Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alex Scheitinger: Characteristics of Friendship in Confucian, Christian, and Islamic Cultures

Confucian, Christian, and Islamic cultures have approached the notion of friendship with their own distinct concerns and priorities. Differences present themselves when the role and importance of friendship in society is questioned, particularly in friendship’s relationship with other values (charity, love, loyalty, etc.), but there is enough common ground shared between them that these distinctions are not so much contradictions but different points of emphasis. Of course, numerous other perspectives may also be considered (Hindu, Zoroastrianism, or Buddhism for instance) but given the geographic and cultural separation of Christianity and Islam from Confucianism — and the fact that both Christian and Islamic theological traditions were tremendously endowed by the classical philosophy of ancient Greece — this area of focus seems to be the most appropriate.
Early Confucian philosophers repeatedly stress the essentiality of one’s relationships with others and argue that these connections should be maintained and strengthened to motivate moral development. As with Aristotle, the small connections which ensure societal harmony are considered necessary, however Confucian philosophy breaks from Aristotelian notions of friendship in that it approaches these relationships more from a top-down perspective rather than place them all on the same plane. In other words, while individuals are encouraged by Aristotle to form friendships with others regardless of their social role (and to seek out friendships with those of equivalent virtue), Confucianism addresses relationships categorically (parents and children, husband and wife, older and younger siblings, rulers and ministers, and friends) and views friendship as both a core relationship in itself and a mediating force for all other relationships. It may seem antithetical that friendship could be both less important than all other relationships and so prone to influencing them, but this is largely due to Confucianism’s avoidance of friendship as a universal, all encompassing descriptor. Whalen Lai writes that of the five relationships listed by Mencius, “friendship is valued least. So unlike the West where there is a tradition of regarding kings to be the beloved of the gods and God as being friendly towards all men, China never adopted, or popularized the rhetoric of friendship to cover relationships in general…the relative neglect is understandable. As a general rule, the more importance a society places on family and kinship (hsüeh-yüan ch’in-shu) as China did, the more it would discourage its young from freely forging friendship (to be t’ung-tao p’eng-yu or fellow travelers of the Way) outside home and hearth,” (216).
As in Confucian philosophy, the writings of St. Augustine in the fourth century neglect to view friendship as the highest goal, replacing it with love. Of course, with the rise of Christianity in Europe and the Near East the divergence from Aristotle was deliberate (as any similarities between Confucian and Aristotelian concepts of friendships are purely coincidental), but both early Christian and early Confucian thinkers had arrived at the same conclusion regarding the partiality of friendship. As Confucianism acknowledges the preferential and pleasure-based nature of friendship, warning of moral decline when friends are not chosen carefully, Augustine expresses dissatisfaction over a friendship that was lost because it was not founded in faith. Additionally, severing ties with false friends is imperative in both traditions but in Christian theology this is done primarily for religious purposes in an effort to bring one closer to God. Augustine’s differentiation between friends and ‘true friends’ (the latter of which is a friend in God) arises from scripture’s relative lack of consideration of friendship, as Tamer Nawar writes, “In classical antiquity, the value of friendship was widely appreciated, however, with the coming of Christianity, its importance is often thought to have diminished. The Christian scriptures have little explicit to say about friends or friendship. Further, even where classical notions of friendship are invoked, explicit mentions of friendship are often not forthcoming. We find little or no attention to those features deemed important in classical thought, for example, the role of friends in keeping us from error, how friends can inspire each other to virtue or help each other accomplish tasks that they could not complete singly, or the role of friendship in shared deliberation and agency,” (198). In scripture, true friendship as Augustine would see it is only personified in Jesus’ community of disciples, so discussion of friendships which exist only in a secular context is avoided. As a result, the entire metaphor of friendship recedes from view, only to be revived in Christian theology in the thirteenth century.
The link between friendship and religious devotion as emphasized by Thomas Aquinas has notable parallels in Islam, as Islamic theology is deeply imbued with neoplatonic and Aristotelian concepts of community which would have been salient for Aquinas. The prophet Muhammad discouraged monasticism and asceticism and found religious practices which do not take place in the company of others to be spiritually isolating. Indeed, the primary intention of ritual is to unite the individual with others in a friendship directed towards the divine. In political theory, Islamic theology also harkens back to the friendship/justice distinction espoused by Aristotle, as the eleventh century Muslim scholar Al-Raghib al-Isfahani regards justice as the substitute (khalifa) for love, claiming that justice is implemented only in the absence of friendship. Aquinas echoes a similar sentiment that charity perfects a cold justice bereft of compassion — perhaps an attempt to reconcile his Aristotelian tendencies with an Augustinian theology which rejects the supremacy of friendship. As Aquinas professes that a love of charity strengthens the bonds of friendship, charity is no longer placed above and separate from friendship. In the thirteenth century the Persian polymath Nasir al-Din al-Tusi elaborated upon Aristotle and al-Isfahani’s ideas, drawing attention to the artificiality of justice in relation to love which abounds naturally. Due to the fact that his criticism of justice is contrasted with love when it had traditionally been centered on friendship, it is likely that he considers the two terms to be interchangeable, uniting love and friendship in a way comparable to Aquinas’s union of friendship of charity. Most evidently, the works of Aquinas, al-Isfahani, and al-Tusi resemble early Confucian texts in their shared emphasis on civic friendship; the ever shifting ‘web of dependence’ described in Confucianism dictates social responsibilities which are in turn facilitated by friendships. Although the sacred element is far less prominent in Confucian thought, all three schools in one way or another conceive of worldly friendship as a means to an end, whether that be societal harmony, moral purification, or salvation.


Works Cited

Lai, Whalen. “Friendship in Confucian China: Classical and Late Ming.” Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by Oliver Leaman, Routledge, 2016.
Nawar, Tamer. “Adiutrix Virtutum? Augustine on Friendship and Virtue.” Ancient and Medieval Concepts of Friendship, edited by Gary M. Gurtler and Suzanne Stern-Gillet, SUNY Press, 2014.

Leave a Reply