On Friendship as the Essential Teachings of the Qur’an
The Qur’an is a book of great wealth and knowledge, guiding over a billion of its followers every year towards salvation. Despite this, wars, feuds, torture, and oppression have been claimed to be justified by the text itself.[i] I propose, however, that the very elemental aspects of the Qur’an are the building blocks establishing a religion of friendship. And those with the highest capacity—just as Muhammad was—are those which are the most beloved of God and man alike. Tracing the three core beliefs of a follower of Islam, along with the five pillars of a practicing Muslim, one may begin to grasp the essential thread of friendship which permeates the text and surrounding thought.
Muhammad is the final prophet, the “beloved of God”.[ii] This is one of the three fundamental beliefs all Muslims accept. Such a phrase confirms the divine nature of the text, but it also creates an underlying vision of what a Muslim ought to be. God chose Muhammad to carry out their vision, and it is in Muhammad that a perfect role model was created. For Muhammad was essentially a great mediator before he was blessed. In fact, the first 40 years of his life were spent as a mediator and trustworthy friend, and he only began to receive revelations for the final third part of his life.[iii] Logically, then, one can say that God valued Muhammad’s time as a friend and mediator far more than his time revealing the Qur’an. This can be interpreted best as God requiring a great amount of experience and service from Muhammad towards other men before he was ready to bear the Islamic text. In other words, Muhammad needed to be a friend first, and a prophet second. Such a thought may seem counterintuitive, as certainly Muhammad’s greatest gifts to the world came through revelation; however, it suggests that God wants first in all of us the capacity to be great friends. This comes before revelation and is the basis for God’s choosing of Muhammad as the final prophet of Islam.[iv] Be a good friend among men, God suggests, for that is among the greatest of bounties (one which we shall explore further in the eschatology of the Qur’an). In fact, God’s very name for Muhammad is Al-Habeeb, or ‘the beloved’.[v] And what gave Muhammad such a name? it was his actions before becoming a prophet. His gifts as a mediator and merchant—a friend and a man of service—that establish him as the ‘beloved’ prophet before God.
The Islamic identity is based in part on the expectation and tonal shift of life as a preparation for the afterlife. One may end up eternally in either Hellfire or Paradise based on their actions in this world. About a third of the Qur’an deals with issues of the afterlife, something far more relevant than most traditional religions.[vi] Even the other Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Judaism rarely talk of the afterlife, with Judaism especially spending almost no time exploring what happens in the hereafter, but rather noting that it exists.[vii] Such a central belief within the Qur’an denotes the focus one must have in preparing and orienting themselves towards the day of judgement. Especially considered to Islam’s brother religions, the Qur’anic God heavily emphasizes both the torment and paradise possible to achieve in each righteous human. Sayyid Lari makes clear the pain and torment of Hell as told through the Qur’an: “the fire of hell will burn within and then proceed outwards,”[viii] And what is so significant about the Islamic Hellfire? It implies that the torture is created from within, so that the awareness of one’s sins is what drives their eternal pain.
To avoid this, the Qur’an offers a simple option. It is something already discussed in Muhammad’s own character, something which in making a covenant with God all good men shall naturally fulfill: righteousness, as fulfillable through friendship. “Each soul shall know what it did and what it failed to do”.[ix] The Qur’an is clear about what is revealed to man during the day of judgement—everything. But they will not be judged by God accordingly. In fact, God says “whoso begets a good deed shall be rewarded tenfold… and they shall not be wronged; God even judges us in the best of our deeds.[x] What does this mean on a conceptual level? God is man’s friend. Islam is a relationship between man and God that resembles the closest of companionships. God is forgiving, merciful, benevolent. God wants the best of man and so rewards us far more than we deserve. Reaching paradise is therefore skewed so that man has all the opportunities to reach God’s land on the day of judgement.
Of course, the very nature of paradise in Islamic conceptions points to a land of friendship. This is especially contrasted with Hell, where each person experiences the torture of their sin, bearing the burden from within—decidedly alone. Paradise, however, is a place where families reunite, where all are brought together.[xi] To enter Heaven, a righteous Muslim must fulfill the five pillars of Islam. Each one helps to further man’s relationship with God. But what is overlooked is in how Islam’s pillars are essentially God training us. To be better and more faithful servants of God, in this worldview, includes doing so together. God is training us to be better friends. Izutsu notes “God never breaks his promise, though most men do not know it”.[xii] Not only does God remain loyal to mankind, he does it despite our tendency to fail in giving gratitude. What can one ask more of in a friend than unconditional positive regard? This is a concept even clinical therapist have begun adopting for its power in maintaining friendships across time and situations.[xiii] The Qur’an and Islam are merely vessels for the moralities of kindness, forgiveness, and patience which are fundamentally required for a great companionship.
