The Polished Mirror: Storytelling and the Pursuit of Virtue in Islamic Philosophy and Sufism. By CYRUS ALI ZARGAR. London: ONEWORLD, 2017. Pp. 341. $30, [pounds sterling]20 (paper).
The Polished Mirror represents a rare work in which an entire field (or, in this case, fields) of study can potentially be recast and reframed, and this in the most positive way possible. Islamic philosophy and Sufism are two disciplines that are not often brought into conversation with each other, largely because scholars in both fields choose to be ghettoized, as it were, with the net effect that the only questions asked are of a historical and philological nature. When there is engagement with other traditions, particularly in the case of Sufism, it is often rather superficial or even misplaced. The recent wave of works on Sufism and critical theory is a case in point.
Cyrus Zargar is acutely aware of these problems and therefore takes another approach altogether, namely, one guided by a different set of questions. He is not alone in this regard, as a number of scholars have approached the traditions of Islamic philosophy and Sufism looking for a rapprochement between them. Yet Zargar not only stresses the commonalities between Islamic philosophy and Sufism, but shows how their common approaches and interests relate to our ethical and moral concerns.
In The Polished Mirror we are offered a sampling of the views of many major figures in the Islamic philosophical and mystical traditions, equally distributed among authors writing in medieval Arabic and Persian. Most of the heroes we would expect to see are present: Ikhwan al-Safa', Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Slna, 'Attar. Rumi. al-Ghazali, Miskawayh, etc. One immediate result from the careful selection of figures and the attendant analysis of their writings is the realization that Islamic philosophy and Sufism indeed share much in common, even if their historical representatives worked in distinct traditions that overlapped. It is therefore not surprising to see so many parallels in their explorations into such topics as the nature of happiness, the virtue of temperance, and how one ought to live the good life.
To illustrate the intricate moral universes of these writers. The Polished Mirror does not present us with the manner in which our authors engaged in arcane, philosophical argument, which would likely only appeal to a handful of specialists. Rather, the book focuses on how they...