The view from 10th century Baghdad on Donald Trump


Baghdad in the 10th century. The Abbasid Caliph Al Mansur commissioned the building of a perfectly round city in 762, possibly as a tribute to Euclid

It was purely by chance but I was reading the following sentence late on Tuesday, August 21, when there was bombshell news from the United States:

A city that displays faulty judgement, which causes it to miss the right path, must have surely had for its first ruler “a man who falsely pretended to be receiving ‘revelation’; he produced this wrong impression through falsifications, cheatings and deceptions.”

Those sentences were written by Al Farabi in 10th century Baghdad. They sound startlingly like something a slightly poncy TV analyst might say today, confronted with news about the president of the United States and his associates. On Tuesday, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of tax fraud and other crimes, and Mr Trump’s long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen alleged he committed a federal crime in cahoots with a “candidate” for federal office.

And yet, Al Farabi’s words sound so appropriate because they are. They are not of any one time, but for all time; for no one geography, but for all. A philosopher, in fact the Arab world’s first original thinker, Al Farabi constructed a system that could lead to justice and perfect human happiness. He called his Plato-like ideal state the virtuous city and laid it all out in Mabadi ara ahl al Madina al fadila or the Principles of the Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City.

He was utterly convinced that a city can become virtuous only when it has a virtuous ruler. The ruler must have the gifts of universal understanding, excellence and deliberation about particulars.

“If at a given time,” wrote Al Farabi, “it happens that philosophy has no share in the government, though every other qualification for rule may be present, the perfect state will remain rulerless, the actual head of the state will be no true king and the state will head for destruction; and if no wise man is to be found and associated with the acting head of the state, then after a certain interval the state will undoubtedly perish.”

It is almost exactly the sentiment expressed by Plato in his seventh Letter:

“At last…I was driven to affirm, in praise of true philosophy, that only from the standpoint of such philosophy was it possible to take a correct view of public and private right and that, accordingly, the human race would never see the end of trouble until true lovers of wisdom should come to hold political power, or the holders of political power should, by some divine appointment, become true lovers of wisdom.”

A leader who is a true lover of wisdom. Philosophy having a share in the government. It becomes difficult to think of such things when affairs in and of the world’s richest and most militarily powerful state is a dirge about “falsifications, cheatings and deceptions.”

But one must look upwards.