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Jun 13, 2018

The Secret of the Morality Tale

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Cyrus Ali Zargar

Augustana College

Cyrus Ali Zargar's research centers on the literature of medieval Sufism in Arabic and Persian, including love poetry and ethical treatises, the writings of Ibn al-ʿArabī, and early adherents to his worldview, and the development of Sufi terms and symbols.

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The Secret of the Morality Tale

Sadi And The Youth Of Kashgar

Sa¢dī and the youth of Kashgar, Bukhara, 1547

One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.1Clifford Geertz

Once, a king decided that a certain prisoner should be executed. Having lost hope in being pardoned, the prisoner began to insult the king. The king asked those around him what the prisoner said. One of his viziers, whose kindness made for “pleasant company,” responded with a lie, reporting to the king that the prisoner had actually pleaded for mercy. “O commander of the world,” the vizier declared, “the prisoner says, ‘And those who restrain their anger and pardon people,’” quoting part of a Qurʾanic verse that praises those who forgive others and act excellently.2 The king, moved by these words, decided to pardon the prisoner.

Through this story, which begins his masterpiece The Rose Garden (Gulistān), Sa¢dī—or more completely, Musharrif al-Dīn Muśliĥ Sa¢dī (d. ca. 690/1291), often considered the greatest moralist of Persian literature—explores the ethics of lying. The story continues that another vizier, however, intervened: “To speak anything but the truth in the presence of the king does not befit my kind. He insulted the king and hurled obscenities at him.” Hearing this, the king grimaced and replied, “I prefer that lie to this truth that you’ve uttered because that was aimed at best interests, while this was rooted in vice.” Sa¢dī then offers a choice saying of the wise: “A lie that furthers what is best is better than a truth that arouses sedition.”

Podcast: The Secret of the Morality Tale with Cyrus Ali Zargar

Sa¢dī’s presentation of lying contrasts strikingly with theories that have prevailed in the study of ethics in colleges and universities around the world until relatively recently—namely, theories that became dominant after the European Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers have received such attention because they laid the groundwork for many values we deem “modern.” And their universality in higher education and in much of the world’s legal systems is no accident, for these theories themselves claim universality. Expressed simply, Enlightenment ethicists believed any rational, objective system could be applied to all. Such consistency led Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) to argue that lying to a potential murderer about the whereabouts of his potential victim would be morally wrong. After all, one does not tell the truth as a means to some other end but because truth telling is a logical conclusion following Kant’s “categorical imperative”: that is, it is absolutely binding and independent of other ends (as opposed to, for example, telling the truth so that others are impressed).3 Ultimately, the most basic of all categorical imperatives, underlying all the others, is that one’s actions must be such that one would want them applied universally: lying to a potential murderer for a desirable outcome takes advantage of that murderer’s sense of trust, an act that one cannot reasonably will for all. Hence, lying, even in this situation, is wrong, and truthfulness is a duty “however great the disadvantage.”4 Other philosophers saw Kant’s strange conclusion as indicating a larger flaw in his duty-based ethics, advocating instead a more careful consideration of the ends of our actions. For example, while John Stuart Mill (d. 1873) acknowledges that upholding honesty as a public virtue is in the best interests of all, he argues that exceptions should be made in certain cases, such as that of the would-be murderer just described.5 The method used to determine such exceptions is “weighing . . . conflicting utilities against one another”—that is, judging each act by its consequences. Mill’s focus on consequences lacks a categorical sense of duty, yet it nevertheless offers a formula that might be universally applied: anything that results in the most happiness is good.

