The Prince and the Prophet: Providence, Power, and Politicking

February 29, 2024

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

Niccolò Machiavelli (d. 1527 AD), an Italian Renaissance diplomat, is most noted for The Prince, but his real masterpiece is his Discourses. Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a treatise to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Duke of Urbino, and it was not published until five years after Machiavelli’s death. Machiavelli wrote the treatise hastily because he was trying to seize the opportunity to reunite Italy through the power that the Medici family had in religion and politics.[1]

For Machiavelli, politics is an art rather than a science,[2] even though he is called the founder of modern political science. The Prince reads somewhat like a how-to manual for a world of half-truths and deception. One quasi-spiritual element to Machiavelli’s politics is the role of Fortuna. Fortuna is the goddess of fortune and the personification of luck in Roman mythology. For Machiavelli, Fortuna is a metaphor for the aspects of politics that are outside of human control. Fortuna is the judge for half of our actions.[3] In this sense, politics is not a natural science that can be easily observed and repeated.

Machiavelli depicts Fortuna as a fickle woman who favours bold, audacious risk-takers.[4] She is not straightforward – she is like a torrential river that has periods of calm and periods of flooding.[5] No matter how powerful a prince is, Fortuna remains a goddess above mere men, and she can crush a prince for her own amusement. Hence, for Machiavelli, the art of politics is not to be meticulous and tedious, but to seduce Fortuna, excite her with risks and surprises, and even beat her into submission – if she allows it.[6]

Earlier, we discussed the role of providence in Greek and Islamic thought. Providence is the result of God’s active will, as He sets order in the creation and intervenes in our affairs. In empirical and teleological arguments for God’s existence, there is a focus on His role as a designing and intervening agent. In theology, God disperses signs of Himself in the creation, He sends representatives, He sets trials, and He gives rewards and punishment. Fortuna is similarly cosmic and providential, but she is not necessarily the author of a goodly, masterful plan. While God’s signature is order, Fortuna is an agent of chaos. She is not a judge for good and evil – she will empower anyone who promises a thrilling adventure. Again, Machiavelli’s Fortuna is not a real goddess, but a literary device for the omen that the courageous reap. Fortuna is not exactly like destiny (qadar), which plays a prominent role in Islam, but she is comparable to it as an unseen force that works outside of the politicking of man.

Different schools of Islamic theology have different views on destiny in general. In the Umayyad period, there was the Qadariyya, which largely rejected predestination and gave humans absolute free will; and there was the Jabriyya, which largely rejected free will and believed that humans were controlled by predestination. These were nascent schools whose views later matured and developed, consolidating in the broader and more permanent Ash’ari, Mu’tazili, Maturidi, and Imami schools. Most Muslim deliberations on destiny are chicken-or-egg discussions related to human accountability and God’s justice (i.e., does God force the hand that sins, and then punish it? can there truly be free will if God knows and/or predestines our choices before creating us? Etcetera).

What is the role of destiny in Islamic politics? Needless to say, if one accepts the Qadari position, then destiny is not part of the equation in Islamic politics; and if one accepts the Jabri position, then all rulers can justify their actions as being in accordance with God’s will. The Quran says that God “gives sovereignty (mulk) to whomever He pleases” (3:26). This can be interpreted as either God’s divine mandate (His institution for divinely-appointed persons), or it really means that God chooses the temporal rulers on Earth, good and bad. The reason why the former interpretation is the stronger one is because the same expression can first be found in 2:247, where God selects Saul to be the king of the Israelites due to his knowledge and prowess (rather than his wealth). These verses may infer that God selects whom He pleases, be it Adam, Saul or Muhammad (s), despite the clamour of naysayers. Similarly, the Quran says that God bequeaths the Earth to whomever He pleases (7:128), but it clarifies that God’s righteous servants are the inheritors of the Earth (21:105). Thus, I would argue that these verses should not be used to validate everyone with a sceptre. After all, even Pharaoh came to temporal power. Yes, God allowed that to occur (cue the chicken-or-egg discussions), but that did not make his rulership justifiable in any way. As mentioned in previous chapters, providence has a role in the Quran in defining who is to be in charge of society. However, in the absence of providential arguments, one must fall back onto other qualifications of leadership.

During the Renaissance, interest in paganism was revived, and Machiavelli pays more homage to pagan ideals throughout his writings than Christian ones. He was not a reactionary, as he identified inherent weaknesses in Roman paganism that led to their adoption of Christianity, but he was a Roman republican at heart who believed that Christian pietism sapped away the emphasis on strength, heroism, and earthly life in ancient times. Machiavelli was born in the wake of Europe’s so-called Dark Ages, and Rome in comparison was the emblem of a golden age.

