Saturday, May 26, 2007

Traditionalists and traditionalists

I have always made a distinction between Traditionalists (initial upper case, those who are inspired by Guénon and others discussed on this Blog) and traditionalists (initial lower case, those who emphasize tradition in a sense other than that in which Guénon used it). But sometimes there is a link between the two.

One example is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the director of the Zaytuna Institute, described by The Guardian as "arguably the west's most influential Islamic scholar," and by an irreverent American Muslim blogger as "the great goeteed demi-god of traditional Islam."

Hamza Yusuf is a fan of Martin Lings. He was a festured speaker at the Celebration of the Life and Writings of Dr Martin Lings held in London in February 2006, and recommends Lings's book Muhammad and (I am told) Charles Le Gai Eaton's Islam and the Destiny of Man. Seyyed Hossein Nasr returns the compliment, endorsing Hamza Yusuf's journal Seasons.

Does this mean Hamza Yusuf is in some sense a Traditionalist (upper case)? I think not. He doesn't recommend "hard" Traditionalist books--but he does recommend Ali Shariati. As well as being endorsed by Nasr, Seasons is also endorsed by John L. Esposito of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Conclusion (and disagree in a comment if you wish): Hamza Yusuf's enthusiasm for Martin Lings shows how certain aspects of Traditionalism have passed into the general culture, and no more.

Another well-regarded "traditional" Muslim scholar is Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller. In 1996, Keller took issue with perennialism in "On the validity of all religions in the thought of ibn Al-'Arabi and Emir 'Abd al-Qadir: A letter to `Abd al-Matin." He was explictly critical of a view that
has waited for fourteen centuries of Islamic scholarship down to the present century to be first promulgated in Cairo in the 1930s by the French convert to Islam Rene Guenon, and later by his student Frithjof Schuon and writers under him. Who else said it before? And if no one did, and everyone else considers it kufr, on what basis should it be accepted?


Abdul-Halim V. said...

I think you are right to distinguish between Traditionalism and traditionalism. Although I can also see how one might blur into the other. There is definitely a "type" of Muslim who is on the one hand Western, educated, with liberal tendancies so they will strive to be well-informed about different religious and philosophical positions and will be able to discuss them intelligently and respectfully. On the other hand, they are also orthodox Muslims so they will advocate for certain "traditional" positions in the non-specific sense.

My sense is that Martin Lings' sirah of the prophet is popular among Muslims because (in contrast with the other Muslim-written English biographies available) it is well-written in articulate, intelligent, pleasant-to-read English. It is popular among Muslims in spite of the perennialist leanings which occasionally peek through. It might have even been Hamza Yusuf who put out a version on tape which specifically edits out some of the "questionable" bits.

Gudmund said...

I'd call Shaykh Hamza and Shaykh Nuh and similiar scholars -reviving traditional interpretations of islam but from a western-islamic perspective - neo-traditionalists.

Maybe there are some neo-Tradionalists as well?

Mark Sedgwick said...

Gudmund is right, I think. There is a whole new topic here that needs exploring.

Anonymous said...

‘traditionalism’ with a small ‘t’ in the Western Muslim context generally refers to Muslims who adhere to ‘traditional’ modes of Islam as exemplified in the ‘traditional’ hadith of islam-iman-ihsan. Taken to a proper conclusion: aqidah according to the Ash’aris, Maturidis (and according to some, the Atharis), fiqh according to the 4 Sunni madhahib, and tasawuf, whether it is tariqa-based or not. Traditionalism with a big ‘t’ is what you are talking about on the blog. Now, Hamza Yusuf and Shaykh Nuh are definitely of the former type, and are definitely not of the latter type. They might have some affinities for the intellectual level of the Muslim Traditionalists, but their traditional ‘aqidah trumps that very clearly. Hence Keller’s letter to Abdal Matin, and also Yusuf’s obituary to Lings (Allah yarhamu) in the Q-News article (not in the collected obituaries, which had Yusuf’s criticism of perennialism edited out).

There is a bit more detail to this though. For while Schuonian Traditionalism is problematic to the traditional Muslim due to its conflicting with traditional aqidah, it is not problematic for its suspicion and rejection of modernity. On the contrary: the suspicion of and ambivalence towards modernity is very evident in Keller, Yusuf and Abdal Hakim Murad (TJ Winter, another traditionalist who is close to the Traditionalists, but not one of them). Beyond Western Muslim ‘ulama such as these, we could also talk about people like Said Nursi, as well as Naquib al-Attas – particularly the latter. All of these find their rejection of modernity not in Schuonian or Guenonian (different though they may be, and may Allah forgive them and us) metaphysics, but in traditional ‘aqida and tasawuf. The irony here: for Guenon, Shaykh Al-Akbar was a key (if not the key) to unlocking all this. For Al-Attas, Shaykh Al-Akbar was the key very, very clearly. And if I understand correctly, still is. But the Maryamiyyah and he are on very bad terms, because he demolished their ideas on ‘transcendent unity of religions’ in a way that matched their own intellectual level.

The reality though is that today, Western Muslims generally find solace in this subject around modernity in the works of the Traditionalists, because they are the ones that write most about it.

sana khateeb said...

Hi Mark,
I just read your book (Against the Modern World) since it was recommended by Shaykh Nuh Keller after someone asked him about the Perenialist movement.

I also thought that you might be interested in his article titled "Truth, Other Religions, and Mysticism". It can be considered as a sort of sequel to his article that you quoted condemning Perenialism:

Anonymous said...

Where does sh. Naquib al attas refute the perenialists?what is the title of the book?

Anonymous said...

A new book on Ibn Arabi here

"Ibn 'Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition
The Making of a Polemical Image in Medieval Islam "

Mixed reviews on Nuh Keller here: