Ethics in Islamic philosophy

The study of Islamic ethics, whether philosophical or theological, grew out of early discussions of the questions of predetermination (qadar), obligation (taklif) and the injustices of temporal rulers, particularly the caliphs. Early writers on ethics from the Mu'tazila school were probably influenced by Greek philosophy. By the third century ah (ninth century ad) a clearly discernible current of philosophical ethics began to take shape, with strong influences from Greek ethics including Stoicism, Platonism and Aristotelianism.

Al-Kindi, the first genuine philosopher of Islam, appears from his extant ethical writings to have been particularly influenced by Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic. Other classical influences can be seen in the work of Platonists such as Abu Bakr al-Razi, who followed Plato's division of the parts of the souls, and Neoplatonists such as al-Farabi, while Aristotelian influences can be seen in al-Farabi, who also discussed the problem of evil, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. Ibn Sina developed a theory of the conjunction of the soul with the active intellect; with this conjunction is bound up the ultimate perfection of the soul which has attained the highest degree of wisdom and virtue.

Neoplatonism again surfaces in the work of Ibn Miskawayh and his followers, to whom we owe the groundwork of a whole ethical tradition which flourished in Persia well into the twelfth century ah (eighteenth century ad) and beyond. Onto Plato's threefold division of the soul, Ibn Miskawayh grafts a threefold division of virtue into wisdom, courage and temperance. His views were elaborated upon by al-Tusi and al-Dawwani, among others. A blend of philosophical and religious ethics is characteristic of the work of some later writers such as al-Ghazali and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, in which the road to moral and spiritual perfection has mystical overtones.

  1. Theological preludes
  2. The rise of philosophical ethics: early Socratic and Stoic trends
  3. The advent of Aristotle
  4. Ibn Miskawayh and the Persian writers on ethics
  5. Philosophical and religious ethics

1. Theological preludes

The earliest ethical discussions in the seventh and eighth centuries appear to have centred on the question of qadar, which could equally mean 'capacity', as predicated of man, or 'predetermination', as predicated of God. The early so-called Qadarites of Damascus raised the question of qadar in the context of the moral responsibilities of the Umayyad caliphs, who justified their most oppressive policies on the ground that they were part of the divine decree (qada' wa qadar). Subsequently, the Mu'tazilite theologians of Basra and Baghdad refined upon the speculation of their Qadarite predecessors and attempted for the first time to give an adequate definition of right and wrong and its bearing on God's justice and his decrees in the world. This definition was expressed in essentially rationalist and deontological terms and was received with disapproval by their traditionalist and conservative rivals, who adhered to a voluntarist thesis according to which right is by definition what God commands and wrong is what he prohibits (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila §5).

Other instances of Mu'tazilite rationalism include the espousal of the absolute identity of God's essence and his attributes, the irreversibility of his decrees and the freedom of the will as a precondition of moral responsibility. Mu'tazilite theologians also stressed God's wisdom and goodness and exonerated him of the responsibility for evil in the world, which was 'created' by humankind. The degree to which Mu'tazilite theological ethics was influenced by Greek philosophy cannot be fully determined from our present knowledge of the early sources, since the translation of philosophical texts had not been started by the time the founder of the school, Wasil ibn 'Ata, launched this radical theological movement in the second century ah (eighth century ad). However, contact with Christian theologians, such as John of Damascus and his disciple Theodore Abu Qurrah, was definitely a factor in initiating the Qadarite theologians, the forerunners of the Mu'tazila, into the scholastic methods of discourse that Syriac-speaking Christian scholars had been applying to theological questions prior to the Arab conquest of Syria, Egypt and Iraq.

2. The rise of philosophical ethics: early Socratic and Stoic trends

Al-Kindi, the first genuine philosopher of Islam, was also the first writer on philosophical ethics, and it is significant that he was in sympathy with Mu'tazilite theology during the heyday of that movement. However, unlike his Mu'tazilite contemporaries, whose starting-point was the Qur'an and the Traditions (hadith) of Muhammad, al-Kindi's starting point was Greek philosophy. He is reported by the classical bibliographers to have written a number of ethical treatises reflecting a profound interest in Socratic thought. Thus, in addition to a treatise on Ethics, he is credited with a work on Paving the Way to Virtue, as well as an extant tract, Fi al-hila li-daf' al-ahzan (On the Art of Dispelling Sorrows). Of his Socratic writings, a tract on the Excellence of Socrates, A Dialogue between Socrates and Aschines and a short collection, Alfaz Sugrat (Socratic Utterances), which has survived, are mentioned in the classical sources.