The First pillar of Islam is ‘Shahada’, or faith. It would be amiss to consider faith in God as a necessary belief in Allah, but rather that one acts in accordance to their faith (even if internally one’s faith falters). This is the viewpoint of Izutsu, who claims that faith and righteousness must be judged by actions and not internal beliefs.[xiv] Faith is therefore expressed by our righteous deeds. As previously discussed, God is a being that heralds friendship. Not only is Muhammad a prophet who’s deeds for most of his life centralized on his ability to mediate, but the role model of God himself breathes life into the concept of friendship as a divine characteristic. To act righteously seems most often reflected in God’s benevolence. Each sura begins with “Merciful to all, Compassionate to each!”[xv] and yet humans continue to wage war. Where is the mercy and compassion within us? Why do we breed enemies when God so emphatically desires friends? Faith cannot be understood any longer as merely the belief in a God. It is the actions that God judges us on, and while intentions certainly matter, it is the ends which the world must also live with. The first pillar of Islam is faith. The Qur’an expects us to act in this faith—this friendship—accordingly.
Salah, or prayer, is the action required of Muslims at least five times a day.[xvi] From a purely conceptual level, prayer is the act of communicating with God. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day in order to show their thanks and gratitude (among other merits). One could imagine calling up a friend in order to give thanks for the compassion and forgiveness shown, and so we are expected to communicate with God in such a way. Of course, this is not a one-way transaction, for in exchange we get divine merit—the kind that allows us to visit heaven when our time on this mortal world is up. Beyond this, however, is a striking concept. God suggests for Muslims to pray together, for their merit will be increased exponentially.[xvii] Now why would God suggest this if not to prioritize friendship? If Salah is best performed communally, then it is a reflection of God’s covenant—man making friends with one another is among the most righteous acts. It may even be said that friendship is a form of prayer, for to have a friend is among the greatest pleasures, and to properly appreciate this friendship would be to give gratitude to the creator who made all this possible—Allah. Prayer is in gratitude to life, and friendship is one of the richest ways in which life can exist.
Zakat is the pillar of mercy and pity for those less fortunate. Yes, charity exists as an expectation of righteousness towards others as relative to one’s capacity. It’s important to note that the Qur’an doesn’t expect those who can’t afford to give charity to participate in Zakat. In fact, to do so would go against God’s expectations based on an individual’s capacity. What many people fail to recognize in Zakat is how God is actively defining our own actions as a response of God’s friendship. See, to give to those less fortunate is to exhibit mercy and compassion to those whom your power can influence. It is an excess of bounty being shared from one man to another. What is this but a form of mimicry between man and God? God has given charity to man far beyond their capacity: the earth, the trees, sky, and sun. Even the gift of life can be thought of as a charity God has given man out of pure kindness and compassion. To complete Zakat is to follow in God’s footsteps and doing so only brings man closer to their maker. Zakat, therefore, can be thought of as God’s way of connecting with mankind, allowing a lower being to understand and appreciate what God continually has done for them. So, when Rahman claims, “the bond of the community is strewn over all the pages of the Qur’an… they give priority to needy Muslims over themselves.” [xviii] He is really noting the way in which friendship and community are a resonation of God’s will, and therefore exceedingly righteous.
Certainly, a clear thread has begun to appear: each pillar of Islam works with the conceptions of the others and the three central beliefs of Muslims. Salah, for example, brings merit for those attempting to reach paradise. As does Zakat, and the actions of faith in Shahada. Muhammad is a man to model one’s life around, and yet Muhammad’s actions are a mere reflection of the benevolence of God. Aside from the beauty of the Qur’an’s interconnectedness, it suggests a framework wherein the theme’s most valued by the Qur’an naturally exist in each iteration of the text’s pillars. And what does Allah appear to value, again and again across concepts? Friendship. It is the friendship between man and God that suggests such a strong and righteous desire of friendship also among men. And to do so, of course, would only be honoring God’s gifts as friendship is exceedingly pleasurable, and to properly appreciate it is to pray and express gratitude to God in the daily prayers of Salah.
Rounding out the pillars of Islam are Sawm and Hajj. The latter, Hajj, is maybe the most quintessential form of friendship expressed by in its very nature. In an unpublished paper, Jafar Malhalatti notes that Hajj essentially promotes “gregariousness among community members”.[xix] But it is not only the proximity and communal goal that establishes this group dynamic. The friendship is built into the very nature of one’s clothes. Gai Eaton comments that no one “can tell whether he is a king or a servant”. [xx] The rich and the poor are therefore equalized. Such a position forces us to empathize with one another. Men and women walk in lines together, there is neither a distinction for age nor status. Every aspect surrounding Hajj causes one to lose their sense of selfishness through the lack of individuality. Malhalatti even recalls visiting Mecca as a sight where the line of people extended infinitely across the horizon.[xxi] Dissociating from the self is a way in which the group begins to form. In a traditional context, however, power dynamics will persist as inherent to the social status of the individual. But when there is no defining characteristics (as Hajj supports a journey in purity), then friendships can be made across the board. Even the most unlikely companions my stir up, not as a product of race or gender, but rather the oneness with Allah and the trek of Hajj. Such an experience is the realization of God’s friendship in the form of action. Where Salah is a daily prayer, Hajj is the once-in-a-lifetime journey that grounds an individual both to their reality, and surrounding humans-turned-friends.
