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What is a “Traditionalist”? — Some Clarifications
by Charles Upton
I have been asked by M. Ali Lakhani, editor of Sacred Web, to write a reply to Dr. Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen’s article “Why I Am Not A Traditionalist.”1 In order to do this, I suppose I must call myself a Traditionalist, and try to explain why I have chosen to follow the Traditionalist path. But it turns out that this apparently simple task is not as straightforward as it seems.
Legenhausen, while he recognizes Traditionalism’s critique of the modern world and its interest in metaphysics and sacred art as valuable and inspiring, objects to it on both theological and sociological grounds. He accuses the movement of basing itself on an “esoteric pluralism” which falsely claims the power and the right to evaluate all religious traditions from an “abstract” point beyond them, and of fostering dangerously reactionary political theories and movements. He claims that Traditionalists do not recognize the inevitability of modernism, and are consequently beset by impossible fantasies of returning to earlier more “traditional” social forms. And he claims that little separates the Traditionalist School from many Islamic groups and movements characterized (at least by western journalists) as “fundamentalist”, outside of a general intellectual elitism and “elevation”. To Legenhausen, Islamic Traditionalism is apparently little more than a kind of fundamentalism for the intelligentsia.
Legenhausen characterizes Traditionalism as “an ideology, in the general sense that it offers a system of ideas on the basis of which it recommends a social or political program.” This description runs so directly counter to the writings of almost every major Traditionalist figure I have studied, and bears so little relationship to my own experience of over fifteen years of serious interest in, and interaction with, the Traditionalist School, that I am initially at a loss as to how to refute it. In terms of Traditionalism as I have known it, it is simply wrong. It is as if, by some powerful spell, the attention of the academic intelligentsia has been misdirected from the Moon to the finger pointing at it, after which that finger is discovered to be pointing not at the Moon at all, but rather toward a police station or auto repair shop. Nonetheless, I am not unaware that many groups with political ambitions, most often ultraconservative if not actually Fascist or crypto-Nazi, have—largely under the influence of Fascist/Nazi fellow-traveler Baron Julius Evola—adopted the name “traditionalist,” in some cases as early as the 1930s, and that some of these groups now claim to have drawn their inspiration in part from René Guénon—something they could only have done by ignoring the vast bulk of his writings, and by rejecting, or simply failing to understand, the very concept and purpose of metaphysics itself. My own Traditionalism, on the contrary, is largely defined by the works of Frithjof Schuon and his major followers, and their own particular “edition” of Traditionalist ideas—for example, their acceptance (as opposed to Guénon’s position) of the traditional Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sacraments as at least virtually initiatory, their dismissal of Evola based on his placing of the kshatriya or warrior initiation (ultimately related to the Catholic idea of the “active” life) on a higher plane than the brahmanic or priestly initiation (the “contemplative” life), etc. Though I am not an initiate of Schuon’s Maryamiyya Tariqa, it has been Frithjof Schuon more than anyone else who has defined my intellectual horizon (with René Guénon a close second); this fact, as well as the general cultural insularity of the United States, has made it inevitable (providentially, I would say) that I would see Fascist “traditionalism” as alien territory, as well as making it very difficult for me to view Guénon’s Masonic writings as in any way fundamental to his role as reviver of Tradition for the Western world.
This article, then, will be a defense of “Traditionalism” as I have known it. Since there is no board of review to which I can appeal to redress the misuse of language, I am almost inclined to allow those seriously misinformed individuals who wish to reduce Traditionalism to a political ideology with metaphysical trappings to take the word itself, as long as I am allowed to keep the substance. Such a development, however, would make it more difficult for Traditionalists as I have known them to communicate with each other, and with others who find themselves attracted in the core of their being to the religious, metaphysical and esoteric heritage of the human race; so I feel I must do what little I can to “rectify the names” and set the record straight.
The “founders” of the Traditionalist School, René Guénon and Ananda Coomaraswamy, did not talk about “Traditionalism,” but about the religious, metaphysical and esoteric traditions of the world, in light of the One Truth from which they proceed, and to which they provide formally distinct but essentially equivalent paths of return. It was Guénon who first defined what most later Traditionalists have meant by Tradition: the transmission of a perennial wisdom, unanimous in essence, from the beginnings of the human race to this present moment, a transmission punctuated and channeled by Divine revelations and continually renewed by the “supernaturally natural” human capacity (the phrase is Frithjof Schuon’s) for the intellectual intuition of spiritual Truth. This faculty of Intellection, veiled in the general run of humanity, unveiled (to varying degrees) in the case of prophets and saints and sages, is traditionally considered to be the essence and raison d’etre of the human form itself, what Muslims call the fitrah.
Once Guénon and Coomaraswamy had become aware of each other, and had begun to attract the attention of other writers who understood their basic viewpoint, it was inevitable that something like a “Traditionalist School” should begin to define itself as such. This represented a real gain in the understanding and expression of Tradition for the 20th Century, but it also carried with it an inevitable loss, in the sense that it now became possible to speak of “Traditionalist doctrines” as well as Tradition per se. Every writer who deals with Tradition, no matter how self-effacing he may be, inevitably puts his or her individual stamp on the doctrines he transmits, since universal Truth can only travel in this world through the “minute particulars” of culture, time, place and person. To the degree that this casts a veil of idiosyncrasy over timeless doctrines it is unfortunate, but insofar as it allows these doctrines to be expressed in the language of a particular place and time, so as to relate them to concrete social and mass-psychological conditions, their dominant intellectual errors and specific spiritual potentials, then it is only good.
Be that as it may, it has now become both possible and. necessary to differentiate “Traditionalism” from Tradition, so as to determine just how well what is rightly or wrongly characterized as Traditionalism serves to transmit Tradition, and in so doing to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the individual stamp that such writers as René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon have placed upon it. Schuon himself, in René Guénon: Some Observations (Sophia Perennis, 2004) as well as Jean Borella in his Guénonian Esoterism and Christian Mystery (Sophia Perennis, 2005) have done this service for Guénon without in any way diminishing his true stature and use; perhaps in the future someone will undertake to do the same thing for Schuon.
But this differentiation of Traditionalism from Tradition has also become necessary for another reason: the adoption, in a small way, of Traditionalism as grist for the mills of academia, which tend to grind pretty rapidly, though rather coarsely for all that. This development was represented and to a degree initiated by Mark Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2004), which did us all a great service, both in mapping out the Traditionalist historical landscape for the first time, in all its major ramifications, and in showing just how far various groups identified with Traditionalism—often via an interest in Guénon as seen through the eyes Evola, and seemingly limited to an interest in him as author of East and West (Sophia Perennis, 2001) and The Crisis of the Modern World (Sophia Perennis, 2001)—have departed from Guénon’s the central doctrines, as well as those of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Frithjof Schuon. (By the time Guénon published his prophetic magnum opus, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times [Sophia Perennis, 2002, revised edition] in 1945, his hopes for a renewal of the West based on the influence of Eastern spiritual doctrines and various forms of Masonry or “esoteric Christianity” had been superceded by his mature eschatological vision of the approaching end of the present manvantara; those who still follow East and West and Crisis over The Reign of Quantity have failed to follow their master to his ultimate conclusions.) Professor Sedgwick’s book was, however, destructive in two ways: first, by its tendency, apparently inspired by the ambiguities of research done partly on the internet, to identify as “Traditionalist” groups with little or no relationship with the Traditionalism of Guénon, Coomaraswamy and Schuon, or even to their various Fascist perversions—such as the all-girl fantasy-cult known as Aristasia, who try to ignore the existence of the male sex and like to pretend they are living in the first half of the 20th century, and secondly, by his definition of the raison d’etre of the Traditionalist School as opposition to the modern world (which explains his otherwise inexplicable treatment of East and West and Crisis of the Modern World as Guénon’s central works) rather than the re-discovery and timely re-expression of the perennial Truth. Such a deviation is perhaps inevitable in any socio-historical treatment of Traditionalism, which must meet contemporary standards of academic “objectivity” by referring to metaphysical ideas without in any way entertaining them; and by adopting this approach Prof. Sedgwick has certainly made the work of the less meticulous among his fellow academicians much easier, since they can now oppose, or rally in support of, an inaccurate catch-phrase rather than confronting the rather forbidding opus of the Traditionalists themselves, and the great works of Tradition from which they draw their doctrines. The academies, belying their Platonic name, by and large no longer teach metaphysical discourse, one of the two verbal “languages” in which Traditional doctrines are written—the other being symbolic mythopoeia. And mythopoeia itself has been dragged down by Jung and others from the plane of metaphysics to that of psychology, and by modern mythographers and folklorists all the way down to the level of cultural history. (Such studies are of course valuable in themselves, but they should not be used to obscure the very level of reality from which they draw so much of their material.) Thus it has become possible for the first time to say, as a professor from Dartmouth said to me in an e-mail correspondence immediately after 9/11, “I follow René Guénon but I am not interested in metaphysics”—which is like saying “I like Johann Sebastian Bach but I am not really that interested in his music.”
The near-disappearance of the discipline of metaphysics in academia, at least in its more traditional forms, coupled with a relentless relativism and historicism, made it next to certain that many in the academies would follow Sedgwick in defining Traditionalism mostly in socio-historical terms. Now sociology and historicism certainly have something of value to say about Traditionalism, just as a socio-economic treatment of Johann Sebastian Bach in terms of his search for patronage, his role as kapelmeister, etc., would say something of limited though real value about the great musician. But any treatment of Bach that largely ignored the quality of his music, just as any treatment of Traditionalism that ignores metaphysics—the “music” of metaphysics itself, the actual practice of it, not simply various historical theories about it—would miss the main point entirely. And Mark Sedgwick did indeed miss the main point entirely, in his move to trim Traditionalism so as to fit contemporary academic assumptions. His truncated approach certainly made it easier for many academics to approach the Traditionalist corpus without being embarrassed and confounded by their own lack of metaphysical grounding. But it did little or nothing to define the elements necessary for the concrete practice of metaphysics—the musical score, the instruments, the musicians and their training, and (not least) the maestro—without which any attempt to understand the meaning of the Traditionalist School is a chase after the wind.
So, in response to Legenhausen’s “Why I Am Not a Traditionalist,” I might reply that I am not a Traditionalist either, according to his definition of the term. In order to call myself a Traditionalist I must define my position much more narrowly, as “a Traditionalist according to Schuon, Guénon (or most of him), Ananda Coomaraswamy, Marco Pallis, Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Charles LeGai Eaton (this list is certainly not exhaustive) and the editorial viewpoint of the journal Studies in Comparative Religion.” This body of material presents a Traditionalism that is sufficiently unified in outlook and multi-dimensional in expression—and sufficiently traditional—to provide a stable intellectual standpoint. Furthermore, I must also define myself as one who, first and foremost, has not adopted this mass of doctrine as ideology, but rather as a set of concrete intellectual supports for the spiritual Path, in the recognition that Traditionalism has little or nothing to do with changing the world—to believe so is both doctrinally unorthodox and socially naïve—and everything to do with saving souls. In my view, Traditionalism is almost alone in allowing those who have understood that orthodox doctrine, spiritual depth and realized sainthood are to be found in more than one religious tradition, to nonetheless pursue the one tradition to which God has called them, without dissipating their spiritual energy in anti-traditional universalism and its various utopian schemes. And though I do not see any of the above writers as being intrinsically above criticism, it is nonetheless upon their ground—the ground of a Perennial Tradition which they largely re-discovered, for the West and for our time—that I stand.
