Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ibn ‘Arabi, Schuon, and Universalism

Ever since Ivan Aguéli drew the attention of René Guénon to the work of the great Sufi mystic Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), Traditionalists have seen Ibn ‘Arabi as a perennialist universalist, if not as a Traditionalist in other ways. This understanding of Ibn ‘Arabi has become very widespread in the West, given the major role played by Traditionalists in the translation and interpretation of Ibn ‘Arabi. it is now comprehensively contested in a new book by Gregory A. Lipton, Rethinking Ibn ‘Arabi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Lipton knows well both the work of Ibn ‘Arabi and the work of modern Schuonian scholars, which enables him to see how this work forms one whole, and also to see what lies behind it. This is not just René Guénon and Perennialism, however, but also wider intellectual currents in the West. Lipton introduces Schleiermacher and Kant into his discussion, and parallels between them and Schuon’s thought are drawn. Lipton also introduces, more controversially, Ernest Renan (1823-92) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), two key thinkers of race in the Aryan-Semitic frame. Finally, he interrogates the very idea of religious universalism. This is a lot to do in one relatively short book (with copious endnotes).

The book consists of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction presents the issues that the book addresses and the main arguments that it will develop. The first chapter discusses what are probably now the most often quoted lines of Ibn ‘Arabi, at least in Western languages:

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,

And a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Ka’ba, and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Koran.

I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

The translation is by the great Cambridge Orientalist Reynold A. Nicholson (1868-1945), and the passage has been widely used to demonstrate Ibn ‘Arabi’s religious universalism. This is the very widespread understanding that much of Lipton’s book contests—an understand that did not start with the Traditionalists but, as Lipton shows, with Nicholson and the great Austro-Hungarian Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921).

Lipton makes his argument in two main parts. In chapter one, he shows that—despite the views of Goldziher, Nicholson, Henry Corbin, Toshihiko Izutsu, Michael Sells and Reza Shah-Kazemi—Ibn ‘Arabi may have welcomed variety in interpretation, especially for someone occupying a high spiritual station, but he never welcomed diversity in religion, understood in terms of allegiance, path and law (sharia). In chapter two, Lipton shows that—despite the attempts of William Chittick and others to argue against this—Ibn ‘Arabi clearly subscribed to the standard Islamic view that the revelation of Islam abrogated all previous revelations.

Having revisited Ibn ‘Arabi to contest the very prevalent reading of him as a religious universalist on the perennialist model, Lipton then, in effect, asks why and how such a view ever became established in the first place. This leads him to discuss leading Traditionalists and Traditionalist scholars (Guénon, Schuon, Nasr, Chittick and Shah-Kazemi) in his third chapter, and then to focus on Schuon’s “Aryanist discursive practices” in his fourth chapter. This is where he brings in Schleiermacher, Renan, and Chamberlain; Kant is brought in mostly in the conclusion, which develops a number of new points. The fourth chapter is based on Lipton’s 2017 article on Schuon’s Aryanism, previously mentioned on this blog here.

Lipton’s Rethinking Ibn ‘Arabi is essential reading for anyone interested in Ibn ‘Arabi or in religious universalism in Islam, and also of definite interest for those interested in Traditionalism, as it shows how Traditionalist views have molded the general understanding of Ibn ‘Arabi, and also places Traditionalism in three interesting contexts in which it has never been placed before—Nicholson and Goldziher, Kant and Schleiermacher, and Renan and Chamberlain. The book also makes an important point about universalism—that although at first sight universalism looks all-inclusive, it can often in fact be exclusivist, claiming a universal validity for one particular interpretation. Lipton argues that this is what happened in the case of Schuon, whose views, he argues, were ultimately “hegemonically supersessionist, subtly authorizing its own perfection, while classifying the religions of Others as necessarily incomplete” (p. 150).

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A new approach to Gothic architecture

A new PhD thesis examines the old question of the traditional significance of the cathedral, using both Traditionalist and non-Traditionalist sources. This is Lindy Weston, “Gothic Architecture and the Liturgy in Construction,” PhD thesis, University of Kent, 2018, available here.

