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The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi

The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi
  • Book Title:
 The Teleological Ethics Of Fakhr Al Din Al Razi
  • Book Author:
Ayman Shihadeh, FAKHR AL-DIN AL-RAZI
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The present study aspires, first and foremost, to make a contribution to two main areas of interest in Islamic intellectual history, namely ethical philosophy and the thought of Fakhr al-DÊn al-R§zÊ. I hope to have demonstrated that al-R§zÊ is one of the most important ethicists in Muslim history, and to have produced some stimuli for further research on his thought, as he remains one of the most influential, yet sorely understudied, medieval thinkers.

The present monograph is based, often remotely, on a doctoral thesis that I submitted in 2002 to the faculty of Oriental Studies, Oxford University, under the supervision of Professor Yahya Michot and Dr Fritz Zimmermann. I would like to express my gratitude to both my supervisors, from whom my research has benefited in numerous ways. I am indebted to Professor Michot for more recent exchanges of ideas, many of which are relevant to questions tackled in this thoroughly revised version.

I would like also to extend my sincere thanks to Professor Wilferd Madelung, Professor Hans Daiber and Dr Tony Street, who provided me with valuable comments on this study, to Professor Yahya Ibn Junaid and Dr Nizam Yaquby, who both assisted me in acquiring copies of some manuscripts, and to Sobia Syyed for reading the monograph and suggesting some corrections in style. Needless to say, I alone am responsible for its present form.

Finally, I am truly grateful to the following institutions: to the Muslim Academic Trust, Cambridge, for generously funding my graduate study; to Oxford University for funding provided during my doctoral study; to the British, Berlin State, Mar#ashÊ-NajafÊ and Princeton University Libraries, for facilitating access to manuscripts of Ris§lat Dhamm ladhdh§t al-duny§, allowing me to produce a critical edition thereof; and to Brill for undertaking this publication.

General Introduction

The first centuries of Islam witnessed the emergence of different traditions of ethical thinking, within which several distinct ethical theories were propounded. The most sophisticated philosophical theories were developed within the two largely independent tradi- tions of kal§m and falsafa, which clashed at the level of ethics and in other related areas, including metaphysics, cosmology, psychology and epistemology.

The main ethical concern of the classical mutakallimån was to investigate the nature of God’s justice and the goodness of His acts generally, which they approached through analytical discussions of ethical language, metaphysics and epistemology. Similar discussions, likewise with an emphasis on action, can also be found in ußål al-fiqh, and concern the establishment of general normative principles for human conduct. The fal§sifa, on the other hand, were chiefly, but by no means solely, interested in the development of human character, primarily by engendering virtues, which are essentially dispositions internal to the individual.

The gap separating the two traditions was initially so wide that many notions central to one tradition of ethical theory were completely alien to the other, in which they would normally be dismissed in toto, without engagement in any proper dialogue. Yet there then emerged signs of increasing, and more positive, interaction between kal§m and falsafa, culminating in the efforts of al-Ghaz§lÊ (d. 505/1111), who was both a severe critic of the fal§sifa and deeply influenced by them in many respects. A century later, Fakhr al-DÊn al-R§zÊ was to open the gates widely, allowing a more liberal exchange of ideas, a ‘synthesis’ even, between kal§m and falsafa. This feature manifests no less in his ethics than in other areas of his thought.

The present study is thus, at once, both a comprehensive analysis of one major facet of al-R§zÊ’s thought, viz. his ethical theory, and an exploration of the main trends and debates in its wider intellectual background. It shows that he sets forth a sophisticated and original ethical theory, which is both eclectic and highly consistent internally.

In this theory, he departs with classical Ash#arÊ voluntarism.

Al-R§zÊ is significant in this regard not as a moralist (al-Ghaz§lÊ is evidently a more elaborate moralist than he is), but mainly as an outstandingly analytical and thoroughgoing ethical philosopher. In this respect, his discussions of certain ethical themes are among the most penetrating in Islamic history and will easily match corre- sponding discussions in any extant Mu#tazilÊ texts. This owes partly to his firsthand familiarity and engagement with the writings of the Mu#tazila, especially the school of Abå l-\usayn al-BaßrÊ (d. 436/1044), to an extent unprecedented among their earlier critics (and which was apparently unsurpassed in later Sunni theology, to which Mu#tazilism became less relevant). Al-R§zÊ also had a great deal of influence on later ethical thought in Islam, especially in kal§m; and his main work on the science of character, Kit§b fÊ #ilm al-akhl§q, is listed by Ibn al-Akf§nÊ (d. 749/1348) as a major representative of its genre (however, its circulation seems to have become limited in later centuries) ((Ibn al-Akf§nÊ, Irsh§d, 401. The two other representative works that he lists are Ibn SÊn§’s Riߧla fÊ l-akhl§q and Miskawayh’s Al-Fawz al-aßghar)).

