Enacting Justice, Ensuring Salvation: The Trope of the ‘Just Ruler’ in Some Medieval Islamic Mirrors for Princes


Know that kingship and sovereignty are among the gravest duties of Islam . . . and the support of faith and the people depends on kings, who distinguish between justice [‘adl ] and oppression [ẓulm].1

In truth, the Sulṭān is he who spreads justice [‘adl ] among his servants, who does not commit injustice and depravity; a tyrannical Sulṭān is a disaster and will not last because the Prophet said: ‘kingship remains with unbelief, but not with tyranny [ẓulm].’2

Among the many charged words which have loomed large in recent American political discourse none are more prominent than ‘oppression’ and ‘freedom’; two abstract nouns which are often heard together, each being construed as the logical antonym of the other. This is neither unusual nor unexpected. The Enlightenment ideals which fuelled the French Revolution naturally juxtaposed the idea of ‘freedom’ (la liberté) against the perceived ‘oppression’ (l’oppression) of the ancien régime, positing a semantic opposition which has since served to frame so much of the discourse of Western European and American democracy. When asked to provide an antonym for the noun ‘oppression,’ a native speaker of American English will more often than not produce the noun ‘freedom.’ Again, this is neither unusual nor unexpected given the political, intellectual, and cultural genealogies informing American conceptions of national mission. However, when these two words are translated into Arabic (or, for that matter other major Islamicate languages such as Persian, Urdu, or Turkish) they do not form an antonymous pair — far from it. Simply put, at the level of popular speech, the logical antonym of the word ‘oppression’ (ẓulm) is not the word ‘freedom’ (Ar. ḥurr?ya; Per. & Urd. āzād?, āzādig?; Tur. özgürlük, hürriyet), but rather the abstract noun ‘justice’ (‘adl), a derivation (Per. & Urd. ‘idālat, Tur. adalet) or a near synonym (e.g., Per. and Urd., insaf, dād; Tur. inṣāf, doğruluk), most of which are possessed of closely associated adjectives, adverbs, and participles which carry the same semantic load.

This is not to be glossed over lightly, for language is deeply telling, encoding basic cultural assumptions rooted in the collective worldview and ethos of those who speak them. For those familiar with the intellectual and cultural production of medieval Islamic civilization, the antonymity of these two terms is hardly surprising — both are possessed of a long history of theological, juridical, political, literary and poetic significations which overlap and impinge upon one another through and across multiple discourses, circulated so thoroughly that they eventually become engrained in everyday expression to such an extent that, in modern colloquial Urdu, for example, it is not uncommon for a hen-pecked man to be referred to tongue-in-cheek as an “oppressed little husband” (maẓlūm khāvand) and his wife as a “tyrant” (ẓālim).

Such examples are trite but telling, for like many abstract nouns that have seeped into the lexicons of various Islamicate languages, the two terms ẓulm and ‘adl feature prominently in the Qur’ān, they and their associated derivations appearing over 340 times throughout the text. Although retaining a layer of their pre-Islamic meanings connoting physical displacement on the one hand and rectifying and counterbalancing on the other,3 in the Qur’ānic discourse both ẓulm and ‘adl come to be moralized, the former serving to connote a cluster of negative values associated with transgressing the limits imposed by God through various acts of moral displacement and the latter — also reflecting the physicality of its pre-Islamic, Bedouin usage — a cluster of positive values associated with various acts of equilibration which possess the potential to straighten, balance, and rectify a morally unbalanced situation.4 Thus, the Qur’ānic rootedness of the contextually expanded signification of ẓulm (‘oppression’) in the foregoing example drawn from Pakistani domestic life — the wife's tyranny jokingly displaces and subverts a perceived natural moral order.

At the lexical level, the persistence of this antonymous pair is certainly reinforced by the Qur’ānic significations of ẓulm /‘adl and its influence on cultural poetics across Muslim societies, but at the same time the rhetoricity of this opposition is neither static nor timeless. As with all systems of meaning, at the level of audience-response the Qur’ānic system of signification is contextual, shifting and changing over time and space as each generation encounters, responds, and adds to the collective weight of an inherited past in light of the exigencies of their particular present. It is in the shifts between and among ‘meaning inherited’ and ‘meaning articulated’ where the intellectual, cultural, political and religious significations of worldview-building oppositions such as oppression/justice are to be sought, for while perceived vertically and synchronically, Qur’ānic oppositions are inevitably articulated horizontally and diachronically, being possessed of genealogies whose main continuity is that they set themselves in relief most visibly at moments of crisis. In his masterful study of the rise and fall of civilizations, the late Arnold Toynbee argued for the creative power of crisis as a prime determinant in shaping the historical trajectory of civilizations, positing that to understand the texture of a civilization is to understand the nature and scope of its responses, failed or otherwise, offered to moments of challenge.5 As Toynbee might say, it is in piecing together historically definable moments of response to crises (whether propelled by the inertia of previous responses or eschewing precedent in favor of novelty) which allows us to come to terms with any one response, past or present, through understanding it as part of a continually unfolding historical process possessed of moments of action/reaction which are contiguous but at the same time historically distinct.

