The cry of cronyism is a popular cry in politics and business, but if we look at history, empire is built with the help of cronies. No one can build anything of substance alone. He needs his supporters. These supporters, however, are not called cronies, but friends, associates or family members.
Muhammad the Prophet too did not establish the first Islamic Nation alone. The Prophet, upon him be peace, did it through his close friends, family members and relatives.
No Muslim worth his salt, however, would call his supporters, cronies. Even the writers hostile to the Prophet do not venture to call them cronies. They are called his companions.
Now, if we look at the meaning of the word, we know that crony means long time friend. Literally speaking, therefore, the leading companions of the Prophet are all his cronies, for they are his long time friends. For an important appointment, such as leading an army, the Prophet always chose his crony. Yet, no eyebrows were raised to this practice.
And Muhammad the Prophet is not alone in this practice. Every man of note throughout history always relies on his cronies for support, and always appoints his cronies for important positions.
Has the world changed? Has the acceptable practice in the days of old become unacceptable in our times? Or, do we miss something in this cry of cronyism?
A peek at the Seerah of the Prophet would perhaps shed some light on the issue. The decision made by the Prophet in the light of this matter had never been objected except on two occasions. The first was the distribution of booties after the Battle of Hunayn, and the second was the appointment of a leader in the expedition to Syria. Let’s briefly look at both.
The Battle of Hunayn took place after the conquest of Makkah, in 8 AH (630 AD). Having recently conquered Makkah without much resistant, the Muslims--with added strength from the newly converts, the people of Makkah--did not at first took the battle seriously and thereby suffered a temporary defeat.
Mindful that it was not the number which led them to victory, they regrouped and renewed the fight. They were victorious shortly thereafter, gaining abundant spoils of war, including cattle and slaves. The Prophet gave most of the spoils of war to the recently converts, and the "veteren" Muslims who came to conquer Makkah, most of them were Helpers (Ansars, people of Madinah), were left only with very little booties.
The tongues quickly wagged. Muhammad had favored his people, namely his native folks, the Quraysh who had only recently converted. All meat is given to his people, while all we get is bone, the Ansars murmured.
The complaint reached the Prophet, and he called one of their leaders, Sa’d bin ‘Ubadah, to his tent. He asked Sa’d to speak, to which the latter responded:
“The Helpers are furious at you about the distribution of the booty that you had won. You have allotted shares to your own kinsmen and forwarded lots of gifts to the Arab tribes. But this group has obtained nothing.”
“What do you think of all that?” The Prophet asked.
“O Messenger of Allah. You know that I am nothing but a member of this group.” Sa’d replied. In case you need translation, it was his way of saying he was also not happy with the Prophet’s decision.
“Call out on your people and bring them forth to me into this shed.” Said the Prophet.
Sa‘d went out and summoned them. When they came, the Prophet spoke to them inquiringly:
“I have been told that you are angry with me. Didn’t I come to you when you were astray and Allah guided you? You were poor and Allah gave you wealth. Weren’t you foes and Allah made you love one another.”
“Yes,” they said, “Allah and His Messenger are better and more gracious.”
They already answered in a positive way, since they did not challenge the Prophet’s decision straight to his face. But the Prophet knew that the matter was not yet settled. All they did was saying the truth. Of course Allah and the Prophet are better, but the issue was about the spoils of war. Seeing that they said nothing further, the Prophet provoked them:
“What prevents you from replying to the Messenger of Allah, O tribe of Helpers?”
Not knowing what else to say, they merely replied: “What should be the reply, O Messenger of Allah, while to the Lord and to his Messenger belong all benevolence and grace.” .
To this reply, the Prophet rejoined:
“But by Allah, you might have answered and answered truly, for I would have testified to its truth myself: You came to us belied and rejected and we accepted you; you came to us as helpless and we helped you; a fugitive, and we took you in; poor and we comforted you. You Helpers, do you feel anxious for the things of this world, wherewith I have sought to incline these people unto the Faith in which you are already established? Are you not satisfied, O group of Helpers that the people go with ewes and camels while you go along with the Messenger of Allah to your dwellings. By Him in Whose Hand is my life, had there been no migration, I would have been one of the Helpers. If the people would go through a valley and passage, and the Helpers go through another valley and passage, I would go through the valley and passage of the Helpers. Allah! Have mercy on the Helpers, their children and their children’s children.”
To that passionate speech, brief, but came from the heart of their beloved Prophet, the audience wept until tears rolled down their beards, and they said:
“Yes, we are satisfied, O Prophet of Allah, with our lot and share.”
That was the first occasion.
As for the second, towards the end of his life, the Prophet assembled the largest army he ever assembled, said to be around 30,000 men to march to the Roman frontiers, Sham. In that battalion, he appointed his grandson, Usamah bin Zayd, to be the leader. Usamah was barely 20 years old at that time, or only 18 according to some.
In that army, there were leading companions like Abu Bakar and Umar, but they were made to be ordinary soldiers. Even the celebrated general, Khalid Al Walid, was in the army, but he too was made only ordinary soldier.
Thinking that perhaps the Prophet had made the wrong decision by appointing the young Usamah to be their leader, many of them objected. Facing them, the Prophet asked:
“What would you say if his father was appointed instead?”
