Counsel for Kings: Wisdom and Politics in Tenth-Century Iran. By LOUISE MARLOW. 2 vols. Edinburgh Studies in Classical Arabic Literature. Edinburgh: EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016. Pp. xv + 344 (vol. 1), viii + 384 (vol. 2). $220, [pounds sterling]150
Louise Marlow has written a fascinating and probing study of one of the earliest Arabic mirrors for princes. She greatly advances our understanding of not just the early tenth-century Nasihat al-muluk or even of the genre, but of the general eastern Iranian, Samanid intellectual and political context in which the text was produced. There have been a number of important studies in recent years on this region and its intellectual, social, and political currents (e.g., by Bilal (Mali, Arezou Azad, Etienne de la Vaissiere, and Deborah Tor, among others) but it still is badly in need of studies that meticulously document the possibilities and constraints created by the contexts in which authors worked. Its Arabic literary and intellectual heritage, in particular, requires much more study, and Marlow has now added enormously to our understanding.
The origins of the text and its attribution--surely incorrectly--to the great Shafi'I jurist al-Mawardi (d. 450/1058) are the first problems that Marlow must tackle. This attribution has long come under fire, not least because none of the period's authoritative biobibliographers refers to a Nasihat al-muluk among the works of al-Mawardi (though, as Marlow points out, medieval titles pose a host of problems). Nor does careful reading of the lone manuscript witness to the text support this attribution (100 fols. within a late sixteenth-century three-part majmu'a held in Paris, BnF, MS Arabe, No. 2447). Marlow notes that the title and author given in the manuscript are merely provided by a copyist (possibly from an exemplar, but still hors de texte), but the most convincing argument against attributing the text to al-Mawardi turns out to be the way in which the text makes the most sense if read as responding to the specific situation of eastern Iran, and especially Balkh, of the first part of the fourth/tenth century. For these reasons, then, Marlow refers to the author throughout her book as "Pseudo-Mawardi." Though rather clunky, it seems the best option.
Marlow was afforded what few authors today receive: ample space--two volumes!--to roll out her arguments. This allows for unusually detailed comparisons that shed light on the specific context, choices...