Thursday, March 30, 2017

New article on Schuon and race

An important article on Frithjof Schuon has just been published in Numen 64 (2017), pp. 258–293: This is Gregory A. Lipton, "De-Semitizing Ibn ʿArabī: Aryanism and the Schuonian Discourse of Religious Authenticity."

Lipton starts by noting the importance of Schuon for contemporary understandings of Ibn Arabi and commenting on the "posthumous Schuonian renaissance." He then goes on to make two arguments:

Firstly, he demonstrates by numerous citations from Schuon's works that Schuon subscribed to understandings of race and of the opposition between Aryan and Semite that were developed in the nineteenth century by theorists such as Ernest Renan and Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, and incidentally underpinned Nazi racial theory--I say "incidentally" because Lipton is not arguing that Schuon was a Nazi, merely that he subscribed to understandings that the Nazis also subscribed to.

Secondly, he shows that Schuon disliked what he saw as Semitic in Ibn Arabi, preferring Vedanta and Plato as Aryan. He was sometimes very critical of Ibn Arabi, for example for his “abrupt and unintelligible denominationalism.” Lipton understands Schuon's and the Maryamiyya's turn away from its originally very Islamic Sufism to a more universal understanding that de-emphasized Islam and instead emphasized the Virgin and Vedanta as a response to this problem, as "de-Semitizing."

The article is clearly written, tightly argued, and entirely convincing. There may also, however, have been other reasons for Schuon's turn away from Islam.


N. Wahid Azal said...

The dissertation the article is based on is outstanding work.

Anonymous said...

Having read Schuon's 'Castes et Races', it is difficult to believe the above assertions: Schuon subscribed to the notion of a single pair of ancestors for humans. He also placed caste above race, giving himself an anti-racist veneer in the process, and placing his view at odds with that of Gobineau and co.

Avery said...

Three cheers to Dr. Lipton for this quite competent study -- a treatment that is both quite fair, in my opinion, and objectively speaking long overdue in the field of religious studies. I've grown irritated over the years by the lack of serious discussion of Traditionalism, and now it has finally arrived!

One reason why even Schuon fans should admit this exposition is necessary at an academic level is because there is already a backlash against Traditionalism from Muslim quarters, which has left Nasr's group a bit stuck between two worlds. This must be acknowledged and responded to, not with partisanship, but with a serious look at the facts. The section on "Ibn Arab'i and the Schuonian Imperative of Esoteric 'Objectivity'" is especially key and must be taken seriously by Perennialists even if they have a different reading of the material on race. In any case, I recommend that the anonymous commenter take a closer look at page 268, and see if Lipton has quotes "Castes and Races" correctly.

Mark said...

Very interesting. It is quite ironic that Schuon "departed" from Islamic orthodoxy because of his "Aryanism", while another great scholar, Claudio Mutti --who, while being different from Schuon, may be put in a close "intellectual/religious trend"-- converted to Islam because of "Aryanism" itself.

Anonymous said...

Truths, half truths, and conjecture. Much like Wasserstrom's assessing of Corbin, in his book.

Dan said...

I'd be curious to know, since Nasr is notedly more Islamic in his bent and he's the Sheikh now, how the Maryamiyya have been affected by this.

Zachary said...

Thank you for sharing this fine article. In connection to his observations about race, Lipton puts his finger on something more subtle in Schuon’s writings and much of the discourse on “religion” in the West. He employs some of Russell McCutcheon’s arguments from "Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia," where religion “constitutes a private, interiorized dimension of experience that, although manifested outwardly in varying forms, is shared across all religions regardless of their historical differences.” (60) Schuon recognizes all too readily the elements of Islam, for example, that are defined by culture, history, etc., but gives the impression that his own discourse in purely objective. He couldn’t seem to admit that his own culture and history, including modern European racial theories, could have impacted his perspective. The very idea that there is such a thing named religion (or the religio perennis) outside of the particular understandings of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, for example, is never questioned. This allows Schuon to construct his own very idiosyncratic and syncretic cult around his own whims and against the so-called exoterisms and their adherents. I believe Lipton’s work is the most important study on traditionalism since "Against the Modern World."

N. Wahid Azal said...

Very well stated points by brother Zachary. I would add that Lipton's study also provides the needed analytical framework on the level of theory which allows then the lens by which to unpack the reasons behind the "sacred nudism" and abusive cultism in which the Maryamiyyah devolved into in short order.

Zachary said...

Thank you for your comments dear N. Wahid Azal, which I agree with wholeheartedly. To expand a bit upon Lipton's findings, Schuon's "colorless light" is profoundly white and one could even argue modern, secular European. His sophisticated articulation of the religio or sophia perennis is little more than an argument for being spiritual but not religious. We are made to believe that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, for example, are colored by race, ethnicity, culture, temperament, climate, psychology, etc., while his vision is "colorless." See James Cutsinger's article "Colorless Light and Pure Air: The Virgin in the Thought of Frithjof Schuon." Schuon's views on religion become for him a kind of Platonic Form that he sets against Islam and the other "exoterisms" of the world. His own whims and perversions are raised to a divine status, while Ibn 'Arabi and others are dismissed for their "denominationalism." Here apparent tolerance and ecumenism are marshaled to exclude those who are too particular or attached to Islam, for example. Lipton's work is a brilliant case study on how the religious and philosophical universals of certain western scholars are anything but universal.

