A Metaphysical & Ethical Cross-Examination Of Islam and Stoicism

Islam is an Abrahamic faith based on the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH). As with most religions, Islam encompasses metaphysical, ethical and judicial tenets. The Quran is its religious scripture, which Muslims believe to be the direct word of God. Stoicism, on the other hand, is an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium. The primary focus of the school was ethics and virtue, which they believed was derived from knowledge and reason.

What unites the two is the belief that ultimately the goodness and happiness of a person’s life is not dependent on their external surroundings, or as the Stoic philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “Misfortune, borne nobly, is good fortune.”[1] In both Islam and Stoicism, this outlook is the result of metaphysical beliefs impacting a person’s view of the world and the way that they interact with it. However, taken at face value, the metaphysical principles of Islam and Stoicism are remarkably different. This begs the question, how can two distinctly different metaphysical viewpoints result in the same practical viewpoint? 

The founder of Stoicism, Zeno, looked at metaphysics as an inconvenience. To quote Bertrand Russell, “Zeno had no patience with metaphysical subtleties. Virtue was what he thought important, and he only valued physics and metaphysics in so far as they contributed to virtue. He attempted to combat the metaphysical tendencies of the age by means of common sense, which, in Greece, meant materialism.”[2] He formed a highly materialistic metaphysics by asserting that everything, including God and the soul, was solid and material.

This contrasts heavily with the Islamic understanding of God as laid out in the Quran. Unlike Zeno’s viewpoint, Islamic metaphysics is not materialist nor is there any form of metaphysical expediency. Within the Islamic viewpoint, God is the ultimate metaphysical reality and truth. Therefore to understand the metaphysical principles of Islam, one must first have a basic understanding of the Islamic concept of God. To begin with the name Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. The Islamic conceptualization of God is as far from anthropomorphic. God is beyond space, material and time. To quote the Quran itself, “Say God is One, God is the unmoving mover, He is not born nor does he beget, nor is there anything like Him.”[3]*

The verse, “nor is there anything like Him,” signifies that God is beyond human comprehension, as humans can only comprehend things that occur through time. For God to be influenced by time would make Him ‘like something.’ Thus this makes it necessary that God “is not born nor does he beget,” which additionally signifies His infinity. “Is not born,” dictates that He has no creator and is not bound by time while, “Nor does he beget,” further signifies His infinity by decreeing that He has no end, i.e. all creatures that die sire offspring to ensure the survival of their genealogy, while God is undying thus has no need for offspring.

As God is infinite, He is the unmoving. As God creates and guides everything, it necessitates that He is the “unmoving mover”. As He is the infinite unmoving mover, it is necessary that He is One and beyond all human comprehension. For a person who believes in (and more importantly comprehends) such a metaphysical reality, Zeno’s materialistic metaphysical outlook would seem shallow, vain and filled with man-made expediency. However most people are not attracted to Stoicism for its metaphysical principles but rather for its practical applications. This has not been neglected and will be discussed later in this essay.

It must be noted that not all Stoics took on Zeno’s materialist beliefs, later Stoics would abandon materialism completely, however they generally believed in a form of cosmic determinism. It was Zeno’s view that there was no such thing as mere chance but rather that all events are caused natural laws. All things originated from fire, following that the other elements emerged, finally all would once again return to fire. This process has neither beginning nor end, but is an infinite cycle. All that has happened will happen again infinitely.[5

This form of, what may be called, universal reincarnation is nowhere to be found in Islamic doctrine. Quran explicitly states that the universe has a beginning and has an end. The exact manner in which the universe came to be is never fully explained in the Quran, but rather it encourages humanity to find the answers for themselves through what can be interpreted as scientific endeavors by explicitly instructing humanity to “travel through the land and observe how creation began.”[4]*

It was verses such as these that inspired countless Muslim scientists in the Middle Ages, such as Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Biruni and Ibn al-Nafis, to pursue scientific endeavors. They saw science not as something to oppose or stifle religion but rather as a form of worship. While a great deal of modern Muslims may espouse similar attitudes, implementation is far harder than staring fondly at a past you never knew. But that is beside the point.   

The earlier mentioned Stoic idea of ‘universal reincarnation’ forms the basis for the Stoic understanding of nature. They believed that nature is ordained by a supreme power that they sometimes call God and sometimes call Zeus. To them this Zeus was not the same deity of popular belief, that Zeus was subordinate to the supreme Zeus who is God. In their understanding God was not “separate from the world; He is the soul of the world, and each of us contains a part of the Devine Fire.”[2]

All that exists was considered to be nature and the virtuous man was the one who lived in harmony with nature. As they did not believe that God was separate from the world, in essence their view that the virtuous man was the one who lived in harmony with nature could also be understood as that the virtuous man was the one who lived in harmony with God.

It was understood all men act according to the will of God thus to live in harmony with God was to voluntarily submit to God’s will, the wicked are those who involuntarily submit to God’s will. Thus it was understood that as virtue only relied on the will of a person, their fortune in life did not really matter as everything that could be considered good or bad is dependent on their will rather than external circumstances. To a Stoic the motivation to do good is not egalitarian. “The Stoic is not virtuous in order to do good, but does good in order to be virtuous.”[2]

Concerning life after death the Stoics differed. Some believes that all souls are eternal and would be absorbed into God. Others believed that this would only be the case for the wise. However most Stoics believed that the soul perishes with the body. It is here that we begin to see where Stoic and Islamic world-views coalesce.

