Fellow SoF Scholar Tom Peteet wrote about his encounter with a Muslim boy upon visiting a mosque in the Blue Mountains of Southern India. A question elicited an answer and a back and forth ensued between the two, but not a conversation.
The boy was eagerly defending the necessity of believing in only one God, while Tom was more interested the effect of belief on our actions. Between them there seemed to be a gap preventing their minds from actual dialogue.
“Where did such vastly different conceptions of the self come from? Are they at all compatible? Or are we consigned to perpetually talk past each other?”
I share Peteet’s wonder at how such interactions manage to evade constructive dialogue. From recurrent reflections on this matter, an allegory has emerged. This is the encounter between the hiker and the mountain climber.
Both find themselves at the base of a mountain, one with quite challenging topography. Both have their eyes on the summit. The climber pays attention to the straight line that takes him from where he is to where he ought to go, for the shortest distance between A and B is a straight line. That path, being straight amidst an unruly mountain, requires traversing many an obstacle, several cliffs and slabs of rock indifferent to our need of grip and ground. To the climber, the key tool is the rope. The rope must be of a specific kind. Not any rope will do. The consequence of no rope or a wrong rope is doom.
The hiker pays attention to the many possible ways to reach the summit, some taking longer than others. The hiker does not feel restricted to one specific path. Straight line has no additional value to zigzag and curly. The hiker does not think in terms of a key tool. Instead, the idea of suitable provisions comes to mind, for the journey is likely to be long and unpredictable.
We therefore have two things in common, a mountain and a desire to reach the summit. We also have two very important differences.
First of all, the climber is ever-aware of gravity and the necessity of a rope to secure oneself against its uncompromising force. The hiker, however, is ever-aware of the wear and tear caused by a long journey. In other words, the climber has a focus on gravity while the hiker on time.
The second difference is the value given by the climber to the straight line from base to summit, while the hiker does not acknowledge such a preference. In fact, the hiker may even go as far as seeing value in a long, long journey, which may be more rewarding than the actual summit.
Let us return for a moment to the first difference, but this time replacing gravity with Fate. By Fate I mean the inevitable consequence of an action; if you let go you will fall, and if you have no rope you will be doomed. Let us also replace time with Life. By life I mean the experience of being alive which comes to an end with death. Note that for Fate I do not use the word death, but doom, which can be an ongoing experience of pain and agony.
With this in mind we can imagine the conversation between Peteet and that little boy at the base of a Blue Mountain as they prepare to reach the summit. The boy wonders how Tom can embark on this journey without the necessary rope. For Tom, the rope is not essential because the shortest path is not necessarily the one to take. One may choose to utilize a rope in their endeavor, or one may choose to utilize a different assortment of provisions and resources that aid them on their long journey. There is no preoccupation with gravity/Fate here, rather an attention to the length of the journey and the wear and tear caused by time.
Can both views be reconciled? I believe they are incommensurable and incompatible. People move from one to another, after spiritual paradigm shifts, for example, but I doubt both can equally coexist in one person. It seems to me that climbers see a specific religious path as an absolute necessity to everyone else, like a certain rope with specific features.
To the hiker, religious traditions are a sort of provision for the long journey of life; something you may choose from or leave out all together. The hiker seems to be focusing on the actual wear and tear of the journey, a chronic doom that nibbles at your existence, while the climber dismisses such minute decay, which is dwarfed compared to the doom of falling off a cliff.
You can’t sell a rope to a hiker and most of what hikers carry are unwanted weight to the climber. One marches forward heedful of the wearing of time, the other ascends upward fearful of a fateful fall. The mountain is enormous, beyond our ability to fully comprehend and experience. Some of us see deadly cliffs while others see labyrinth trails. Whether by Fate or by Time, we are haunted.
May we all meet and tell our tales at the Summit.
Photo by mckaysavage, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Ahmed Elewa is a graduate student at the Islamic American University where he is researching "responsibility" in Shariah and Islamic Jurisprudence. He is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he studies early embryo development. Upon receiving his Masters Degree in Biomedical Sciences in 2007, Ahmed spent two years working as a community organizer and interfaith coordinator in Boston before moving to Egypt to pursue advanced religious studies. He is currently enrolled in the College of Shariah and Law at al-Azhar University. In 2010 Ahmed published his first novel in Arabic (alRawda) which highlights the paradoxes inherent in biculturalism. A year later he published a memoir, "Ground Zero Mosque: The confessions of a Western-Middle-Eastern Muslim" to narrate his personal encounter with these paradoxes. Using State of Formation as a medium, Ahmed continues to develop his thoughts on personal and social multiculturalism and how religion, science and history interact within individuals and societies. Follow him on twitter @albostoni.