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The Abbasid ‘Circle of Justice’: Re-reading Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Letter on Companionship

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Abstract

Two letters are attributed to the eighth-century Persian secretary and Arabic translator Ibn al-Muqaffac: the Letter of Tansar and the Letter on Companionship. While Ibn al-Muqaffac’s native language was Persian, he was among the luminaries and founders of early Arabic prose. The Letter of Tansar is actually Ibn al-Muqaffac’s translation of a letter from Persian into Arabic. In the original letter, Tansar (chief priest of the Sasanian king Ardashir I who ruled from 224 to 40 A.D.) responds to criticisms against the king levied by the king of Tabaristan. Tansar here advocates for a model of the just world often called the ‘circle of justice.’ This just world represents Ardashir’s supposed vision of how to order the dynasty (i.e. making Zoroastrianism the state religion, and setting men in four social ranks). Since Ibn al-Muqaffac translates this letter into Arabic, the political concepts embodied in it (such as the ‘circle of justice’) must have been known to him. Yet, it is only in Ibn al-Muqaffac’s letter to his caliph known as the Letter on Companionship (or Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba) that Ibn al-Muqaffac uses the ‘circle of justice’ as a model for how to reform the Abbasid dynasty. In the Letter on Companionship, Ibn al-Muqaffac transforms a Persian model of rule (present in the Letter of Tansar) into an Abbasid blueprint for political reform. In this way, Ibn al-Muqaffa renders an Arabic tradition of political theory indebted to Persian kuttāb (or secretaries) and mawālī (or clients of Arab tribes), who reclaimed Persian ideas of the conquered as symbols of political power. This exploration of the uses to which Ibn al-Muqaffa’ puts Persian political writing, to broaden and expand the emerging Arabic political vocabulary, dovetails with the projects of authors Gordy and Thomas in this volume. While working on completely different contexts, Gordy explores twentieth-century Marxist Jose Mariategui’s uses of European and indigenous sources to advocate for his political vision, and Moore asks how political theorists today can draw from Buddhist traditions to expand and enrich our current discussions of international law. All three of these questions help us probe how translation of diverse traditions and concepts can serve as a vehicle for political and institutional innovation and reform.

Keywords

  • Social Rank
  • Political Concept
  • Buddhist Tradition
  • Political Vision
  • Islamic Tradition

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This account of a rigid, quadripartite society is articulated by someone working in the Sasanian administration. For this reason, we should consider this letter representative of state ideology and not of lived experience in Sasanian Iran. See Louise Marlow, Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 68–72. That said, it is this ideal state ideology that I suggest Ibn al-Muqaffac passed on to Abbasid rulers and that I wish to analyze in this chapter.

  2. 2.

    Historians believe that this text was translated into Arabic from middle-Persian by Ibn al-Muqaffac in the eighth century. See, for example, Francois de Blois’ entry “Kitāb Tansar” in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W.P. Heintichs, eds. (Brill Online, 2010).

  3. 3.

    We can assume that Ibn al-Muqaffac had access to sayings attributed to Ardashir because they were translated into Arabic by the end of the Umayyad period. See Ihsān ‘Abbās’ introduction to his edition of Ahd Ardashīr (Beirut: Dār al-Ṣādir, 1967). See also Louise Marlow’s Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought, p. 73.

  4. 4.

    I use the term Persian here to connote the linguistic tradition in which Ibn al-Muqaffac locates this quadripartite model of just rule.

  5. 5.

    Again, this inquiry relates to the attention my fellow contributors Gordy and Moore place on translation and innovation. In addition, my analysis of the ways Ibn al-Muqaffac transforms a given political model also relates to concerns about the commensurability of different political theories which authors Moore, Gordy and Baxter all address in different forms. Moore, for instance, explores ways discussions of Buddhism and international law can be brought into productive conversation; Baxter, in contrast, explores how Martin Buber’s comments on intercultural dialogue could serve Gandhi’s political program.

  6. 6.

    My analysis of how Ibn al-Muqaffac espouses a particular theory of politics as a vehicle for espousing his own political agenda relates to the concerns of all of the others in this volume who analyze how political theory can be used to affect politics.

  7. 7.