This leads us to the heart of the question which has already been framed by our initial observations on the lexical antonymity of the words ẓulm / ‘adl in contemporary Islamicate languages, namely: if construed as possessing political significations, is this antonymity (lexically or rhetorically) a novel response to a crisis unique to Islamic civilization in the modern period, or is it possessed of an historically identifiable genealogy with pre-modern antecedents? If so (and I believe it is) how might have ‘justice’ (‘adl) and its antonym ‘oppression’ (ẓulm) been understood in an earlier (i.e., pre-modern) context by those possessed of the actual power to effect either and, in turn, how were both constituted as a subject of discourse and an object of reflection and self-representation? In short, when, where, how, and in what contexts might we find a decidedly political signification of the Qur’ānic ‘oppression/justice’ complex in the historical unfolding of Islamic civilization — can it be located it in an identifiable, historical discourse, preferably one emerging from a moment of crisis?

The Medieval Islamic ‘Mirrors for Princes’

Although intersecting, sharing, and in no small number of cases contesting a shared discursive space, as with so much in Islamic intellectual, political, and social history, charting the contours of pre-modern Muslim conceptions of justice demands looking beyond the oftentimes reified discourse of jurists and theologians to texts produced by and for those who more often than not provided the capital and patronage making their endeavors possible in the first place. What I have in mind is a discourse embodied in a group of texts similar to the popular didactic literary genre known to pre-modern Europe as Fürstenspiegel (Ger. ‘Mirror for Princes’), namely those medieval Islamic books of ‘advice for rulers’ (naṣ?ḥat al-mulūk) so well known to historians of the pre-modern Islamic world and beloved by students of Persian, Arabic, and Turkish belles-lettres.6

Possessed of a two-fold intention which attempts to balance the actual practice of statecraft (siyāsa, tadb?r al-mulk) with a political ethics (al-khuluq al-siyāsatiyya) demanding adherence to Islamic conceptions of the moral justice and righteousness which those in power are divinely obligated to maintain, the medieval Islamic Fürstenspiegel were composed at a time of major crisis, a period characterized by intense competition between powerful regional dynasties for public recognition of their self-perceived role as guarantors of proper, right, and universal justice as expressed in the creation, maintenance, and perpetuation of a perfect (Islamic) state — a state which ensures first and foremost that its citizens achieve prosperity in both this world and the next. Situated in a discursive space where various genres, literary modes, and collective oral and written wisdom traditions overlap, the internal environment of the Fürstenspiegel is much broader than other medieval Islamic discourses treating similar issues, being a place where Sassanian (and to a lesser extent Hellenistic, Indic, and Byzantine) traditions commingle with the Qur’ān and traditions of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muḥammad (Ḥad?th), legends of the previous prophets and Sufi hagiography, aphoristic and gnomic lore, juridical and theological articulations of Islamic praxis and dogma, positive law, the posthumous political counsel of popular Muslim icons, and old tales of righteous and just pre-Islamic Persian kings. Like all texts, the Fürstenspiegel are at the same time intimately tied to the historical context in which they were produced, constituting a recognizable literary genre which emerged within a disturbed political situation characterized by the progressive dissolution of centralized authority in the Muslim heartlands beginning in the mid-11th century, in many ways preserving a distinct discourse of power and authority which persisted until the rise of the Mughal, Ottoman, and Safavid Empires in the 16th century, when the project of Empire was renewed.

Although separated by radical temporal, geographic, linguistic, and cultural divides, as locations of a pre-modern discourse on justice, the medieval Islamic Fürstenspiegel intersect in some measure with what went before them. Like the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, for example, the authors of these ‘Mirrors for Princes’ were both participants in, and antagonists against, the process of Empire, and although separated by some fourteen centuries from the former, their respective constructions and representations of justice intersect not only in broad historical particulars but in philosophical orientation as well. Both Thucydides’History of the Peloponnesian War and the medieval Islamic ‘Mirrors for Princes’ were composed in the very real historical context of a fractured polity where authority and legitimacy were deeply contested, where the brute concerns of Empire and national policy inevitably confronted the much more fragile concerns of measured statecraft and political ethics. In the Melian Dialogue, for instance, Thucydides presents us with what is perhaps the classic articulation of Realpolitik: a foreign policy based on the practical concerns of Empire rather than ethical or principled concerns, a policy whose problematic relationship to ‘justice’ as such is only made all the more resonant by the artfully contrived dramatic quality of the Dialogue itself.7 Machiavelli himself could not have represented it any better. So to the Fürstenspiegel, texts which are rooted in the ethos of a powerful elite concerned with reconciling their very real de facto military authority as regional sultans and am?rs with the de jure religious and temporal authority of a now politically weakened caliphate, something which as members of competing regional courts jostling for political supremacy demanded negotiating a pervasive policy of Realpolitik while simultaneously attending to the constant legitimization of that authority in moral, ethical, and religious terms familiar and acceptable to the citizenry over which they ruled.

