Al-Kawakibi was born on July 9, 1855 AD in Aleppo, Syria, to a Syrian mother and a Persian father. He grew up in an environment of reading and knowledge and began his political work as a journalist for al-Furat newspaper. He was appointed in several key political positions, among them the mayor of Aleppo and an imam of one of its mosques. But when he found that his work at the government run newspaper limits his ability to expose corruption and its agents, he began his own newspaper, al-Shahbaa, which was shut down in less than two years for its unbearable content on the people in power.
After all sorts of hindrances, al-Kawakibi traveled east to India and China, then west to the African eastern coasts and finally resided in Egypt which was not under direct Ottoman rule at the time. It was there where he finished writing his most famous book: The Natures of Tyranny.
In the same year that his book was published, al-Kawakibi was assassinated in Cairo on 13 June, 1902, by poison that was put in his coffee. The greatest Arab poets, intellectuals, and scholars from Syria and Egypt attended his funeral, and on his grave the words of Ibrahim Hafez were enscripted:
The following are excerpts from the book that killed its author.
Excerpts from "Tyranny and Glory"
The moment the tyrant sits on his throne and puts his inherited crown over his head, he sees that he was human and has become a god. Then he looks again into himself and sees that in fact he is powerless, for he could not have attained what he had attained without the helpers around him. So he lifts up his gaze to see them saying to him with their eyes: "What is the throne and the crown and the scepter? They are nothing but illusions. Do you think the feathers in your head make you a peacock when you are nothing but a crow? Or do you think the shiney stones on your crown are stars and your head is a sky? Or do you imagine that the embellishments on your chest and shoulders change the fact that you are a chunk of clay from this earth? By God, what enabled you in your position and gave you authority over people's heads is nothing but our sorcery, magic, and our disrespect to our religion and existence, and our treachery to our country and our brothers. So watch out you magnified ant, you revered slime, how you shall live with us!"
The tyrant then looks at the crowds of people assembled, some of them are cheering and praising in his grace, and some are mezmerized and shocked as though they have recently died; but then it crosses his mind that among the silent ones there are highly intelligent individuals speaking to him with their eyes, saying: "we, the people of this nation, have our public affairs which we hold you responsible in accomplishing the way we want and desire, not according to your wants which would oppress us. If you fulfill this duty you shall earn our respect, and if you deceive us, we shall deceive you and you shall get what you deserve. Truly, God's deception is supreme."
At that point, the tyrant returns to his inner thoughts, saying: "the helpers it is! I shall give these servants positions of leadership and add to them an army of rascals to fight those intelligent ones. Without doing this I shall not rule for long the way I please. Instead I would remain shackled by the domain of justice, constantly exposed to questioning; suffering while I'm king. It would be a shame for anyone to accept that when he can choose to be an autocratic, subjugating, compulsive sultan."
The tyrannical government, of course, is tyrannical in all its levels, starting with the supreme tyrant to the policeman, the janitor, and even the street sweeper; each one of them being the lowest of their kind, because low men do not care about dignity and good reputation, for the objective of everything they do is to prove to their master that they are in his image; the abettors of his government, greedy to eat the crumbles wherever they fall from, even if they were crumbles of human beings or pigs, be it of their parents or their enemies. In this way the tyrant is safe from them, and they are safe from him. He shares with them and they share with him. This category of servants ranges in number based on the level of tyranny. The more the tyrant depended on violence the more he needed to enlarge the army of glorifiers who work for him and protect him, and the more he needed to be careful in choosing them from the lowest scum of criminals who don't have the least trace of religion or decency. He would also need to maintain their ranks inversely related to their lowness - the lower they were in manners and character, the higher their position and the closer they are to him. That is why the tyrant's highest vizier must be the most evil in the nation, and who is lesser than him in rank is lesser than him in evil. Hence the ministers and helpers would be ranked in their evil according to their ranks in loftiness and honor in his eyes.