It is noteworthy, however, that in the last-mentioned collection the personalities of Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic (see Diogenes of Sinope) are fused and both emerge as paragons of virtue and asceticism. However, in the more discursive Fi al-hila li-daf' al-ahzan the Stoic ideal of apatheia (freedom from passion) and the consequent indifference to the vicissitudes of fortune are set out in eloquent terms. The antidote of sorrow, which al-Kindi argues in Stoic fashion is inseparable from humanity's ephemeral condition in this world of generation and corruption, is to consider that sorrow results either from our actions or from the actions of others. In the first case, it is our duty as rational agents to refrain from doing that which is the cause of sorrow. In the second case, averting the sorrow which results from the actions of others is either in our power or it is not. If it is in our power, we ought certainly to avert it; if it is not in our power, we should not grieve at the prospect of injury in the hope that it might somehow be turned away. However, should we nevertheless be afflicted by sorrow resulting from actions over which we have no control, it is our duty as rational beings to bear this with fortitude. This view, and the exhortation to shun material possessions as temporary acquisitions of which we are mere borrowers and not real owners, reflect clearly the influences of the great second-century Stoic teacher Epictetus and appear to derive from his famous Enchiridion.

However, it was Socrates and his disciple Plato who were at the centre of the moral-ascetic speculation of the early Muslim ethical philosophers. Abu Bakr al-Razi, in his ethical treatise al-Tibb al-ruhani (The Spiritual Physic), refers to Plato as 'the master of the Philosophers and their leader', and to his teacher Socrates as 'the ascetic and godly' sage. He speaks of the three Platonic parts of the soul as the rational or divine, the irascible or animal and the concupiscent or vegetative souls, as these parts are designated by the Alexandrian physician-philosopher Galen in a treatise on ethics (which has survived in Arabic translation only). He then proceeds to summarize Plato's teaching on the manner in which each of the parts or 'souls' should be 'managed' through reasoning and demonstration, a process which he labels 'spiritual physic' or therapy.

Another Socratic-Platonic theme which recurs in al-Razi's writings is the folly of the hedonistic life which turns man into a slave or a beast. Because so many of our pleasures are either ephemeral or unattainable, we are assailed by anxiety or grief. But the true philosopher will not succumb to grief, because he understands that nothing in this world of generation and corruption is ever permanent and that whatever cannot be turned away should be ignored or disregarded, since it is often the product of passion and not of reason: 'For reason summons us only to what is susceptible of bringing about profit sooner or later; grief does not bring any advantage.... That is why the perfectly rational man will only follow the summons of reason...and will never follow the summons of passion or allow himself to be led by it or get close to it' (Rasa'il al-Razi al-falsafiya: 69).

Like Socrates and Plato, al-Razi believed that the soul on leaving the body will return to its original abode in the intelligible world, after passing through an endless cycle of purifications. That, he argues, is why the fear of death is irrational, and like al-Kindi and other moral philosophers he admonishes the truly reasonable man to resign himself to the prospect of death as a logical consequence of our being human. As al-Kindi had written: 'Since the definition of man is that he is a living, dying, rational being, then if there was no death, there would be no man' (al-Hila li-daf' al-ahzan: 45), death being an essential part of the very definition of man.

However, al-Razi adds to this argument another argument which appears to derive from Epicurus, namely that death is the privation of sensation (see Epicureanism §13); in death, man is stripped of the sensations of pleasure or pain and thus is in a better condition than the living who are constantly subjected to pain, let alone the fact that pleasure sought by our concupiscent nature is really nothing but 'relief from pain' or return to the natural condition (as Plato has taught in the Philebus). Therefore, 'according to the judgment of reason the condition of death is better than the condition of life' (Rasa'il al-Razi al-falsafiya: 93).

3. The advent of Aristotle

The first systematic writer on philosophical questions in Islam was al-Farabi, who had also contributed to ethical discussions. He is reported in the classical sources to have written a commentary on 'parts' of the Nicomachean Ethics, translated into Arabic by Ishaq ibn Hunayn. This commentary is lost, but judging from an extant collection of Fusul muntaza'ah (Excerpts on Ethics),which he is established as having written, he appears to have followed Aristotle's lead in dividing the virtues into moral (practical) and intellectual (see Aristotle §§22-25). The former, he says, are the virtues or perfections of the concupiscent part or faculty of the soul; they include temperance, courage, liberality and justice. The latter are the perfections of the intellectual part and include practical reasoning, good judgment, sagacity and sound understanding.

In his discussion of justice, al-Farabi also follows Aristotle's lead, arguing that justice consists in the equitable distribution of 'common goods' in the city or the state. These goods include security, wealth, dignity and public office, of which every member of the city or state is entitled to a share. Another more general meaning of justice is given as 'man's exercise of virtuous actions in himself and in relation to others, whatever such a virtue might be'.

An interesting feature of al-Farabi's ethics which has no Aristotelian parallel is the discussion of evil. He starts in Neoplatonic fashion by asserting that 'evil has no existence as such in anything found in these worlds; that is generally in whatever does not exist through human volition. Everything therein is good' (Fusul muntaza'a: 81). Evil, then, is a predicate of human action, not of physical occurrences. However, al-Farabi disagrees with traditional Neoplatonists who identified being with the good and not-being with evil pure and simple, on the ground that 'being is good only when it is in conformity with justice (or merit); not-being is evil when it is not in conformity with justice' (Fusul muntaza'a: 81). This appears to reflect Heraclitus' concept of dike as chaos (see Heraclitus §3).

Al-Farabi's successor and spiritual disciple Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is the author of a very short tract on ethics which follows closely the Platonic model in psychology. Ibn Sina divides the soul into the rational, irascible and concupiscent, to which correspond the virtues of wisdom, courage and temperance respectively, and with justice being the 'summation' of all three. To ensure the enforcement of justice within the state, argues Ibn Sina, the existence of the caliph, as conceived of by the Shi'ites, is necessary as the sovereign of the world and God's vicegerent on earth.

More explicitly than al-Farabi, Ibn Sina develops in his psychological writings a theory of conjunction (ittisal) of the soul with the active intellect, that supermundane agency which according to the Muslim Neoplatonists governs the sublunary world (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy §2). With this conjunction, he argues, is bound up the ultimate perfection of the soul which has attained the highest degree of wisdom and virtue, becoming thereby a replica or a mirror of the higher intelligible world. Therein lies man's ultimate happiness while his soul is still in the body.

Ibn Rushd, the great Aristotelian philosopher and commentator, is known from the bibliographical sources to have written a paraphrase and a middle commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, which have survived only in Hebrew and Latin, together with a paraphrase of Plato's Republic which is also relevant to his ethical theory. The principal virtues, according to Ibn Rushd, correspond to the perfection of the three parts of the soul, the rational, the irascible and the concupiscent. Justice is then described along Platonic lines as the 'harmony' of the three corresponding virtues of wisdom, courage and temperance; but it has, as Aristotle stated in the Nicomachean Ethics, two subdivisions which Ibn Rushd calls common or universal, corresponding to 'perfect virtue', and particular, whose further subdivisions are distributive and rectificatory. Contrary to expectations, however, Ibn Rushd does not identify happiness with the contemplative life, as Aristotle (§26) had done, but rather with conjunction (ittisal) with the active intellect, which the Muslim Neoplatonists - with whom he was at loggerheads - had regarded as man's ultimate goal.

4. Ibn Miskawayh and the Persian writers on ethics

The most important writer on ethics in Islam, however, was an eclectic who inclined to Platonism, Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ibn Miskawayh. He laid down in his Tahdhib al-akhlaq (The Cultivation of Morals) and other ethical writings the groundwork for a whole tradition of Persian ethical writing, the chief representatives of which were Nasir-i Khusraw (d. ah 467/ad 1074), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Jalal al-Din al-Dawani, Hussain Kashifi (d. ah 910/ad 1504), Mulla Ahmad Nuraqi (d. ah 1244/ad 1828) among others.