Though Legenhausen finds much that is good in Traditionalism, he also maintains that “traditionalism seems to be too reactionary and too nostalgic to offer a workable way to move through and beyond modernity.” Traditionalism as I know it is, however, essentially sober and without nostalgia, unless it be the “nostalgia for eternity.” Rather, it is a mass of doctrine adequate to orient us, in intellect, will and affections, toward what the Tao Te Ching calls the Always So. Orientation to the Always So, to Absolute Reality and all the consequences that flow from it, is always available—God willing, and ourselves (also) willing to pay the price. As such it has nothing intrinsically to do with “working through and beyond modernity.” It is intrinsically a-historical, though always (of course) vehicled by historically-conditioned groups and institutions. It invites us to accept religion in its essence, and to do what religion has always allowed and required human beings to do: to transcend ourselves, to die as limited, ego-bound creatures and be reborn—or re-envisioned—as directly dependent upon, and as dimensionally-limited creations or reflections of, God Himself, in this very moment. If Tradition (in Guénon’s sense) were in any sense evolutionary, if humanity’s ability to understand the essence of spiritual Truth were capable of a fundamental progressive development (whether or not seen as based on the success of “further research”), then earlier stages of its development could really be left behind, and any desire to return to them legitimately be characterized as nostalgic, reactionary or atavistic. But since eternal Truth cannot be left behind, such characterizations are out of place. God is certainly the “Ancient of Days,” but this in no way renders Him passé. The One who says “I am Jehovah: I have not changed” can also say, without contradiction, “Behold, I make all things new.” When the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said “before He created the universe, God was alone, without a partner,” and Hazrat ’Ali replied “and He is even now as He was,” this in no way contradicted the words of the Holy Qur’an: “every day He is embarked upon some new work.” His Oneness, His Aloneness, His Changelessness are in fact the guarantee of His eternal Newness and Freshness; only the Changeless can impregnate each passing moment with its particular and eternal character without being swept away into the dust heap of things dead, gone and moribund. And insofar as Traditionalist doctrine draws from the eternal well of Revelation and Intellection, it too enshrines a core of Truth that cannot be corrupted by time. As for being reactionary, Traditionalism does indeed “react,” as religion has always done, against the passions, against the system of passion-bound collective egotism known as This World, against all that veils or perverts the image of God within the human soul, all that makes us less than ourselves, while inflating our empty pretensions beyond all bounds. Truth does not change, nor do the fundamental passions and intellectual errors of the fallen soul. But the social, cultural and historical renditions of these passions and errors do change, which necessitates a continual updating of religion’s critique of This World and a constant re-presentation, in contemporary terms and in response to contemporary conditions, of the perennial Truth.
Legenhausen characterizes the metaphysics and esoterism of Traditionalist doctrine in the following terms: “Its positive theses about perennial philosophy romanticize the occult aspects of the world’s religious traditions and are backed by unsupported assumptions, tenuous comparisons based on a prejudiced selection of materials, and rather wild speculations.” If so, its speculations are no more wild than those of the Prophet Muhammad, ’Ali ibn Abi-Talib, al-Ghazzali, Ibn al’Arabi, Jalaluddin Rumi, Suharawardi, Mulla Sadra, Moses de Leon, Isaac Luria, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Iamblichus, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximos the Confessor, Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Dante Aligheri, Ramanuja, Shankaracharya, Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, Swami Ram Das, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Confucius, Nagarjuna, Ashvagosha, Milarepa, Dogen—a list which could be almost indefinitely extended. These figures, and hundreds like them, represent the highest, deepest and widest expressions, outside the revealed scriptures themselves, of the intellectual and spiritual heritage of the human race. And Traditionalist doctrine, insofar as it lives up to its name and has not become deviant, draws almost exclusively upon this heritage, as well as upon the word of scripture itself. The deeper doctrines of these sages are not essentially “occult,” (certainly not in the sense of heterodox modern “occultism”), unless we denote by this word that which is effectively hidden from most people, though not from the saints and sages. And there is no saint or sage of any tradition who has not known—either intellectually or existentially—the essence of what Traditionalism teaches, and declares to be necessary for Salvation, Enlightenment, or Liberation. This is not because Traditionalist doctrines represent a kind of meta-religion superceding the revealed traditional paths, but because each of these paths does indeed, from its own unique perspective, touch upon Absolute Truth. And certainly the Bible, the Qur’an, the Upanishads may appear to some to be filled with romanticism and wild speculation, but only those whose minds are essentially closed to the mystical aspects of spiritual truth will see them like this. To reject Traditionalist doctrine (though certainly not to simply criticize it) is to implicitly reject almost the entire spiritual heritage of the human race—in order to put what in its place?
At this point I must address a “perennial” difficulty of discourse on spiritual matters—that of spiritual or intellectual pride. I have clearly implied here that Legenhausen’s mind is closed to the mystical aspect of spiritual truth, though certainly not to its social and moral aspects, while my own mind is not thus closed. Here we encounter the great danger of the open public expression of esoteric truth such as so often takes place in our times, and even seems to be called for by the quality of these times. In earlier days, as well as in many places in today’s world outside the modern West, such expressions might have resulted, and sometimes still do result, in the arrest and even the execution of the one offering them. In today’s West the danger is more subtle, but possibly even more insidiously dangerous on a spiritual level. I am referring to the danger of insolence, of offering unmerited insult to those of sincerity, good character, wide education and solid mental intelligence. Places and times that repaid (or presently repay) the open expression of mystical truth with martyrdom, at least exhibit the virtue of taking spiritual things seriously. Today’s West, on the other hand, is insufferably glib about mystical doctrines, so much so that many self-styled esoterics will often express open scorn for those “mere moralists” without whom this wonderful “open” society that allows them to speak and write without persecution would long since have fallen into total ruin. I sincerely hope that I have avoided this trap. However, I can only speak as I am given to speak, and so the reader must expect that from time to time I will speak on my own authority, on the theory that “because I see, I know”—to which Legenhausen has every right to reply, “I, however, do not see what you see, I see something else. Your ‘seeing’ cannot establish truth for me, nor (for that matter) for anyone else who does not see through your eyes.” If this is indeed his position (I apologize for the audacity of putting these words in his mouth), then I entirely accept it, as I must. Nonetheless, I must also proceed to express myself in the only way I can, and if this results in there being no real point of concrete dialogue between us, since we are speaking on essentially different levels, then I see no way this problem can be avoided. In truth, it never could.
Legenhausen takes his most succinct definition of Traditionalism from Jaroslav Pelikan, to the effect that “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.” In my opinion, however, it would be much more accurate to say that Tradition lives in conversation with Eternity. It is related to the past by virtue of the fact that what is temporally established, since it has in fact already happened, provides a more complete (though still limited) reflection of what is eternally established by God’s timeless and present Act of Creation than the uncertain possibilities of future time. Tradition’s special relationship with the past is not based on nostalgia for a better time so much as on the intrinsic relationship of God as Pure Act with what has already been temporally actualized—not to mention the more obvious fact that all “examples” or “exemplars” of any kind whatsoever must necessarily occupy the past or the present, not the future. On the other hand, Tradition is also a dialogue with the future. The Hebrew word Kabbalah, usually translated as “tradition,” actually denotes an openness and readiness on the part of the “sons” to receive the wisdom of the “fathers.” This wisdom may emanate from Eternity as represented by “the Ancient of Days,” the Always So, but from the point of view of the “sons”—who comprise anyone in need of teaching, open to teaching, and actually in the presence of teaching—it arrives from the direction of their “future”; it is first potency, then act, first a longing for Wisdom, then (God willing) the actuality of Wisdom itself. Only those individuals or groups or cultures who think they can effectively possess the truths of their religious traditions without in fact actualizing them, in the present moment, in the living human soul, are “moribund.” They have left the past in the past. They have not called it forward; they have not called it up; they have not made their own spiritual futures pregnant with it. Yes, there is such a thing as the “dead hand of tradition”; it is the hand of whoever is unwilling to grasp the plough and move forward on the spiritual path, whoever believes that he or she can somehow possess what they have never lifted their hand to take possession of. The metallurgist who leaves the ore in the ground in the belief that he that he thereby holds it in safekeeping has “buried his talent”—or rather, he has never smelted, hammered, cut and stamped it in the first place. That past he assumes is safely dead is in reality a living potential lying hidden in his own future—if he only knew. The ego, however—individual or collective—wants to possess spiritual truth, but it does not want to be changed by what it believes it holds title to. It thinks that it can possess God by identification alone, rather than coming to realize, through death to all it has held itself to be, that it is in fact wholly possessed by Him. In the words of Frithjof Schuon, “Knowledge only saves us on condition that it enlists all that we are, only when it is a way and when it works and transforms and wounds our nature, even as the plough wounds the soil” (Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, pp. 144-145). And the same can certainly be said of morality and religious law. Nor does Traditionalism as I have defined it believe that “nothing should be done for the first time”; rather, it knows that all things that are of God can only be done for the “first time”, for the first time and never again—and also (speaking from a different perspective) always again, just like the first time. This is the principle of all canonical liturgy, like the Muslim salat or the Divine Liturgy of the Christians, which teaches us to recognize passing moments not as temporal sequence alone but also as unique instances of Eternity entering, by God’s will, the temporal order: “Before Abraham came to be, I am.” Their occasions may multiply, their reflections may perennially find their unique and chosen instances, but God’s acts themselves, once spoken in His creative Eternity, remain what they are. They are the essences, the permanent archetypes, the Platonic Ideas. This is indeed the unanimous testimony of Tradition—not “homogenized” as Pelikan would have it, but rather refracting, by means of its multiple and unique facets, both spatial and temporal, the One Light.
Let us now proceed to answer various assertions of Legenhausen point-by point, in his three categories of Pluralism, Modernism and Fundamentalism.
Legenhausen writes2 ...the key ideas of the Traditionalists regarding the unity of religions [are]: (1) that all the major religions have a divine source; (2) that esoterically they are the same but exoterically different; and (3) that traces of the original perennial wisdom are to be found in the religions, are clearly stated by Madame Blavatsky in the introduction to The Secret Doctrine:
The true philosopher, the student of the Esoteric Wisdom, entirely loses sight of personalities, dogmatic beliefs and special religions. Moreover, Esoteric philosophy reconciles all religions, strips everyone of its outward, human garments, and shows the root of each to be identical with that of every other great religion.3
Frithjof Schuon, however, is explicitly opposed to “stripping the religions of their outward, human garments,” which, while recognizing these as limitations, sees them as necessary and providential. And Blavatsky’s “esoteric philosophy” does not reconcile the religions but simply denies them en masse. In The Secret Doctrine she limits to Judaism “phallicism and star-worship,” calls Christ’s cross a penis, asserts that “every ‘sacrifice’ or prayer to God is no better than an act of black magic,” and says, “whatever the allegory [of the separation of the sexes in Genesis] may mean, even its exoteric meaning necessitates a divine Builder of man—a ‘Progenitor.’ Do we then believe in such ‘supernatural’ beings? We say, No. Occultism has never believed in anything, whether animate or inanimate, outside nature.” A more total contradiction than the one between these lurid and materialistic assertions and the doctrines of Guénon, Schuon and the Traditionalist School is simply not imaginable.
The main differences between Blavatsky and the Traditionalists are: (1) she rejects the concept of a personal God found in the monotheistic religions as exoterically interpreted in favour of a more pantheistic view; (2) she considers Christianity to have deviated from the original doctrine, especially after Constantine, and in general, she holds that the forms of religion now found in the world are all to a greater or lesser extent deviations from the original doctrine she claims to have uncovered.
It is true that both Blavatsky and Guénon asserted the reality of a Primordial Religion, but this does not mean that Guénon got it from Blavatsky; even though he might first have heard of it through the Theosophical Society, this in no way indicates that he would have ever have taken the Theosophical Society as his authority for it. In Hinduism, the existence of a Primordial Religion is embraced by the doctrine of the Sanatana Dharma (in Muslim terms, al-din al-fitrah; cf. Q3:3). Both Blavatsky and Guénon drew on traditional sources; the difference between them was that Guénon was largely true to his sources, while Blavatsky perverted them, in almost every case, by taking them out of their traditional contexts.
