• Omar Imady

In the Circles of Kings

Arab leaders at the Second Afro-Arab summit in Sirte, Libya, 2010 - AFP

The works of classical Muslim scholars are replete with references to the dangers associated with proximity to those in power. Iyyakum wa-al-dukhul ‘ala al-salatin, “Never enter the palaces of sultans”, is a common heading found in many early works on morals and proper behaviour. Some, like al-Suyuti, authored complete treatises on the subject. To seek to be close to a king, we are told, is to be invariably compromised. Rather than pursue such proximity, religious figures should themselves be pursued for advice, and even then they should be reluctant to provide this advice since it is clearly a waste of time. In one account, we are told that the Sultan of Bukhara sent his messenger to al-Bukhari, the famous compiler of prophetic traditions, to invite him to recite his works in the palace. The response of Bukhari summarizes the classical approach: “Tell the sultan, I will not degrade the sanctity of knowledge, nor visit the palaces of sultans. If you want something from me, visit me at the mosque or at my home.” Some were even more extreme in their emphatic insistence that kings were to be avoided: “If they ask you to visit them, even if only to recite a verse from the Quran to them, do not accept.

There were, of course, always exceptions. Reformers who felt that proximity to a powerful figure may result in something positive, an added value that would be impossible to achieve without a powerful patron. And, of course, there were always those who found in such proximity an opportunity for personal gain. As the modern state began to emerge, the exceptions increased, either because of the realization that no reform project could succeed if the modern state was opposed to it, or simply because of the dramatic centralization of power that was taking place, and the transformation of religious scholars into government employees.

In the careers of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) we find fascinating examples of interactions with the leaders of the time. Both tried to co-opt Khdieve Tawfiq, and supported his succession, believing he would enact the reforms they believed in. Once he became the ruler, however, Tawfiq awoke from his reformist fantasy and turned against them. In no time, Afghani was expelled from Egypt. Nor was Afghani more fortunate with Sultan Abd al-Hamid who effectively placed him under house arrest. When told to stop playing with the beads of his masbaha, or string of prayer beads, in the presence of the Sultan, the agitated Afghani responded, “The Sultan plays with the lives of 30 million subjects, and I am not allowed to play with thirty beads?” Abduh’s relationship with Khdeieve Abbas was no different. Abduh would agree to visit him, but he had an acute sense of the ‘dignity’ of that which he represented; far too much of it in the eyes of Abbas who would complain, “He [Abduh] enters my chamber as though he was pharaoh himself!

So much for the distant past. Let us zoom in now on Syria, my personal obsession. Ahmad Kaftaru (1915–2004), the late grand mufti of Syria, is perhaps most famous for being the Muslim scholar who decided to make an alliance with Hafiz al-Asad, long before Asad became the powerful ‘king’ of Syria. This stand infuriated many of Syria’s religious scholars who regarded Asad as an Alawite Ba’thist from rural Latakia (in essence combining everything they hated). Kaftaru’s logic was that Asad was going to be the president no matter what, and that an alliance with him would ensure that Muslim scholars were not entirely marginalized from society. Eventually, most of those who disagreed with Kaftaru, including al-Buti, would emulate his approach and, by the late 1990s, numerous Syrian religious scholars had created some type of alliance with the regime. And it wasn’t just religious scholars. Merchants, technocrats, even philosophers, novelists and poets became part of this peculiar framework.

After completing my studies and returning to Damascus in 1994, I came to know many of these individuals personally. Some were relatives, and others were friends. For reasons not entirely clear to me, they would confide in me their close and private encounters with Syria’s kings, the powerful figures with whom they became associated. Some were content to know the head of a security branch; others were more (or less) fortunate and became associated with a minister or prime minister, or (very rarely) with Asad himself. All had stories to share, as though driven by a cathartic exercise. Their stories, shared over endless cups of tea and cigarettes, could go on for hours, leaving me exhausted and gasping for air. They weren’t interested in my insights, though at times I felt I had to share a few words, words I knew they were far too consumed in their experience to listen to. But I was listening, and learning. Looking back, I think I was silently writing in my head a manual entitled One thousand and one reasons why you should never enter the circles of kings.

Do not attempt to befriend a king

Friendships imply reciprocity, and expectations on an even platform. None of this applies to kings. And if you happen to have been a friend of a king before he became one, abandon all such expectations at the very moment he is crowned. Mustafa Tlas was once a friend of Hafiz al-Asad, but after 1970, Tlas understood that the most he could get away with was joking in the presence of Asad. Maybe he could even tell a few animated stories about leaders Asad didn’t like (e.g. Yasir Arafat), but that’s about it. All the rules that applied to other political figures, applied to Tlas, and one error could send him on a fast train to Syria’s twilight zone. Far more complex was to have been an accomplished person before your king became a king. Tlas could move from friend to entertainer, but what was he to do with the president’s son whom he had known as a child? How do you move from placing a child on your lap to nodding with approval at everything this child, now king, says?

