Conceptualization of Ruling and Governing. The Sultanate as Paradigm (Stefan Leder)

Political thought in the Middle East, nourished by the traditions of Antiquity and of Asiatic, mainly Iranian, Indian and of Arabic origins, elaborated a variety of conceptual frameworks. Political philosophy, teachings of wisdom, ethics, Islamic law and examples from history play an important part, but authors also discuss particular political matters. The encounter with Western constitutional thought posed a challenge in modern times, giving rise to attempts of harmonizing this impulse with Islamic tradition. Well before that, the interest of Muslim authors in delineating the foundations and practices of rule and government produced an extensive literature in Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish. Due to the prevalence of modern Islamic and Orientalists’ debates referring to the caliphate and the early Islamic model, still present in Muslim images of history today, the significance of local sovereign rule for the history of political thought has largely been neglected.


Our research concentrates on the "theories" concerning Sultanic rule, a historical form of political regime which emerged from the decline of the institution of the caliphate, absorbing the seminal Iranian tradition of kingship. From Spain to India, literature offering advice and guidance depicted and discussed local ruling institutions, treating the foundations of rule, its forms of representation, legal frameworks and purposes, as well as governance along with the competences delegated to it, its organization and administrative tasks.

In this context, we are preparing a Source Companion of Medieval Islamic Political Literature addressing students of political thought as well as experts of Middle Eastern history. The Source Companion treats Arabic and Persian writings on political philosophy, political advice and administration addressing local sovereign rulers or referring to local sovereign rule (12th - 16th century). This historical context instigated and continuously encouraged the conceptualization of legitimate rule, and inspired authors to discuss the structure and ideal organization of the polity as well as instruments of justification, restriction and control of power.

The Source Companion is organized by a systematic and summarized presentation of about fifty selected sources which are framed by introducing essays and include general aspects of political discourse as well as translations from the original. Special attention is given to authors who pursued distinct political issues.

A study on Concepts of Good Governance – Norms and Contexts will survey the literature on vezirate, ḥisba and related institutions. The study looks into the model character of Islamic state law in this respect, establishes the extent and limits of its impact and discusses whether and in how far governance was perceived, besides rule, as an independent pillar of the political regime.

The research project which is funded by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung contributes to a retrieval of political thought in Islamic tradition by connecting it with the further development of generally valid categories of political thought.

Author: Former director of the Orient Institut Bierut

Jennifer Viehl

Evelin Dierauff