Guénon came to the conclusion that Madame Blavatsky was a charlatan...[but] this is not the place to evaluate Blavatsky’s credentials...
Perhaps, however, we can cut to the chase on this issue by quoting Blavatsky herself: “What is one to do when, in order to rule men, you must deceive them, when, in order to catch them and make them pursue whatever it may be, it is necessary to promise and show them toys? Suppose my books and The Theosophist were a thousand times more interesting and serious, do you think that I would have anywhere to live and any degree of success unless behind all this there stood ‘phenomena’? I should have achieved absolutely nothing, and would long ago have pegged out from hunger.” [Quoted in The Spiritualists by Ruth Brandon: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983, p. 13]
The...pluralism advocated by Blavatsky and the Traditionalists... depends on a rather questionable reading of the texts of the world’s religions. It requires that one hold that certain similarities in doctrine, especially esoteric doctrine, constitute the core of the religions, and that differences be dismissed as deviations. Blavatsky supported this interpretation with the dubious claim that she had discovered the original secret teachings. The Traditionalists, on the other hand, claim that through intellectual intuition they are able to discern the common essence. The method used is implausible. It is assumed at the outset that the religions have a common esoteric essence, and the texts are interpreted so as to accord with this principle. This is question begging.
Here Legenhausen seems to forget that he has already attributed the kind of “pluralism” which sees all religious divergences as “corruptions” to Blavatsky, not to Guénon and the Traditionalists. Blavatsky did not so much advocate pluralism as devalue, and often slanderously attack, the revealed religions in the name of a universal esoterism that could be practiced as a religion in itself. This putative universal esoteric religion ultimately took the form of an “esoteric Buddhism” which was neither truly esoteric nor traditionally Buddhist, and to which various occult and spiritualistic practices and beliefs adhered. And Traditionalism does not “dismiss” differences as “deviations,” but sees in them providential variations of a common primordial tradition, designed to make saving truth available to those living in different cultures and historical periods, as well as to different spiritual “types.” And for those in whom Intellection is a working faculty, the Truth apprehended by “the eye of the Heart” is not derived from a synoptic reading of the mystical and scriptural texts of the various religions, based on an assumption of their common essence, but is seen directly; it is this intellective vision, in fact, which makes the synoptic reading of such texts both possible and valid. The faculty of Intellection may be nurtured by scripture and tradition—its development entirely outside such a context is in fact extremely rare, and in any case would lack any language in which to express itself—but such Intellection in turn is the seal and proof of scripture and tradition, just as the actual experiment is the proof of a given scientific theory. The idea that religions have a common esoteric essence is not assumed; it is perceived. And essential to such perception is the intuition of the Absolute. If the various religions, all of whom in their unique spiritual dialects posit an Absolute, were not in fact talking about an actual Reality—necessarily One, since a plurality of absolutes is absurd—they would be worse than useless, mere caricatures of the truth like the atheists assume they are, various brands and grades of “the opium of the people.” If religion has any validity at all, it must refer to an actual transcendent Reality. And if more than one revealed religion is valid, as the doctrine of the Transcendent Unity of Religions declares, then all valid religions must ultimately be referring to the same Truth. The alternatives are either a radical exclusivism of one tradition which damns all others, or a devaluating relativization of all the religions, reducing them to self-referential belief systems with no Objective Referent at all—in other words, no God.
...according to Traditionalism [the criterion for religious truth] is something to be abstracted by intellectual intuition through a comparative interpretation of the world’s esoteric religious teachings.
Intellectual intuition does not abstract; it sees. And what it sees is not a lowest theological common denominator based on an academic comparison of doctrines from different traditions, but rather the Unity of God—Allah according to His name al-Ahad. From the standpoint of this Unity, the similarities in religious doctrines—particularly metaphysical or mystical doctrines—as they appear in the different religious traditions are understood as signs of God’s Unity, just as the irreducible doctrinal differences between the various traditions are recognized as signs of God’s Transcendence of all the forms through which He manifests, of Allah according to His names al-Malik (the Sovereign), al-Quddus (the Holy), and al-Ali (the Highest).
Pluralists are forced to claim that [contradictions between religious doctrines] are either due to corruptions in the religious traditions, or...to inessential factors, such as culture. This sort of claim is not supported by an examination of the texts...
Again, the Traditionalists claim that apparent contradictions between the religions are providential and necessary; while relative, they are certainly not inessential, since the Absolute Truth must of necessity express itself in terms of a plurality of relative forms. No given possibility is absolutely necessary, but the existence of a realm or level of possibility and relativity is necessary. The following quotations from Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt and René Guénon, encapsulate the Traditionalist doctrine of the providential necessity of a plurality of religious forms, and of the spiritual necessity of adherence to one of these forms, given that the religio perennis is not and cannot be a form in itself:
What in reality one has to understand, is that the undeniable presence of the transcendent truth, of the sacred and supernatural in, religions other than that of our birth, ought to lead us, not in the least to doubt the Absolute character proper to our religion, but simply to acknowledge the inherence of the Absolute in other doctrinal and sacramental symbols which manifest It by definition, but which also by definition—since they belong to the formal order—are relative and limited, despite their quality of uniqueness. The latter quality is necessary, as we have said, inasmuch as it testifies to the Absolute, but it is merely indicative from the point of view of the Absolute in itself, which manifests itself necessarily by uniqueness, yet just as necessarily—by virtue of Its Infinitude—by the diversity of forms...A given religion in reality sums up all religions...all religion is to be found in a given religion, because Truth is one.
[Frithjof Schuon, From the Divine to the Human, pp.137-138, from the chapter “To Refuse or to Accept Revelation”; italics mine]<
Every religion by definition wants to be the best, and “must want” to be the best, as a whole and also as regards its constitutive elements; this is only natural, so to speak, or rather “supernaturally natural” ...religious oppositions cannot but be, not only because forms exclude one another...but because, in the case of religions, each form vehicles an element of absoluteness that constitutes the justification for its existence; now the absolute does not tolerate otherness nor, with all the more reason, plurality...To say form is to say exclusion of possibilities, whence the necessity for those excluded to become realized in other forms...
[Frithjof Schuon, from Christianity/Islam: Essays in Esoteric Ecumenism, p. 151]
There is no spiritual path outside the following traditions or religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism; but Hinduism is closed for those who have not been born into a Hindu caste, and Taoism is inaccessible.
[Titus Burckhardt, Mirror of the Intellect, p. 251, from the chapter “A Letter on Spiritual Method”]
...adherence to an exoterism is a preliminary condition for coming to esoterism and furthermore one must not believe that this exoterism can be rejected once initiation has been obtained, any more than the foundation can be removed once the building has been constructed.
[René Guénon, Initiation and Spiritual Realization, Sophia Perennis 2001, p. 43, from the chapter “The Necessity of Traditional Exoterism”]
...there are theological grounds within Islamic teachings to reject the religious pluralism of the Traditionalists. The problem is not merely that Islam forbids idol worship, while idol worship is intrinsic to the non-monotheistic traditions. The problem is where the criterion for religious truth is to be found. According to Islam that criterion is given in God’s final revelation to man...
This assertion is based on a failure to discern the difference in level between an idol and a sacred image. And, given the place of sacred icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it is just as incorrect to associate “idol worship” strictly with the non-monotheistic traditions as it is to call the veneration of sacred images “idol worship”. Icons are not idols, any more than are the sacred images employed in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. An idol, in the strict religious sense, is an image, statue or fetish, which is literally believed to be a god: a source of Divine power, not merely a channel for it. To worship such an image as literally divine would be the equivalent of worshipping the Qur’an as a separate goddess, or doing the same with the Ark of the Covenant. The Prophet Muhammad himself, peace and blessings be upon him, recognized the sacrosanct quality of sacred images when he protected the icon of the Virgin and Child on the inner wall of the Kaaba from being destroyed along with the pagan idols that had collected there over the generations. The prohibition of sacred imagery in Islam, especially in terms of pictorial representations of Allah or the Prophet—though certainly not in terms of architectural design and calligraphy—cannot be used to call into question the validity of sacred imagery in non-Islamic contexts. The Prophet also expressed great respect for Christian monasticism, while making it clear that there was to be no monasticism in Islam; in other words, he recognized that particular supports for the spiritual life may be valid and effective in certain traditional contexts but not in others.
...Islam presents a relatively egalitarian social ideal...[however] Traditionalists such as Martin Lings continue to defend the Hindu caste system as being a part of authentic tradition [as a manifestation of the hierarchical nature of being], rather than condemning it on the basis of Islamic teachings...Traditionalists base their evaluations on the conceit that they can view all of the religions from some higher transcendent perspective.
But the Holy Qur’an itself views the religions known to the Arabs in the Prophet’s time from this “higher transcendent perspective,” in its doctrine that all “people of the book” possess true and divine revelations, however much some nominal believers in these revelations may have fallen away from them. In the words of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, “I make no distinction between the prophets.” Islam is not a sect. Though in its outer form it necessarily possesses forms peculiar to itself, laws and practices designed to recall believers to sanctity, and designed to meet the specific spiritual needs of the people to which it is addressed, in its essence it is a return to al-din al-fitrah, the primordial religion of the human race. In the words of the Qur’an (3:3): He hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture with truth, confirming that which was (revealed) before it, even as He revealed the Torah and the Gospel.
The Traditionalists would certainly accept egalitarianism in Islam insofar as it is an essential element, but they would not ignore the fact that such egalitarianism has not been the rule in historical Islam, only the ideal—not to mention the fact that traditional Islamic egalitarianism is fundamentally different from the revolutionary egalitarianisms, bourgeois and proletarian, of the West. The doctrine of the perfect Imam within Shi’ism, the pre-eminence (though not political entitlement) of the Seyyeds, the Caliphs of Baghdad who were dynastic kings in all but name, show an egalitarianism greatly curtailed by the realities of history. History, too, however, is an expression of God’s will and providence, as well as of the inevitable sufferings and shortcomings of earthly life, insofar as the universe is not God.
Intellectual intuition, even if accepted as a valid way of obtaining knowledge, does not support esoteric pluralism.
Why not? Intellection is not simply the realization of the Formless Absolute, or of Allah in terms of the Names of the Essence alone, but also of the metaphysical necessity, in light of the One, of possibility and multiplicity—what Frithjof Schuon calls maya-in-divinis.
Esoteric differences among the religious differences are proportionate to their exoteric differences. Common features among religious traditions may be found by abstracting and generalizing from their exoteric features no less than from their esoteric features.
This is not correct. The esoteric aspects of the world’s religions are much closer to true unanimity than their exoteric aspects, though never strictly identical. For example, the prophetic hadith “he who knows himself knows his Lord” is closely analogous to Meister Eckhart’s “my truest ‘I’ is God” and St. Paul’s “it is not I who live, but Christ lives in me”, as both are to the Vedantic concept of the Indwelling Absolute Witness, the atman. On a more exoteric level, however, the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the only-begotten Son of God is contradicted by the surah At-Tauhid of the Qur’an where it is said of Allah he neither begets not is begotten, and also by the Hindu Puranas, where the major divine incarnations, the avatars of Vishnu, are not one in number but ten.
Pluralism conflicts with Islamic teaching, because Islam presents itself as the final and definitive religion for mankind and not as culture bound, while pluralism sees the differences between Islam and other traditions to be due to cultural accidents.
