A Case for Islamic Virtue Ethics: Philosophy and Sufism as Historically Extended Lines of Argument in The Polished Mirror

I thank the organizers, especially Dr. Ghaly, for inviting me to participate and for making these arrangements. A few words, then, about what I hope my book offers to the academy’s ongoing discussions on Islamic ethics. That book, The Polished Mirror: Storytelling and the Pursuit of Virtue in Islamic Philosophy and Sufism, was published by Oneworld Press in December of 2017. It locates Islamic virtue ethics outside of the genre of writing to which it has usually been assigned. As most of us know, in Islamic studies, virtue ethics has traditionally belonged to that genre of philosophical treatises on the “character traits” developed quite substantially by al-Fārābī and most famously represented by Miskawayh. Instead, this book considers Islamic virtue ethics as a pursuit of the perfection of character with a much broader reach. While broad, including even books of law and hadith, what might be called the science of “Islamic virtue ethics” becomes most pronounced as an interdisciplinary discourse between Islamic philosophy and Sufism.

Often in these premodern Islamic texts, all pursuits might be said to point to one pursuit, the pursuit of self-perfection. It is this that makes such premodern texts particularly relevant today. In like manner, it is this that renders relevant Aristotle’s observation—that there is a chief good and a chief end to which other goods and ends are subordinate.[1] Premodern Islamic texts assume, moreover, that often and perhaps always we look to models to know what self-perfection might be:  From childhood onward, it is the world outside of ourselves that teaches us how to interpret the world inside of ourselves and the way we might make of it a utopia.  This macrocosm/microcosm duality is not, of course, to be overdone, because most of the figures I studied realize the two as complementary parts of an aggregate. Still, continuing the metaphor, the world outside of ourselves seems to be a house of mirrors for models of self-perfection.  It is a historical continuum of reflecting claims and mutual influence, in which ideas of self-perfection accumulate, change, disappear, or reappear in a new context. For that reason, we place models of self-perfection— philosophers, sages, religious figures, and others—in contexts that tell us how and under what circumstances certain values came to be.  We evaluate them, and by doing so evaluate our own positions.

Because of this emphasis on models, the perfection of character traits has been of shared interest not only in Islamic scholarly literature, but also in its wisdom literature and stories. Within these stories, stories that often functioned as virtue-modeling, ideas were shared—ideas concerning psychology, morality, and the nature of the soul. One can say, then, that in examining the ways in which virtue and storytelling became intertwined, The Polished Mirror also explores the relationship between narrative and morality, between the need to tell stories and human nature, drawing from Alasdair MacIntyre’s claim that “man is in his actions and practice, as well as his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal” (After Virtue p. 216). MacIntyre argues that only a “narrative selfhood,” in which humans envision their actions and identities within the context of narratives with intelligible ends, will have lasting effects on individuals and societies (After Virtue pp. 214-8).

The thinkers and authors highlighted in The Polished Mirror—The Brethren of Purity, Ibn Sīnā, Miskawayh, Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, Ibn Ṭufayl, Suhrawardī, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, al-Muḥāsibī, al-Sarrāj, Khwāja ʿAbdallāh Anṣārī, ʿAṭṭār, and Rūmī—come from various traditions of learning within Islam, yet share in more than a common interest in human moral perfection. Narrativity, whether in the form of philosophical allegories, hagiographies, poetic tales, or riddles, shapes the manner in which the well-being of the soul is communicated for each of them. Moreover, these thinkers share elements of what might be called a narrative of the soul, which must shift from a state of acquiring attributes to receiving them from a higher source. What Aaron Hughes has called the “career” of the soul is—as he indicates—a shared motivating theme in Neoplatonically-influenced texts, both in terms of theory and in terms of allegory.[2]

I’ve mentioned, then, the first argument of The Polished Mirror, which is that we can locate a field of study called “Islamic virtue ethics” broadly between many of the classical Islamic disciplines, but more especially within both falsafa and taṣawwuf, which I have been calling “philosophy” and “Sufism.” I’ve also mentioned the second argument, namely, that narrativity inheres in Islamic virtue modeling and unifies the disparate ethical sciences. There are two more positions that I take that might merit mention. The first is that attention to premodern sciences—especially medicine and, to a lesser degree, alchemy—underlies these ethical texts in ways that we have not often realized. To know the soul is to know its origins, which for most medieval Muslim thinkers working from a modified Aristotelian model, lie within the body. Thus, knowledge of the soul and its perfection, by necessity included the study of medicine. Indeed, the basis for finding a balance among the temperaments was thought to lie in the study of a person’s dominating humor.

