Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Keifer Ludwig: The Linchpin of Friendship

The natural tensions of variance between differing schools of thought have compromised relationships, driven entire nations against one another, and indeed, altered the course of history. Whether this tension manifests in matters as microscopic as an argument over the existence of a God between theistic and atheistic parties or matters as macroscopic as the true meaning of the phrase ‘Jihad’, people tend to emphasize difference over commonalities. This instinct is primal. And I would argue that it comes from a desire to make alliances rather than push others away. I believe that this instinct originates from a tribal mentality of creating a common enemy to fight. Ironically, the goal is using shared enmity as a tool for friendship by creating a hierarchy of peoples. But this seems counterintuitive to me. Though there will always be differences between the next person and me—such is the nature of individuality in a human being—why not instead focus on the linchpins in our worldviews that could unite us. I think that this is a much more powerful method. Maybe people are afraid of the vulnerability involved in this process, but I would argue that it’s necessary nonetheless. In this paper, I will take frameworks of the Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Zoroastrianism, and Secular thought, and show commonalities that could be used to drive them together. The resulting linchpin will be their comparable thoughts on friendship and community.

In Ethics in Islam by Nuha Al-Shaar, the author spends a great deal of time citing prominent Islamic philosophers in how they address friendship. Most frequently, Al-Shaar talks about Miskawayh, a Persian historian from Iran (might I note that we already find the cultures of Iran and Islam overlapping).[i] Miskawayh spends a good deal of energy thinking about religious ritual and why Islam necessitates the communal aspect of performing rituals. For Miskawayh, the process of these rituals are just as important as any revelations or spiritual growth as a result.i  Why? In short, Miskawayh believes that practicing these ritual acts of devotion, people are honing virtues.[1] “But virtues are non-existences;” Miskawayh writes, “they are actions and deeds which are manifested when one participates and lives with other people”i (199). Because of this, Miskawayh believes that the meaningfulness of your ritual compounds for each person who might join. It is better to be united throughout our religion than it is to be divided. i

These thoughts are reminiscent of a large divide in spiritual paths in Tibetan Buddhism. The main goal of Buddhism is to find a way to liberate oneself from Samsara—the cycle of existence that rotates between seventeen layers of hell, being an insatiably hungry ghost (known as a Preta), being an animal ruled by carnal desires, being a human, being a demigod who violently craves the life of a God, and being a God who shall be ripped of their perfect lives painfully with the realization of evils.[ii] When one is in this cycle, whether they come by pleasure or torture, their entire conception of the universe is illusory. ii For these people have not realized that the universe is governed by the truths of impermanence and no truth self. ii To realize these truths is to be enlightened, and once one is enlightened they may go to Nirvana and live a meaningful life. However, once enlightened people are given a choice: do you go straightaway to Nirvana or try to liberate everyone else from the cycle of Samsara. ii The difference in these paths is the difference between an Arahat and a Bodhisattva, and Bodhisattvas are looked upon far more favorably. ii For them, in the cycle of reincarnations, everyone has been their mother at some point. ii And so to reduce their karma, they want to liberate their former mothers from suffering. ii Similar to Islam, it is better to use your religiosity in the spirit of friendship. To cap this idea, in Buddhism the notions of the Buddha (the most enlightened individual in Buddhism), the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the Sangha (the community of people who follow the teachings of the Buddha) are equally important. ii Like Islam, Buddhism is an attempt at the virtue of honing friendship.

The notion of friendship is equally important for figures such as St. Augustine. St. Augustine’s teacher Cicero even ventured to look “to the friendship of the virtuous as the place in society where it is most open to the eternal, where it is most luminous to the order of nature or the gods”[iii] (254). That is to say, like in Islam or Buddhism, practicing friendship is an experience of being closer to God. Here, Cicero does elaborate on the type of friendship as one with someone who is virtuous. According to the compiler and editor of Friendship & Politics, St. Augustine’s meditations show us that friendship intimates the eternal love that sustains existence—in other words: ‘Love is both the generating cause of existence and maintaining cause of existence’ iii. Jesus himself comments upon the significance of friendship in John 15:15 when he turns to his servants and says, “I no longer call you servants…Instead, I have called you my friends”[iv]. Jesus is establishing friendship in this quote as a relationship with no hierarchy. As stated in the opening paragraph, creating a hierarchy of peoples (through enmity in my example) is a poor practice of friendship.

According to Azarabad Omidan: The real connection with religion is only attainable through friendship. This is a meditation on Zoroastrianism, a school of thought founded by Zoroaster, who was originally from Iran.[v] Chosky in Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal recounts an important tenant in Zoroastrianism in saying, “Acquisition of learning, knowledge, and wisdom cannot occur without societal and confessional frameworks nor without the amity that permits sharing of ideas and institutions” v . This echoes the ideas shared above in the importance of maintaining a religious community. Michael H. Mitias, the author of Friendship: A Central Moral Value talks of this ‘wisdom’ in the concept of a paradigm shift. “Now if culture exists in the minds, souls, and hearts of a people, it should follow that there is a direct, and I would say casual, relation between the cultural paradigm and the way the members of the community behave, or between the cultural paradigm and the various paradigmatic types of behavior; mainly because the beliefs and values which function in their lives as principles of action at the individual and social level flow from the cultural paradigm, and more concretely from its worldview, for this worldview is essentially the unity of its beliefs and values”[vi] (12-13). All of this is to say that the ideological framework and changes of a culture is determined by the interactions of the members of a community. Through others can one foster their own spirituality.

Above, I have shown the linchpins throughout many differing ideological frameworks in how they approach community as a pathway to spiritual fulfillment. Even those who do not subscribe to theistic ideals, pursue communities to give them purpose in life. Choosing a path of amity and agreement rather than discord is something that many faiths and schools of thought truly can teach us.




[i] Al-Sha’ar, Nuha. Ethics in Islam: Friendship in the Political Thought of Al-TawhÌ£ĪDī and His Contemporaries. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

[ii] Lopez, Donald S. Religions of Tibet in Practice. Princeton University Press, 2007.

[iii] Heyking, John von. Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought. Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

[iv] “BibleGateway.” John 15:15 NIV – – Bible Gateway, BibleGate,

[v] Chosky, Jamsheed K. “Friends and Friendships in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal.”Iranica Antiqua, XLVI, 2011, pp. 251–288., doi:10.2143/IA.46.0.2084422.

[vi] Mitias, Michael H. “Friendship: a Central Moral Value.” Find in a Library with WorldCat, 13 Feb. 2018,





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