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Ethics in Islam: Friendship in the Political Thought of al-Tawḥīdī and his Contemporaries

  • Book Title:
 Ethics In Islam
  • Book Author:
Nuha A. Al-Shaar
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Islamic ethical and political thought revisited

The brilliant spirit and complexity of the Bu- yid period (334–440/945–1048) exercised a profound influence upon intellectual activities and practices throughout the contemporary Islamic world, especially Iraq and western Iran.1 This book focuses on a largely overlooked area: the political thought, ethics, and social idealism of the fourth/tenth-century philosopher and littérateur Abu- H. ayya-n al-Tawhi d-ı (circa 315–414/927–1023), who lived in Baghdad and what is now western Iran under Bu- yid rule.2 It offers a critical assessment of al-Tawhi d-ı’s thought, focusing on its connection to the unique socio-cultural

contexts of the period, and its relation to the various groups with which al-Tawhi d-ı came into contact. Special attention will be paid to his development of concepts such as friendship (s.ada-qa) and knowledge (‘ilm), and how they should be practised to restore social harmony.

The book will investigate the intricacy of the system that informed al-Tawhi d-ı’s vision of these concepts and their social significance, treating them as social imaginaries – new attitudes of a

person in his or her intellectual and cultural settings that aim to resolve political and social tensions.

Although modern political thought generally considers friendship a private affair, or a relationship that should be quarantined from the explorations of politics, a few studies have attempted to retrieve the concept of friendship for philosophical investigation and its importance in the context of politics.3 These studies consider the interconnectedness of the public and private spheres, and how political principles become manifest in private lives.4 They address contemporary concerns about community in the context of philosophical ideas about friendship, drawing on the analysis of thinkers within the history of political thought, starting with ancient Greek philosophers, Christian thinkers,

and contemporary thinkers. By analysing al-Tawhi d-ı’s ideas of friendship, this

book aims to contribute to this ongoing discussion, and to deepen under-

standing of the inescapable relationship between friendship and politics, and friendship as a necessary means for harmonious human existence.

The subject of this book is important not only because it sheds light on a major figure whose thought reflects the changes and challenges of the Bu- yid period, but it also provides an opportunity to examine the development of cultural and intellectual activities in this period, which was a turning point in the history of Islamic civilisation.5

 This period brought major changes to the concept of the polity – namely the religio-political institution of the Muslim caliphate.

 With the establishment of this minority Sh-ı‘-ı kingship, the authority of the powerful Sunn-ı caliphate of the ‘Abba-sids that had once ruled over areas extending from Persia to Jerusalem, and from Adharbayjan to Egypt and Yemen, collapsed and was relegated to a mere religious authority with no political power.

This reduction resulted in a diffusion of power in which the caliph competed with military commanders who wielded political power but enjoyed no claim to prophetic succession. This shift, alongside tensions between one social class and another, between Arabs and non-Arabs, and between different Bu- yid courts, produced polemic in prose and verse. It also necessitated that the Bu- yids legitimise and justify their authority and their new form of polity, creating a need for new moral and political paradigms.

Cultural and literary activities progressed significantly in this period. Larger cities, such as Baghdad, Samarqand, Sh-ıra-z and Rayy became centres of knowledge.

These cities competed with each other for social prestige and facilitated the establishment of independent intellectual communities. Falsafa was a prominent field of knowledge among scholars attached to different Bu- yid courts and officials who sponsored their activities.6

Major philosophical schools developed, particularly in Baghdad. The following practices resulted in epistemological plurality, intellectual tensions and scepticism about the nature of knowledge between different scholarly disciplines: the continuing translation of many texts of non-revealed knowledge,7 including Greek philosophy, which was one of the major endeavours of the philosophical schools of Baghdad and which seemed to have led to an increased doubt concerning the validity of other forms of knowledge, especially traditional ones;

 the theological-rationalist debates and rivalry between different theological schools, especially the Ash‘ar-ıs and the Mu‘tazila who continued to adapt philosophical methods to theology; the interest in jurisprudence and the traditions of Islamic law, which established itself as a counterpart to theology; and the ascetic-mystical movement of tas.awwuf or Sufism.

The tension between the different fields of knowledge, and the increasing efforts of scholars to consolidate their fields generated perplexing questions and concerns about the valid form of knowledge which could save the community. Thus, doubts and debates became integral aspects of scholarly activities.8

The period was also the hub of significant social changes and an age of uncertainty, where ethical values were questioned and became a preoccupation of philosophers and intellectuals.

Discussions were held in the vibrant intellectual climates of different maja-lis (sessions) that were sponsored by the various Bu- yid emirs and viziers, in private gatherings held at the households of some scholars, and in the market place of Baghdad. Those sessions offered an opportunity for the communication and exchange of ideas between members of different philosophical and religious circles in a remarkably cosmopolitan atmosphere.

 Al-Tawhi d-ı recorded many ethical discussions that took place, especially in Baghdad in different intellectual gatherings. This is partly due to his early exposure to most contemporary intellectual disciplines of his time, and his active association with different religious, scholarly, and political circles, including the court of the Bu- yid vizier al-S. a- h. ib b. ‘Abba- d (d. 385/995), the circle of the Bu- yid vizier Ibn Sa‘da-n (d. 375/985), the school of the Christian philosopher Yah.ya- b. ‘Ad-ı (d. 363/974), the schools of Abu- Sulayma-n al-Sijista- n-I (d. 375/985) and Ah. mad b. Miskawayh (d. 421/1030), the different Sufi and Shafi‘-ı circles and the Ikhwa-n al-S. afa-’ (the Brethren of Purity).