Unlike Stoic beliefs, traditional Islamic metaphysics is in no way, shape or form pantheistic. Muslims do not believe God to be part of the universe. As stated earlier, they believe that God is above space, material and time. However, Muslims do not believe in a cold and uncaring God who created the universe and then allowed for it to exist without His influence and is only governed only by natural physical laws with no divine hand to guide it. The Quran tells the believer that, “Where ever you turn, there is the face of God.”[6] He informs the believers that, “We are closer to him than his jugular vein.”[7] All that happens in the universe is, depending on ones interpretation, either caused to happen by God or allowed to happen by God. In either case, the Muslims believe that all that happens, happens according the will of God.

This brings us to the very root of what it means to be a Muslim. A Muslim is simply a person who voluntarily submits himself or herself to God. As they have submitted themselves to God this necessitates that they have submitted themselves to the will of God. The will of God is set forth as both code of conduct, as laid out in the Quran, and within the events that transpire around them.

A Muslim finds inner peace and serenity in knowing that all that happens to them is a blessing from God. If it is something good and pure, it is easy to see this as a blessing. If is something hard and painful, most people might not see it as a blessing. To the Muslims, all tribulations, no matter how big or small, are tests from God. “And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.’ Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided.”[8]

The Muslim should not see this world as his final destination. The Muslim should look at this world as a traveller sees foreign land. This world and all that comes with it is simply the journey that one must take before they can live their true and eternal life. “Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.” This does not mean that the Muslims believe in shunning the world and all within it. The love of God is the primary driver for the Muslims and the believer’s love for God is not complete until he loves God’s creation. When the Quran lists the greatest actions that a person can do, they are not spiritual acts such as prayer or fasting, nor are political or militaristic as many Muslims unfortunately believe, they are all selfless and egalitarian acts. “And did We not show him (i.e. man) the two highroads (one being good and the other being evil)? But he did not venture towards the difficult steep (i.e. the more difficult of the two roads). And do you know what the difficult steep is? It is freeing someone from slavery, or giving food one a day where people are hungry, to an orphan or your kin, or a poor person laying in the dust.”[9] To the Muslim happiness is found in the love of God. The love of God necessitates virtuous and egalitarian action while also being patient during tribulations.

The root that the Islamic and Stoic world-views hold on to is the belief that, “Bad fortune borne nobly, is good fortune.” You cannot control the things that happen to you but you can control your reaction. This is the core principle that Islam and Stoicism share. Stoic metaphysics is largely uninteresting and more importantly uninspiring. I sincerely doubt that modern interest in Stoicism is down to an appreciation of its metaphysics. People’s appreciation of Stoicism, especially is modern popularity, is down people noticing that their external world isn’t bringing them the happiness that they want. Stoicism is utilized by people to make their happiness completely independent of the external circumstances. A perfect Stoic should be a person who, no matter what horrible things happen to them, is still happy.

Ancient Stoics knew that being a perfect Stoic was impossible. As Epictetus famously wrote concerning this seeming impossibility, “Show me a Stoic if you can! Where or how is he to be found? You can show me men who use the fine phrases of the Stoics, in any number, for the same men who do this can recite Epicurean phrases just as well and can repeat those of the Peripatetics just as perfectly; is it not so? Who then is a Stoic? Show me a man moulded to the pattern of the judgements that he utters, in the same way as we call a statue Phidian that is moulded according to the art of Phidias. Show me one who is sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him me. By the gods I would fain see a Stoic. Nay you cannot show me a finished Stoic; then show me one in the moulding, one who has set his feet on the path.”[10] However they reasoned that even though the goal may be ultimately impossible it is still worth persuading. Epictitus reasons that while it is impossible to attain Stoic perfection, to be a Stoic ‘in the moulding’ with ‘his feet on the path’ is the best course of action.  

Similar to the Stoics, the Muslims believe that all that happens to a person is decided by God. Human rationality is limited while God’s reason is infinite. God has chosen for you what is best for you, even though it might be painful. The Quran informs the human condition of being averse to pain by saying, “You may love something when it is bad for you and you may hate something when it is good for you.”[11]* Thus the Muslim should ask and pray for what he believes to be good for him while also acknowledging that if he does not get it, God has decreed that it is not what is best for him even if he does not know why. As Umar Bin-Al Khattab, the second caliph of Islam, once said, “I do not care whether I become poor or rich, for I do not know what is better for me.”[12]

Putting their numerous metaphysical differences aside, the Muslims and Stoics both believe in forbearance in the face of adversity due to their shared belief that all that happens is decided by God, thus to be angry or sad with ones lot in life means to believe that they possess greater intelligence than God. With their understanding and belief that God is the ultimate and infinite, they attain peace by surrendering themselves willingly to the will of God. Both the Stoics and the Muslims also look at this form of surrender as a form of liberation. They submit themselves to God while liberating themselves from the shackles of worldly subjugation to people and desires. They find their happiness from within.

* Author’s interpretation.