Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Friendship without Boundaries: Spirituality and Sufi Wisdom in Schmitt's Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur'an

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Friendship without Boundaries: Spirituality and Sufi Wisdom in Schmitt's Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur'an

Article excerpt

Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur'an centers on the friendship between a sage-like Muslim and a Jewish teenager. While Ibrahim illuminates Momo on matters of life, love, and loss, the whole play stands as a trope for religious tolerance and friendship across boundaries. Since Sufi understanding of Islam underlies this unique example of cross-cultural friendship, the present article investigates the extent to which a hermeneutic reading of religion through the spiritual lens of Sufism can contribute to cultivating interreligious friendship in a world ravaged by violence and sectarian strife.

Introduction

Friendship has been esteemed by many thinkers, classical and modern, as a life enhancing form of human connection based on mutual empathy. This dignified relationship stands at the heart of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's Play Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur'an. * One of France's contemporary heavyweight authors and dramatists, Schmitt (1960-) has managed to achieve international acclaim due to the recent translations of his works and the performance of his plays worldwide. Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur'an, according to Schmitt's official website, "has travelled the globe non-stop" since its first performance in Paris in 2002, as one of the most frequently performed plays in the world ("Extended" n. pag.). The adaptation of the work into an award-winning film starring Omar Sharif has wildly added to its popularity. This article draws upon a thematic analysis of this fascinating piece of drama, occasionally contrasting the play with the film, with an eye to exploring how the work has been reoriented. Adopting the approach of cultural criticism in relating Schmitt's text, whose main focus is a Sufi, to other major Sufi texts, the article investigates the ability of the values anchored in Sufism to combat the rising specter of intolerance and religious chauvinism within the Muslim world and abroad.

The friendship model in Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur'an defies the traditional ideal of friendship in philosophical and popular discourse. According to this ideal which follows Aristotle's prescription, similarity in personal disposition, social rank, cultural background, as well as age and sentiment is a constitutive element of friendship. Though he does not explicitly state that difference hinders friendship, Aristotle offers various definitions of friends and friendship implying that similarity is the chief tenet of his concept of friendship. He makes a distinction between two modes of friendship: one deficient, easily dissolved, and based on utility or pleasure, the other perfect, long-lasting, and based on virtue. "Perfect friendship" for Aristotle exists when a friend is loved for his/her virtuous character and the relationship is based on shared virtue (Nicomachean Ethics 145-47). Whereas Aristotle defends an absolute concept of virtue ethics based on a single account of the human good, the multiplicity and mutability of the human condition across space and time support the cultural relativists' view that virtue ethics cannot be normative for all cultures and all societies as they reflect different local norms and traditions (MacIntyre 181-84). Accordingly, for two persons to build an Aristotelian friendship based on virtue, they are supposed to belong to the same culture, being similar in how they construe what is virtuous and what is not.

Aristotle offers a concise definition of friendship maintaining that "friendship is equality," that is, true friendship exists between equals as a relationship where there is no leader and follower; no one is superior to the other, stronger than the other, or better than the other; no one gets more benefit out of the relationship than the other (Nicomachean Ethics 153). Though friendship itself can be an equalizing factor, equality in this sense is taken as a quantitative as well as qualitative criterion. To develop such an equal relationship, thus, it is inferred that friends should belong to the same social class, be of the same age, and possess the same amount of wisdom. …

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