The final pillar of Islam is fasting. Hayatullah Laluddin conceptualizes Sawm as a teaching force that God enacts in humans. Namely, to cultivate a “vigilant and sound conscience and indoctrinate in [man] a sense of patience and unselfishness” it is through a Muslim’s fasting that one understands “the pain of deprivation… he realizes the severe effect of such pains on others who are deprived of the essential commodities and needs.”[xxii] Laluddin further elaborates that fasting is therefore a form of unselfishness and genuine sympathy for those less fortunate. This is especially similar to Islam’s reasons for Zakat, where one gives charity to those in need. Sawm also mirrors the trip to Hajj, where the empathy gained from experiencing the pain of hunger is paralleled by one’s equalizing trip to Mecca. In both scenarios, one is essentially forced to walk in the footstep of those before and among them, in order to greater understand one another and God’s creation. Friendship is therefore a fundamental aspect of fasting, as to fast is to understand one another on a physical and emotional level. It’s no wonder why Sawm is one of the essential pillars of Islam.
In bringing together the fundamental aspects of Muslim life, one must recognize God’s will as the center of Islamic existence. The eschatological underpinnings of Islam create a world where one is (philosophically, at least) headed towards death and its eternity. But to do so would be to ignore the paradise which can be found during this life. Friendship is the foundation for some of Earth’s greatest pleasures. Whether it be platonic or romantic, we are all in search of lifelong companions. The Muslim lifestyle is catered towards this outlook, recognizing the inherent social leanings within humans. Our relationship with God is therefore a reflection of an idealistic friendship, where we are a companion to the highest capacity being in existence—Allah. Viewing the prophet Muhammad can be beneficial in that we are trying to model our own lives to Muhammad’s role as a great mediator and friend. But all of this would be for naught without the final belief of Muslims: that we should follow the one true God.
This is not to say that God is themself of utmost importance; rather, that the Islamic God’s teachings are essential in establishing such a beneficial moral code—especially in the realm of friendship. The very fact that God is an ideal being to aspire towards is what makes believing in him so important within the Muslim faith. In other words, the power given to following God is a response to the benevolence and companionship God has given man. The Muslim world would be amiss to following false Gods or other polytheistic entities because doing so would sacrifice the moral code which gives rise to such greatness. Islam is a religion of friendship, and friendship is essential to the social man.[xxiii]
In concluding this essay, the friendship ascribed towards the Qur’an is not a result of God’s teachings as much as it is a reflection of God’s actions. To act in accordance to God is to be a gracious friend to God and man alike. One can think of Islam as the religion of companionship, where man speaks to God daily in Salah, and mirrors God’s actions in the rest of the pillars. But it is not enough to have the faith and beliefs of a Muslim, a righteous Muslim will act upon them, thus greatly increasing their reverence and appreciation for God as their own pleasures and friends increase.
I have adhered to the honor code on this assignment: Sam Agnoli
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McAndrews, Jane Dammen. The Cambridge companion to the Qur’an. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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[i] Fazlur Rahman, Major themes of the Qur-an. (Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1999). Page 103.
[ii]Michael Sells, Approaching the Qu’ran The Early Revelations. (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2007), page 209.
[iii] Jane Dammen McAndrews, The Cambridge companion to the Qurn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Page 43
[iv] Jafar Malhalatti, Powerpoint 2 B.
[v] Fazlur Rahman, Major themes of the Qur-an. (Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1999). Page 103.
[vi] Jafar Malhalatti, Powerpoint 1 B.
[vii]Edward J. Walters. An introduction into the belief in the afterlife in Judaism and Christianty.
[viii] Mujtabá Mūsavī Lārī and Hamid Algar, Resurrection, Judgement, and the Hereafter (Qom, I.R. Iran: Foundation of Islamic C.P.W., 2010). Page 151.
[ix] Qur’an 82:5
[x] Qur’an 6:160
[xi] Jafar Malhalatti, Powerpoint 7 A.
[xii] I T. Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Quran (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014). page 88
[xiii] Susan T. Fiske, Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018).
[xiv] I T. Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Quran (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014). page 203.
[xv] Qur’an (all suras)
[xvi] Jafar Malhalatti, Powerpoint week 1 B.
[xvii] Jafar Malhalatti, Powerpoint week 3 A.
[xviii] Fazlur Rahman, Major themes of the Qur-an. (Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1999). Page 28.
[xix] Jafar Malhalatti, Beyond Cold Peace: A Theory for Applied Friendship in Society and Politics. Unpublished, 2018. Page 5.
[xx] Gai Eaton, Pilgrimage (New York: Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition, 1984). Page 13.
[xxi] Jafar Malhalatti, Powerpoint week 8 A .
[xxii] Hayatullah Laluddin, Conception of Society and Its Characteristics from an Islamic Perspective, page 12-25.
[xxiii] Susan T. Fiske, Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018).