    See A. Lambton, “Justice in the Medieval Persian Theory of Kingship.” Studia Islamica 17 (1962), 91–119; See also H. Yucesoy’s article “Political Theory,” in J. Meri ed Vol. 2, Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2006), 623–8; “Do Justice, Do Justice, For That is Paradise”: Middle Eastern Advice for Indian Muslim Rulers.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 22, no. 1 & 2 (2002), 3–19 and my article “the Circle of Justice” in History of Political Thought Vol. 32: 3, Autumn 2011.

  8. 8.

    See S. Kumar’s “The Value of the Adab al-Mulūk as a Historical Source.” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 22, no. 3 (1985), 311.

  9. 9.

    e.g. L. Darling in her 2002 article “Do Justice, Do Justice, For That is Paradise.”

  10. 10.

    While this model of the just world is mostly presented in circular form, there are also later medieval representations of in other shapes (e.g. hexagon, octagon).

  11. 11.

    Louise Marlow points out that this Persian model of kingship originated in earlier Indic traditions. These earlier traditions shared a similar interest in constructing a social order that would represent the harmony of the cosmos. See Marlow’s Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought, chapter on the reception of Persian ideas.

  12. 12.

    Inscription of Naqsh-i Rustam A, Darius I found in Roland Kent’s Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1953), 8–9. Thanks to John Woods for sharing this reference.

  13. 13.

    The caliph was the ruler in medieval Islamic societies. Caliph comes from the Arabic term khalīfa, which means the successor (i.e. the successor to the Prophet Muḥammad). Ibn al-Muqaffac also uses the terms ‘imam’ and ‘commander of the faithful’ for the ruler. I use these terms interchangeably in this chapter.

  14. 14.

    Other authors in this volume, such as Moore and Baxter, also call attention to the ways political theories from diverse religious traditions can be used to answer political questions in another religious context (e.g. Moore considers how the Buddhist tradition can enhance discussions of international law today).

  15. 15.

    We find similar commands to obey authority in much later legal works as well. For example, Ibn Taymiyya’s writes in his Siyāsa Shar’iyya that “sixty years under an unjust imam (or ruler) is better than a single night without a sultan.” While Ibn Taymiyya was a hanbalite who died in the fourteenth century, his claim is reminiscent of Ibn Ḥanbal’s earlier command to obey those in authority.

  16. 16.

    See Islamic Creeds: A Selection, W. Montgomery Watt tr. (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1994), 35.

  17. 17.

    This phrase will appear in countless mirrors in Arabic and Persian for many years to come (e.g. Kai Kā’ūs’, Niẓām al-Mulk’s). It is invoked by kings and ministers to legitimize the king’s authority.

  18. 18.

    See Mary Boyce’s translation of The Letter of Tansar (Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1968), 33–4.

  19. 19.

    Ibid., 38.

  20. 20.

    Ibid.

  21. 21.

    Ibid., 39.

  22. 22.

    Interestingly, these three categories are the same ones that Ibn al-Muqaffac uses in his letter to the caliph al-Mansūr as the bases for which men should get to join the rank of the king’s companions or ṣaḥāba, whom he depicts as an elite group who support and advise the king.

  23. 23.

    Ibid., p. 40.

  24. 24.

    Historians do not know conclusively whether this Letter on Companionship was addressed to the caliph al-Mansūr or to his uncles, who were Ibn al-Muqaffac’s patrons who vied for al-Mansūr’s position. For this reason, I will simply refer to an Abbasid ruler as the intended addressee of this letter.

  25. 25.

    Ibn al-Muqaffac also mentions other social figures (such as secretaries and chamberlains). Yet, he focuses on these social groups (fighters, tax collectors, jurists and companions) to highlight key political reforms that the ruler should execute to set society in balance. The author suggests that through concentrating on reforming the behavior of these four, exemplary groups the king will improve the behavior of all other social actors.

  26. 26.

    See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Letter of Companionship or Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s edition of Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), 129.

  27. 27.

    Each of these separate sections begins with the phrase: ‘And among the things the commander of the faithful should look into’ (or ‘mimā yudhkaru bihi Amir al-mu’minīn’) signaling the gravity of each of these matters to his reader.

  28. 28.

    Ibn al-Muqaffac also devotes two sections to the people of Syria and Iraq. These two sections, however, serve to instruct the ruler in the shortcomings and virtues of the population he must control. In particular he seeks to show him how to cultivate an elite (or khaṣṣa) among these people, to contribute positively to his dynasty. See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Letter of Companionship or Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s edition of Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition, 127. This cultivation of a khaṣṣa fits with Ibn al-Muqaffac’s broader goal to create a system of rank, in which an elect will help orient the dynasty toward right behavior.

