Should Muslim leaders be from the Quraish tribe?

Question:

Is it a condition for leadership in Islam that a Muslim be from the Quraish tribe?

Answer:

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

The Prophet gave preference to the leadership of the righteous members of the Quraish tribe due to their position as the leading tribe in Arabia, but not because of an inherent virtue in their lineage. In the context of Arabia at the time of the Prophet, the candidate for high office was required to earn the respect of all the Arabs and this would have been difficult if not impossible for members of another tribe.

In this context the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

النَّاسُ تَبَعٌ لِقُرَيْشٍ فِي هَذَا الشَّأْنِ مُسْلِمُهُمْ تَبَعٌ لِمُسْلِمِهِمْ وَكَافِرُهُمْ تَبَعٌ لِكَافِرِهِمْ

The people follow the Quraish in this matter. The Muslims follow the Muslims among them, and the unbelievers follow the unbelievers among them.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 3305, Grade: Sahih

Because of their position as the leading Arab tribe, most classical scholars made it a condition that the Caliph be a member of the Quraish. However, some scholars did not require such a condition when the political context had changed.

Ibn Khaldun writes:

ومن القائلين بنفي اشتراط القرشية القاضي أبو بكر الباقلاني لما أدرك عليه عصبية قريش من التلاشي والاضمحلال واستبداد ملوك العجم من الخلفاء فأسقط شرط القرشية وإن كان موافقا لرأي الخوارج لما رأى عليه حال الخلفاء

Among those who did not require the condition of being from the Quraish tribe was the judge Abu Bakr Al-Baqillani when he realized that in his time the solidarity in favor of the Quraish had vanished and that foreign kings possessed power over the Caliphs, so he no longer saw a need for this condition, despite agreeing with the Khawarij on this matter, since he could observe the state of the Caliphs.

Source: Al-Muqaddimah 1/99

Abu Bakr Al-Baqillani (d. 402AH/1013CE) was a Maliki scholar who held the position of chief judge outside the capital city of Baghdad. He considered that the office of Caliph did not require the condition of descent from the Quraish tribe due to the fact that the Quraish had lost their reputation as the leading tribe in Arabia and the Muslim world.

Sheikh Walid ibn Ali Al-Husayyin, professor at Al-Qasim University, summarizes this view:

It would seem that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said that the leader should be from Quraish because a head of state needs to be able to command respect and have the power to mobilize people to action. He needs to possess this ability in order to work towards the welfare of the nation. This will not be possible for a leader regarded in his society as being a person of ignoble status. In Arabia at the Prophet’s time, only Quraish had the necessary political clout… This is the reason why a good number of Islamic scholars throughout the ages have ruled that the condition of being from Quraish does not apply except in the first era of Islam. In later times, there is no benefit to be had from upholding such a condition. The necessity of the leader being from Quraish was a political reality at the Prophet’s time, but it did not remain so.

Source: Islamtoday.net

We should not understand from the Prophet’s statement that there is an inherent virtue in the lineage of the Quraish apart from righteousness. The quality that makes someone virtuous is their righteousness and Godfearing piety (taqwa) and not their ethnicity or tribe.

Allah said:

إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ

Verily, the most noble of you to Allah are the most righteous.

Surat Al-Hujurat 49:13

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

وَمَنْ بَطَّأَ بِهِ عَمَلُهُ لَمْ يُسْرِعْ بِهِ نَسَبُهُ

Whoever is slow to good deeds will not be hastened by his lineage.

Source: Sahih Muslim 2699, Grade: Sahih

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَدْ أَذْهَبَ عَنْكُمْ عُبِّيَّةَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ وَفَخْرَهَا بِالْآبَاءِ إِنَّمَا هُوَ مُؤْمِنٌ تَقِيٌّ وَفَاجِرٌ شَقِيٌّ النَّاسُ كُلُّهُمْ بَنُو آدَمَ وَآدَمُ خُلِقَ مِنْ تُرَابٍ

Verily, Allah has removed from you the pride of the time of ignorance with its boasting about ancestors. Verily, either one is a believer who fears Allah or a miserable sinner. The people are all the children of Adam, and Adam was created from dust.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 3955, Grade: Hasan

Despite contextual preference given to the Quraish, this does not exclude other righteous Muslims from taking positions of leadership in Islam.

Anas bin Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

اسْمَعُوا وَأَطِيعُوا وَإِنْ اسْتُعْمِلَ عَلَيْكُمْ عَبْدٌ حَبَشِيٌّ كَأَنَّ رَأْسَهُ زَبِيبَةٌ

Listen and obey your ruler even if he were an Abyssinian slave whose head looks like a raisin.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 6723, Grade: Sahih

In this tradition, the Prophet commanded Muslims to obey their leaders even if they were led by slaves from Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Abyssinian slaves suffered disadvantage in ancient Arabian society for two reasons: first, many Arabs had feelings of racial superiority over those with black skin, and second, slaves were among the lowest levels of social status. Despite this, Muslims have been commanded to obey their leaders even if they are led by African slaves. This demonstrates that any qualified Muslim can obtain a position of leadership regardless of their background.

Bilal ibn Rabiah, the famous companion of the Prophet, was an African slave who suffered disadvantage in pre-Islamic times due to his lineage and social status. However, he became the leader of the Muslims among those who call to prayer.

Umar ibn Al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, would say:

أَبُو بَكْرٍ سَيِّدُنَا وَأَعْتَقَ سَيِّدَنَا يَعْنِي بِلَالًا

Abu Bakr is our chief and he emancipated our chief Bilal.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 3544, Grade: Sahih

Bilal was considered a leader (sayyid) among the Muslims even though he had come from the lowest levels of status in Arabian society.

In conclusion, many scholars in modern times have not required the condition that Muslim leaders must be from the Quraish tribe. There is no longer a practical benefit to upholding such a condition. The political context at the time of the Prophet necessitated that the leader be from the Quraish but this is no longer the case.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.