Islam does not deny the other revelations but confirms them. It declares itself definitive and “quasi-absolute” only insofar as in denies the possibility of a newer revelation before the coming of the Hour, and makes itself quasi-absolutely incumbent upon all who follow Muhammad, the last Prophet. Who could possibly say that the shari’ah, after 1400 years of interpretation, carries no cultural conditioning? The only aspect of Islam that is not (now) culture-bound is the essence of al-din: submission to God. And submission to God is possible, and necessary, within every religion; as Jesus prayed in Gethsamane, “not my will but Thine be done.” Even non-theistic Theravada Buddhism, in its practice of vipassana, requires that we witness the ongoing changes of bodily sensations, feelings, mind-set and mind-contents—including all the events of the world, precisely as experienced—with no editorializing or interference. Such practice is strictly equivalent to submission to the Will of God, since whatever happens is in fact God’s Will, given that He is Lord of the worlds. The Transcendent Unity of Religions sees the differences between religions not as mere cultural accidents—not to mention the fact that the cultures initiated or modified by God’s revelations are providential too, consequently there is nothing “mere” about them—but either as providential receptacles “waiting” for God’s revelations, or as subsequent elaborations and echoes of those very revelations.
Traditionalists use tradition and the intellectual intuition of the principles of sophia perennis as their criteria of evaluation instead of the principles of Islam.
This should not surprise us, since one need not be a Muslim to be a Traditionalist—as Legenhausen elsewhere admits—and given that there is nothing essential in the sophia perennis which cannot be found, in its own unique rendition, in the religion of Islam. The question of whether various traditionalist writers speak in the language of “comparative religion,” or Islam, or Christianity (as do Philip Sherrard, James Cutsinger, Rama Coomaraswamy, and, insofar as he may be called, Jean Borella) depends largely upon their intended audience.
Modernization is a fact of life. Traditionalists make some valid points about its failings, but on the whole, people do not have a choice as to whether they would like to live in a traditional or modern way... Consider computerization. Dr. Nasr condemns this as modern and untraditional.4 No doubt there is much about computer use that clashes with Islamic aims and values. To a large extent, however, it is unavoidable. On the other hand, there is much in computer use that serves Islamic aims...
Though I have composed this article on a computer, much faster and more easily than I could have on a typewriter, and though I use the internet almost daily for research purposes, I agree with Nasr (and Legenhausen) about the destructive quality of the medium, which has created, in “cyberspace,” a reality at once less real and more rarified than the natural world, a mode of perception which robs our sense experience of its substance, and consequently of our ability to recognize it as ensemble of “signs” of its Creator. Furthermore, cyberspace by its electronic rarification counterfeits the higher planes of Being, obscuring them more completely than even “industrial” materialism was able to do, and directly opening the door to René Guénon’s “invasion of the infra-psychic.” But I also agree with Legenhausen that modernization, and cyberspace, are facts of life.
To imagine doing without them, outside (perhaps) of a monastic context, is a foolish fantasy; the real need is not to be impressed by them. The electronic media, and modernism as a whole, represent degradations of the entire cosmic environment and insidious violations of the human form—degradations and violations that, however, are predicted in the eschatological lore of every tradition as inescapable conditions of the “latter days”, and which are thus, in the larger sense, entirely lawful according to God’s will: not His will or wish for us, as expressed in the spiritual norms He has laid down for us to follow, but His sovereign right to respond to transgression and imbalance with the rigor of divine Justice. The Holy Qur’an, in the surah The Calamity, speaks of “A day wherein mankind will be as thickly-scattered moths/ And the mountains will become as carded wool”: which is to say that when the human psyche becomes unstable and “flighty”, the world itself loses stability and substance. To engage in degradations which can be avoided is sinful; to accept and use degradations which cannot be avoided is simple realism. And if understood correctly, it may also be an approach to humility.
The critical historical attitude [in religious studies], once established, can never be banished. There can be no restoration of metaphysics to its former authority. This is felt nowhere so keenly as in theology. The error of modernism is to believe that historical study makes metaphysics otiose, merely another item for historical inquiry itself. The error of traditionalism is to hope for a reassertion of metaphysical principles in a victory over historical criticism.
Correct. Metaphysics is certainly not destined to triumph over historical criticism on a collective level, though it may still be able to set up for itself certain cultural refuges. But every human being who, within the sanctuary of his or her own heart, is able to attain true certainty as to the reality of metaphysics, and thus the reality of God as an Absolute and Eternal Reality, transcending history while acting freely within it—and in no way subject to historical influences, as certain heretics within various religions now so foolishly and destructively assert—such a man or woman has a chance for spiritual illumination in this world and Paradise in the next. As for those who sacrilegiously attempt to make Allah, Lord of the Worlds, Owner of the Day of Judgment the abject slave of history, theirs—in the words of the Holy Qur’an—will be a painful doom, the nature of which will be to inherit the precise quality and consequences of their own shrunken and barren conception.
Theology...has been shaped by modern scientific, rational, and historical assumptions. We participate in the age of which we are apart.
Certainly this is true. But it is equally true that insofar as modern scientific, rational and historical assumptions deny God—and it is clear that they largely do—then whatever has fallen under their influence, rather than learning to respond critically and creatively to such influence from its own eternal standpoint, is no longer theology in any sense of the word. Historicism has forgotten eternity; it has not abolished it. Anyone who remembers eternity, therefore, will be free of historicism—not ignorant of it, certainly, but rather fully equipped to understand it, criticize it, respond to it, and possibly even use it. But such a person will never pay court to it, since to take what denies God as one’s “spiritual guide” is purely and simply to deny God Himself, and inherit the tremendous consequences of this denial. God is indeed “above the historical flow of things,” therefore theology, as the study of God, must embrace an a-historical element. Theology is better compared to the science of crystallography than to that of historical criticism; the hardness, translucence and octahedral crystal structure of the diamond are not affected by human history, though they are certainly not beyond the bounds of scientific analysis. As James Joyce said, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” May we all awake from that nightmare, not into some fantasy of an idealized past, but into the concrete knowledge that all is perishing except His face (Q. 28:88).
The challenge for Muslims and Christians is to find a way through the process in which faith is maintained despite the evils of modernization. The hope for Muslim societies is that they may move beyond modernization without suffering all the injuries this has brought in the West, in shá’ Allah.
I could not agree more fully with this statement. And one of the greatest of these evils, perhaps even the root of them, is the eclipse of the metaphysical worldview, as well as its theological expression, by the critical-historical one. The tools and procedures of critical historicism certainly have their place, but to the degree that they have come to dominate theology, they represent no less than the death of religion, the empty shell of which may still retain that name, while being devoid of the substance heretofore indicated by it. Legenhausen makes it clear that nostalgia for an idealized past, reactionary politics, and an unwillingness to understand the nature and inevitability of modernism, are wrongheaded, barren responses to the modern world; in this I fully agree with him. The true function of religion is not to fight modernism blow for blow, but to resist being destroyed by it, so that it may continue to point to a Reality which lies beyond it—in the next world mysteriously present in the Heart of this one—where are gardens beneath which rivers flow. If this vision of the eternity of the Divine order and the eschatological (not historical) inevitability of its triumph is maintained, then at least a remnant from Islam, as well as from the other religions, will find their way beyond the evils of modernism. If this vision is not maintained, if it is betrayed and abandoned, then truly we will be among the losers.
Coomaraswamy and Guénon did not invent dissatisfaction with modernity... Among the voices of dissent may be found Romantic poets, like Blake and Wordsworth, Catholic ultramontanists, philosophers from Nietzsche to Heidegger, and, not surprisingly, Blavatsky and Olcott...For the Catholics, modern woes are due to neglect of the teachings of the Church. For the Romantics, the neglected truth is one that can only be grasped through the heart, or some sort of feeling or experience. For Heidegger, the problems of modern society are the result of a long progressive neglect of the question of being stretching back to antiquity. For Blavatsky, Olcott, Guénon and Coomaraswamy, the problems of modernity arise from neglect of the perennial wisdom found in the esoteric teachings of the great religions...
Certainly the Traditionalists are not alone in condemning modernity, nor is their critique the only valid one. All the “missing” elements in the collective human soul lamented by the above figures are, as it were, fragments of what an integral human being would be. All these critiques are right to a degree; none are exclusively right; and some are much more right than others—which is to say that these various critiques of modernity form a hierarchy. One of the things which distinguishes the Traditionalists from the other groups and individuals mentioned is their “universal eschatology,” perhaps best expressed in Martin Ling’s The Eleventh Hour (Archetype, 2002), or my The System of Antichrist (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Their essentially entropic view of history, intrinsically opposed to progressivism and evolutionism, discerns a common doctrine in the Hindu manvantara or mahayuga, in the cyclical theories of the Greco-Romans, the Lakota and the Hopis, and clear reflections of this doctrine in the apocalyptic eschatologies of the Abrahamic religions. According to the prophetic hadith, “no generation will come upon you that is not followed by a worse”; in the words of the Holy Qur’an, By the declining day, Lo! Mankind is in a state of loss. (Q. 103)
In all of these groups there is a common implausible causal claim, that the neglect of some truths is what causes the problems associated with modernity. As far as I know, none of the members of any of the groups mentioned does anything to substantiate this claim. It is taken to be obvious that since moderns have neglected the Truth and have various social problems, the neglect is the cause of the social problems. Consider the following statement by Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr:
But the opposition of tradition to modernism, which is total and complete as far as principles are concerned, does not derive from the observation of facts and phenomena or the diagnosis of the symptoms of the 1nalady. It is based upon a study of the causes which have brought about the illness. Tradition is opposed to modernism because it considers the premises upon which modernism is based to be wrong and false in principle.5
This is a gross oversimplification. The relation between modern thought and the characteristics of modern societies is a complex one in which social changes influence thought and vice versa. In order to understand the problems of modernity, more observation of facts and phenomena is needed than metaphysics. European modernization took place as European societies became increasingly industrialized. The changes wrought by industrialization led to shifts in political power and authority, and these shifts are reflected in modern political philosophies, including Marxism, liberalism and the various forms of traditionalism, for the reactions against the changes that accompanied industrialization are no less modern than the positivistic euphoria assailed by Guénon and Lings.
Legenhausen is right that Nasr’s statement is oversimplified: in reality, the opposition of tradition to modernism is based on a close observation and analysis of the facts in light of metaphysics. But insofar as modernism denies the existence of God, the validity of religious revelations (including Islam), the existence of levels of Being higher and more inclusive than the material and/or socio-historical, and the reality of Divine Providence, it is indeed diametrically opposed to Traditional values. To the degree that it tolerates these things it is not entirely unfriendly to Tradition, its denial is obviously much more fundamental than its tolerance.
Legenhausen quotes Nasr:
What we call normal civilization is a civilization which is based on principles, in the true sense of the term, and where everything is ordained and hierarchically arranged in conformity with these principles, so that everything there is seen as the application and extension of a doctrine purely intellectual or metaphysical in its essence; this is what we mean also when we speak of a “traditional” civilization.6
...the evils of feudalism are to be excused because feudalism is seen as an institution that was produced by a society dominated by Traditional beliefs and values and in turn the system protected those beliefs and values. The social pressures that made the feudal system intolerable and led to its overthrow are ignored, and the shift is glossed as having been brought about by a neglect of the perennial wisdom on which feudal society was based!
Social evils are inevitable. It is only when the raison d’etre of a given social order becomes implausible to the mass of the people—when the payoff in terms of meaning is no longer felt to be worth the price in terms of suffering—that these evils gradually (and sometimes suddenly) become insupportable. It was the loss of the traditional worldview (a loss which made possible Cervantes’ satirical treatment of chivalry in his Don Quixote) that rendered the undeniable evils of the feudal order ultimately intolerable.
