Law and society

Steven Harvey

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The medieval Islamic philosophers did not have access to Aristotle’s Politics. Whether this was by design or not, it was the one of the few major works of the Aristotelian corpus that was not translated into Arabic. In its stead, al-Fa-ra-bı-(d. 950), the inaugurator of the tradition of Aristotelian philosophy in Islam, and his followers turned to Plato’s Republic and Laws-two works that were available in Arabic, or at least summaries of them. From Plato they learned inter alia about the place of the philosopher in the city, the distinction between the few and the many and the proper ways of educating each of them, the purpose of law, and the importance of religion for the well-being of society. They learned from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that human beings are political by nature and that to achieve that end, a human being must live with others in society. They also learned from Aristotle that a human being’s end is to attain happiness, and that the purpose of the city is to make possible the attainment of happiness for its citizens to the extent that is possible for each of them. But why should learned Muslims need to turn to ancient pagan philosophers to

learn about topics such as ethics, the nature and purpose of law, and the ultimate happiness of humans? Does not Islam provide sufficient guidance on these important matters? In actuality, the Islamic Aristotelians were intrigued and very interested in the political teachings of Plato and Aristotle. These teachings helped them to understand their own religion and to interpret their divine Law, the Qur aʾ-n. Plato and Aristotle made clear to them how to distinguish true happiness from what was mistakenly believed to be happiness and pointed them in the direction of human perfection. As we will see, these philosophers did not read the ancients through the tinted glasses of Islamic theology. They were informed logicians and had mastered Aristotelian natural science and metaphysics. They sought to understand the relation between the teachings of religion and those of philosophy, and where possible to harmonize the two. For them, political philosophy-which, following Aristotle, comprised ethics (the governance of oneself), economics (the governance of one’s household), and politics (the governance of the city)—had a special place in the enumeration of the sciences: it followed and thus could be studied only after one had first studied metaphysics. This implies, as Muhsin Mahdi has pointed out, that “the understanding of political science has to be based on the conclusions arrived at

in metaphysics” (Lerner and Mahdi 1963: 98). The implications of this teaching for the Islamic philosophers will be discussed below. Al-Fa-ra-bı-, who is rightly regarded as the true founder of political philosophy in

Islam, wrote many works on this discipline. While these writings have different aims and contain different teachings, there are certain fundamental points that are explicit or assumed in all of them. The most basic is that human beings are political by nature: it is their nature to live in society. Al-Fa-ra-bı-spells this out in several of his writings. In his Political Regime (al-Siya-sa al-madaniyya) he writes that human beings belong to a species of animals that cannot accomplish their necessary affairs or achieve their best state, except through the association of many groups of them in a single place. The smallest such perfect association is that of the city (Lerner & Mahdi 1963: 32). In the Principles of the Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City (Maba-di’ a-ra-’ ahl al-madı-na al-fa-d. ila) he explains that a human being by nature needs many things for sustenance and to achieve highest perfection, and one cannot provide all these things by oneself. One needs others to supply each of the things that one cannot provide by oneself. Human beings thus by nature come together in associations in order to supply each other with what they need to subsist and to attain their end as human beings. Al-Fa-ra-bı-makes clear that one’s supreme good and highest perfection cannot be attained in an association smaller than a city (al-Fa-ra-bı-1985: 228-31). This need for the city is further explained by Ibn Sı-na-(d. 1037) at the end of his

magnum opus, The Healing (al-Shifa-)ʾ. Human beings differ from other animals in that they cannot live a proper life when isolated as a single individual, managing one’s own affairs. Human beings need each other so they can be provided with their basic needs. Ibn Sı-na-explains that one provides another with vegetables, and the other bakes bread for the other; one sews for the other, and the other provides that one with the sewing needles. Through this division of labor, people coming together in an association can provide each other with all they need. For this reason, human beings must necessarily come together in associations and preferably, if they can, in cities. Their very existence and survival depends on it. But these mutual relations and transactions must have laws and justice. There is thus a need also for a giver of law and a dispenser of justice, for people cannot decide for themselves what is just and fair in their dealings with others because they will invariably consider their own interests and disagreements will occur (Avicenna 2005: 364-5). This human need for others is also emphasized by Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) at the

beginning of his commentary on Plato’s Republic, and he too cites verbatim Aristotle’s dictum that human beings are political by nature. He explains that human beings must join together in an association, not only to attain the theoretical and moral virtues needed for human perfection, which cannot be acquired without the help of others, but even for their very subsistence. One human being alone cannot secure all basic needs. In this connection Ibn Rushd emphasizes the advantages of the division of labor. One who chooses an art in youth and constantly practices it for a long time will become much better at it than if it were simply one of many things that a person does. In this way, division of labor is not only necessary, but works out the best. Ibn Rushd explains that this is the very justice that Plato uncovers in the Republic. It is nothing more than each individual in the city doing the work that is that individual’s by nature in the best way that one possibly can (Averroes 1974: 5-7).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Islamic Philosophy
PublisherTaylor and Francis Inc.
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781317484325
ISBN (Print)9780415881609
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2016
Externally publishedYes


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