According to Plato, the soul has three main virtues: wisdom, courage, and moderation (temperance, restraint).[7] This was further echoed by Cicero, who argued that rulers are successful only if they are morally good.[8] For Machiavelli, this is unrealistic, because rulers are obliged to use cruelty judicially to hold onto power.[9] He replaces the cardinal virtues with a more masculine virtu – a ruler must be ruthless and cunning, like a lion and a fox, to attract lady luck, Fortuna. A ruler must sometimes be inhumane and irreligious. This is the harsh but necessary reality; otherwise, catastrophe will engulf the political space, according to Machiavelli. He is advocating for a strongman, at least initially, before strong institutions can be established.

For Machiavelli, in a time of chaos and civil war, one cannot immediately establish a republic. A pragmatic, ruthless prince is needed to terrorize people into peace – this is what Machiavelli is most known for. A prince must act as an “armed prophet”[10] to achieve victory, or else people will only fear and submit to one more ruthless than him. For Machiavelli, it is better to be feared than to be loved, if one cannot be both.[11] Fear is a better motivator than love. The ideal, however, is to be both loved and feared.

As a side note, God is introduced in the first chapter of the Quran as simultaneously “the Beneficent, the Merciful” and the “Master of the Day of Requital” – thus, He is a Lord that is to be loved for His grace and feared for His judgment. Among the Prophet Muhammad’s titles are “the cheerful warrior” (al-dahuk al-qattal) because he was comely with the believers and fierce with the disbelievers. He was simultaneously known for his tender character and his bravery, leading both a community of believers and numerous military expeditions. Isaiah 42, a biblical passage that is often identified with the Prophet Muhammad (s), speaks of a man that is both a meek servant and a warrior. This is a difficult balance to strike for any man.

Machiavelli gives the example of Agathocles of Syracuse, a Greek tyrant who achieved stability over Sicily, but left a long trail of blood in the process. Agathocles rose to power by inviting his rivals to a feast and then slaughtering them all.[12] Agathocles failed to transform his subjects into citizens capable of self rule. His ruthlessness gained him infamy rather than glory. Machiavelli also mentions Cesare Borgia,[13] a cardinal and mercenary leader that was contemporary to him. Borgia gained power by virtue of his father, Pope Alexander VI, rather than by acquiring it by his own merit. Although Borgia was relentless, he failed to create a unified Italy, and he failed to block the ascension of his rival, Pope Julius II. Machiavelli provides these accounts to deter his readers from following in their footsteps.

The Prophet of Islam was unlike Agathocles and Borgia. When he invited his rivals for a feast at Da`wat Dhul `Ashira, he only invited them to Islam and did not murder them. He did not gain his power by virtue of other people – although he came from a noble family, he was himself an orphan, and he started his ministry with only his wife and his young cousin by his side. In less than two decades, he achieved unquestioned power and stability over the Arabian Peninsula, a vast region that was then embroiled in decades of war and tribalist division. The domain of his caliphal beneficiaries quickly became the largest that the world had ever seen. Liberal estimates of the total number of opponents killed in the Prophet Muhammad’s wars put the number in the hundreds.[14] This is even with the higher estimates of those killed in the Invasion of Banu Qurayza; and it must be remembered that most of his major wars were defensive. Many of his expeditions had no fighting at all. The Prophet Muhammad (s) then pardoned and accepted his rivals into his religion. Muslims believe that he achieved all of this by merit, intellect, and providence.

The Prophet Muhammad (s) had to take many strategic risks: he condemned idolatry and the tribal hierarchy from the onset of his mission, he challenged contemporary experts in the Arabic language, he made bold claims and introduced new religious concepts, he sustained physical attacks against himself and his community, he fled his hometown with his followers, he established a city state and a constitution, he quarrelled with priests and rabbis, and he challenged the superpowers of his time. He did not do this to seduce Fortuna or gain riches – he effectively lived a life of voluntary poverty. He started with virtually nothing and died with few assets to his name. Yet, he achieved the love of his followers, the fear of his opponents, and supreme authority over his subcontinent.

A divergence between Islam and Machiavelli is that the latter strips the moralistic concepts of legitimacy and goodness from rulership. For Machiavelli, “the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power” – or maintenance of the state.[15] The state then establishes its institutions and develops its citizens. Machiavelli perhaps inherits a Christian understanding that humans are essentially evil by nature, and he bases his work on this assumption. He uses selective examples of ruthless princes from history to support his conclusions.

Unfortunately, many Muslim rulers throughout history were indeed Machiavellian. The Umayyads established themselves through power politics, religious manipulation, strategic alliances, betrayals, and centralized control. While this worked politically in the short term, they only ruled Damascus for eighty-three years, and their rule was fraught with civil strife, due to the grievances that their politics created. Therefore, even if we ignore ethical concerns, we must question if the strategy outlined in The Prince is sensible advice for a shrewd politician.

