A Brief Case for Relevance

A Brief Case for Relevance

It is relatively easy to argue that the insights of Sufi ethicists about the heart and the stations to proximity with God have relevance today. Nothing that I know of has changed regarding the human being’s propensity to serve the lower self and be heedless. Any argument against the framework offered in Sufism would need to be theological or philosophical on a grander scale. One would need to think more broadly about one’s place in the universe and decide if, indeed, God created the human and did so with a purpose. Such arguments fall outside of this book’s purview, but, assuming that one takes a theistic position, surely Sufi writings about virtue have great worth. In fact, one might argue that if anything has changed, the field of reference for Sufi ethics has grown wider. While Sufis might have had a point that only the elite will strive for the highest reaches of ethical perfection, the circle of humanity has grown and with it perhaps the number of those willing to try. Moreover, while women were certainly engaged in the spiritual sciences, they will be increasingly more actively (or one might say “visibly”) engaged in the twenty-first century than they were in the tenth, writing about ethics and serving as leaders to a much higher degree than before. Today’s readers, reaching into premodern Sufi writings, can find examples confirming that anyone can join the ranks of the spiritual elite, whether male or female, rich or poor, privileged or underprivileged in virtually any way, so that such spiritual elitism can also be interpreted as an egalitarian elitism.

Philosophical virtue ethics, the way I have presented it, does have a harder case to make for relevance. The understanding of human traits held by these philosophers usually relied on the factuality of a humoral model. Modern medicine and humoral medicine simply do not agree, and it is the former that has the backing of scientific evidence. To make certain insights of Avicenna or Miskawayh meaningful, one would need to translate the language of humoral propensities to one of psychobiological propensities as understood today.

cowperhoriz4-e1579608257731Noga Arikha makes such a case, arguing for the persisting significance of the humors, illustrating ways in which contemporary views of selfhood continue to rely on forces within the body. We have become more and not less interested in the influence of these forces on our emotions, now attributed to chemical changes in the brain.1 Moreover, the field of psychoneuroimmunology is a contemporary scientific acknowledgement that the mind affects the body, best illustrated in the case of the placebo effect.2 Arikha sees both humoral and contemporary medicine as telling us more than we realize about our most elemental yet self-defining concerns. Those concerns seem to change less over time than the means we forge to remedy them.3 By thinking of the soul as an incorporeal entity affected by its body, these philosophers left room for their version of virtue ethics to be adapted to what we know of the body and its relationship to ethical inclination. What they would have described as humoral traits influenced by one’s parents and place and time of birth we might describe as genetic traits also influenced by those factors. Moreover, to concentrate on desire (the appetitive faculty) and anger (the irascible faculty) as the two main sources of human moral corruption arguably works quite well when one considers the vices of our day, even if it does not fit as neatly into a biological scheme.

Premodern Islamic philosophical virtue ethics was premised on a psychology that envisioned the soul as coming to exist within the body, perceiving and knowing through the body, and cultivating virtues first by balancing the forces of the body. This was so even for those philosophers, such as Suhrawardī, who held a more Platonic view: Notwithstanding the soul’s ultimate origins elsewhere in an eternal all-soul, it still became an individual human soul from within the body. In this regard, philosophers presented a model of virtue that made sense of the body, its limitations, and the way those limitations might vary for each individual. Aware of these bodily limitations, aware even of the necessity of the brain and its segments for human cognition, they nevertheless argued that the human soul could achieve a mirroring of some transcendent reality.4 This marriage of embodiment and transcendence has great relevance for anyone interested in the relationship between body and self.

So much for the humors, but what about virtue, situatedness, and storytelling? This aspect of the way virtue ethics functioned, as part of a multidimensional and lived experience, might have the most to offer, especially when Islamic ethics becomes portrayed as monolithically rigid, scriptural, or motivated by political ends. At the time of this book’s composition, Islam is mentioned with frequent regularity—daily and even hourly—in the popular media, political debates, and almost every major form of public discourse. This in a country, the United States, in which the population of Muslims is around one percent of the nation’s total. Questions are being asked—questions about Muslim rituals and religious law that spring from assumptions about violence and misogyny. Fear across a wide segment of the population, here in the Americas and in Europe, has led to proposals and in some cases legislation that target Muslims and those very rituals and law that have come into question. The better-informed might dismiss the idea that Islam “is” this or that, and even the only moderately informed might know to separate the few from a much larger mass of people. Still, it sometimes seems that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”5

There will be a tendency among some, therefore, to read Islamic virtue ethics as a more humanistic, perhaps even secular, alternative to the rigid legalism of traditional Islamic law, a law that cannot find its place in the modern world, a law that so refuses to change that it endangers the cultures of adherent and nonadherent alike. Indeed, many have made a case—and sometimes a very strong case—that Islamic philosophical virtue ethics was not only humanistic, but humanistic to the point that philosophers cared little about conforming to traditional interpretations of Islam. Scholars such as Lenn E. Goodman, George Makdisi, Marc Bergé, Mohammed Arkoun, and Joel Kraemer have contended that there was an Islamic humanism that prevailed among ethicists and philosophers such as Miskawayh and al-Tawḥīdī.6 The turn away from such humanism is sometimes described as a turn toward traditionalism or voluntarism, but it is almost always described as a turn away from revelation. It is also sometimes seen as a matter of regret, as expressed by Goodman, whose scholarship has been vital to this book:

