Natural Inequality of Men: The Idea and its Implication in Perso-Islamic Thought

The denial of the ultimate unity of human beings has a lasting presence in the history of the Perso-Islamicate thought. As such, it has conceptually contributed to a political ideology that is inegalitarian, and to a political reality that is dictatorial. Democratic thought derives individual rights from moral autonomy: it conceives of a common/universal human nature which is rational, and, an end in itself. In result, it credits all citizens with equal political rights – in terms of determining principles of laws and participating in the exercise of power; in terms of the equality of all in front of the law. Likewise, democratic thought ascribes equal rights of addressing the political assemblies (that is, freedom of speech) to all citizens. On the contrary, strong currents in Iranian mystical and philosophical thought are wary of the notion of universal human nature: they repudiate the rational freedom of the many, and warn against the political equality of all. In other words, the belief in a natural hierarchy among people’s intellectual faculties has been historically translated into a nondemocratic political verdict according to which those with inferior shares of intellect – including, allegedly, women and the multitude – are naturally in need of the Wiseman’s custodianship. The residents of the city, therefore, cannot have equal rights of citizenship: rather than being citizens, the many is but subject of the few’s governance in the closed society. My paper studies the deep-seated doctrine of the ultimate disunity of men as surfaced in the philosopher Sadr al-Din Shirazi (1572-1640) and the mystic Jalal al-Din Molavi (1207-1273). The goal is to see how – their differences notwithstanding – these thinkers share the view that men cannot have equal rights to political power, and that despotism is the noble method of statecraft.