The psychological basis of Ibn Miskawayh's ethics is clearly Platonic, as was generally the case in Islamic philosophical circles. Onto Plato's threefold division of the soul (see Plato §14), as modified by Galen, he grafts a threefold division of virtue into wisdom, corresponding to the rational part of the soul; courage, corresponding to the irascible part; and temperance, corresponding to the concupiscent part. Justice, which Ibn Miskawayh describes as a form of moderation (i'tidal) or proportion (nisba), arises when the three powers or parts of the soul are in harmony. This virtue is not part of virtue, but virtue entire, as Aristotle (§22) had argued. Its subdivisions, according to Aristotle as interpreted probably by Porphyry, are then given as three: our duties to God, to our superiors or equals, and finally to our ancestors. Ibn Miskawayh, however, refers to the genuine Aristotelian twofold subdivisions of justice into distributive and rectificatory and predicates the exercise of this supreme virtue on submission to the holy law (shari'a), which emanates from God. He then assigns to the 'just imam' or caliph the function of warding off the different forms of violating justice. Ibn Miskawayh even attributes to Aristotle, quoting an apocryphal Aristotelian source in Arabic translation, the view that justice stipulates rendering God the kind of worship due to him as our beneficent creator.

However, the Neoplatonic element in Ibn Miskawayh's ethics is nowhere more pronounced than in his analysis of happiness. Its two subdivisions, according to him, are practical and theoretical. The latter consists in 'conjunction' with the active intellect, whereby man is able to join the 'higher intellectual' realm. However, Ibn Miskawayh recognizes beyond this intellectual perfection a 'divine' or supernatural condition whereby man partakes of divine perfection or achieves a condition of self-divinization which goes far beyond his worldly conditions. This 'divine condition' is also alleged to derive from an Aristotelian fragment On the Virtues of the Soul, which Ibn Miskawayh quotes in Arabic translation, but which is clearly different from the apocryphal tract of the Aristotelian corpus known as De virtutibus et vitiis.

Ibn Miskawayh's two best-known Persian followers are Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, author of Akhlaq-i Nasiri (Nasirean Ethics), and Jalal al-Din al-Dawani, author of Lawami al-ishraq fi makarim al-akhlaq (Flashes of Illumination on the Nobility of Character), known also as Akhlaq-i Jalali. Both al-Tusi and al-Dawani follow closely the lead of Ibn Miskawayh in the Tahdhib al-akhlaq. A fundamental difference between Ibn Miskawayh and the latter two authors is the addition of 'household management' and politics to the purely ethical part of their work by both al-Tusi and al-Dawwani. This may be viewed as a broadening, in Aristotelian fashion, of the scope of practical philosophy, which Ibn Miskawayh had tended to confine to ethical discourse only.

In the political section, inspired chiefly by al-Farabi, al-Tusi argues that orderly association is an essential precondition of the good life. Of the three forms of government, the monarchical, the tyrannical and the democratic (which he attributes to Aristotle), he favours the monarchical, identified like Plato's with the 'rule of the virtuous' or aristocrats. However, the true monarch is assisted by divine inspiration but is subordinate to the imam, who according to Shi'ite doctrine is in 'temporary concealment'. This monarch acts accordingly in a vicarious or interim capacity to ensure the administration of justice in the absence of the true head of the community or 'hidden imam'.

Al-Dawani's ethical treatise follows essentially al-Tusi's lead, but in genuine Shi'ite fashion he stresses more than his predecessor the position of humans as God's vicegerent (khalifa) on earth (Surah 2: 30). In mystical fashion, he then goes on to argue that people reflect in their capacity as God's vicegerent the dual character of the divine nature, the outer and the inner, the spiritual and the corporeal, and more than any other creatures, including the angels, can be described as the 'image' of God. The foremost duty of the ruler, he argues, is to preserve the ordinances of the divine law (shari'a) and to conduct the affairs of state in accordance with universal principles and the requirements of the times. The ruler is for that reason God's 'shadow' and the vicar of the Prophet.

