Islamic Ethics as Educational Discourse: Thought and Impact of the Classical Muslim Thinker Miskawayh (d. 1030), edited by Sebastian Günther and Yassir El Jamouchi

In: Journal of Islamic Ethics
Janne Mattila Department of World Cultures, University of Helsinki Helsinki Finland

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Islamic Ethics as Educational Discourse: Thought and Impact of the Classical Muslim Thinker Miskawayh (d. 1030), edited by Sebastian Günther and Yassir El Jamouchi. Tübingen: Morh Siebeck, 2021, pp. xv + 393.

Miskawayh (d. 421/1030) is probably the most influential moral philosopher in the history of Islamic philosophy. This may be in part due to the predominantly ethical focus of his philosophical writings that sets him apart from his peers. Many later authors, such as al-Ṭūsī (d. 672/1274) and al-Dawānī (d. 907/1501), thus draw on Miskawayh’s major ethical work, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq (“Purification of Character Traits”), in their ethical treatises. There have been surprisingly few systematic studies on Miskawayh’s ethical thought; the extent and precise nature of his impact remain largely unexplored.

The collection of articles edited by Günther and El Jamouchi is therefore a timely contribution to scholarship on Miskawayh. As is characteristic of conference proceedings, the chapters form a somewhat uneven whole. They address a wide gamut of subjects related to the two main themes of ethics and educational theory, and range from superficial to impactful contributions to the chosen topic. In broad strokes, the chapters may be classified into those addressing Miskawayh’s position with respect to 1) classical sources, 2) contemporaries, and 3) later Islamic authors, as well as his 4) doctrinal views on a specific question.

The editors’ introduction provides a general picture by mapping Miskawayh’s position within his immediate intellectual context and in modern Western and Islamic perceptions. A commendable section engages analytically with the term “humanism.” Since Mohammed Arkoun’s (d. 2010) studies, the term has been connected to Miskawayh, or sometimes Būyid Iraq in general. For Arkoun, Miskawayh’s “humanism” also served as the instrumental end of reassessing modern Islamic thought. The surprisingly large number of scholars that have employed the term since (including many of the reviewed volume’s authors) have operated with distinct definitions of the term. Thus, beyond the generic sense of showing that the European Renaissance has no monopoly on placing the intellectual focus on the human being, the term is too vague to have a considerable interpretative function. If Miskawayh is a humanist due to his rationalism and human-centered ethics, for example, are not most Islamic philosophers humanists on the same account?

In regard to the classical sources, the word eclectic is often used for Miskawayh in modern scholarship. The eclecticism comes forth clearly in the book: El Jamouhi’s chapter addresses Bryson’s (second century CE) influence; Wakelnig and Daiber discuss the Neoplatonic element. With his chapter, El Jamouhi contributes to the sparsely researched subject of Islamic philosophical economics in general and the Arabic reception of Bryson in particular. Wakelnig’s contribution is important in showing that Arabic translations of late ancient introductions to philosophy constitute a significant source for Miskawayh, as they did for authors in previous generations, such as al-Kindī (d. ca. 256/870) and al-Fārābī (d. 339/950). Daiber addresses Miskawayh’s Tahdhīb from the perspective of the Platonic theme of imitation of God as the ultimate human ethical end. While the idea was omnipresent since al-Kindī, Daiber’s analysis gives prominence to the anonymous text Faḍāʾil al-Nafs (“Virtues of the Soul”) and the Arabic translation of a commentary on the Pythagorean Χρύσεα Ἔπη (Chrysea Epē, “Golden Verses”) attributed to Iamblichus (d. ca. 320 CE). The first claim is reasonable, especially since Miskawayh explicitly cites the text. Daiber’s second claim positions Miskawayh specifically within the Iamblichean form of Neoplatonism, and seems less convincing. It is of course entirely possible that Miskawayh was familiar with the commentary on the Golden Verses. But the goal of divinization is equally prominent in Arabic Plato (d. ca. 349 BCE) and Plotinus (d. 270 CE), and Daiber presents no textual parallels that relate Miskawayh’s views to the commentary attributed to Iamblichus in particular.

Another group of chapters situates Miskawayh among his peers. Haggag addresses Miskawayh’s relation with the philosopher-literate al-Tawḥīdī (d. 414/1023) by studying al-Hawāmil wa-l-Shawāmil (“Free Questions and Comprehensive Answers”), a fascinating treatise consisting of Miskawayh’s responses to the rather diverse questions posed by al-Tawḥīdī. The chapter’s specific focus is on religion, and thus the subject of the philosophers’ engagement with religious sciences. As regards the relation between philosophy and religion, Miskawayh’s solution is the familiar one that argues for an essential harmony where philosophy relates to universal truths and religion to the particularities qualified by time and place. More interesting is Miskawayh’s application of this principle to the concrete level of Islamic jurisprudence. Miskawayh in effect argues for jurisprudential pluralism, based on the claim that the consequentialist terms of well-being (maṣlaḥa) and ill-being (mafsada), on which jurisprudential inferences are often based, vary not only with respect to the spatial and temporal context but also when applied to two individuals in the same context. The fundamental beliefs (uṣūl al-ʿaqīda) are, however, excluded from the sphere of licit doctrinal diversity.

