(Written for an undergraduate Philosophy class)
“My heart is capable of every form:
A cloister for the monk, a fane for idols,
A pasture for gazelles, the votary’s Ka’ba ,
The tables of the Torah, the Quran.
Love is the creed I hold: wherever turn
His camels, Love is still my creed and faith.”
– Ibn Al’Arabi
(Earth, 21st century. Late afternoon on a soft, windy, purple day at a beautiful beach. Ibn Al’ Arabi and Abu A’la Maudoodi sitting on the shore looking out at a passionate, turquoise sea)
Ibn Al’Arabi: Look at the ocean. What color would you call it?
Abu A’la Maudoodi: I’d say it’s blue.
Arabi: Blue? It looks green to me.
Maudoodi: Well, yes, both green and blue, in that case.
Arabi: Both green and blue. But what shade of green? What shade of blue? Azure, or sapphire, or cerulean, or indigo, turquoise, jade, lime, or emerald? ‘Blue’ does not define itself, but requires further explication. As does any other color. Wouldn’t you agree?
Maudoodi: That’s a most naïve observation. It’s quite evident.
Arabi: Ah! So you agree. But how do you explain it? Why something as physical and palpable as the ocean, appears to you in one hue, and to me in another? Wherefore the difference?
Maudoodi: Arabi old chap, you really are speaking childish gabble. I don’t think the climate here has suited you well. We could always go somewhere else, you know, maybe higher up north, in the mountains. Here, let me just give my travel agent a tinkle…
Arabi: You dear old man, no need! I’m perfectly alright I assure you. The ocean just makes me feel a bit tipsy. High, you know. But you still haven’t answered my question.
Maudoodi: (sighs) Well, if you insist – to put it very simply, it’s just a matter of perception. The ocean is what it is, but when you look at it, you see the greenness of the ocean. When I look at it, I see the blueness.
Arabi: And does that mean that just because I do not see the blueness, the blueness does not exist?
Maudoodi: Oh no, not at all. It’s all there, everything each one of us sees, different as it may be from the other’s perspective; the essence of the ocean does not change, and each perspective, each color, each hue, is a part of that essence. What we as individuals and human beings see, is simply the part which attracts us, instinctively, on a personal level.
Arabi: And is it possible for us to see the other parts? For me to see the blueness of the ocean, and for you to see the greenness?
Maudoodi: Absolutely. It just requires a keener vision, a more concentrated examination of the waves and water. The longer and closer you look at it, the more variances and alterations you will begin to notice. The detailed sensitivity of the colors, and rhythm and cadence of the waves. It’s truly magnificent.
Arabi: It is. And the magnificence and beauty of the ocean lies in that very variation, that ineffable, ungraspable richness of nature. Subhanallah! Glorious is the Glory of the One!
Arabi: So…if the ocean is rich, and God created the ocean, everything that God created must be rich? For example, vegetation, wildlife, minerals, stars, humans, angels, and so on.
Maudoodi: Well…yes, that would be true. There are differences in every form of life and non-life, species and sub-species within every genus, on Earth and beyond.
Arabi: But the essence, as you said, of every genus, of every specie and sub-specie, is One?
Arabi: So then….if difference is inherent in all of God’s Creation, and the Qur’an is a Creation of God, is difference not inherent in the Qur’an as well?
Maudoodi: My dear Arabi, what are you saying? You talk as if Islam were a tree, or an animal. Like people talk of cattle. Are there not many breeds of cattle? For Heaven’s sake, man, Islam is not a creation. It is not an entity, it does not have particular physical existence that you can so facetiously compare it with oceans and animals and trees and what not. Are you sure you’re feeling quite well?
Arabi: On the contrary I feel smashing. Never felt better. For I don’t think you understood me properly, Muddy – I never said Islam. I said Qur’an. The Qur’an is the Word of God, Islam its essence. And the Word of God, either written down or memorized, is God’s Creation. The Lord said “Be!”, and the World was. So the utterance Be is essentially equivalent to the Created object, the World itself. Without the word Be, the World would not have been.
Maudoodi: And your point is?
Arabi: My point is that the Qur’an, being the Word of God, is the Creation of God, and like every other Creation, it too contains variances, different hues and tones that are assimilated differently by different people. Like the blueness of the ocean, the hotness of the sun, love, gratitude, hunger, pain. No one is completely right, and no one is completely wrong. I may be partially wrong, if I say, “The ocean is blue” or “Roses are red”, because the ocean is not only blue and not all roses are red. And I may be partially right when I say, “Pain is unbearable” or “Fasting is a means of purifying the soul”, because both statements are true, yet pain is not always unbearable and fasting is not the only means. Actually, as you might have noticed, the two types of propositions are identical in nature. Like you said, it’s all about perception.
Maudoodi: Yes, it’s about perception. Perception, and reasoning, that tells you that when God talks about His ‘Throne’ in the Qur’an, it does not literally mean a throne, and when He says ‘Fight those who fight against you’, it does not mean you go out and crash a plane into the World Trade Center because you think the American government is anti-Muslim. Everything must be read and understood in its proper context, or the meaning of the message gets corrupted. If this is what you call perception, then it makes sense, and yes clearly something the Qur’an commands us to do – “Reflect, you have vision!”
