Friday, March 17, 2023

New light on Guénon's impact in Egypt

A recent PhD thesis defended at Aarhus University sheds new light on René Guénon’s reception in Egypt. This is Mattias Gori Olesen’s “The Future is Eastern: Muḥammad Luṭfī Jumʿa (1886-1953) and the Drang nach Osten in Interwar Egypt.”

Guénon’s first reception by an Egyptian was before he moved to Cairo, in the 1925 doctoral thesis on the Caliphate of the Egyptian lawyer (and later jurist and politician) ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Sanhūrī (1895-1971). The thesis argued for the re-establishment of a caliphate, and drew on Guénon to argue that an East-West rapprochement could be achieved partly by re-traditionalizing the West, and also argued that different Oriental forms all reflected one common tradition. Al-Sanhūrī presumably encountered Guénon in France while working on his thesis, and does not seem to have been much influenced by Guénon in his later work.

The second reception was after Guénon’s arrival in Cairo, and was in the journal al-Maʿrifa, edited not by Muṣṭafā ʿAbd al-Rāziq (1885-1947) as both Xavier Accart and I wrongly supposed, but by ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Islāmbūlī, about whom little is known. Al-Islāmbūlī was evidently himself a Traditionalist, not only publishing an article by Guénon in the first number of al-Maʿrifa, but also later arguing himself that Ibn ‘Arabī and Advaita Vedanta were one and the same. In this first article, Guénon explained the basics of Traditionalism, with “primordial tradition” rendered into Arabic as al-ʿilm al-qadīm (ancient knowledge).

This second reception soon ran into difficulties, however. First, in June 1931 al-Islāmbūlī arranged a public meeting that was attended by both Guénon and Valentine de Saint-Point. Guénon did not speak, but Saint-Point argued in Traditionalist fashion that education in Egypt should not be modernized to focus on exoteric knowledge, but should rather focus on the esoteric to equip Egyptians to resist modernity. This drew an angry response from Muḥammad Luṭfī Jumʿa, who believed that modern education was one way to strengthen the Eastern nations against the West—this was fundamental to the “Easternism” that he supported, and which is the main topic of Gori Olesen’s thesis.

Then, the next month, al-Maʿrifa published an exchange between Guénon and Muḥammad Farīd Wajdī (1875-1954) on the topic of spiritism. Wajdī wrote in favor of it, Guénon against. Wajdī rebutted, and Guénon rebutted the rebuttal, and never published again in al-Maʿrifa, or perhaps was never published again in al-Maʿrifa. Ironically, as Gori Olesen notes, in 1907 Wajdī had written in Ivan Aguéli’s Il Convito on “L’Islam, Religione Universale” (Islam, the Universal Religion). An Islamic universalism that had agreed with Aguéli, then, did not agree with Guénon.

Gori Olesen concludes:

Ultimately, Guénon and traditionalism were thus only of selective use to the Easternists. The perennialism and praise of the esoteric and spiritual that traditionalism represented were amenable to both Easternism’s political and cultural project and the way they conceived the problem and incipient solution at hand. But the anti-modernism was not… In Jumʿa’s case, the more direct inspiration for his perennial vision came from theosophic literature.

 This seems just about right.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This isn't shocking. The traditionalists are completely useless when it comes to practical, teleological things. They're prone to seeing diseases like malaria as the "wrath of god" or something along those lines, but a scientist will actually investigate the problem and posit a solution. A sufi will refuse to heal you, but a doctor will give you a pill that works like magic. Scientific positivism has done more for the world practically than many of these traditions ever have. Heck the only reason we can even talk like this is due to the internet, which came about thanks to the scientific positive revolution. Guenon and his ilk also thought that every Easterner they met, be they Indian, Chinese or Arab were not full of misery thanks to the reticence displayed by the leaders in their communities when it came the many practical problems of life. He thought they didn't see western science as something wonderful, that freed them from many shackles imposed on them by out of touch elitist groups that dominated them. It therefore isn't shocking that the miserable, life-denying, even anti-human views that proliferated traditional society were unable to withstand something that actually tells you that it's okay to be alive, it's okay to gain practical knowledge, it's okay to prosper and be happy.