Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Friend or Neighbor?


My apologies for not responding directly to the prompt for RP #3, but in the discussion during the Friendship class (Religion 274) of March 13th, the two concepts of Friendship and Neighbor intrigued me. These two ideas describe a certain tension between the Aristotelian or Hellenist idea of Friendship (philia) between pairs of people and the Christian view of universal, unconditional love (agape) of all people that are considered “neighbors.” Both of these concepts can be described using the device of story telling.

Al-Tawhidi in his book, al-Sadaqa wa al-Sadiq (Friendship and Friend), describes at length the story of the friendship between his teacher and philosopher, al-Sijistani and the judge Sayyar.[i] This friendship is between two brilliant men of prominent social standing, but of different professions and different intellectual disciplines, one who dealt with religious issues, and the other with philosophy.  In providing a detailed discussion of this friendship between these two men, al-Tawhidi shows both the possibility as well as the necessity of these friendships for developing a model for proper governance by the authorities of the Buyid Empire.

Jesus’ story is a parable in which the circumstances of the story were familiar to the listeners, but the simple story itself is a fiction designed to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.[ii]

29 But he (one who was expert in the law) wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity (compassion) on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


Al-Tawhidi, much of whose life was spent in the courts of the Buyid Empire, saw the necessity for advocating for friendships between the judges ruling on issues of religious practice, and those who could rationalize the correct behavior of those governing and those governed. Although the rulers of the Buyid Empire certainly were enlightened, they still had ultimate authority over those that they governed. This meant that there was no necessity for those like al-Sijistani and judge Sayyar to concern themselves with those members of the society who were of lower social strata. “Al-Tawhidi combines both philosophical and adab (literary) themes for the explanation of sadaqa (friendship.) He is determined to influence people of authority as well as to educate audiences with extensive knowledge of philosophy, literature and rhetoric.”[iii]

The principal characters in Jesus’ parables, the man beaten by robbers and the Samaritan were of lower classes – possibly travelling merchants — who were completely unknown to one another before their chance encounter. Since the man lying beside the road had been badly beaten and stripped of his clothes, there was no way for the Samaritan to ascertain his relative social status or the man’s ethnic or religious identity. The Samaritan just recognized the other as a fellow human being, a neighbor, in desperate need of immediate help.

While al-Tawhidi clearly demonstrated that the practice of reciprocal friendship between educated pairs of people was essential for development and functioning of a good and moral government, it leaves out a large segment of the population. This segment is the large portion of the population that is considered “the masses” and has no acquaintance with the governing officials or those advising the officials. In a society in which all the people are valued, the additional concept of “the neighbor” is required. All of the people in a nation should be a concern of the governing officials and their fellow citizens. This generosity toward the people less fortunate is the other essential requirement for a moral society.


——- References ——–

[i] Nuha A. Alshaar, “Al-Tawhidi’s al-Sadaqa wa al-Sadiq” in Ethics in Islam: Friendship in the Political Thought of al-Tawhidi and his Contemporaries, (Abingdon, Routledge 2015), 135.


[ii] Luke 10: 29-37, New International Version (Biblica, HarperCollins 1978)


[iii] Alshaar, 137.

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