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Home arrow Religion arrow Ethics in Islam: Friendship in the Political Thought of al-Taw??d? and his Contemporaries

Ibn Sa‘dan’s circle and its importance for the reception of al-Sadaqa wa al-Sadlq

In his comments on his activities as an author, al-Tawhldl sets out further the intellectual context, which is important for understanding the reception of his epistle. He states that he “gave a course of lectures on friendship and related matters” in Baghdad.65 Although al-Tawhldl does not mention the setting of these lectures, they were probably delivered in one or two of the Baghdad philosophical circles: the school of al-Sijistanl, and the school of Ibn ‘Adi.66 In 370/981, al-Tawhldl was an active member of Ibn Sa‘dan’s school (although al-Tawhldi’s original lectures on friendship were probably not delivered there since Ibn Sa‘dan requested the lectures later through Ibn Rifa‘a). It is thus worthwhile to set out briefly the context which could have been relevant for the reception of al-Sadaqa wa al-Sad-q within these intellectual circles. It is also necessary to discuss closely the importance of the theme of sadaqa in Ibn Sa‘dan’s circle.

In an age when ethical values were questioned, the search for universal truth and a universal morality transcending the limitations of the time became a preoccupation for philosophical circles, including the circle of Ibn Sa‘dan. Various themes on moral qualities, including sadaqa, were discussed in an intellectual climate in these majalis (sessions) which, according to Griffith, were forums which offered the opportunity for the communication of ideas between members of the circles.67 Al-Tawhldl preserves many of these sessions where ethical questions were the main theme.68

Ibn Sa‘dan was a learned scholar who took an interest in philosophical and ethical questions and is reported by al-Tawhld- to have been present at a discussion about moral qualities.69 Al-Tawhldl’s hope, expressed numerous times in his treatise on friendship, that sadaqa could serve as a basis for regulating people or society, was not unique to Ibn Sa‘dan’s circle. He himself had asked al-Tawhldl to compose al-Sadaqa wa al-Sad'-q for his own interest after learning of al-Tawhidi’s lectures on the topic.

A central question to which al-Tawhldl often returns is ‘what is a friend’ (or ‘by what means can one tell that somebody is a friend’). The issue of the moral character of a friend was especially crucial in the context of Ibn Sa‘dan’s court. Ibn Sa‘dan is reported to have recited verses of poetry in which he complains about the hypocrisy of his entourage, the friendship of the deluders and the deceivers who picture themselves as virtuous and good until they trap someone and devour him as a victim.70 Al-Tawhldl reports a lengthy conversation between Ibn Rifa‘a and Ibn Sa‘dan, in which the latter describes his entourage one by one.71 While he appreciated some members, he criticised the arrogance, love of praise, and the accumulation of wealth of others, as in the case of the merchant Ibn Zur‘a.72 In addition, he criticised their false claims to knowledge, their selfishness, and the useless advice offered by some of them.

This is not the first time that al-Tawhldl addressed concerns about the moral character and worth of Ibn Sa‘dan’s entourage. In many places in al-Imta', al-Tawhldl states clearly that bad comradeship is the cause of political troubles which have a negative impact on society.73 Thus he dwells on the difference between a true friend and an enemy who appears to be a friend. This discussion was also popular among members of al-Sijistanl’s circle who were discomfited by Ibn Sa‘dan’s corrupt companions and the danger they presented to his relationships with Samsam al-Dawla.74 After all, having the best entourage with which to compete with other viziers’ circles in Rayy, especially that of Ibn ‘Abbad, was of no small concern to Ibn Sa‘dan.75

Other members of Ibn Sa‘dan’s circle showed an interest in the topic of friendship. Al-Tawhldl preserves a charming exchange of letters on the theme of sadaqa between Ibn ‘Ubayd al-Katib and a certain Ibn al-Jamal, secretary of Nasr al-Dawla Shashnlklr.76 Miskawayh also composed an essay on love (al-mahabba) and sadaqa.77 Another member of the circle called al-‘AsjadI made comments on friendship and lamented the decadence of the time.78

