Discussing The Just Prince, an Arab Muslim manual of leadership by Muhammad ibn Zafar

The approach to state-building in Iraq is anchored in Western concepts of governing. Many, myself included, would argue this was an acceptable approach in the Golden Hour after the initial resistance was crushed or crumbled before resistance could organize and the shock wore off. In this power vacuum, the United States was dealing with a largely secular state that had a strong sense of national identity (see Adeed Dawisha’s excellent book Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century for details). However, as the Golden Hour slipped away and the opportunity to rebuild was squandered and religious men, fakers, and criminals stepped into the vacuum, the framework for discourse changed. The Western Machiavellian mindset was being displaced by a retreat into religion and tribalism, neither of which are “accepted” by the Machiavellian power model.
Especially today, four years into the occupation of an Arab country at the cross-roads of Sunni and Shia, Arab and Persian, and West and East, we should reconsider how power is spoken, framed, and understood. Other authors have written on this, some I have reviewed previously, and some I will review in the future.

A Sicilian Arab, Muhammad ibn Zafar al-Siqilli, wrote a handbook for a prince 350 years before Machiavelli: Sulwan al-Muta’ Fi ‘Udwan al-Atba’ (Consolation for the Ruler During the Hostility of Subjects). Joseph A. Kechichian and R. Hrair Dekmejian’s book, The Just Prince: A Manual of Leadership, analyzes ibn Zafar’s suggestions and compares ibn Zafar’s ideas with Machiavelli’s.

In crafting a communications strategy in Iraq, and the larger Muslim world, there should be some consideration of recommendations on power from the Arab “Machiavelli” that stem from a relevant religious and/or tribal view of power and legitimacy.

Ibn Zafar identified five standards for his prince who was “expected to establish not only an orderly polity, but one based on justice”:

  1. Trust in God (Tawfid)
  2. Fortitude (Ta’assi)
  3. Patience (Sabr)
  4. Contentment (Rida)
  5. Self-denial (Zuhd)

For the sake of brevity, I’ve included below two examples that highlight how Machiavelli and ibn Zafar differ on the same point.

The first is on advisors, the importance of which both Machiavelli and ibn Zafar agree on. It is the purpose of the advisor, the Florentine and the Sicilian agree, to uphold the ruler’s interests above the advisor’s own. They differ, however, on the nature of the allegiance. Machiavelli recommends heaping “honors on [his advisor], enriching him, placing him in his debt…so that he sees that he cannot do better without him.” Essentially, buying the advisor.

Ibn Zafar takes a different approach to indebtedness:

Amongst faithful and far-sighted counselors, he is most deserving of attention whose prosperity depends on your own, and whose safety is tied to yours. He who stands in such a position, exerting himself for your interests, will likewise serve and defend himself while fighting for you.

In other words, Machiavelli is concerned with today while ibn Zafar is looking at tomorrow.  Consider which model is reflected in the Taliban expression, “The Americans have the watches but we have the time.”

The second example is the relationship between the means and the ends. For Machiavelli, the prince needs only to appear to have positive qualities such as sympathy, religiosity, trustworthiness, honesty, and compassion. However, these may be tossed aside with cruelty and inhumanity if it serves the immediate interest. The ends always justifies the means.

Ibn Zafar, on the other hand, counseled the ruler must be good, Godly, and human. He may use “artifice, ruse, and falsehood” but these must be saved for extreme cases and overall the means must correspond to the ends.

A say-do gap is more acceptable to the Florentine than the Sicilian. The Sicilian feels such a gap must rare and defensible.

Understanding the framework of power of friend and foe alike is essential. Achieving moral legitimacy is one thing but if our language and actions are inherently counter to local understanding, then the chance of success diminishes and will increasingly rely on luck, not skill.

We have unintentionally permitted the strengthening of tribal and sectarian divisions that creates lines of power we have difficulty understanding and difficulty speaking to. The Just Prince may provide guidance on how to work within and across Arab, Muslim, and/or tribal networks just as Machiavelli provides guidance and language on the operations of Western groups.

If you think Machiavelli is useful, then you should read ibn Zafar.

The following two quotes from ibn Zafar are worth further discussion, but I will leave it to the reader to consider them and whether they would have been useful if considered by U.S. policy 3-5 years ago.

“There are three species of creatures, who, if you do not lodge and nourish them as befits their worth, will immediately turn their backs and break with you: these are kings, men of letters and benefactors.”

“The king who believes that the minds of princes are superior to those of counselors has fallen into great error. If he acquires the bad habit of contradicting a wise and faithful counselor — without manifest reason — it is certain that he will never prosper.”

2 thoughts on “Discussing The Just Prince, an Arab Muslim manual of leadership by Muhammad ibn Zafar

  1. Thanks for this. I had no idea that this book even existed. I’m going to order it after I finish my Chet Richards and John Robb reading assignments.Do you know if there is an Arab (or pan-Islamic) equivalent to the “Five Rings” or “Art of War?” That would be very interesting.

Comments are closed.