  29. 29.

    See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s ed. Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), 161.

  30. 30.

    Ibid.

  31. 31.

    Ibid. It is interesting that the term used for extremist here, ghālin, was also the term used for an extremist Shi’ite sect in this context. This reference could be to that sect. For more on this sect, see Marshall Hodgson’s entry on this term in the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam Online in P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs, eds. (Brill, 2011): <http://www.brillonline.nl.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-2517>

  32. 32.

    Ibid. This saying is one that Ibn al-Muqaffac also uses in his Adab al-Kabir (or Great Work of Etiquette). It is a saying attributed to the fourth caliph ‘Alī, who apparently said: ‘The holder of authority is like the rider of a lion—he is envied of his position but he well knows his position.’ This attribution is interesting in light of the other Arabic sources Ibn al-Muqaffac invokes in this text (such as poems from pre-Islamic poets and verses from the Quran). Ibn al-Muqaffac here introduces his ideal notion of greater caliphal authority, reminiscent of a Sasanian vision, within existing Arabic conceptions of rule.

  33. 33.

    In another section of the Letter on Companionship, Ibn al-Muqaffac mentions that fighters should be schooled in Quran and hadith. He does not, however, go into detail on the nature of this education for the army. See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s ed. Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), p. 124.

  34. 34.

    Ibid.

  35. 35.

    Ibid., p. 124.

  36. 36.

    The word for land tax used in this text is kharāj, which comes into Arabic via Syriac from the Greek χορηγία.

  37. 37.

    Ibid., p. 123

  38. 38.

    Ibid., p. 129

  39. 39.

    Ibid.

  40. 40.

    This apostille is translated in Beatrice Greundler’s chapter ‘Tawqi’ (Apostille): Royal Brevity in the Pre-modern Islamic Appeals Court’ in The Weaving of Words: Approaches to Classical Arabic Prose, Lale Bahzadi and Vahid Behmardi eds. (Beirut: Oriental Institute, 2009), 114. I borrow this translation and citation from her article.

  41. 41.

    See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s ed. Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), 130.

  42. 42.

    For example, the fourteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldūn invokes this saying on justice attributed to Aristotle. For more on this particular eight-line saying on justice attributed to Aristotle, see my recent article in this issue of History of Political Thought. See ‘The Circle of Justice.’ History of Political Thought XXXII, no. 3 (Autumn 2011), 427–47.

  43. 43.

    See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s ed. Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), 130.

  44. 44.

    Ibid.

  45. 45.

    Ibid., p. 124.

  46. 46.

    Ibid., p. 125.

  47. 47.

    Ibid.

  48. 48.

    Ibid., p. 126.

  49. 49.

    Ibid.

  50. 50.

    Ibid.

  51. 51.

    Ibid.

  52. 52.

    See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s ed. Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), 126.

  53. 53.

    Joseph Lowry considers this Letter ‘The First Islamic Legal Theory’ which first characterizes Islamic law as ‘a space structured by concerns about interpretation and authority.’ See Joseph Lowry’s ‘The First Islamic Legal Theory: Ibn al-Muqaffac on Interpretation, Authority and the Structure of the Law.’ Journal of American Oriental Society 128, no. 1 (2008): 26.

  54. 54.

    See Muranyi’s entry on the ‘Ṣaḥāba’ in the Encyclopaedia of Islam Online, Second Edition. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2011. Brill Online: <http://www.brillonline.nl.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-6459>

  55. 55.

    While I do not know if Ibn al-Muqaffac gave this letter this title himself, the ninth-century poet and chronicler Ibn Abī Ṭāhir Ṭayfūr apparently refers to this letter as ‘the letter on companionship.’ This suggests that the title was attached to the letter shortly after it was written. The title is also recorded in the tenth-century Index or Fihris of Ibn al-Nadīm, which indicates the title’s staying power. For more information on the title of this letter see István T. Kristó-Nagy’s French monograph La Pensée d’Ibn al-Muqaffa c. Thanks very much to István for sharing his thoughts on this subject.

  56. 56.

    See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s ed. Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), 127.

  57. 57.

    Ibid.

  58. 58.

    Ibid., p. 128.

  59. 59.

    Ibid., p. 127.

