“Traditionalism, the Perennial Philosophy, and Islamic Studies” (review article)

Carl W. Ernst

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Middle East Studies Association Bulletin vol. 28, no. 2 (December 1994), pp. 176-81.


Gai Eaton.  King of the Castle:  Choice and Responsibility in the Modern World.  216 pages.  2nd ed., Cambridge:  The Islamic Texts Society, 1990 [1977].

Martin Lings.  Symbol & Archetype:  A Study of the Meaning of Existence.  viii + 141 pages.  Index.  Cambridge:  Quinta Essentia, 1991.  ISBN 1-870196-04-X, 1-870196-05-8 paperback.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr.  Traditional Islam and the Modern World.  London:  Kegan Paul International, 1990.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed.  Islamic Spirituality:  Manifestations.  World Spirituality, An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest, vol. 20.  xxviii + 548 pages.  Preface to the Series by Ewert Cousins, Introduction, Bibliography, Contributors, Photographic Credits, Index of Names.  New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1991.  ISBN 0-8245-0768-1.


One of the least known aspects of the rejection of Western modernism has taken place on the margins of Europe's encounter with Islam.  Although social scientists working in Middle Eastern studies have safely been able to ignore the Perennial Philosophy and the exponents of Tradition, specialists in religious studies have had more exposure to this unexpectedly post-modern school of thought.  The Journal of the American Academy of Religion has featured articles by exponents of Perennialism,(1) and a Consultation on Esotericism and Perennialism (with its sister organization, the Hermetic Academy) has for several years organized panels of papers at the annual conference of the AAR.  The origins of this philosophy may be sought in the Traditionalist position developed by a number of ultramontane French Catholic thinkers of the nineteenth century, especially Joseph de Maistre (d. 1821), L. de Bonald (d. 1840), and F. R. de Lammenais (d. 1854).  Traditionalism was essentially a philosophy of history opposed to the rationalism of Enlightenment philosophes, and it elevated tradition (particularly the Catholic church) to a position of divine and absolute authority.  So extreme was the opposition of some Traditionalists to modernism that they were excommunicated in 1855 for their rejection of reason.  Yet the traditionalist critique of modernism still held an appeal, and it subsequently was adopted by members of the French occult and esoteric underground at the turn of the century.  Crucial was the notion of tradition, which even for Lammenais had included a primitive or primordial revelation that was not limited to Christianity (this would later reappear as Wilhelm Schmidt's primitive monotheism).  Sacred traditions could be numbered in the plural, and thus all religions were to be regarded as manifestations of a Perennial Philosophy that is one and eternal (the phrase "perennial philosophy" from the Latin work Philosophia Perennis by the Renaissance scholar Augustinus Steuchus, written in 1540, and it was later picked up by Leibniz, but in neither case with as broadly ecumenical implications as in contemporary Traditionalism). 

What is especially relevant for Islamic studies is that, despite their theoretical respect for Catholicism, most of the adherents of the Perennial Philosophy were attracted to Islam, though some were more closely associated with Buddhism (Marco Pallis, A. K. Coomaraswamy) or Taoism (de Pourvourville).  What is the attraction of Traditionalism, and why is it that a majority of Traditionalists find Islam to be the single sacred tradition that fulfills their aspirations?  Disenchantment with the excesses of the European Enlightenment and modernism would seem to be the primary reason.  The nineteenth century spawned a host of ideological offspring that have had devastating effects:  the pseudo-religion of nationalism, the positivistic belief in science, racism and evolutionism as a rationale for unbridled imperialism, the erosion of the public role of religion.  Against these promethean enterprises the Perennialists hold out the more-than-human authority of primordial revelation, divine gnosis adapted providentially to different circumstances in the form of religions, and a devolutionistic view of history that sees modernity as a debased and demonic revolt against reality.  With these premises in mind, one can see how Islam as a sacred tradition would naturally occupy the central position.  The Islamic theological emphasis on unity, the historiographic concept of Islam as final revelation in a sequence of prophetic dispensations, and the oppositional position of Islamic countries as the largest bloc undergoing European colonization, all make Islam a natural standpoint for Traditionalists seeking an authentic affiliation.  Christianity has been too severely battered and corrupted to serve as a refuge (ultra-Catholic Rama Coomaraswamy regards the current papacy as illegitimate because of its abandonment of medieval ritual).  It is not easy to convert to Hinduism, orthodox Judaism, or tribal traditions, and Buddhism may not be a valid option in the West.  That seems to leave Islam.

