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I am getting to know Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna in the West) political ideas through Erwin Rosenthal’s Political Thought in Medieval Islam. I need to read Ibn Sina himself, but in the meantime here is my first approximation of his concept of the preferred caliph.

To understanding medieval political philosophy, we must begin with the premises that God exists and is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Then we pursue the following line of reasoning: the Divine wants people to be happy, both in this life and the next. Humans can only pursue the good life in the context of a well-ordered state. Thus, we must identify what such a state looks like.

Humans have two routes to knowledge in this worldview: revelation and reason. Revelation, being a direct communication from divinity, must be all encompassing and thus superior. Medieval philosophers thus faced a problem: why reason at all, if one could simply rely on revelation alone? Some Muslim philosophers, as well as some Jewish and Christian ones, responded that there are different paths to God, and for most people obedience to revelation is sufficient. To some, however, God gave a nature to follow a more complex path. As Rosenthal notes, “The distinction between the elect metaphysicians and the masses maintains religious equality and a concern for the happiness of all in accordance with the intellectual capacity of each individual, despite its claim that only the philosopher can penetrate to the inner, hidden meaning of these concepts, whereas the masses must be content with a metaphorical explanation.” The philosophers used this characterization of revelation as using metaphors to create the room for their work. Logical reasoning is more challenging than following metaphor, and thus reserved for elite thinkers.

Ibn Sina (d. 1037 CE) works in this tradition. Along with al-Kindi (d. c.873 CE), al-Farabi (d. 950 CE), ibn Rushd (d. 1198 CE), and others, he builds on Plato and Aristotle. Ibn Sina argues along with them that the leader, the caliph, must possess noble virtues. The core value is justice, which one realizes by pursuing the Golden Mean. The three other Platonic political virtues, wisdom, temperance and courage, devolve from justice according to Ibn Sina. In our discussion, Professor Khan noted that ibn Sina’s emphasis on justice made sense, since justice is even more strongly emphasized among Shi’ites than Sunnis, having suffered historical injustices.

One part of Rosenthal’s description of Ibn Sina’s argument I found challenging – when he describes how to handle undeserving rulers. It runs: The people must obey the caliph. If the ruler lacks the political virtues, however, the people must switch their loyalties to a challenger, if a worthy one is available. They must rebel against a tyrant. At the same time, the people should support a strong, impious caliph over a weak, pious caliph. Rosenthal sees these last two rules as inconsistent with each other. One could argue, however, that Ibn Sina is ranking caliphs from 1. pious and strong, to 2. impious and strong, to 3. pious and weak to 4. impious and weak. Within the second category, whether the caliph counts as a tyrant who needs to be deposed depends on how cruel he becomes. This advice would fit with the overall medieval philosophical understanding of the goal of a ruler: to provide a well-ordered state in which the populace can pursue happiness in this life and the next through submission to God. This goal is perhaps why Ibn Sina sees the less moral but capable ruler as preferable to the more moral but less capable ruler. At least under the former you have some chance of living an orderly life and focusing on the good life. Under a weak ruler, not matter how well intentioned, security will collapse and the probability of focusing on higher values will collapse with it.