Let us compare this, then, to Sa¢dī. Sa¢dī’s statement that a lie furthering “what is best is better than a truth that arouses sedition” might seem, at first glance, to promote a cost-benefit view of the world that resonates with Mill more than with Kant: a person should determine what might lead to the most favorable consequence for all and act accordingly, whether that means lying or telling the truth. In fact, however, the first vizier did not make such calculations. Lying, for him, was neither easy nor morally indifferent. Rather, he acted out of compassion and made an exception to his honest disposition. He understood why the prisoner—in such a state—would curse the king, like a “cornered cat jumps at a dog” in despair. If anything, the first vizier took account not of consequences but of the circumstances of the hapless prisoner. The second vizier, however, claiming to act out of a universal concern for never lying to one’s king, was motivated by vice. He seems to have acted out of a sycophantic impulse to curry favor with the king or perhaps (in one manuscript version of the story) a grudge he held toward the prisoner. The story does not offer absolutes. Instead, it tells us that sometimes one action might be “better” than another. Actions are not perfect but better or worse when compared with others.

The Circumstances of Our Actions

While it might be difficult—or even impossible—to label Sa¢dī’s ethics using post-Enlightenment theories, one thing is certain: one’s intentions and circumstances often matter more than moral universality. Intention here refers to the concept of niyyah, articulated in a saying of the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ as the ultimate substance of every action; niyyah is that which can be described as “a heartfelt determination or firm resolve” to act, ideally, “for the sake of drawing near to God alone.”6 To take both intention and circumstance into account resonates with the sacred sources of Islamic ethics more generally. Indeed, Sa¢dī’s presentation of lying seems to be an expansion of a saying of the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ: “The one who reconciles people by embellishing something good [that one has heard] or by saying something good [on behalf of someone else to promote reconciliation] is not a liar.”7 In this case, as in others, intention and situation affect the nature of the action.8 Whether in the study of Islamic law or in Islamic wisdom literature, context has often mattered greatly. Concepts such as daf¢ al-ĥaraj (“preventing undue hardship”) and al-¢urf (“custom”) have allowed legal scholars to bring a person’s or a people’s situation into consideration. In wisdom literature, the focus is even more squarely on such awareness about context or situatedness. Mere reflection on the human condition, furthermore, reveals the need to know the moral agent’s context. Somewhere between spirit and clay, between angel and animal, human beings find themselves perpetually pulled in contradicting directions, and even as they strive to be good, they are met at every turn with a challenge peculiar to their set of circumstances.

One might say that the conflict that arises when our individual challenges meet our unique life stories encapsulates what it means to be human. This might also explain why we delight in storytelling. Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that the human being is “essentially a story-telling animal.”9 Our actions become intelligible only in narrative.10 In fact, it is when life’s narrative becomes unintelligible to us that we lament that life has become “meaningless.”11 Storytelling has been, it seems, the most significant way we humans have communicated our norms, values, expectations, heroes, antiheroes, and villains. We have done so not because stories simplify things but because only narratives can represent the interwoven complexity of the individual situations of humans. Only narratives tell us how a person arrived at needing to make a decision. Only narratives tell us what character traits led to that decision. Only narratives give meaning to the outcome of that decision. This appreciation for perspective in ethical reasoning also appears in Sa¢dī’s writing.

As an example, the contextual nature of ethics appears in a section of Sa¢dī’s Rose Garden on “contentment” (qanā¢at). Sa¢dī tells us of a young wrestler who decides to travel the world.12 His father warns him that he has neither money nor a particular craft or talent (such as a beautiful voice) nor an abundance of knowledge. The open road does not treat such travelers kindly, and he should be content instead with the life he has. Here, the central lesson is to recognize the limits of one’s strength and thereby avoid foolhardiness: “What can the strongman of reversed fortune do? / The arm of fortune overpowers the firmest biceps.”13

This fatherly advice turns out to be right—at first. The wrestler finds himself stranded, starving, thirsty, and without shelter. Yet, suddenly and by accident, a prince overhears the young wrestler’s lamentations. When the prince learns the details of the wrestler’s story, he feels sorry for him and gives him clothes, a large sum of money, and an escort to his hometown. Fortune, it seems, can favor fools. The seemingly sound advice of the wrestler’s father has been thwarted. On the one hand, this means the father must now teach his son, the young wrestler, that rash actions do not always fail. Sometimes, by sheer luck, they yield great results. One should act out of caution, preparedness, and contentment because a sympathetic prince’s unexpected appearance is not a guarantee. Here is a lesson that only a very strange set of circumstances can teach effectively: you must sometimes look past fortuitous outcomes to recognize prudence. All of this is true from the perspective of an elderly wise man.

