(It begins in the middle of things—perhaps over tea, perhaps walking down the street.)
MODERNIST: …Look, we spread around the world in a century or two—Islam was selling like hotcakes, baby. What made the difference, though? Why didn’t we just peter out immediately like the Mongols or the Huns?
TRADITIONALIST: Well, we had the divine cognitive music of the Qur’an on our side, obviously.
MODERNIST: Pfff… Naw. It was the edge, the technological, philosophical edge that did it. We’d salvaged Aristotle from the wreckage of Greece and Rome… What were they doing in Europe? Singing hymns, weeping for their sins, tearing their habits or whatever they’re called. They wussed out, sacrificed their virility. Islam was strong, manly. We thought more. The mind was our domain—not the emotions.
TRADITIONALIST: First of all, I only made that Qur’an riff because it seemed like something you thought I’d say (though I don’t entirely disagree with it). So, forgive me if my irony was lost on you. But, still, I hardly think that’s fair to them or to us. I mean, consider Galileo. Consider Iqbal—the heroes of the modern world.
MODERNIST: Well, that’s when the edge switched over, you know? The Renaissance. And for us it was all down hill from there. Sure, there were some bright spots. But the Ottomans went, the Caliphate crumbled. Hell, we didn’t really see any significant political figure—any genuine savior—come around until Ataturk showed up. As for Iqbal, his vision was never properly realized—he remained a significant visionary. But little more.
TRADITIONALIST: Oh, don’t talk to me about Ataturk. He wasn’t a Muslim—he suppressed Arabic, pad-locked the Sufi lodges. The guy was a jerk.
MODERNIST: Yeah, maybe. But he was a jerk who knew what worked.
TRADITIONALIST: Well, a toilet might work pretty well. But it’s still a toilet and not Socrates.
MODERNIST: No need to get offended! We’re just having a friendly discussion.
TRADITIONALIST: Don’t worry. I’m not offended. I’m just put off by your time-based philosophy.
MODERNIST: Why, excuse me. I didn’t know I had a “time-based philosophy.”
TRADITIONALIST: You wouldn’t. People who have time-limited philosophies never know that there’s anything outside of time, any eternal patterns. Therefore, they can’t see their own errors, not knowing that there is any other, extra-temporal perspective to be had.
MODERNIST: I don’t believe there is any other perspective. Well, no other legitimate perspective.
TRADITIONALIST: Well, I’m telling you there is. In fact, your philosophy is just as time-centric as that of the Taliban or any other fringe Islamists you’d like to pick out.
MODERNIST: Now, I actually am genuinely offended.
TRADITIONALIST: Yes, but you don’t even know what I mean yet.
MODERNIST: Alright, fine. Continue.
TRADITIONALIST: I’m saying this—you find too much meaning in the historical cycle. It’s material advancement that matters for you, just as it does for the zealots in Al-Qaeda—a veritable scorpions’ nest of medical doctors, advanced certificates in urban planning, engineering PhDs and the like.
MODERNIST: Well, what alternative is there to taking up arms in the struggle, one way or another, on one side or another? I, for one, prefer Pepsi and happiness to hatred and tap-water. The years go by, and, unless we exert ourselves, they waste and wear us down. Best to go with the tide of the times—keep your eyes on the clock.
TRADITIONALIST: Surely you know there’s a story in the Qur’an that makes quite the opposite point?
MODERNIST: Having been largely educated at the Ecole Normale Superiere, my knowledge of the Holy Qur’an has consequently been somewhat limited.
TRADITIONALIST: Abraham walks outside, wondering what he should worship—
MODERNIST: Well yes, I’ve certainly heard of Abraham.
TRADITIONALIST: And he looks at the sun, and considers worshipping it, before he sees that it’ll go down. He does the same with the moon, and the stars. Finally, he realizes that God is all that abides. All else is fleeting and temporary— and you’re suggesting that we base our lives on the fleeting and temporary—on technology, satellite dishes—mere fads!