Constituting Justice

On the question of political theory in medieval Islamdom, one should begin as the classical theorists themselves, namely with the oft-quoted Qur’ānic injunction “Obey God, obey His Prophet, and obey those in authority over you.”8 If one is to start anywhere, it is here, for it is this injunction which has traditionally shaped Muslim conceptions of the nature of authority, an authority which constitutes itself in the notion that all civil relations (mu‘āmalāt) between and among any and all members of the Muslim polity exist in a complex of mutually informing rights and obligations (ḥuqūq) woven by divine decree into the very fabric of the human condition itself. Pursuant to the historical realities of the breakdown of centralized authority characteristic of the period in which most of the Fürstenspiegel were produced (i.e., the 12th–14th cens.) the question to which we must attend becomes not so much one of interrogating the Qur’ānic vision of a state which ensures the success of its citizenry in both this world and the next through ensuring the continued rule of the divine law (shar?‘a) in the form of absolutist government, but of how those in power actually went about legitimating their authority as its guarantors, and thus in turn were able to effect the religious duty of obedience on the part of their subjects. It is here where the contested nature of authority and legitimacy, justice and oppression are to be found, for as the medieval historiographers are wont to remind us, the political realties of a pervasive policy of Realpolitik rooted in the de facto military authority of regional sultans and am?rs of the central and eastern lands of medieval Islamdom time and time again collided with the established de jure religious and temporal authority of the caliphate in Baghdād, resulting in a constant tension over who was the legitimate guarantor of the integrity, and thus moral legitimacy, of the Muslim state in the eyes of its citizenry. In negotiating this tension, the authors of the Fürstenspiegelen developed an ingenious solution — one which revolved around a particular concept of justice (‘adl) and its paradigmatic troping in minutely detailed political behaviors.

The Siyāsa shar‘iyya Theorists

Before discussing the contours of this solution, however, it is important to outline the main issues connected with authority and power to which the medieval Islamic Fürstenspiegelen were speaking in their historically determined socio-political contexts, in particular those juridical formulations of temporal and religious authority (khilāfa/imāma) associated with the so-called ‘classical theory of the caliphate’ worked out by various Sunni jurists and theologians during a period when the ‘Abbasid Caliphate witnessed its lowest ebb.9 In contradistinction to earlier conceptions of caliphal authority, what becomes immediately apparent in this discourse is that the legitimacy of rulership was not one of power as much as it is one of moral authority, the Siyāsa shar‘iyya theorists attempting to legitimate a visible caliphal presence in the wider Islamic body politic by re-imagining and re-interpreting the constitution of moral authority, and the power to effect it, in light of a radically transformed political reality. Thus, we find in the work of the Mālik? jurist and Ash‘arite theologian al-Bāqillān? (d. 1013) a defense of the caliphate which delineates the nature and scope of the caliph's role, qualifications, and disposition of authority only as possible within a situation where the actual exercise of power lies elsewhere.10 Although other works intervene, the celebrated Ordinances of Government (al-Aḥkām al-sulṭāniyya) of the Shāfi‘? jurist al-Māward? (d. 1058) proceeds on the same assumptions, affirming the necessity of a religiously-authoritative caliph on the basis of Qur’ānic dictate and the necessity of his office for the continued vitality of the dār al-islām, but only calling for recognition of his role as executor of the divine law, its actual implementation being carried out by various legally recognized ‘delegates’ who hold de facto power.11 Following al-Māward?'s lead, the Ash‘arite shar‘?-revivalists al-Juwayn? (d. 1028) and his student al-Ghazāl? (d. 1111) defended the institution of the caliphate in a similar manner, affirming its necessity on the basis of revelation and the ‘consensus’ (ijmā‘) of the Sunni community, but only inasmuch as he sanctions and symbolically legitimizes political action but does not actually effect it.12 Overall, the compromise which emerges from these works is usually understood to be a fiction by which medieval Muslim jurists ‘reunited’ religious and temporal rule in order to assure the continuity of shar‘? government, even though the political and military enfeeblement of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate was such that there were no real material reasons why the powerful dynasties of the period should have deferred to it at all.

This brings us back to the question of the constitution of authority and power during what by all accounts was a trying period in the medieval Islamic world and, in turn, its relationship to Qur’ānic notions of ‘adl and ẓulm. Theoretically, the regional sultans and am?rs for whom the Fürstenspiegel were written could not obligate their citizenry to accept their authority on the basis of the religious legitimacy traditionally possessed by the caliphate (even as configured by the Siyāsa shar‘iyya theorists). What they could do, however, is enunciate their legitimacy practically, and thus in a sense co-opt the public perception of the caliphate as the political axis of the dār al-islām by (re)enacting one of its primary functions, namely, guaranteeing proper, right, and universal justice by ensuring the creation, maintenance, and perpetuation of a perfect (Islamic) state which ensures first and foremost that its citizens achieve prosperity in both this world and the next. Although effected through policies of Realpolitik, in the discourse of the Fürstenspiegel the right to rule a religiously-constituted, absolutist state thus comes to be justified through carefully negotiating a tension between the iconicity of the de jure religious and spiritual authority of the caliphate as a locus of justice and order and the de facto military authority of those who actually ruled over the state in which it was to be effected. In the representational world of these texts, this was done through a certain nostalgic iconicity rooted in the trope of the ‘just ruler.’

The Trope of the Just Ruler

In speaking to the political realities of a deeply fractured polity, the Fürstenspiegel negotiated the political tension between de jure religious and de facto temporal authority through carefully fashioning a comprehensive, although certainly idealized, model of statecraft aimed at guiding the actual behavior of the sultans and am?rs who constituted their audience, a model which revolves around the trope of the ‘just ruler,’ a figure who exudes ‘justice’ (‘adl) and opposes ‘tyranny/oppression’ (ẓulm) in every aspect of his administrative, military, courtly, spiritual, and even private life through (re)enacting the proper, right, and just precedents of past ‘just rulers’ in a perceived ‘unjust’ present. Due to both theoretical and practical concerns of authority as contested in a fractured polity, in configuring the trope of the ‘just ruler,’ the medieval Fürstenspiegel often look beyond the Islamic tradition of the jurists and theologians as such, engaging in a process of inter-textual cross-referencing wherein a stratum of older cultural memories (which had already been Islamized by representatives of the old Perso-‘Abbasid secretarial class) are constituted as the basis within which a contemporary enunciation of a specifically Islamic claim to authority/power could be articulated. The upshot of this discourse of nostalgia is that it aimed to universalize conceptions of power and authority by looking back to an idealized past while still attending to an Islamic idiom of the present, in essence positing a compromise which did not subvert Qur’ānic notions of the connection between justice and rulership nor their failure in contemporary political realities but rather circumscribes them so as to enunciate legitimacy to as wide a constituency as possible.