Excerpts from "Tyranny and Religion"
The tyrant doesn't fear religious studies that deal with the Afterlife; matters concerning man and God alone, believing that such studies do not lift off stupidity or blindness. Rather, the anxious ones for knowledge indulge in those studies until their entire lifetime is wasted on them, and their brains are completely full of them, and arrogance has taken from them what it has taken, thus they can no longer see any knowledge but theirs. At that point the tyrant feels safe around such [harmless] men, just as man feels safe around a [harmless] drunkard. And if one of these religious scholars reaches a high status among the general public, the tyrant doesn't squander any means to support him and go along with his way of thinking, pretending to glorify him and then shutting them up with a few bites from the dining table of tyranny. The tyrant also does not fear industrial sciences for its artisans are usually pacifist and have small souls, with little ambition. The tyrant buys them with a little money and glorification. The tyrant also does not fear the materialistic people, because most of them are busy satisfying themselves. He also doesn't fear the mathematicians because most of them are short-sighted.
Excerpts from "Tyranny and Science"
However, the tyrant shakes with fear from the sciences of life, such as theoritical wisdom, reasonable philosophy, eloquent speech, and other similar sciences that enlarge the soul and expands the minds and cognizes man with his rights and how much he's lacking them, and how to demand them, how to get them, and how to preserve them. Among the scholars, the tyrant fears most those who are actively pushing forward to teach people how to speak and how to write eloquently. These most-feared men are referred to in the Quran as the good doers or the repairmen, as He states "The earth will be inherited by the good doers" and "We would not annihilate cities when repairmen live among them." Even though the scholars of tyranny misinterpret the subject of "good" and "repairing" to mean excessive worship, just as they transformed the meaning of the word "corruption" and "destruction" from "destroying the Divine system" to "causing a nuance to the tyrants."
Hence, the tyrant fears the scholars who work hard, who are wise, and who lead others to wisdom; not the hypocritical scholars or those who plough their heads off with so many texts as if they are closed libraries!
The tyrant hates science (knowledge) for its consequences, but also hates it for what it is, because knowledge has authority greater than any king. The tyrant will surely feel degraded whenever he lays eyes on someone who has higher knowledge than himself. A tyrant cannot stand facing a scholar who exceeds him in wisdom. If a tyrant is in dire need for a doctor or an engineer, he chooses the stupid, meek, coaxing one. Based on this rule Ibn Khaldoon said (the coaxing have won), and that is the nature of all arrogant people, if not all people. Based on this nature they seek praise from every poor slug who's not expected to do any good or bad deeds.
From what has preceded we can infer that there is an endless battle between tyranny and knowledge and a continuous struggle: the scholars seek to enlighten the minds and the tyrant struggles to put their light out. Both sides are tugging onto the populace. And who is the populace? They are those who become afraid when they're ignorant, and when ignorant they surrender. They are also those who speak out once they know, and once they speak out they do.
The populace are the strength and the fuel of the tyrant. With them he can rule and reach. When he imprisons them, they applaud his might. When he steals their money, they thank him for keeping them alive. When he insults them, they praise his majesty. When he pits one against the other, they praise his politics. When he squanders their wealth, they say he's generous. When he kills one of them and doesn't disect his corpse, they consider him merciful. When he leads them into possible death, they obey him to avoid punishment. And if one of them complains, the tyrant fights him as if he was fighting an agressor.
What's really happening, however, is that the populace is slaughtering itself with its own hands due to the fear coming from ignorance and stupidity. If ignorance is lifted and the mind is enlightened, fear will be gone, and people will no longer be led towards anything but what's good for them, as it has been said: 'the rational man only serves himself.' At that point the tyrant will have no choice but to retire or become just. So many nations have forced (through their development) the mean tyrant to develop, against his nature, to become a trusted servant who fears accountability; to become a just president who fears revenge; to become a compassionate father who delights in love. This is when the nation will gain a satisfying and pleasing life; a life of relaxation and growth; a life of prosperity and happiness. The president would then gain the greatest of luck, after he had been living the most unpleasant life as a tyrant because he was constantly noticed with hatred and surrounded with dangers, fearing the loss of his presidency as well as his life with the blink of an eye. The tyrant could never see before him who could guide him in what he doesn't know, because the man standing before him, no matter how strong and rational he was, feared him. And when he feared the tyrant, his conscience would be disturbed, which in turn disrupts his thoughts; his opinion would lose focus and he can't reach to the right guidance. And even if he did reach the right guidance, he couldn't express it before inferring the tyrant's opinion first. If the tyrant seemed hard-headed in what he sees, then the man could only agree with him whether it was a wise or unwise opinion. Every advisor who claims to have no fear from the tyrant is a liar. The truth is that honesty never enters the castles of the kings. That's why the tyrant can never benefit from the opinions of others. He lives in darkness, constantly hesitant, living in fear and agony. That is enough to vindicate what he has done from enslaving the people, whom God had created as free men.