In place of the modernist faith in unlimited progress in which technology and “enlightened” thinking are supposed to lead to a continual improvement in the human condition, Traditionalists posit that modernization is a process of unmitigated decline, explained by Guénon in terms of the grand cycles of Hindu cosmology.
Mitigated decline, I would rather call it. Traditionalist doctrine leaves rooms for periodic “redresses” interrupting the downward course of the cycle; a hadith is often quoted to the effect that “at the head of every hundred years, Allah will send one who will renew the religion.” Each successive historical age represents a more-or-less effective struggle to rise from the pit of the decadence left by the demise of age before it, and to re-establish human life on a new level, one that is spiritually lower than the prime of the preceding age, but certainly higher and better than the chaos that characterized its end. A relatively secular analogy would be High Middle Ages in France, the later decline of the feudal order into absolute monarchy, the decadence of Versailles, the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, and then the relative stability—on an undeniably lower spiritual level than that of the medieval period—ultimately imposed by Napoleon.
While modernists seem blind to the spiritual crisis of modern man, the rape of the environment, the evils of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the weakening of the family, etc., Traditionalists seem blind to the benefits brought by modernization, the vast increase in literacy and availability of education, public health and sanitation, more humane treatment of prisoners and the insane, etc. The benefits of modernization cannot be ignored any more than its failings, even when judged not by the standards of modernity itself, but in accordance with traditional values. It is pointless to attempt any overall evaluation by which to justify the claim that modernity is better than what preceded it or worse. In some respects it is better, and in other respects worse.
It is undoubtedly true that Traditionalists are sometimes blind to, and thus take for granted, the achievements of modernity—one of which is the very democratic “freedom of speech and religion” which allows them to practice their religions and publish their doctrines. An overall evaluation of modernity, however, is only possible if the eternal destiny of the human soul is recognized as the highest value, thus making it possible—though certainly not easy—to judge any society definitively in terms of whether it openly supports, passively tolerates, or actively opposes the recognition and pursuit of this highest value. To the degree that societies are considered only in terms of how well they serve worldly well-being, such definitive judgments cannot be made.
According to Catholic traditionalists, the traditions of the Church are sacred because the Holy Spirit guides the Church through history. This doctrine means that practices and beliefs that have no other justification than that they have been around as long as anyone can remember are given an aura of holiness.
On the contrary, they are justified by their effective theurgic power, which must be based on traditional sacramental forms—or at least forms that have not been so fundamentally altered that they no longer recognize the essential Cause or the intended effect of the sacrament in question—as well as on an unbroken apostolic succession through which the “initiatory” power of the sacrament is transmitted. To take an analogy from genetics, if an individual is adopted rather than begotten in only one generation of a family tree, the entire original genetic heritage is lost. This analogy is imperfect in that it leaves out of the question the operation of that Grace which “bloweth where it listeth,” but it does give a clear picture of one undeniably necessary, though not sufficient, dimension of Tradition—the one called in Sufism the silsilah or chain of transmission.
...both Catholic and Guénonian traditionalists see traditions as sacred because they are in some way manifestations or elaborations of divine revelation. Revelation becomes manifest in tradition. This sort of veneration of tradition results in a very extreme sort of conservatism, one that is open to moral criticism according to the very tenets and values of the traditions the Traditionalist pretends to defend.
Does Legenhausen deny that what we know today as the religion of Islam is in fact a manifestation and elaboration of a specific divine revelation, the Holy Qur’an? And if not, then what is left of Islam as a religion? In places he seems to condemn secularization, but this is secularization, precisely.
Traditionalism is... an ideology in the sense that it: (1) contains a more or less comprehensive theory about the world and the place of man in it; (2) sets out a general program of social and political direction; (3) it foresees itself as surviving through onslaughts against it; (4) it seeks not merely to persuade but to recruit loyal adherents, demanding what is sometimes called commitment; (5) it addresses a wide public but tends to confer some special role of leadership on intellectuals.7
This might or might not be a valid definition of an ideology, but is it not also quite close (with a few possible exceptions) to the general definition of the exoteric or socio-historical aspects of a religion—any religion, including Islam?
As for the political program of Traditionalism, it is perhaps most clearly stated by Dr. Nasr:
In the political domain, the traditional perspective always insists upon realism based upon Islamic norms. In the Sunni world, it accepts the classical caliphate and, in its absence, the other political institutions, such as the sultanate, which developed over the centuries in the light of the teachings of the Shari’ah and the needs of the community. Under no condition, however, does it seek to destroy what remains of traditional Islamic political institutions... As for the Shi’ite world, the traditional perspective continues to insist that final authority belongs to the Twelfth Imam, in whose absence no form of government can be perfect. In both worlds, the traditional perspective remains always aware of the fall of the community from its original perfection, the danger of destroying traditional Islamic institutions and substituting those of modern, Western, origin...8
...Traditionalists...laud governments based on the sovereignty of sultans and so-called caliphs as traditional, while playing down the corruptions and excesses of such governments as imperfections that should be tolerated to prevent the danger that some, Western model of government might come to power. This is reactionary politics at its worst.
If Nasr is indeed proposing the restoration of the caliphate or sultanate, or some other form of “imposed Tradition,” as inseparable from Traditionalism, I cannot follow him in this hope. But I don’t believe this is what he is saying. Insofar as Nasr refers to an attempt to preserve what remains of traditional Islamic political institutions, such an attempt is indeed Traditional, at least insofar as it can be successful without the establishment of reactionary “fundamentalist” governments which may claim this as one of their goals, while in effect destroying what might have remained of such institutions in their truly Traditional form. In the early stages of the Iranian Revolution, certain Sufis, or people sympathetic to Sufism, saw in the Ayatollah Khomeini the possibility of a restoration of a true Traditional culture on the socio-political plane—perhaps influenced by the “Sufi” pretensions of Khomeini himself! Included among these idealists were certain individuals who had been attached, as Nasr was, to the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, which flourished under the patronage of the Shah’s wife, the Shahbanou Farah Pahlavi. The reality, unfortunately, was other than they had expected: the widespread oppression of Sufism in Iran (see Leonard Lewisohn, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, Volume 61, Part 3: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Furthermore, Legenhausen’s characterization of “Traditionalist politics” according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr is directly contradicted by a half-sentence that Legenhausen conveniently deleted from the above quotation, its place now occupied by an ellipsis. The sentence in question actually reads: “Under no condition, however, does [the traditional perspective] destroy what remains of traditional Islamic political institutions, which are controlled by traditional restraints, in the hope of installing another Abu Bakr or ’Umar but meanwhile settling for some form of dictatorship.” [italics mine]. Legenhausen implies that Nasr’s traditionalism, “reactionary politics at its worst,” might even support a modern-day attempt to restore the caliphate; in so doing, he falsely characterizes Nasr’s position and completely inverts his meaning. In reality Nasr criticizes both the foolishly reactionary tendency of fundamentalists to believe that the era of the “rightly-guided caliphs” can be restored at this late date, and their parallel tendency to adopt what is worst in western political organization.
Insofar as monarchical governments, however corrupt, preserve the collective sense of the reality and sovereignty of God—and I am not saying that the caliphate, the Ottoman sultanate, or other forms of monarchism necessarily did this in every case, or if restored would necessarily do so today—they serve Tradition as I understand it. The question, which must be answered on a case-by-case basis, is whether the corruption exhibited by such forms of government, or the secularization and democratization, according to the western model, which have often arisen in reaction to this corruption, have cast a deeper shadow on religion in the mind of the masses—a difficult question to answer, since the corruption of ancient regimes and the revolutionary democratization which such corruption has often called up may be seen as aspects or phases of the same cultural and spiritual degeneration. As a Sufi, I can state that no amount of patronage of Sufism can ever erase the crimes of the late Shah of Iran, just as no amount of progressivism and democratization can justify Ataturk’s massacre of Sufis and other traditional Muslims. And I must also point out that the political triumph of Iranian Sufism in the Safavid Dynasty made “Sufi” a dirty word for generations; that major figures of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order in Iran (of which I am a member) supported the constitutionalist movement in the early 20th century; and that the present Shi’ite regime in Iran has been extremely oppressive to Iranian Sufis, even though certain Sufis or Sufi-influenced individuals saw in it, at least in its earlier stages, the triumph of Traditional principles. So from the point of view of my own path, no form of government appears to be either necessarily good for or necessarily destructive to traditional spirituality. The real question is: does a given society as a whole believe in God, and does it embrace elements which support a sense of the sacred and an intuition of higher realities? The two most religious societies in the world, outside the Muslim world, are now India and the United States. Does this mean that, as opposed to the view of most Traditionalists, democracy is necessarily the best form of government when it comes to support for Tradition, and that democracy imposed on an ancient traditional caste system, which is still partly in force, is even better? Not necessarily. It simply means that the factors which most profoundly affect the state of religion and Tradition are not always political in nature. The French Revolution which ultimately established a bourgeois democracy was violently anti-clerical in its early stages, but ultimately came to terms with the churches; the American Revolution established religious freedom; the Russian Revolution made religious piety a social crime, while preserving, by its very oppressiveness, a deep core of Russian Orthodox spirituality. What most deeply undermines religion and Tradition are certain collective attitudes, such as distrust for traditional religious authority, the devaluation of metaphysics, the replacement of religion by psychology, and the reign of scientism—attitudes which were in part unleashed (directly or indirectly) by wars and revolutions, but which pursued future courses that did not necessarily parallel the political histories these wars or revolutions initiated.
The question that remains unanswered by Traditionalists is how to apply such [metaphysical] principles in the present circumstances of modernization. [William w.] Quinn [author of The Only Tradition, SUNY, 1997] suggests, on the basis of his readings of Coomaraswamy and Guénon, that this intellectual elite might serve a function similar to that of the Hindu Brahmans as a priestly caste to reestablish Tradition after the passing away of the modern age.
Theosophist William Quinn’s fantasies of a restored hierarchical, traditional culture ruled by “scientist/metaphysicists” in the latter days of the present cycle is entirely un-traditional, and precisely corresponds to Guénon’s description, in The Reign of Quantity, of a regime of “counter initiation” in the end times, characterized by “inverted hierarchy” and identified with the rule of antichrist. [See Charles Upton, The System of Antichrist: Sophia Perennis 2001, Chapter 8: “Vigilance at the Eleventh Hour: A Refutation of The Only Tradition”.] According to Traditionalist doctrine as I have known it, metaphysical principles cannot be collectively applied, at least to any great degree, in these latter days.
Legenhausen summarizes, in eight points, his disagreements with Traditionalism’s critique of modernity:
First, there is the dubious idea that explicit or implicit belief in various principles causes a society to have the characteristics it exhibits, so that the ills of modernity are simplistically attributed to deviations in beliefs.
Certainly the most basic conceptions held by a given society largely determine its character, since they control both what is believed to be possible and what is considered as desirable. No doubt there is a two-way influence in any society of belief upon conditions and conditions on belief, as well as a type of belief or ideology which, as Marx showed, is merely a “mystification” of, or “superstructure” built upon, the foundation of material conditions. But in a deeper sense, the material conditions and inherent beliefs of a given society are united in a single ethos, and the emergence of such ethoi is a function of God’s will operating in conditions. In the words of the Qur’an (41:53), We shall show them Our signs on the horizons—in conditions—and in themselves—their conceptions—until it is clear to them that it is the Truth. Suffices it not as to thy Lord, that He is Witness over everything?—over both conditions and conceptions? For example, according to Frithjof Schuon, it was Julius Caesar who created the socio-political framework that was destined to receive the Christian revelation, just as Alexander the Great established the culture-area destined to be occupied by Islam. God willed to prepare historical vessels capable of receive the immense, civilization-creating “conceptions” which were the great revealed religions. Both were needed for the traditional civilizations in question to emerge; nonetheless, the vessels remained a passive material ready to be shaped by the life-giving form of God’s revealed Word.