For every brutal prince that Machiavelli cites, there is a prince that acquired or held power through different approaches. Cyrus the Great’s benevolence and tolerance toward the diverse cultures and religions under his rule contradict Machiavelli’s emphasis on fear and coercion as tools of control. After converting to Buddhism, Ashoka the Great adopted non-violence as his guiding principle – this was a significant departure from the militaristic policies of his predecessors. Pericles governed Athens during its Golden Age, and he won the loyalty of his people by promoting cultural advancement rather than fear. History can be used to prove paradoxical positions, and so it is not a perfect criterion for how a prince must act to acquire power.

The paragons of leadership in the Quran do not employ the “ends justify the means” model. Whether it is Dhul Qarnayn, Saul, David, or Solomon, the Quran does not depict any ruthlessness in the leaders it endorses. There is an emphasis on justice (11:85, 21:78, 38:21-26), restraint and righteousness (5:8). The Bible’s depiction of King David is much crueller, but these brutal stories are left out of the Quran and are seen as a calumny against a great prophet. On the other hand, the Sunni hadith literature beckons believers to be patient with corrupt rulers, to advise them privately and to abstain from revolting against them. Still, these instructions do not exonerate a ruler – they are designed to limit schism as much as possible.

A popular online meme says, “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”[16] There are exceptions to this, but it takes immense fortitude for a man to rise in the midst of chaos and establish justice. The Prophet Muhammad (s) was not raised by wolves like Machiavelli’s favoured Romulus, but the Arabia that the Prophet came out of was the feral product of the Basus War and the Fijar War. From a young age, he was interested in social justice, and he was a signatory on the League of the Virtuous. The main criticisms of the Prophet Muhammad (s) today revolve around his domestic life and aspects of his law – otherwise, we see nothing approximating fratricide in his biography. Muslims attribute part of his success to providence, but all in all, his example shows that one does not need to be ruthless or relentless to achieve what he achieved. For Muhammad (s), there was no Fortuna or luck: there was only God, the devil, and free will.

What complicates the use of Muhammad (s) as a political paragon (and, in extension, Saul, David, Solomon, and others) is that he had multiple roles. As a prophet, he was not a mere prince, and thus he was not driven purely by political calculus. Him not murdering his rivals at a feast may have been a decision made for purposes of guidance rather than purely politics. His boldness too may have been a prophetic duty rather than solely a political one. While it is true that an Islamic paradigm combines ethics with politics, there is a distinct difference between a sovereign who receives revelation, and has roles outside of rulership, and one who does not.

It is clear in the Quran that the sovereign is not the agent of rectification, but God Himself is, and God conditioned His succour on the people changing themselves (13:11). As the popular Arabic expression goes, “As you are, so shall your leaders be” (kama takunu yuwalla `alaykum). Fundamental change starts with decisions made by free agents at the grassroots level. Even then, the Islamic thesis is not a fundamentally political one. It encourages all people, relative to their own responsibilities and positions of power, to be ethical. Oppression is worse than slaughter (2:191), wars must be proportional and never transgressive (2:190); and while full preparations must be made against the enemy, peace must be made when the enemy desires peace (8:60-61). These pronouncements are anything but ruthless. While not primarily a political document, the Quran addresses the Medinan polis and a universal audience, arrogating utmost authority and demanding utmost obedience.

The Prince had a very specific goal in mind – to appease Lorenzo de’ Medici with a kind of “job application”. That is its context and that is its limit. He was resuscitating his own political career and giving his prescription for a very particular set of circumstances. Therefore, Machiavelli was not looking to produce a universal work on the axioms of politics. In a way, Machiavelli’s Fortuna prevents his politics from being an exact science, because she represents the unknown, luck, and pagan chaos – these are unscientific forces that represent gaps in political theory. That does not mean that we cannot glean lessons from his political worldview, it just means that we must keep his aims in mind. As is seen in his Discourses, Machiavelli has a broader and maturer vision for his prince. He needed our attention first, and he succeeded in getting it.

[1] Quentin Skinner, The Foundation of Modern Political Thought, pp. 117-118.

[2] Although Machiavelli does not say this explicitly, he says that a ruler needs to be a lion and a fox, that he must be adaptable, and that a ruler must focus on practical wisdom and skill rather than an adherence to fixed scientific principles.

[3] Machiavelli, The Prince, Translated by James B. Atkinson, pp. 361

[4] Ibid, pp. 369-371.

[5] Ibid, pp. 363.

[6] Ibid, pp. 253, 255-257, 363, 369.

[7] Plato, The Republic, Book 4,

[8] Cicero, De Officiis, Book 1 Moral Goodness,*.html

[9] Machiavelli, The Prince, Translated by James B. Atkinson, pp. 273.

[10] Ibid, pp. 149.

[11] Ibid, pp. 273.

[12] Ibid, pp. 179.

[13] Ibid, pp. 183-185.

[14] Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, Muhammad: A Prophet for All Humanity, pp. 132.



Published Date: February 29, 2024
Type: Essay

Bilal Muhammad

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.
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