At first glance, Stoicism and Islam appear to have very little in common. After all, Stoicism is a philosophical school that emerged in Hellenistic Greece in 300 B.C., while Islam first appeared in the Middle East nearly one thousand years later.
It's true that there are many substantial differences between Stoicism and Islam. Beyond that, the complex history of Islam (and Stoicism, to a lesser extent) makes it very difficult to try and make a simple, concise comparison.
At the same time, there are some points where these two belief systems overlap that are worth exploring. Even though there is a tremendous difference between Islamic belief and Stoic thought, both conceptually and in practice, it's fascinating to consider how they might be similar.
In this article, let's take a closer look at where Stoicism and Islam might have some similarities as well as where they diverge.
Founded around 300 BC by Zeno of Citium, Stoicism is a school of thought that emerged in Athens, Greece.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.”
A rich and fascinating philosophy, the ancient Stoics believed that virtue is the highest good and that one can achieve a state of flourishing by living in accordance with nature.
I've written a lot of in-depth guides to the basics of Stoicism, and those that aren't familiar with the philosophy might best be served by checking out some of the following pieces:
Stoicism has become increasingly popular in the last decade or so. In our chaotic world, people are flocking to philosophy because of its ability to help reduce anxiety, focus on and pursue life goals, and create a sense of inner tranquility in one's life.
The literal translation of the word Islam is "submission [to the will of God.] Centered around the teachings of Muhammad, this is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion along with other major world religions like Christianity and Judaism.
Muslims believe in the revelation of the complete and universal revelations of primordial faith through prophets that came before Muhammad, including:
In Islam, Judaism and Christianity are spiritual predecessors to the faith of Muslims. A central part of Islam is that the Quran is the literal word of God. That means that the Quran is the final and unaltered revelation of God.
Muslims worship one God, who is known as Allah. Islam is believed by scholars to have emerged in the 7th century, which means that it is younger than the other major world religions that dominate the globe today.
The origination point of Islam is the city of Mecca, which can be found in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 A.D., and it is believed that he was sent to reveal faith to mankind by God as the final prophet.
Islamic texts and tradition state that Muhammad was visited by the angel Gabriel in 610 A.D. while he was in a cave meditating. Gabriel began revealing the words of Allah to Muhammad at this time and, according to Islamic tradition, throughout the rest of his life.
Muhammad started to preach the messages he received from Allah around Mecca. Among his teachings were the idea that Allah is the only God and that people should devote themselves and submit themselves to Allah.
With his followers, Muhammad traveled to Medina from Mecca in 622 A.D. This is when the Islamic calendar begins and is known as the Hijra (alternatively spelled Hijrah or Hegira). After seven years, he and his supporters went back to Mecca. Until his death in the year 632, Muhammad continued to preach.
Islam started to spread incredibly quickly after Muhammad passed away. There were several leaders who succeeded him, known as Caliphs, and this leadership system became known as a caliphate.
Muhammad's close friend and father-in-law was the first caliph after his death, Abu Bakr. Caliph Umar succeeded Abu Bakr, who was also one of Muhammad's fathers-in-law.
Islam spread rapidly throughout the Middle East during the reign of the first four caliphs as Arab Muslims conquered large swaths of the area. At this time, the religion of Islam spread throughout parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The Ottoman Empire emerged from the dominance of Islam after the caliphate system existed for centuries. Between 1517 and 1917, the Ottoman Empire controlled huge areas of the Middle East. The end of the Ottoman Empire occurred towards the end of World War I as a result of the global conflict.
A debate emerged quickly after the death of Muhammad about who should succeed him. Two major sects appeared as a result of this schism: the Sunnis and the Shi'ites.
Shi'ites, on the other hand, believe that the true successors to Muhammad are the caliph Ali and his descendants. The first three caliphs are seen as illegitimate in the eyes of Shi'ites. In the modern world, there is a significant population of Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
Sunnis and Shi'ites aren't the only Islamic groups in existence in the modern age.
There are a number of smaller sects, including:
The history of Islam is complex and fascinating. After the death of Muhammad, many different groups emerged with their own beliefs about the true successor to their prophet and the right way to submit oneself to God.