On the other hand, the framework of the story also validates the perspective of the younger, daring man: “Without suffering, there is no treasure,” he declares gleefully, having overcome adversity and happening upon wealth, “and without risking life and limb, one cannot conquer one’s enemy.”14 The haphazardness of the story, reflecting reality in all its seeming chaos, has proven that big rewards demand big risks. The young man knew that only the perils of the unknown might yield something new and great, and life proved him right. Like prudence, bravery, too, is a virtue. In the larger scheme of things, the father’s prudence is a wiser way to earn one’s livelihood. Nevertheless, the son’s bravery has had its moment.

Humans as One and Many

One might inquire, at this point, about the place of universality. If the father is only more right than his son (who is also, in his own way, right), then do all people carry with themselves their own unique sense of right? Is Sa¢dī advocating multiple moralities—a sort of moral relativism? In response, I must turn to the quotation with which this essay begins: “One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.” Geertz, in rejecting a universal concept of human nature, pondered if perhaps the human “essence” lay not in universals, in qualities—such as reason—that make us all alike but in what made every culture and (perhaps) person distinctive.15 Sa¢dī’s human, however, is both universal and unique. The choices humans make have universal significance but can only be understood in the context of uniqueness. In this way, again, Sa¢dī expands upon a Qurʾanic conception of the human being:

O human beings! We created you from a male and a female, and rendered you as nations and tribes so that you would come to know one another. Indeed, the most noble among you—to God—is the one most wary of Him. And God is knowing, aware. (49:13)

Justifiably, we often interpret this verse as a declaration of equal value for all human beings, but—when read in the context of Geertz’s statement—it is more than that. The verse advocates an appreciation of unity and plurality as complementary. Humans are one in essence but become plural in gendered, cultural, and familial contexts. Through that plurality—by means of such disparity and difference—we learn from one another and come to know the one Good from which the many manifestations of good derive. The best among us orient ourselves to that Good—constantly vigilant, constantly striving to align the self to that Good within the particular gendered, cultural, and familial context within which each of us lives.

In fact, one of Sa¢dī’s most famous set of verses concerns humanity’s essential unity. Early in The Rose Garden, he tells of a certain tyrant whom he saw while in spiritual retreat by the burial place of John the Baptist, in the Umayyad Mosque, in Damascus. Fearing a dangerous foe, the tyrant sought the world-renouncing Sa¢dī’s prayers, to which he responded, “Have mercy upon the weak subject so that you avoid the pains of your strong enemy.”16 This then leads the author to contemplate empathy within the context of a universal sense of humanity:

The children of Adam are limbs of one another,
from one essential origin in their creation.
When fate causes one limb to suffer,
the other limbs can find no comfort.
You who feel no grief at others’ affliction
are unfit to be called a human being.

It is not enough to be attuned to the humanity we share. Rather, we must also be cognizant of the differences in privilege and comfort that separate us. While being of one “essential origin” matters, it matters as well that a person does not mistake his or her individual ease with a universal state of well-being. It is not, in other words, that all humans are one; were that the case, the well-being of one person might suffice for the whole. Instead, they make up composite parts of one humanity, with a shared purpose to serve God and promote the good. For that reason, each part must be aware of the trials of the others, reacting with both empathy and support.