Second, Traditionalists contrast the evils of modernity with a romanticized picture of traditional societies.
Poisoned and jaded by modernism, by the endless wars and barbarisms and vulgarities of modern history, we no longer believe that any societies ever were romantic, that to first see the gleaming walls of the Potala after a long Himalayan trek could ever have been a truly visionary experience, only a cheaply “romanticized” one. (And if not Lhasa, what about Jerusalem? And if not Jerusalem, what about Mecca? Or Samarkand?) To deny the real abuses of traditional societies is dishonest; to deny the possibility of a romantic society, of a society which is felt to be romantic by its own citizens, is unrealistic, and historically quite ignorant. In Schuon’s words, from Understanding Islam, p. 37, “‘romantic’ worlds are precisely those in which God is still probable”—and if we do not see the value of a cultural environment which makes it easier to believe in God, even though we may realize that such environments are now largely a thing of the past, how can we say that we take God seriously?
Third, the Traditionalist analysis of pre-modern societies fails to do justice to the essential differences among them because it is motivated by the a priori assumption that they are all based on shared principles.
Traditionalism, at least as Schuon presents it, does not deny the differences between traditional societies, and has much to say about them (cf. his Light on the Ancient Worlds)—it simply does not concentrate upon them as of the first importance, since its goal is to establish the equally true and spiritually much more effective understanding that there really is a “unanimous tradition” underlying them, which a metaphysically informed reading of traditional texts and appreciation of traditional arts will readily discern.
Fourth, Traditionalists view modernization as unmitigated decline because they take adherence to Tradition as their evaluative standard rather than the standards inherent to the traditions themselves. This criticism may be presented as a logical one, revealing a contradiction inherent in the Traditionalist position, or as a theological criticism, that Traditionalism exalts Tradition in a manner not sanctioned by Islamic teachings.
But according to Islamic teachings (from the prophetic ahadith),”No generation will come upon you that is not followed by a worse”, and “the Hour will not come until men dress in women’s clothes and buildings are built that reach to heaven. “And many of the later surahs of the Holy Qur’an also speak of the inevitable decline of the latter days: By the declining day, Lo! Mankind is in a state of loss. (Q. 103)
Fifth, the Traditionalist critique of modernity is based on intuitions about the deviant principles that dominate modern society rather than on historical analysis.
Is an understanding that the essential, determining worldviews of various societies change over time, and that these changes travel in a particular, dominant “direction”, not a part of historical analysis? Why not? This is the essence of the Traditionalist critique of modernity; it may not represent the same conclusions Legenhausen has reached, nor the methods he employs, but it is certainly historical analysis and nothing else.
Sixth, deviation from Tradition is condemned without regard to any evaluation of whether change could be merited, because change is seen as opposition to the sacred as it has become manifest in tradition. While it presents itself as inheritor of the sapiential legacy of the traditional cultures of the world, in fact it impedes the exercise of wisdom to critically examine the conditions of what are considered to be authentic traditional societies.
This may be true to a certain extent, but only to insofar as Tradition is identified with social forms rather than metaphysical principles—with the relative historical expression of Absolute Truth, that is, rather than Absolute Truth itself. Furthermore, it is more to the point to critically examine the conditions of modern societies in terms of the barriers they erect against a collective sense of the reality of God, as well as the unique spiritual opportunities they may offer in spite of this. And far from seeing all change as opposition to the sacred, Martin Lings (for one) names three modern developments which provide spiritual opportunities unique to our time, these being encyclopedic knowledge; an “infused” detachment, based on “the sight of one’s world in chaotic ruins,” such as in earlier ages could only be attained by fierce asceticism; and the wisdom of old age—the old age of the cycle—resulting in a spiritual transparency, akin (in some ways) to an eternal youth.
Seventh, while Traditionalists condemn ideology as a modern phenomenon, what they offer is itself an ideology.
I disagree. They offer metaphysical doctrine, not ideology. Metaphysical doctrine exists to support contemplation and provide an intellectual context for the spiritual path; the criterion of value it applies to statements is the truth of those statements. Ideology, on the other hand, subordinates truth to worldly utilitarianism and the ability to motivate groups to act in certain ways. It is true that religious law also exists to motivate groups to act in certain ways, but with a view to the salvation of their souls, and to the creation and maintenance of a religiously-based society only as a way of furthering this primary goal. Religious law and even metaphysics are capable of falling from the level of moral and intellectual doctrine (respectively) to the level of ideology, but this is only a perversion of their original intent, as today’s religious terrorists have made abundantly clear.
Eighth, Traditionalism is politically reactionary.
Traditionalism as I have known it, though it is always in danger of descending into the kind of concretization and literalism reactionary politics represent, and tends to be generally conservative, is essentially a-political. It is not a political ideology, reactionary or otherwise. And in point of fact, to advocate a return to earlier forms of political organization of the kind that were in force when societies were organized on more Traditional principles—or at least to view such a return as intrinsic to Tradition and under all circumstances unambiguously in service to it—is not in fact Traditional; I must agree with Legenhausen on both the undesirability and the impossibility, in many cases, of such a development. Plato, in his Republic, analyzed the inevitable descent of the cycle of manifestation in political terms. Rule by the aristocrats would give way to rule by the timocrats, followed by that of the oligarchs or plutocrats, and then by the democrats, after which the cycle would end in tyranny. Transposed into Hindu terms (which is legitimate up to a point, since the Platonic doctrines are in fact a kind of western outpost of the great Indo-European lore-hoard), this would indicate that rule by the brahmin caste (as in archaic hieratic civilizations) would be succeeded by rule by the kshatriyas (feudalism, perhaps), then the vaishyas (the bourgeoisie), then the sudras (the working class), and finally the pariahs (possibly the lumpen proletariat—a development perhaps heralded in the United States by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura). Be that as it may, the fact remains that the descent of political organization from forms open to the transcendent Intellect to forms largely closed to it—in other words, the descent from order into chaos, or in Guénonian terms (from The Reign of Quantity) the from the Essential to the Substantial pole, is an entirely traditional doctrine. The attempt to retain a higher form when descent into a lower form threatens is understandable and justifiable up to a point; a higher social good—and there is no higher social good than a collective orientation to the Divine—should not be given up when there is any possibility that it might be retained. But when this possibility is exhausted, then the attempt to retain it will inevitably transform it into a negative caricature of itself, the self-contradiction and corruption of which will only hasten its end. In one of the great ironies of history, Plato himself tried to establish his Republic ruled by contemplative intellectuals—one of whose qualifications was to be their lack of political ambition—through seeking patronage from a political strong-man, the Tyrant of Syracuse, who (predictably) simply held him for ransom until his friends bailed him out. A similar story is told by Chuang Tzu of a failed attempt by Confucius to educate and reform the warlord Robber Chih. Traditionalist doctrine (as for example, that of Martin Lings in The Eleventh Hour) accepts that we are now living at the tail end of the Kali Yuga—thus to expect a worldly restoration of Traditional culture at this late date flies directly in the face of Traditional doctrines (as, for example, the Hindu doctrine that “one of the signs of the Kali-Yuga is the appearance of enlightened saints in the lower castes”), and may be one of the factors which will bring about the final counterfeit of true spirituality, the reign of al-dajjal or antichrist.
The life of Abraham, the history of Judaism through Exodus, and to a degree the early history of Islam, all have to do with God’s actions, by means of His prophets, to liberate His people from the oppressiveness of archaic hieratic civilizations that had fallen into decay. By God’s command, Abraham emigrated from Chaldean Ur; Joseph was imprisoned in Egypt (though he ultimately rose to a high position); Moses freed the Hebrews from Egyptian domination; Muhammad initiated a revelation which empowered the Arabs to conquer much of the known world, including what were, at least to some degree, the last echoes of the ancient hieratic civilizations of the Near and Middle East, in the form of the Byzantine and Persian empires. When the Muslims entered Persia as conquerors, they declared: “We have come to teach you to worship God rather than other men.”
In earlier world-ages, when the human collectivity was more permeable to the light of God than it is today, hieratic civilizations, such as the system of the Hindu varnas, undoubtedly worked to present the collective in question with an effective image of ontological hierarchy in the guise of social hierarchy. The god-king was the visible image of God, the priestly caste the outer manifestation of the angelic orders, etc. (In order to understand how this could be, let the reader try to conceive of what the life of a faithful Buddhist must have been like in the last surviving hieratic civilization, that of Lamaist Tibet.) But in the Kali-Yuga—and everything we know as history today, we must remember, is embraced by this Yuga—hieratic civilizations tend to become transformed from hierophanies into idols. If Egypt had not retained some of its sacred character, the prophet and patriarch Joseph could never have been a high official in the government of the Pharaoh. But if it had not essentially lost this character later on, becoming transformed from an earthly expression of the celestial order into an idolatrous counterfeit of it, God would never have raised up Moses.
So the question arises: What is the function of the Traditionalist appreciation for ancient spiritual civilizations, or medieval ones, given that such civilizations cannot and should not be resurrected? Can this be anything more than a useless, paralyzing nostalgia? The answer is: that whatever spiritual potentials can no longer be realized externally, in the zahir, thereby becomes transformed into esoteric truths which can now be realized internally, in the batin. Take, for example, the traditional caste structure, of which India presents the most complete and intact image, though this too is fast decaying. According to traditional Hindu doctrine (I have Rama Coomaraswamy to thank for this piece of information), the role or dharma of the warrior caste, the kshatriyas, was to protect the brahmins, the priestly caste, thus freeing them to fulfill their ritual and contemplative duties for the good of the entire collective. Guénon, in Traditional Forms and Cosmic Cycles (Sophia Perennis, 2003) saw in the Old Testament figure of Nimrod, who built the Tower of Babel, the story of an ancient revolt of the kshatriyas against the Brahmins. But when the priests no longer in fact rule society, this role having been taken over by the warriors, what is the value in exalting the idea of a hieratic (”priest-ruled”) civilization? The value, again, is esoteric, given that the traditional exaltation of the brahmins over the kshatriyas is the outer image of an inner spiritual truth, an eternal truth, occupying the plane of esoteric anthropology: the exaltation of the Intellect over the will in the human soul. The direct perception of spiritual Truth, not the will, is the crown and center of the human form. If the will serves the Intellect, it will order the life of the soul—and insofar as is possible, the outer life of the man—so as to protect the Intellectual center, both from disturbing social influences and from the possibility of rebelliousness on the part of the will itself. In such a condition the human form is correctly hierarchialized or edified (”built up,” in the sense that the human soul is the temple of the Spirit); the several faculties of the soul all occupy their proper places; consequently the individual in question is an “upright man” (in Hebrew, a tzaddik). But if the will rebels against the Intellect and attempts to occupy its place, the result is a luciferian fall, a loss of the full stature of the human form, and consequently the degeneration of the entire cosmic (environment, of which the human form, esoterically speaking, is the Seed and the Center; in the words of the Holy Qur’an (33:72), We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man assumed it. Power can only act meaningfully in service to knowledge; if it attempts to serve itself, it loses its entire use and rationale, and becomes a “mad dog.” So here, in terms of the hierarchical relationship between the Intellect and the will, we can see precisely how the truths once socially manifest in earlier ages can now become esoterically realized. This is the whole reason for the appreciation of earlier more traditional cultures, and the precise method to be followed in protecting and saving their spiritual essence. To believe that such cultures can be resurrected in the zahir is indeed either barren nostalgia or dangerous reaction, as Legenhausen has pointed out; to realize them in the batin, however, is the furthest thing from nostalgia. Rather, it is a way of nurturing and developing the soul by feeding it on spiritual qualities that were once expressed in social forms, but are now on a journey back to their eternal archetypes—their passage through human souls receptive to them being an essential stage of that journey. This is emphatically not to say that dead religions, such as that of Egypt, can be revived so as to function as viable spiritual paths in the present day. As René Guénon made crystal clear (whether or not he actually failed to apply his own principles in this regard when it came to his interest in Freemasonry), the spiritual Path requires an unbroken silsilah or chain-of-spiritual-transmission, stretching from one’s present spiritual Master to the original Founder of the tradition in question, while any attempt to resurrect older traditions in the absence of such unbroken transmission is to potentially call up those dangerous “psychic residues” that haunt the tombs of religions dead and gone. (Schuon would apply Guénon’s criteria to the priestly and sacramental order within traditional Christianity as a whole, not simply to whatever esoteric orders may have once existed within it, the equivalent of the Sufi silsilah in this case being the “apostolic succession”.)
