Abdullah Ibn Al Muqaffa: words of wisdom for the kings

Writer was a pioneer of classical Arabic literature and left behind some sound advice for young rulers on leading a stable state

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Cosmopolitan: Ibn Al Muqaffa had both a deep respect for Persian traditions and meticulously observed Arab ways
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One of the earliest contributors to the genre of “mirrors for princes” literature (Fürstenspiegel in German), Abdullah Ibn Al Muqaffa (720–757CE) perfected the art of political writing during the Early Middle Ages. A convert to Islam, he became a prominent writer, as well as an influential chancery secretary (katib). He penned key textbooks that instructed rulers on aspects of governance and behaviour, while he pioneered the emergence of classical Arabic literature. Best known for his translation from Farsi of the epic “Kalilah wa-Dimnah”, his real contributions lay in the use of literature to advise young and inexperienced princes at their accession.

Although the best known (European) “mirror”, “Il Principe” [The Prince] (c 1513) by Machiavelli was universally appreciated, Ibn Al Muqaffa authored several Fürstenspiegels that were equally valuable, as he advised princes to conduct themselves with ethics and justice. His more significant contributions, “Al Adab Al Kabir” (Great Learning), “Al Adab Al Saghir” (Small Learning), and “Risalah fil-Sahabah” (Letters in Friendship), were replete with political advice to the caliph and his courtiers. Although these works derived from the “Khwaday-Namag” chronicles of Persian kings, his own experiences in the affairs of state, which led to his early demise at the hands of his enemies, distinguished them.

Early life and times

Ibn Al Muqaffa was born in Gor, the present Firuzabad in Iran, around 720CE, into a noble Persian family. His father, Daduya (Mubarak), was a state official in charge of taxes under the Umayyad rulers. Reportedly, Daduya was accused and convicted of embezzling some of the money entrusted to him and punished by the ruler by having his hand crushed, hence the name muqaffa (shrivelled hand). After his conversion to Islam from Zoroastrianism by 743CE, young Ibn Al Muqaffa became a Umayyad katib, which led to various clashes. To avoid conflicts, Ibn Al Muqaffa moved to Kerman and, after the fall of the Umayyads, cultivated ties with Banu Ali officials, who appreciated the katib’s refined manners and deep respect for Persian traditions, along with meticulously observed Arab ways. Because of his impeccable mastery of both Farsi and Arabic, Ibn Al Muqaffa received a permanent post at Eisa Ibn Ali’s court, where he did well. A witty person, he was nevertheless an intellectual who did not suffer fools, whom he could belittle and ridicule.

One of the victims of his derision was Sufyan Ibn Mu‘awiyah, who took his revenge when Ibn Al Muqaffa offended the caliph, Al Mansour, allegedly by encouraging the Banu Ali, and especially his uncle Abdullah Ibn Ali, to rise against the ruler. Ibn Al Muqaffa was executed in Basra around 756 on the order of the second Abbasid caliph, Abu Ja‘far Al Mansour, reportedly for heresy, particularly for attempting to import Zoroastrian ideas into Islam, although this was a pretext. In fact, he was killed probably due to the caliph’s resentment at the terms and language that Ibn Al Muqaffa used in drawing up a guarantee of safe passage for the caliph’s rebellious uncle, Abdullah Ibn Ali.

Epic translation of the ‘Kalilah wa-Dimnah’

Based on the “Panchatantra” (Five Principles) that in Sanskrit collected animal fables in verse and prose, “Kalilah wa-Dimnah” depicted the lives of two jackals whose exploits became legendary. Ibn Al Muqaffa provided a masterful translation from Farsi that, over time, became one of the first masterpieces of Arabic literary prose. The original work, from the 3rd century BCE, was attributed to Vishnu Sharma. Borzuya, a Persian physician attached to the Sassanid court in the 6th century, first rendered it into Farsi around 570CE. A further translation into Syriac was also available to Ibn Al Muqaffa, who probably combined the two versions and added fresh material as well. The Arabic title, “Kalilah wa-Dimnah”, first came to light around 750 CE, after the Arab invasion of Persia. It was this version that survived and enriched world literature.

