The Polished Mirror

Storytelling and the Pursuit of Virtue in Islamic Philosophy and Sufism

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Cyrus Ali Zargar
  • London, England: 
    Oneworld Publications
    , January
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Cyrus Ali Zargar’s The Polished Mirror: Storytelling and the Pursuit of Virtue in Islamic Philosophy and Sufism is a much needed work in the fields of Islamic ethics, philosophy, and Sufism. Allegories, parables, thought experiments, and other types of narrative have been used throughout the history of Islam to illustrate complex philosophical and mystical ideas—some authors use them to make their points more accessible and others to conceal them, but sometimes they do both. Zargar’s treatment of narratives by such authors as Ikhwan Al-Safa, Miskawayh, Suhrawardi, Ja’far Al-Sadiq, Al-Muhasibi, and Ansari not only brings to light the intersections between philosophical and Sufi thought, but also shows the continuity between these works. This has not been done comprehensively before. Works on Islamic philosophy have for the most part ignored narrative. When scholars have worked on narratives, they have not connected them together except for a few instances, for example in the case of Ibn Sina’s and Ibn Tufayl’s narratives.

The book is divided into two parts: one on Islamic Philosophy, and the other on Sufism, although these parts are interconnected. The introduction covers the basics and is quite readable: What is ethics? What is Islamic philosophy? What is Sufism? As Zargar introduces these concepts, he shares fascinating stories of jurists, scholars, mystics, and philosophers. He uses the humorous story of a Spanish Muslim poet who contemplates, attempts, and then commits adultery with the help of his neighbor, a grammarian, to illustrate the concept of “amoral legalism” that uses loopholes to twist the legality of actions that would otherwise be considered both immoral and illegal. 

The first chapter deals with Ikhwan Al-Safa’s treatment of ethics. For this secret society, the body serves as a window to the soul (36). Based on Greek psychology, medicine, and metaphysics, Ikhwan Al-Safa’s understanding of the human body relies on an understanding of the four humors: yellow bile, blood, phlegm, and black bile, which correspond to the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth (37). The understanding of the soul, like the body, is based on Greek thought, and Aristotle in particular; it is divided into three faculties: vegetative, animal, and rational. Zargar admits that ethics for Ikhwan Al-Safa is not only based on these concepts but he uses them to set up the discussions in the following chapters (40).

In the second chapter, Zargar discusses Ibn Sina’s philosophical allegories “Living, Son of Awake” and “Salaman and Absal.” Both deal with the soul, an entity that has two intellects. “One looks downward, toward the body (the practical intellect), and the other looks upward, toward absolute concepts (the theoretical intellect)” (53). For Ibn Sina, moral determinations are shaped by multiple factors including bodily functions, social norms and reason (54). 

The third chapter examines the refinement of character in the works of Miskawayh and Al-Ghazali. Miskawayh based his ethical theories on many sources: 1) Greek philosophy (Aristotle’s concept of the mean, Plato’s concept of the virtues, Galen’s ethics, the Peripatetics, and the Neoplatonists), 2) the Muslim philosopher Al-Kindi, 3) the Qur’an and Hadith. Miskawayh locates the virtues in the faculties of the soul, and also addresses the body’s role in thwarting ethical action. Al-Ghazali, like Miskawayh and Ikhwan Al-Safa, also sees the body—the stomach and genitals in particular—as distracting one from acquiring virtuous habits (92-93). Here Zargar treats the idea of the diseases of the soul shared by Ikhwan Al-Safa, Miskawayh, and Al-Ghazali. Zargar observes that Al-Ghazali tends toward asceticism, and therefore away from the Aristotelian mean (94).

Chapter 4 discusses Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, written in 12th-century Andalusia. Zargar analyses the narrative as a thought experiment about a child who grows up on a desert island. On his own, the young man comes to find and worship God, becomes an ascetic and a vegan, practices seclusion and silence, and imitates the celestial spheres (121-22). Zargar argues that for the main character, Hayy, “metaphysics informs ethics”—another idea that is shared by the authors discussed above (122).

Chapter 5 is connected to chapter 4 and deals with another ascetic, Suhrawardi, his “Philosophy of Illumination” (127), and his allegory “On the State of Childhood” (135). For Suhrawardi, the practice of sama’ and dance lead to the soul’s dissociation from the body and achievement of an ecstatic state (143). Similar ideas occur in Hayy ibn Yaqzan as well—after observing the movement of the celestial spheres, Hayy worships God by moving in circular motions, first by walking in a large circle around his island, then around his home, and finally rotating his body in a circular motion. 

In part 2, dedicated to Sufi texts, chapter 6 focuses on repentance in texts by Ja’far Al-Sadiq (d. 728) and Al-Sulami (d. 1021), namely Misbah al-Shari’a wa Miftah al-Haqiqa (Lantern to the Shari’a Path and the Key to Reality) attributed to Al-Sadiq, Haqa’iq al-Tafsir (Realities of Exegesis) and “Ziyadat Haqa’iq al-Tafsir” (“Appendix to Realities of Exegesis”) by Al-Sulami (157), as well as al-Kafi (The Sufficient Book) by Muhammad al-Kulayni (168). In the discussion of these texts, Zargar describes the stages of repentance: “God turns back toward the servant first, awakening the servant’s desire to return to Him; then the servant turns in repentance; and then God turns back in forgiveness (see Q 9:119)” (159). Repentance is the first station of the Sufi’s journey toward God. 

Continuing the investigation of the Sufi stations, chapter 7 addresses the renunciation of the world in the thought of al-Muhasibi and al-Sarraj, while chapter 9 deals with self-annihilation in the works of ‘Attar. Chapters 8 and 10 continue the discussion of virtue on the Sufi path to God that appeared in chapter 6 and explain such important concepts as the maqam (station), manzil (waystation), hal (state), and waqt (immediate moment) in Sufi works (206-208). A convenient chart of the waystations according to Al-Ansari appears on pages 210-11, and one depicting al-Kashani’s Allegory of Light appears on page 215. Chapter 8 also clarifies Ansari’s use of the words soul, heart, and spirit—terms that appear in the works of all of the thinkers mentioned in this book (212-213). 

The scope of this book is considerable, and it deals with some of the most abstract and complex concepts in the history of Islamic thought. If it has any shortcomings, it is that it does not cover every ethical dimension of each of the works it treats; but a book that comprehensive would be thousands of pages long. Zargar leaves his readers with many threads to pursue: for example, he looks at the influence of the body on ethical action in his chapters on Ikhwan Al-Safa and Al-Ghazali, but does not dive into the asceticism of these thinkers. He shows that these texts are fertile ground for research and can yield much when they are put in conversation with each other. 

In conclusion, I highly recommend this work to scholars in the field, and also to students. The book is accessible and can be used in courses on Islamic ethics, philosophy, and Sufism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shatha Almutawa is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Willamette University in Oregon.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cyrus Ali Zargar is Associate Professor of Religion at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois, where his primary research interest is the literature of medieval Sufism in Arabic and Persian.


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