Political comparativism and medieval history

Political comparativism and medieval history

Back cover of Syros’ book (source: Sabin Drăgulin)

A review of Vasileios Syros’ book, Medieval Islamic Political Thought in Dialogue with the Humanist Tradition of the Italian Renaissance, edited by Sabin Drăgulin, translated from the English by Antoaneta Ancuța Brașoveanu. Iasi, Junimea Publishers, 2021

Alexandru Ionașcu

Professor and researcher Vasileios Syros’ study, Medieval Islamic Political Thought in Dialogue with the Humanist Tradition of the Italian Renaissance, a long and academic title, is, however, a first in a Romanian space that is not very open to comparative-multicultural projections of history, which is usually monopolized by conservative obsessions. Structured in three chapters and written in an academic style, with extensive footnotes and informative headings by Professor Sabin Drăgulin, it aims to provide as much information as possible for those wishing to broaden their knowledge of a niche subject. The study falls within the field of comparative political theory, more precisely the comparative approach to political theory, or rather, a rapprochement between cultural mentalities, doctrines and various political theories in the broad context of globalisation. Such research is not without its detractors, whose objections are valid and must therefore be taken into account. If we want to overlap two cultures, the first hurdle we will come up against will be language, especially if we are talking about different geographical areas such as Europe, South-East Asia or the Islamic world. As a first barrier, language shapes a society’s ‘internal logic’ and touches political systems, so that different cultures and societies are ‘effectively closed systems’. Which means that we can hardly get out of our unconscious assumptions or prejudices, if we try to compare different cultures such as “Western ideas with Arab or Chinese ones”, we run the risk of reflexively imposing our own “pre-existing categories”. If we cannot be neutral (we cannot place ourselves in a ”free-float” position, as Alasdair MacIntyre, a scholar quoted by Vasileios Syros, puts it), we do not float innocently above socio-cultural realities, so when we try to compare cultures, political doctrines and societies we risk distorting or even advancing imperialist agendas, in any case appearing culturally arrogant, as the Scottish-American philosopher points out.

How does the author navigate these difficulties and contradictions? By noting that while social orders differ, the circumstances that accompany ,,political expression” involve overlaps and contrasts – one example being a genre of texts discussing the art of government and the problems facing a prince, present in all great cultures. In the West, this kind of political literature was called ,,speculum principium” or ,,specula”, i.e. literature offering advice to rulers on how to rule and what moral attitudes to take. What does ‘specula’ mean? In-depth analysis of a subject, a method used in philosophy, but from the early Middle Ages it also found its way into early political theory texts. Beyond the rejection of these texts of advice to monarchs (which have their starting point in the writings of the ancient Greek historian Xenophon), under the accusation that they are Christian moralizing (as the scholars of ”Western political thought” claim), Vasileios Syros demonstrates that, whatever the circumstances, ‘, fundamental problems” were the same, and an example might be history as a didactic value, an idea present in the Florentine humanist Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), while the Persian historian Baranī saw history as a source of ”vital political and moral lessons” designed to prepare a prince for the patterns of political change.

The author of the volume tells us that in the absence of constitutional documents appearing in the period of modern history limiting the power of the monarch, the advice given to rulers and the specific literature that developed were the only paths for the political system, which largely depended on the ”personal traits of the monarch”. The same Vasileios Syros observes that the giving of advice means a “palpable universality”.

At this point in the discussion of Medieval Islamic Political Thought in Dialogue with the Humanist Tradition of the Italian Renaissance, I would like to specify that this review does not intend to be exhaustive in its approach, preferring to invite interested readers to read it by launching ideas.

