Passing Between the Clashing Rocks: the Heroic Quest for a Transcendent Identity - Part I
Posted Aug 19, 2003

Passing Between the Clashing Rocks: the Heroic Quest for a Transcendent Identity - Part I


In recent times, we have been assailed with much rhetoric about a so-called clash of civilisations, an ideological war between the radically opposing worldviews of a supposedly monolithic Islam and the West, or, in more focused terms, between Islam and the modernising and secularising aspects of Western civilisation. Mutual hostility and suspicion have been fuelled by the rhetoric of self-righteousness and rage, the psychological exploitation of fear, insecurity and patriotic fervour, and even full-scale retreat into defensive isolation and identity crisis. Many would characterise this adversarial process not as a clash of civilisations but as a clash of fundamentalisms, or even a war of barbarisms. 

  This paper, presented in three parts, will adopt a linguistic approach to challenge the closed and exclusive mentality which holds us back from the heroic quest of passing between the Clashing Rocks to a truly transcendent and inclusive state of identity.  Drawing on the origins of certain key English words, such as ‘integrity’, ‘straight’, ‘right’, ‘identity’, ‘authenticity’, ‘simplicity’, ‘orientation’ and ‘originality’, it will show how the primordial understanding of the essential nature of the human being which can be derived from these etymological tools is identical to the concept of fitrah which can be derived from Islamic doctrine.

  The implications of this expanded sense of identity for inter- and intra-faith dialogue are explored, and an appeal made to that compassionate wisdom which does not delimit, negate and abrogate, but which expands, affirms and illumines. It calls us to reach beyond differences and develop our outlook beyond mere tolerance in engaging with people of all faiths and cultures in such a way that we discover our shared identity at its deepest and finest level in accordance with the injunction in Qur’an 29:46: “Discourse not with them [followers of earlier revelations] except in that which is finest.”


In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, among the greatest dangers faced by Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece were the Clashing Rocks, or Symplegades, which guarded the entrance to the Black Sea like a gigantic pair of sliding doors, smashing together and crushing ships between them. “As the Argonauts rowed along the Bosporus, they could hear the terrifying clash of the Rocks and the thunder of surf. They released a dove and watched it fly ahead of them. The Rocks converged on the dove nipping off its tail feathers, but the bird got through. Then, as the Rocks separated, the Argonauts rowed with all their might. A well-timed push from the divine hand of Pallas Athene helped the ship through the Rocks just as they slammed together again, shearing off the mascot from Argo’s stern. Argo had become the first ship to run the gauntlet of the Rocks and survive. Thereafter the Clashing Rocks remained rooted apart.” 

  Now, I am sure you will realise that I am not trying to provoke anyone by opening this paper with a story from Greek mythology which refers to the help accorded to heroes by the divine hand of a pagan goddess. I could have chosen many other examples of the same motif from many other cultures and traditions —  that is, the motif of the ‘Active Door’ dividing the known world from the unknown Beyond, and through which the hero or seeker must pass to succeed in the quest, which is none other, in essence, than the return to his or her original home. To pass between the Rocks is to pass through the ‘strait gate’ or the ‘needle’s eye’ between the contrary pairs of opposites and beyond the polarity which necessarily characterises the conditioned world.  It is to be guided by the lamp “lit from a blessed tree” —an olive-tree that is neither of the east nor the west? (Qur’an 24:35). It is to follow the Middle Way, to find the Truth which, as Boethius puts it, is a “mean between contrary heresies”.  I chose the Greek version of the story because the image of the Clashing Rocks has a startling relevance and resonance at a time when there is so much talk of a Clash of Civilisations, and because it shows us so clearly that the true hero is not the one who takes up an adversarial position on either side but the one who, through divine grace and guidance, passes beyond the opposites to the essential Unity which is both our original identity and our ultimate goal as human beings.