Thus this book will show the significance of al-Tawhi d-ı’s writings and the complexity of the forces, factors, knowledge, and ways of perception that formed his thought.9

By studying al-Tawhi d-ı in these contexts, the book offers a revision of the common conception of al-Tawhi d-ı as a romantic figure, a man outside of his time, rejecting the constraints of traditional Muslim scholarship.

Instead, it shows the distinctiveness of his views on the role of the intellectual in his society and his disapproval of sectarian aggression, especially in the streets of Baghdad during his time, which he saw as a sort of madness. It is in this context that the value and meaning of al-Tawhi d-ı’s concept of friendship will be analysed as offering an alternative means of resolving tensions and reinforcing harmony.

It is worth noting that the relevance of al-Tawhi d-ı’s thought for a modern context has been already noted by some scholars, including Marc Bergé and Mohammed Arkoun. Both scholars believe that al-Tawhi d-ı’s ideas could play a prominent role in cross-cultural dialogue and in bridging the gap between Islam and other intellectual traditions in the contemporary world.10

One of the aims of this book is also to establish the notion that both philo- sophy and religion were essential sources for the production of ethical and political thought in this period. Although al-Tawhi d-ı was an original thinker, his philosophy was firmly rooted in the Islamic culture in which he had been educated.

The idea that both religion and philosophy are valid paths to truth lies at the heart of al-Tawhi d-ı’s ethical system. So, too, is the practical value of knowledge, and its link to pious action, seen as essential for safeguarding the benefit and wellbeing of the community. In this, the book contributes to a better understanding of al-Tawhi d-ı’s role in his society and his position in the context of the fourth/tenth-century debates on religion and philosophy and, more generally, the contemporary scepticism about valid sources of knowledge, highlighting his attempt to reconcile intellectual anxiety between various dis- ciplines of knowledge.

Therefore, this book comes with important revisionist arguments about the role of both religion and philosophy in the construction of ethical thought in the period.

Any attempt to analyse Islamic political thought and ethics, however, does not come without difficulties. One of the main challenges is the elusiveness of the term ethics itself, let alone when it is used in an Islamic context.11 There are also difficulties involved in defining the word ‘politics’. First, there is the mass of associations that the word has when used in any language.

Few people come to the word politics without preconceptions. Secondly, there is the problem of finding agreement about its meaning.12 Some scholars have attempted to resolve these difficulties by applying a set of Western categories in order to define political ethics systematically in an Islamic context. Certain terms, such as ‘political philosophy’ or ‘humanism’ have been borrowed to analyse the literature, assuming that the core dynamic of philosophy in classical Islam was a dichotomy between rigid Islamic orthodoxy on one side and the humanism of the elite on the other.13

However, the belief that moral judgements may be matters of opinion,14 has raised sceptical challenges to ethics, such as cultural relativism,15 which claims that ethical rules are culturally constructed and relative to the societies in which they occur. These views raise concerns about one culture borrowing a set of rules and ethical definitions from another, and leads to questions about the suitability of approaching Islamic ethical thought, namely that of al-Tawhi d-ı and his contemporaries, mainly through the lens of Western philosophy.

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, there was a rediscovery of al-Tawhi d-ı.16 In 1949 and 1950, ‘Abd al-Razza-q Muh.y-ı al-D-ın and Ibra-h-ım K-ıla- n-ı respectively published comprehensive biographies, following a descriptive approach to al-Tawhi d-ı’s life and writings.17 After the 1950s, certain scholars became interested in a more psychological approach to al-Tawhi d-ı, while others were interested in the historical authenticity of the narrative in his works, his use of literary devices, language, style, and narrative structure, and how his writings combine both adab and falsafa.18

Ih. sa-n ‘Abba-s’s study of al-Tawhi d-ı’s life sheds much light on al-Tawhi d-ı’s idealism and struggle against the moral decline of his society, though it does not follow a clear metho- dological approach.19

Wadad Kadi, Nu- r al-D-ın bin Bilqa-sim and others have studied al-Tawhi d-ı’s writings as a rich resource for the Muslim society of the fourth/tenth century, noting his ability to freely discuss a number of social issues, something which many of his contemporaries avoided.20

Kadi pays special attention to the theoretical and intellectual foundations of his views of his society.21 Two special editions of the journal Fus.u-l were devoted to cover various themes on al-Tawhi d-ı’s life and intellectual formation, and even projected new concerns, such as modernity, onto his writings.22

Recently, scholars who have studied al-Tawhi d-ı’s writings and the wider corpus of Islamic ethical and political thought, have applied two main Western…

terms to this literature, namely ‘humanism’ and ‘political philosophy’. These have been used by various scholars, especially Leo Strauss and his followers, and particularly those based in the West. The use of these terms will be assessed in order to establish a definition of politics for the purpose of this book, and to evaluate some of the dichotomies that have been imposed on the literature, such as theoretical ethics versus practical ethics, scientific enquiry versus reli-

gious teaching, and the social versus the personal in the context of al-Tawhi d-ı’s

ethical thought. This introduction includes an outline of the methodological

framework that informs this research, highlighting the importance of the social imaginary and its emphasis on the study of ideas in their social and historical contexts.

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