This essay constitutes a brief survey of conceptions and representations of just governance among Shiʿi communities and in the writings of Shiʿi scholars, philosophers, and men of letters in pre-modern times. It covers the period from the lifetimes of the Imams to the early modern era, and traces the intellectual and literary responses among Shiʿi writers to changing historical circumstances, including the onset of the occultation, the growth and geographical spread of Shiʿi communities, the growing independence of the Shiʿi ulema, the rise of Shiʿi or pro-Shiʿi dynasties, and the establishment of Imami Shiʿism in Iran in the Safavid period. The essay’s principal purpose in this issue is to provide context and background for the more focused articles that follow. These articles consider the extent to which and ways in which themes treated in the pre-modern Imami literature contributed to specific instances of constitutionalism in Persianate societies.
The mirror for princes known as the Naṣīḥat al-mulūk of al-Māwardī, probably a tenth-century text, is replete with references to sources identified by the author as “Indian”. A large number of these texts also appear in the so-called Waṣiyyat Arisṭāṭālīs li-l-Iskandar; some examples find parallels in Kalīla wa-Dimna and Bilawhar wa-Būḏāsaf. These coincidences raise several possibilities: first, that the author’s “Indian” source represents a work of Indic background, translated from Sanskrit or another Indian language into Arabic, probably at the time when the Barmakids were sponsoring such translations in significant numbers; secondly, that it was rendered from an Indian language into Middle Persian in the Sasanian period and from that language into Arabic in the early centuries of the Islamic era; thirdly, that the text was composed in a non-Indian language, probably Middle Persian, and acquired a “forged” Indian genealogy in a parallel to the numerous spurious Greek attributions (a category that would subsequently include the pseudo-Aristotelian testament). The article addresses these three possibilities, and, on the basis of textual and contextual considerations, suggests that at the present stage of research, it is the second that seems most likely.