Miskawayh has something precious that serious and committed Muslims and non-Muslims too would like to regain. Yet one cannot go back in time. If there is something to be recaptured in the humanism of Miskawayh, it will have to be recast once again, perhaps even re-created. Courtliness has had its say and its day, and if a new humanism is to emerge it will require new voices.7

Alexander Key has argued effectively, however, that “humanism” is an amorphous term. Humanism was not associated with the “secular” until religion and reason were seen to be at odds. The Italian humanists were, as Key indicates, focused on the human and on interiority, but they were also religiously committed. It was only later—after there appeared an Enlightenment notion of rationality that rejected religion’s truth claims—that humanism became secular.8 Efforts to fit premodern Islamic thought into a framework parallel to European intellectual history by locating secular “humanism” in the thought of these philosophers ultimately fail because they use “a post-Enlightenment European term for a pre-Enlightenment European movement to describe a tenth-century Islamic reality.”9 As we have seen, the world of scientific inquiry and the world of the spirit were inseparable for our authors. One might even say that “science” and “religion” were inseparable for them. Advocates of “Islamic humanism” certainly have a point in that philosophers often saw a more limited role for revealed truths. Nevertheless, while that might have been true for many philosophers, that was not necessarily always the case for philosophy. Pious and scripturally committed Sufi masters would also make use of philosophers’ teachings, especially their ethical teachings, just as some philosophers such as al-Tawḥīdī saw value in Sufism. A network of knowledge (and in our case ethical inquiry) was alive in a way that we can only try to know. It is a glimpse into that network that this book has aimed to offer.

Virtue ethics as studied here does not always fit well into certain alien molds, as much as we might hope—molds that are humanistic, secular, Western, or democratic. Rather, writings on virtue seem to have fit and to continue to fit into a much larger body of knowledge, a framework from which thinkers drew their own “Islamic” ethics. Evidence for this can be found in the stories that Muslims told, and those they still tell, which make use of various branches of moral learning more freely than what is observed in writings specific to one science or another. Those who advocated scripture or voluntarism cannot be excluded from this. Sciences such as philosophy and Sufism could be considered tools in almost any scholar’s toolbox, even if the overall epistemological architecture of that science contravened that scholar’s claims. Such was the case with Ghazālī’s use of philosophy. While he has been presented as appropriating humanistic virtue ethics, Ghazālī, like his later Shiʿi interpreter Fayd. Kāshānī (d. 1679), reminded Muslim readers that religious law and virtue ethics (both philosophical and Sufi virtue ethics) have a common goal, the achievement of ultimate happiness through the perfection of the soul.

For advocates of traditional Islamic law, Ghazālī’s intellectual mission typifies a recurring corrective in Islam, perhaps because of Islam’s rich and hermeneutically complex legal tradition: to caution readers not to lose sight of Islam’s larger ethical aims by becoming absorbed with ritual technicalities or divinely commanded limits. Such reminders can be found today to an even greater extent than in the past. New philosophical positions have meant that Muslim thinkers interested in “God’s law” often return to it with insights gleaned from the Western ethical traditions. Networks of ethical reasoning that exist today, moreover, mean that almost no moral decision can truly be made in a scriptural void, just as they could not in the past. The salience of certain single-minded interpretations of Islam often brings us to forget that on a day-to-day basis, a Muslim (like any moral agent) draws on multiple pools of knowledge and culture to make any decision or develop any habit.

Lastly there is the most glaring case for relevance, one perhaps so self-evident that it needs no discussion. Virtue ethics in both Islamic philosophy and Sufism responds to the profoundest of human desires, a desire that lies at the core of what it means to be human, the desire for self-perfection. The question of how to achieve self-perfection is so imperative that any calculated answer, and especially any collection of traditions that aims at this answer, merits deliberation. When Ghazālī tells us that “the soul of a human being is as a mirror,” he expects his audience to find “the Real” therein.10 Yet even if one looks for and finds something else, it seems a wasted opportunity not to look.


1 Arikha, Passions and Tempers, p. 274.

2 Ibid., p. 291.

3 Ibid., pp. 286, 305.

4 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, p. 2:397; Adamson and Pormann, “More than Heat and Light,” p. 502.

5 Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, p. 187.

6 See Alshaar, Ethics in Islam, pp. 4–9 for a summary of their positions, as well as Alshaar’s counterarguments, which build on those of Key as mentioned below.

7 Goodman, Islamic Humanism, p. 121.

8 Key, “The Applicability of the Term ‘Humanism’ to Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī,” p. 84.

9 Ibid., p. 85.

10 Ghazālī, Kīmīyā-yi Saʿādat, p. 1:47.

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