The tyrant fears disgruntle from his people more than they fear his power, because his fear comes from his knowledge that he deserves their disgruntle, while their fear comes from ignorance. His fear comes from real impotence, while their fear comes from the illusion of impotence. He fears losing his authority and life, while they fear losing a few bites from plants and a country they wouldn't really miss much. He fears losing everything under the sky of his kingdom, while they only fear losing an unhappy life.
Since most religions were based on the concepts of good and evil, such as light and darkness, the sun and Saturn, the mind and the devil; previous nations have seen that the most harmful thing to human beings is ignorance, and that the most harmful consequences of ignorance is fear. Thus, they created a temple to worship Fear, in order to avoid its harm.
A political writer once said: "I see the palace of the tyrant in every era as the temple of fear itself: the all-powerful king is the god, his abetors are the priests, his desk is the holy alter, his pen is the knife, words of glory are the prayers, and the people are the prisoners who give the offerings of fear. Fear is the most important law in human nature. The human being moves closer to perfection at the same rate he moves away from fear. And there is no way to diminish fear or eliminating it except through knowing the truth of the feared; so that man will discover that there was no place for fear to begin with. Thus, if citizens know more about the fact that the tyrant is an impotent man like them, their fear will decimate, and they will then demand their rights."
The people with vision say that the best way to measure the degree of governments' tyranny is to see how much they exaggerate the greatness of their kings, the magnificence of their palaces, the grandoise of their parties and honoring events, the signs of class, and along these lines of camouflaging that kings use to terrorize their citizens instead of using mind and sacrifice. The tyrant resorts to these acts of concealment as the meek resorts to arrogance, the ignorant resorts to religion, the liar resorts to swearing by God, and as the poor resorts to wearing fancy clothes.
In conclusion, tyranny and knowledge are battling opposites. The administration of every tyrant strives to put out the light of knowledge and lock up the people in the darkness of ignorance. And the wise scholars who are sometimes grown in the narrow cracks of the rocks of tyranny, they strive to enlighten people's thoughts. Most likely the tyrant's men persecute the men of knowledge and torture them. The happy among these scholars is the one who can emigrate from his country. This is why all the great prophets, peace be upon them, and most knowledgeable scientists, and noble writers have traveled all over and died as strangers.
It is sufficient testimony that the first word revealed in the Quran was the commandment "read" repeated several times. The greatest favor that God had blessed man with was that "He taught man with the pen; taught him with it what he did not know." Our predecessors understood these words to mean every Muslim's obligation of learning how to read and write. And thus, almost every Muslim could read and write, and knowledge was freely accessible to all, not exclusive to clergymen or nobility as was the case in former nations. Thus knowledge spread in all other nations by receiving it from the Muslims! But, may God fight tyranny, which has sneered upon knowledge until it was turned into a product that he gives or bestows upon the illiterate, and no one dares to object. Yes, may God fight tyranny, which has taken our nation back to illiteracy, and thus its end has finally met its beginning.
Observers have said that the knowledge that Western tyrants fear the most is when people know the truth about freedom being more valuable than life, to know the soul and its glory, to know honor and its greatness, to know rights and how to preserve them, to know tyranny and how to lift it off, to know humanity and what its functions are, and to know mercy and what its rewards are.
As for the Oriental Tyrants, their hearts are made of air, shaking in fear from the outreach of knowledge, as though knowledge is a fire and their bodies are gunpowder. The tyrants are afraid of knowledge, even afraid from people knowing the meaning of "There is no god but God" and why these were the greatest words that Islam was based on. Islam, nay, all religions, were based on "There is no god but God," which means that no one is to be truly worshipped except the greatest creator; and the meaning of worship is submission, and that's where the word "servant" comes from. Thus, the meaning of "there is no god but God" simply means that nothing and no one deserves submission except God. It's truly great to recall this meaning to our minds during the nights and at the start and end of each day, to avoid falling into the trap of submitting to someone other than God. Does this meaning suit the goals of tyrants; for their slaves to know that there is no mastership or slavery in Islam, no guardianship or submission; but that the faithful are each other's guardians? No it does not suit their goals. Perhaps they consider the phrase "there is no god but God" as an insult to them! This is why the tyrants were, and still are, the abetors of worshipping false gods and the enemies of knowledge.
