The book in a nutshell.There are few ideals of character as distinctive and divisive as the ancient virtue of magnanimity or greatness of soul. A larger-than-life virtue embodying nothing less than a vision of human greatness, it has often been seen as a relic of the Homeric world and its honour-loving heroes. In philosophy, it found its most celebrated expression in Aristotle’s ethics, and it has lived on in the minds of philosophers and theologians in different forms ever since. Yet among the many lives this virtue has led in intellectual history, one remains conspicuously unwritten. This is the life it led in the Arabic tradition. A virtue of Greek warriors and their democratic epigones—what happened when this splendid virtue made landfall in the Islamic world?
One of the aims of this book is to answer this question. Yet in unfolding its answer, it becomes a story about a larger family of virtues united by their preoccupation with greatness and things great. Because one of the most interesting discoveries that emerge is that there was a separate yet closely related virtue at work in the Arabic tradition: “greatness of spirit” (kibar/‘uluww al-himma). An important constituent of the character ideals expounded across a range of ethical genres—from philosophical compendia to mirrors for princes, works of etiquette (adab) and Sufi treatises—this type of virtue tells us as much about the content of these ideals as about their kaleidoscopic genealogies. The Islamic world, too, had its native heroes, who bequeathed their conception of extraordinary virtue to posterity. Heroic virtue is above all expressed in a boundless aspiration to what is greatest.
Could we admire such virtue enough to want it as our own? What can we learn from the Arabic tradition of the virtues? The book tries to plant some stakes in these questions, with the broader hope of opening up new avenues for conversation between the Arabic tradition and contemporary virtue ethics.