Thus, we find in the Book of Government (Siyāsat-nāma) of the celebrated Saljūq vizier and architect of the dynasty's phenomenal success Niẓām al-Mulk (d. 1092), a work which draws upon a mass of concepts and practices organized around diverse topoi, motifs and genealogies garnered from a wide range of Islamic and pre-Islamic sources which — inasmuch as it reflects a particular theoretical assertion — begins by assuming that the ruler's authority is perennially God-given: “in every age and time God chooses one member of the human race and, having endowed him with goodly and kingly virtues, entrusts him with the interests of the word and the well-being of his servants.”13 This notion of rulership which — reflecting the interests of his recently Islamized Turkic Saljūq patrons, Niẓām al-Mulk links with both the mythical ancestor of the Turks, Afrāsiyāb, and the Qur’ānic Adam14— is characterized first and foremost by its emphasis on justice (‘adāla) and the maintenance of an orderly and harmonious society, the ruler himself ultimately being held responsible by God for fulfilling these duties.15 So to in the partially apocryphal Book of Counsel for Kings (Naṣ?ḥat al-mulūk) of al-Ghazāl?,16 a text which grounds itself in the notion that the sultan is the ‘shadow of God on earth’ (al-sulān ẓill Allāh fi’l-‘arḍ [wa-ya‘wi ilay-hi kull maẓlūm) and that in his capacity as divinely appointed ruler, he is imbued with a certain ‘divine charisma’ (farr-i ?zād?),17 a quality which assures him absolute obedience from those over whom he rules while simultaneously bringing with it the necessary moral qualities by which just rule is maintained in the first place. As with Niẓām al-Mulk, (pseudo-) al-Ghazāl? (re)imagines the basis of kingship along comprehensive lines:

As you will hear in the traditions [akhbār], the Sulṭān is God's shadow on earth, which means that he is high-ranking and the Lord's delegate over His creatures. It must therefore be recognized that this kingship and the divine charisma [farr-i ?zād?] have been granted to them by God, and that they must accordingly be obeyed, loved and followed. To dispute with kings is improper, and to hate them is wrong; for God on High has commanded ‘Obey God and obey the Prophet and those among you who hold authority’[Qur’ān 4:59], which means (in Persian) obey God and the prophets and your princes [am?rān].18

The farr-i ?zād? which legitimizes the ruler's authority is not, however, granted unconditionally, for according to (pseudo-) al-Ghazāl? it is predicated upon the ruler having cultivated certain virtues, each of which are exemplified in the salubrious actions of paradigmatic ‘just rulers’ from the pre-Islamic Iranian past alongside exemplary figures from the Islamic tradition, the whole being aimed at the maintenance of justice (‘adl ) in the face of the ever present danger of lapsing into oppression and tyranny (ẓulm) — something which was the rule and not the exception of the day. Emphasizing that the king must “follow the precepts and methods of these kings who preceded him, and govern rightly like them,”19 (pseudo-) al-Ghazāl? goes on to assert that authority and power are predicated upon the coupling of the exercise of justice with divine right, something which is universal and not necessarily limited to the Islamic tradition as such:

The development or desolation of this universe depends upon kings; for if the king is just, the universe is prosperous and the subjects are secure, as was the case in the times of Ardash?r, Far?dūn, Bahrām Gūr . . . whereas when the king is tyrannical, the universe becomes desolate, as it was in the times of Ḍaḥḥāk . . . The Sulṭān in reality is he who awards justice, and does not perpetrate injustice and wickedness . . . because the Prophet stated that ‘sovereignty endures even when there is unbelief, but will not endure where there is injustice.’ It is (recorded) in the chronicles that for well-nigh four thousand years this universe was held by the Magians [Mughān] and the kingdom remained in their family. This endured because they maintained justice among the subjects. In their religious system they did not permit injustice or oppression; and through their justice and equity they developed the universe.20

At the same time, however, both Niẓām al-Mulk and (pseudo-) al-Ghazāl? are careful to ground their enunciations of legitimacy through divine right in the Islamic conception of a divinely ordained system of mutual rights and obligations which structures relations between all members of the Muslim polity, the latter emphasizing, for example, that: “in any matter between you and the True God you should observe the same obedience as you would deem right that your servants observe towards you; and that in any matter between you and mankind you should treat people in a way in which, if you were a subject and another were Sulṭān, you would deem right that you yourself be treated.”21 Justice, of course, is the operative principle in all undertakings and is the foundation of legitimate rulership, of legendary pre-Islamic Iranian kings, early Perso-Turkic rulers, or even the first four successors to the Prophet Muḥammad himself. As (pseudo-) al-Ghazāl? notes, one day of such rule is (according to the Prophet), “more meritorious than sixty years of continual worship,” and tyranny and injustice are grounds for eternal damnation.22 Articulated in an historical situation where the present was perceived as ‘unjust’ and ‘oppressive,’ in each of these texts we find every point exemplified through detailed narratives recounting the particular virtues, or faults and failings, of past iconic rulers, whether a paragon of the ‘just ruler’ (e.g., the pre-Islamic Persian king Ardash?r or the Turco-Persian Muslim ruler Maḥmūd of Ghazna) or his Other, the oppressive tyrant (the pre-Islamic Persian tyrant Ḍaḥḥāk or his early Islamic counterpart Yaz?d).

