In my modest yet well-grounded opinion, the present stalemate between traditionalists and Non-Traditionalists (to include all and sundry) stems from the (mis) conceptualization of the concept ‘tradition’. There is understandably a prevailing proclivity for fear that if Muslims would assay to make sense of their being in time they would loose their connection with tradition. I aim to limn the concept of tradition and what it connects to in a series of posts.
All these views are of course in the light of my readings so far and are subject to be evolved and vary with time and maturity of thought, if Allah may desire so. I contend for the purpose of my present undertaking that any discourse dwelling on what we call ‘Islamic Tradition’ would be premature and may be misleading if we do not attempt to excavate the concept tradition from the core and analyse it in detail.
I tend to purpose below that there are multiple levels of dichotomy encircling the concept of tradition. The spontaneous falsification of language which has found grounds in pseudo-intellectual conversations of our time is at the heart of each such level. Its more of a subtle diversion rather than mere degeneration property of time where words tend to loose their meaning and convey too less, too much or simply nothing.
Epistemological Dichotomy: Traditional Vs Rational Grounds of Knowledge.
One level of this duality is perceived and purported when there seems to be an organic connection between two terms on each side of this divide. Thereby tradition and religion is seen as necessarily opposite to what is understood as modern and secular. In these duality-pairs, only the former i.e. traditional and modern concerns me at the moment. At the root of this dichotomy lies the European Enlightenment Project, the age of reason, where methods like Cogito ergo sum were notably put forward in search of free foundations of knowledge. Avoiding prolixity and making this point rather hastily, I would just say that history at this level of duality is seen as a hindrance and every tradition was understood as a point in history where knowledge was not based on rational grounds. There were criticisms against, for instance by Heidegger and Gadamer but these are not concretely pertinent to the point of contention.
Social Dichotomy: Modern and Traditional Societies.
A further extension of the same argument gave rise to another level of division due to different perception of social reality by humans. Human beings being the author of the reality around them, of which they are a part too, are bound to see reason as a tool for progress and change according to the enlightened view. Societies which fail to do so or were percieved to construct reality through the tools of tradition and hence understood as standpat, frozen in time, nonprogressive and socially stagnant. Regardless of the reality around them and of which they were a part, people who valued traditional socieites were considered traditionalist and those esteeming modern societies considered modernists.
Human Vs Super-human Tradition.
A duality which is hard to be entitled with a jazzy epithet but which is perhaps the easiest to notice is how the concept of tradition is brought down from the perennial Super-human canons to another level which is necessarily human. To my knowledge this duality is best described by traditionalist philosophers like René Guénon (Abd al-Wahid Yahya) in his various writings, for instance Reign of Quantity, where he asserts that nothing that is of a purely human order can for that very reason be legitimately be called ‘traditional’ and its only in the profane sense of the language that we have come to use terms like ‘philosophical tradition’, ‘scientific tradition’ or ‘political tradition’.
The implications of the above analysis may be subtle but gain importance when imported into the context of various forms of communication and corrupt them. Those who call themselves ‘traditionalist’ may easily get duped without even knowing they they are merely questers being emotionally attached with a particularly retained perception of tradition. In my view identifying these dualities is not merely a quiddity of words but significant if kept at the backdrop of analysing relationship between tradition and history or tradition and knowledge.
Before dwelling into these relationships and Islamic tradition’s in particular I have to compose the true character of tradition as I understand it after sifting these duality-pairs. That would be my next entry insha’Allah.
1. Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and The Sign of Times, Suhail Academy, P.254