PRACTICING ETHICS
A Journey to the Life and Work of Malak Jan Nemati

Everywhere there is a life worth living and each life can be lived more fully; but the first life we have to love is our own: the life over which we have control and responsibility. A better life, a fuller life, is not a function of economic wealth. For instance, we can feel our hearts grow when we share moments with friends or look at the night sky. Nonetheless, these are not to the exclusion of even more powerful internal transformational experiences we can guide inside of ourselves to affect our thoughts, feelings and actions. We need to live an examined life in order to achieve the peace that comes when harmony between our true personas and our actions prevail. Happiness results from fulfilling our responsibilities, but what are our responsibilities?

Malak Jan Nemati provides a unique example of a person who, through courage and intellectual conviction, set herself up for influencing changes in her milieu. Her weapon was ethical certitude grounded on reflection and analysis, and her goal to return peace to the hearts of those who came in touch with her. She was successful, but these achievements were not the result of submission to the norms and expectations of the times. Quite to the contrary, she faced, confronted and challenged the religious, intellectual, administrative, labor and employment practices that prevailed out of the passive acceptance of tradition, perpetuating inequality and injustice.

The question is now posed to us: are we able to position and align our thoughts, feelings and actions with respect to the fundamental tensions and dogmas of our times? Are we conscious of every one of our acts? Do we generate the common good through our actions? As women, do we request equality of opportunity and treatment? As men, are our loyalties to the rights of our mothers and sisters more important than our own self-interests? Are we able to see and defend our own dignity and that of every other human? And if we do, or if we wished we did, how do we practice it in every aspect of our lives? How do we gather the courage it takes to stand up? How can we grow up to ourselves?

Malak Jan Nemati emphasized substance over dogma and inner truths over external forms. She also liked to remind us „life is not short, but time is limited“. It is never too soon to gain consciousness, to think better, to feel better, to treat ourselves and others better, and to do things better; in sum, to live a better life and to enjoy a fairer world. How to start is what we shall discuss during this gathering.

Die Veranstaltungssprache ist Englisch mit zusätzlich angebotener Simultanübersetzung ins Deutsche.

Excerpt of the lecture «Practicing Ethics: A Journey to the Life and Work of Malak Jan Nemati» by Prof. Dr. Eva R. Porras

Malak Jân Nemati & Virtue Ethics

Malak Jân Nemati’s birthday was the 11th of December. Thus, through this gathering and the discussion of her life and works, we intend to celebrate her achievements and honor her memory.

My talk is going to be organized in two parts.
The first will cover her background, her thought and achievements. […] The second part will attempt to set Malak Jan’s philosophy within the context of Virtue Ethics.
We shall wrap up with a few words to encourage all of us in this audience to follow on the footsteps of this exceptional woman.

Malak Jân Nemati
Malak Jân Nemati was born in Jeyhounabad, a remote village of the Iranian Kurdistan, on December the 11th, 1906. Jeyhounabad, is located in an area where the majority of the population, including Malak Jan’s family, belonged to the Order of the Ahl-e Haqq („The Friends of the Truth“): a mystical society where every aspect of life was ruled by religiosity.

At the time of Malak Jân’s birth, women were considered inferior in every way, and were not allowed to participate in any of the important aspects of the community life: whether it was government, education, politics, or religion.

Women were unable to get an education or to earn a livelihood, they could not own property, and they were deprived of their inheritance, and even of food.
Instead, women were raised to be subservient and fully dependent on men.

At an early age, they would be assigned household duties to prepare them for their only possible future: marriage.

Nonetheless, in opposition to local traditions, Malak’s parents attended to all aspects of their children’s education. Thus, Malak Jan studied the sacred scriptures, classical philosophy, and Persian poetry and literature.

In addition she spoke three languages (Kurdish, Persian, and Arabic) and played two musical instruments (tanbur and setar).

Malak’s family cultivated an intimate and highly spiritual and intellectual environment, where all were encouraged and treated equally.

This early education had a great influence on Malak Jân, and it deserves to be emphasized as it was totally exceptional, even more so in such rural environment.

Father’s death & Blindness
Unfortunately, by the time Malak Jân was thirteen, her father and mentor passed away. A year later, she began experiencing a painful ocular condition that left her blind.
However, this blindness did not stop her from being active and living independently.

Furthermore, having developed a taste for learning, she kept studying disciplines within the arts and the sciences, and she stayed attentive to the matters of the world, having friends read for her, listening to the radio, and using audio-tapes.

A new mentor: Ostad Elahi (1895-1974)
After her father’s passing, her elder brother, Ostad Elahi, became her mentor.

He was a magistrate, a philosopher, a virtuoso of the tanbur, and just as his father, a profound revered spiritual thinker, well respected beyond their region.

But most of all, he was a source of spiritual inspiration and became the determining factor in Malak Jan’s training. For her, he was a spiritual pole, an accomplished wise-man who accepted to become her guide on the „path to perfection“.

Malak’s overall achievements
Through meditation and constant spiritual search, progressively, Malak Jan’s personality began to take a more definite form and she translates her quests into actions.