Al-R§zÊ develops a metaethical theory that underlies both his falsafÊ ethics of character and his kal§m and juristic ethics of action ((2 Contemporary ethical philosophy is normally divided into the sub-fields of metaethics and normative ethics. The distinction is not universally accepted, pri- marily because the two fields are arguably not mutually exclusive. Metaethics, or so-called ‘second order’ ethics, seeks to understand the nature and justification of ethical judgement. Normative, ‘first order’ ethics denotes attempts to defend or establish ethical judgements on specific types of human action, or norms and principles to guide human action (cf. Sh. Kagan, Normative Ethics, esp. 1–6; articles “Analytic ethics”, REP; “Metaethics”, EE).

3 These different types of ethical theory are defined p. 47–8 infra. introduction 3)). This underlying theory manifests differently in these two different contexts: as a consequentialism in relation to action, and as a perfectionism in relation to character. Although at the level of normative ethics his elaboration of the relation between his ethics of action and his ethics of character remains in certain respects underdeveloped, the relation between the two at the metaethical level is made clear: consequentialism and perfectionism are two aspects of the same teleological ethics, rather than separate ethical theories.3

These two areas of ethical enquiry are discussed separately in al-R§zÊ’s writings for several reasons. First of all, the classical mutakal- limån focused on action exclusively, as they were concerned with investigating how God’s acts relate to His creatures. Al-R§zÊ, too, discusses divine action, which he approaches on the basis of a thor- ough analysis of human action. Moreover, in developing his ethical theory, he works within separate established traditions, each having its own scope and ethos. He does not attempt to produce a synthesis between the science of character and jurisprudence. Yet he does provide some general guidelines on how the ethics of action and the ethics of character should be viewed in relation to each other.

The starting point for this study will be al-R§zÊ’s ethics of action (Chapter II), for which first we will need to examine his theory of action, which is central to his metaethics (Chapter I). Since he starts as a classical Ash#arÊ theologian with little interest in the examination of character, his interest in action will have chronological precedence in his intellectual career. Even in his later thought, his analysis of action does not presuppose a theory of character (which normally would give moral primacy to character over action), although it will be complemented by such a theory. Chapter III will then examine his theory of virtue, including his ethics of character and the influence of his theory of virtue on his later theory of prophecy.

Chapter IV will focus on the epistle entitled Dhamm ladhdh§t al- duny§ (Censure of the Pleasures of This World), which is published here and studied for the first time (a critical edition can be found as an Appendix). In this immensely interesting short text, which al-R§zÊ wrote towards the end of his life, he expresses pronounced moral pessimism and intellectual scepticism. The background of this stance in his writings more widely will also be explored.

The narrower theoretical themes covered in this study will be introduced in their appropriate places in the following chapters. First, however, we should provide a short biography of al-R§zÊ and a brief descriptive bibliography of his main writings that are cited

in this study.


Much of classical kal§m relates to the so-called problem of ‘judgements of goodness and badness’ (al-taÈsÊn wa-l-taqbÊÈ), which, according to the early al-R§zÊ, is the source from which most heretical doctrines (bida#) spring ((Ußål al-DÊn, fol. 345)) . This enquiry has an essentially metaethical concern, as it investigates issues such as the nature of morality, moral rea- soning and moral language. In this context, most mutakallimån will focus primarily on the acts of human agents, which pertain to the more accessible and fathomable ‘observable’ level (al-sh§hid), on the basis of which they will then attempt to discuss the ‘unobservable’, divine level (al-gh§”ib) ((Acts of other agents may be considered, e.g. angels and Satan, who, by arguing for his superiority to Adam and acting upon it in his refusal to prostrate, is said to be the forerunner for Mu#tazilÊ ethics (al-Shahrast§nÊ, Milal, 1, 16–8; al-•åfÊ, Dar”, 67–8; 94–5; 195).)). In classical Ash#arÊ kal§m, this metaethical enquiry usually introduces the larger, theological discussion of divine justice—often under the rubric, ‘judging [acts] as just or unjust’ (al- ta#dÊl wa-l-tajwÊr)—which also includes the problem of whether God is obligated to perform certain acts, the problem of ‘God causing pain to the innocent’ (representative of the wider problem of evil), and the problem of ‘advantage and the most advantageous’ (to be discussed below) ((E.g. Ußål al-DÊn, fol. 261 ff.; al-Kiy§ al-Harr§sÊ, Ußål al-DÊn, fol. 198b ff.; cf. lÊ, Iqtiߧd, 160.)).

Classical Ash#arÊ kal§m ethics is then complemented by a closely- linked enquiry into normative ethics within the science of the prin- ciples of jurisprudence (ußål al-fiqh), which seeks to establish general principles for deriving specific rules and guidelines for human con- duct. As the task will require an appreciation of various features of revealed scripture, this discipline will often include a theological component aimed at an ethical analysis of divine command (to the exclusion of divine action). Among the other main ethical themes commonly discussed in ußål al-fiqh for their normative pertinence

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