The first chapter discusses the existence of the concept of soft power in the Islamic world, an occasion that allows us to meet a thinker named Ibn al-Muqaffa’ (724-757). But let’s start at the beginning, what is soft power? Introduced in the 1980s by the political scientist Joseph Nye, Jr., the notions of hard power and soft power were intended to better reveal the different ‘leadership styles’ and competences of modern democracies and their organisations. The first term refers to power exercised directly, through the army, the police, but also to ‘financial power’, i.e. the economics and structures of force used to compel the governed to accept power, brute forces operating through ‘incentives or rewards (the carrot) and threats (the stick)’. If hard power is about the forceful application of political power, soft power, on the other hand, is about attracting others and being able to shape their behaviour by spreading ‘beliefs, values, attitudes and goals’ with which the governed identify. Nye considered that soft power is specific to democratic regimes, where leaders have to propose attractive objectives to the population, while hard power is more noticeable in authoritarian regimes, which rely predominantly on coercion and can ‘issue orders and commands’. Simply put, soft power refers to the use of culture to attract and shape behaviour. Syros shows us that again in the Islamic Middle Ages a secretary (katīb) who was active during both the Umayyad and early Abbasid dynasties would consider religion to be part of the suite of discourses that form soft power. The same secretary Ibn al-Muqaffa’, in a treatise on ,,Islamic guidance’, showed that political power rests on force/power, whereby a ruler has direct control over his subjects and administrative affairs, as well as popularity, which will enable him to gain the sympathy and acceptance of the people. At first, force must be used to consolidate leadership, then he must make himself liked by the ruled, and his policies accepted and his power made to appear ‘benign’. This secretary from the time of the early Islamic caliphates argued that both types of political practice are ‘inextricably linked’ and a political power cannot be maintained without a certain degree of popularity enjoyed by the ruler. Ibn al-Muqaffa”s distinction between power and popularity would later be taken up by other Muslim scholars, such as al-Dimashqī (1256-1327), who would write about the ”power of the sword” and the ”power of the feather”. The power of the sword means direct rule exercised by ”kings, princes and military commanders”, while the power of the pen refers to the administration of a kingdom and those with specific duties, i.e. secretaries, judges and the religious milieu. The historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) would extend the discussion of the dynamics of the ‘learned men’ (i.e. the men of the feather) with military rulers, showing that once a ruler is sure that he has consolidated his power, he must enjoy the benefits that flow from his authority, which means tax collection, justice and increased prosperity for his dynasty to cope in possible conflicts with other kingdoms/political forces.

The most discussed name in this first chapter on soft power in the Islamic world is that of Ibn al-Ṭiqṭaqa (1262-1310), author of a compendium of Islamic history called al-Fakhrī, in which he showed that a ruler should try to win the respect and admiration of his subjects so that they would strive to emulate him. The example he gave was the Mongol conquest of the second half of the 13th century, when the subjects sought to adopt the practices and conventions of the conquering Mongols, from dress to speech and social etiquette, knowing that their previous way of life could no longer be accepted by the new leadership. Here, the Islamic scholar of the 12th-13th centuries sees how socio-cultural behaviours can be transformed naturally, peacefully and by imitation, without a political power imposing such changes: ”without the rulers having to impose new customs, to command, to force people to change or abandon their existing customs” (p.40 ) Compared to Macchiavelli, he showed how a ruler must follow a series of advice to preserve his dynasty and to secure the appreciation of his subjects. In Ibn al-Ṭiqṭaqa’s list of the monarch’s abilities, one finds attributes such as intelligence, ,,clear thinking”, perception and a very good understanding of the social realities of his own kingdom, as well as a knowledge of the economic-political realities of the kingdoms with which he wants to have diplomatic relations. This monarch must not be unnecessarily cruel, but must be flexible in the application of justice, and his public image is also determined by the ”correct selection of subordinates and rulers.” Both Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Ibn al-Ṭiqṭaqa recommend that the prince study history, knowing that the past is a pedagogy for the tasks and difficulties that the prince will face.
According to Vasileios Syros, what the two authors of political writings have in common is that they both reject visions of a socio-political community of the past, which they see as stuck in unworkable idealism (like Plato’s Republic), and point out that we must focus on ”the way we live”, the role of the ruler being to ensure that his state functions optimally and ”the demands of the various elements of society” are satisfied and all social forces enjoy his attention.

The second chapter deals with history as pedagogy for a ruler and the presence of tyrannical rulers, such as Walter de Brienne in fourteenth-century Florence (more precisely, between 1342 and 1343). This chapter, as well as the third and final chapter, includes lengthy narratives of abusive, failed as well as successful reigns in areas as diverse as late medieval Florence, the Delhi Sultanate of the same 14th century as well as the Safavid dynasty of Iran in the time of Shah ‘Abbās I (1571-1629).

What thinkers from different cultural spaces such as Machiavelli and the Safavid Persian historian-scribe Iskandar Beg (ca. 1560-ca. 1632) have in common is their literature of political advice based on immediate realities and a pragmatism that no longer regards the past as an unbridgeable boundary. On this occasion, it must be said that Vasileios Syros’ study, which specialises in the intersections of Christian/Latin, Jewish and Islamic political thought with modern political theory, is a good example of how concepts from contemporary political science can be applied to illuminate the difficulties and answers offered by the early political thinkers of the pre-modern past.

Photo: Front cover of Vasileios Syros’ book (source: Sabin Drăgulin)

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