WHAT IS “THE POLISHED MIRROR”?
By Cyrus Ali Zargar
The polished mirror is an image that unites these two ethical traditions, philosophy and Sufism. One finds it mentioned repeatedly as a way to describe a receptive self-perfection, whether that be the perfection of the human intellect, heart, or soul. It tells us that there were similarities in these ethical models, which often relied on symbols of light, reflection, the removal of imperfections, and patterns of emanation. Perhaps the Neoplatonic sympathies of both traditions brought this image to the fore. As Aaron Hughes illustrates, the metaphor of the imagination as a polished mirror appears in the writings of the ancient philosopher Plotinus (d. 270) and aligns with the model of imagination prevalent among Muslim and Jewish philosophers.57
For an example from philosophy, the polished mirror in Avicenna’s writings has noticeably ethical significance. According to Avicenna, the rational soul goes through a process of refinement, trading base character traits for excellent ones and shedding vile habits for noble ones, becoming purified through the knowledge of God. When that is the case, the soul “becomes like a polished mirror upon which are reflected the forms of things as they are in themselves without any distortion,” achieving the ability to reflect all the intelligibles—the pinnacle of human achievement in Avicenna’s philosophy.58 Avicenna also uses this image of the “polished mirror” in a manner reminiscent of Sufi writings, to describe the penultimate stages of the “knower” (al-ʿārif) of “the Real.”59 (This recurring designation, “the Real” or al-Ḥaqq, signifies God in Himself, as the Absolute, abstracted from conceptions of Him and from His relationships to creation. It becomes common among those claiming to have privileged knowledge of God.)
In Sufism, Ibn ʿArabī begins his Bezels of Wisdoms (Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam) by comparing Adam’s capacity for reflecting all of God’s attributes to a “polished mirror.”60 Before him, Ghazālī had famously used the image in the context of comprehending the Qurʾan: “The heart is like a mirror; desires are like rust; and the meanings of the Qurʾan are like forms that appear in that mirror, so that ascetic practice, by extirpating the lower desires, does for the heart what polishing does for a mirror.”61 The trope of the polished mirror elicits an image of ultimate human perfection as a matter of removing deficiencies—as opposed to acquiring the good. This is a common “end” to virtue ethics in both philosophy and Sufism, as will be discussed in Chapter Nine.
- HUMORAL ETHICS: THE SCIENTIFIC BACKDROP OF PREMODERN ISLAMIC VIRTUE ETHICS
The reader will also notice an emphasis, especially throughout the first half of the book, on the four humors. To understand the centrality of the humors to premodern ethics, consider by way of analogy the place of psychology in contemporary language. Modern psychology so informs our way of thinking that we have difficulty noticing it humming in the background of our assessments of self and others. Every time we, as Americans or Westerners, think of a moral action as “unhealthy,” we speak in psychological terms. Moreover, phrases such as “Freudian slip,” “inner child,” “anal retentive,” “acting out,” or “OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)” have become a part of everyday English, even if such usage often does not conform to the phrase’s scientific meaning. Psychology is, after all, for many moderns, an important—if not the most important—standard of measurement for the wellbeing of the human mind and, in many ways, life as a whole.
Premodern Muslim writers inherited a view of the soul–body relationship that was just as influential for them as modern psychology is for us. Their view posited that the human body thrives through a balance of the four humors, the balancing of which also affects one’s psychological states and even one’s dispositions for character. Ethics strove to bring order to imbalances in the soul influenced by the contending forces of the body. This assumed a cosmological pattern of emanation from unity to disunity, perfection to imperfection, such that the observable world revealed mixtures and multiplicities that had their origins in perfection and unity. While not as widely accepted as humoral medicine, alchemy too ensued from theories about a hierarchy of elements, one part of the overarching hierarchy of being. Thus, one often finds alchemical metaphors in writings on virtue ethics.
One might locate original Muslim interest in the ethical implications of the soul–body relationship in the Qurʾan.62 Yet it was in philosophy—especially in the pursuit of health for both body and soul—that the groundwork for “humoral” virtue ethics was laid. Works like Hygienics for Bodies and Souls (Maṣāliḥ al-Abdān wa-l-Anfus), written by a student of al-Kindī named Abū Zayd al-Balkhī (d. 934), treated vices in explicitly medical terms.63 There is also the Spiritual Medicine (al-Ṭibb al-Rūḥānī) of Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (d. 925 or 935), or “Rhazes,” as he was known in Latin. While Rhazes was critical of certain core axioms in the theory of humors, he nevertheless saw ethics and medicine as intertwined, having been largely influenced by the ancient philosopher-physician Galen (d. ca. 216).64 Al-Fārābī, like the philosophers studied here, also saw parallels between moral philosophy and medicine.65
An important caveat is that all the virtue ethicists discussed here agree that the major achievements of the soul lie beyond the basic humoral virtue ethics aimed at justice. The loftiest expectations for the human soul, however, even for the Sufis, often assumed a humoral substructure. Thus, this applies not only to Ghazālī, but also to the major Sufi thinker, Ibn ʿArabī. Ibn ʿArabī inherited centuries of insights from Sufi masters about states and stations, and his ethics is a complex web of illuminations about Islamic law and scripture. Yet even he says that “in most cases, the soul is ruled forever by the property of its constitution.”66
- STORYTELLING AND VIRTUE ETHICS
Among the common threads that knit together Sufi and philosophical virtue ethics, arguably none is more illuminative than storytelling. After all, the interchange between Sufism and philosophy was often more apparent in storytelling than, say, in specialized treatises, polemical texts, or Qurʾanic commentaries. Allegorical tales—one major example of the phenomenon of storytelling—were a form of writing common to masters of both sciences. Moreover, it seems that Sufis and philosophers, or sometimes those who were Sufi-philosophers, engaged in narrative exercises often motivated by the need to communicate theory and practice in a way more inclusively “human.” Classical Arabic and Persian storytelling allowed abstract ethical theory to materialize as a part of human narratives, daily life, social norms, personal longings, and edifying entertainment. Throughout the book, I will continue to explore adoptions, shared ends, and contrasting premises in Sufism and philosophy using this “common thread,” that is, storytelling as virtue ethics exemplified.
