Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Will Jacobsen: Friendship Across Disciplines


There are many inconsistencies when looking at the different traditions we examined in class, namely with regards to friendship. There are also inconsistencies amongst the popular theologians, making it difficult to read into friendship within a single tradition altogether. We must read past these inconsistencies to find the commonalities.

Michael H. Mitias talks about moral paradigms and paradigm shifts in his essay Concept of Moral Paradigm. He contends that friendship was integral to morality in ancient times, and it was wrong for it to have lost its significance in medieval and contemporary times.1 In the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods, the emphasis was on relationships, but afterwards people began to focus on self-development, which minimizes interpersonal relationships.2 In medieval times, there was a shift away from friendship with the rise of Christianity and other religions. People began to think friendship was irrelevant on the path to happiness; they believed a love of god meant a love of human fellowship.3 Friendship was rejected as a form of preferential love.

In Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion from Persia founded in antiquity, which predates both Christianity and Islam, friendship was sacred and an integral part of knowing god. Zoroastrians believed anyone who protected and promoted friendship deserved to receive god’s charismatic powers. It was believed that friendship was indeed crucial to both health and overall in seeking the truth: indeed, Zarathustra once said:


“O Wise Lord, whoever, man or woman, grants me those things that you know are best for existence – namely, reward for truth and power through good thought – and whom I shall inspire to glorify those such as you, I shall cross over the Bridge of the Compiler with all of them.”4


So friendship is crucial in one’s relationship to god.

Christianity has similar beliefs, to an extent. It has been held in some circles that friendship is inherently antithetical to Christianity, because friendship is a form of preferential love. However, friendship is highlighted in the Bible as something which unites people across seeming class differences. In John 15:15, Jesus says:


I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”5


Here, friendship equalizes himself to his servants through friendship. St. Thomas Aquinas also felt as though friendship was a crucial element to life. He held that friendship should be neither rejected nor diminished. His school of thought felt that friendship was the goal and not a means to an end.6 However, Christians and Christian theologies do not arrive at one definite answer with regards to a stance on friendship and its relationship with piety.

Religious devotion in Islam, however, depends on friendship. It is the view of Miskawayh that the essence of religious rituals is to build friendship and community. In On How the Animals are Formed and their Species, by the Brothers of Piety, an animals says to someone:


“… divine law [shari’a] ordered that people should gather twice a year in an appointed place, and five times a day in mosques of the neighbouring areas and in the market so the intended purpose could be achieved.”7


The animal is referring to the act of prayer as something which unites people after spending time apart from one another, something which god has mandated so that friendships can be built. This is a necessary part of Islam.

The goal of the rituals is to have the knowledge of god, and to lead a virtuous life. We have learned that having friends is another important aspect to lead a virtuous life, because it is through virtuous friendship where we make morals and are held accountable. Friends, too, are a means of discovering one’s own faults.8 Therefore, friendship is indispensable in both becoming a virtuous person and leading a virtuous life, which leads one closer to god in the process. Because having friends is encouraged by god and the meaning of his mandating of rituals, the process works in a cyclical fashion.

Islamic thought holds relationships as the ultimate thing which defines character, and the Ultimate can be attained only through relations. This does not solely mean friendships, however; even those most trivial and without depth lead us to know ourselves better. Without them, it is said one might become satisfied with oneself and thus conceited, adopting an arrogant attitude towards others.9 So friendships are incredibly important to self development and religiosity.

Of these previously outlined models of friendship and how they interact with religion, I find myself liking the Islamic model discussed by Miskawayh and in the Nuha Al-Shaar essay the best. Through my largely secular upbringing, I have always been somewhat perplexed by religion. But I saw a message I liked in Islam. Religion shouldn’t, in my eyes, detract from the immediate life, this life, just so one can have the best afterlife. I believe that religions which take away things for this purpose (except for those things which are immoral from a more objective, less religious stance) are harder for me to access. Friendship is incredibly important, and one of the better things in life. I can get behind a religion which puts the highest emphasis on friendships, one which proclaims one can only know god and attain the Ultimate through friendships, and I also believe that friendships are not just how we get to become virtuous, but how we can also know ourselves. 


James Smith, The first and last war, (New York, Hamilton, 2003), 2.

  1. Michael H. Mitias, Friendship: A Central Moral Value, (2011), 13.
  2. Professor J. Mahallati, In-class lecture on 2/20.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Jamsheed K. Choksy, “Friends and Friendship in Iranian Society: Human and Immortal,” in Iranica Antiqua, Vol. XLVI, (2011), 268-269.
  5. John 15:15 on,
  6. Professor J. Mahallati, In-class lecture on 2/27.
  7. Nuha A. Alshaar, Ethics in Islam: Friendship and Political Thought of al-Tawhidi and his Contemporaries, (New York, Routledge), 204-205.
  8. Professor J. Mahallati, In-class lecture on 3/1.
  9. Professor J. Mahallati, In-class lecture on 3/1.

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