Do not attempt to unfriend a king

Though you are barred from becoming a friend of a king, you must equally understand that once associated with a king, you can’t simply move on. You see, in the eyes of kings, your mere association meant that you benefited from this proximity, in return for which you are for ever indebted. This is not a relationship you can put behind you. Even if you were a minister for a year, a spokesman for a month, or a mere personal barber for a week, that’s it! Life as you previously knew it is over. From now on, you must always conduct yourself in a manner befitting of this relationship. I still remember the late Isam al-Za’im (1940–2007) who was Minister of State for Planning Affairs and, subsequently, Minister of Industry. Not too long after he was encouraged to return to Syria to become Minister of Planning, this genuine reformer, with strong old-school leftist principles, found himself in a nightmarish maze from which there was no escape. When I would visit him at his office, as part of my work at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), he looked as though he was constantly consumed with a very different type of planning than that which his job entailed. The man looked as though he was planning his escape. ‘Have you been to Mexico?’ he would abruptly ask. ‘I taught there for several years, it’s a beautiful place.’ His subsequent position at the Ministry of Industry brought with it more black comedy, and even a temporary hold on his assets. The very man who was at war with corruption now had to clear his own reputation. It took around seven years for al-Zaim’s escape plan to finally succeed, but tragically, it came in the form of a fatal heart attack in December 2007.

Do not speak in the presence of a king

If there is a constant theme to the stories I once heard, it is the fact that kings, all kings, have a genetic disposition to anger. These poor creatures simply can’t help it. It appears to be something they are born with. So, in order to avoid the fits of anger being directed at you, the best possible policy is to say nothing. Anything you say can be misunderstood. If you provide advice, the implication is you know something the king does not know. Do you really think it is possible for you to know something that the king does not? If in doubt, just read the advice Faruq al-Shar’, the man who dedicated his life in service of his country, provided in an interview with al-Akhbar in 2012, and then observe what became of him. I remember, too, a friend once shared with me how he traveled with an important government official. During a meeting with a foreign delegation, a question was asked and, since this important official clearly did not know the answer, my friend made the very unwise decision to provide it. For months, this was his only story. Not so much the actual event, but everything this official did to him after the event. ‘He’s out to get me,’ he would whisper as he inhaled his cigarettes. ‘And my only crime is answering a stupid question!’

Do not remain silent in the presence of a king

Even worse than speaking in the presence of a king is to remain silent when the king expects someone to say something. If the king asks a question, you can’t count on it being rhetorical. It may be, and it may not be. It’s much wiser to say something, but it’s equally wise to avoid sounding intelligent. You certainly don’t want to end up patronizing a king. A close friend loved to share with me how, every time the prime minister asked a question, he deliberately mumbled something incoherent. ‘You have no idea how much he enjoys this. I am certain I am his favourite member of the cabinet!’

And always remember, kings die

This is by far the most difficult to comprehend. You see, even if you have mastered and perfected the art of survival with a king, this very king may die before you, leaving you in the hands of another king who may require and expect a very different art of interaction, and one which you are simply unable to learn fast enough. Driss Basri, the late Minister of Interior under Muhmmad V of Morocco, went from being the second most powerful man in the kingdom to being detained and interrogated on the very same evening that King Muhammad V died. After Hafiz al-Asad died, Abd al-Halim Khaddam was the Interim President of Syria for 36 days, a period, ironically, in which he was almost entirely absent from public events. He had one task on which he was supposed to focus, his real job, which was to ensure the smooth transition of power from father to son.

A relative of mine, gentle and kind-hearted, and light years away from the sensibility of Driss Basri, felt that the whole system had turned against him after Hafiz al-Asad died. He would receive private messages from powerful men warning him that he was about to be arrested. ‘If Asad were still alive, he would have protected me,’ words he would share with me over and over, ‘I gave up everything to serve my country, and this is how they repay me?’ Unable to watch this kind man so sad and depressed, my hopelessly Sufi side got involved. ‘You will find out that your true protector was not Hafiz al-Asad, it was (rather) al-Wahid al-Ahad (God the One, the Unique),’ I would repeat to him. Privately, however, I was truly concerned, often waking up in fear that he was in danger. When they finally left him alone, I made him promise to never, ever, regardless of intention or circumstance, enter the circles of kings again.

*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.


© 2018 Centre for Syrian Studies