In terms of Islam, when the time of the four rightly-guided caliphs had passed, the institution of the Sufi shaykh or murshid grew up, to provide the Islamic collective with the kind of visible image of the Divine and the celestial order (though in an appropriately inner sense, not in any outer or literal sense) which the caliphs could no longer provide. The same function was fulfilled in Shi’ism by the Twelve Imams. But when the Twelfth Imam was occulted, he then could be realized only esoterically, only in the batin; the same holds true for the Sufi disciple whose veneration for his Master, via “projection,” has led on to the direct and stable intuition of God, into Whom all projections are ultimately withdrawn: la illaha ila ’Llah.
Perhaps our best example of this spiritual internalization of social forms appears in the life of one of the greatest Christian esoterics, Dante Alighieri. The first part of his life was consumed by political action. As a “white” Guelph, his goal was the establishment of a Holy Roman Emperor strong enough to allow the Pope to fulfill his spiritual function without being forced to meddle in politics, but respectful enough of the Pope’s spiritual prerogatives not to trespass upon them. In other words, he was working to restore the European equivalents of the kshatriya caste and the brahmin caste to their correct and traditional hierarchical order. He utterly failed in this, was exiled from Florence—and then wrote The Divine Comedy, in which all things were restored to their proper hierarchical order in the batin, the inner world, first in the on the Intermediary or Imaginal plane, the plane best rendered by mythopoeia, and lastly in the Unseen, where the spiritual path so magnificently laid out by Dante reaches its final End. Who among us wishes that he had stayed in politics and “won,” rather than composing his magnum opus? Whatever he might have won would not have lasted, but the Commedia is for all time, and for eternity as well.
...Traditionalists might well be considered fundamentalists, according to the way Western journalists and too many academics use this term.
I disagree. Any school of thought that maintains that each of the world religions possesses all that is required for salvation (in the individual order) and Liberation (in the transpersonal one) can in no way be called “fundamentalist”—however imperfect this term may be—since such fundamentalism is inseparable from an inflexible religious exclusivism; most academicians and journalists ought to be able to understand and accept this as fairly obvious.
...traditionalism is paraded as a more total rejection of modernity than that found in other Islamic groups. Fundamentalist governments are condemned for pursuing Western science and technology.
The problem is not science, but scientism—which, as Traditionalist writer and scientist Wolfgang Smith points out, is in effect inseparable from science as it is actually practiced under modernity—or as I would say, separable only for those whose intellectual attainments or deep piety reveal to them scientism’s falsity. Traditionalists must and do accept, and use, modern technology; what they reject are the mystifying ideologies, the foolish and dangerous idealisms that surround it.
Dr. Nasr continues to distinguish traditionalism from fundamentalism in art and politics. In art, everything traditional is supposed to be beautiful, while the fundamentalists are tasteless. In general, those who are involved in what are called fundamentalist movements in Islam tend to be from the lowest strata of society, while traditionalists tend to be a very small group of highly educated people, some of whom, from Coomaraswamy to Dr. Nasr, have made important contributions to art criticism and aesthetics. The difference in attitudes toward the arts seems to have much more to do with education than ideology. ...the main differences Dr. Nasr elaborates between fundamentalism and traditionalism is that traditionalism is more absolute in its rejection of everything modern and Western. On this account, fundamentalism seems to be downright moderate! ...he repeatedly emphasizes is that fundamentalism is crude and rude, but this seems to reveal more about social background than any defining difference in the essence of Traditionalism.
This argument, as it stands, is not valid, because most highly educated people, in both Muslim nations and the West, are not traditionalists, given that contemporary academia, whether “liberal” or “fundamentalist,” is not traditional. If Traditionalism were indeed a political ideology, then it might be true to say, within an Islamic context at least, that little separates Traditionalism from “fundamentalist” ideology outside the fact that Traditionalism is refined and sophisticated, thus limited to an intellectual elite, while fundamentalism is a “crude and rude” belief-system better suited to the uneducated masses. But since Traditionalism is not an ideology, Legenhausen’s comparison of it to fundamentalist belief, and his characterization of it as even more “radically” anti-modern that of the militant Islamicists, is in no way valid. Traditionalism may see more deeply into the errors of modernism than the Islamic fundamentalists do, but it also recognizes that these errors, while certainly not be complacently accepted, are an inescapable aspect of the tenor of the times, the latter days of the present cycle. Individual Traditionalist figures are, of course, free to pursue their own political ambitions according to their lights, but this in no way allows us to define Traditionalism in socio-political terms. Furthermore, to imply that refinement and sophistication are to be distinguished from “rudeness and crudeness” only by class position or level of education is not accurate. The sort of refinement Legenhausen apparently attributes to Traditionalists, based in an outward sense on an understanding of metaphysics and in an inward one (insha’Allah) on the actual practice of it, has no intrinsic relationship whatever to academic learning. The academies, by and large, no longer teach metaphysics, and there have always been jñanis or arifs in all traditions who, though entirely illiterate, have attained to perfect metaphysical knowledge via Intellection alone. The Prophet Muhammad himself, peace and blessings be upon him, was illiterate, yet there has been no greater sage within Islam than Muhammad. Civilizations based on Divine revelations, in which a traditional ambience remains intact, are capable of producing, if not “sophistication” in the present worldly sense of the term, certainly a high degree of spiritual and cultural refinement in people of all classes, educated or unschooled, literate or illiterate, rich or poor. In traditional societies, the people are the “folk” or the “faithful”; they are not the “masses.” And if the terrorists of al-Qaeda are fundamentalists, then fundamentalists are in no way traditional, being diametrically opposed to Qur’an and ahadith on several major points, notably the prohibition of suicide and the traditional protection extended to women, children and non-combatants in time of war. If such mercy and basic humanity are to be damned with faint praise by being labeled refined and sophisticated rather than crude and rude, then so be it; refinement and sophistication are better than barbarism.
In the political realm, Dr. Nasr criticizes fundamentalists for accepting Western political institutions and ideas, including “revolution, republicanism, ideology and even class struggle in the name of a supposedly pure Islam.”9 Among extremist fundamentalists, it is not difficult to find people who reject all of these Western innovations that Dr. Nasr condemns.
The point is that many fundamentalists accept these things without realizing it. Vocal in their condemnation of the west, they unthinkingly adopt the very attitudes that they claim to reject. It is this unconscious self-contradiction, more than their practically necessary acceptance of modern conditions and technology, which distinguished them from Traditionalists. And are there really extremist fundamentalists who reject revolution?
In another essay, the differences are portrayed by Dr. Nasr in another way. He claims that fundamentalists usually share:
...opposition or indifference to all the inward aspects of Islam and the civilization and culture which it created, aspects such as Sufism, Islamic philosophy, Islamic art, etc. They are all outwardly oriented in the sense that they wish to reconstruct Islamic society through the re-establishment of external legal and social norms rather than by 1neans of the revival of Islam through inner purification or by removing the philosophical and intellectual impediments which have been obstacles on the path of many contemporary Muslims. These movements, therefore, have rarely dealt in detail with the intellectual challenges posed by Western science and philosophy, although this trait is not by any means the same among all of them, some being of a more intellectual nature than others.10
...however... there are [traditional] Muslim groups that have been anti-intellectualist, anti-philosophical and rather outwardly oriented throughout the history of Islamic civilization...[and] revolutionary Muslims who have been philosophers and mystics...
Though there have been revolutionary mystics in the history of Islam, such as Hassan bin Sabah, and plenty of anti-intellectual traditionalists among the exoteric ummah, I certainly accept as valid Nasr’s criteria for distinguishing between fundamentalism and Traditionalism. In an Islamic context, Traditionalism is inseparable from Sufism, though not to be strictly identified with it, while most fundamentalists, particularly the Wahabi fundamentalists who gave rise to al-Qaeda, consider tasawwuf to be intrinsically heterodox.
To summarize: It is true that René Guénon enunciated certain social principles that have been interpreted ideologically. Consequently the Traditionalists, often in spite of themselves, have apparently had a degree of influence on certain reactionary groups and ideologies. But it is clear that by the end of his life Guénon’s sense of the eschatological denouement of the west, and the world as a whole, took him far beyond the ideological realm. And the fate of those who did attempt to formulate political ideologies on the basis of Guénon’s doctrines—the sublimated Fascism of Julius Evola, the state “Fascist Bolshevism” of the Russian “Guénoniste” ideologue Alexander Dugin—have only demonstrated the wisdom of Guénon’s ultimate aloofness from political activism of any kind. In my opinion, the value of Traditionalism does not lie in its supposed ability to formulate viable political ideologies in opposition to modernism, but in its power to strengthen and prepare the world’s wisdom traditions, by means of both a critique of the modern world and a contemporary re-statement of their essential doctrines, to survive in spite of modernism—which, as Legenhausen correctly points out, must be dealt with as a given.
In the words of Charles Pegúy, “everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” Traditionalism is not a political ideology and cannot be transformed into one without losing its essential character, and so arriving at its end. An understanding of traditional doctrines and values may suggest which side to take on a given issue, and certainly any political stance that protects the right of the traditional religions to retain their own beliefs and practices, or allows traditional metaphysical ideas to be freely expressed, is in service to Tradition. But what may in fact be a largely unconscious drift of the whole world toward the politicizing of everything, where what last year was “of course” metaphysical and a-political, this year is “of course” political and ideological, without any clear perception (or at least any clear acknowledgement) that a change has in fact occurred—such a drift must be resisted at all cost if Traditionalism is to survive.
The renewed expression of traditional doctrines by the major writers of the Traditionalist School is not designed to suggest or bolster any sort of political action, but to support and inform the inner life. Traditional doctrines certainly do not forbid certain forms of political activity, but they place such activity in a much wider context than that of individual ambition, or group interest, or the establishment of social justice, or even “saving the world” in worldly terms. The doctrine of karma-yoga from the Bhagavad-Gita is probably the clearest and most complete expression of this wider context, where even dharma, or sacred duty, must give way to moksha, liberation from the realm of becoming through realization of the Absolute.
