Fables taught universal ideals of leadership

“Stories lie deep in our souls. Stories lie so deep at the bottom of our hearts that they can bring people together on the deepest level. When I write a novel, I go into such depths.”
Haruki Murakami

For thousands of years, people have handed down stories from one generation to the next. Almost every story contains a moral lesson to inspire the reader or listener by conveying messages of caring, justice, and striving to be better despite the strife existing in the world; good souls attempt to do their best for the betterment of all. The themes of these stories are remarkably similar all over the world relating to the adventures of humans, the natural environment, and the supernatural world.

A long tradition of preparing princes to rule was the genre of literature known as ‘mirror for princes,’ tales in which animals are the leading characters. These tales were derived from the oral Indian traditions of the Panchatantra (‘The Five Principles’) and Mahabharata, which were written in Sanskrit around the year 200 CE; they were translated into several languages and adapted to local cultures.

One collection of fables is Kalila wa Dimna, in which the moral education of princes is provided through two jackals and a host of other animals who portray “universal human strengths and weaknesses, as well as aspirations for justice and truth” (Spirit & Life Catalogue, p 138). These and other fables were a popular theme for illustrations.

Following his address to the Portuguese Parliament in Lisbon on July 10, 2018, Mawlana Hazar Imam Aga Khan IV opened an exhibition titled Ideals of Leadership: Masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum Collections, hosted at the Parliament building (The.Ismaili).

Mawlana Hazar Imam tours the exhibition Ideals of Leadership: Masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum Collections, hosted at the Parliament building, São Bento Palace in Lisbon, Portugal, on 10 July 2018. Image: The.Ismaili/Mo Govondji

Ideal Governance

The Court of King Solomon, folio attributed to Madhu Khanazad, India, ca. 1600. Image: Aga Khan Museum

In this painting, Solomon is seated on a gold bejeweled throne amidst humans and animals, both real and mythical. Closest to the throne is a row of angels, facing Solomon. The inscription above Solomon states:
In sympathy he was like Jacob, in comeliness like Joseph, in fortitude like John, in sovereignty like Solomon.”

“The use of Old and New Testament figures as examples of virtue is common in Islamic literature due to the high respect and status they enjoyed in Islamic culture at large. To Muslims, as indeed to Jews and Christians, Solomon signifies the perfect image of the ideal king (Ideals of Leadership Catalogue). Similar depictions of Solomon appear in many Safavid illustrated manuscripts, merging the image of the just king with that of a prophet who is close to God (Harvard Art Museum).

Many Mughal princes and emperors sought the advice of sages and mystics for their otherworldly wisdom and detached, impartial guidance.

A Prince Visits a Hermit, painting attributed to ‘Abd al-Samad Shirin Qalam, India, ca. 1585-1590. Image: Spirit & Life Catalogue, Aga Khan Trust for Culture

In this painting titled A Prince Visits a Hermit, the Mughal emperor Akbar (r.1556–1605) “is seated submissively before a solitary  recluse, who lives withdrawn in a cave for a life of religious seclusion and contemplation. According to the emperor’s historian Abu’l-Fazl (d. 1602), it was rumoured in court circles that such a visit had inspired Akbar to adopt a more ascetic lifestyle, recognising that earthly greatness is little compared to the spiritual rewards of existence” (Ideals of Leadership Catalogue).

From the second chapter of the Bustan, by the Persian poet Sa’di (d. ca.1292 ) titled  ‘On Beneficence,’ this painting illustrates the story of a man whose mount fell into a march and he was forced to spend the night there while waiting for help to arrive. In his exasperation, he cursed everyone including the king. When one of the king’s men heard him, he urged the king to kill the man. However, realising what a sorry state the man was in, the king gave him gold, a horse, and a fur coat (Canby, Princes, Poets & Paladins, p 127).

