Alexandria’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina showcases some of the oldest, most influential texts of the 11th century
The Manuscript Museum at Alexandria’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina currently has an impressive collection of manuscripts on display.
Among the collection is a famous Islamic jurist (faqih), Abu Bakr Al-Turtusi who lived during perilous times and traveled for knowledge extensively throughout the Arab world before settling in Alexandria where he would claim his fame and a legacy that lives on till this day.
The origin of Turtusi’s name comes from Tortosa, a city in present-day Spain in the northern region of Catalonia
It was under the reign of the Umayyads that al-Andalus first gained importance before slowly disintegrading under the Taifas in the eleventh century.
The Arab castle built during Al- Turtusi’s time still dominates Tortosa’s skyline. It’s also a landmark not too far from the site where Al-Turtusi was born in 1059.
From Tortosa to Alexandria
Al-Turtusi first traveled to Saragossa, Spain where he became a student under Abul-Walid al-Baji, a famous scholar and poet.
Following the same path of al-Baji, he then traveled to Mecca, Basra and Baghdad, before stopping by Damascus and finally reached Alexandria where he taught at a school.
At the time, Egypt was under Fatimid rule and al-Afdal Shahinshah ibn Badr al-Din al-Gamali was the vizier, under whom the Egyptian people were suffering.
Al-Turtusi made note of the people’s suffering and felt his mission as a jurist exceeded that of a teacher. He would travel to Cairo to meet al-Afdal and tell him of his injustices and tyranny.
“Do not let life fool you like it fooled those before you, for whatever bliss it drives your way, it is only because your predecessor had died, and one day it will disappear all of a sudden, just like it appeared all of a sudden.” – al-Turtusi to the Fatimid vizier of Egypt
Al-Turtusi mentioned how al-Afdal was overwhelmed and that he promised to change his ways.
However, as mentioned in al-Dubbi’s ‘Bughyat al-Multames,’ al-Turtusi grew popular and eventually provoked the envy of Alexandria’s judge who was eclipsed by al-Turtusi’s fame.
The judge would report him to al-Afdal after fearing that al-Turtusi would incite a rebellion.
The eager scholar was forced to stay in Fustat, the former capital of Egypt, instead of being allowed to roam free in Alexandria. Only when al-Afdal died could he return to his students and political circle in Alexandria.
His time in Fustat allowed him to reflect on the criteria of a good ruler and formulated his reflection into a masterpiece called Siraj al-Muluk (The Lamp of Kings), which he dedicated to the new Fatimid vizier, al-Bata’ahi, hoping that it would guide him to the good of his people.
The Counselor of the Princes
“A fair king should be to his people what the rain is to the thirsty plants, or even better, for the rain lasts for a while, while the blessings of justice are timeless.” – Al-Turtusi, Siraj al-Muluk
The book was well received not only by the vizier, but also by a number of scholars and intellectuals over the centuries that followed.
In his Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun praised his pioneering work and later gave al-Turtusi a title of ‘Counselor of the Princes’.
Al-Turtusi left many books and epistles such as Kitab al-Fitan and Kitab al-Hawadith, but Siraj al-Muluk is without a doubt his most famous piece of work.
Apart from sharing his own views, he lists hundreds of anecdotes and reflections by other jurists and thinkers that presented countless examples of a good ruler and the bad tyrants.
He also analyzed different regimes not only under the Muslim World, but also the Byzantine and Roman World as well as Asia.
In his text about an Indian king, he wrote: “… he suddenly turned deaf. Not being able to hear the complaints of his subjects, he ordered that only those suffering any injustice in his Kingdom should wear red clothes so that he would ‘see’ them and bring them closer to him. ‘God took away one of my sense (hearing)’ he said, ‘but not my sight, and I intend to put it into good use for the good of my people.”
Now being known as the respected faqih that he was, al-Turtusi’s involvement in the succession of events back home in al-Andalus was an important one, both directly and indirectly.
He supported calls for the Almoravid Emir Yusuf Ibn Tashfin to take over al-Andalus and put an end to the reign of taifas – this would take place in 1090.
It happened that one of al-Turtusi’s students later founded a powerful Berber dynasty that would depose al-Mahdi ibn Tumart, the father of the Almohad dynasty.
Al-Turtusi died in Alexandria in 1026.
While he may not be as famous as some Andalusi saints and scholars such as al-Mursi from Murcia or al-Shatibi from Xativa, his book Siraj al-Muluk would inspire writers and leaders to come, serving as an early manual of rule based on morality unlike Machiavelli’s more famous work, The Prince.