Opinion: Muslim Rulers Really Need to Read Machiavelli’s The Prince

Instead of trying to maintain the friendship of their people as Machiavelli advises, the rulers of the Muslim world have sided with their elites (nobles) and soldiers. This has led to the instability and weakness that has plagued the Muslim world for centuries.

Advertise on TMV

Instead of trying to maintain the friendship of their people as Machiavelli advises, the rulers of the Muslim world have sided with their elites (nobles) and soldiers. This has led to the instability and weakness that has plagued the Muslim world for centuries.

Although widely recognized as an astute student of statecraft today, Machiavelli has historically been one of the more controversial political thinkers in the Western world. His ideas have been criticized because they are primarily concerned with how rulers attain and augment their power. They do not deal with questions related to the moral exercise of power.

As such, the dictators of the Muslim world should pay attention to his ideas because they only seem to care about power as well and have shown no interest in creating governments imbued with any sense of morality or decency. The following discussion is based on George Bull’s translation [1] and will analyze Machiavelli’s ideas in order to suggest what Muslim rulers can learn from Italy’s most infamous political thinker.

The similarities between the political and military situation in Italy that gave rise to the ideas expressed in The Prince and the current political and military dynamics of the Muslim world are quite striking. The Prince was written in response to the fractured nature of Italy’s politics during a time when the French and Spanish were attempting to dominate its smaller and divided city-states. Rather than work together to prevent these powerful kingdoms from subjugating Italy’s city-states, Italy’s rulers pursued policies that prioritized their own short-term retention of power even if doing so allowed powerful outsiders to entrench their dominant positions. This resulted in the effective military control of the Italian peninsula by outside powers during much of Machiavelli’s lifetime.

The rulers of the Muslim world have pursued similarly short-sighted policies that have resulted in the complete domination of the Islamic world by the West, Russia, and China. Despite these broad similarities, there are also some important differences.

One of the key differences between Italy during this period and the Muslim world today is that Italy’s problems were mostly political. The political divisions within Italy prevented building armies powerful enough to counter the French or the Spanish. Italian arms were not lacking in technical or tactical skills nor were they weak because Italy’s economy was incapable of equipping Italian soldiers with modern weaponry (by the standards of the time).

The military weakness of the Muslim world is also primarily rooted in its weak political institutions and rulers. However, its inability to develop modern economies capable of producing advanced weapons like those made by the West or to competently use the advanced weapons they import are also based on the cultural climate of the Muslim world which discourages critical thinking and the free exchange of ideas. The stagnant intellectual climate of the Muslim world has therefore greatly contributed to its weakness by preventing Muslims from creating strong economies or vibrant educational and research institutions that can develop the minds of its scientists, soldiers, and industrialists. As such, the military weakness of the Muslim world is best viewed as resulting from a combination of political, economic, cultural, and technical factors whereas Italy’s weakness was mostly political.

It is important to keep these contextual factors in mind when discussing how Machiavelli’s ideas might apply to the Muslim world so they can be analyzed with the proper perspective. Yet another factor to note in this regard is that, as referenced above, The Prince does not provide a coherent political philosophy. Machiavelli wrote his book as an attempt to provide advice to one of Italy’s most prominent rulers by providing him with a practical guide about how to retain and augment his power.

He did not write The Prince in order to formulate a new political philosophy that could be used to provide the intellectual basis for Italian unity. Nor did he concern himself with greater questions of political philosophy. It is likely he felt that such concerns were irrelevant so long as the ruler in power was strong and just. As a result, he was focused on developing ideas that could substantially increase the power of a ruler. Given his concentration on how to acquire, maintain, and increase power, his advice should be considered indispensable to the rulers of the Muslim world who also care about power over all other considerations.

The Prince is primarily concerned with analyzing “hereditary principalities [2]” in which power is held by one ruler who can pass on authority to a designated heir. Most nations within the Muslim world are best treated as “hereditary principalities” as well since they consist of kingdoms such as Jordan or Morocco or republics ruled by men who act as though they rule over a kingdom instead of a true republic. For example, even though Egypt under Mubarak was officially designated as a republic, Mubarak was grooming his son to take power and governed Egypt much like it was his own kingdom rather than a republic. Egypt’s current ruler, General Sisi, appears likely to continue this trend.