MODERNIST: Well, now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not an out and out atheist. But, what you say is more or less true—where is deity to be found if not in the struggle up-hill? The soul walking from one state to the next? I would favor a more progressive mode of Divinity, without question. I read an author once who said that he would prefer to be an ascendant ape than a fallen angel, and I would say that much the same is true for myself.
TRADITIONALIST: Well, personal preference hardly comes into account when the question is a matter of truth. But I hardly see how being a fallen angel and an ascendant ape are mutually exclusive options. The point I’m making is that God—through His Messenger, peace be upon him—set certain patterns for humanity—eternal patterns. The only way in which we can orient ourselves in this world of fleeting appearances and panoramic mirages is to adjust ourselves to such a permanent state. Otherwise, we have but an interval—tremulous and brief—filled up with an assortment of distractions. We exist on the shambles, and we recede into the shambles. Without piety—without the same feelings and perceptions that our forefathers felt—we exist, as it were, in the midst of a tempest. Blown about by violent winds—forever inconstant.
MODERNIST: That might be a bit rhetorically high. But I know that for myself I can only see the square illuminated by my own dim yet adequate headlights as the road unfolds ahead of me. (He shrugs.) Permanence, changelessness—these things are nice to entertain. But the only permanence I find in my own life is the will to change—that will remains constant.
TRADITIONALIST: Hmm—I’ll need to think about that.
MODERNIST: And I’ll try to turn a few of the things you’ve said over in my mind—though I do live a harried and unreflective existence.
(Train whistle sounds)
MODERNIST: Well, I need to be off. I’m glad for this conversation, even if we’ve reached no harmonious synthesis.
TRADITIONALIST: It’s just that we mustn’t cease to contradict one another.
MODERNIST: No, no. On that we can agree.
TRADITIONALIST: To contradict is real communion. “Opposition is true friendship,” as it’s said.
MODERNIST: Ah, so you know more of Western proverbs than you let on?
TRADITIONALIST: Only a few poets.
MODERNIST: Well, I’m off then. (Removes a hip flask.) To a future of lasting contradictions! (He leaves, taking a sip from his flask.
TRADITIONALIST: If I drank, I would undoubtedly drink to that… Yes.
My dramatic dialogue was inspired by the section we did on the writings of Iqbal including his “Complaint” and “Answer to the Complaint.” Iqbal was interested in Hegelian philosophy (as discussed in class) and here I tried to demonstrate (in a necessarily more minor manner than in his classic poems) how the dialectic might play out in a lively discussion between a (culturally if not religiously) Muslim modernist (an Ataturkite, more or less), and a traditional but probably Sufi Muslim who believes in timeless truth and eternal patterns rather than endless process as the proper guide to life. Part of my goal was to put believable points into the mouths of both speakers—though I think I probably gave the Sufi traditionalist more ammunition (the modernist says intelligent things, but they’re often phrased in an annoying or shallow manner).
There are plenty of (witty?) allusions and jokes in this little fragment—I think I was probably most inspired, formally, by the sparkling intellectual debate between Don Juan and the Devil in George Bernard Shaw’s great play, “Man vs. Superman.” And I stole the idea of a “time-centric” philosophy from Aldous Huxley’s still useful and informative book, “The Perennial Philosophy.” It was my own idea to use the Qur’anic parable of Abraham and the sun, the moon, and the stars to illustrate this idea (see Sura 6: 74-82). Also, scattered within this are veiled references to William Blake, the science-fiction author Terry Pratchett, and others—which the reader is invited to find and discover. Plus, the Modernist can rather oddly be seen looking back to the scientific-philosophical work of Muslims in the Islamic “golden age”—recovering Aristotle—as being exemplary. I think he probably would’ve been down with Averroes and Avicenna, whereas the Traditionalist, temperamentally, would be much more likely to be a fan of Al-Ghazali.