Weston’s thesis is an “attempt to establish a common medieval metaphysic, and detail its implications for Gothic architecture.” It uses both Traditionalist (principally Guénon and Eliade) and other sources, notably Louis Dupré and Lindsay Jones. Dupré, author of Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (1993) and The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture (2004), is a Roman Catholic scholar who was T. Lawrason Riggs Professor in the Philosophy of Religion at Yale 1973-98 and who investigated the question of tradition and modernity without any obvious connection to Traditionalism. Jones, author of The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison (2000) is a scholar of religion who taught at Ohio State University and was a student of Eliade’s at the University of Chicago. Beyond this connection, however, he too seems to have no obvious connection to Traditionalism.

Weston’s thesis is interesting, then, not only as a new and fresh treatment of an old question, but also as a work that integrates Traditionalist and non-Traditionalist treatments of tradition, metaphysics, and modernity. In the end it seems to rely more on Traditionalism for inspiration and its general frame than for its detailed analysis, as although Guénon and Eliade are discussed positively in the review of literature, they are then little used thereafter. Titus Burckhardt, author of the Traditionalist classic Chartres and the Birth of the Cathedral (1962) and Ananda Coomaraswamy are present in the bibliography, but not in the main text (save for a brief discussion of a reference to Burckhardt by Jones).

Sunday, April 29, 2018

New research project on Romanian Traditionalism

Guest post by Alin Constantin (Stanford),

The new research project in which I am engaged has been a result of my own engagement with the legacy of interwar Romanian culture. I started reading into the history of Traditionalism and its representatives after finding out about Mircea Eliade’s association with this line of thought. This connection between Eliade and Traditionalism has played a significant role in the reception of post-communist religious thought in Romania. The publisher which has published Eliade’s work since the nineties, Humanitas, has also been responsible for introducing the Romanian public to the works of Guénon, Schuon and Evola, and—more recently—Aleksandr Dugin. Although Eliade was not a Traditionalist thinker, he was definitely influenced in certain respects by Coomaraswamy, Guénon and Evola.

Since the 1990s, a growing interest on the part of the Romanian reading public has been focused on the rediscovery of interwar intellectual culture. This interest was not, as it might be expected, a reaction to the limitations of official communist historiography, a desire to discover what had previously been hidden and condemned. In fact, interest in the period had already been underway in the last decades of communist rule, which were characterized by a strongly nationalistic political bent. As a result of this rightward turn, many writers and thinkers who been associated with the interwar far right were now being reintroduced in the cannon of officially endorsed representatives of Romanian culture. If anything, in the post-communist period this practice has been followed through rather than begun anew.

Previous researchers working on Eliade and Romanian Traditionalism have focused on published works. While valuable in many respects, such accounts cannot provide a comprehensive history of the movement. For this one needs to go into the archives. Yet how does one investigate a movement that kept itself purposefully hidden from view? The record here is mixed. Eliade kept a detailed collection of his drafts, manuscripts, diaries and correspondence. His archives are held in the University of Chicago Library. His collection of books was destroyed in a fire shortly before his death. One is thus unable to glean information on his reading habits during his American years. His Parisian library, however, has been preserved entirely. This contains books he had brought from Portugal, volumes he purchased or received as a gift in France, as well as books from Chicago which he brought along as reading material when he came back to Europe on holiday. This valuable collection was housed in a branch of the Metropolitan Library of Bucharest, the Nicolaus Olahus Warehouse. Unfortunately, the whole of Eliade’s books have been transported from this library in February of this year, supposing to be relocated to another branch by March. As of yet, this has not happened and the move seems to be in limbo.

The Nicolaus Olahus Warehouse also possesses a collection of manuscripts which belonged to Vasile Lovinescu and Michel Valsan, two of the leading representatives of Romanian Traditionalism. A diplomat by profession, Valsan did not return to Romania following the end of WWII and settled permanently in France, becoming the editor of Études Traditionnelles. Lovinescu on the other hand remained in Romania, alternating his time between the provincial town of Fălticeni and Bucharest. Lovinescu depended on friends from abroad such as Valsan for receiving books he could not get hold of. Lovinescu was closely monitored by the communist secret police, the Securitate, and his correspondence with Valsan is available in its archives. Other libraries in Bucharest also hold important material pertaining to the subject. The Library of the Romanian Academy holds copies of Memra: Studii de tradiţie ezoterică, the first (and only) Romanian Traditionalist journal, published in the 1930s.