The upshot of this is that in writing this trope of the ‘just ruler’ through the lens of a poetics of nostalgia, the Fürstenspiegel constitute ‘justice’ (‘adl) and ‘oppression’ (ẓulm) in decidedly utilitarian terms, in the process pairing it with a larger meta-critique of contemporary problems which recuperates and renames the past in an attempt to negotiate a disturbed present without directly or overtly challenging the de jure authority of the caliphate in Baghdad. It is in the very practicality, in fact, of the Fürstenspiegel's troping of the idea of ‘just ruler’ where these texts strive to (re)enact the public enunciation of the religio-temporal legitimacy and authority of the caliphate in its capacity as the moral center of the Muslim polity while, on the surface at least, leaving its symbolic value untouched. Nothing is left out — it is a comprehensive discourse. From social etiquette and the art of polite conversation, to the management of personnel and the appointment of officials, to the oft-cited injunction that all ‘just rulers’ must regularly hold open court to hear the grievances of the populace and dispense justice, all while embodying the perfection of virtues such as piety, altruism, fairness, discernment, self-discipline, compassion, honesty, and sound belief, the Fürstenspiegel both maintain the ‘circle of justice’ so integral to the Perso-Islamic conception of government while at the same circumscribing the notion of ‘justice’ (‘adl) as an active force in the larger Qur’ānic drama in which their citizenry participate by sheer virtue of their shared humanity.23

Recalling the Qur’ānic opposition between ‘adl and ẓulm, it is precisely the focus on justice in the face of oppression where power and authority intersect in the Fürstenspiegelen, the former represented as an energetic, transformative force which literally trickles down from God to the ruler (His very shadow upon earth), and from there to each and every social stratum below, to such an extent that even the unredressed oppression of a single lowly peasant is taken to be an indication of a major problem in the court.24 The Fürstenspiegelen, in fact, constantly reiterate the idea that kingship and political fortune are inextricably tied to the continued maintenance of justice, both legitimacy and political efficacy literally fleeing from a ruler if he allows even a hint of oppression and tyranny to enter into his realm. As the author of the anonymous mid-12th-century Baḥr al-favā’id (Sea of Previous Virtues) remarks, enacting justice ensures not only worldly success, but perhaps more importantly, salvation itself: “Know that every rule marked by justice brings happiness and good fortune in both worlds, and any rule marked by injustice brings wretchedness in both worlds.”25

The universalizing tendencies of the discourse of justice associated with the medieval Islamic Fürstenspiegel is further highlighted in the work of one of those bright shining stars who illuminated the intellectual landscape of 13th-century Islamdom, Naṣ?r al-D?n al-Ṭūs? (d. 1274), one of those rare individuals in whom true genius was combined with an output and subsequent legacy so decisive that whole arenas of intellectual, scientific, and political history come to be indelibly marked by their presence. Although not usually spoken of as belonging to the Fürstenspiegel genre proper, The Naṣ?r?an Ethics (Akhlāq-i Naṣ?r?) reflects that strand of ethical literature from which the Fürstenspiegelen drew so much of their inspiration, and thus deserves comment here.26 Although drawing upon a wide range of works of philosophical and political ethics,27 The Naṣ?r?an Ethics is not, however, simply an adaptation of previous ideas, but rather a distinct and creative synthesis of Hellenistic ethical literature, ancient Greek wisdom, and the Qur’ān, Ḥad?th, and other Islamic texts into something of a synthetic discourse of independent authority which, as one modern student of his thought points out:

. . . was threatening to the dominant nomocentricity of the juridical discourse and its political bases in the caliphal or sultanate authority. Firstly, it ipso facto constituted an independent discourse of civil morality on the foundations of which any human community could live an ethical and civilized life independent of the juridical authority. Secondly, it provided a non-juridical (if not quintessentially ‘secular’) criterion of moral and political legitimacy for the sultanate authority.28

Read in this way, the picture which emerges of Naṣ?r al-D?n al-Ṭūs?'s work is that of an ethics which simultaneously embraces and co-opts the exclusive claims of the jurists as the sole arbiters of legitimate rulership on behalf of a now defunct caliphate while at the same time advancing a much wider claim over the articulation of a universalized authority rooted in notions of justice. In matter of fact, al-Ṭūs?'s “synthetic discourse of moral authority” is predicated on the ancient Greek concept of justice, conceived of as social harmony leading to ultimate happiness (sa‘ādat-i qusẉā) maintained by a just and wise philosopher-king.