There was a lot of need around her, so she sought to help others by sharing her modest resources:

she provided daily meals to visitors, she distributed food on a weekly basis, and she received those who, having heard about her wisdom and generous spirit, came to get her advice, comfort, financial, or emotional support.

From an intellectual, moral, and spiritual point of view, she never sought to impose her values.
While demanding of herself, she exercised tremendous patience with others, slowly awakening their desire for progress.

Furthermore, she refused to blindly accept principles turned into dogmas:

„I would not believe what other people said, unless I understood it by myself.“

These are her words re-asserting the independence of each person to advance through its own spiritual path. This is remarkable, particularly considering the devotion she had for her father and brother.

Just to give an idea of how „out of context she was“, with respect to the issue of sexuality (whether it was homosexuality, contraception or abortion) when asked, she always considered the individual’s specific context, without passing judgment or being influenced by social taboos.
In Malak’s mind, the question of one’s sexual orientation did not constitute an obstacle to spiritual progress.

As a result of her inner strength, charisma, wisdom, and constant practice of charity, she began to gain a reputation for saintliness.

More and more, both men and women sought her guidance in matters ranging from the miniscule to the highly complex, and she received each of them with compassion, generosity, and a true interest in their well-being.
She did this, all throughout her life, even in the later years while under oxygen, when she was experiencing immense difficulty in breathing.

By 1965, she had established informal weekly classes. While her original idea was to teach the profound philosophical aspects she had mustered, instead she customized such gatherings to the mentality of the participants.
At first, these classes were made up of women and focused on simple ways to help them improve their lives: she taught the importance of washing one’s hands, the harm of using profanity, and so on.
Later, as her pupils‘ minds expanded, she imparted more radical concepts, such as the need for self-reliance and the value of maintaining financial independence.

Men also began to attend the classes, so she used her spiritual authority to defend more specifically women’s rights: she taught mothers to look after their daughters, she convinced fathers to leave them an equal share of the inheritance, she strongly encouraged the education of girls, and she imposed on her disciples that, in case of divorce, the right to custody went back to the mother.

Stemming from her fundamental belief in justice and equality, Malak Jân viewed the oppression of rights as an obstacle to personal development, and thus, mirroring the equality of treatment she experienced while growing up, she gathered all the means she could muster to bring equality between men and women.

So she used her wisdom, position, and immense tolerance to patiently help people evolve. This was not easy as these inequalities were deeply ingrained in the mentalities of everyone in a region where insulation and primitive conditions made evolution a trying process.
In the same spirit, and as a consequence of her embracing of modern technology, she contributed to improving the conditions of her community: having electricity brought into the village,introducing new irrigation techniques, and asking physicians within her family to come regularly and provide free medical care.
Instead of accepting the traditional donations to make offerings to their saints, she created a common fund to develop a system of interest-free microcredit, so that the recipients would purchase agricultural tools, set up small shops, and the likes.

In a different line of action, she brought reforms to the Friends of Truth that attributed to women the same dignity as that of men. Of course, this amounted to a revolution.
Needless to say that the most traditional within the Order expressed their hostility in every way possible. Indeed, her views put her own safety at risk.

Prior to his passing, Ostad Elahi delegated to Malak Jân the responsibility of developing his teachings. Thus, for the first time in the history of their mystical lineage, she became the first woman entrusted with such a role.

The student of Ostad Elahi.
Malak Jan was a particularly brilliant student, constantly on the path of perfection as, in her view, the spiritual practice is a dynamic and constant journey toward knowledge:
A few years after my father’s passing, my [exploration of the] spiritual worlds began. I would try to manage on my own, but I would become disoriented. This sense of disorientation stayed with me until I found a guide in the person of my brother. Everything I have understood or taught is from his teachings. 

For Ostad Elahi, spirituality is a science that must be understood with the tools of reason, and a way of being in the world that is based on the fundamental ethical principles.
In his view, the spiritual journey consists of knowing one’s nature and of affecting it through the means of willpower, exercises and ethical work.

If we want to summarize Ostad Elahi’s thought, we could say that the question of „the soul and the search for the truth“ comes first, but the key is practicing this knowledge, as the objective is to benefit people.

Ostad Elahi also emphasizes that we cannot know our selves, or polish our hearts, unless we undertake the challenges of an active life that will serve to reflect our own image back onto us.
Therefore, life in society is the most effective environment for discovering and purifying the true essence of our souls.
According to him, the work required to progress towards perfection is simple: Saying good, Seeing good, and Wanting good.

This is achieved through practice, when you have an educated soul.
During her lifetime, Malak Jân meditated, practiced, assimilated, and transmitted the thought of her brother.

It was he who showed her the way, and it is through him that she learned to know God: „God is an experience“ „Don’t concern yourselves with „reaching God“, he is within you“.

So in line with the innovative philosophy of her brother, Malak Jân pursued a rational and scientific approach to spirituality centered on the acquisition of self-knowledge, greater discernment, and practice.

At the core of Malak Jan’s philosophy lies her personal exploration and the respect for the rights and duties of all human beings.