Miskawayh’s Christian teacher, Yaḥyā Ibn ʿAdī (d. 363/974), is of prime importance for assessing Miskawayh’s intellectual context. This is especially the case since Ibn ʿAdī composed an ethical treatise with a title identical to Miskawayh’s major ethical work. Surprisingly, however, Miskawayh never refers to that treatise, nor have scholars been able to make a convincing case for textual parallels. Mauder’s chapter makes the plausible argument that Ibn ʿAdī’s Tahdhīb, against the common conception of its religiously neutral character, is composed from the perspective of a Christian subject to Muslim rule. This would have limited its usefulness for Miskawayh. Pietruschka’s chapter tackles the possibly false attribution of the work to Ibn ʿAdī, which would provide an alternative explanation for why Miskawayh ignored it.

Yosefi complements the context of religious diversity in which Miskawayh operated by comparing Miskawayh’s ethical thought with the Jewish philosopher Saʿadyā Gaʾōn (d. 331/942). But as the author admits, the parallels are so generic as to be more plausibly explained by the same intellectual context in which authors of different religious confessions operated during this period rather than by direct textual influence.

The volume does not devote a chapter to Miskawayh’s intellectual affinities with al-Fārābī (d. 339/950). Al-Fārābī was Ibn ʿAdī’s teacher, and thus Miskawayh is a second-generation student of al-Fārābī. Moreover, the two authors are exceptional in their focus on practical philosophy and constitute the two main authorities in this sphere for later philosophers. For example, al-Ṭūsī draws on Miskawayh in the ethical part and on al-Fārābī in the political part of his Akhlāq-i Nāṣirī (“Nāṣirean Ethics”). Various authors nevertheless bring up al-Fārābī incidentally. I agree with Daiber’s observation that the individual focus of Miskawayh’s ethics distinguishes him from al-Fārābī’s political one. Daiber’s claim that al-Fārābī devoted almost no space to Aristotelian virtue ethics is inaccurate, however, as parts of al-Tanbīh ʿalā Sabīl al-Saʿāda (“Exhortation to the Way to Happiness”) and Fuṣūl Muntazaʿa (“Selected Aphorisms”) clearly fall under this label. Mauder’s argument that Ibn ʿAdī’s Tahdhīb addresses the political elite might enable an interpretation of Ibn ʿAdī as a bridge between the mainly political focus of his teacher versus the individual focus of his pupil.

Chapters on al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) and Arkoun address Miskawayh’s later impact. Vasalou focuses on the important subject of the tension between the Islamic versus philosophical elements in al-Ghazālī’s ethical writings. This manifests in al-Ghazālī’s alternating focus on the ethical primacy of character versus actions. The problem relates to the unresolved question of al-Ghazālī’s consistency when operating in the genres of philosophy, Sufism, theology, and jurisprudence. Vasalou makes a convincing case for the claim that for al-Ghazālī the virtue ethical aspect is foundational in the sense that the goodness of virtues cannot be reduced to the acts that follow as their consequence. The chapter’s relation to Miskawayh is thin but it does provide an example of how theological authors adopted philosophical ethics, including Miskawayh’s. As Vasalou shows, for al-Ghazālī and for the philosophers, religious law is also assigned the function of educating character towards virtue.

Vasalou suggests that it is the inward-directed ethical focus, as manifested in the Sufi notion of a good state of the heart, that distinguishes al-Ghazālī from the philosophers. It is true that Islamic philosophers are emphatic that society is a necessary condition for the good life. Still, the juxtaposition does not appear entirely valid. Namely, is not the contemplative ideal that the philosophers, including Miskawayh, promote as the highest ethical end a similarly inward state? While Vasalou is correct in stating that for Miskawayh virtues are practiced primarily within a community, Miskawayh also argues for a gradation of ethical ends that correspond to different constituencies. The highest form of purely contemplative happiness might well align with al-Ghazālī’s purity of heart regarding the inward orientation.

When taken together, the chapters make a valuable contribution to research on Miskawayh. At the same time, the volume highlights the urgent need for further studies. The first avenue for future research concerns Miskawayh as an independent thinker. Here the book’s contribution is surprisingly thin. Most chapters approach Miskawayh in relation to previous, contemporary, or later authors but none really make a convincing case for Miskawayh as a systematic philosopher. Thus, the volume enforces the idea of Miskawayh as an essentially eclectic thinker. This raises an important question: to what extent is Miskawayh successful in incorporating the classical and Islamic threads into a systematic ethical or educational doctrine? Arkoun’s somewhat dated monograph still represents the most ambitious effort for a reading of Miskawayh based on his overall oeuvre.

A second question partly relates to the first: what ultimately explains Miskawayh’s momentous impact on successive generations of Muslim authors? If Miskawayh’s main quality is his eclecticism, as opposed to the novelty of his ideas, his lasting appeal seems surprising. Is his fame then due to the fact that he was the most successful among Muslim philosophers in formulating classical virtue ethics in an Islamic context? Future studies on Miskawayh’s influence on subsequent philosophical and theological authors will hopefully help answer this question.

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