Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Duty, Knowledge, and Friendship with God in Different Religious Traditions

While friendship studies may have started with Aristotle when he argued, among other things, that friendship is “the greatest external good” [i], it by no means stopped there. Many religions have picked up where Aristotle left off by agreeing with some aspects of his philosophy, disagreeing with others, reinterpreting ideas, and developing independent definitions. Regardless, Aristotle (and Plato to a lesser extent) do seem to constitute a general starting point, for better or for worse. However, there are a few things missing from the Greek philosophers’ definitions of friendship: any religious references to things like cosmic order, spiritual knowledge, and divine beings or God. Confucian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Roman, Christian, and Muslim cultures and thinkers take the preceding, secular version of friendship and elaborate on it to incorporate some or all of these ideas to fit their own beliefs and values. These new definitions are all unique, but share a lot of common ground, specifically in their emphasis on how order, duty, and/or hierarchy are upheld or fulfilled by friendship, how knowledge can, and should, lead to friendship, and how friendship is not limited to only humans, but can extend to God.

One of the themes that most spans the different traditions is its structured, hierarchical, duty-bound nature and role in upholding cosmic order. In Confucianism, friendship is seen as “structured,” “role-governed,” and built upon “dependency” [ii] in a way that “generates obligations, contains norms, and encourages virtue development” [iii]. One of these obligations, for example, is a person’s responsibility to guard their friend’s reputation [iv]. Hindu culture, for what it does say about friendship, also assigns obligation to a the role of a friend; as seen in the Bhagavad Gita, “the Indian philosophical tradition would [likely] view perfect friendship as one where friends do their duty towards each other without looking to the consequences” [v]. This is much more specific and rule-bound than the general virtue-based friendship of Aristotle. Additionally, Zoroastrian thoughts on friendship confirm the same idea: “aṣ̌a/arta involved… friendships that were expected to paywand or ‘connect’ all facets of ordinary existence together through life, individual apocalypse, and collective eschatology to the final afterlife” [vi]. Aṣ̌a/arta is a very complex word with many meanings, but can be translated as “truth,” “order,” “righteousness,” etc., and is of paramount importance in Zoroastrianism.

These three religious traditions take friendship to the next level of not just being good for individuals and communities, but for the entire universe and its religiously-determined social order of duties and obligations. This emphasis on responsibilities instead of solely freedom is refreshing in encouraging stronger, longer-lasting friendships with and additional, religiously-oriented higher purpose. Roman thought, in contrast, includes ideas like Cicero’s Paradox: “the greater one’s self-sufficiency, the less one needs a friend, the better a friend one is” [vii], valuing independence instead and disdaining being “reduced to a state of ‘dependency” [viii]. Overvaluing independence, however, has been shown many times to harm people’s ability to form connections. Confucian, Hindu, and Zoroastrian traditions all emphasize dependency on others and obligation in achieving higher ideals, hierarchy, and order, though it can also be said that this it is not dependence either that is the answer, but interdependence. These traditions highlight this struggle between focus on self and on relationship.

Another common theme in definitions of friendship is the role of knowledge in creating it. In Zoroastrian culture, “divine immortals” are believed to transmit “knowledge and wisdom” to humans through friendship with them [ix], and in the Bible, Jesus says to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants… Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” [x]. In both of these cases, the principal source of the friendship is the sharing of divine knowledge. So, are these friendships based on virtues as in Aristotle’s model? It could be argued that this is a different type of friendship, but I do think that the learning and valuing of true knowledge itself is a virtue, a common experience that can be shared among people and brings them together. Additionally, some Muslim scholars say, “If knowledge does not bring you love, it is the deceit of evil” [xi]. Often, in the modern world, more knowledge about certain subjects can lead to divisiveness and cynicism, but this saying (along with the other two examples) is a wonderful reminder to always keep friendship as the goal in pursuing knowledge (especially relevant to college students like myself).

Friendship between deities or God and humans is a large theme, as well. Zoroaster himself said cerca 2000 BC, “Oh God, let us eternally be close friends” [xii]; St. Augustine believes that friendship with God is even more important than human friendships [xiii]; and St. Thomas Aquinas proposed that “in charity we are friends with God” [xiv]. The ability to attain this level of intimacy with the divine is remarkable, especially as some believe that “religion is all about communicating the significance of… the immense gap that exists between us and God” instead of bridging it [xv]. Zoroaster takes friendship to the next level of connecting closely with the most powerful spiritual being, and St. Augustine does as well (while unfortunately letting his bad, past experiences cloud his understanding of the true possibilities of human friendship). St. Thomas Aquinas elaborates on this ability to be friends with God, specifically connecting it with good works and living a virtuous life. This version of charity as friendship with God is a perfect example of a friendship based on shared virtues, just this time between a human and a deity.

