Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Common/Uncommon Ground in Friendship

Daniel Weintraub


While it may take over a lifetime to define friendship, there are certain tenets that friendship scholars tend to hold on to. Is friendship about being together? Finding oneself? Finding one another? Well, yes and no, depending on where one draws their sources from. I will argue that Confucian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Roman, and Muslim cultures regard friendship as a means to serve humanity, as well as either directly or indirectly serving G-d. In a Christian Context however, the importance of friendship is eclipsed by the commandment to “love thy neighbor.”

Confucian philosophy incorporates virtue-based ethics. This is easily visible in the context of friendship. Confucian ethics state that one friend should encourage another toward virtue. So if one friend is acting out of order, it is ok for another to discipline them. This sentiment is echoed with Cottine, who stated that “Rebuking a harmful or unvirtuous act or challenging what appears to be erroneous can be described as service owed to friends.” As such, “A friend that has no interest in heeding the other’s advice is not a friend worth having” (Cottine 19). Confucian ethics encourage seeking higher virtues so much so that if one person is too obstinate as to not take constructive criticism, they are a friend not worth having. The end result in a Confucian system is not only the highest order of virtue but a functional political system as well. And within a functional political system, human serves human. Is this not the same in friendship?

This relates to Professor Mahallati, who stated, “Deep down, religiosity is about establishing relationships, both vertical and horizontal” (Mahallati 2/21/19). This verticality of religion is conspicous; of course, faith provides a relationship between oneself and the divine. But what for the here and now? Worshipping G-d is a form of appreciation. And while it may be egocentric to think that humans are G-d’s masterpiece, Abrahamic tradition does state that humans have dominion over all other life. So what better way is there to serve G-d than to know, to befriend, and to love his most beautiful creation; us.

J.K. Chosky presents friendship within Zoroastrian society as a direct way of serving G-d.  He states that in Zoroastrian society “Subjects {…} were expected to be linked in harmonious friendship with each other, the ruler, immortal spirits, and G-d” (Choksy 282). As such, “Rebels” were those who showed “No respect for the implicit covenants between G-d, immortal friends, king, and human associates” (Choksy 282). Clearly, friendship was a socio-religious tradition. By maintaining friendships on earth, we respect human’s “covenant” with G-d. Whether “rebels” wreak havoc through violence or through the destruction of friendship, they still go against G-d.

In a similar vein, Cicero elucidates friendship in Roman culture as  “That kindred impulse of love, which arises when once we have met someone whose habits and character accord with our own{…} since on account of their virtue and uprightness we feel a sort of affection even for those whom we have never seen” (Cicero 139). The latter part of this quote is most telling. One cannot deny the importance of virtue in that it can bring together two complete strangers. In Zoroastrian society, subjects were all expected to be linked in “harmonious friendships.” Surely it would be unrealistic to state that all subjects knew one another. Still, they were each expected to maintain friendship. The same could be said in Rome; where the potentiality of friendship no doubt existed between each and every citizen. Aristotle said that “If a political system functions very well, the end result will be friendship” (Mahallati 2/19/19). Good politics lead to concord in society, and concord in society leads to friendship.

As seen with Zoroastrian society, Muslim culture has a strong socio-religious aspect to friendship as well. This is echoed in Mahallati’s statement that “Spiritual credit in Islam goes up exponentially based on the more people a Muslim prays with” (2/26/19). Togetherness is the essence of religiosity. And that does not come from me, but is expressly stated in Muslim scripture. This falls in line with my thesis. G-d does not want humankind to pray for the sake of prayer. Rather, we should find others in the process. In this case, followers of Islam are emboldened to pray alongside one another not only to praise G-d, but to rejoice in the intimacy of human love too. The Hajj is a perfect example of this.

As for Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita lists the attributes of god-like men (which serve as model for the virtuous person) to be “Freedom from malice, good conduct, uprightness, purity of mind, continence, sacrifice, forgiveness, and compassion to all living things” (Mahalingam 268). Are these not the qualities of a good friend as well? Compassion is so important as it seems to encapsulate friendship more than anything else. A genuinely compassionate friend is likely to possess those other attributes too. Moreover, Hinduism is unique as it lists compassion not only for your fellow human but for “all living things.” All things come from G-d. Respecting life on earth leads to environmental sustainability. And with sustainability, humankind may preserve G-d’s creation for many, many more generations.

Within the aforementioned traditions friendship is put forth as the greater good, and therefore the essence of religiosity. However, a clear difference arises when looking at Christian thought. The separation here lies in the belief that whatever love you may give to your friend is a love wasted; it should be put towards G-d. St. Augustine even went so far as to state “Friendship of this world is a fornication against you (G-d)” (Augustine 201). Moreover, preferential love goes against the all-important commandment to “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” or as Mahallati callled it “Blind love” (2/26/18). I wholeheartedly disagree with the Christian interpretation of friendship. Our relationships make us who we are. Without them, one will never know what they are capable of. Given that prayer is an intimate, personal experience, how can one serve the divine without knowing oneself?

Confucian, Zoroastrian, Roman, Hindu, and Muslim traditions all find common ground in friendship being an important means to help one another. In serving the greater good of society humans live in health and peace, just as G-d intended. And by maintaining friendship with all people and things, humans not only realize their own potential but sustain a healthy society and environment. Christianity permits friendship to a certain extent though it is still frowned upon. Even then, friendship is only permissible if between two observant Christians. This is not enough. If the world were so insular how would any nation get the resources they need. Trade and international relations would cease to exist. Plain and simple, the world needs the opposite. Trade, relations, cultural/religious exchange, and friendship are the means to attaining what G-d intended; love for one another and love for the world.



Chery Cottine, That’s what friends are for: A Confucian Perspective on the Moral Singificance of Friendship, 2014, Oberlin College.

Mahallati, 2/21/19 Lecture.

James K Choksy, Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal, April 2009, Indiana University.

Suzanne Stern-Gilett and Robin Weiss, Ancient and Medieval concepts of Friendship, July 2015, Suny Press.

Mahallati, 2/19/19 Lecture.

Mahallati, 2/26/19 Lecture.

Indira Mahalingam, Friendship East and West, July 1996, Curzon Press.

Suzanne Stern-Gilett and Tamer Nwar, Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, July 2015, Suny Press.

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