The Polished Mirror: Storytelling and the Pursuit of Virtue in Islamic Philosophy and Sufism, written by Cyrus Ali Zargar

In: Journal of Islamic Ethics
Author: Ali Altaf Mian1
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  • 1 University of Florida
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Cyrus Ali Zargar, The Polished Mirror: Storytelling and the Pursuit of Virtue in Islamic Philosophy and Sufism. London: Oneworld Publications, 2017, 352 pp.

Cyrus Ali Zargar has produced an accessible monograph on virtue ethics in Islam as theorized and narrated by philosophical as well as mystical authors, both from the classical and the medieval periods. Zargar contributes to the field of Islamic studies a superb, refined analysis of the links between storytelling and ethical formation in Islamic philosophy and Sufism. The author guides us through some of the most fascinating ideas elaborated by Islamic philosophers and Sufis on moral anthropology, the habituation of virtue, the place of natural reason in ethical formation, the relationship between ethics and onto-epistemology, and, not least, embodied piety as spiritual praxis. In this review, I draw attention to certain features of Zargar’s rich account in order to illustrate the kinds of insights Zargar distills from his sources. In the end, I also identify questions and paths of inquiry that merit further exploration in the study of narrative ethics in Islam.

The Polished Mirror models three ways of engaging primary texts in both Arabic and Persian. To begin with, the author aspires to describe his sources in terms that recognize their heterogeneity. Secondly, he attends to both form and meaning through close reading of various genres within philosophical and Sufi literature. And finally, Zargar encourages his readers to approach Islamic philosophy and Sufism as sources of inspiration for embodying virtue. The Polished Mirror thus reflects the work of an intellectual historian who encounters the past on its own terms, an imaginative literary critic who examines the play between chalice and wine as tropes, and a constructive ethicist whose moral vision projects better selves and societies in our broken world.

In the book’s introductory chapter, Zargar briefly surveys the modern study of ethics and the varied discursive settings of akhlāq, including theology and jurisprudence. He also explains to the uninitiated reader the basic thematic structures of Islamic philosophy and Sufism as well as their affinity, justifying his own attempt to bring them together in The Polished Mirror: “these two major branches not only contemplated virtue more closely than other branches of Islamic learning, but also at times intermingled and even merged” (17). Zargar next elucidates his key intervention, namely, the need to engage with stories for understanding virtue in Islamic philosophy and Sufism. The key term here is adab, which at once means “wisdom literature” and “proper conduct” (22). Stories inform conduct; they enable us to approach the complexities of embodying virtue in contingent relational and social settings, where abstract theories about ethical subjectivity meet concrete expressions of flesh-and-blood actors. By drawing our attention to the rich literary heritage of Islamic philosophy and Sufism, Zargar broadens the field of “literary ethics,” expanding “the scope of the search for lived and situated human experience” (23). Collectively, the book’s ten chapters yield a capacious view of virtuous stories in classical and medieval Islam.

Consider the first literary text Zargar examines. It is the twenty-second “epistle” of the Brethren of Purity, which proceeds like a “courtroom drama as varieties of animals and humans send representatives to make their case for or against human superiority to animals. The humans do not fare well until the very end” (42). Zargar deploys this text, and the genre of the animal fable in general, to underscore the prevalence of a humor-based moral anthropology in Islamic philosophy, the “multipolarity of body and soul,” also relevant to planetary and cosmic frameworks for embodying virtue. The story of humans and animals debating their cases before a jinn-king drives home several important points about moral formation. First, a narrative strategy that makes animals “agents analogous to humans” enables readers to get a fresh perspective on admirable character traits by recourse to a lion’s audacity or a camel’s perseverance. Second, virtue is defamiliarized, and expanded, by becoming a characteristic of non-human animals and even planetary as well as cosmic entities (48). The upshot of this perspective is a resignification of the category, “human,” itself, as Zargar explains, “‘Human’ can then mean ‘pinnacle of all creation,’ realized fully by some humans, not at all by others, and in an attenuated and highly specialized fashion by animals” (48). Third, Zargar foregrounds the Brethren’s nimble use of the jinn-king as the arbitrator between humans and animals: “In this story, the race of jinn, hidden yet sentient, represents all those virtuous people who must hide their true identities for fear of hatred or violence. In a similar manner, their king represents the intellect (as well as possibly the hidden Shiʿi imam). Like the intellect, the jinn-king is an entity hidden, rational, merciful, and just, and yet taxed with the management of the affairs of all beings” (45).

A key genre Zargar examines is the philosophical allegory, analyses of which we encounter in chapters 2 and 4 (with reference to Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Ṭufayl, respectively) and in chapter 5 (with reference to Suhrawardī). Zargar’s chapter on Ibn Sīnā’s philosophical allegories—first, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, and second, the story of Salāmān and Absāl—is a tour de force: it helpfully initiates the reader into a vast conceptual vocabulary, familiar to philosophers, by distilling from these two allegories insights about moral discipline and ethical spirituality, all the while navigating the secondary scholarship with nuance. In these twin tales, Ibn Sīnā allegorizes the dynamics of the tripartite soul in its pursuit of virtue by recourse to tropes of friends and brothers. We encounter the brothers Salāmān and Absāl, as personifying the rational soul and the theoretical intellect, respectively, while the other characters in this tale personify the body, the practical intellect, anger, and desire. Their story, which Zargar reconstructs based on Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī’s ingenious account, serves to drive home a central tenet of Ibn Sīnā’s ethical teachings: “The body is an obstacle to the completion of the intellect because it is a combination of contradictories, namely, contradictory natures and humors” (71).