While it is not clear whether the Ibn Al Muqaffa rendition included the Sanskrit principle of Mitra Laabha (Gaining Friends), the standard became a unifying goal of the Ikhwan Al Safah (Brethren of Purity) that, in turn, fed the anonymous 9th-century CE encyclopaedists whose prodigious literary effort, the “Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Sincerity”, codified Indian, Persian and Greek knowledge. Leading authors, including the Hungarian Orientalist Ignác Goldziher, considered one of the founders of modern Islamic studies in Europe in the 19th century, as well as Philip K. Hitti, the Lebanese-American scholar of Islam who introduced the field of Arab Studies to the United States, affirmed that the Ikhwan Al Safah appellation was presumably taken from the story of the ringdove in “Kalilah wa-Dimnah”, where a group of animals act as faithful friends to escape the snares of the hunter.

It must be emphasised that the rendition of animal fables by Ibn Al Muqaffa was not a conscious attempt to start a new literary trend. Rather, this may well have been what was available in the Sassanid court, though his genius was in sharpening the prose to illustrate what should or should not be done by those aiming at political and social success.

Original works

In addition to this literary masterpiece, Ibn Al Muqaffa produced an Arabic adaptation of the Sassanian “Khwaday-Namag”, a chronicle of pre-Islamic Persian kings, princes, and warriors. A mixture of legend, myth and fact, the “Khwaday-Namag” served as a quasi-national history that was inspired by a vision of kingship as a well-ordered autocracy whose sacred duty it was to rule and to regulate the conduct of subjects within a carefully arranged system of government. Interspersed with maxims characteristic of andarz literature, which emphasised moralising and ethical wisdom, the narrative also offered practical advice on civil and military matters, focusing on tactics, customs, court manners, and other matters that were typical of various works on Sassanian institutions.

Interestingly, the most important work by Ibn Al Muqaffa was the “Al Adab Al Kabir”, which was divided into four parts, the first of which offered a brief rhetorical overview on the excellence of the Sassanian legacy of spiritual and temporal knowledge. A miniature “mirror for princes” epistle followed. Its goal was to counsel the caliph’s young son in the rules of conduct (adab), prioritising the mastery of fundamentals, especially listening to men of religion as potential aides and intimates, while staying faithful to moral goals. The author encouraged the future leader to listen to advice from qualified counsellors, even when it was unpalatable, ostensibly to protect the sovereign from friends and foes alike.

Ibn Al Muqaffa cautioned the prince about various pitfalls before him, particularly the love of flattery and the fault of allowing others to detect it, and the need to transform apprehension into prudence, and nurture both justice and the appearance of impartiality.

The third part of “Adab”, longer than the second, was a pragmatic guide to survival for a ruler’s intimates and highly, but precariously, placed officers of state. It was here that Ibn Al Muqaffa offered advice in a high moral vein, without insisting on epochal, philosophical, ethico-religious, or spiritual bases. Rather, he alerted about age-old vagaries of oriental despots and their entourages, and warned against any form of emulation.

The fourth and longest part of the “Adab” dealt with a man’s relations with colleagues, which revolved around the friendship theme, coupled with a duty to avoid enmities. For Ibn Al Muqaffa, the ideal was a permanent relationship, sustained by fidelity, loyalty and devotion, preferably with superior minds to avoid envy that, regrettably, false friends resorted to.

‘Risalah fil-Sahabah’

As stated above, Ibn Al Muqaffa produced a short but perceptive text, the “Risalah fil-Sahabah”, that, in less than five thousand words, discussed specific problems facing the new Abbasid regime. Presumably written for the caliph, Al Mansour, who may or may not have read it, Ibn Al Muqaffa covered the army’s engagements in Iraq and shared in this pamphlet his concern that poor morale and future loyalty problems made reforms imperative. He recommended the removal of fiscal duties from the military. He called for recruitment of officers from the ranks based on merit and religious education, inculcation of integrity, regular pay linked to inflation, and maintenance of an efficient intelligence service throughout Khorasan as well as peripheral provinces, regardless of the cost. He suggested that as an ethnically mixed body exposed to heterodox thinking, officers and conscripts alike should be taught only the tenets of a clear, concise religious code issued by the caliph and pleaded for vigilance and good intelligence in Iraq to counter discontent in Basra and Kufa. He also beseeched the caliph to abandon discriminatory policies and recruit talented Iraqis whose service would benefit the government.