Traditionalist converts to Islam, some of whom were affiliated with the Alawi-Shadhili Sufi order, included Swedish painter Ivan Aguéli (`Abd al-Hadi, d. 1917), French esotericists Leon Champrenaud (`Abd al-Haqq) and René Guenon (`Abd al-Wahid Yahya, d. 1951 in Cairo), and Guenon's Swiss colleagues Titus Burckhardt and Frithjof Schuon (`Isa Nur al-Din, now in Bloomington, Indiana).  Their translations of Islamic mystical texts (especially from the school of Ibn `Arabi) and a series of books on Islam and religion found a receptive audience.  The French journal Études Traditionnelles, and its English counterpart Tomorrow, later named Studies in Comparative Religion, popularized the views of the school; a representative collection of essays is found in The Sword of Gnosis (1974), edited by Jacob Needleman.  The Traditionalist perspective is now shared principally by a small but influential number of mostly Muslim intellectuals in Europe and America, but increasingly also in other countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia.  The books under review are all written by Muslim authors who are Traditionalists, adherents of the Perennial Philosophy in the sense just explained, though each has a particular emphasis and point of view.

Charles Le Gai Eaton's King of the Castle is a reissue of a work first published in 1977, with a brief new preface commenting on the personal character of the book and its genesis from a youthful work called The Richest Vein (1947).  Its goal is "to proclaim the abnormality of the modern age and to unmask its pretensions" (111).  The title ironically describes the situation of modern man in terms of the children's game of one-upmanship.  In a series of eight essay-like chapters (there is no index), Eaton successively takes up society, economics, philosophical anthropology, and religion.  More willing to comment directly as a political conservative than other Traditionalists, Eaton views totalitarianism (both Nazi and Communist) as the most typical product of anti-traditional modernity, citing Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, and Bruno Bettelheim in support.  An attack on bureaucratic officialdom is justified by a nostalgic evocation of the independence of small businessmen and peasants (here Catholic conservative Gustave Thibon is called in support).  The style is intense, dramatic, and ironic verging on sarcasm whenever modernity is addressed (i.e., most of the time).  Spiritual authorities such as the Qur'an and Rumi are quoted frequently, and many analogies and anecdotes are used as hooks to hang the argument on.  The primary purpose, however, is not to advocate mysticism but to inculcate a doctrine that will strengthen one's resistance to the corrosive forces of modernity; this is an extended sermon, from a universalist Islamic position, championing the lonely role of religion in an evil age.

Martin Lings is well known to Islamicists for his studies of Qur'anic calligraphy, for his biography of the Algerian Sufi shaykh Ahmad al-`Alawi (A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century), and for his biography of the Prophet Muhammad.  Formerly a curator of Oriental manuscripts in the British Museum, he has also written on Shakespeare and other subjects.  This little book is a collection of ten essays on symbolism in various religious traditions.  The first chapter, "What is Symbolism?" uses Qur'anic examples to define symbols as reflections of higher reality in images that reveal the relationship of the microcosm to the macrocosm; knowledge of this relationship, gained through traditional scriptures and rituals, is necessary to overcome the fall from the perfection of primordial man.  Subsequent essays reflect comparatively on the significance of symbols such as the clashing rocks that bar the path to the spiritual world ("The Decisive Boundary"), polarity ("The Symbolism of Pairs"), trinity ("The Symbolism of the Triad of Primary Colours"), the king-pontiff ("The Archetypes of Devotional Homage"), and sacred liturgy ("The Language of the Gods").  More specialized topics are considered in "The Quranic Symbolism of Water", "The Symbolism of the Luminaries in Old Lithuanian Songs," "The Seven Deadly Sins," and "The Symbolism of the Mosque and the Cathedral."  The method of analysis is comparative, following Coomaraswamy in using multiple examples from different religious traditions and reducing them to a single metaphysical meaning.  Lings confidently uses one tradition to explicate another, e.g., Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu elucidate the Christian Trinity, while the Gospel of John describes the character of the Prophet Muhammad.  The book is a good example of a programmatic exegesis of Traditionalist metaphysics as systematized by Schuon.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Traditional Islam and the Modern World is a collection of eighteen essays first published in 1987, defending traditional Islam against both modernism (whether European or Islamic) and its contrary, fundamentalism.  Nasr, who is well known for his many studies of Islamic science, culture, and spirituality, here touches upon a wide array of subjects in an attempt to correct not only the standard distortions of Orientalism, but also the misinterpretations deriving from political journalism, Marxism, and so-called "resurgent Islam." 

The first section, "Facets of the Islamic Tradition," discusses jihad, work ethics, and male-female relations in order to demonstrate the notion of tradition as the all-encompassing revelation of the sacred through both history and nature.  Building explicitly on the Perennial Philosophy according to Guenon and Schuon, these sections tie Tradition to specifically Islamic touchstones:  the terms din and sunnah, the standard hadith collections (both Sunni and Shi`i), Safavid Iran, and Sufism.  At the same time, it may be remarked that the very abstraction of certain neologisms used here (e.g., "Islamicity," "Shari`ite"), and the synthetic transcendence of historical tensions such as that between Sunnis and Shi`is, point toward the recent and retrospective nature of the defense of tradition. 

Part II, "Traditional Islam and Modernism," dwells further on the contrast between the modern anthropomorphic lack of principles and the wholeness and transcendence characteristic of traditional attitudes.  Nasr's criticisms of modernistic traits (especially the political reduction of religion to ideology and ethics) are often astute and revealing.  Part III, "Tradition and Modernism -- Tensions in Various Cultural Domains," builds up the cumulative critique of modernism with seven essays that urgently call upon Muslim intellectuals to take stock of their plight.  The main areas discussed here are education, philosophy, and architecture, in all of which, argues Nasr, Western influence has systematically eroded the original Islamic basis in most Muslim countries. 