Building upon an earlier discussion of the proper management of households in the second treatise of the text, on the issue of political ethics al-Ṭūs? advances a theory of government and rulership which combines al-Fārāb?'s (d. c. 950) Platonically-inspired idea of the Virtuous City with Shi‘ite notions of authority. Arguing that the human species needs the cooperation of its own kind to ensure the survival of the individual as well as the whole, al-Ṭūs? states that due to the conflicting animal aspirations which impel men to act in ways which inevitably lead to a state of tyranny (ẓulm), government (tadb?r; lit. ‘management’) over the human collective must be effected by a person who is “distinguished from others by divine inspiration, in order that they should follow him,”29 here agreeing with Niẓām al-Mulk and (pseudo-) al-Ghazāl? that a ruler's authority must be God-given. Such a person, according to al-Ṭūs?, was called by the ancient philosophers the ‘author of the law’ (ṣāḥib-i nāmūs), and his management the ‘divine law’ (nāmūs-i ilāh?), whereas the moderns referred to him as the religious lawgiver (shāri‘), and to his management as the religious law (shar?‘at). In addition to this religious authority, al-Ṭūs? goes on to argue that in adjudicating the stipulations of the divine law there is a need for a person who is distinguished from others by divine support so that he may be able to see to their perfection. According to al-Ṭūs?, such a person was called an ‘absolute king’ (malik ‘alā’l-iṭlāq) by the ancient philosophers, whose judgments they called the ‘craft of kingship’ (ṣinā‘at-i mulk), whereas for the moderns, however, he is called the Imām and his function the Imamate, his role being the same as Plato's “regulator of the world” (mudabbir-i ‘ālam) or Aristotle's “statesman” (insān-i madan?). He goes on to argue that although not every age and generation has need of a ṣāḥib-i nāmūs, the world does require a “regulator” (mudabbir) who is charged with persevering the divine law and obliging men to uphold it, his being the “authority of jurisdiction over the particulars of the law [nāmūs] in accordance with the best interest of every day and age.”30

As with Niẓām al-Mulk and (pseudo-) al-Ghazāl?, the master of this craft is likened to a physician who is capable of preserving the equilibrium of the world and through his judiciousness is able to foresee and remove any deviation which may disrupt the perfection of the whole. In its specifically Islamic articulation, al-Ṭūs? goes on to state that it is the active preservation of the exercise of justice in the face of tyranny (ẓulm) which ensures that this equilibrium is maintained. The practical aspects of how to go about maintaining this are given by al-Ṭūs? in largely the same manner in which they are in other Fürstenspiegel, namely, in the cultivation of particular kingly virtues, such sagacity and firmness of determination, and the proper ordering of the affairs of the royal court, its bureaus, and the officials. Now, the fact that al-Ṭūs? substantially revised The Naṣ?r?an Ethics under his new Mongol patron says something about the intended audience of the work, for in fact its promotion of a universal conception of authority and justice which envisions all articulations of a perfect human society — whether Islamic, Greek, or whatever — as manifestations of timeless and universal laws rooted in the ẓulm / ‘adl opposition, is not so much a challenge to the exclusivity of the Siyāsa shar‘iyya discourse of the Sunni jurists nor a matter of compromise inasmuch as it is a gesture towards an enunciation of power already being worked out in the on-going establishment of a Mongol-Islamic identity in Iran.31 In the end, although lacking the representational nostalgia of the Fürstenspiegel genre proper, like them the Ethics of al-Ṭūs? is a work firmly situated in its particular historical moment, namely serving as an enunciation of a political ethics which respond to contemporary concerns, in this case the broader ‘world-dominating’ ethos of his Mongol patrons suddenly faced with their own crisis of legitimizing their power and authority in terms familiar to the citizenry of an essentially foreign civilization over which they now ruled as the de facto power, and for this he was handsomely rewarded. For al-Ṭūs?, it is in the enunciation of a universal claim to universal power which allowed de facto Mongol authority over their newly acquired swath of the dār al-islām to be supported and legitimated on non-Islamic grounds, not the de jure authority of a generic virtuous ruler speaking justice to oppression. It is more than a curiosity, to return to our earlier example from modern colloquial Urdu, that someone perceived as a ‘tyrant’ is often called, again, rather tongue-in-cheek, a “Genghis Khān,” although Niẓām al-Mulk is remembered (at least among the literate) as a paragon of wisdom and justice.


As examples of a discourse of justice and political ethics emerging in the midst of a crisis characterized by extreme political upheaval, the medieval Islamic Fürstenspiegelen present unique insights on how a particularly powerful group of historical agents in a certain civilization attempted to come to terms with the seemingly inevitable outcomes of the process of Empire and its oftentimes fissuring and enervating effects upon state and polity. As we have seen, in face of the rapid decentralization of the authority of Empire and the resulting tangle of competing claims over its pieces, the answer of our authors was to universalize, to proceed with a certain nostalgia for a ‘just past’ in an ‘unjust present’ in an attempt to negotiate the contested space of public enunciations of power and authority within a polity which expected absolutist rule. Within the internal environment of the Fürstenspiegel, this is expressed in a pedagogical orientation which looks to generate a pattern, a habitus, of political action predicated on the repetition of the salubrious acts of paradigmatic figures whose exempla are as much a recuperation and renaming of older (although long since acculturated) non-Islamic wisdom traditions as they are instruments for engaging contemporary concerns in a specifically Islamic discourse rooted in the Qur’ānic ẓulm / ‘adl opposition, an opposition which even today — as the Muslim world faces yet another crisis — retains its previous lexical and, perhaps for some, politically charged rhetorical significations.

