Tribute to Professor Victor Danner
February 26, 2003
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
It was with some hesitation that I accepted the invitation to speak about, or pay tribute to, Professor Victor Danner. The thought of speaking about Dr. Danner made my adrenalin run, not because I am nervous about speaking to a large audience, but because Victor Danner always made my adrenalin run. For I invariably found myself sitting up straight ,or standing up whether I was physically in his presence or speaking to him on the phone. So what would I have to say about this extraordinary human being, this remarkably quiet and private man? I discussed the matter with friends who said, Share stories about him. Tell some funny anecdotes.Ӕ I have found, however, that I cannot simply stand here telling light stories about him. Due to circumstances, I was unable to say goodbyeӔ to him back in 1990. Perhaps this is my opportunity to say goodbyeӔ or more accurately to say you will never be forgotten,Ӕ to a man who has had a profound influence on my life.
Victor Danner was born in Mexico in 1926. As a young man he served in WWII. After the war he attended Georgetown University where he received his B.A. magna cum laude in 1957. Later that year he traveled to Morocco to become an instructor and then Director of the American Language School in Rabat. In 1964 he returned to the United States to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University where he received his Ph.D. in 1970. He came to Indiana University in 1967 and had a joint appointment in both the Religious Studies Department and in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department (formerly known as Near Eastern Languages and Literatures), and served as chairman of the latter from 1980-1985. He taught courses in Arabic language, classical Arabic literature, newspaper Arabic (believe it or not!), Sufism, World Religions, and comparative mysticism. His classes on religion were always full, and he was probably one of the few professors in his discipline who could fill up a classroom or auditorium with students. He is the author of many articles mostly on Islamic mysticism and three books the most recent of which is The Islamic Tradition: An Introduction published in 1988.
I first met Dr. Danner in the mid-1970s when I took his Islam course while I was still an undergraduate in Biological Sciences. I thought the course would be a breeze! It wasnt. In a systematic manner, he plunged into the depths of Islam in such a way that he had the entire class mesmerized for the length of every class period. He spoke of Islam from within the tradition so that some of us wondered if he was Muslim, and played guessing games as to when he might have converted and what sect he belonged to. When I sat in on his world religions course, we played the same game, only this time wondering if he was a Muslim, a Buddhist (Mahayana or Hinayana? Or Zen?), or really a Christian after all! We ruled out his being a Hindu because, he had explained to us, one had to be born a Hindu. In short, he presented the world religions from within their respective traditions teaching us, or at least teaching me, not only to respect, but to accept other religions and doctrines to be as valid as my own, thereby widening my horizon in ways that I never thought was possible. He also taught us to dig beneath the surface in search of meaning and to always go back to the primary sources of whatever religious tradition we were studying. And he was more interested in the points of inclusiveness rather than of exclusiveness, more interested in what brought people together rather than in what divided them. I am not speaking of a form of ecumenicalism or mish-mash, but rather, as I mentioned earlier, of genuine mutual respect and acceptance through understanding. He rejected religious bigotry in all its forms.
He repeated a great deal in class and at first I wondered why. It became obvious as we covered materials formerly unfamiliar to me. We forget, we are forgetful; we suffer from ghaflah (forgetfulness) a word he used often with a twinkle in his eye, and need to be constantly reminded of some religious concept or name in the Hindu or Shinto tradition, or of some obscure grammatical rule. Ever-patient, he repeated and repeated answering questions tirelessly in and outside of class.
On the surface, he appeared to be a rather strict, humorless, unapproachable man. But this was far from the truth. He had a dry sense of humor. If you werenҒt paying attention, you could easily miss the humor that had us in stitches as he kept a straight face. I learned to anticipate his funny remarks because his eyes would sparkle moments beforehand. I would also see that sparkle in his eyes moments after friends and I would discover that he was walking behind us silently overhearing our remarks about him. He never said anything, but we knew he had overheard, and we learned to look behind our backs before we said anything as we headed after class from Ballantine to Goodbody Hall.
He was a man of honor, of integrity, a soft-hearted man who was always willing and ready to assist his students as they went through whatever obstacles or crises they encountered whether in their academic or personal lives. It took me a while to see the softӔ side of him because I hardly ever stayed in his presence for a second longer than necessary while taking his courses because I was awed by his presence. I heard through classmates that he likened me to a fleeting butterfly. It was only after I had taken my qualifying exams, and asked him with a thudding heart to be my dissertation adviser that I gradually got to know him well enough to know he knew a great deal about cameras (he let me touch his Leica!) and that he enjoyed the Superman films with Christopher Reeves. I might add that he always said helloӔ to my brothers cat, Leo, who would greet him at the door when he would join us for dinner or tea.
Finally, when I wrote to the late Professor George Makdisi (who was Dr. DannerҒs dissertation adviser) a little over a year ago asking him if he would deliver the first Wadie Jwaideh Memorial Lecture, I pondered upon how I would capture his attention since Professor Makdisi didnt know me, and since I was contacting him by email. After all so many emails go unanswered. In the subject area, I wrote: ғFrom a student of Dr. Victor Danner. Professor Makdisi wrote back almost immediately: ԓDear Dr. Istrabadi, Good to hear from you and to know that a former student of Victor Danner is carrying on the tradition at Bloomington. May all his students be worthy of carrying on the tradition of this noble man who brought out the best in us. You are not forgotten.