Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Michael Kennedy: Friendship Making Self and Society

Over thousands of years, numerous philosophies and theologies have praised friendship as one of the highest and most necessary virtues in life. While in the contemporary age, one may envision friendship as a private, individual experience, prominent thinkers of different cultures have recognized friendship as a foundational to civilization as well. The notable similarities in philosophical constructions of friendship and its benefits, especially among theologies, speak to universal experiences and perceptions of friendship.

Amongst all major historical conceptions of friendship recognize it as an irreplaceable transformative force to enrich life on both individual and communal levels. Rather than introduce a sample of the multitude of similar perspectives on friendship, this essay will highlight the different ways friendship has been conceived as a creative power. Despite these differences in historical worldview, each worldview shares the resounding conclusion that friendship enhances the capability of the self and strengthens the good in society.

One of the first great Iranian civilizations that developed over the period of classical antiquity (800 B.C- 600 C.E) built itself upon Zoroastrian ideas of friendship and its potential. The religion of Zoroastrianism incorporated the belief that humans had friends in immortal deities who would help protect and reward them in life. While believers recognized friendship from a spiritual perspective, scholar Jamsheed Choksy argues that friendship was recognized as key in providing and sustaining both order and knowledge in society. Their society recognized that “Acquisition of learning, knowledge, and wisdom cannot occur without societal and confessional frameworks nor without the amity that permits sharing of ideas and institutions as Zarathustra’s words suggested.”[i] The importance of friendship, as stressed through religious texts, helped to form a worldview that allowed for the building of new societal goods. Choksy argues these values have remained ingrained in Iranian culture, explaining “So free-willed alliance can be understood broadly as the foundation of Iranian civitas in ancient and medieval times amidst Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and Muslims even though intercommunal relations periodically were strained and even hostile. Friendships and other relationships formed in this world were and still are important means of constructing and maintaining the social fabric.”[ii] In this framework, friendship forges the bonds to create and maintain community and society.

Secular classical philosophy, attempting to define virtue ethics and the highest good, recognized friendship as enriching life beyond material means. While Iranian society found friendship foundation for society, philosophers like Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) analyzed friendship in political terms. In his influential Nicomachean Ethics, he argued, “Most necessary for our life, no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all other goods.”[iii] Among societal values, he claims that friendship supersedes justice, as a society of friends has no need for justice, but a society with justice still requires friends. Rather than critiquing loneliness, classical philosophy recognized friendship as a positive creative force. Political scientist James M. Rhodes writes of another foundational philosopher, “Plato [d. 348 B.C.] diagnosed the disease of his civilization as an ethical failure. To treat the illness, he prescribed the practice of a philia (friendship) that inspires virtue. If it worked perfectly, this remedy would first produce small friendship circles and ultimately a just polity essentially constituted by philia. This would create necessary contexts for both the personal and political fulfillment of human nature.”[iv] These analyses of friendship place it as not just a constructor of society and order, but the means of creating ideal social and political relations.

Perhaps the most striking similarities in conceptions of friendship are those created by influential Christian and Islamic theologians. Like previous philosophies, friendship was still recognized as transformative on the personal and societal level. On the personal level, both Christian and Islamic theologies recognized a linkage between friendship and truth and friendship playing a crucial role in producing truth. One of the most influential theologians in early Christian history, St. Augustine once wrote, “So to these two things that are so necessary in this world, well-being and a friend, along came Wisdom as a visitor.”[v] In the search for truth, or knowledge, St. Augustine was adamant that friendship was a necessary component to understanding. Islamic philosopher Al-Tawhidi (d. 1023) drew a similar conclusion “that the souls of friends purify themselves and reach their highest goal and fulfill their obedience to God by sharing the love of the essence of knowledge.”[vi] Relationships were the arena of practicing Christian and Islamic values, which would in turn become friendships that could comprehend and share in the love and wisdom of God.

On a societal level, friendship in Christianity and Islam constituted the closest physical manifestation of God’s love and was considered the driving force of charity. Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) argued that charity was one of the most powerful creative forces resulting from God’s friendship with humans. Aquinas argued, “… charity is beyond the resources of nature, and therefore cannot be something natural, nor acquired by natural powers, since no effect transcends its cause. Hence we have it neither by nature, nor as acquired, but as infused by the Holy Spirit…”[vii] Aquinas defines religious charity as not just obligation, but resulting from an inner impulse to reciprocate the love from an all-generous friendship with God onto others. Islamic philosopher Miskawayh (d. 1030) also recognized friendship as the force that drives human concern into matters beyond their own immediate interest. Scholar Nuha Al-Shaar elaborates, “Miskawayh speaks of sadaqa (friendship) as ‘denoting something more particular than love’. It is a genuine love, which leads a person to become interested in all that concerns his friend and the preference for the good. Sadaqa also resembles in its very essence intimacy (mawadda), which is desiring the affection of virtuous and pious people by performing good deeds that inspire such affection from them.”[viii] Through friendship with a higher power, the all-abundant generosity and love from God can be inspirational to increase one’s capacity for good works towards others.

These philosophies all recognized friendship as a creative force with the potential to create an ideal society. Zoroastrianism appreciated friendship for its binding of community. Greek philosophers recognized it as a political worldview that could re-structure dynamics of power in society. Early Christian and Islamic theologians believed that friendship was necessary to understand religious truth and create physical manifestation of God’s love. Although all of these understandings may appear oppositional, they all speak to the universality of friendship as a transformative worldview that enriches the personal and societal life by creating cooperative forms of relations.

[i] “Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal,” Jamsheed Choksy, Iranica Antiqua, pg. 254.

[ii] Choksy, pg. 254.

[iii] Book 8, Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Pg. 6.

[iv] “Platonic Philia and Political Order,” James M. Rhodes, Friendship and Politics : Essays in Political Thought, edited by Heyking, John von, University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. Pg. 22.

[v] St. Augustine, Letter 130 to Proba.

[vi] “Friendship and love as paths to spiritual perfection,” Nuha, Al-Shaar, in Ethics in Islam: Friendship in the Political Thought of Al-Tawhidi and his Contemporaries, Pg. 203.

[vii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 24, art. 2.

[viii] Al-Shaar, Pg. 200.



Book 8, Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics

“Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal,” Jamsheed Choksy, Iranica Antiqua

“Platonic Philia and Political Order,” James M. Rhodes, Friendship and Politics : Essays in Political Thought, edited by Heyking, John von, University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

“Friendship and love as paths to spiritual perfection,” Nuha, Al-Shaar, in Ethics in Islam: Friendship in the Political Thought of Al-Tawhidi and his Contemporaries

St. Augustine, Letter 130 to Proba.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 24, art. 2.


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