Although not historiography proper, like The Peloponnesian Wars of Thucydides, the medieval Islamic ‘Mirrors for Princes’ are telling precisely because they emerged at times of heightened political unease, and as such preserve traces of political discourse in action, in this case traces of a particular configuration of political ethics which disclose how a pre-modern Muslim ruler might have gone about making public enunciations of power and authority by laying claim to, and then proceeding to accrue, legitimacy through the practice of a comprehensive and near ‘universalizing’ system of statecraft rooted in a concept of justice (‘adl) which does not take ‘freedom’ as its antonym, but rather oppression and tyranny. Like the texts of the medieval Muslim Fürstenspiegel themselves, the crisis eliciting this particular response has long since faded from the realm of popular memory, but at the same time its inertia has persisted into the present, carried in the collective weight of an inherited past which now circulates in languages, perhaps embedding itself in the worldview and ethos of their speakers, a procedural assumption which might possess a certain resonance in the present day and age as certain Western polities engage the inevitable outcomes of their own experience of Empire and the inevitable crises which it brings, for not one, but for each of the civilizations concerned.


  • *  An earlier version of this article was presented at the IPFW Institute for Human Rights First Annual Conference, Fort Wayne, Indiana, December, 2004.

  • 1

    The Sea of Precious Virtues (Baḥr al-Favā’id): A Medieval Islamic Mirror for Princes, trans. Julie Scott Meisami (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991), 294. Emphasis and insertions mine.

  • 2

    (pseudo-?) al-Ghazāl?, Naṣ?ḥat al-mulūk, ed. Jalāl al-D?n Humā’? (Tehran: Mu’assasa-yi Nashr-i Humā, 1367 sh. [1988]), 42.

  • 3

    Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-‘arab (Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, 1955–1956), s.v. ẓ-l-m ff., and, ‘-d-l ff. [vide J. G. Hava, Al-Faraid Arabic-English Dictionary, 5th ed. (Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, 1982), 446–447, 458]; al-Zab?d?, Tāj al-‘arūs (Kuwait: Matba’at Hukūmat al-Kuwayt, 1965–1968), s.v. ẓ-l-m, and, ‘-d-l [vide E. W. Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon (London: Williams & Norgate, 1863–1893; reprint: 2 vols. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1984), loc. cit.]; and, R. Badry and B. Lewis, “Ẓulm,”EI2, 11:567.

  • 4

    John Penrice, A Dictionary and Glossary of the Kor-ân (1873. Reprint, New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1969), 93, 95; Alphonse de Biberstein-Kazimirski, Dictionnaire arabe-français (Paris: Maisonneuve et Cie, Éditeurs, 1860.; Reprint: Beirut: Librairie du Liban, n.d.), 2:139–141, 190–192 (s.v. ẓ-l-m, and, ‘-d-l); Toshihiko Izutsu, The Structure of the Ethical Terms in the Koran: A Study in Semantics (Tokyo: Keio Institute of Philological Studies, 1959), 91, 152–155, 209–211, 234; E. Tyan, “‘Adl,”EI2, 1:209–210; and, “Ẓulm,” op. cit., 11:567–569.

  • 5

    Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, abridgement of volumes I–VI by D. C. Somervell (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1946), 60–163.

  • 6

    On the medieval European ‘Mirrors for Princes,’ the standard account remains that of Wilhelm Berges (Die Fürstenspiegel des hohen und späten Mittelalters [Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1938]). Surveys and discussions of the genre in medieval Islamdom include: Gustav Richter, Studien zur Geschichte der älteren arabischen Fürstenspiegel (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1932); A. K. S. Lambton, “Islamic Mirrors for Princes,” Quaderno dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei 160 (1971): 419442; Charles-Henri de Fouchécour, Moralia: Les notions dans la littérature persane du 3e/9e au 7e/13e siècle (Paris: Éditions recherché sur les civilisations, 1986), 263–275, 357–440; M. T. Danishpazhouh, “An Annotated Bibliography on Government and Statecraft,” in Authority and Political Culture in Shi‘ism, ed. Said Arjomand (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 213–235; and C. E. Bosworth, “Mirrors for Princes,” in Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, eds. J. S. Meisami and P. Starkey (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 2:527–529.

  • 7

    Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1972), 400–408.

  • 8

    Qur’ān 4:59.

  • 9

    The classic statement of this reading is given by H. A. R. Gibb in two oft-quoted articles (both of which are reprinted in Studies on the Civilization of Islam [Boston: Beacon Press, 1962]): “Some Considerations of the Sunni Theory of the Caliphate,”Archives l’histoire du droit oriental, 3 (1939): 401–410, Studies 141–150; and, “Al-Mâwardî's Theory of the Khilâfah,”Islamic Culture 11.3 (1937): 291–302, Studies 151–165); see also: A. K. S. Lambton, Quis Custodiet Custodes: Some Reflections on the Persian Theory of Government,” Studia Islamica 5 (1956): 126132; idem, “Justice in the Medieval Persian Theory of Kingship,”Studia Islamica 17 (1962): 92–94; and, idem, “Concepts of Authority in Persia: Eleventh to Nineteenth Centuries A.D.,”Iran 26 (1988): 95–96.

  • 10

    Yusūf Ibish, The Political Doctrine of al-Bāqillān? (Beirut: AUB Press, 1966), 71–105.

  • 11

    The Ordinances of Government, trans. Wafaa H. Wahba (Reading, UK: The Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization & Garnet Publishing Ltd., 1996), 23.

