Akhlaq e Amrikiye: A Treatise of American Muslim Ethics- (part 1 of 7)

Bonding with America…..

Akhlaq e Amrikiye

A Treatise of American Muslim Ethics- (part 1 of 7)

Based on the Qur’an and the Seerah of the Prophet


Summary: Drawing upon historical experiences in the context of American exceptionalism, this article presents a bold and comprehensive approach for Muslim life in America. The Akhlaq e Nasiri of Nasiruddin al Tusi (d 1274) was a transformational benchmark in Islamic history and represented the quintessence of the creative efforts of a civilization struggling to survive the Mongol onslaught. Similarly, the challenge before Muslim intellectuals in the twenty first century is to renew the faith from within using the guidance of the Qur’an and the Seerah of the Prophet while staying within the paradigm of the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. A renewal from within is essential at this critical time. The alternative is to melt away into the secular milieu as has happened with the previous waves of Muslim arrivals.


  1. The Historical Context


The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century (1219-1263) devastated the eastern part of the Islamic world. It is hard to exaggerate the death and destruction caused by Genghis Khan and his descendants. Great cities like Samarqand, Bukhara, Merv, Nishapur, Esfahan and Ghazna were decimated. In 1258, Baghdad the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate fell. Ninety percent of the population of the cities was killed or enslaved. In the countryside, the devastations were complete. Dams were leveled. Agricultural land became waste land. Scholars were killed; libraries burned. Millions perished and entire regions were depopulated. In short, the curtain fell on the classical Islamic civilization.


The conquering Mongols replaced the Sharia with their own Yasa (Rasa), a compendium of ancient rituals. The ensuing spiritual vacuum led to a three way contest between the Christians, the Buddhists and the Muslims for the soul of the Mongol. The Armenian Christians as well as the Byzantines sent emissaries to Karakorum, the capital of Mongolia, to convert the Great Khan. Christian women were offered as wives to Mongol princes. Doguz Khatun, a Nestorian Christian of the Keraite clan, was one of the chief wives of Hulagu Khan. Buddhist and Christian monks were active educating the Mongol ruling elite about the virtues of their respective faiths.


The situation was stark indeed. As they were the former rulers, the Muslims were singled out for repression. Those who survived the butchery were turned into slaves. The adhan of the muezzin was replaced by the sounds of the conch. Halal meat was banned. The believers were compelled to eat the carcasses butchered by the Mongol nomads.


In its darkest hour, the innate spirituality of Islam rose to the challenge. As if by Divine plan, the foundations of an Islamic renewal had been laid before the first Mongol soldier set foot in Khorasan. The encyclopedic works of Imam Al Ghazzali (d 1106) had given Tasawwuf a firm anchor within Kalam. The spiritual legacy of Shaikh Abdel Qader Jeelani (d 1186) had spread throughout the eastern part of Islamic world. Egypt and North Africa were blessed with the likes of Ibn al Arabi (d 1240) and Shaikh Shadhuli (d 1258). Even in the cacophony of war, the sublime poetry of Mevlana Rumi (d 1273) resonated from Konya in Turkey. Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti (1236) lit the light of shahada in the plains of India. The contributions of these sages would be great in any social context. But to produce great works of spiritual literature amidst the cacophony of war is a mark of genius. Zawiyas sprang up in hamlets away from the mayhem and convulsion of cities.  Here, the light of faith was kept alive, as if there were a thousand candles flickering in a thousand isolated huts even as the lamp was extinguished in the major cities by the ravages of invasion.  It was these zawiyas, the huts and hamlets scattered throughout the region that provided the seeds for an Islamic renewal.


The outcome of the tug of war between Christianity, Buddhism and Islam hung in the balance for almost a century. During his return from Central Asia, Genghis Khan was open to religious discourse. On his return from Khorasan, he met with Sufi Shaikhs and was instructed in the tenets of spirituality in Islam. A year later he met a Tao monk Chuji. Following the example of Genghis Khan, his descendants experimented with all three religions, often switching from one faith to another. In this spiritual contest Christianity and Buddhism clearly had the initial advantage as the Muslims were utterly devastated. The future of Asia and of the world hung in balance.


When Genghis Khan died (1227), his vast empire broke up into four parts: the Yuan dynasty of China, the Chagtai Empire of Central Asia, the IlKhans of Persia and the Golden Horde of Russia, each ruled by a son or a grandson of Genghis. The interrelationship between the four parts were often tense due to dynastic rivalries. These tensions provided the political context for the spiritual competition between Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.