The King who forgave a man who cursed him, Agra, India, ca. 1604. Image: Princes, Poets & Paladins

Knowledge and Learning
Learning the art of calligraphy formed an essential part of royal education. In Mughal India, princes were taught calligraphy and painting by the masters of the court workshops.

Folio from the manuscript of Akhlaq-i Nasir, Lahore, Pakistan, 1590–95. Image: Spirit & Life Catalogue

This miniature shows a young prince being instructed in the art of calligraphy, from a philosophical treatise – Akhlaq-i Nasiri – on ethics, social justice, and politics by the Persian philosopher and scientist Nasir al-Din Tusi (d.1274) (Ideals of Leadership Catalogue).

The original treatise was written about 1235 at the request of Nasir al-Din Abd al-Rahim (d. 1257), the Ismaili Governor of Kuhistan, eastern Iran. The Akhlaq-i Nasiri “is not a manuscript that can be directly illustrated. Instead the team of artists who produced its seventeen paintings focused on concepts introduced in the text such as chivalry or motherly love, and built compositions around these themes.” (Canby, Princes, Poets & Paladins p 124). There did not exist pictorial traditions for this manuscript, therefore, the students were required to create the scenes. By the 1590s, several manuscripts had been produced for Akbar and his nobles, which became prototypes for subsequent illustrators.

Once the princes became proficient in calligraphy, they would be called upon to showpiece specimens demonstrating their skills. This example, written in Persian, comes from the hand of Muhammad Dara Shikoh (1615-1659), the son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (r.1628-1658).

Aga Khan Kuseum
Folio from a Muraqqa‘ (Album) Signed by Muhammad Dara Shikoh, India, ca. 1630 (border 18th century). Image: Aga Khan Museum

Fairness, Justice, and Honour
Abu Muslim (d.755) was a controversial historical personality, instrumental in the downfall of the Umayyads who were succeeded by the Abbasids. Revered by some and feared by others, he had a reputation of being fair and just; many remembered him as a ruler of honour.

Abu Muslim chastises a man for telling tales, folio from the Ethics of Nasir (Akhlaq-e Nasir) by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. Image: Aga Khan Museum

In this scene, when someone seeking to impress Abu Muslim smeared the name of one of Abu Muslim’s enemies, he was met with scorn. Abu Muslim admonished him by saying: ‘… what purpose or advantage will there be in polluting one’s tongue with their honour?’ (Ideals of Leadership Catalogue).

Patronage of Art and Culture
Chinese blue-and-white porcelain as well as other export wares were highly valued at the courts of the Islamic world over centuries, and many rulers established exquisite palace collections, both for show and for use in royal and imperial households.

Base of a water pipe (huqqa),China, 1662-1722.  Aga Khan Museum

This delicately painted vessel, representing a web of international connections, once formed part of a water pipe (huqqa), a smoking device that increasingly became a worldly status symbol among rulers and noblemen of Iran and India from the sixteenth century onwards. The tobacco smoked in it is native to the Americas, and was first transported to India by Europeans in the late 1500s. Soon after, the water pipe was developed by an Iranian physician to the emperor Akbar (r.1556–1605) in an attempt to remove the toxic elements released by tobacco in the smoking process. Indian-style water pipes then came into use in neighbouring regions, and this base was manufactured in China. Its blue glaze was made from cobalt imported into China from Iran (Aga Khan Museum).

Select pieces from the Aga Khan Museum collection were exhibited at various museums around the world. More here.

“…art is a matter of humanity just as much as it is a matter of identity. As the Islamic tradition has reminded us for many centuries, the Divine spark that bestows us our individuality also bonds individuals in a common human family.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam Aga Khan IV
Lisbon, Portugal, 31 March 2019


Ideals of Leadership Catalogue and Booklet
The Path of Princes Catalogue
King Solomon and His Court, Brooklyn Museum
Solomon Enthroned, Harvard Art Museum
Sheila R. Canby, Princes, Poets & Paladins, The British Museum Press, London, 1998

Contributed by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com.

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