These many religions/cultures take Aristotle’s original conception of friendship as virtue-based and expand it to fit their unique traditions and beliefs. Many add an element of upholding hierarchy, the order of the universe, and social duties, while others emphasize religious knowledge as a path to friendship, and still others open up the possibility of humans even having friendships with the divine. Of course, many disagree or place emphases on different things—for example, Buddhism also sees  friendship as “the whole of the holy life” while simultaneously being a “non-theistic faith” that “relies much on ‘spiritual friendship” between human beings instead of divine-human relationships that are paramount in other people’s religious experiences [xvi]. The fact is, though, that common ground can always be found between any two religions or group of religions, it just will not always be the same ground. Furthermore, all of this is relevant because of the significant influence religions have over their adherents that can be used to spread the power of friendship wider throughout the world (something that not all of them have historically done). The Buddhist Society, for example, mentions “new initiatives… in the UK” related to friendship and impacting “government departments,” taking friendship beyond just personal, one-on-one interactions and working to create change [xvii]. While friendship may have lost ground in the past, especially within Christianity, we have now, in this current moment, the opportunity to start working to bring friendship back into prominence. This goes for religious spaces, secular spaces, scholarly spaces, etc. The religions and scholars mentioned above have, if nothing else, all recognized the importance of studying friendship and its contribution to us all living good lives, and that is the first and most important step.


I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code of Oberlin College in this assignment.

Emily Cairncross



[i] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, page 148.

[ii] M. Jafar Amir Mahallati, Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Lecture 2/19.

[iii] Cheryl Cottine, “That’s What Friends Are For: A Confucian Perspective on the Moral Significance of Friendship,” page 2.

[iv] Mahallati, Lecture 2/19.

[v] Indira Mahalingam, “Friendship in Indian Philosophy,” page 267.

[vi] Jamsheed Choksy , “Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal,” pages 252-253.

[vii] Mahallati, Lecture 2/21.

[viii] Robin Weiss, “Cicero’s Stoic Friend as Resolution to the Paradoxes of Platonic Love: De Amicitia alongside the Symposium,” pages 160-161.

[ix] Mahallati, Lecture 2/21.

[x] New International VersionJohn 15:15.

[xi] Mahallati, Lecture 2/26.

[xii] Ibid, 2/21.

[xiii] Tamer Nawar, “Adiutrix Virtutum?: Augustine on Friendship and Virtue,” page 208.

[xiv] Fergus Kerr OP, “Thomas Aquinas: Charity as Friendship,” page 265.

[xv] Oliver Leaman, “Secular Friendship and Religious Devotion,” page 254.

[xvi] The Buddhist Society, “Friendship in Buddhism” (abstract of a talk).

[xvii] Ibid.


Works Cited

Aristotle. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin, 2nd ed., Hackett, 1999.

Choksy, Jamsheed. “Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal.” Iranica Antiqua, XLVI, 2011, pp. 251-288, doi:10.2143/IA.46.0.2084422.

Cottine, Cheryl. “That’s What Friends Are For: A Confucian Perspective on the Moral Significance of Friendship.” Unpublished paper. Oberlin College.

Kerr OP, Fergus. “Thomas Aquinas: Charity as Friendship.” Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, edited by Gary M Gurtler and Suzanne Stern-Gillet, SUNY Press, 2014, pp. 245-267.

Leaman, Oliver. “Secular Friendship and Religious Devotion.” Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectivesby Oliver Leaman, CURZON, 1996, pp. 251-262.

Mahalingam, Indira. “Friendship in Indian Philosophy.” Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives, by Oliver Leaman, CURZON, 1996, pp. 263–269.

Mahallati, M. Jafar Amir. Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art. Course, Oberlin College. Spring 2019.

Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, edited by Gary M Gurtler and Suzanne Stern-Gillet, SUNY Press, 2014, pp. 197-244.

New International Version. Bible Gateway, Accessed 28 Feb. 2019.

The Buddhist Society Chaplaincy. “Friendship in Buddhism.” The Buddhist Society, Jamtech Solutions, 30 Sept. 2015, 6:30pm,

Weiss, Robin. “Cicero’s Stoic Friend as Resolution to the Paradoxes of Platonic Love: De Amicitia alongside the Symposium.” Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, edited by Gary M Gurtler and Suzanne Stern-Gillet, SUNY Press, 2014, pp. 133–169.

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