Medieval Persian Mirrors for Princes

Submitted by Maria Subtelny on Fri, 03/22/2019 - 09:07

Maria Subtelny, JHI Faculty Research Fellow in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations

The Persian tradition of advice literature dates back to pre-Islamic times and the Middle Persian, or Pahlavi, works of the Sasanian period. It was one of the central areas of Persian cultural expression and constituted a major contribution to Islamic civilization. The use of the term “mirror for princes” which has been appropriated by scholars in Perso-Islamic studies to refer to books of advice on kingly ethics and royal conduct, is borrowed from the medieval European genre of the speculum regis or Fürstenspiegel. However, the trope of the mirror figures prominently in Persian culture and it occurs as a didactic image in the Zoroastrian Denkard (Acts of the religion) which counselled that, “in teaching one’s fellow this is best: That a man discipline his character, make a mirror of himself and hold it in front of his fellows. The other man looks at it, sees it, and learns from it.” The precepts and testaments of Sasanian kings like Ardashir and Khusrow Anushirvan found their way into Islamic culture through translations into Arabic during the high caliphal period of the 8th to 9th centuries, thanks to Iranian translators like Ibn al-Muqaffa’, who also famously translated the Sanskrit-inspired animal fables Kalila and Dimna—another mirror for princes—into Arabic.

Persian mirrors for princes of the Islamic period begin to be written in New Persian (i.e., Persian written in the Arabic alphabet) from approximately the 11th century until the 18th century. They overlap with works on proper conduct (adab), ethics (akhlaq), administrative manuals, and even historical writing. One of the most influential early works was the Qabus-nameh, or Book of Qabus, which was composed by an aging Iranian kinglet for his son. Although the author was a Muslim, the work reflects the ethos of Sasanian wisdom literature. It counsels to strive to gain a good reputation in life, to observe measure in all things, to acquire manly virtues, and to be one’s own best friend. Most important, if the son becomes king he should consult wisdom (khirad) in all things: “O my son, in everything you do, make your opinion obedient to wisdom, and in everything you propose to do first consult with wisdom, for the chief minister of the king is wisdom.”  

Books on statecraft that were written for kings by chief ministers, such as the Siyar al-muluk (The conduct of kings) by Nizam al-Mulk, reminded the king that he was divinely elected and that the highest ethical quality he should strive for was justice. The Akhlaq-i nasiri  (The Nasirean ethics), a work by Nasir al-Din Tusi, the preeminent philosopher and scientist of 13th century-Iran, was inspired by the classical Aristotelian topical divisions of Ethics, Economics, and Politics. In the discourse on Politics, Tusi cites the Aristotelian dictum, “Man is by nature a civic being.” He argues that in order to ensure the survival of the human species, man requires civilization, that is, live in an urban environment, which alone makes it possible for the various classes of society possessing different skills to cooperate with each other in order to furnish each other’s needs. Because man’s natural disposition is to dominate others, a hierarchically structured society is necessary, headed by an absolute ruler, whom Tusi construes as a kind of philosopher-king. The king’s duty is to uphold and administer the Law and to exercise Justice, which is equated with the maintenance of equilibrium in society.

manuscript text in Arabic showing list of 40 chapters of Kashifi, Akhlaq-i muhsini
 Akhlaq-I muhsini, Tashkent, fols. 7b-8a

Some mirrors for princes contained a chapter on physiognomy (firasat), the assessment of a person’s character based on his physical features. With roots in Late Antiquity, especially the treatise by the Greek author Polemon, physiognomy was regarded as a “science” that was indispensable for kings in choosing courtiers and administrators. The late 15th-century treatise Akhlaq-i muhsini (Ethics for prince Muhsin), written by the Persian preacher and polymath Kashifi for the son of a ruling descendant of Tamerlane, outlined the ethical qualities a king should possess and how he should manage his retainers. The descriptions of physiognomical signs are largely taken from an earlier work entitled Zakhirat al-muluk (The treasure-house of kings), but Kashifi seeks to convey the utility of the science by means of anecdotes about emblematic historical figures such as the Sasanian ruler Khusrow Anushirvan.

manuscript painting of the Sasanian ruler, Khushrow I Anushirvan
The physician-minister Burzoye returns from India with the Panchatantra and presents it to Khusrau Anushivan. Painting from Nasrullah Munshi, Tarjuma-i Kalila va Dimna. Jalayrid period, ca. 1370-74. Istanbul University Library, F. 1422, F. 22b

According to the first anecdote about Khusrow Anushirvan, a short man came to his court to voice a grievance against someone who he claimed had oppressed him. Anushirvan accused the man of lying because, according to the science of physiognomy, a short-statured person is malevolent, plotting, and tyrannical, so he could not have suffered an injustice from someone; rather it was he who had done an injustice to someone else. When the matter was investigated—presumably by Anushirvan’s courtiers—they found that Khusrow had indeed judged correctly. The second anecdote about Anushirvan, however, is a cautionary one with a humorous twist. On another occasion another short man came to Anurshirvan’s court, also seeking redress for an injustice that he claimed someone had committed against him. Following physiognomical rules, Anushirvan said that was not possible because he was short-statured, and people of short stature are tyrants who oppress others and not the other way around. The man then replied, “O king, the man who did me an injustice was shorter than I am!”

Kashifi concludes by observing that the physiognomical indicators that have been worked up by sages are really just for the common people who normally do not strive to change their moral character and who will never reach the level of what he calls “humanity.” But he says that if a person disciplines his character, places himself in the hands of spiritual masters, takes direction from religious scholars, and studies the accounts of the ancients, despite physical signs that point to the contrary, no one can judge him to be evil.

manuscipt illustration from Pseudo-Aristotle (1490) of Aristotle sending a letter of Alexander in Iran via messenger
Source: BnF Gallica online.