Ibn Zafar’s Ideas On Revolutions


A careful reading of Ibn Zafar al-Siqilli’s (“The Sicilian”) masterpiece of political philosophy Sulwan al-Muta’ (سلوان المطاع في عدوان الأتباع, or The Consolation of the Ruler in Dealing with the Hostility of His Subjects) shows an emergent theory of political revolutions.  In a previous article here we have discussed the fundamentals of the subtle Sicilian’s treatise.  We will now give the details of his ideas on how revolutions are born and take hold in a nation.

Central to Ibn Zafar’s view of revolutions is that they take place during times of affluence, ease, and excessive comfort.  Such conditions corrupt the martial virtues, without which no nation can long expect to survive:

It was said that revolutions are aimed against sovereigns whose crown was a hereditary right.  Brought up in the midst of plenty, most are inclined to sloth and are persuaded that their capacity to govern is inherent in them.  Moreover, most believed that the virtues of their illustrious ancestors applied to them without any necessity for exertion on their part [emphasis mine].

Such a corrupt sovereign will be endangered by four things:  pride, anger, rapacity, and rebellion.  When the masses sense that the sovereign is unsteady on his throne as a result of these weaknesses, revolts can take place:

“Revolutions have their origins in disappointment,” was the reply, “and the audacity of the masses causes them to engage.  The insolence of the great gives birth to revolutions (that are propelled by ideas), as well as the timidity of the rich, the confidence of the poor, the carelessness of those with plenty and the wakefulness of those who suffer.”

Social classes  consist of the elites at the top, then the middle classes of merchants and producers, and then the masses at the bottom.  The masses are the most unthinking and blindly credulous of all these groups; they must be governed by fear and force.  The ruler must never underestimate the role that the blind fanatic (the “revolutionary”) can play in the spreading the idea of revolt.  In this Ibn Zafar may have been thinking of the career of an Iraqi peasant named Hamdan Qarmat, who as the founder of the Qarmatian movement was a rebellious thorn in the side of the Abbasid Caliphate.  Ironically, non-tyrannical rulers are usually more victimized by revolutions than are tyrants; as stated in the quotation above, revolutions are often the product of “disappointments,” i.e., failed expectations.

When leaders promise more than they can deliver, resentments brew, and insurrection seethes.  Furthermore, populations accustomed to luxury will resent any impositions designed to curb their pleasure-seeking behavior.  Above all, the rabble cannot be trusted.  This is a constant theme that runs through Ibn Zafar’s writings, and it was based on his study of history as well as his experience with Sicily’s political life:

The masses do not look upon the king as a member of the human family, but consider only his peculiar characteristics:  his isolation, dignity, and the elevation of his office; therefore, they turn against him and unite with those who are on par with themselves.

Along these lines, Ibn Zafar offers this amusing pearl:

Philosophers have said that there are four things that will cost you your life if confronted by violence:  a king in his anger; a torrent that has burst its banks; an elephant during mating season; and masses in a state of excitement and tumult.  They have said, moreover, that the measure which most resembles the forcible repression of the masses–when people rise in their fury–is that of treating smallpox with an ointment when it breaks the skin…

Wise men have said that there are three kinds of human beings against whom, if tested, you could lose.  These are the pedagogue (if you seek to test his learning while you are not a scholar); an intimate friend (because you would take advantage of him); and a woman (if you would marry her when you are advanced in age).  These have given rise to the saying, “like those who test the stomach of a convalescent with heavy food.”

What, then, is a ruler supposed to do in this minefield, where it seems that every step brings the possibility of ruin?  He must in the first place base his actions on a combination of competence and morality.  Possession of only one of these traits is just as fatal as having neither of them.  Despite their fickleness and taste for violence, the masses have a kind of innate sense of justice that alerts them to malfeasance.  The ideal ruler, the Sicilian tells us:

[I]is he who fills the eyes of his people with glory, their ears with the sound of his praise, who inspires their understandings with reverence, and their hearts with affection…It is he who preserves the just from injustice, the monarch whose valor enables men, and whose moderation and generosity captivate their affection.

The ideal ruler should be able to project three kinds of “power”:  inspirational power, ethical and moral righteousness, and blunt force when necessary.  He should project an image of himself as a servant of the people, ever ready to do their just bidding.  Ibn Zafar was no dreamy-eyed idealist; he is fully aware that a ruler cannot long survive in the jungle of politics with good intentions alone.  Problems in the body politic must be identified and dealt with proactively, lest they generate bigger, more complex problems.

No ruler can do everything alone; having competent advisors is absolutely critical.  In this Ibn Zafar is just as emphatic as Machiavelli, who considered the matter to be essential to success.  It is interesting that both of these political thinkers–both of them having served in the halls of political power–realize that the ruler’s choice of advisors is a window on his own character.  Machiavelli stated bluntly that princes got the advisors they deserved:  fools surround themselves with fools, and good leaders picked those who mirrored their own traits.  One of the key traits of a good advisor is that he should put the leader’s interests above his own interests:

Amongst faithful and far-sighted counsellors, he is most deserving of attention whose prosperity depends on your own, and whose safety is tied to yours.  He who stands in such a position, exerting himself for your interests, will likewise serve and defend himself while fighting for you.

True enough, but this is a prescription that is singularly hard to fill.  In power, as in love, there is always a certain amount of chance involved.  But the wise ruler can enlist Fortune in his service by keeping these principles in mind, and remaining constantly vigilant.


Read more on politics in action in Sallust:

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