Arabi: But Muddy, you just admitted yourself, when you agreed that the Qur’an is Created, that differences can and do occur, and this differentiation is but a positive, enrichening aspect of the Qur’an. Therefore a divergence of opinion about the meaning of certain verses such as those you have mentioned is only natural, for the Qur’an intrinsically probes the mind of the reader to ponder and question. And did you not yourself say that individuals are apt to assimilating and comprehending different things in different ways? Did you not see the blue of the ocean, and I the green? So why do you now repudiate your own claims?
Maudoodi: Sheikh, you really are the limit. I am not repudiating anything, for what we are now discussing is a completely different issue. I for one cannot bring myself to believe that Allah sent down the Qur’an as a means of differentiating rather than unifying people. What do you think is the meaning of the Muslim ummah, then? Does it merely represent a chaotic medley of pantheists and poets and whimsical philosophers who sit around under trees and wander the woods like mendicants with no purpose, no objective, no function and no responsibility in the affairs of the Muslim community? I’m surprised at you, Sheikh. For one who confers such undeniable significance to the Word of the God, you seem to have conveniently evaded certain pertinent verses of the Qur’an. “And be not as those who divided and differed among themselves after the clear proofs had come to them. It is they for whom there is an awful torment.” What would you call this then? Are you not trying to justify that very thing which the Qur’an so expressly forbids?
Arabi: Why no, not at all. Whatever gave you that idea? Maudoodi old man clearly you do not know a great deal about Sufism, so I will excuse that little piece of effrontery about pantheists and poets. I really do not mean to create discord and sever the unanimity of the Muslim world – that is honestly not my objective, however blasphemous I may sound to you. What I am saying is that we should acknowledge and accept the fact that factions exist. Factions exist in every stratum and every echelon of Nature, from the rocks to the water to the atmosphere to the colors of a rainbow, to different lands and cultures, languages and peoples and beliefs. The existence of these factions itself does not cause disharmony – it is only when one faction or group attempts to assert superiority over another, when someone begins to say “All roses are red” and “The ocean is all blue”, that discord and disunity creeps into the Oneness of the World. That is what the Qur’an expressly forbids. That in our arrogance we forget the cardinal principles of humility and equality, and conceive ourselves mightier and better than those ‘pantheists and poets and mendicants’ who choose to follow an untrodden path. Sufism advocates the pure untravelled road, yes, but at the same time we do not condemn the other groups of believers for thinking otherwise. It does not make them non-believers, and it certainly does not make us the ‘perfect’ Muslims.
Maudoodi: You really must be the most obstinate Classical Muslim thinker I have ever had the misfortune of dialoguing with. For all your idealism, Sheikh, the truth of the matter remains – if you have sects and factions, a power tussle between some or all of them is inevitable. When has it not happened, when have all the Shias and Sunnis and Agha Khanis and Ismailis and Ahmaddis in any one community or nation, been at complete and absolute peace with one another? Never. Since the time of the Caliphate, up till the 21st century today – and what we’re doing here I haven’t the foggiest – there has scarcely been a period of complete peace and concord between all members of the Muslim ummah. So it’s really terribly gullible to say that the existence of factions does not cause disharmony.
Arabi: I have a solution to that.
Maudoodi: Pray tell.
Arabi: Everyone become Sufis!
Maudoodi: Haha. You mean all the ulema should get up and start twirling around in white robes to flute music?
Arabi: Egad! It is the depths of ignorance, I tell you! You desperately need a crash course in Sufism, dear ulema chappie. Lesson # 1: There was never any twirling in white robes in my time, that practice was only formalized by Rumi. Lesson # 2: You need to watch less TV and read more books, maybe then you’ll understand that the spirit and essence of Sufism hardly lies in ritual, but in the Light of Love, the Divine Love, Ishq. As Idries Shah so neatly puts it, “The natural Sufi may be as common in the West as in the East, and may come dressed as a general, a merchant, a lawyer, a schoolmaster, a housewife, anything. To be ‘in the world, but not of it,’ free from ambition, greed, intellectual pride, blind obedience to custom, or awe of persons higher in rank; that is the Sufi ideal.”
Maudoodi: That was actually beautiful. I’m touched.
Arabi: You have no idea. I know most Muslims, especially Wahhabis like yourself, are always hesitant, if not outright hostile towards this concept of Sufistic ‘innovation’ – biddat, you call it, and declare that because the Holy Prophet and his Companions did not partake in Qawwalis, music, dance and poetry, so must you censure it as ‘unIslamic’. But I ask you – Did the Holy Prophet wear shalwar kurta on Fridays, pay Zakat through a bank, and use loudspeakers for the Azaan?
You’re missing the point here. The point is not the ritual and the ceremony, not the Juma prayers and big Iftaari parties, not the external, not the Maddhab, not that over which Muslims so dutifully disagree, not the varied hues and rhythms of the ocean (although they do exist!) – but the Essence, the pure, true, glowing, radiant Spirit of Allah that shines brilliantly through each and every creature of His Creation, each and every syllable of His Divine Word. “I am the Truth”, spoke Mansur Halajj, and he was – for he saw coherence in insanity, unicity in deviation, Allah in a grain of sand –
“Simple were we and all one essence: we were knotless and pure as water.
When that goodly Light took shape, it became many, like shadows cast by a battlement.
Demolish the dark battlement, and all difference will vanish from amidst this multitude.”
– Jalalu’l-din Rumi
2 thoughts on “Dialogue between a Medieval Mystic and a Modern Theologian”
January 29, 2011 at 5:32 pm
August 28, 2010 at 3:07 am