According to Machiavelli, there are two basic types of “hereditary principalities.” The first are those that are governed by a ruler “to whom everyone is subservient [3]” while the second type are those in which the ruler governs with the aid of nobles who do not owe their position to the ruler’s favor. The basic dichotomy described here is between an absolutist political system in which the ruler concentrates as much power in his person as possible as opposed to a feudal system in which the ruler must share power with nobles.

In discussing the former, Machiavelli cites the Ottoman Empire, stating that “the Turkish empire is ruled by one man; all others are his servants [4]” whereas “the king of France is surrounded by a long-established order of nobles [5]” who have their own subjects and are “loved by them [6].” According to Machiavelli, principalities governed like the Turkish empire are difficult to conquer because outsiders cannot manipulate elements within it to support an invasion. An enemy attempting to conquer absolutist principalities must therefore defeat its army in the field before it can assume control whereas an enemy trying to conquer a principality that features an independent nobility will have an easier time conquering it because it can use the nobles against the ruler.

Once conquered; however, it is much easier to maintain control over an absolutist principality whereas it is much harder to maintain control over principalities that feature multiple independent power centers. This seems logical since principalities with a powerful nobility will have leaders with their own troops who can resist an invasion even if the ruler falls. While principalities governed by absolutist rulers will have no other power centers that can resist an invasion once the ruler is defeated because no other groups within it have been allowed to accumulate the power to do so.

Applying these ideas to the Muslim world, one can see how its absolutist political institutions made it more prone to conquest and colonization once the West was able to develop military tactics and technology that the Muslim world could not match. Once European armies defeated the absolutist rulers of the Muslim world there were no independent power centers that could oppose them. As such, one of the first and most basic lessons today’s Muslims can learn from Machiavelli is that their absolutist political institutions made it easier for Europeans to conquer and colonize them and the continuing prevalence of such political institutions continues to make the Muslim world vulnerable to conquest.

Machiavelli also discusses the various ways that rulers acquire and maintain power. One tactic that rulers often use is to form a client relationship with a foreign power to obtain the support they need to either seize or maintain their power. Machiavelli believed that relying on the favor of a foreign power leads to instability because it makes rulers dependent on the “goodwill and fortune of those who have elevated them [7].” Instead, Machiavelli states that rulers must have their own armies, loyal only to them, and must come to power exclusively by this power rather than using foreign troops [8]. Dependence on foreign military assistance is therefore viewed as a fatal weakness by Machiavelli, one that will often lead to the demise of the ruler. The history of the Muslim world confirms Machiavelli’s views.

For example, the only branch of the Hashemite dynasty installed by the British to have survived past its infancy is the one that was able to develop an alliance with local Bedouin and Circassian tribes that gave it the independent military power necessary to ensure its survival. Neither dynasty in Egypt nor Iraq was able to do so, much to their regret. The current leaders of both Iraq and Afghanistan are in the process of learning this lesson as well since neither can rely on their militaries to ensure their power. Their inability to develop military power independent from the United States will likely result in the disintegration of Iraq within the next few decades and the development of an entirely new government in Afghanistan that, at best, will have to share power with the Taliban in the near future.

This illustrates that those Muslim rulers that are reliant on foreign military forces to maintain their regimes should be wary. Machiavelli would argue that you are setting yourselves up for failure and conquest. The Arab nations of the Persian Gulf are particularly vulnerable in this regard. Their reliance on foreign military contractors (a.k.a. mercenaries) to ensure their advanced imported arms remain operable is a serious vulnerability. As is their general reliance on the military power of the United States to ensure their rule. This makes their continued power subject to the whims and fortunes of the US instead of placing their fate in their own hands.

Machiavelli’s views on mercenaries [9] and the use of foreign military power highlight a general animosity towards reliance on the aid of others, instead, he seems to understand what common sense also dictates: that a nation must be able to rely on itself when it comes to matters of defense. As such, those Muslim rulers that have outsourced this responsibility to a foreign power or are dependent for such matters on the goodwill of another nation must begin to seriously reconsider their policies.