Knowledge also does not suit the little tyrants, such as the arrogant clergymen, the ignorant fathers, the foolish husbands, and the heads of weak societies. Whenever the light of knowledge spreads in a nation, the chains of slavery are broken, and the destiny of political and religious leaders is inevitably dreadful.
Excerpts from "Tyranny and Transcendence"
How true it is that all Easterners - Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Israelites, and others - are in dire need of wise men who do not bother with the noise coming out of the hypocritical, stupid scholars and the ignorant, mean presidents. These wise men would renew their understanding of religion, an understanding that has no concern with anything but the straight truth; the vision of those who do not squander the conclusions with the nuisances of introductions; the vision of someone who wants to reveal the truth, not eloquence; the vision of someone who seeks the face of God, not the approval of the masses. In this way, these wise men would retrieve the missing elements in religion, and to trim off the untrue additions that usually befall any religion that has gotten old and becomes in need of reformers to return religion to its clear, innocent origin; to return empowering the free will and abolishing dullness from all that is odious. It is the religion that relieves from the pain of tyranny and enslavement, that enlightens the paths of the correct learning and knowledge that are designed for good education and the maintenance of good manners that make a person human; and with it, not with rejection of faith, do people live as brothers.
And as long as Easterners remain the way they are now, far away from seriousness and determination, relaxed in their playfulness and silliness to kill the pain of the enslavement of the soul and to eternalize apathy and degradation, seeking relief from thoughts that are pressured from every side as they feel the agony of being reminded with the facts and of demanding of them to function, while they wait for their persisting problem to vanish through dependence, or simply through wishing and praying, or even sheer luck, as one bestowed upon some nations; then let them expect that they shall lose their religion completely, as they wake up one day, and that day is not far, temporal, not knowing which of the two lives is more miserable. Let them look at what had happened to the Assyrians and Phoenicians and other nations that have gone extinct and swirled into others as servants and slaves.
And what's strange is that in all decadent nations adhering to all religions, they always pin the cause of their political degeneration to their neglect of religious matters, and do not seek enhancing their social conditions except by holding onto religion with a firm grip, and by religion they mean acts of worship; it would have been a great theory had it had any merit. But it has none and never will, because they are only words that cannot be followed by action; for religion is a good seed that is free of all suspicion, and if it found good land it will grow and bear fruit, and if it found barren land it will die and wither away, or if it found a muddy land it will wither away. And what is the land of religion? The land of religion is that nation who's sight and insight had been blinded by tyranny; its manners and religion corrupted by tyranny, till it no longer recognizes any meaning for religion except rituals and acts of worship, which, when performed in excess of what is divinely required, are more harmful to the nation than when underperformed, as one can see in the ascetics.
Yes, religion helps in social development if it coincides with the presence of innate manners that have not been corrupted. In that case, religion would awaken the nation as Islam had done with Arabs; that awakening we have been wastefully seeking for a thousand years.
This long life has taught us, unfortunately, that most people don't care about religion unless it suited their purpose, for amusement or hypocrisy. It has also taught us that people are the slaves of their interests and the slaves of time, and that their minds do not lead them to become determined. Rather, their determination is born out of necessity or through a driving force. People do not feel ashamed of themselves when they do not fulfill their promises or when they do not uphold an oath they have sworn. Based on this, how appropriate it is for decadent nations to seek their cure through the revival of science and knowledge and the revival of vim, with the help of religion; to benefit from it like in: "Prayer forbids sin and unaccepted behavior", rather than depending on the idea that prayer in and of itself stops people from sinning and misbehavior.