It was a rhetorical question, of course. Zayd bin Haritha, the adopted son of the Prophet and the father of Usamah, had become a martyr about three years back, in the war known as the Battle of Mu’tah. He led an army of 3,000 strong to fight against the Romans army, whose number was said to be 100,000 strong, or 200,000 according to others. The Battle of Mu’tah was the first encounter between the Muslims and the Romans.
It was also the battle that the celebrated general, Khalid Al Walid, took part for the first time as a Muslim. Khalid had recently converted at that time, and was made only an ordinary soldier. In that battle, one after another the leaders appointed by the Prophet—first Zayd bin Haritha, then Jaafar bin Abu Talib and finally Abdullah bin Rawahah—fell martyrs.
Since the Prophet only mentioned those three, there was a vacuum in the leadership after Abdullah Rawahah fell martyr. The Muslim army asked Khalid to take over the leadership, and the famous general managed to save the tiny Muslim army against the behemoth Roman army from total annihilation. For his role in that battle, the Prophet called Khalid Al Walid “The Sword of Allah.”
Rhetorical perhaps the question was, but it had it desired effect, for the companions answered in unison: “We willingly submit.”
“Usamah is just as capable as his father. Follow him, but support him with your good council.” The Prophet rejoined.
The companions did not take long to see that the Prophet meant what he said. They had seen how Usamah performed in the Battle of Hunayn. During that Battle, in which the Muslim army was ambushed, Usamah was among the few men who continued to fight with the Prophet. He helped turning the near-defeat Battle into victory.
There was also personal reason. His father was martyred in the first encounter between the Muslims and the Romans at the Mu’tah. Usamah was told to lead the army to where his father went, with the mission to teach a lesson to the Romans who had been terrorizing the Muslims at the frontiers for the last couple of years. Of all people, Usamah would be more keen to see the mission succeed, for he had a personal score to settle with the Romans.
Usamah was to lead, but he was told by the Prophet to seek good council from the senior companions who were more experience in war. Usamah was wise enough to know that he was still a rookie in war as compared to the leading companions, but his role was symbolic.
The Prophet had that in mind, and the leading companions soon came to understand the wisdom of their Prophet. Even if that was not apparent to others, it was apparent to Abu Bakar. Muhammad the Prophet died before the army left Madinah, but as soon as the Prophet was buried, Abu Bakar who took over the leadership ordered the army to dispatch exactly as the Prophet had planned, in spite of some reservation from the companions.
From the above two cases, we come to the crux of the matter.
No man is an island. Nothing of substance can be achieved without the help of others. Great men or women throughout history did not achieve greatness alone. They received help from their friends, companions, associates, or family members.
Muhammad did not achieve greatness alone, but through his companions. So were Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and many others. And after greatness is achieved, it was perpetuated by their close friends or family members.
It was Julius Caesar who paved the way for the Roman Empire, but it was his nephew, Octavius, better known as Augustus Caesar, who became the first Roman Emperor, and through his descendants and relatives, made the Roman Empire great.
Genghis Khan established the Mongol Empire—the largest empire ever accomplished by a single conqueror—through the help of his friends and children. This great empire was perpetuated by his children and their descendants.
Alexander the Great took over the leadership from his father King Philip, and expanded the small Greek Empire into a huge one. This he did through his associates. Since he did not have any children, it was his associates who perpetuated this large empire into a few smaller dynasties.
As for Napoleon, well, he died as a prisoner in an island of St. Helena. Enough said about him.
As for Muhammad, we know that after his death, the Islamic Empire was perpetuated by his close family members. His first four successors were all his in laws. In fact, the fifth caliph, Muawiyah, who established the Umayyah Dynasty, was also his in law. We have narrated it in All In the Family.
The objection on cronyism is therefore not about favoring one’s family members, associates, friends or relatives. After all, who can we rely for support if not from those we know well and trust fully. As is often the case, these would be friends, family members or our associates. We would be crazy to rely on some strangers.
Cronyism is not about favoring friends or family members. It is human nature to favor those whom we love.
It is about the perceived lack of worthiness of these favored ones. While crony simply means long time friend, cronyism brings with it the connotation of favoring friends for no reasons other than the fact that they are our friends.
Thus, when the Helpers understood that the Prophet was not actually favoring his kinsmen in the distribution of booties after the Battle of Hunayn, but was simply trying to win the hearts of the newly converts, and that what was left with them, the Prophet himself, was much better than all the wealth in the world, they readily accepted his decision.
Likewise with the appointment of Usamah bin Zayd as the leader of the contingent to fight against the Romans. The companions felt that Usamah was too young for the role. Some even ventured to say that the only reason Usamah was appointed was because he was the adopted grandson of the Prophet. But when the Prophet said that the appointment was because of Usamah’s capability, aside from the symbolic reason surrounding it, and not merely because he was the adopted grandson, they willingly submitted.
Alas, the companions of the Prophet were of different breeds. If the current leader makes that kind of decisions and gives that kind of answers, I wonder whether people will acquiesce. Even the third Caliph, Uthman bin Affan, whose service to Islam was too numerous to enumerate, was accused of practicing the policy of favoritism, by his contemporary no less. Many of those who were not happy with him were leading companions. What more the people of our times.