That being said, the Five Pillars are core beliefs and practices that are commonly referenced as central to the religion of Islam.
Now that we've taken a closer look at what Stoicism is and what Islam is, you might be wondering whether there are any similarities at all.
After all, Stoicism is a philosophy that is meant to be practically applied to an individual's life so that they can achieve "good spirit" through living virtuously. Islam, on the other hand, is a religion that has fairly strict beliefs that one must ascribe to in order to be a follower.
As with most things in life, as we dig a little deeper we do find that there are some similarities after all. Let's take a look at some of the most notable ones. Again, it's worth noting that the history of Islam is so tremendously vast that it is hard to offer a simple comparison in such an arguably brief article.
Before diving into the meat of things, it's worth making the point that both Stoicism and Islam focus a great deal of attention on ethics and moral values.
"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature."
- Marcus Aurelius
In both Stoicism and Islam, individuals are asked to live virtuously and strive to excel as people in this world.
“Man will not get anything unless he works hard.”- Surah al-Najm, 53:39
Inner peace and tranquility are also encouraged in both Stoicism and Islam. That being said, how they achieve this state of being is different.
Stoics attempt to reach a point of inner peace by accepting reality, focusing on what they can control, and attempting to live in accordance with nature. Broadly speaking, Muslims work to achieve this peace through submission to God.
Another point where Stoicism and Islam overlap is in their relation to materialism. Both the Stoic school of thought and the Islamic religion argue that one should not become overly attached to material wealth.
In Islam, it's important to make sure that wealth is never a distraction and that greed is avoided. When a Muslim does acquire great sums of money, they are expected to redistribute it to those who have less.
“[True] righteousness is [in] one who believes in God, the Last Day, the Angels, the Book, the Prophets and gives of their wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes Prayer and practices regular charity…"
- Quran 2:177
The Stoics also warned about the dangers of becoming attached to material wealth. They argued that our wealth is ultimately outside of our control, and therefore, it never belonged to us in the first place. Beyond that, true wealth is said by the Stoics to exist within oneself rather than in external belongings of the material world.
“It is not the man who has little, but he who desires more, that is poor.”
- Seneca the Younger
Both the Stoics and those who follow the Islamic faith, in their own ways, believe in the importance of accepting fate.
"Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear."
- Marcus Aurelius
To the Stoics, one must accept the events that are outside of their own control. The concept of amor fati, love of one's fate, posits that one must learn to embrace everything that happens to them as necessary if not even good.
“Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear.”
Within the Islamic faith, everything is ultimately in God's hands. This is illustrated through the common Muslim phrase Insha'Allah, which means "God willing."
We also find that there is some overlap in the way that emotions are discussed. The Stoics are perhaps best known at a superficial level for their desire to overcome "the passions" or negative emotions.
In the following quote from Marcus Aurelius, we discover his notion that being a strong individual means overcoming "anger and discontent."
"A real man doesn't give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance - unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”
- Marcus Aurelius
Fascinatingly, we find a similar sentiment in Islam. In a hadith collection that was compiled by Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari around 846, which is considered one of the most valued books after the Quran in Sunni Islam, a very similar idea is proposed:
"The strong man is not the one who can overpower others; rather, the strong man is the one who controls himself when he gets angry."
- Sahih al Bukhari 6114
Another point of overlap can be found in the idea of voluntary deprivation.
Followers of the Islamic faith will fast during the month of Ramadan to remind themselves to be grateful for the blessings God has given them. The Stoics, on the other hand, would use a wide variety of exercises to attain eudaimonia and inner peace, including voluntary discomfort.
It can hardly be said enough that Islam is such a complex and far-reaching religion that it is hard to really compare it to Stoicism in a simple manner. Though there are many different Islamic groups in the modern world, one that really stands out when it comes to comparison to Stoicism is Sufism.
“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.”
Sufism is a mystical Islamic sect that believes individuals can find the truth of divine knowledge and love through experiencing God personally. They attempt to return to fitra, their original state of natural disposition and purity.
"Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think and twice as beautiful as you'd ever imagined. Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself."
While there are obviously some glaring differences between these two worldviews, there are a number of notable places where they are quite similar, including:
Now it's time to take a look at some of the ways that Stoicism and Islam diverge as worldviews and ways of being.
While modern Stoicism is usually touted as an atheistic or agnostic philosophy, the truth is it's a bit more complicated than that. Of course, when you look at some quotes from the Stoic philosophers, it's hard not to notice that their relationship with God or the gods is quite different from that proposed by the Islamic faith.
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
- Marcus Aurelius
For another perspective, here is a quote by Epictetus about the fact that he has been entrusted with himself by God:
“God has entrusted me with myself. No man is free who is not master of himself. A man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things. The world turns aside to let any man pass who knows where he is going.”
Islam, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in monotheism. Muslims will practice a strict routine of rituals, daily prayers, and adherence to specific religious laws in observance of Allah, the one true God.
Stoicism is ultimately a philosophy that is based on the idea that virtue is the highest good. Each individual is asked to work to become their best possible selves by adhering to Nature. Each of the great Stoic philosophers had their own views on a wide variety of topics, some of which notably conflict with one another.
"Nothing is evil which is according to nature."
- Marcus Aurelius
Islam, on the other hand, is a much more structured system. While the Stoics are constantly seeking the truth, those who follow the faith of Islam are given a more complete map of how they should live their lives.
There is no one specific doctrine in Stoicism about what happens to you after you die. In the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and other great Stoics, we find a variety of views on where we go when we leave the earthly realm.
"Death is a release from the impressions of the senses, and from desires that make us their puppets, and from the vagaries of the mind, and from the hard service of the flesh."
- Marcus Aurelius
In the Islamic faith, views of the afterlife are much more well-defined. The ideas of heaven and hell, known respectively as Jannah and Jahannam, are a core part of the religious faith.
The Stoics certainly believed that each individual was a part of a greater whole, and they had a duty to play their part within this whole. That being said, when comparing Stoicism to Islam, it's fair to say that this Greek philosophy is much more individualistic. At the end of the day, the Stoics believed that we each have to work to develop ourselves and determine how to lead virtuous lives.
"Let your one delight and refreshment be to pass from one service to the community to another, with God ever in mind."
- Marcus Aurelius
For Muslims around the world, community is a central part of the faith. The notion of what it means to give back to the community is much more structured, and there is a clear hierarchy of religious leaders within different Islamic groups.
At the same time, a closer look at some of the ancient Stoic texts reveals a sentiment that isn't solely focused on the individual:
"Since you are an integral part of a social system, let every act of yours contribute to the harmonization of social life. Any action that is not related directly or remotely to this social aim disturbs your life, and destroys your unity."
- Marcus Aurelius
Finally, a major difference between Stoicism and Islam can be found in what they each believe to be the main purpose of life.
The Stoics believed that the purpose of life was to achieve a state of flourishing at the individual level. One can achieve this through applying reason and living in accordance with nature in order to live a virtuous, good life.
"A man's true greatness lies in the consciousness of an honest purpose in life, founded on a just estimate of himself and everything else, on frequent self-examinations, and a steady obedience to the rule which he knows to be right, without troubling himself about what others may think or say, or whether they do or do not that which he thinks and says and does."
- Marcus Aurelius
In the Islamic faith, the purpose of life is to submit to and worship God. The individual is expected to abide by the guidelines that were revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the Qur'an, which is the literal word of God. In Islam, life on earth is just a test that determines whether an individual will end up in Jannah (Paradise) or Jahannam (Hell).
Whether you consider yourself a Stoic, are a follower of the Islamic faith, or are simply a curious individual who is trying to learn more about different worldviews, a truly fascinating perspective can emerge when you compare different philosophies, religions, and ideologies. When comparing Stoicism and Islam, we find that there are a number of important issues where the two overlap, while there are also some stark differences in both belief systems and what they mean for daily life.
Are you searching for more information about Stoicism, philosophy, and how to become the best possible version of yourself? Make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog for more information, inspiration, and resources!