The resources for the study of Romanian Traditionalism are rich, and their investigation can considerably advance our understanding of the movement, from both a national and transnational perspective.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Maude Murray on Frithjof Schuon

A number of comments on this blog’s main posting on Frithjof Schuon and Islam have just been made by (a person self-identifying as) Maud Murray, Schuon’s third wife. They do not fundamentally change the picture we have, but add some detail. They also announce a forthcoming blog.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Soft Traditionalism at the University of Kansas

A new biography reveals John Senior (1923-99) of the University of Kansas as a ”soft” Traditionalist. The biography is by Francis Bethel, O.S.B., John Senior and the Restoration of Realism (Merrimack NH: Thomas More College Press, 2016).

During the 1950s, Senior was a “hard” Traditionalist, following René Guénon and Ananda Coomaraswamy. He then moved away from this position towards Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, and converted to Catholicism. He subsequently wrote two important books, The Death of Christian Culture (1978) and The Restoration of Christian Culture (1983).

Senior worked practically for the restoration of traditional Christian culture at the University of Kansas from 1967 to 1984. He and two others ran the “Pearson Integrated Humanities Program,” which ran very much against the spirit of the times by focusing on the reading and discussion of classic texts (taking notes during these discussions was not allowed) and stressing the traditional, the Christian, and the European. As well as reading and discussing, students took part in formal dinners and ballroom dancing, went star gazing and traveled to Europe. Many became Catholics. The program became ever more controversial, and was finally closed.

My attention was drawn to the book by a fine review by Christopher H. Owen in the International Philosophical Quarterly.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Missing Dugin's attempt to understand

Alexander Dugin is one of seven interesting Russians followed by the Russian–American journalist Masha Gessen in The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017). The book is well written, as one would expect from the pen of a talented journalist who is a New York Times bestseller. It interweaves the familiar tale of the recent history of Russia with the lives of Gessen’s seven characters, chosen not because they are powerful and important or because they are representative “regular people,” but because “they are the people who try to understand” (p. 4). An excellent idea: there is much in Russia’s recent history that needs to be understood.

In the event, however, the book focuses mostly on the other characters, who are generally liberal and sometimes gay, and on the familiar tale of the rise and fall of Russian liberalism. Disappointingly little space is given to Dugin or to his attempt to understand. In fact, almost the only new information about him is what his first wife later remembered as his opening line: “Do you know when violets bloom on the lips?” (p. 20). The opportunity to understand how Dugin’s understandings fit in with recent Russian history is, sadly, missed.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Evola and the Anti-Christian Alt-Right

An interesting new article on “The Anti-Christian Alt-Right: The Perverse Thought of Right-Wing Identity Politics” by Matthew Rose has been published in First Things (03, 2018). Rose looks at the stances on Christianity of Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, and Alain de Benoist. The article is largely descriptive, and (predictably) takes a Christian view. Rose’s characterization of Evola as “avant-garde painter, occultist, sexologist, alpinist, and unreliable scholar of Eastern religions” is memorable, if not entirely fair.

Monday, February 12, 2018

More Ismaili Traditionalism

Ali Lakhani, whose article “Living the Ethics of One’s Faith: The Aga Khan’s Integral Vision” was discussed in an earlier post, has now expanded this article into a book, published by I.B.Tauris “in association with” the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. To what extent this indicates the approval of the Institute of Ismaili Studies or of the Ismaili leadership is unclear. On the one hand, the book carries the standard disclaimer found also in other books in the series, to the effect that “the Institute’s sole aim is to encourage original research and analysis of relevant issues” and that “opinions… must be understood as belonging to their authors alone.” On the other hand, the Institute of Ismaili Studies is the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

The book (pictured) is entitled Faith and Ethics: The Vision of the Ismaili Imamat. In fact, it is really about Lakhani’s understanding of the public declarations of the current imam, the Aga Khan, not of the vision of the Ismaili Imamat across time. The Ismaili sources used are almost exclusively the Aga Khan’s public speeches. Lakhani’s understanding of these follows the understanding of his earlier articles: much of the Ismaili faith is understood in Traditionalist terms. Thus “essential principles,” which the Aga Khan values, become “tradition,” and modernity, with which the Aga Khan has no real problem, becomes “modernism,” which can then be defined (citing Seyyed Hossein Nasr) as “that which is cut off from… immutable principles” (53). The Aga Khan thus appears to be taking the standard Traditionalist positon against modernity (modernism) in favor of Tradition (essential principles). The reinterpretation of the Aga Khan’s speeches can sometimes be even more strained, as (for example) when the Aga Khan’s use of the term “cynical” is glossed as meaning “faithless” (p. 56). Many would think that the two words mean different things.