  60. 60.

    Ibid.

  61. 61.

    Ibid., p. 127.

  62. 62.

    Ibid., p. 128.

  63. 63.

    Ibid.

  64. 64.

    These terms have rich, complex meanings in the early Arabic tradition. This term for manliness connotes ideal ethical behavior. On ‘manliness’ see B. Farès entry ‘Murūʾa’ in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel; and W.P. Heinrichs, eds. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. Tufts University Library. 28 September 2011. http://www.brillonline.nl.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-5555. The term faḍl connotes excellence and virtue. It is used often in the Quran as a trait that distinguishes someone above others, or as a gift that God bestows on mankind. See, for example, Lane’s Lexicon, Book I, p. 2411–2.

  65. 65.

    See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s ed. Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), 129. I read this word as muruwwa (as that makes sense in the context, and is a word he uses throughout this text), though it appears to be slightly different in this Arabic edition. I think there might be a typo.

  66. 66.

    Ibid.

  67. 67.

    Ibid.

  68. 68.

    Ibid.

  69. 69.

    Ibid., p. 128.

  70. 70.

    This inquiry gets at concerns of the ‘situatedness’ of a given political tradition, which my fellow contributors to this volume also address. Like me, Thomas, Gordy and Moore, all address if and how political concepts and theories can be both plural and hybrid, and also be lodged within a given context.

  71. 71.

    See Moshe Sharon’s Black Banners from the East: The Establishment of the Abbasid State: Incubation of a Revolt (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1983).

  72. 72.

    Here, I highlight the diverse cultural influences upon which Ibn al-Muqaffac draws to stress the dynamic multi-cultural environment in which he lived and articulated his political perspective. Yet more than an attempt to introduce diverse cultural influences that were part of early Arabic models of kingly rule (in the spirit of Aziz al-Azmeh’s Muslim Kingship), I analyze how Ibn al-Muqaffac’s invocations and redeployments of particular political tropes and concepts allow him to blend cultural traditions to advocate for his own multi-cultural perspective in the emerging Abbasid public sphere.

  73. 73.

    See Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006), 19.

  74. 74.

    Ibid., p. 17.

  75. 75.

    See Ahmed El-Shamsy’s The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 23–44.

  76. 76.

    Ahmed El-Shamsy mentions the first recorded example of such a ra’y debate between Abu Hanifa and his contemporary in 765 A.D. (some eight years after Ibn al-Muqaffac’s death). Ibid., p. 23.

  77. 77.

    See Heinrich L. Fliescher’s ‘Beiträge zur arabischen Sprachkunde VII,’ in Kleinere Schriften, ed. Anton Huber, Heinrich Thorbecke, and Ferdinand Mühlau, 3 vols. (Leipzig: s. Hirzel, 1885–1888), 1:481–7, cited in Ahmad el-Shamsy’s The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 23.

  78. 78.

    See The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 25.

  79. 79.

    Ibid., p. 26.

  80. 80.

    Ibid., p. 28.

  81. 81.

    See Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi’s The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism in David Streight, tr. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 15.

  82. 82.

    For an account of what this notion of sacral kinship was See A. Lambton, ‘Justice in the Medieval Persian Theory of Kingship.Studia Islamica, no. 17 (1962).

  83. 83.

    See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s ed. Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), 123.

  84. 84.

    Ibid.

  85. 85.

    See Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Risāla fī al-Ṣaḥāba in Muḥammad Kurd ‘Alī’s ed. Rasā’il al-Bulaghā’, Second edition (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub a-’Arabīyya al-Kubrā, 1913), 121.

  86. 86.

    See Bernard Lewis’ translation of Abu Bakr’s accession speech in Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople. Vol. I: Politics and War (New York: Walter and Company, 1974), 5. My thanks to Ahmed El-Shamsy for encouraging this comparison.

  87. 87.

    For a current assessment of the state of the Cambridge school and its methods, see my article ‘Re-imagining the Cambridge School in the Age of Digital Humanities: Connecting Political Scientists Interested in the Role of Language in Politics.’ Annual Review of Political Science 19 (June 2016).

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London, J.A. (2017). The Abbasid ‘Circle of Justice’: Re-reading Ibn al-Muqaffac’s Letter on Companionship . In: Kapust, D., Kinsella, H. (eds) Comparative Political Theory in Time and Place. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-52815-5_2

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