Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

One Plus One is Greater Than Two

Given Perspectives on friendship in Confucian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Roman, Christian and Muslim cultures, please identify some common grounds shared between them.


A central question among ancient Greek scholars regarding friendship was whether it was a means to an end, or a goal in and of itself. Religious writings on friendship run into the same question, but here it is of even greater importance.

Cicero, a classical Roman philosopher, sees friendship as a two-pronged institution: as a search for ourselves as well as a search for the good.1 So, we make friends with those who are similar to ourselves and those who are good, to satisfy the two halves of the search. However, when we do become friends with others, Cicero argued, the “aggregate of virtue” between the two friends is much greater than either individual would have on their own: we draw on others to become fuller human beings.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Augustine. Augustine’s views on friendship changed throughout his life. His first writings on friendship were essentially copied statements from Cicero four hundred years earlier — only later did he begin to introduce religious aspects, writing around 395 that for true friendship to occur, it must be rooted in “Jesus Christ our Lord and our true peace.”2 He switches gears even more in the Confessions (written between 397-400), stating literally that “Friendship of this world is fornication against [God].3 Desire for affection or attention from others was a source of sin as bad as any other, and in Augustine’s view, led to only more sin down the road. Friends encourage you to sin, they leave you and betray you at a whim, and they either ignore or obstruct the true connection here: between humans and God. This view of friendship is so very different from so many other commonly held views that it seems almost alien. However, it also outlines the complexity of friendship. A method of connection so intricate that it can be described and viewed in a myriad of different ways.

Augustine’s views on friendship stand in stark contrast to other religious and cultural views on the same topic. One major example is Confucianism. In early Confucian writings, friendship is seen as a highly structured and rule-centric affair: a serious shift from the sinful, unimportant act Augustine saw it as.4 Friendship is absolutely essential to moral development, and is seen as an instrument with which to achieve enlightenment and become a good and virtuous person. In day-to-day affairs, they “serve as a bridge between the role relations found in the family and more public roles found within broader society.”5 There are five major relationships seen in Confucianism: Between parents and children there is affection, between husband and wife there is distinction, between siblings there is precedence, between rulers and ministers there is righteousness, and finally between friends there is faithfulness. These relationships are not only a glue that holds society together, but are there to better ourselves. Friendship is but one “link” in the moral chain, from goodness to genuineness to happiness to confidence and finally to a position of leadership.

Slightly different still we have the Zoroastrian perspective on friendship. Zoroastrianism viewed friendship as essential to daily societal life like Confucianism. Early Iranian society contained an institution called the Zurkhane (“House of Strength”), where young men were “trained in gymnastics, wrestling, fencing, and archery…” to “…strengthen the body and sharpen the mind”.6 The Zurkhane created loyalty and in turn, helped strengthen bonds of friendship to help keep society orderly.

In Zoroastrian culture there were also immortal friends: gods and deities that would help more earthly inhabitants. Jamsheed Choksy outlines several in his paper on friendships in Iranian society. Mithra, for example, oversaw contracts between morals and spiritual beings. He developed to become a protector of the pious, to such an extent that his name turned into an idiom for friendship. If Mithra was your friend, he could provide you with a serious bounty of wealth: houses, women, rugs, pillows, you name it.7

Miskawayh, an early Muslim philosopher, set the foundations for Islamic views of friendship. He elaborated on Aristotelian works and added Islamic thought, creating a philosophy of religious friendship totally opposite to Augustine. As in Confucianism and Zoroastrianism, friendship is essential to society, but Miskawayh adds that friendship is also essential to religion. To put it bluntly, you cannot be religious without friendship.

Miskawayh also notes the intermingling between these notions of happiness, religion, and friendship. Each supports the other and in turn, enhances it. He views religious ritual and prayer being based upon and having the intent to promote friendship.8 The road to ultimate happiness has no shortcuts for Miskawayh, and to achieve the supposed “highest level,” all lower levels must be found first. “Happiness can only be reached through the cultivation of virtues such as friendship.”9 Again here, friendship is a means rather than an end in an of itself, but it has serious significance.

Each society and religion presented here has looked at human connection in a different context, and with different prerequisites and goals. The step forward here as shown in Muslim views is the inextricable linking of friendship and religion that forms in heavily religious societies. Even in Christianity, later contributors such as Thomas Aquinas would talk about the importance of friendship in creating a virtuous life – by loving others you are loving the divine within them, and making each other more complete. By proposing that religion can create friendship and sustain it, a greater moral chain is created: religion brings people together, which creates a friendship-centric society, which in turn is a peaceful and virtuous society.

Though each of these systems of thought do differ, they can agree that friendship is essential to a stable and happy life (except for Augustine, the grouch). Much like draft horses – while alone can pull eight thousand pounds each, when put together they can pull over twenty thousand – the sum of one plus one in a friendly relationship is much more than two.



  1. Weiss, Robin. Cicero’s Stoic Friend as Resolution to the Paradoxes of Platonic Love from Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship. Page 135.
  2. Nawar, Tamer. Adiutrix Virtutum?: Augustine on Friendship and Virtue from Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship. Page 200.
  3. Nawar, Tamer. Page 201.
  4. Cottine, Cheryl. That’s What Friends Are For: A Confucian Perspective on the Moral Significance of Friendship. Page 2.
  5. Cottine, Cheryl. Page 3.
  6. Choksy, Jamsheed K. Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal. Page 259-260.
  7. Choksy, Jamsheed K. Page 263.
  8. Leaman, Oliver. Secular Friendship and Religious Devotion. From Friendships East and West. Page 253.
  9. Leaman, Oliver. Page 256.




Leaman, Oliver. Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives. London: Routledge, 2016.


Gurtler, Gary M., and Suzanne Stern-Gillet. Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.


Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art. Lectures. Mahallati, M. Jafar.


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


Choksy, Jamsheed K. Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal. From the Iranica Antiqua, vol. XLVI. 2011.

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