Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 May 2022
Political discourse in the Islamic world has a threefold classical heritage— Islamic, Persian, and Greek, each representing a different genre. These three genres of discourse were first elaborated under the same historical circumstances in the tenth century, often by the same authors.
The religious discourse includes the political, since it has a dual function: on the one hand, it aims to safeguard the prophetic tradition; on the other hand, it aims to administer earthly interests. This discourse culminates in the theory of the imamate elaborated by the jurist Al-Māwardī, which we shall address later
Of Persian origin, the “mirrors of princes” or royal genre literature portrays the art of ruling and the model of virtue imposed on the prince. It represents a literary genre that predates the emergence of Islam. There are two categories of “mirrors”: those composed through a series of fables, and those organized by ideas and concepts. Those composed of fables, like Kalila and Dimna, tell stories with moral content aimed at teaching moral principles to the ruler; the conceptual “mirrors,” meanwhile, deal with the organization of royal duties, while also conveying political and moral instruction.
The influence of Persian and Indian moral thinking in the Islamic tradition precedes the entrance of Greek ethics. Its principal representative is Ibn Muqaffaʿ (ca. 720–ca. 756), a courtier of Persian origin who gained fame as a promoter of the refined culture that developed under the Abbasids. Ibn Muqaffaʿ was known for integrating the literature of Persian and Indian origins into the Arab milieu. His most celebrated work, Kitāb Kalīla wa-Dimna, is an Arabic version of the collection of Indian fables dating back to the Panjatantra and to the Tantrākhyāyka; this was “designed to enrich political talent in the reader, unfolding before his eyes the spectacle of the royal political world, with all its activities, struggles, and evolutions, while at the same time explaining to the reader the interests, passions, and motivations that make each of the players act and the causes and consequences of their behavior.” The transmission of these fables constitutes one of the first monuments of Arabic prose, in which emphasis is given to profane wisdom that teaches political prudence and at the same time celebrates the virtues of friendship.