Ambrose said...

Greetings all,

There are several problems with this article, which I hope to enumerate as briefly as possible:

- The author displays what I will not hesitate to call a superficial understanding of Schuon's metaphysics, as evidenced, for example, by his attempt to cross logical swords with Schuon in a footnote. Given Schuon's exposition of the shahadah, as well as his concept of "relative absoluteness," one should have no difficulty inferring that Schuon would endorse the analogous concept of "relative uniqueness" vis-a-vis phenomena considered in relation to the Unique. Furthermore, it is telling that Lipton attempts to reduce Schuon's point to a mere syllogism, when one of the distinguishing characteristics of metaphysics as conceived by Schuon is that it operates beyond the strictures of the principle of non-contradiction. In other words, one often finds in a metaphysical context that the answer to a particular question is both "yes" and "no," as in this case, where all "facts of existence" can indeed be said to be relatively unique.
- The author repeatedly makes a major category error, namely his tendency to view Schuon's theory of truth as merely propositional, as evidenced most clearly by the following phrase: "...the key to 'divine Knowledge,' which is thus analogous to his 'metaphysical' doctrine of transcendent unity" (p. 267). Schuon himself has referred to the latter doctrine as "rather extrinsic" to his teaching, since doctrine, while important, is in the end merely propaedeutic with respect to "divine Knowledge."
- The author claims that "long-held European discursive strategies of racial exclusion ... substantively inform the core of Schuon's metaphysics" (p. 262). This is a remarkable statement--one that belies the all-too-academic nature of Lipton's investigation. Any sensitive and generous reader of Schuon will not fail to see that something as peripheral as his views on race really have nothing to do with the core (!) of his metaphysics, which is comprised chiefly of the distinction between the Absolute and the relative, with all this implies in increasingly inessential areas of inquiry as one moves from the "center" to the "circumference" in the task of bringing first principles to bear on various domains (e.g., race).
- Lastly, and most importantly, the author quotes Schuon selectively in a way that compromises the objectivity of his argument. The following quotations should substantiate this claim:

"Certain racial traits, which the white man tends to take for signs of inferiority, actually mark either a less mental — though not less spiritual — disposition than that of the average European or else a greater racial vitality."

Who would argue that Schuon, considered in the light of his entire corpus, valued the mental over the spiritual, or considered the former more decisive than the latter as regards man's final ends? After all, Schuon has stated plainly in an interview that one does not have to be intelligent to win salvation. Furthermore, he has made it entirely clear in his discussion of race and ethnicity that certain of the virtues one can attribute to the white race are precisely those which, when corrupted and inverted, are productive of the greatest ugliness and error. Consider the following passage, the majority of which Lipton chose to omit:

Ambrose said...

"The Hindus surpass every other human group by their extraordinary contemplativity and the metaphysical genius resulting from this; but the yellow race is in its turn far more contemplative than the Western branch of the white race, and this makes it possible, looking at things as a whole, to speak of spiritual superiority in the traditional East, whether white or yellow, also including in this superiority the Messianic and Prophetic outlook of the Semites, which runs parallel with the Aryan avatāra outlook. All these facts are now called into question because of the modern spirit, which has the power so to shake or upset all values that a natural propensity to spirituality may lose all its efficacy, and such that spirituality may in the end come to be actualized in a quarter where it could least have been expected. This leads us once again to underline the conditional nature of all hereditary superiority: if one takes account of the part played by religions and ideological influences as well as of the interplay of compensations in both space and time, if one observes, for instance, that some group held to be barbarian may be incontestably superior to some other group held to be civilized (not to mention the possibility of a personal superiority of individuals of any group whatsoever) then one must recognize that the question of racial superiority is in practice pointless."

Additionally, the author makes the following problematic claim on p. 281:

"It is thus unmistakable that 'objectivity' for Schuon is analogous to his above notion of 'esoterism' as 'the total truth as such' — both concepts accordingly fall within the special province of the Aryan, who, as was noted above, not only possesses a unique '"naturally supernatural" capacity' for 'intellection,' but also represents the most complete expression of 'the human state.'"

This is refuted directly by Schuon himself, who writes in "The Meaning of Race": "[I]f ethnic differences only too often provide illusory motives for hatred, more normally they include reasons for love: by this we mean that foreign races have something complementary in relation to ourselves without there being in principle any 'lack' in us or in them either."

Lastly, we can quote the following sentence of Schuon, which makes it clear that all of the distinctions he draws between races and ethnicities are really just matters of accent and emphasis, having nothing absolute about them whatsoever:

"All these expressions can be no more than approximations, for everything is relative, especially in an order of things as complex as race" (from "The Meaning of Race").

wa'Llahu a'lam


Qalandar said...

Dear Ambrose

thank you sincerely for putting things into the right place here. That new fashion of bashing Schuon with the most absurd accuses is getting really annoying lately. ( I m talking about some commentators mainly ... )

Nur Ali Qalandar

N. Wahid Azal said...

God forbid the late Shaykh Issa Nuruddin al-Alawi is ever properly contextualized and revealed to be something other than what his acolytes believe him to be, especially now that the files of Glasse, Koslow and Vidali are in the public domain.