Lessons in history on governance


  • IKIM Views
  • Tuesday, 03 Apr 2018

IN this millenarian commemoration of Nizam al-Mulk, who was born in 1018, it is apt to quote his work Siyasat-nameh.

It states that a leader “shall bring to pass that which concerns the advance of civilisation (umran), such as constructing underground channels, digging main canals, building bridges across great waters, rehabilitating villages and farms, raising fortifications, building new towns, and erecting lofty buildings and magnificent dwellings; he shall have inns built on the highways, and educational institutions for those who seek knowledge; for which infrastructure the leader will be renowned forever; he will gather the fruit of his good works in the hereafter, and blessings will be showered upon him.”

A priority of undertaking extensive public works is one of the salient features of this classic oeuvre on leadership ethics, alternatively titled Siyar al-Muluk.

This book has been translated into French, Russian, Turkish, German, English and Arabic, and people around the world refer to it. The publisher’s summary of Hubert Darke’s English translation, The Book of Government, says “many of Nizam al-Mulk’s findings are as pertinent to government (and people) today as they were 900 years ago”.

The original Persian work was written in 1091 (39 chapters) and 1092 (11 chapters) and was meant to be a ruler’s primer. It was produced at the request of Sultan Malik-shah, who for 20 years governed an empire stretching from India to Egypt.

The astute writer was Abu Ali al-Hasan bin Ali, who is better known by his title of honour, Nizam al-Mulk. He was assassinated in 1092, when he was 74 years old.

The book mirrors his vast experience in civil, fiscal and military services.

Nizam al-Mulk was prime minister and commander-in-chief of the Saljuq Empire for over 30 years.

Historians celebrate Nizam al-Mulk’s governance. He administered Muslim lands with a far-reaching vision of rejuvenating inclusive Sunni polity, culture and intellectualism.

He was fully conscious that it was not enough for a leader to have good morality. Besides honesty, a leader must possess competency, effectiveness and efficiency in achieving objectives. Apart from championing public works, he achieved prominence in three social aspects.

First, he founded several universities via waqf or the Islamic endowment system.

Fully equipped with scholarship grants and student financial assistance, many colleges were established in major cities of Iraq, Persia and Jazirah, the northern area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Systematic studies of philosophy, the sciences, theology and law were taught in those educational institutions, which were set up to train a body of reliable, Sunni-oriented officials who would run the empire and thus further the progress of intellectual and socio-political revival.

Their ethos and teachings were the accommodable Ash‘ari kalam (school of theology) and Shafi‘i legal school.

His most celebrated university college was the Baghdad Nizamiy­yah, founded in 1067. He was much sought after as a patron of arts and sciences, and of scholars and metaphysicians.

The appointment of university vice-­chancellors was based on their excellence and influence in the world of knowledge.

The most notable among them were Abu Ishaq al-Isfarayini (theologian, jurist and traditionist) and Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (theologian, legal expert, philosopher, Sufi and religious renewer).

Nizam al-Mulk’s second notable deed was the general abolition of taxes – called mukus – that were unjust or unsanctioned by religion and societal well-being, starting from 1086.

This reflected a tradition that was in place 300 years before. In 717, Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz put an end to mukus, based on the statement of prophet Shu‘ayb in the Quran, prohibiting an encroachment of people’s cost of living: “...and do not deprive people of what is rightfully theirs, and do not act wickedly on earth by spreading corruption” (11:85;26:183;7:85-86).

The phrase “what is rightfully theirs” refers to physical possessions as well as moral and social rights.

Qadi Abu Yusuf, who was chief judge at the time of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, offered an analysis.

Before the time of Umar bin Abdul Aziz, the country was less prosperous as people found no reason to be productive. Higher gains invited heavier and unjust taxes of all sorts.

However, said the chief judge, that changed when Umar bin Abdul Aziz introduced a fair policy on tax.

People were filled with enthusiasm for producing more as they got to keep more of their earnings.

More interestingly, the chief judge pointed out, when productivity and earnings increased, the state’s revenue swelled as well.

The third major achievement of Nizam al-Mulk came from his earnestness in making the country safe from brigandage and to reduce the people’s cost of living.

Religious faith and practices were protected, knowledge and sciences were patronised, public property was distributed justly, property rights were guaranteed, and fair tax was properly imposed.

Indeed, a truly renowned and blessed leader Nizam al-Mulk was.

  • Dr Mohd Sani Badron is principal fellow/director of the Centre for Economics and Social Studies, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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