  The underlying elemental polarity in the whole of creation is the most obvious expression of divinely ordained diversity, for, as the Qur’an says, “everything have We created in pairs” (51:49) and “We have created you all out of a male and a female” (49:13). The dance of this polarity is the excitement we call “love”, for “among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are signs for people who think!” (30:21).

  In another sense, however, it could be said that the very duality and polarity underlying the fabric of the created universe is a handicap because it has given to mankind a chronically divided nature, a tendency to see reality in black and white, in competing paradigms, and at its worst, a propensity to see the world in terms of mutually hostile and competing civilisations. At its very worst, this divisive mentality gives rise to an us-and-them ideology which self-righteously attributes rightness and goodness only to its own perspective. The problem is that the tendency to dichotomise reality in this way appears, to some extent, to be inherent in the way the brain works. Polarised thinking typically empowers decisive action, in antithesis to the stereotype of the armchair philosopher so entangled in arguments and counter-arguments, ambiguities and uncertainties that he is never able to come to a decision about anything. 

  The attraction of simple, polarised thinking is actually an outcome of the lower level of the intellect. The word ?aql has the sense of ?binding? and ?withholding?, that is, the faculty of judgment, discrimination and clarification and the intellectual power of speech (nutq) which enables man, the “language animal” to articulate words in meaningful patterns. To Adam was imparted the Names of all things (Qur’an 2:31) and in one sense this knowledge confers on man the faculty of clear-cut logical definition and the making of distinctions which underlie abstract, conceptual thought.

  At its lowest level, however, the capacity to make logical distinctions, to separate and divide, is also, in lesser minds (or I should say in those who lack ?heart?) the basis of separatism and divisiveness. It is important not to reduce and restrict the meaning of ‘aql only to its lower level of logic or rationality, for it organically combines reason and the higher intellect. The latter can be equated with the notion of nous in Orthodox Christianity (Hesychasm). This tradition defines nous or intellect as the highest faculty in man, to be distinguished from dianoia, the faculty of mere discursive reason. It is through the intellect, if purified, that man knows God or the inner essence or principles (logoi) of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception.  Again, this system equates the higher Intellect with the faculty which dwells in the depth of the soul and constitutes the innermost aspect of the Heart, the organ of contemplation, even described in very Islamic terms as the “eye of the heart” in the Makarian Homilies. This higher function of ‘aql can also be defined as the “universal principle of all intelligence, a principle which transcends the limiting conditions of the mind”.

  One of the most pressing needs in modern education is to lift so-called “thinking skills” education beyond the level which merely develops prosaic logical and “critical” thinking skills for utilitarian ends, to a level which takes account of the higher level of the intellect, or the Heart. It is only at this level that the habit of resorting to polarised debate, simple-minded dichotomisation, competing paradigms and clashing ideologies can be transcended. 

  It is of the greatest importance to realise, especially at this moment in world history, that polarised thinking is not only an aspect of the lower level of the intellect, but that it is also encouraged (or I should say, aggravated) by rhetoric. The Greeks understood well the responsibility imposed on mankind by the gift of language and the fierce debates about the role of rhetoric were most notably expressed and distilled in Plato’s affirmation that philosophical dialectic (that is the testing process of critical enquiry through discourse, dialogue and discussion) is utterly distinct from and immeasurably superior to rhetoric, which, if not firmly subordinated to knowledge and reason, is roundly condemned as nakedly exploitative emotional manipulation.

  It is this legacy which has ultimately ensured that “in the contemporary usage of all modern European languages” the word rhetorical is unfailingly pejorative [disparaging, negative]. It implies - dissembling, manipulative abuse of linguistic resources for self-serving ends, usually in the political context”.

