Islamic political thought/Nasir al-Din Tusi

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Content for Lecture:[edit | edit source]

1. Biography of Nasir al-Din Tusi

• Though no reading is required for this portion of the lecture, visiting the web links cited throughout the lecture and in the works cited list may give a more comprehensive look at the life of Tusi.

2. The Philosophy of Nasir al-Din Tusi

• The two required readings listed below are to be read before the lecture in order to familiarize the student with the basics of Tusi’s philosophy and to have the students read one of his primary texts which much of his philosophy comes from (two other primary texts by Tusi are recommended, but not required).

Required Readings:[edit | edit source]

Antony Black’s The History of Islamic Political Thought (pg. 145-153)

Nasir al-Din Tusi’s The Nasirean Ethics

Recommended Reading List:[edit | edit source]

Akhlaq-i-Nasri by Nasir al-Din Tusi (another work of his ethics).

The Paradise of Submission: A Medieval Treatise on Ismaili Thought by Nasir al-Din Tusi.

Course Goals:[edit | edit source]

1. Understanding basic biographical background on Nasir al-Din Tusi.

- Knowing his background with religious groups, since this may help explain what influenced some of his viewpoints.

- Learning what other accomplishments he made apart from his philosophy, especially in areas of math and science.

2. Understanding the basics of his philosophical works

- Grasping his view of human nature, and how his view differs from his contemporaries.

- Understanding Tusi’s concept of human freedom.

- Understanding his political philosophy on how a citizen should be judged by the state, as well as the social classes within that state.

- Understanding how the concept of love fits into his philosophy and how his ideas of love and religion fit into his idea of a virtuous city.

Lecture:[edit | edit source]

Nasir al-Din Tusi was born in Tus (present day Iran) in 1201 C.E. He was born into a Shi’a home, with his father being a well known jurist in the twelfth Imam school ( Tusi gained a scholarly reputation studying math, science, and philosophy. Tusi eventually joined the services of the Assassins, an extremist Isma’ili Shi’a group that controlled castles in Alamut and other parts of today’s Syria in the Middle Ages, gaining their name from being the first group recognized for systematically using political murder ( The Isma’ili people are a sect of the Shi’a community, representing the second largest sect of the Shi’a, with the majority of Shi’a belonging to the sect known as the Twelvers. After joining he became a highly respected member of the Isma’ili court ( While serving on the court, he continued his studies in many fields and began to document his work on the field of ethics. While living in the city of Alamut, Mongol forces invaded and took over, kicking out the Assassins and claiming the castle where he was living in 1256 C.E. ( Instead of fleeing or being dispelled from the castle, Tusi’s intelligence was recognized by the Mongols and he was offered the positions of both scientific and religious advisor to the Mongol invaders. Tusi accepted this offer, and did most of his scholarly work in this position ( Tusi also received this position because the Mongols seemed to serve as Shi’ite liberators, giving prominent and high status positions across the empire to many Shi’ites giving them power when they had long been a minority in the shadows of Sunni rule (Black 145).

His work in the field of astronomy was revolutionary, as he fairly accurately produced a table with mapped out planetary movement, along with a catalogue of the stars ( Along with making great strides in the scientific field, his presence is also felt in the field of mathematics. One of these contributions was treating the mathematical field of trigonometry as a separate mathematical discipline, which is the way it is now commonly taught ( He is also responsible for the discovery and use of the sine formula for plane triangles ( Near the end of his life, he also did much work important work with scholastic philosophy, as well as writing many commentaries on Greeks works of math and philosophy ( Nasir al-Din Tusi died in 1274 C.E. in present day Baghdad.

Though Tusi had many achievements and works worthy of discussion, the rest of this lecture will be dedicated to understanding his political and ethical philosophy. As Antony Black sees it, Tusi’s political philosophy is a “synthesis of Aristotelian and Iranian ideas” (Black 147). If one has read a lot of Muslim classical political thought, one may realize that most Muslim political thinkers of the time had a fairly negative view on human nature, much like the famous view of Thomas Hobbes that life is “nasty, brutish, and short”. Nasir al-Din Tusi, on the other hand, takes a different approach, viewing human nature and human action in a much more positive and uplifting light. Tusi praises the nature of humanity, claiming it to be one of Gods greatest creations and the noblest of all things in existence (Black 147). Tusi believed that the nature of a human was neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Instead, humans are merely stuck in the middle of both of these extremes, and in turn choose their own path of life due to the concept of “human freedom” (Black 147).

Tusi also claims that one can find proof of human freedom by looking at the diversity of humankind, claiming that this diversity shows how all humans have free will (Black 147). With all humans having a choice in their path, theoretically all humans naturally starts as equals. Tusi backs this claim when he states that “natural bodies, as bodies, are equal with one another in rank, none having nobility or virtue above the other” and share “equality in potentiality” (Tusi 43-44). It is important to establish this fact about Tusi because ideas about human nature are one of the main foundations that political theories are built upon. For example, if a certain thinker believes that human nature is inherently evil, that thinker may be in favor of harsh government to straighten out human actions. Though Tusi is very vocal about a human having the freedom to choose his own path, he still believes that humans cannot be perfect in their actions without the guidance of God and virtuous rulers (Black 148).

An important part of any political philosophy is how a citizen should be judged within a sovereign state. In the eyes of Tusi, human action in society can be based off either nature or convention, with nature referring to more universal components such as insight or common sense and convention referring to divine customs and laws of a society (Black 147). In what Tusi describes as his ideal political society, a great deal of its success depends on social organization and the co-operation of citizens in the economy and other crafts. With these things in place only three things can affect justice in the political society of Tusi; divine commandment, money, and human arbitrators (Black 148-149). Tusi’s faith in the success of a community government makes sense when you take into consideration his views of human nature and his faith in the human good.

Tusi makes the claim that love is one of the biggest factors of life in his ideal political society, with love being more central to the philosophy of Tusi than any other Islamic social theorist of the time (Black 149). When discussing the religious aspect of his ideal political society, his Imam Shi’ite background creeps into his works. Tusi makes the claim that the ideal and “virtuous city” will come when the whole world bows and down and associates themselves under the Imam (Black 151). His grouping of social status also have this highly religious influence, claiming that people of lower status groupings are not people of the faith and “image worshipers”, with people of faith and “virtuous philosophers” having the highest status in the society of Tusi (Black 151). Though these statements could be viewed as Shi’ite Muslim rhetoric put into action, it makes sense that his utopia would consist of classical Imami Shi’ite thought when looking at his life and beliefs. With that being said, his positive views on human nature, human freedom, and the possibilities of a community government were refreshing and new in the world of classic Muslim social theory.

Discussion Questions[edit | edit source]

1. What did Tusi contribute to fields such as math and science?

2. Explain Tusi’s view of human nature, and describe how it may differ from his contemporaries.

3. What is Tusi’s rationale for human diversity?

4. How does the concept of love fit into Tusi’s philosophy?

5. If Tusi’s ideal society was in existence how would human action be judged as wrong or right? How would that society be virtuous in Tusi’s eyes?

Works Cited:[edit | edit source]

Black, Antony. The History of Islamic Political Thought. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Tusi, Nasir al-Din. The Nasirean Ethics. London: Tinling and Co., 1964., biographical work done by Dr. A. Zahoor., biographical work done by J.J O'Connor and E.F. Robertson from the University of St Andrews, Scotland., historical work on the Assassins by Anthony Campbell.