It is, in fact, humoral medicine that I saw as a common driving factor throughout premodern Islamic theories of virtue, well beyond the philosophers. The influence of the humors over one’s balance of character traits appears in stories, vernacular poetry, such as Ibn Quzmān’s zajals, Sufi treatises, really almost any literary domain whatsoever. Sometimes, such as in the allegories of Ibn Sīnā or Suhrawardī, reference to the dominance of one humor over the others was explicit. But—as appears in the book’s discussion of Rūmī’s narrative of the Sufi and the Judge—often humoral medicine hummed in the background, part of a network of assumptions that any premodern writer would have. In that regard, it was not unlike the way in which modern psychology shapes our language of values, so that we might describe an act as “unhealthy,” a personality as “obsessive,” a memory as “repressed,” or a person as “neurotic” or “delusional” without any formal training in psychology, or even much attention to the way these terms function within the specialized vocabularies of psychoanalysis.

As a story within that story, Rūmī tells us that a Turkic soldier learns that it is common for tailors to deceive their patrons and steal cloth. He makes a wager with his friends that he will be able to have his work done and avoid being subject to pilfering. He chooses the most deceitful tailor known to all, takes his fabric, and tempts fate. You’ll notice already the soldier’s willingness to take risks, a function of his sanguine nature, an initial sign that he is governed by the irascible faculty. Rūmī mentions none of this, nor delves in any way into the niceties of humoral theory. Rather, the personalities that Rūmī describes conform with this theory because Rūmī’s view of personality has been so shaped by humoral medicine. The tailor realizes that the soldier is governed by the properties of blood, knowing that the soldier can easily be made angry, but can also easily be made boisterous and energetically happy. The tailor begins to share jokes with the solider as he works. Here Rūmī uses a language of “warming,” as if the tailor knows that making the soldier’s warm nature already warmer will make him less aware of his surroundings. The jokes cause the soldier to laugh, often closing his eyes or even falling in the process. Each time this happens, the tailor steals some fabric. Finally, when the soldier asks for another joke, the tailor replies that even one more joke would make your caftan (qabā) too tight.”[3] That is, each joke has allowed him to steal just enough cloth for the caftan to fit. References such as this to humoral medicine abound in classical Arabic and Persian literature, even when ethics is not explicitly at stake in the writing. They become even more common when the author in question ventures into the character traits.

I should add that aside from medicine, jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh) and positive law (fiqh), certainly played an important part in the shaping of Islamic virtue ethics. In part, the attention to detail one finds in Sufi and philosophical discussions of character results from a sort of freedom. Such writers on ethics were free to consider the minutiae of intentions because legal and ritual norms were usually found elsewhere, in jurisprudence and positive law. In fact, recognizing the Sharia—even if as a standard for the masses that might not apply to the elite—becomes another trait common to each of the thinkers I consider in The Polished Mirror.

The final position I’d like to mention is one that might not be apparent on a first reading of the book and perhaps a more debatable claim than the others I have made. It is that Sufi treatises on character present a more complex and original science of character traits than other Islamic sciences, including philosophy. This claim assumes that, in part, our concern with premodern traditions is to learn from them. It builds on MacIntyre’s argument that a “living tradition” is “an embodied argument,” an argument that is “historically extended,” an argument, he says, that is “precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.”[4][5]