O people: and I mean the Muslims. I was raised and have grown old and still thinking about our social conditions in the hope that I would be guided to the correct diagnosis of our disease. I have been searching one cause after another. Whenever I found what I thought to be a general cause, I say to myself, "perhaps this is the germ that's causing the disease," only to dig deeper and analyze and then my investigation shows that what I have found is only one out of so many causes, or that it is a side cause and not a root cause. I get disappointed and then return to further searching and mining. I have woke and slept day after day, working the intellect in investigation, and I have traveled and sought the opinions of the opinionated, in the hope that I would find guidance to what could heal my chest from the pains of search that God had tired me with, and the last place where the ship of my thoughts have embarked on is the following:
The germ of our disease is our religion's transformation from being the religion of innateness and wisdom, the religion of organization and vigor, the religion of the clear Quran; to becoming the religion of illusion and madness, the religion of malfunction and disarray, the religion of innovation [bid'ah] and uptightness, the religion of exhaustion. This disease has befallen us a thousand years ago and has successfully nestled in us and affected us in all our affairs. The firm grip of its malfunction on our intellect and deeds has reached a point where we can no longer see in the Almighty Creator an order in his description, an order in his judgment, an order in his commandments, and we no longer demand of ourselves, nor of our superiors or inferiors, to have order, discipline, stability, or perseverence.
Thus we find ourselves, our beliefs, our thoughts, our politics, and our lives all discombobulated. How far are we, in this condition, from intellectaul life, practical life, family life, social life, or political life?
O people: Your previous politicians and hypocritical scholars have squandered your religion and your life. And I shall guide you to a solitary work, unobjectionable in terms of knowledge nor action: Isn't there in you a consciousness that differentiates between good and evil, the accepted from the unaccepted, even if only a general differentiation? Have you not heard the saying of the teacher of goodness, your generous prophet, peace and blessings upon him: "Command by the accepted norms and forbid the unaccepted, or God shall empower the most evil of you upon you, and the most decent of you will no longer be listened to"? Or his saying: "Whoever among you sees an unaccepted deed, change it with your hand, and if you can't then with your tongue, and if you can't then with your heart, and that is the weakest form of faith/belief".
And you know that the imams of all your sects have agreed that the second most unaccepted deed of all unaccepted deeds, after rejection of faith, is the tyranny that has spread among you, then murder, then... the rest. And scholars have clarified that to change the unaccepted with your heart is to hate the perpetrator of the unaccepted just for the sake of hating him. Based on this, whoever deals with the tyrant when he's not forced to, or compliments him even if with a mere greeting, he will have foresaken the weakest form of faith/belief, and there is nothing lesser than the weakest form but nothingness, meaning he would have lost his faith, God forbid.
And I am sure that you are not unaware that the testimony, fasting and prayer, pilgrimage and regulated charity [zakaat] are meaningless without faith. Performing these rituals, without faith, becomes nothing more than norms and traditions and lapses of mania that squander money and time.
Based on the above, religion holds you responsible if you were Muslims, and wisdom obligates you if you were sane, to command the accepted norms and forbid the unaccepted ones with all your efforts, and the least you can do is to hide your hatred for tyrants. I believe that if you contemplated for a little while, you shall see that this medicine, which is easily accessible and bearable to every human being, is more than sufficient to save you from what you suffer from. Every single one of you is required to do this duty, even if every Muslim neglected it. Had your earlier forefathers done this, you would not have reached to the shameful state you are in now. This is your religion, and religion is what the individual believes in, not the group. And religion is realization and deeds, not knowledge to be memorized. Isn't one of the rules of your religion referred to as "sufficient obligation" [fardh kifaya], which means that a Muslim must do what he has to do without waiting for others?
O Muslims, I appeal to God [that you listen]: do not be deceived by a religion you do not know, even if it was the best religion. And do not deceive yourselves that you are a nation of good or the best of nations, when you are who you are, scrounging and sufficing on the slogan "there is no power but from God the most high and most supreme" [la hawla wala quwwata ella biLlah al-'Ali al-'Athim]. It is a great slogan indeed; the slogan of the faithful. But where are they? I do not see before me a nation that truly knows the meaning of "there is no god but God" [la ilah ella Allah]. Rather, I see a nation that has turned mad from the worship of tyrants!