Such empathy does not merely apply to appreciating hardship but also to appreciating another’s degree of wisdom and life circumstances. Thus, returning to the story of the wrestler, when viewed through the lens of love and empathy, the father can understand why his son would risk adventure and perhaps even succeed, even when contentment is the wiser option. Sa¢dī makes such allowances in a discussion of the cypress. In Persian, various species of evergreen conifers—usually varieties of the Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)—are called sarw, with specific descriptors to differentiate them. The sarw-i nāz (the “elegant” cypress), for example, has soft needles. One very admired species of evergreen—with straighter needles—is the sarw-i āzād (the “noble” or “free” cypress). Sa¢dī tells of a group wondering about the origins of that tree’s name:

A wise man was asked, “Of all the distinguished species of tree that God, Almighty and Glorified, has created, none but the cypress is called ‘free.’ Yet it bears no fruit. What is the wisdom behind this?” He responded, “Each of them has a specific yield during a certain season. For that reason, at times those trees are in season, while at other times they wither. The cypress does not go through such cycles and is always well. Such is the attribute of the free.”

Don’t give your heart over to that which passes, for the Tigris
will keep on flowing through Baghdad, even when the Caliph’s gone.
If you are able, then be like the date palm: generous.
And if you are not, then be like the cypress: free.

The date palm bears fruit in every season, as alluded to in the Qurʾan.18 In Sa¢dī’s poem, it represents the person who has wealth and gives to others generously. Such generosity is the preferable option. Yet there are those who either do not have wealth or cannot be generous. For them, a less preferable and yet still noble option exists: be so unattached and indifferent to wealth that you are free from want. While barren, like the cypress, such a “free” person does not experience the vacillations of joy and despair that come from placing one’s hopes in worldly pursuits. The free person’s well-being does not depend on his or her physical or financial well-being because he or she has no interest in such things. Note, however, that this is not an ideal. Recognizing the relationship between ascetics and their patrons that existed in his day, as well as the relationship between the creatures and God as their provider, Sa¢dī acknowledges the superiority of those who have wealth but remain sufficiently unattached and indifferent to the wealth that they give freely. This is a more godly sort of relationship to the world, even if another sort of virtuous relationship (indifference and poverty) exists. Note also that a range of virtuousness appears between these two extremes: some have moderate amounts of wealth and give of what they have while remaining indifferent to what they do not have.

Our Stories and Our Ethics

It is such adaptability that renders Sa¢dī’s ethics truer to the situations in which we live where universal principles often cannot be applied. His is not a philosophical approach but a literary one—a literary ethics common to much of the wisdom literature found throughout the world. Literature, and especially storytelling, can be used to teach, to preach, to express mystical visions, as well as to convey a sort of real ethics—an ethics of marketplaces, homes, and other sites of lived experience, as opposed to an ethics of scholarly books.19 Such a real ethics takes into account the variety of perspectives and abilities that interact in the world. Yet Sa¢dī also embraces a worldview in which humans trace themselves to a common origin and should answer a universal call to be decent, wise, indifferent to the worldly, and mindful of God. He presents, in other words, the human being in a manner that MacIntyre argues gives morality a sense of factuality, as “having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function.”20 The underlying impetus of human good, for Sa¢dī, is love—more specifically, the love of God:

Whoever loves something will give both heart and soul over to it.
Whoever has you for a prayer-niche (miĥrāb) will not lift his head from seclusion. . . .
Whoever plants a tree within the garden of spiritual meanings,
has buried his roots within the heart and sewn his seed within the soul.

The highest achievement of humanity is to give oneself over to God, going beyond the role of obedient servant to become the humbled and overwhelmed lover. All of us, Sa¢dī says, lose ourselves to what we love. If we can lose ourselves to God, then difficult acts of devotion—such as seclusion from others (khalwat)—can bring us such pleasure, that nothing could take the place of solitary intimacy with the divine beloved. Those who concern themselves with what lies beyond the visible domain around them become a people of “heart” and “soul,” that is, people concerned with the interior dimensions of human reality—those dimensions in communication with God. All differences aside, this is—for Sa¢dī and so many others—a universal end for which all humans should strive. In the words of the Qurʾan, “Let those who vie with one another endeavor for that” (83:26).


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