The circle of Ibn Sa‘dan had close affiliations with the school of Ibn ‘Adi where friendship was also a recurring theme. The Christian Ibn Khammar, for example, wrote a work on friendship with the same title as al-Tawhidi’s book on friendship, which, however, does not seem to have survived.79 Muslims and Christians, who formed the members of the circle of Ibn ‘Adi, discoursed on how the love of mankind can transcend religious differences. Love and friendship as the pinnacle of perfection is taught by Ibn ‘Ad-i in a moving passage in his Tahdhlb al-Akhlaq. He speaks of men as forming one tribe, joined by humanity (insaniyya):

One who loves perfection must also make it a habit to love people generally, to treat them with affection, to act sympathetically toward them ... men are a single tribe, related to one another; humanity (al-insaniyya) unites them.80

It could have been through Ibn ‘Adi‘’s school that al-Tawhidl was introduced to Aristotle’s works and especially the Nicomachean Ethics, which influenced his thoughts on friendship so strongly.81

Al-Tawhidi acted as intermediary and advisor for Ibn Sa‘dan when he sent a long list of philosophical questions to Ibn Khammar and al-Sijistani.82 In al-Sijistani’s circle, ethical themes were regularly discussed, especially topics on human nature and the way to refine it. Al-Nushajani and al-Sijistani defined, on various occasions, the nature of sadaqa and how it differs from other forms of social relationships, such as intimacy (ulfa) and passionate love (‘ishq).83 They also discoursed on the idea of love and spiritual friendship with a teacher, which is echoed in al-Tawhidi’s epistle, as will be shown later.84

Discussions on the refinement of moral character, including themes on sadaqa, as a way to salvation had broad implications for the legitimacy of both religion and the state, especially at the court of Ibn Sa‘dan. Many members of this circle were devout in their religion; nevertheless, questions of religious authority came up, and could be answered negatively. For example, Abu ‘Ali b. al-Samh, a Christian disciple of Ibn ‘Adi, who attended the circle of Ibn Sa‘dan, challenged the idea that something believed by large groups automatically deserves credence;85 this could undermine the absolute claims of any religious authority. This could also have been of use in reforming the moral state of society and running a society which might base its rule to a greater degree on philosophically reasoned ideas. Al-Tawhidl argues in al-Sadaqa wa al-Sad'-q that friendship is based on reason, and thus would fit into such a view for reforming society.

Finally, there are some further points of contact between al-Tawhidi’s al-Sadaqa wa al-Sad-q and the circle of Ibn Sa‘dan. Ibn Zur‘a and other merchant-philosophers were present in Ibn Sa‘dan’s circle. Al-Tawhidi may well have seen Ibn Zur‘a as the type of merchant he critiques in al-Sadaqa wa al-Sadlq. He described unfavourably the people of the marketplace, calling them vile and only concerned with profit,86 and claimed that only the elite and governors have culture (adab). Ibn Sa‘dan interrupted to say all classes are vicious, and that the times were bad beyond description.87 The similarity of the vizier’s description of society’s ills to al-Tawhidl’s descriptions at the beginning and end of al-Sadaqa wa al-Sad-q is strong enough to suggest that he offers sadaqa as a solution to the vizier’s gloomy picture of society. Ibn Zur‘a consoled the vizier with the point that people’s faults were hard to overcome due to their horoscopes, and elsewhere Ibn Sa‘dan seems to accept the idea that heavenly fate plays a role in one’s ethical capacity.88 Nevertheless, al-Tawhldl, who opposed such a view of astrological fate,89 was called upon by Ibn Sa‘dan to explain the importance of friendship, and he argued that a man can refine his moral character and live the best life by adopting the value of sadaqa.90 This could indicate Ibn Sa‘dan’s search for alternative ways of thinking to address social concerns.

Consequently, it would appear that al-Tawhidl’s lectures on friendship were addressed to a community of scholars and thus should be seen as part of the ongoing ethical discussions at the time. The epistle, then, is designed to influence people of authority (Ibn Sa‘dan), and also intended to be received by well-educated audiences with extensive knowledge of philosophy, literature and rhetoric. In so doing, al-Tawhldl could influence not only the policy of the vizier Ibn Sa‘dan, but also key members of other religious communities. This indicates the intended universality of sadaqa and its transcendent nature.

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