5. Philosophical and religious ethics

A specific blend of philosophical and religious ethics is characteristic of the writings of some late authors, including al-Raghib al-Isfahani (d. ah 502/ad 1108), Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and others. Al-Ghazali is the foremost representative of this group, who in both his ethical treatise Mizan al-amal (The Balance of Action) and his religious summa, al-Ihya' 'ulum al-din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), has developed an ethical theory in which Platonic psychology serves as the groundwork of an essentially Islamic and mystical worldview. In this theory, the table of the four cardinal virtues accords with the Platonic virtues but admits of a series of subdivisions or ramifications analogous to those of his predecessors. A good example of the combination of religious and philosophical ideas in al-Ghazali is the manner in which happiness can be achieved. Happiness, as the chief good, admits of two subdivisions, the worldly and the otherworldly. Otherworldly happiness, which is our ultimate goal, cannot be achieved without certain worldly goods. These include the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice, the bodily virtues of health, strength, good fortune and a long life, the external virtues of wealth, kin, social position and noble birth, and finally the 'divine virtues' of guidance, good counsel, direction and divine support. Those virtues are referred to in the Qur'an and the hadith, al-Ghazali says, and the final virtue, 'divine support', is identified with the Holy Spirit (Surah 2: 87, 253) (see Virtues and vices).

The road to moral and spiritual perfection is described as the 'quest for God'. The seekers after God must satisfy two conditions: their actions must be governed by the prescriptions or ordinances of the 'divine law' (al-shar'), and they must ensure that God is constantly present in their hearts. By this presence al-Ghazali means genuine contrition, adoration and submission, born of the seeker's awareness of the beauty and majesty of God which al-Ghazali, like other Muslim mystics or Sufis, regards as analogous to human passion or love ('ishq) (see Mystical philosophy in Islam).

See also: Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; Ethics; al-Ghazali; Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy;Ibn Miskawayh; Logic in Islamic philosophy; Platonism in Islamic philosophy

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Alon, I. (1991) Socrates in Mediaeval Arabic Literature, Leiden: Brill; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, The Hebrew University. (A reliable review of Socratic literature in Arabic.)

Arkoun, M. (1970) Contribution à l'étude de l'humanisme arabe au IV/Xe siècle (Contribution to the Study of Arab Humanism in the 4th-10th Centuries), Paris: Vrin. (A detailed account of Ibn Miskawayh's ethics and his philosophical impact.)

Donaldson, D.M. (1953) Studies in Muslim Ethics, London: SPCK. (Contains useful information on Arabic and Persian ethics, but is now somewhat out of date.)

Fakhry, M. (1994) Ethical Theories in Islam, Leiden: Brill, 2nd enlarged edn. (A systematic analysis of philosophical and religious ethical theories in Islam.)

* al-Farabi (c.870-950) Fusul muntaza'ah (Excerpt on Ethics), ed. F. Najjar, Beirut, 1971. (Al-Farabi's work on ethics, showing the influence of Aristotle.)

Hourani, G. (1985) Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (An important collection of ethical studies by an eminent writer on ethical questions in Islam.)

* Ibn Miskawayh (before 1030) Tahdhib al-akhlaq (The Cultivation of Morals), trans. C.K. Zurayk, The Refinement of Character, Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1966. (Reliable and annotated translation.)

Khadduri, M. (1984) The Islamic Conception of Justice, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. (A discursive and informative account of this central ethical concept in Islamic thought.)

al-Kindi (before 873) Rasa'il al-Kindi al-falsafiyah (Al-Kindi's Philosophical Writings), ed. A.H. Abu Rida, Cairo, 1950. (Collected philosophical writings of al-Kindi.)

* al-Kindi (before 873) al-Hila fi-daf' al-ahzan (On the Art of Dispelling Sorrows), ed. H. Ritter and R. Walzer, Uno scritto morale de al-Kindi, Rome, 1938. (Contains al-Kindi's account of Stoic ideals.)

Leaman, O. (1995) 'Christian Ethics in the Light of Muslim Ethics', in C. Rodd (ed.) New Occasions Teach New Duties?, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 219-31. (Comparative study of the differing roles played by ethics in Islam and Christianity.)

* al-Razi (before 925) Rasa'il al-Razi al-falsafiyah (Al-Razi's Philosophical Writings), ed. P. Kraus, Cairo, 1939. (Collected philosophical writings of Abu Bakr al-Razi.)

* al-Tusi (1201-74) Akhlaq-i Nasiri (The Nasirean Ethics), trans. G.M. Wickens, London: Allen & Unwin, 1964. (Translation of al-Tusi's Akhlaq-i Nasiri from Persian. Reliable on the whole.)

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