  Whether we describe it euphemistically as “the strategic deployment of language” or wrap it up in the warm glow of patriotic sentiment,  the abuse of language is not only an affront to what the Greeks understood to be the responsibility imposed on mankind by the gift of language, but, of greater import for us, it is also an affront to the sacred status accorded to language in the Qur’an. The Names imparted to Adam are not simply tools for logical thinking, but from an Islamic perspective, letters and words are the very substance of the created universe, emanating from the Divine Word which is the origin of all creation and in which all concepts find unity and reconciliation. In this conception of language, the letter is not an inanimate component of an abstract concept, but is a living entity, and the words which are formed of these letters, and their combinations into phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs, have the power to diminish or enhance our humanity. The word is, in fact, a deed, an act in itself, which carries the same responsibility as that taken in doing in acting. We have the expression “in word and in deed” and this encapsulates this wisdom, this convergence between speech and action. It is therefore a sacred trust to use words wisely and well.

  “Art thou not aware how God sets forth the parable of the good word. It is like a good tree, firmly rooted, reaching out with its branches towards the sky, yielding its fruit at all times by its Sustainer?s leave. And thus it is that God propounds parables unto men, so that they might bethink themselves of the truth. And the parable of the corrupt word is that of a corrupt tree, torn up from its roots onto the face of the earth, wholly unable to endure.” (Qur’an 14:24-26).

  Such a conception of the moral and spiritual dimension of the use of language not only teaches us to be fully aware of the abuse of language through rhetorical manipulation but also to see through the pretentious exaggeration of the importance of good writing per se, as if the style of writing was ultimately of greater importance than the message the writer is trying to convey. The extreme of such a view of writing is that good prose is itself a mark of moral superiority and that ?bad writing ?is the result of something worse than idleness, fecklessness or ignorance; it is an emblem of sin?. 

  Here, subjective standards of aesthetic refinement, the mere construction of well-proportioned sentences, or witty epigrams, replace moral and spiritual excellence as the mark of the virtuous human being. In this debased conception of language, a writer, though inwardly deformed, can attribute to himself moral superiority purely on the basis of the structure of his sentences. There is a proverb: “Empty barrels make the most sound”, and we might add to this a health warning about elegant flasks which may contain the most virulent of poisons.

  I am reminded of that moment in one of the Indiana Jones movies when the villain drinks from the jewel-encrusted goblet, assuming that the most splendid drinking vessel must necessarily be the Holy Grail which will give him eternal life. Of course, the opposite is the case and we witness his immediate aging, decay and transformation into a crumbling skeleton - at which point, the ancient knight guarding the Grail drily comments: “he chose poorly”. This is not to say that the believers in virtue through good prose are upholding ornate and ostentatious language as their model, for doubtless they would disavow such extravagances of expression in the name of bad taste. The point is that whatever vessel they choose as their model, they are choosing only the vessel. “Love the pitcher less, the water more” goes a famous dictum.

  Nothing could be further from the Qur’anic concept of the “good word” in which the excellence of the form of language is useless if it is not the medium for truth. The Qur’an invites us to adopt a radically different perspective: that human excellence is derived from the fact that mankind is created f’ahsani taqwim, “in the best of moulds” or “in the fairest stature” (Qur’an 95:4), and like everything in creation, “in due measure and proportion” (Qur’an 54:49). The task for men and women on earth is to remain true to the pattern on which they have been made, and to embody that innate beauty and proportionality in their relationship with the divine and in the conduct of their lives, not merely in their sentences.

  I have deliberately dwelt at some length here on the use of language, because the abuse of language through rhetoric and the worship of language-as-form, or medium over message, seem to me to be two of the truly crippling ways in which people are increasingly conditioned in our society. We must include, of course, the hugely powerful impact of visual, as well as verbal language, and the full array of technologically sophisticated enhancements which increase the mesmerising and emotive effect of visual images. The chief casualty of this play of forms in the service of low ends, whether for power, economic advantage, self-serving ideology, patriotic jingoism, or the inflation of the ego, is, of course, the truth. We cannot pass through the Clashing Rocks if we lack the discernment which enables us to hear the language of truth and lack the moral courage to speak the language of truth. And the Qur’an enjoins upon us that we not only keep to this truth ourselves, but that we “enjoin upon one another the keeping to truth” (103: 3).