No matter how worldly Christians may become, still, the sense that “My Kingdom is not of this world” is difficult to entirely lose sight of. Christianity spent its first 300 years in the catacombs, and after Constantine made possible the worldly establishment of the Christian church, a certain sense of self-betrayal haunted the faithful, a feeling which was given concrete expression in the flight of pneumatics and contemplatives to the deserts of Egypt and Syria. The kingdom of these Christian monks was certainly not of that world, the world of imperial Roman power—and in the face of worldly corruption and decay, the option of return to a catacomb church remains a living option for the Christian “remnant.” The case of Islam, however, was very different. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was commanded and empowered by God to fulfill a political as well as a purely spiritual ministry, and the unprecedented speed with which Islam conquered half the known world soon after his death has left Muslims with a sense—sometimes obscure, sometimes ideologically explicit—that Islam cannot properly be itself without some form of dar al-Islam. The formation of a Muslim Empire was a more-or-less direct overflow from the power of the Islamic revelation; this, as opposed to the Christian experience of the catacombs, is the history which inspires and haunts so many Muslims today. Yet Islam also had its pneumatics and ascetic contemplatives who turned their backs on worldly Islam, especially after the days of the first four “rightly-guided” caliphs were past. These were the Sufis, the first generations of whom were fierce ascetics and witnesses against an Islamic worldliness they felt had betrayed the more spiritual content of the Prophet’s teaching and the inner message of the Holy Qur’an. And although early Sufism was not without its hermits, the Sufis never embraced a strictly cloistered form of monasticism, in line with the Prophet’s teachings that “marriage is half the religion” and “there is no monasticism in Islam.” They were always of the greater Muslim community, and to a large extent in it. Nonetheless, in a certain way they remained in “hidden exile.” Instead of removing themselves en masse from the Muslim community, they developed a practice known as “solitude in company”; their spiritual inwardness was such that physical exile was by and large not necessary for the fulfillment of their function.
What if a time were to come when political activity within the Muslim world could no longer be essentially Muslim in character, when the struggle to re-establish a “Muslim” empire, or a number of smaller political entities, could only be carried on by betraying the central principles of the Prophetic traditions and the Holy Qur’an? Would not such a time necessarily call up the idea a Muslim “remnant” analogous to the Jewish or Christian one? And who might function as the “seed” of such a remnant? Who but the Sufis? Certainly the Sufis as a whole have never shirked the call to the “lesser jihad” to protect the Muslim community from invasion and conquest. But what if a time were to come so corrupt, that, at least under certain circumstances, the “greater jihad” remained the only honorable, the only spiritually possible course?
A seed, however, needs a ground in which to grow; a spiritual potential, if it is to take root in this world, needs a tradition within which to operate. Does Islam in fact possess such a tradition? Did Islam ever occupy catacombs of its own? Indeed it did. Before the hijra of the Prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina, their position vis-à-vis the pagan Quraysh who ruled Mecca was in many ways analogous to the situation of the first Christians under the Jewish and Roman authorities. They were an oppressed minority, who were directed by the Prophet and the Qur’an to endure and hold their peace. Later, God sent surahs which commanded the Muslims to actively resist their oppressors, but before these surahs were received, the Muslims were truly in exile. In Mecca they were oppressed and shunned, and in the face of this oppression a party of them left Arabia, crossing the Red Sea and finding protection under the Negus, the ruler of a Christian kingdom on the African coast. It is said that when later surahs of the Qur’an contradict the commands given in earlier ones, the earlier ones are abrogated. Yet the abrogated surahs were never excluded; they remained part of the direct and spoken word of God that came to Muhammad. And while I am certainly not a student if fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), I will hazard a speculation: that any surah or passage of the Qur’an that is abrogated is abrogated by conditions. The commands of God to a small, marginalized Islamic community in Mecca were necessarily different from those addressed to an established Muslim political entity in Medina. God did not “change His mind”; a change in conditions simply placed the Muslims in relation to a different Name of God than had formerly been in force. Any word spoken by God is spoken in eternity; in that world it cannot be abrogated; as an act of Allah it is part of the eternal nature of things. In this world, however, the times—like the times set aside for the daily prayer or the fast in Ramadan—determine which aspects of God’s eternal Word apply to present conditions, which are active and which latent, and which interpretation of a given Qur’anic text should be given precedence in relation to present conditions. So it is possible to imagine (and God knows best) that a time may come when conditions—conditions which are as much an expression of God’s will as the verses of the Qur’an—may dictate that the commands of God to the fledgling Muslim community become active again, at least under certain circumstances. This possibility was in fact foretold by the hadith of Muhammad, quoted by Shaykh Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din (Martin Lings) in his book The Eleventh Hour, “Islam began in exile and will end in exile—blessed are those who are in exile!”
Among the closest of the Prophet’s companions were those known as “the People of the Bench”, whom Charles LeGai Eaton, in his Islam and the Destiny of Man (SUNY/Islamic Texts Society, 1985) characterizes as follows:
...enterprise was encouraged, but there were also those of a more contemplative temperament who had neither the skills nor the inclination to earn their own living, and they—as though to prove that the Muslim does not have to be an ‘activist’—were given an honoured place in the community. A space was found for them to sleep in the covered section of the new mosque and they came to be known as “the People of the Bench.” They were fed with food from the Prophet’s own table, when there was any to spare, and with roasted barley from the community chest; and of all these the most famous was Abu Huraira, which means “Father of the little cat”, who followed Muhammad everywhere—just as his little cat followed him—and to whose prodigious powers of memory we owe a great number of recorded hadiths. Perhaps he might be regarded as the first of those of whom Muhammad was to say: ‘The ink of the scholars is more valuable than the blood of the martyrs.’ (pp. 116-117)
Here, even before the Sufi reaction to the degeneration of Muslim spirituality under the later caliphs, we have the seed of a Muslim “remnant” such as may be called for once again by the deepening corruption of the latter days. Islam will always have a place for vigorous action in the world in response to God’s command, and the right of Muslim nations and communities to defend themselves by force of arms is not only guaranteed by the shari’ah, but universally recognized as a basic human right. But Islam must also retain a clear sense of the need for contemplative withdrawal from the field of action—for those commanded by God to take this course—and of contemplation as more essentially active, in its one-pointed concentration upon the reality of Allah, than the endless series of compromises, excesses and betrayals which make up war and politics. If it loses this sense of the value of inwardness, such as the Prophet exhibited during his retreats on Mt. Hira, and which made up the prelude to the advent of the Holy Qur’an, it will cease to be a religion in the full sense of that word.
And inseparable from the need for at least periodic withdrawal from the activity of the world is the sense of this world’s ephemerality; the temporal aspect of detachment from the world is eschatology. The Prophet himself compared this world to a tree under the shade of which a rider rests for an hour, then rises and departs. And never have conditions more insistently demanded the attainment of an eschatological outlook as an inevitable part of spiritual and material realism. By the declining day, Lo! Mankind is a state of loss. (Q. 103) But as the world draws ever nearer to its end, it seems to project, and more powerfully every day, the temptation to deny this ephemerality, to take shelter under that flimsiest of roofs, material conditions, from the approaching dissolution of matter itself; this may in fact be part of what Jesus meant when he said that in the end times, “they will pray for the mountains to fall and cover them.” In times when the cosmic environment was more stable it was easier to imagine and accept its end, because the light of worlds higher than the material was not so deeply veiled. And it also may be true that the continuous multiplication of means and scenarios for the end of all life on earth is fueling our collective denial by reminding us that the Hour is indeed “too close for comfort.” However, there is another reason why religious people of intelligence and good will tend to shy away from the eschatological dimension of things—that being the exploitation of eschatology by those forces, terrorist or otherwise, Muslim or otherwise, “fundamentalist” or otherwise, who seem to think that the most desirable thing would be to bring about the end of the world by launching Armageddon—as if it were possible to force God’s hand, and as if they somehow believed He might appreciate their attempt to do so! Such people are without any sense of God’s omnipotence, which is inseparable from His sovereign right to exercise it; they are lacking in even the rudiments of normal religious piety. It is Allah who is Owner of the Day of Judgment, not them! Such exploitation of apocalyptic fears works powerfully even on those who oppose it, by making them less willing to admit the true apocalyptic nature of our times, for fear of giving aid and comfort to these apocalyptic mad dogs. Yet simple realism—part of which is to admit the actual existence of the mad dogs in question—will lead any honest believer of any religion to understand and accept that these are indeed the latter days of the present cycle of manifestation, even though hundreds of years (or maybe the twinkling of an eye) may still lie before us. If such realism is denied, detachment from worldliness becomes impossible under present conditions. Everything becomes politicized, and all political initiatives start to take on the character of absolute imperatives. If we do not know God as Lord of the Worlds, we will think that saving or destroying or transforming the world is up to us alone, in our titanic and puny human arrogance; and if we come to believe this, then all is lost. And one of the most potent antidotes to this collective disease, for those able to assimilate it, is the body of writings produced by the Traditionalist School.
I will end this essay by quoting those of Legenhausen’s assertions with which I entirely and heartily agree:
Moderation requires an understanding of the current conditions of Muslim societies today and of the elements shaping them: from global market forces to popular religious beliefs and practices. How our societies are shaped and changed is largely out of our hands. Where we do have an opportunity to effect change or to modify its direction in some way, we need the humility to admit that the results of our interference in social, political and other cultural affairs are often other than we would predict. This, however, should not be cause for timidity, but for submission to Allah in obedience to His commands, knowing that in the ordinance of His prescriptions, He knows better. The violation of the moral precepts given by human conscience and confirmed by divine revelation to His prophets, peace be with Muhammad and his progeny and with all of them, can never be excused as a means to obtain otherwise desirable social or political goals...
The challenge that faces Muslims today, is how to minimize the injuries, how to ride out modernization so that it does not take the same form among Muslims as it has in Christian society, how to preserve the sacred norms and values prescribed for us by Islam in these rapidly changing times. There are no simple solutions, no easy answers. An insistence on fundamental principles is not enough. The problem for Muslims is exactly how the fundamental principles of Islam are to be applied in the situations in which we find ourselves. Compromise is necessary because the traditional institutions and cultural forms are not sufficiently flexible to accommodate the changes with which contemporary Muslim societies are faced. Moreover, there is much in the traditional institutions that is not worth preserving...
Today, we have to find ways to live in accordance with Islam that are appropriate to the exceedingly different circumstances in which we live. Social changes are being driven by rapid changes in technology that give no one time to adjust. This gives modern society an ugly mismatched quality. While certain measures can be taken to try to preserve some sort of proportionality, [social?] integrity becomes more of a utopian ideal than a realistic aim. In this effort, we can only rely on Allah and His aid as we seek to sort through the social, political, cultural and theological problems that face us.
I would only add that Traditionalist doctrine, insofar as it avoids the temptation to transform itself into a political ideology, as well as also the barren, reactionary nostalgia for which Legenhausen faults it, can provide the very “benchmark” by which Muslim societies, and religious societies and institutions the world over, can confront the challenge of modernity without betraying their eternal essence.
1 [Editorial Note] The text of this article, which was apparently published on the Internet in
2002, is available online at http://www.religioscope.com/info/doc/esotrad/legenhausen.htm.
It is prefaced by the following summary: “After presenting some background information
on the historical climate that gave rise to the traditionalism of Guénon, Coomaraswamy
and their followers, I discuss the major tenets of this school of thought and offer some
criticisms. Although I find much in the traditionalist critique of modernism to be insightful,
and the reverence of authentic tradition to be inspiring, in the final analysis, traditionalism
seems to be too reactionary and too nostalgic to offer a workable way to move through
and beyond modernity. Its positive theses about perennial philosophy romanticize the
occult aspects of the world’s religious traditions and are backed by unsupported assumptions,
tenuous comparisons based on a prejudiced selection of materials, and rather wild
speculations. In conclusion, I humbly offer a few suggestions for a more balanced view
of religion and modernity.”
2 The italicized passages that follow in the rest of this article are quotations from the article by Dr. Legenhausen.
3 H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, p. xx, Theosophicla University Press Online Edition.
4 Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 24, fn.8.
5 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred, 84.
6 Guenon, Orient et Occident (Paris: Payot, 1924),236, cited in Quinn, 179.
7 See Maurice Cranston”s article “Ideology” in the Encyclopedia Britannica (CD-ROM 2001
8 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 17
9 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 21
10 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 84.