This extends to those Muslim nations that remain dependent on outside suppliers to meet their most advanced defense requirements. The same logic that dictates a ruler must have resort to his own army and cannot be dependent on foreign troops to maintain his power also extends to the conclusion that no military can claim to be powerful until its armaments are manufactured within territories under its direct control. The Muslim world’s dependence on imported weapons is therefore a serious military vulnerability that impacts its ability to prevent the conquest of Muslim nations. Again, the historical record of the Muslim world and its string of military defeats and territorial contraction over the past few centuries confirms this view.

In addition to discussing military matters, Machiavelli also discusses internal political matters. He suggests that there are three main interests a ruler must balance. The people, the nobles [10], and the army [11]. According to Machiavelli, the people are easy to appease because they ask only not to be oppressed while the nobles and the army are the most difficult to placate because the nobles actively seek to oppress the people while the army constantly demands to go to war and will often resort to violence to get its way [12]. In today’s parlance, we would replace the word nobles with the word elite, but the same concept applies.

The political and economic institutions of the Muslim world are dominated by an elite comprised mostly of its military and large landowning class that have concentrated power in the hands of an extremely small elite which often uses its power to maintain violent control over their people. As such, the rulers of the Muslim world have traditionally come from and served the interests of what Machiavelli would call the nobles and the army. He would likely disapprove of this power structure because he suggests that the first thing a ruler must do to secure power is to seek the friendship of the people as he correctly understands that power is ultimately derived from them [13].

The instability of the Muslim world and the weakness of so many of its governments can therefore be directly attributed to power structures that intentionally marginalize the masses they govern. This is particularly frustrating because Machiavelli states that all a ruler has to do to maintain order is make sure he executes people only when there is good cause to do so and abstain from disturbing the property or women of his subjects [14]. This is consistent with his statement that the only thing people really want is to not be oppressed.

Sadly, most of the rulers of the Muslim world have been unable to meet these depressingly low standards. Their inability to check their greedy impulses to steal and enrich themselves and their willingness to use violence against their subjects without proper justification has resulted in the severe oppression of their people. Instead of trying to maintain the friendship of their people as Machiavelli advises, the rulers of the Muslim world have sided with their elites (nobles) and soldiers. This has led to the instability and weakness that has plagued the Muslim world for centuries.

Machiavelli states that one of the key institutions necessary to ensure good laws and governance is a parliament since it alleviates rulers of the need to pick sides with either the people or the nobles. He explains that the nobles and people can use this institution to govern together, stating there is “no better or more sensible institution, nor one more effective in ensuring the security of the king and the kingdom [15].” Although many Muslim nations have governments featuring legislative assemblies, most of them are not adequately empowered to govern their nations as most power is concentrated in the hands of an executive position or within a military/landowner/tribal oligarchy of some sort.

As such, the political structure of most Muslim societies concentrates power in the hands of people from its elite and/or military class in a manner that has undermined its ability to develop effective representative bodies, the very institution highlighted as being key to a well-governed state and the longevity of the ruler.

Based on their complete disregard for Machiavelli’s advice, the author can only conclude the rulers of the Muslim world have yet to read The Prince. This is unfortunate because they could have benefited from his observations. The fragility of so many Muslim governments proves that these rulers have ignored the advice discussed above to their great sorrow. Those rulers that have survived thus far should not fool themselves into thinking they can ignore the lessons of history either. They have not survived due to their own prowess but rather because fortune has favored them [16].

Eventually, fortune will turn as it always does and, given their refusal to adhere to the sensible ideas discussed above, they will likely find themselves unprepared. The author humbly suggests they take some time to read what their former colleagues in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and far too many other Muslim nations ignored to their detriment or they are likely to suffer similar fates.

This article was originally posted here, re-published on TMV with the author’s permission.


[1] Machiavelli, Niccolo, Trans by George Bull. The Prince. Penguin Books. London. 1961.

[2] Id. at 5.

[3] Id. at 13-14.

[4] Id. at 14.

[5] Id. at 14.

[6] Id. at 13-15.

[7] Id. at 20.

[8] Id. at 20-26.

[9] Id. at 39.

[10] Id. at 30-33.

[11] Id. at 60-61

[12] Id. at 31; 60-61; 65.

[13] Id. at 32-33.

[14] Id. at 53.

[15] Id. at 59.

[16] Id. at 20-21.

Advertise on TMV



Advertise on TMV