Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Nehamas and Friendship in Religious Poetry

Alexander Nehamas’ book, On Friendship, ends with the quote from Montaigne: “I love you because it is you, because it is I,” highlighting what Nehamas finds to be the most powerful aspect of friendship [i]. While friendship, as exemplified by Montaigne’s quote, is very difficult to explain, Nehamas uses On Friendship to describe both many themes of what friendship is and many possibilities of what friendship could be. He begins by describing Aristotle’s views, as well as other general background, on friendship studies, then moves on to spend the majority of the book detailing “what has been said about friendship and and how the arts have represented it through the centuries” [ii]. He analyzes friendship through painting, narrative literature, Montaigne’s stories of his own friendship, drama, and the film, Thelma and Louise, finding different lessons from each. Of these insights into friendship through art, some of the most important are that it is ambiguous in that it “cannot be defined by behavior,” is “not fully explicable,” and is not consistently moral nor immoral, and at the same time often consists of “mundane and trivial” actions and can be found in “bodily dispositions and tones of voice,” not “just motives” [iii]. Even with this ambiguity, Nehamas cocnludes that is still one of the most important things a person can have. This account of art and its connection to friendship is great already, but it could be extended even further to include poetry, as well. We spoke in class about how “lyric poetry is an excellent medium” for expressing friendship, with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 as a great example [iv]. In this essay, I will focus on religious poetry/sayings more specifically, using examples from The Forty Rules of Love and Unitarian Universalist tradition to show how well poetry can capture the essence of love, react against the modern plague of loneliness, and express our deepest desires for a more connected world.

As far as poets go, especially as far as those who take love and friendship as their muse, Rumi may be the most famous. He is able to capture the feeling of love through metaphor expertly, with this being just one example of many: “In the house of lovers, the music never stops, the walls are made of songs & the floor dances” [v]. However, he was not always a poet, and, at least in the telling of his story by Elif Shafak, it is his friend, Shams’, death that brings him to poetry. In Shafak’s book, Rumi says, “Deep in the slow whirling of sorrow and longing, I am with Shams every day, every minute… Love has taken away all my practices and habits. Instead it has filled me with poetry” [vi]. It is in this longing for such a fabulous friendship that Rumi’s poetry is born. He is able to break down other parts of life and reminds the reader what is truly important. Another quote of Rumi says, “Why struggle to open a door between us when the whole wall is an illusion?” [vii], which is fitting particularly in modern times. Often people struggle so much to connect with others when, really, the feeling of a wall between them preventing their connection is just an imagined barrier that was never really there, but put there by our modern, anti-friendship society. The poems and sayings of Rumi have the ability to remind us what matters, and what is real versus what is not.

Unitarian Universalist (UU) poetry can and does do similar things, and my favorite UU poem (which I read during a Sunday service once after finding it among other UU readings online) is this:

“Out of our separate lives we come, to walk this path together for an hour or a day, for a week or a month or a series of months and years. For this space of time we travel together, making much or little or nothing at all of the fact that another walks beside us.

We can keep our eyes cast down, protecting ourselves from the pain we risk whenever we allow another human being to touch us, living safe little lives inside our sterile wrappings.

Or we can reach out, risking a little or a lot or every coin we have, because we believe that loving and being loved is the only game in town.

The choice is ours.

Those who risk much lose much. But they are also the only ones who ever win.” [viii]

I think that this poem represents well the “anxieties in forming friendships,” or any connection to other human beings at all, felt so much by our modern neoliberal, individualistic, and “legalistic” society [ix]. Often we are so focused on ourselves that we make “nothing at all of the fact” that others are there with us, and we often isolate ourselves with our “eyes cast down,” scared of what truly connecting with others could mean. Karpeles’ poem starts by recognizing the reality of our situation in this way, but then moves on to push us to resist these tendencies to hide from others, and instead “risk ever coin we have” and “reach out” since love is “the only game in town.” It throws away the modern aversion to friendship, and recommends complete investment in it—to set aside our freedom to have complete control over our own lives for the sake of deep friendship. Another UU poem, designed to be read-and-response and read while the chalice is lit at the beginning of the service, alternates between the person in the pulpit saying a sentence like “We are this chalice, rimmed by the spiral dance of searching” or “We are here. We are here for ourselves. We are here for each other” and the congregation saying the same three words back every time: “We are not alone” [x]. This poem is a direct response to our modern culture that is constantly telling us the opposite: that we are alone. It is a kind of pro-friendship, group therapy that encourages a re-emergence of the values of community, relationships, and interdependence. Another, third poem, takes all of this a step further and describes ” the reciprocal meeting of the fullness of life between one active existence and another” as an “experience of grace” through which “we rediscover God” [xi]. In this view, connection to God is not an individual act done alone, but found in connection to others. Returning to emphasis on connection and friendship as a central moral value van be seen as an expression of faith.

In both Rumi’s writings and the Unitarian Universalist tradition, it is clear that poetry has immense potential to communicate feelings of friendship, and would be a great addition to Nehamas’ book. He could speak about how poetry aims to express, through metaphor, the inexplicable (especially in the context of his chapter, “And So On” [xii]), laments the anti-friendship nature of the modern world, and is also able to comfort people and embolden them to resist forces such as individualism, over-valuing of freedom, etc. Additionally, extensions religion can be made, and how religious poetry can also put forward the idea that connection to other people brings you closer to the divine. Of course, religious poetry is not the only way to express these ideas, and there are many, many other artistic mediums that attempt to express the phrase, “because it was you, because it was I,” in both similar and completely different ways. Friendship is essential to a fulfilling life, and hence will be a focus of the arts for as long as living beings make art.


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

Emily Cairncross



[i] Alexander Nehamas, On Friendship, page 225.

[ii] Nehamas, page 7.

[iii] Nehamas, pages 188-189.

[iv] M. Jafar Amir Mahallati, Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Lecture 4/25.

[v] Rumi, “230+ Beautiful Rumi Quotes on Love, Life & Friendship (Sufi Poetry).”

[vi] Elif Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, pages 341-342.

[vii] Rumi.

[viii] Eileen B. Karpeles, “The Only Ones Who Ever Win.” (Many line breaks were deleted for the sake of formatting.)

[ix] Mahallati, Lecture 4/30.

[x] Michael DeVernon Boblett, “We Are Not Alone.”

[xi] Thomas Fritts, “To Be Human Is to Be Aware of Our Separation.”

[xii] Nehamas, Ch. 4.


Works Cited

Boblett, Michael DeVernon. “We Are Not Alone.” Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), 5 Nov. 2018,

Fritts, Thomas. “To Be Human Is to Be Aware of Our Separation.” UUA, 21 Jan. 2015,

Karpeles, Eileen B. “The Only Ones Who Ever Win.” UUA, 16 July 2017,

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

Nehamas, Alexander. On Friendship. Basic Books, 2016.

Rūmī, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad. “230+ Beautiful Rumi Quotes on Love, Life & Friendship (Sufi Poetry).” Edited by Khairul Ruzaini, Quotes Of Islam, 11 Dec. 2017,

Shafak, Elif. The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi. Penguin Books, 2011.


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