  At this point, there are many directions this paper could take to bring to light what is meant by the journey through the Clashing Rocks, for this is a multi-faceted and multi-layered parable. We could explore, for example, the doctrine of the mean in relation to the development of human character, with particular reference to Al-Ghazali?s comprehensive treatment of the virtues and vices in relation to the fundamental traits and faculties of the human being.  And it would be instructive to note the psychological sophistication of this approach to human virtue and vice in contrast to theological approaches to “sin” which consider vices as polar opposites to virtues, and seek to repress their manifestation completely. Such an approach would not typically recognise the quality of courage as the sound and balanced aspect (that is the mean) of anger. In this respect it is also important to note the meaning of the Greek word, hamartia, which is normally translated as “sin” in English versions of the Christian gospels. Its actual meaning is “missing the mark” which is an apt description of the tendency either to defect or excess, and hence away from the target, which should be the mid-point or mean. To pass between the rocks we need to shoot straight.

  However, my purpose here is not to restrict the metaphor of the Clashing Rocks simply to an exploration of convergences between ancient Greek and Islamic thought, and neither do I want to restrict it merely to a pious exhortation to moderation and to steer the sober middle course between deficiency and excess of human traits of character. The moral dimension of virtue and good character is of course of vital importance for people of faith, and without it we cannot hope to keep a straight and steady course in the mid-stream where we are best placed to strike out through the Rocks in the final stage of the Quest.

  But to go through the Rocks and come out the other side unscathed is an undertaking which requires more than moral fibre, even though a sound and balanced moral character is an indispensable foundation for that final push.  It is a metaphysical and spiritual undertaking, for the unconditioned world - The Farther Shore, The Beyond, The Otherworld - is “not in space, nor has it poles”  nor is it in time, for the threshold can only be crossed in an instant, in that timeless interval in which the delusion of the contrary pairs is transcended.

  To pass through the Rocks we must be upright, certainly, in the sense of moral rectitude and integrity. The word integrity has the same source as the word entire, from Latin integer, which has also been borrowed into English as a mathematical term denoting a “whole” number. The base *tag- from which these words are derived also gave us the word intact, meaning “untouched” (Latin tangere “touch”).  The integrity and uprightness of character is of course an interior aspect of the physically vertical stance of the human being, that is, the true, erect, intact (“untouched”), whole human being whose original, Adamic nature is oriented vertically in conscious remembrance of his origin and with conscious awareness of the sovereignty of God and of his own appointed role as khalifa. Only that vertical alif, the first letter, symbolic of transcendent unity, can slip between the Rocks; to swerve or sway to one side or the other, to deviate from the straight path, to go astray, is to court disaster - and that is why we repeatedly pray, ihdinas siratal mustaqim, “Guide us on the straight way”. 

  However, we must be careful here to observe how the negative connotations of words warn us about the dangers of deviating from the true mean through defect or excess, and missing the mark. In relation to the word straight, it is revealing that the archaic English word strait means “narrow, limited, confining” as in strait-laced (severely virtuous or scrupulous, puritanical) and strait-jacket. The word strait derives from strict which was acquired direct from strictus, the past participle of Latin stringere, “pull tight” (the source of English stringent and strain). Routed via Old French, strictus has also given English stress and stricture, as well as prefixed forms constrain, constrict, distress, restrain and restrict. Also worth noting are the potentially negative connotations of words connected with the idea of “right” and derived from the Indo-European *reg- base, which originally meant “move in a straight line”. These include regulations (in the sense of ?unbending rules?), and regiment (as a verb, to “regiment” someone is to subject them to draconian discipline).