Part IV, "Western Interpreters of the Islamic Tradition," delivers warm testimonies to a few European scholars who have transcended Orientalism by their intense personal engagement with Islam.  A Catholic (Louis Massignon), a Protestant (Henry Corbin), and a Muslim (Titus Burckhardt) are presented as reminders that there can be genuine spiritual encounters with Islam on the part of Western intellectuals who have not succumbed to secularism and modernism.  The concluding "Postscript" adds messianism to the list of Muslim responses to modernism, and gives final reflections on the significance of modernism itself, the various trends commonly lumped together as "fundamentalism," and the remaining representatives of traditional Islam.  Nasr speaks passionately but irenically of the need for an intellectual dimension to the critique of modernism.  This book is probably the best recent example of a Traditionalist perspective on Islam.

The volume edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Spirituality:  Manifestations, is the companion to Islamic Spirituality:  Foundations (see my review in JAOS 110 [1990]:368-69).  These two volumes on Islam have sought to avoid historicism and rationalistic skepticism, both of which tendencies are described as alien to Islam.  As part of a series on World Spirituality, this volume treats Sufism as the inner or spiritual aspect of Islam, and the editor describes this collection of articles as the first attempt to treat Sufism on a global scale.  As in the first volume, the authors of the separate articles are mostly Muslims (including a number of Traditionalists).  The Introduction and a Prelude on the Sufi orders are contributions by Nasr, followed by twenty-five essays on separate topics.  Part One, "Islamic Spirituality as Manifested in Sufism in Time and Space," contains fifteen essays on particular Sufi orders, schools, and regions.  Part Two, "Islamic Literature as Mirror of Islamic Spirituality," has six essays on Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Indo-Muslim, Malay, and African literatures.  Part Three, "The Spiritual Message of Islamic Art and Thought," has four general essays on the special topics of theology and philosophy, hidden sciences, music and dance, and art.  Regrettably there is no list of illustrations aside from untitled credits for the seventeen photographs reproduced here.  In the limited amount of space available, the articles are inevitably brief and summary treatments that will be helpful primarily to students seeking a first bibliographic orientation to a particular subject.  A number of the authors are leading scholars in the study of Sufism (K. A. Nizami, A. Schimmel, J. Nurbakhsh) who have perforce compressed presentations made in fuller detail elsewhere.  Still, some articles are disappointingly brief and cursory, to the extent of being not much more than a list of names; particularly inadequate is the article on Arabic Sufi literature, a subject that cries out for full treatment.  To my mind the most successful articles are those by William Chittick on Ibn `Arabi and Rumi, the programmatic essay by Nasr on "Theology, Philosophy, and Spirituality," and the survey by Jean-Louis Michon on "Sacred Dance and Music in Islam."  Since not all contributors share the same philosophical perspective, one does not get from the volume a clear or uniform Perennialist view of Sufism.

What is the significance of the Traditionalist school for Islamic studies?  Their rejection of historicism poses a difficulty for most Islamicists, whether humanists or social scientists.  If the premise of the Perennial Philosophy is conceded, then much of the apparatus of modern scholarship, admittedly a product of the Enlightenment, stands condemned.  The sketch given above attempts to outline the intellectual background of Traditionalism as a response to European modernism; that historical placement ironically makes Traditionalism neither traditional nor distinctively Islamic.  Before the specific cultural crises caused by modernism, it was neither necessary nor possible to formulate a defense of tradition as such.  Yet one can also see why the Perennial Philosophy would be an attractive option for Muslim thinkers seeking a position from which to resist the cultural imperialism of the secular West.  If Muslim thinkers accept the autonomous reason of the European enlightenment, there is no longer any room for transcendence, nor any intellectual justification for remaining Muslim.  Traditionalism, then, is a theological critique of modernism that has found a natural rallying point in the tradition most threatened by the West, i.e., Islam.  Modernism is being challenged on many fronts.  The assertion of the need for sacred doctrine and Tradition is frankly authoritarian, however, and it will only appeal to a minority; while its fundamentalist rival strives for a mass following, Traditionalism will continue to be an intellectual option for some Muslims (and non-Muslims) in the post-modern world.



(1).  Huston Smith, "Is there a Perennial Philosophy?", JAAR LV (1987):553-66; James S. Cutsinger, "The Knowledge that Wounds Our Nature:  The Message of Frithjof Schuon," JAAR LX (1992):465-92.

Additional Bibliography:
"Perennial Philosophy," Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973), 3:457-463 (Leroy E. Loemker).
"Revelation. III. Primitive Revelation," Encyclopaedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), Pages 1468b-1471b (Heinrich Fries).
"Revelation, Primitive," New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1957), p.440 (G. Moran).
"Traditionalism," Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, Inc., 1967), 4:154-5 (George Boas).