The first break in this contest came with the conversion of Baraka Khan (1257), ruler of the Golden Horde in Russia. It is related by Abul Ghazi that during his campaigns in the Caspian Sea area, Baraka Khan came in contact with Sufi shaikhs in a caravan from Bokhara and was so impressed with their pious disposition, humility and innate dignity that he asked them to explain to him the tenets of their faith. The shaikhs not only explained the outward rites of the religion but exposed him to the spiritual dimensions of Tasawwuf and Tazkiyah. People do not change their faith that easily and the conversion of a ruler to the faith of a conquered people is a momentous historical event. The Mongols were a nomadic people in tune with nature and the innate spirituality of man. The spiritual discourses with the Sufi Shaikhs must have touched a sympathetic chord in the soul of the Khan, and he accepted Islam.


Religion influences politics. There ensued an alliance between Baraka Khan of Russia and the Mamluke Sultan Baybars of Egypt. This linkage was of enormous help to the Egyptians who were locked in mortal combat with the Il Khans of Persia. In the year 1262, at the decisive battle of Ayn Jalut near Jerusalem, the Mamlukes defeated the Il Khans. It was a decisive battle in world history. The Mamluke victory saved Islamic world from total destruction.


In this age of tumult, mayhem and destruction, the name of Nasiruddin al Tusi (d 1274) stands out as a scholar who survived the Mongol onslaught. Born in Tus in the year 1201, his early education included the Qur’an, Hadith and Ithna Ashari fiqh. He then proceeded to Nishapur which was at the time a renowned center of learning and studied mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, logic and tasawwuf from some of the great masters of the age. To avoid capture and execution by the Mongols, he fled from one city to another, and sought refuge with the Nizari Ismailis in the mountain hideouts of Alamut, in northwestern Iran. When Alamut fell to the Mongols in 1256, Nasiruddin was captured and was pressed into the service of Hulagu Khan.


Nasiruddin made extensive contributions to physics, astronomy, trigonometry, biology and philosophy. The famous Tusi couple is named after him. Recognizing his scholarship, Hulagu Khan built an astronomical observatory for him in Marageh, Iran. Al Tusi spent the last years of his life at this observatory compiling the Zij I Ilkhani, an astronomical treatise. The Zij was an atlas of the heavens and contained tables for calculating the positions of planets and stars based on observations made at the observatory over a period of more than ten years.


Ibn Khaldun regards Al Tusi as the greatest scientist of his era. However, in this article we are focused not so much on his contributions to the natural and astronomical sciences as on his works on ethics and the sciences of man. Faced with near extinction, the Islamic civilization was direly in need of ethical and spiritual anchors to renew itself. Nasiruddin was well suited for this task. He was trained in the ethical precepts of the major maslaks (schools of jurisprudence) prevalent in Persia- the Ithna Ashari, the Sunni and the Ismaili. Among the other sages of his age, Nasiruddin is reported to have met, in his youth, the well-known Sufi Shaikh, Fareeduddin al Attar (d 1219), celebrated for his treatise Mantiq at Tayr (Conference of the Birds).


Nasiruddin wrote a treatise on ethics, Akhlaq e Nasiri. The word “Akhlaq” is derived from its root Arabic word khulq, meaning creation. Functionally, it means, “to serve what God has created”. In everyday usage, it means the intrinsic character of a person. It is the outward manifestation of the presence of God in one’s heart. Just as tasawwuf addresses the purification of the heart, Aklaq addresses the outward expression of this purity in space-time. Succinctly, Akhlaq is an attribute of a person disposed to fulfill God’s command: “I created not beings of fire and beings of clay except to serve Me.”


The Akhlaq e Nasiri is considered a landmark work that provided an anchor for the development of culture in the Muslim world for five hundred years. Following the example of Al Tusi, kings, emperors and noblemen in later centuries compiled their own volumes on ethics. The Mogul emperor Jehangir, for instance, ordered the compilation of a treatise, Akhlaq e Jehangiri, a book of ethics for the Mogul empire of South Asia and its composite culture. The Qur’an describes the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) as a possessor of “tremendous character” (Wa Innaka La’ala Khulqin A’zeem- And Indeed (O Muhammad), you are endowed with a tremendous character).  To be continued.