A question that arises is who Lakhani is trying to convince of what. Sometimes it seems that he is trying to show that the Ismaili faith is a traditional one, that it is in order for a Traditionalist to be an Ismaili, rather as Alexander Dugin once wrote a book to show that it is in order for a Traditionalist to be a Russian Orthodox Christian. Sometimes it also seems that he is trying to convince Ismailis that their imam is (more or less) a Traditionalist. This is not a view that is supported by my own understanding of the Ismaili faith or my own reading of the Aga Khan’s speeches. How many Ismailis will be convinced by it remains to be seen.

Friday, January 12, 2018

New articles on Ivan Aguéli

A special issue of Aura: Tidskrift för akademiska studier av nyreligiositet was published at the end of 2017 with four articles on Ivan Aguéli—all in Aguéli’s native Swedish, unfortunately for those who do not know Swedish. 2017 was the one hundredth anniversary of Aguéli's death.

First, in “Målare, mystiker, muslim–Ivan Aguéli 1869-1917” (Painter, mystic, Muslim: Ivan Aguéli 1869-1917), Simon Sorgenfrei provides a short account of Aguéli’s life. Then, in “Den stora estetiska ingivelsen: Om Ivan Aguélis Swedenborgläsningar” (The great aesthetic submission: On Ivan Aguéli’s reading of Swedenborg), Sorgenfrei looks at Swedenborg’s influence on Aguéli. He first establishes how Aguéli encountered the writings of Swedenborg, and then looks at their early impact. Even in 1894 in the Mazas prison in Paris, Aguéli had taken to heart Swedenborg’s understanding of the absolute oneness of God to the point where he wrote to a friend of “faith in a highest being who is above all, Allah” and added that “monotheism is the essence of Christ's teaching, so important that the believing Muslim is more Christian than most Christians.” Swedenborg makes a somewhat similar point in Vera Christiana Religio, though less emphatically, without placing Muslims above Christians. Here, perhaps, is one root of Aguéli’s later conversion to Islam, the reasons for which remain unclear. Aguéli himself wrote shortly before his death, in a letter cited by Sorgenfrei, that he found Ibn Arabi and Lao Tse through Swedenborg.

On another topic, in investigating the general relationship between esotericism and art, Sorgenfrei draws attention to the title of a book by the Swedish scholar Kjell Espmark, Att översätta själen: en huvudlinje i modern poesi - från Baudelaire till surrealismen (To translate the soul: A central line in modern poetry, from Baudelaire to surrealism). Yes, that is one good way of looking at the artistic thought of the period.

Then Annika Ohrner’s “Hilma af Klint och Ivan Aguéli. Andlighet och konstens rum” (Hilma of Klint and Ivan Aguéli: Spirituality and the artistic space) also looks at the influence of esoteric thought on the painting of both Aguéli and his contemporary Hilma af Klint, another Swedish painter who also drew on esotericism, and even on Swedenborg. Ohrner also compares the subsequent reception of the two artists’ work. She does not investigate Swedenborg in particular. For Aguéli, she thinks, the key text is his own “L’art pur” in La Gnose, which expresses a classic Platonic view of the relationship between the material and the spiritual. One of the surprises in the article is that the poet Guillaume Apollinaire told Aguéli that he "stuck by" ("håller styft på") Aguéli's metaphysics, as expressed in his articles in La Gnose. Interesting that Apollinaire was evidently reading Guénon's journal.

Fianlly, “Den fiktive Aguéli: Identifikationsobjekt och projektionsyta för unga manliga konvertiter till islam” (The fictional Aguéli: Object of identification and projection surface for young male converts to Islam), by Susanne Olsson and Simon Sorgenfrei, looks at the impact of Aguéli on Swedish converts to Islam—or actually more at the impact of the works of the Swedish novelist Torbjörn Säfve, whose 1981 novel Ivan Aguéli: En roman om frihet (Ivan Aguéli: A novel about freedom) had a major impact on some of Olsson and Sorgenfrei's interviewees. Säfve himself was inspired by his own vision of Aguéli as anarchist, freethinker and Muslim, himself converted to Islam on that basis, and naturally enough portrays Aguéli and Islam in this way. Some converts learn later that Säfve’s version of Aguéli differs from that found in the historical sources, and also find that Islam is not all about anarchistic freethinking. This leads to the alternative function of Aguéli in Sweden today, as a model for integrating the Swedish and Islamic identities that are drifting every further apart, not as a symbol of the counter-culture.