      Thus, the subtle negative connotations contained within these variant forms give us warnings about the need for balance. The “straight” path must not become the over-strict path, that which “straitens” and “constricts” us.  If it does, the “straits” between the Clashing Rocks become too narrow and we cannot pass through. Righteousness (literally, “being and acting in the right way”) becomes self-righteousness, and we will have lost that compassionate wisdom which does not seek to delimit, negate and abrogate, but which expands, affirms and illumines. That is why, as I have said, moral fibre alone is not sufficient to allow us to pass between the Clashing Rocks. We must always remember that Shari’ah is above all the broad path leading to heavenly water, and that it is the connotation of the purifying and saving physical and spiritual grace which is so often attached to the symbolism of water in the Qu’ran.  Morality without spirituality can lead to the “strictures” of a repressive brand of moralism.  Too much “straitening” is a kind of over-masculinisation of the way, a turning too far to the “right”, in the sense of an unbalanced adherence to the right hand, or the hand of wrath, and in this context we can hardly fail to notice the political connotation of the “right”, implying authoritarian conservatism and severity. The oppressive stigmatisation of left-handedness, thankfully no longer part of the educational system with which I am familiar, is an example of such excessive “straitening”. The journey between the Clashing Rocks is also the journey which balances and integrates the masculine and feminine poles.

In the next part of this essay, I will explore at the meaning of the word identity in the context of our journey through the Clashing Rocks.


The Arabic tri-literal root QWM and some correspondences in English

The connotations of the Arabic root QWM provide a vast field of study in themselves for exploring the Islamic conception of the true human being, and in the light of this it can well be understood why it is often said that the concept of istaqama is the key to Islam.  The range of meanings associated with the root QWM in the Qur?an are:

qama keep vigil, arise, halt, stand up, stand over, uphold, perform a duty, come to pass
maqam place, station, act of standing
muqam abode
mustaqim straight (from istaqama, go straight)
qawam just mean
qawim standing, upright, erect, straight
qawm people, folk
qawwam manager, securer, one who is staunch
qayyim right, true
qayyum Everlasting, Eternal
qiyamah resurrection
qawwama symmetry, stature
aqama abide, set up, perform, maintain

What is striking here is the link between the notion of firm establishment/permanence (“abiding”, “Everlasting”, “Eternal”,  “abode”, “station”, “uphold”, “keep vigil”, “staunch”, “maintain”, “secure”, “perform” - as in the sense of establishing the prayer) and the notions of straightness (“straight”, “erect”, “upright”, “standing”), truth ‘right, true’, and the just mean. Aristotle explores a similar semantic field when he symbolises goodness and happiness as the perfect cube (firmly established, stable, secure, straight-edged):  “The good man”, he said,  [and hence in Aristotle’s ethics a “happy” man, because true happiness is contingent on goodness] is a perfect cube.”

  Further correspondences can be found in the etymology of the English words which are used to translate the Arabic words in the above example. The English word right, for example, goes back to the hypothetical Indo-European base *reg- “move in a straight line”, hence “direct”. The base also produced English rich, Latin rex “king” (source of English royal and regal) and Latin rectus “straight, right” which lies behind English rectify, rectitude, rectangle, and rector.  Also derived from the same root are righteous, which etymologically means “in the right way”, and various related words denoting regularity. English makes a clear connection between the “straight”, the “right” and moral qualities.  To be “straight” is to be upright, honest, honourable, candid, not evasive, as in “going straight” (abandoning crime after a stretch in prison), “straight talking”, “straight dealing”, being “straightforward”; it is to be logical, not swayed by emotion, as in “think straight”; it is to put things in proper order, or place or condition, duly arranged, level, and symmetrical, as in “is my hair straight”, or “straighten out a problem”.

  The word “steadfastness”, sometimes used to translate istaqama, is derived from the prehistoric Germanic *stadiz (modern German stadt, “town”) which goes back to Indo-European *stetis, a derivative of the base *ste-, *sta-, “stand” which also produced Latin stare, “stand” (source of English state and station). The -fast part of the word steadfast comes from Germanic *fastuz, “firm”. So once again, this English word covers the meanings “stand firmly, abide in a state or station” which reflects perfectly many of the Arabic meanings of the QWM root. Note the sense of “stand” as in “standing up for someone or for what we believe” - a sense of moral courage.