Secret History


Islamic_Wallpaper_Quran_004-1366x768In 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.

I will need to delve more into Schuon’s personal life to be more confident of this, but based on what is related from his autobiography in Sedgwick’s book, it seems that Schoun was having episodes of temporal lobe epileptic seizures. His visions and view of himself and opinions developed afterwards all correlate with symptoms observed in patients who have these seizures. Clinically speaking, these seizures get more frequent as time passes, which correlates with more visions and more grandiose opinions of oneself that ultimately end up with claiming divine status is some cases as appears to have happened with Schuon who ended up transforming his Maryamiyya order into a universalist cult.
Any attempt to reconcile modern knowledge with the Islamic tradition is automatically labelled a heresy without consideration for its validity or lack thereof.
The influence of Traditionalist thought is evident in the case of the utilitarian use of religion to achieve “realization”, or ma’rifa, by Muslims in the West who label themselves as “traditional” and focus on what are considered “Sufi” practices. The Quran for example is turned from a book of contemplation into a book where passages or chapters are used for the purpose of daily dhikr sessions by individuals or groups. In addition, given how anti-modernist Traditionalism is, its followers are more concerned with preserving the tradition in the face of modernist assaults. This is also seen in how traditional Islam is conceived of by many Muslims in the West to be the blind trust and allegiance to the conclusions given by past scholars. This goes hand in hand with a romanticized notion about how Muslims lived during the “Golden Age” or even during the first 3 centuries after the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Instead of utilizing the same approach to the Quran and Prophetic teachings as early Muslims had, many Muslims in the West have unconsciously adopted the Traditionalist teaching, which itself has been adapted from Hinduism, that we are in the Kali Yuga, i.e., the last stage of the four stages the world goes though. In other words, we are in the lowest point of existence and everything that comes from it is suspect and must be rejected as it is essentially materialist and desacralized. Ironically, Islamic tradition, which is the work of Muslims deriving understandings directly from original sources, is therefore turned into an idol to pay homage to in this corrupt modern world. 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.
Written on the back cover of Against the Modern World is a review by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, author of Black Sun and The Occult Roots of Nazism. In it he says that Sedgwick’s book “compares in importance with Edward Said’s Orientalism.” In my view, Against the Modern World is more important for Muslims to read than Said’s. Orientalism deconstructs the discourse of the West with regards to majority Muslim world, namely by exposing it as more of discourse that is about how the West sees itself from an imperialist lens than it being about understanding the Orient. Against the Modern World shows how instead of meeting its objective to return the West from materialism modernity towards a spiritual base, Traditionalism had an insidious effect on how Muslims in the West view the Islamic tradition, which it was able to pass under the guise of Sufism. It did so by using shared terminology familiar to Muslims, but in essence it is far from the spirit of the teachings in the Quran and Prophetic tradition.
Professor Tariq Ramadan wrote the following explanation for why he was boycotting the annual Reviving the Islamic Conference in Toronto, Canada:
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.
If you want to understand the real implication of this explanation, what type of Sufism is being promoted, the underlying intellectual and theological structure of popular Islam in the West, and where it all come from, read Against the Modern World.