Ibn Sīnā’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān features a narrator who assumes the position of the rational soul and is accompanied by three friends: a loquacious entertainer, an angry person, and a glutton, respectively personifying “imagination, anger, and desire” (63). Accompanied by this bevy of friends, the rational soul encounters “an old man endowed with great wisdom,” namely Ḥayy. The sage immediately recognizes the true natures of these companions. He advises the narrator to save himself from their destructive propensities. “One stratagem that works with such friends,” counsels Ḥayy, “is that you use the malicious and irascible one to overcome the frivolous and gluttonous one by restraining him with rebukes and breaking him utterly. Also, you can gradually neutralize the excessiveness of the conceited and rough one by using the charm of the frivolous and flattering one to subdue him” (64). The trope of the friend as allegorizing a part of one’s soul is brilliant: it furnishes a person with the critical distance necessary for pursuing any program of self-edification. Yet, the allegory also contains profound implications for political philosophy that await further research.

Zargar’s discussion of Miskawayh, Ghazālī, and Ibn Ṭufayl can be related to two questions: To what extent, and in what specific ways, does the ethical subject require extra-rational inspiration to become virtuous? Specifically, how do nature, habit, and culture shape the soul’s dispositions (malakāt)? Chapters 3 and 4 offer much food for thought to pursue this line of inquiry. The pairing of Miskawayh and Ghazālī in a single chapter is especially instructive. While the approaches of both Muslim thinkers differ from modern liberal sensibilities as well as post-modern critiques of the autonomous subject, Miskawayh’s Aristotelian search for the ethical mean in light of reason contrasts with Ghazālī’s pietistic yet imaginative quest for the ethical mean in light of scripture. Future readers might connect the subtle but notable differences between Miskawayh and Ghazālī to Ibn Ṭufayl’s appeal to natural reason and universality in order to uncover the broader epistemological and ontological assumptions at the heart of becoming virtuous in Islamic philosophy and theology. Moreover, we are compelled to ask: what literary functions does the appeal to natural reason and universality perform in Ibn Ṭufayl’s imaginative and influential tale, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān? In other words, does the narrative refer to these tropes as philosophical truths or does it construct them instead to embellish rhetorical force?

The book’s Part Two (on Sufi texts and authors) contains five chapters and covers many thematic clusters, including repentance and self-renunciation, knowledge of the divine self and the human self, annihilation but also subsistence in God, the path of love, and the central dyad of Invisible reality and Visible appearance. While Zargar introduces the reader to a range of mystical texts and authors, it is his masterful discussion of Rumi that best exemplifies the promise of virtue ethics in an Islamic context. Rumi’s poetics draw from philosophy, Sufism, theology, and jurisprudence in order to attack superficial and self-righteous piety; the poet/mystic encourages us to embrace the fragments of truth and virtue according to our bodily capacities, while keeping alive the contradictions of our human selves. In this and in numerous other ways, Zargar’s book offers profound insights about embodied ethics. He enables us to think more critically about the differential realities and appearances of the body in various literary genres. One key question that runs throughout the book echoes its title: What does it mean to inhabit a body that is also a mirror, and how do literary narratives polish this embodied mirror? To ask this question of Islamicate sources is to connect them to a range of conversations in the critical humanities.

While Zargar mentions Martha Nussbaum’s musings on the interplay between the philosophical and the literary, I propose that we might be better served by returning to the most extensive textual site where the relationship between the literary and the philosophical has been the subject of both critical commentary and personal practice, namely the work of Simone de Beauvoir. Zargar’s sustained attention to the bodily dimensions of ethics resonates with Beauvoir’s ethics of the body. “For Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty,” observes Toril Moi, “the human body is fundamentally ambiguous: it is subject at once to natural laws and to the human production of meaning, and it can never be reduced to either one of these elements. Because the body is neither pure nature nor pure meaning, neither empiricism nor idealism will ever be able to grasp the specific nature of human existence” (Moi 2000, 69). Beauvoir charts an alternative path; she explores the ambiguities of ethical embodiment in philosophical works such as The Ethics of Ambiguity and novels such as The Mandarins. Her engagement with the major questions of life at the nexus of philosophy and literature encourages us to think more creatively about the specific transformative power of stories. As Moi emphasizes: “All her life she [Beauvoir] praised the experience of immersed, absorbed, spellbound reading. A good novel, she wrote, ‘imitates the opacity, ambiguity, impartiality of life; spellbound by the story he is told, the reader responds as he would to events in real life.’ To read is to have experiences one would otherwise not have. Readers of fiction, Beauvoir tells us, enlarge their world” (Moi 2017, 214–15).

“To enlarge one’s world” brings us to another important distinction: literature versus fiction. How does this distinction affect narrative’s capacity to shape ethical self-fashioning, especially in contexts where notions of truth are of central significance? To engage with Beauvoir’s focus on literature and embodied ethics also opens another vista of concerns about virtue ethics and storytelling in Islam, questions that connect to, and are inspired by, Zargar’s apt analysis. What kinds of responses, even identifications, on the part of readers intensify literature’s capacity to shape virtue and to transform dispositional habits? What features of the oral performance of ethical tales touch our minds and polish our hearts? These are questions that future research on Islamic narrative ethics can explore, taking inspiration from Zargar’s pioneering study. The Polished Mirror thus holds up a new model of constructive inquiry into Islamic ethics; the surface of this mirror is capacious enough to reflect Islamicate literature but also allude to a range of debates and themes in the critical humanities.


  • Moi, Toril. 2000. What is a Woman? And Other Essays. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Moi, Toril. 2017. Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

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