Does what we call Islamic virtue ethics present positions worthy of contemplation or argument today, qualifying as part of the living Islamic tradition? Certainly. The Islamic philosophers presented a cohesive theory of ethics in which vice included any trait that distracted from or weakened intellection, and virtue was any trait that bolstered the completion of the intellect. Bodily desires, thus, while useful, became a major hindrance, and one’s struggle to become free from them and more proximate to the Active Intellect became fodder for a number of allegories. This model and the claims that support it did more than make their impression on ethical and literary discussions in the classical traditions, including Jewish and Christian philosophy. They also served as powerful tools for the interpretation of the twin sources of revelation, the Qur’an and the Hadith. Thus, Miskawayh begins his famous Refinement of Character Traits by commenting on the following verses of the Qur’an:

By the soul and He who shaped it, inspiring it to its profligacy and to its Godwariness; the one who purifies that soul has succeeded, while the one who plots against it has failed

(Q 91:7-10)

His association of the Qur’anic soul with the philosophical soul, the ease with which Miskawayh, like al-Kindī and al-Fārābī before him, relates Qur’anic conceptions of the nafs to Aristotelian and Neoplatonic ones, echoes throughout Islamic intellectual history. It becomes consolidated in the writings of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī. In terms of allegory and the Hadith, we have the case of a narrative attributed to Ibn Sīnā, the Persian Miʿrāj-Nāma, in which the Prophet’s heavenly journey becomes described as the rational soul’s endeavor to become one with the intellect. Whoever the real author might have been, we become witness to a process whereby Arabic philosophy became Islamic and Islam became philosophical in ways that can never be undone.

Yet, all that aside, there have always existed lingering doubts about the originality of Islamic philosophy, especially when it comes to virtue ethics. Such doubts were not merely expressed by zealous scholars of Hadith, but also by contemporary researchers in Islamic ethics. George Hourani’s lack of interest in writers such as Miskawayh stemmed from what he perceived to be a lack of originality. Hourani’s point, that the “philosophical framework” of such philosophers was “taken from Aristotle, the Peripatetics, and Neoplatonism” is justified in many ways.[6] Still, I’m not sure that originality as a value is much more than a result of a Western bias that favors a perceived creative genius as author, a lingering Romantic value that also serves what Foucault called the “author function.”[7] It does, however, leave us with the question of what specifically reading Miskawayh gives us that reading Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī, or Maimonides, or even Aristotle does not. A point for a different discussion.

What I’m leading to is that none of this can apply to Sufi considerations of character, the originality and depth of which remains unrivaled in other Islamic texts, and places Sufi ethical treatises as a treasury of insight for world religion and even world philosophy. The science of states and stations, as Sufism was sometimes called, combined centuries of practice and tutelage with a science of the soul influenced by both revelation and philosophy. The early treatises were marked by brevity, but never simplicity, as what were once indications and allusions became spelled out by the later tradition. This culminated in, to give one example, a masterpiece of Islamic ethics, the Waystations of the Travelers written by Khwāja ʿAbdallāh Anṣārī, which I discuss in the book’s eighth chapter.

Anṣārī offers one hundred stations, each of which responds to three different levels of wayfaring, as well as a division in the book that recognizes distinctions between novices, middling seekers, and advanced knowers. Within each of these chapters, which always begins with a scriptural quotation, Anṣārī explores the complexities of human intentions and the effects of spiritual practice. He offers a theory on the development of the human soul as a gradation from one who seeks noble human character traits to one who receives and reflects divine attributes. Anṣārī’s observations, while masterful, are not singular. You will find the likes of many of his discussions in the writings of Ibn al-ʿArabī, or the poetry of Rūmī, among many other such authors. These Sufi  discussions present matters of debate—sometimes generations of debate—that have no real equivalent in Islamic philosophical treatises on virtues, at least none that I have seen.

I hope that The Polished Mirror is an introduction to an ongoing conversation, a new line of inquiry into the study of ethics, philosophy, and Sufism. I hope, moreover, that we can begin having these discussions not only as matters of comparative philosophy, but also comparative literature.



This talk is related to this internal seminar



[1] NA, Book 1, Ch. 2, 1094a, p. 4.

[2] The Texture of the Divine p. 65.

[3] MM 6:1718.

[5] After Virtue, p. 222.

[6] Hourani, Reason and tradition pp. 21.  Reasons for placing Miskawayh in “normative secular ethics” appear on p. 16.

[7] Foucault, “What is an author?” pp. 210-211.

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