From the beginnings of Islam, storytelling had a central position in Islamic learning, especially moral learning. The premise that righteous conduct could be found in the great figures of the past prevailed not only in the Qurʾan and in pre-Islamic Arabian narratives, but even in the Biblical and extra-Biblical narratives that served as Qurʾanic commentary, as John Renard explains.67 Tales of ancient prophets, such as those told in the collection of Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad Thaʿlabī (d. 1035), presented an audience with models of behavior while also reaffirming the veracity of the Qurʾan, which alludes to details in the lives of those prophets.68 One of the roles of the earliest qāḍī (judge) was not only to administer law, but also to tell stories of those who exemplified worthy character traits, most especially the Prophet Muhammad. Many such judges held a second official position as “storyteller” (qaṣṣ, plural quṣṣāṣ).69 The role that storytellers played in expanding the Hadith corpus was later lamented by scholars of Hadith.70 Yet even collections of Hadith verified as reputable can be treated as literary texts saturated with narrativity.71
Modeling virtue became a pattern adopted by Hadith narrators, philosophers, Sufis, and other Muslim writers. For Sufis especially, models of behavior were and still are an evident part of the tradition. In a seminal study, Vincent Cornell argues that hagiographies (stories of saintly lives) follow patterns of “typification,” a term that describes the way in which institutions acquire identity by directing attention to certain actions by certain representative actors. Concentrating on Sufi sainthood in Morocco, Cornell outlines how the saint’s special relationship with God assumed patterns of moral authority, often through narratives surrounding that saint.72 Idealized behaviors were recorded in hagiographical collections. They then became remembered as historical fact—as real standards. Idealized roles embodied by saints of the imagined past, therefore, “were played by real people in Muslim society.”73 In that way, accounts of the lives of saints (and the lives of saintly philosophers) meld storytelling, history, and virtue to communicate how ethics might be lived.
Muslim ethicists used storytelling of many varieties to convey normative standards of virtue. In fact, the concept of “literature” itself surfaced in an ethical context for Arabic (and Persian) readers. This can be seen in the Arabic word adab, which our authors would have known to mean both a category of “wisdom literature” and “proper conduct.” Adab also included knowledge of the literary arts such as grammar by which one attained such conduct.74 It referred to the specialized training and values of the well-to-do, for whom “literature” and “proper conduct” were inseparable.75 Being able to quote a saying or lines of poetry most apropos to the context at hand; displaying a wide range of knowledge; communicating with grammatical rigor; and exuding both wit and grace in one’s speech, writing, and conduct; these were all signs of the adīb, that is, the person with adab, the “lettered” person. One can see how these qualities came together in the example of al-Tawḥīdī, a polymath versed in philosophy, Sufism, and Islamic law. Al-Tawḥīdī communicates the cardinal social virtue of friendship (ṣadāqa) by means of a letter that not only highlights the grace of his pen, but also relies on narratives about those he knew, narratives that contextualize wisdom about good behavior.76 In Sufism, such “lettered” conduct or adab had special significance, for it affected the way one learned from a master, interacted in spiritual companionship, or cohabitated in lodges.77
Storytelling appears in each chapter of this book in part because contemporary virtue ethicists have made a compelling case that, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, “man is in his actions and practice, as well as his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.”78 MacIntyre argues that only a “narrative selfhood,” in which humans envision their actions and identities within the context of narratives with intelligible ends, will have lasting effects on individuals and societies.79 Both ancient and contemporary virtue ethics take each individual human narrative into account, as opposed to Enlightenment theories that sought to offer universal norms. What is virtuous differs in different circumstances. Unlike axioms, narratives can capture the contextual nature of virtuous and vicious habits and choices. This has led to interest in the study of literature as ethics, or even what might be called “literary ethics.” Literature, according to Martha Nussbaum, can reveal human character, examine “the relevant passions with acute perception,” and offer a picture of “what it means to organize a life in pursuit of what one values.”80 Novels as constructions of human experiences and human striving for good in specific contexts of choice and limitations can convey a lived “Aristotelian ethical thinking.”81
Yet even beyond an Aristotelian framework, narratives seem distinctively able to reveal values, situations, decisions, character, and the relationship between them all. A modern reader might take delight in a novel and might even say that she has “learned” from it because it so often presents events in the moral universe through the prism of an individual’s circumstances, emotions, point of view, and development. Even bad choices or complete moral indifference in narrative form tell us something about the experience of being human, that is, the experience of being in an individual situation with enough universal relevance to merit its being communicated. To include premodern Muslim literary and ethical writings in these discussions expands the scope of the search for lived and situated human experience.82
- THE BOOK’S ORGANIZATION
The chapters that follow might be divided into two uneasy halves, one half largely concerning Islamic philosophy (beginning with “humoral ethics”), and the other half largely concerning Sufism. This division is an uneasy one because, as you will see, sometimes the lines between these two sciences are blurred. Certain philosophers held an allegiance to Sufism. Certain Sufis, even those opposed to philosophy, made use of philosophical terms and teachings to make their point. Chapter Ten should be considered a case study that blends together themes mentioned throughout the book within the context of storytelling. In it, preceding discussions are applied to the narrative poetry of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273).