Piety, Knowledge, and Rulership in Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Jawzī's Ameliorative Politics
Liew, Han Hsien
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CitationLiew, Han Hsien. 2018. Piety, Knowledge, and Rulership in Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Jawzī's Ameliorative Politics. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation examines the political thought of Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201), a Sunni Muslim religious scholar who flourished as a preacher in twelfth-century Baghdad. During this period, Baghdad was the main arena of conflict between the Abbasid caliphs and the Seljuq sultans as both sides competed to exert control over the city. The militarized rule of the Seljuqs also entailed heavy taxation and harsh punitive measures on the populace. Through an intertextual reading of various genres in the Islamic intellectual tradition, this study reconstructs Ibn al-Jawzī’s intellectual response to the shifting political dynamics of the twelfth-century Islamic world.
This dissertation argues that Ibn al-Jawzī adopted an ameliorative approach to politics and emphasized the values of piety and religious knowledge as the hallmarks of ideal Islamic rulership. To ensure that the ruling authorities govern based on piety and the sharīʿa, Ibn al-Jawzī envisions a greater role for religious scholars in the political sphere. His ideal ruler is one who devotes himself to the Qurʾān and ḥadīth, adheres to Islamic legal and ritualistic precepts, and consults with scholars. These ideals depart from the dominant political discourses of his time that prioritize the ruler’s ability to maintain societal order, regardless of his moral and religious qualities. Yet Ibn al-Jawzī’s emphasis on piety and knowledge did not steer his political thought towards the radical ideologies upheld by certain fringe groups such as the Khārijites. Instead, he pursues an ameliorative approach to politics that aims at mediatory, moderate, and pragmatic reform. This approach is best represented by the preacher who uses his rhetorical skills to tame the arbitrary nature of power and guide the ruler towards righteous rule. It also comes across in Ibn al-Jawzī’s juristically prudent effort to protest against dismal political situations without overtly sanctioning the act of rebellion against a ruler who rules unjustly and impiously.
A study of Ibn al-Jawzī’s political discourses points towards a new reading of the history of Islamic political thought that, rather than focusing solely on Muslim thinkers who promulgated the principle of “might is right,” takes into account as well diverse and competing approaches to power. It sheds light on the various creative ways in which Muslim intellectuals utilized writings to effect social and political reform.
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