  • 12

    W. Montgomery Watt, “Authority in the Thought of al-Ghazāl?,” in La notion d’autorité au Moyen Age Islam, Byzance, Occident, eds. G. Makdisi, D. Sourdel and J. Sourdel-Thomine (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1982), 66–67; see also Carole Hillenbrand, “Islamic Orthodoxy or Realpolitik? Al-Ghazāl?'s Views on Government,” Iran 26 (1988): 81–94.

  • 13

    Niẓām al-Mulk, The Book of Government, or, Rules for Kings, trans. Hubert Darke, 2nd ed. (London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), 9; see also: A. K. S. Lambton, “The Theory of Kingship in the Naṣ?ḥat al-Mulūk of Ghazāl?,” Islamic Quarterly 1 (1954), 49; and, idem, “Quis Custodiet Custodes,” 135–136.

  • 14

    The Saljūqs ordered genealogies written in which the ruling house was linked back to Afrāsiyāb, who was in turn associated with the Turkish folk hero Alp Er Tonga (C. E. Bosworth, “The Heritage of Rulership in Early Islamic Iran,” Iran 11 [1973]: 62), something which was not lost on Yusūf Khāṣṣ Ḥājib, author of a versified Middle Turkic Fürstenspiegel composed for a Turkic (Karakhanid) prince in 1069 (Wisdom of Royal Glory [Kutadgu Bilig]: A Turko-Islamic Mirror for Princes, trans. Robert Dankoff [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983], 48).

  • 15

    Niẓām al-Mulk, The Book of Government, 10–12, 42.

  • 16

    Trans. by F. R. C. Bagley as Ghazāl?'s Book of Counsel for Kings (Naṣ?ḥat al-mulūk) (London: Oxford University Press, 1964). A prolific author, al-Ghazāl?'s Fürstenspiegel is without question one of his more problematic texts, its authenticity, in whole or in part, being questioned on more than one occasion. Here we will adopt the conclusion reached by Patricia Crone that the first portion of the work is authentic and the second portion apocryphal (“Did al-Ghazāl? write a Mirror for Princes?,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 10 (1997): 167–191).

  • 17

    This is, of course, the ancient Iranian (Zoroastrian) concept of the farr (Pah. khwar[na]) on which see R. N. Frye, “The Charisma of Ancient Kingship in Iran,” Iranica Antiqua 4 (1964): 3654; and, Iraj Bashiri, “The Role of Farr in Firdowsi's Shahname,” in Firdowsi's Shahname: 1000 Years After, ed. idem (Dushanbe: Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, 1994), 178–188.

  • 18

    (Pseudo-) al-Ghazāl?, Ghazāl?'s Book of Counsel for Kings, 45.

  • 19

    Ibid., 63.

  • 20

    Ibid., 46–47.

  • 21

    Ibid., 13; cf. Sea of Precious Virtues, 115–122.

  • 22

    (Pseudo-) al-Ghazāl?, Ghazāl?'s Book of Counsel for Kings, 45.

  • 23

    A. K. S. Lambton, “The Theory of Kingship,” 54; idem, “Justice,” 97–98; and, Fouchécour, Moralia, 208–211. Normally summed-up in an aphorism attributed (first, it seems, by al-Tha‘ālib?[d. 1038] ) to Ardash?r (the legendary founder of the Sassanian dynasty): “There is no kingdom without an army, no army without wealth, no wealth without material prosperity, and no material prosperity without justice” (Histoire des rois des perses, ed. H. Zotenberg [Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1900], 482) which is typically quoted in the Fürstenspiegelen e.g. Kay Ka‘us ibn Iskandar, Prince of Gurgan, Qabus Nama, a Mirror for Princes, trans. R. Levy (London: Cresset, 1951), 213.

  • 24

    e.g., Yūsuf Khāṣṣ Ḥaj?b, Wisdom of Royal Glory, 65–66, 220–221; and, Sea of Precious Virtues, 245.

  • 25

    Sea of Precious Virtues, 296.

  • 26

    Initially written while in the service of his Ismā‘il? patron, the governor of Qūhistān Nāsir al-D?n Muḥtashim (d. 1257), it was not until after al-Ṭūs?'s defection to the camp of Hulegu (d. 1265) that the Akhlāq-i Naṣ?r? as we have it today was completed.

  • 27

    Most notably the Tahdh?b al-akhlāq (Refinement of Ethics) of Miskawayh (d. 1030) and the Ārā’ al-mad?nat al-fāḍila (Perfect State) and al-Siyāsat al-madaniyya (Political Regime) of al-Fārāb?, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and pre-Islamic Persian materials from the andarz literature, among others.

  • 28

    Hamid Dabashi, “Khwajah Naṣ?r al-D?n al-Ṭūs?: The Philosopher/Vizier and the Intellectual Climate of His Times,” in History of Islamic Philosophy, eds. S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman (London & New York: Routledge, 1996), 1:558.

  • 29

    Al-Ṭūs?, The Nasirean Ethics, 191.

  • 30

    Ibid., 192–193.

  • 31

    This vision would come to be enunciated most visibly in the universal history of Rash?d al-D?n Fadl Allāh Hamadhān? (d. 1318), the Jāmi‘ al-tawār?kh, which he wrote at the behest of the ?l-Khānid ruler Ghāzān Khān (d. 1304). The illustrated manuscripts of the Jāmi‘which were produced shortly thereafter provide excellent examples of how such enunciations could also be made in visual modes.