The relationship between rulers and religious scholars became increasingly fraught during the late Abbasid period, especially between the eleventh and twelfth centuries when Seljuq power was at its peak. The Seljuq ruling authorities, for one, often encroached on religious matters which were theoretically the prerogative of the qāḍī. Furthermore, in light of the conflict between the Abbasid caliphs and the Seljuq sultans, both sides allied themselves with different groups of scholars to further their respective religio-political causes, only to dissolve the alliance when the political climate changed.
Due to the tense relations between rulers and scholars, many religious scholars doubled down on the view that pious scholars should stay away from rulers and politics to avoid being intoxicated by power. In his Iḥyā' 'ulūm al-dīn, al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) harshly condemns scholars who associate with rulers and deploys a string of ḥadīths that deem such scholars to be destined for hellfire. Until recently, Western scholars have considered this skeptical stance as the defining characteristic of ruler-scholar relations in medieval Islam.
This paper examines an intervention in this debate by the twelfth-century scholar-preacher Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201). It argues that, unlike his peers who adopt a cynical view of ruler-scholar relations, Ibn al-Jawzī envisions a greater role for scholars in the moral reform of rulers. For instance, in his revised abridgment of al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyā', entitled Minhāj al-qāṣidīn, he omits the ḥadīths that categorically condemn scholars who visit rulers, in effect softening al-Ghazālī’s unforgiving stance toward such scholars. In 'Aṭf al-'ulamā' 'alā al-umarā' wa-l-umarā' 'alā al-'ulamā', a political treatise devoted to the subject of ruler-scholar relations, he asserts that the general good to be gained from counseling rulers far outweighs the harms related to the moral temptations of the ruler’s court. Scholars who visit rulers with the sincere intention to counsel and reform them have the potential to benefit an entire society if they can successfully guide rulers to govern justly. Building on these claims, Ibn al-Jawzī takes his position one step further by suggesting that religious scholars should dictate the ruler’s use of his coercive and punitive powers in order to prevent arbitrary punishments from being meted out. By tracing Ibn al-Jawzī’s arguments and his theoretical engagements with those of other scholars, this paper sheds light on the various ways in which medieval Muslim scholars conceptualized the relationship between political and religious authorities during a time of intense socio-political tumult.