Tahera Qutbuddin - Topic for the June 2016 Working Group Meeting

Early Islamic Teachings on Virtue1

The relevance of this presentation to the Workshop is primarily in its delineation of an early Islamic approach to leading a virtuous life, which advocates enjoying a happy, pleasurable life on earth and being grateful for God’s innumerable blessings, yet always preparing, with the cultivation of virtuous traits and the performance of virtuous deeds, for the imminent hereafter. This is the main thrust of the teachings of Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 40/661), Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, the first Shiʿa imam and fourth Sunni caliph.

After the Quran and the words of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali’s teachings are arguably some of the most influential in the Islamic world. They stand at the head of the Muslim ethical tradition, centuries before the well-known philosophers Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, and the celebrated Sufi poets Rumi and Hafez. And although they deeply impact a large segment of medieval and modern Muslim ideologies, very little academic study of the texts has come forth.

An important theme of Ali’s orations is contemplating this world and the next. Within the profusion of texts, one observes—at least at first glance—a clear dichotomy in Ali’s treatment of this world. Despite the similar subthemes and identical rhetorical techniques in all his addresses, we find two diametrically opposite positions articulated, one harshly castigating this world, the other staunchly defending it. By examining the backgrounds of the sermons, we see that the difference in characterization stems from the difference in context—and that the message is essentially the same: in all his discourses describing the world, whether the portrayal is positive or negative, Ali is urgently exhorting his followers to realize the transience of human life, reject gross materialism, and lead a virtuous and contented life in preparation for the eternal life to come.

1 Included in the submitted readings:

(1) Tahera Qutbuddin, “Ali’s Contemplations on this World and the Hereafter in the Context of His Life & Times,” forthcoming article in Essays in Islamic Philology, History, and Philosophy, ed. Alireza Korangy, Roy Mottahedeh, and William Granara, Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

(2) A further selection of Ali’s words in my English translation, A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons and Teachings of ʿAlī (Library of Arabic Literature, New York University Press, 2013), chapters 1 & 2, and my Introduction to the volume.