[…]

We have reviewed some aspects of Malak Jan’s life and thought. But what sorts of ethics was she practicing?

As you probably know, there are three main approaches to ethical theory: The first is Deontology which is sometimes referred to as Duty Ethics; the second is Consequentialism, which is also called Utilitarianism; and the last one is Virtue Ethics.

The difference among them lies in the way moral dilemmas are approached. We can illustrate this with an example: say, for instance, that a terminally ill person wants to be euthanized, and it is up to you to determine whether to grant this wish.

So, according to Deontology you will consider whether, in granting the person’s wish, you would be conforming to moral rules that seem intuitively correct.

For example, in most cultures there is the commandment: ‚Do not kill‘. Deontologists think that these rules need to be adhered to, irrespective of the consequences. It postulates the existence of moral absolutes, regardless of circumstances.

Consequentialism will consider the consequences of granting the person’s wish. If the action produces the best overall consequences, then it would be morally correct. This is the typical „the ends justify the means“.

Virtue Ethics, in my view the school closest to Malak, is totally different because under this theory the act would be desirable if it would be the kind of thing that a virtuous person would do.

So, here Virtue Ethics differs in that the focus is upon being rather than doing, it emphasizes the role of one’s character, and the virtues that one’s character embodies for evaluating ethical behavior.

Virtue Ethics is asking the question: what sort of person should I be? This will determine my actions. As such, the decision would be made in a case-by-case basis, considering benefits and intentions (whether they are benevolent or malevolent).

So what is a Virtue? Virtues are moral principles discovered by reason and acquired by practice in a „community of character“.

We first learn about morality, about what is good and what is evil, within a community of character. Our family, our friends, our society, assuming that these are of good character and not dysfunctional, are communities of character where we learn moral principles.

At the heart of Virtue Ethics is the search for „eudaimonia,“ a Greek word meaning something like ‚flourishing‘, ‚well-being‚, or ‚blessedness‚. This is the type of happiness that comes from a particular kind of character, from within, and from being a specific type of person.

This is not the kind of happiness you could get from winning the lottery or getting lucky. Rather it is related to what you are bringing to life, your attitudes, and character traits.

So eudaimonia describes that state achieved by the person who lives the proper human life, and the outcome that is reached by practicing the virtues.
Virtue Ethics is a theory that places emphasis on the emotions. So virtuous people don’t just think or act in a given way, they feel in particular way.
A virtue is a skill, something we can learn by thinking properly and practicing, just like any skill.
Virtue Ethics takes into account the whole life of a person: it is the way we live that expresses our virtue. It is not just saying ethical issues are things we come across once in a blue moon, as if we wander through life with nothing ethical coming our way and suddenly face the decision to euthanize a friend.

Basically, what Virtue Ethics says is that: if you master through practice, if you master within a community of character the ability to reason well, to handle day-to-day moral questions, then you’ll have the ability to deal with these extreme cases too.

This does not mean that it will be easy to make such decisions, nor that you will be happy at the other end of these extreme cases, but at least you will keep a clear conscience knowing that you made the best, most prudential, most virtuous decision possible under the circumstances.

Wrapping up
To conclude, learning from Virtue Ethics and Malak Jan’s life will allow us to formulate some final thoughts about practicing Ethics.
Malak Jan Nemati provides a unique example of a person who, through courage and intellectual conviction, set herself up for influencing changes in her milieu. Her weapon was ethical certitude grounded on reflection, and her goal to grow the hearts of those who came in touch with her.

She was successful, but these achievements were not the result of submission to the norms and expectations of the times. Quite to the contrary, she confronted, and challenged the religious, intellectual, administrative, labor and employment practices that prevailed out of the passive acceptance of tradition: perpetuating inequality and injustice.

The question is now posed to us: are we able to position and align our thoughts, feelings and actions with respect to the fundamental tensions and dogmas of our times? Do we act to generate the common good? As women, do we request equality of opportunity and treatment? As men, are our loyalties to the rights of our mothers and sisters more important than our own self-interests? Are we able to see and defend our own dignity and that of every other human? How do we gather the courage it takes to stand up? How can we grow up to ourselves?

Malak Jan Nemati emphasized substance over dogma, and inner truths over external forms. She also liked to remind us „life is not short, but time is limited“. It is never too soon to gain consciousness, to think better, to feel better, to treat ourselves and others better, and to do things better; in sum, to live a better life and to enjoy a fairer world. Let us not wait, we can start this practice today.

Reflections (sayings from Malak Jan Nemati)

  • Discernment and maturity are the fruits of experience or adversity; indifference, and pessimism stem from immaturity.
  • God loves an earthworm that performs its duty more than a human being who does not perform his.
  • Inwardly all of you prefer miracles and wonders to an education of thought.
  • Virtue, family, dignity, honesty and integrity, these are the things that should be taught to children.
  • Our work is based solely on our own thought. If we just eat, sleep and reproduce, we will have squandered precious time. This spiritual path is an education of thought than can accomplish everything.

 

 

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