O people, and I mean the speakers of Arabic among the non-Muslims, I invite you to forget past offenses and resentments, and what the forefathers and ancestors have reaped. It's enough what all that has done on the hands of inciters, and has obstructed you from finding guidance to the means of unity, acknowledging that you are the forerunners of enlightenment. The nations of Austria and America have been guided by knowledge and science to a variety of methods and rooted origins to national unity, not religious unity; to comradery of citizens, not a secterian one; to political interconnectedness not administrative. What is holding us back from thinking about following those methods or their likes? Our intellectuals should say to the foreign incitors of agitation: Let us be; let us deal with ourselves, communicate in Arabic, connect through brotherhood, support one another in difficult times, and be equals in times of happiness. Let us deal with this life and let religions judge in the next one only. Let us come together and concur on a few words: long live the nation, long live the country, let us live as free and dignified men.
Excerpts from Kawakibi's final chapter "Tyranny and How to Get Rid of It"
Do we wait until the government remove tyranny on its own, or is the removal of tyranny and gaining freedom the duty of the intellectuals of our nation? The answer is certainly the latter. But there are rules for accomplishing it:
These are the rules for removing tyranny - they turn the prisoners of tyranny away from hope, and they please the tyrants, because their wording seems to guarantee the thrones of the tyrants to stay in place....
The basis for the claim that "the nation whose members are unaware of the existence of tyranny doesn't deserve freedom" is:
The nation, who's been struck with humiliation and suffering over centuries and eras, becomes a nation of low manners as has been explained in previous sections, until the nation becomes like cattle, or less than cattle - doesn't ask for freedom, doesn't seek justice, doesn't know the value of independence, doesn't know the privilege of order, and cannot see any function in life other than becoming the follower of their master regardless of how good or bad he treats them; the people might resent the tyrant, rarely, but in search for vengeance against his person, not in search of deliverance from tyranny, and thus doesn't gain anything other than substituting a disease with another disease, like a stomachache with a headache.
The nation might also resist tyranny by leading in another tyrant who seems to be stronger than the current one. And if the nation succeeds, this new leader will only wash his hands with the water of tyranny, and thus the nation does not benefit anything either, but simply replaces a chronic illness with a sharp one; or it might gain freedom by luck, at which point it will not benefit anything from it because it doesn't know the taste of freedom and will not care to preserve it - as soon as freedom is gained, it turns into chaos, for freedom is more painful to a discombobulated tyranny, like when a patient's illness relapses. That's why the wise ones have said that the freedom that benefits the nation is the freedom that is gained after the nation has been prepared to receive it. As for the freedom gained as a consequence of a stupid revolution, it rarely contains any benefits, because a revolution usually suffices by chopping down the tree of tyranny and not remove tyranny from its roots, and will thus quickly grow back stronger than it used to be.
If there is a man in this dead nation, whose chivalry pushes him to take the nation's hand and help it rise up, he must first breathe life in it, and by life I mean knowledge; to let it know its bad condition and that it is possible to replace it with something better. If the nation knows this, it will begin to feel the pains of tyranny. Then, this feeling increases from ones to tens, to [hundreds] to [thousands]..., until it includes the majority of the people, finally reaching the level of instigation that can best be described by the wise poet Al-Maarri:
If the government cannot uphold justice among us ... then we are very capable of changing it
This is how the intellect of the nation is flung over to the valley of clear wisdom, running down like a torrent that doesn't stop until it reaches its destination.
These semi-dead nations do not lack those who possess chivelry. the problem is that it is rare for those who possess chivelry to know which path take from childhood onward, to reach the place from which he can affect people with his opinions. and i would like to bring to the attention of our dear youth, that whomever among them sees in himself readiness for real glory, must follow these commandments:
Whoever reaches the age of 30 or above, and has the characteritics mentioned above, has prepared himself to perfection in order to gain people's trust in a short time, and with this trust he can do what great armies and treasures cannot. Whatever he lacks from these characteristics will degrade his position. However, he may substitute a weakness in one of these characteristics with an extra strength in another. And it is possible for the ethical characteristics to be sufficient without all the scientific ones, but the opposite is not possible. And if the one opposing political guidance had lost trust totally or momentarily, he may use another person [who is trustworthy] but lacks boldness, endeavor, and the scientific characteristics.
In conclusion, whoever has the interest in the rise of his nation, he must prepare himself and weigh his preparedness, then go ahead depending on God to create the opportunity for success.
Translated by: Oday Baddar