“A just ruler should be to his people what the rain is to the thirsty plants, or even better, for the rain lasts for a while, while the blessings of justice are timeless.” – Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Walīd al-Ṭurṭūshī, Sirāj al-Mulūk
Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Walīd al-Ṭurṭūshī, who was originally from Tortosa—a city in northwestern Spain—was one of the most important Hispano-Muslim political philosophers of the twelfth century. Since he is largely unknown, I thought I would give some brief background about him to contextualize the extraordinary accomplishment which is his magnum opus: Kitāb Sirāj al-Mulūk, one of the most important works of political theory to be produced in the medieval Islamic world.
Abū Bakr al-Ṭurṭūshī was born in Tortosa around 1059, at a time when al-Andalus had become increasingly fragmented and was divided into various taifa kingdoms. Al-Ṭurṭūshī first traveled to Zaragoza (Ar: Saraqusta) where he became a student under Abū al-Walīd al-Bājī, a famous scholar and poet. While in Spain, he also familiarized himself with the philosophical and political treatises of the Andalusian polymath Ibn Hazm (d. 1064).
Around 1084, he set out to the central Islamic lands, making the pilgrimage to Mecca, before travelling to Basra and Baghdad. He then made a brief sojourn in Damascus and Jerusalem before finally settling in Alexandria where he taught at a madrasa. Al-Ṭurṭūshī was a major jurist of the Mālikī school who had studied with some of the most preeminent scholars of jurisprudence and legal theory. By the time he arrived in Egypt, he had become a major authority in his own right. Among his students were Qāḍī Abū Bakr ibn ‘Arabī, Abū Bakr al-Ghassānī Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm, Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥusayn al-Mayurqī, Abū Ṭāhir Ṣadr al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Silāfī al-Iṣbahānī, among dozens of others who would all go on to become major jurists and theologians in their own right. Al-Ṭurṭūshī was renowned for his asceticism piety as well, which attracted the admiration of many of his students. The famous Andalusian scholar Abū al-Qāsim ibn Bashkuwāl (d. 1183) described al-Ṭurṭūshī as “one of the masters of knowledge, he was a great ascetic scholar, who was committed to his religious obligations and distanced himself from the temptations of the world who was satisfied with the blessings which God had bestowed upon him.”
When al-Ṭurṭūshī arrived in Egypt, it was was ruled by the Fatimid dynasty and al-Afdal Shāhinshāh ibn Badr al-Jamālī (d. 1121) was the vizier. The latter’s rule was tyrannical and oppressive and left a strong impression upon al-Ṭurṭūshī. His time in Cairo allowed him to reflect on political theory and philosophy, formulating his reflections into a masterpiece called Sirāj al-Mulūk (The Lamp of Kings), which he dedicated to the new Fatimid vizier, al-Ma’mun al-Bata’ahi, hoping that it would guide him to the good of his people.
The Counselor of the Princes
The Sirāj al-Mulūk was well received not only by the vizier, but also by a number of scholars and intellectuals over the centuries that followed. In his Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) praised his pioneering work and later gave al-Ṭurṭūshī the title of ‘Counselor of the Princes’. Apart from sharing his own views on kingship and statecraft, al-Ṭurṭūshī lists hundreds of anecdotes and reflections by other jurists and thinkers that presented countless examples of a just ruler, on one hand, and tyrannical rulers on the other. He utilizes Islamic precepts of kingship and justice—as enshrined in the Qur’an, the words of the Prophet and the example of the rightly-guided caliphs—in addition to the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers. He also analyzed different kingdoms, both historical and contemporary. He did not limit his enquiry to the Islamic world, but also drew examples from the Roman Empire, Byzantium, the Sassanid Persians, China, India, and even the northern Spanish Christian kingdoms of Asturias and Navarre. The diversity of his examples as well as his willingness to draw equal inspiration from Islamic as well as pre-Islamic sources of wisdom testifies to the monumental and unique nature of the work which.
In addition to his scholarly activities in Egypt, al-Ṭurṭūshī was also significantly involved in political developments back in his homeland of al-Andalus. He was a major supporter of the efforts of the Almoravid emir Yūsuf ibn Tashfīn to take over al-Andalus and extinguish the taifa kingdoms, which would take place in 1090. Al-Ṭurṭūshī issued an important fatwa to legitimize this Almoravid conquest of al-Andalus, a development which he believed was necessary to ensure the survival of Islamic Spain in the face of a militant northern Christian drive to conquer the Iberian peninsula. Interestingly, it happened that one of al-Ṭurṭūshī’s students later founded a powerful Berber dynasty that would depose the Almoravids. His name was Muhammad ibn Tumart, the founder of the Almohad dynasty.
Al-Ṭurṭūshī died in Alexandria in 1126. While he may not be as famous as some other Andalusi saints and scholars such as Muḥyiddīn ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240) from Murcia or Abū Isḥāq al-Shātibī (d. 1388) from Xativa, his book Sirāj al-Mulūk would inspire generations of writers and leaders to come, serving as an early manual of rule based on morality and justice, and becoming a masterpiece of Islamic political philosophy.