In his book Knowledge and the Sacred, Seyyed Hossein Nasr has a blank page before the preface that only has the following lines written on it:
يا مريم عليك السلام بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Ya Maryam ‘alayki’l-salām
Bismi’Llāh al-rahmān al-rahīm
While the second part was not especially out of the ordinary from a Muslim perspective, as it is the Arabic phrase invoking the name of God, the Merciful, the Beneficent to begin the book, I found the first part of this statement quite puzzling. This, among a number of other issues to do with what I found were peculiar qualities to Islam in the West, was finally resolved after reading Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century by Mark Sedgwick.
In this 2009 work, Sedgwick provides a very enlightening and arduously detailed historical account for the conception and development of Traditionalism in the West, a movement that arose in response to what was considered the imminent collapse of Western civilization due to modernism. Against the Modern World is a biography of René Guénon and a history of Traditionalism. The book is thematically and chronologically arranged to achieve the goal of providing the historical and biographical background in which the pioneering figures of Traditionalism arose. In addition, Sedgwick exposes the political contexts in which some have operated and the consequences that ensued from their work, including failed attempts to “traditionalize” the Nazi party by Rudolf von Sebottendorff (1875-1946) and the Mussolini’s fascist regime by Baron Julius Evola (1896/8-1974).
As I read this book I found myself raising my eyebrows on numerous occasions, more significantly when reading chapter 7 “The Maryamiyya”, chapter 8 “America”, and chapter 10 “Education”. These chapters deal with the founding of the Maryamiyya order by Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s (1933- ) involvement with it and his introduction of a Maryamiyya branch as a representative of Schoun in Iran followed by his accidental contribution to the Iranian Revolution through his teachings, and the influence of several Traditionalists and anti-modernists influenced by Traditionalists such as Prince Charles. Given the content and characters included in this book, the subtitle chosen is very fitting.
Against the Modern World is not meant to be an engaged analysis of the intellectual content of books produced by Traditionalists across the Twentieth century. It is an exposure of the context in which Traditionalist ideas have been formulated, disseminated, and the influence they have exerted on what it means to be traditional. In doing so, those who consider themselves followers of Guénon, Schuon, or Nasr will find this book a very upsetting read, which is reflected in the reviews written on Amazon. The modern world is a materialist world, devoid of transcendent meaning, and dominated by some of the lowest human qualities. Modern science is used to exploit the planet, interfere with the natural order, and kill people in mass. If one ignores the technological gadgets that distract from seeing the big picture, it becomes evident that humanity is in a crisis and on the verge of collapse if this crisis is not addressed at the spiritual level from which it stems. Nietzsche declared the death of God and Guénon was trying to revive Him.
Traditionalism is a Western adaptation of Hinduism that negates claims of Truth by any religion through relativizing all of them. Guénon set the stage for what became Schuon’s framework: Truth is what the individual determines subjectively and any external reference is not appropriate because while they externally contradict each other, this is not a sign of incompatible starting points. So for Traditionalism it is a matter of picking which religion you like, then adhere to the orthodox version of it.
Facing the irreconcilable theologies taught by different religions, Traditionalism becomes an art of intellectually convincing oneself of having found the Truth while in reality being lost going around in a circle playing a game of intellectual gymnastics to accept contradictions as mere illusions. It is interesting how Traditionalists rejected the “cage of religion” even when they did adopt it as in the case of Guénon becoming a devout Muslim. For the pioneers of Traditionalism religion was adopted for utilitarian purposes so one achieves some form of realization of unity with the Divine, or in the case of Schuon believe they have direct connection with the Divine.
Any attempt to reconcile modern knowledge with the Islamic tradition is automatically labelled a heresy without consideration for its validity or lack thereof.
Against the Modern World is more important for Muslims to read than Said’s Orientalism.
The organizers have long demonstrated their effectiveness; they wish to convey the impression of favoring a plurality of voices. But in fact, it is the so-called “Sufi” and “apolitical” trend that lies at the core of the RIS convention. I do not have the slightest problem with this trend (on the contrary), or its underlying structures and aims. The problem is that some of the participants, scholars or preachers, under the guise of Sufism or in the name of avoiding partisan politics, defend highly politicized positions of support for states and dictatorships. Their silence and their inferences in the heart of the West, in Toronto or elsewhere, constitute visible support for the Gulf petro-monarchies or for despots such as al-Sissi in Egypt. This while dictators from Syria to Iraq by way of Egypt are imprisoning, torturing and killing innocents by the thousands. They cast themselves as above the conflict, while the “Sufism” they offer is highly politicized and too well adjusted to the boots of the State. But I will have none of this. When some speakers boast in public of their openness but refuse to participate in panel discussions to avoid being exposed, openness goes by the board. When the same people support dictatorial governments, coherence flies out the window. I cannot, by my presence, lend implicit approval to such positions.