is best: A policy which is based on equity will be largely appreciated. Remember that the displeasure of common men, the have-nots and the depressed persons, over-balances the approval of important persons, while the displeasure of a few big people will be excused if the general public and the masses of your subjects are happy with you .

The rich:are the people who will be the worst drag upon you during your moments of peace and happiness, and the least useful to you during your hours of need and adversity. They hate justice the most. They will keep demanding more and more out of State resources and will seldom be satisfied with what they receive and will never be obliged for the favour shown to them if their demands are justifiably refused.

On judiciary: You must select people of excellent character and high calibre with meritorious records . . . When they realise that they have committed a mistake in judgment, they should not insist on it by trying to justify it . . . They should not be corrupt, covetous or greedy . . . . These appointments must be made . . . without any kind of favouritism being shown or influence being accepted; otherwise tyranny, corruption and misrule will reign . . . Let the judiciary be above every kind of executive pressure or influence, above fear or favour, intrigue or corruption.

Poverty: If a country is prosperous and if its people are well-to-do, then it will happily and willingly bear any burden. The poverty of the people is the actual cause of the devastation and ruination of a country, and the main cause of the poverty of the people is the desire of its ruler and officers to amass wealth and possessions, whether by fair or foul means.

Corruption undermines national well-being: I want to advise you about your businessmen and industrialists. Treat them well . . . They are the sources of wealth to the country . . . One more thing . . . you must keep an eye over their activities as well. You know that they are usually stingy misers, intensely self-centered and selfish, suffering from the obsession of grasping and accumulating wealth. They often hoard their goods to get more profit out of them by creating scarcity and by indulging in black-marketing.

On communicating with people: You must take care not to cut yourself off from the public. Do not place a curtain of false prestige between you and those over whom you rule. Such pretension and shows of pomp and pride are in reality manifestations of an inferiority complex and of vanity. The result of such an attitude is that you remain ignorant of the conditions of your subjects and of the actual cases of the events occurring in the State.

Peace leads to prosperity: If your enemy invites you to a peace treaty . . . never refuse to accept such an offer, because peace will bring rest and comfort to your armies, will relieve you of anxieties and worries, and will bring prosperity and affluence to your people . . . Be very careful never to break your promise with your enemy; never forsake the protection or support that you have offered to him; never go back upon your word, and never violate the terms of the treaty.

This document, written centuries ago, reflects an astute understanding of the class structure of society , ages before class as a political construct was defined, analysed and elaborated upon. The underlying ethos of a welfare state is captured here: protecting the poor and the disadvantaged .

Unlike many classics on governance, which tell you how to invite your enemy to dinner and then stab him, and how to perpetuate the exercise of power, Ali (AS) emphasised the creation of a state that provided the greatest opportunities to the people. Indeed, Riaz became a little poetic by stating that we hardly deserved the honour of being associated with a faith and vision that Ali (AS) propagated; in what unworthy hands his teachings fell!

The common stories about Islam or Muslims have to do with the chopping of arms and killing of infidels. We are told that Muslims had a great empire, after many conquests and subjugation of the infidels. And what have we learned in the textbooks: Ali (AS) was a brave general with a legendary sword? Have we heard this:

Do not close your eyes from glaring malpractice of officers, miscarriage of justice and misuse of rights, because you will be held responsible for the wrong thus done to others. In the near future, your wrong practices and maladministration will be exposed, and you will be held responsible and punished for the wrong done to the helpless and oppressed people.

Fahmida’s exuberance indeed was heart-warming. Alas, not all her friends were impressed. A couple of agnostic liberals in Karachi were appalled – comrade Fahmida of yesteryear talking about Ali (AS) and Islamic history? So it turned into a spiteful, bitter litany against her for being reactionary. A self-styled intellectual from Karachi went to the extent of saying that she, being a woman, could not be fit to understand history and politics. This was shocking all in response to a personal discovery that the poet shared with child-like enthusiasm. She was chided for everything under the sun, including supporting enlightened moderation, mullahs and dictatorship.

Undaunted, Fahmida composed a poem, and later wrote an allegorical short story on how a dreg of the earth, a cleaner in our society, finds a parchment of this letter and asks a mullah about it, who holds that the contents of this letter are beyond the comprehension of the cleaner. But there is a connection as the story proceeds, that universal principles of justice, fairplay and equal opportunity are valid for all – not just the elite or the powerful.

Thanks to Fahmida, many of us have (re)discovered this gem. Doubts on the authenticity of all ancient texts exist, and many a sceptical friend reminded me of this possibility. There are other believers who contest such doubts. My view is simple:

one has to relish these little moments of pride and happiness in finding such wisdom from our heritage in an otherwise bleak world dogged by the constructs of Islamism and religious fundamentalism

Translations of the letter are based on the versions in The Peak of Eloquence, published by Islamic Seminary, Karachi – An earlier version appeared in the Friday Times, Pakistan.