Ibn Zafar’s Principles Of Power And Success In Leadership

We have previously mentioned the political philosopher Ibn Zafar Al-Siqilli (“The Sicilian”), who lived from 1104 to about 1171.  Very little is known of his early life; his entry in Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary reveals little more than a few sad anecdotes.  We do know that he was born under the Norman rule of Sicily, and received a good education in Mecca in Arabia.  A period of wandering followed, which ended around 1150 when he secured a teaching position in Aleppo, Syria.  When war broke out in Syria, Ibn Zafar moved back to Sicily; some years later he moved back to Syria, ultimately residing in Hama, where he died around 1172.

Sicily at the time was rent by factionalism and political turbulence and, much as Machiavelli embraced strong leadership as an antidote to political selfishness, this reality must have been a formative influence on Ibn Zafar’s thought.  We should recall that Sicily was conquered by the Aghlabid rulers of North Africa in A.D. 827; their rule over the island was followed by that of the Fatimids, who in turn lost power in 1052.  An interregnum period of chaos paved the way for the Norman conquest of the island, which took place gradually from 1061 to 1097.  It is a fascinating fact that the pragmatic Christian king, Roger I, kept Muslims as office-holders in key positions of authority in both the government and the military.  Thus in Norman Sicily there would have been both Europeans and Arabs serving alongside each other in government, something very rare in Europe at the time.

The English translators of Ibn Zafar’s work call this period “a unique milieu of Christian-Muslim symbiosis and coexistence.”  Sicily, like Andalusian Spain several centuries later, became a “bridge for cultural transmissions between the Muslim World and Christian Europe.”  Ibn Zafar was a highly-regarded writer of enormous fecundity; we are told that his works eventually filled thirty-two volumes.  Time has erased most of these learned reams, but one masterwork has come down to us, a fascinating treatise called سلوان المطاع في عدوان الأتباع, which translates clumsily as The Consolation of the Ruler in Dealing with the Hostility of His Subjects.  We will call it here by the first word in its title, the Sulwan.  Let us examine this fascinating tome, which deserves to be recognized as one of the great achievements of medieval political philosophy.

He dedicated his book to two patrons:  the first edition of the work was inscribed to an unknown Syrian ruler, a “noble king,” who was facing a rebellion.  The second edition in 1159 was dedicated to a Sicilian Muslim leader named Abu al-Qasim al-Quraishi, a man whom Ibn Zafar apparently knew personally.  Abu al-Qasim was a military commander in the Norman government; and it is likely that he would have known Latin as well as his native Arabic.  Perhaps Ibn Zafar’s book was intended to help Abu al-Qasim navigate that delicate tightrope between the Arab and the Norman communities.  If so, he could hardly have received a better aid for his balancing-act.  Yet it is important to emphasize that the Sulwan is not written exclusively for princes; anyone interested in the psychology of power and human relations will find it to be an indispensable guide.

We will address only the highlights of Ibn Zafar’s theories here; later articles will discuss these topics in greater depth.  He begins by laying a broad theoretical framework within which a leader should operate.  Considering the stresses and strains placed on men of authority, Ibn Zafar takes it for granted that a leader must be a man of extraordinary character; with Oriental hyperbole, he imagines him as “more singular than the sphinx, more marvelous than alchemy, and rarer than red gold.”  But before specific strategies of government can even be devised, a ruler must understand the following give principles that buttress sound governance:

Trust in a higher power (تفويض).  The word (tafweed) literally means “delegation” and derives from theology.  The competent leader must place his trust in a higher power.  All of existence derives from the One Being, and no successful ruler be able to do anything without recognizing the importance of faith in human affairs.  Moreover, faith is an unmatched tool for shaping and molding the minds of subjects to the virtues of loyalty, work, and acquiescence.  On a personal level, the precepts of faith will enable a good prince to differentiate a good cause from a bad one, and will hopefully permit him to avoid the latter.  As Ibn Zafar says,

He who has waged great injustice shall not flourish.  He who is strengthened by malice shall not endure.  He who is raised to the throne through violence shall not reign. [p. 73]

Fortitude (تأسيس).  This word derives from the same Arabic word that means “base” or “foundation.”  A man who lacks personal courage is worthless; his character must be foundational enough to enable him to chart a course and remain on it despite the storms of fortune.  Courage may not be the only virtue, but it is that virtue which makes all the other irrelevant if it is found wanting in a man.  Disasters and calamities will naturally happen to all of us, but our true measure of worth lies in how we handle them.  Ibn Zafar had no illusions about men, however.  Consider this sober estimate:

There are three kinds of subjects.  The first are worthy individuals who are faithful and who recognize the superiority of the ruler.  They acknowledge the importance of the care that is devoted to him, and feel the burden of his responsibilities.  Their affection towards the ruler may be recognized by their graciousness and courtesy.  The second group includes good and bad individuals who must, therefore, be held in check by a combination of gentleness and severity.  The third is the populace that always supports those who advocate causes without questioning either their words or actions.  They side without knowing friend from foe.  They must be governed through fear, without harsh treatment, and tough punishment without excessive rigor.  [p. 259]

Patience (صبر).  Western political thinkers consistently underestimate the value of patience.  As Ibn Zafar describes it, he makes it almost seem as an extension of fortitude; and in a way, this is not inaccurate.  Patience consists, he tells us, of three elements:  forbearance (which promotes mercy); vigilance (which is self-protection and survival); and courage (which is self-explanatory).

Contentment (رضا).  This is a distinctly Arabic concept, something that is sorely missing from Machiavelli and later Western political philosophers.  Deriving from theology, “contentment” is an idea meant to put a ruler’s mind at ease if he has done his best to achieve his goals.  No leader, Ibn Zafar sagely advises, will be able to do everything, or even most things, that he would like to do.  A good leader must have the ability to set aside his anxieties and frustrations, and focus on the tasks at hand.  If he cannot do this, his mind will always be in turmoil, and he will eventually lose confidence in himself.  He says:

It is better to govern with contentment than to be governed by it.  Incline yourself to contentment before you are compelled to it by necessity. [p. 75]

Temperance (زهد).  This concept revolves around self-denial.  Wealth and power are fleeting, Ibn Zafar tells us.  There will be times when the burden of responsibility becomes too great a burden.  If so, a prudent and wise ruler will know when to step down and leave office.  “Let him who longs to obtain power know how to abdicate,” he counsels.  No ruler can be truly great unless he knows how to walk away from the pressures of office once he has done all he can do.

These, then, are the five general points Ibn Zafar begins with in his Sulwan.  He recognizes that they are idealistic and, in many situations, short on specific guidance.  The Italian political theorist Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941) noted that Ibn Zafar’s ideas alternated between both “Machiavellian” and “anti-Machiavellian” advice.  But as translators Kechichian and Dekmejian write (p. 77), Ibn Zafar’s most basic “maxim of power” may be summarized with the following formula:

تدبير     +    حيلة     +     قوة   =   Victory

Represented in English, this formula is:

Power (quwwa) + Stratagems (heela)  +  Planning (tadbiir)  =  Victory

Each of these three elements occupies a key ingredient in ultimate victory.  Necessary at the outset is the need to have good advice from wise counsellors:

It was said that “counsel is the mirror of the intellect.”  If, therefore, you would like to know the capacity of anyone, ask for his advice.  It was also said:  “The best counsel is that which has been proven by reflection, and adopted after mature deliberation.”  And:  “Counsel is the sword of wisdom.  If a sword is the keenest and has been sharpened with the best care, and its blade most diligently polished, then surely the counsel which has been the most frequently deliberated and the longest weighed will be better than all others.”  And:  “The counsel which is delivered in haste is worthless.”  [p. 162]

These are some of the rudiments of Ibn Zafar’s leadership principles.  The well here is very deep, and we will draw from it again in future articles.  Like any profound thinker, it is impossible to do justice to the views of this subtle Sicilian in a few pages; but we have our foundation, and one must start somewhere.  Future discussions will focus on the details of the general principles outlined above.


Read my new translation of Sallust for sobering narratives of leadership in action, which includes notes, maps, charts, and other special features:

10 thoughts on “Ibn Zafar’s Principles Of Power And Success In Leadership

  1. Great breakdown of patience. Helped me realize what I need to work on! Everyone at my MMA gym speaks of the “Joe Rogan Experience,” I need to turn them on to Fortress of the Mind!


    • Thank you, Nabeel. I do my best. There is just so much great knowledge out there, from both the Western and Eastern tradition, and yet the schools are totally ignoring it. That is why it is so important for me to write about it.
      By the way, I have been very disappointed to learn that Saqi Books, a publisher in London, is apparently no longer printing the excellent translation of Ibn Zafar that I myself bought last year from Amazon. What a shame. Some readers here and on Twitter have asked me about it, and I am dismayed as to why it is no longer available. You can get it on Amazon, but the prices are absurdly high (upwards of $100). I got it last year for only about $30 in hardcover. I’m afraid that once I started writing about it, the book sold out all copies immediately and they have not printed any more. I will keep trying to get them to distribute more.


Leave a Reply to The Meaning Of Self-Denial: The Herdsman And The Monk | Quintus Curtius Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.