The “Risalah fil-Sahabah” further noted that divergent policies ought not lead to hasty decisions. On the contrary, Ibn Al Muqaffa suggested to the caliph that he scrutinise and resolve conflicts according to a legal code under his full authority, which would enhance his power as well as impose unity. Moreover, the counsellor recommended that the caliph practise cautious clemency for conquered subjects, recruit from among them an elite that would serve loyally and not burden masses with short-sighted economic sanctions. He insisted on a fair distribution of goods throughout the realm.

Ibn Al Muqaffa next touched on one of the most sensitive subjects that any sovereign confronted, namely the caliph’s own entourage. Although many qualified individuals added value to his command, the adviser believed that the caliph ought to remain cautious of sycophants, especially those who hid their incompetence behind flattery. If ministers and secretaries excelled in pessimism that led to disrepute, the ruler must know that such men were unworthy of access to the caliph, and must be expelled from the court. On the contrary, the caliph ought to prefer men with special talents and distinguished service records, as well as those who displayed virtue and were incorruptible.

Finally, Ibn Al Muqaffa closed his “Risalah” with a unique proposal — to introduce mass education. Although his aim was to achieve a level of uniformity for orthodox beliefs — perhaps through the creation of a body of paid professional instructors who would impart approved dogma — his real intention may well have been to impose stability. Those who dissented by becoming troublemakers, he reasoned, could thus be identified, which betrayed the expressions of piety in “Risalah”. Still, as the thinker advised the caliph — rather than look after believers’ interests — the “Risalah” accomplished its goal.

Legacy to Arabs and Muslims

Ibn Al Muqaffa introduced prose narrative in Arabic literature and paved the way for later innovators. He also established a powerful precedent in the “mirror for princes” genre, even if his most significant contribution was to transform the absolutist model of Persian kingship into a more humanistic practice of rulership. His intention was to channel the authority of the ruler, constraining it to faith by remaining loyal to its laws and obligations, and to impose on the sovereign the necessity to accept equality. He was a solid consigliere long before such officers added value to attentive rulers.

List of works

There are various editions of the “Kalihah wa-Dimnah” but a useful illustrated volume is available in Esin Atil, “Kalila Wa Dimna: Fables from a Fourteenth-Century Arabic Manuscript”, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1981. See also, Ramsay Wood, Margaret Kilrenny and Doris Lessing, “Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal”, London: Saqi Books, 2008.

Selected readings

Said Amir Arjomand, “‘Abd Allah Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ and the ‘Abbasid Revolution”, Iranian Studies 27, 1994, pp 9–36.

François de Blois, “Burzoy’s Voyage to India and the Origin of the Book of Kalilah wa Dimnah”, London: Routledge, 1990.

Francesco Gabrieli, “Ibn al-Muaaffa‘”, “Encyclopaedia of Islam”, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs, Brill Online, 2013, at http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/ibn-al-mukaffa-SIM_3304

Latham, J. Derek. “Abu Mohammad ‘Abd-Alloh Rozbeh Ebn Al-Moqaffa‘”, in “Encyclopaedia Iranica”, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, vol 8, fasc 1, pp 39–43. London: Routledge, 1997. Available online at http://www.iranica.com/articles/ebn-al-moqaffa

Erwin I. J. Rosenthal, “Political Thought in Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline”, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985, pp 68–73.

Dominique Sourdel, “La biographie d’Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ d’après les sources anciennes”, Arabica 1, 1954, pp 307-323.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of, “Legal and Political Reforms in Sa‘udi Arabia”, London: Routledge, 2013.

This article is the 17th of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.