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  • Behind Every Great Reformer there is a “Machiavelli”: Al-Maghīlī, Machiavelli, and the Micro-Politics of an Early Modern African and an Italian City-State
  • Vasileios Syros

The recent wave of rebellions in the Middle East, commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring,” has stirred up a revival of scholarly interest in the phenomenon of political reform in the Arab world and Muslim-majority states in general. Speculation on the causes of revolution, the provenance and function of political authority, and the means for reshaping or refashioning the existing political or social order had a rich legacy in medieval and early modern Arabic political thought. Islamic history itself provides examples of reforms and revolts that can be seen as antecedents to events associated with the Arab Spring as well as with religious conflicts in Northern Nigeria and Sudan. Thus, a study of the past can provide a frame of reference for understanding the present and tracing the immanent forces in the rise and decline of the state and the evolution of human civilization.

The central objective of this article is to analyze the political theory of the prominent religious scholar (‘ālim) and jurist Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Karim al-Maghīlī al-Tilimsānī (ca. 1440–1503/1505), as articulated in his Crown of Religion Concerning the Obligations of Kings, and then compare it with Niccolò Machiavelli’s (1469– 1527) political ideas. Although al-Maghīlī’s works were one of the major sources of political reflection in early modern Islam and later in Islamic reform in Nigeria, al-Maghīlī has suffered from scholarly neglect save some perfunctory treatments of his political ideas with an eye to the political history of Kano (in modern Nigeria), where it is popularly believed that he spent part of his life working for the spread of Islam.

Al-Maghīlī’s writings exerted a fascination for such great Muslim rulers and reformers as ‘Uthmān dan Fodio (1754–1817, r. 1804–1815), the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate (1804–1903), and his son and successor Muḥammad Bello (d. 1837, r. 1815–1837).1 The British colonial administration also saw al-Maghīlī’s political program as the crystallization of the most vibrant traditions of Muslim kingship2 and keenly recognized its value as a tool for eliciting the allegiance of the local population and implementing the Indirect Rule principle. This principle, which aimed to support indigenous systems of government, was introduced by Frederick Lugard (1858–1945), the High Commissioner of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria from 1899 to 1906. Herbert Richmond Palmer (1877–1958), who served as Lieutenant-Governor of the Northern Provinces from 1925 to 1930, got hold of a manuscript of al-Maghīlī’s Crown of Religion in 1929. The work was included in the standard [End Page 1119] readings used in the Shahuci Judicial School and in the School of Arabic Studies in Kano, both of which had been established by the British in 1928 and 1947, respectively, for the training of the future judges and secretaries of the Alkali (Hausa equivalent of the Arab term qāḍī) courts and low-ranking civil officials and administrators.3

The present article attempts to reinstate al-Maghīlī as a vital figure in the evolution of Arabic political thought. While the existing literature on Islamic political thought is characterized by an overwhelming tendency to look upon Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406) as the Arab political thinker par excellence,4 and as marking the end of the “golden” phase of Arabic political philosophy,5 this article forms part of a comprehensive agenda that seeks to recuperate works of political thought produced in the Arabophone world during Ibn Khaldūn’s time and especially during the post-Khaldūnian era by prominent figures of political, intellectual, and religious life, such as those listed in the Appendix.6

In addition to providing an analysis of al-Maghīlī’s political theory and addressing the ways it reflects or relates to political changes in the premodern sub-Saharan environment, this article represents the first scholarly endeavor to situate his ideas within a trans-cultural context by means of comparison with his approximate contemporary...


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