How Traditionalist Bias Can Blind a Pilgrim to Dangers
Quoted from a review of the Independent:
(Irwin) blithely walked where the Foreign Office would soon advise us not to tread, even hitch-hiking round the Med from Istanbul to the Maghreb, before the Six Day War curtailed such jaunts forever.
'Algeria in the mid-Sixties was a grim place, only recently independent of France, its aggressively secular new rulers repressed anyone deemed overly traditional. Irwin's chosen Alawi sect would be targeted after his return to England. Irwin wonders now how he failed to see the signs.
It is very possible that Irwin failed to see the signs because he may have had his expectations formed by reading Traditionalist Sufi literature.
Traditionalists have and had the bias that modernity represents loss of all that is worthwhile. The Traditionalist perspective is to focus strictly on the quest for hidden, primordial wisdom that modernism has rejected, and to keep focused, with mole like focus, tunnelling toward The Truth and igoring all else as a distraction.
A stance such as this can both give and take away.
Traditionalism can leave an intelligent person highly sensitized and appreciative of whatever fits the biases of this ideology--a sensitivity to beauty and depth, respect and tenderness for elders and what is identified as holy or at least worthwile by Traditionalist criteria.
But this can at the same time take away, leaving this same person blind and deaf to his or her environment.
This is not for lack of intelligence. It is because an intelligent person has trustfully adopted an ideology that through its biases, leaves the adherant adoring and valuing only what is ancient, devaluing and ignoring what is modern. This outcome is a sincere but wilful naivete and an indifference to changes in the political scene, changes that can invade one's cozy sanctuary, and mark one's teachers and oneself for persecution or death.
In short, some ideologies can make an intelligent person naive and blind to danger and IMO, Traditionalism is one of these ideologies.
Irwin is quoted as saying that his search began at university when he wanted to be a Muslim saint.
He became inspired in 1965.
Martin Lings' hagiographical biography of Al-Alawi, entitled A Muslim Saint of the Twentieth Century
, was first published in 1961. Al-Alawi had started and was famous for his Zawiya at Mostagnem, in Algeria. Decades earlier, this place had been visited by Frijof Schuon, who spent some months there, and left with a now controversial document, claiming that document was a formal ijaza, giving Schuon the credential to function as a Sufi sheikh. One is not give such a responsiblity after just a few months. Al-Alawi was disciple to his own Sheikh for over ten years.
This controversy about Schuon's credentials is fully explored and traced in Mark Sedgwick's book, Against the Modern World:Traditionalism and the Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Sedgwick's work in taking full inventory of Traditionalism as an ideology and its methods of quiet and not always candid prosylytizing in academia led many to resent Sedgwick's book and claim he had flunked out of esoteric lodge work--anything rather than admit resentment and chagrin at this secretive movement finally being exposed to long overdue scrutiny.
Given that very many readers are now exposed to Sufim through authors with Traditionalist bias, Sedgwick's book came as a welcome resource.
I have read literature by Traditionalist authors from other belief systems, back when I was younger, and can testify that there is something about this body of work that can give a sense of wonder and of great urgency to a young person and inspire an eagerness for self sacrifice.
Like Irwin I felt that challenge, but unlike Irwin, I was a bit older, had already had some disappointments and did not want to put myself at risk. But I can tell the reader that my brush with Traditionalist literature left haunted for many years and in a painful way.
For more about Traditionalism understood objectively as an ideology, read here:
Reviews of Sedgwick's book on Amazon.
When reviews fall into a pattern of those who either appreciate a book vs those who say nasty and vicious things about the author, with few reviews being neutral, that means the author performed a necessary, and valuable service--exposing sneaky shit behavior that needed exposure.
A friend of Sedwicks who had converted to Islam lent him a book by Guenon.
'The book looked innocent enough' Sedwick wrote. 'a Penguin paperback with an AUC (American University of Cairo--the place where Sedgwick taught) library shelfmark on the spine. The date stamp indicated that the book was approximately 12 years overdue, as I pointed out.
'The convert smiled. 'That is far too valuable a book' he said, 'to be trusted to the library. Make sure you give that back to me.'
(Against the Modern World, page 7)
One can only hope there are no librarians at the gates of heaven. If so, that elitist esoteric delinquent will have a lot of explaining to do. It is one thing to let a book go overdue from carelessness, but to deliberately not return a book to the library because one has reached a private judgement that that book should be with-held from the general public, when it was purchased by the library so that it could be made available... that, friends is creepy.
Later, in describing Traditionalism's concept that what looks like social progress is actually social and spiritual regression, Sedgwick writes:
''In the words of a contemporary Traditionalist, a young and talented European scholar of Islam--once the modern world is understood in terms of decline rather than of progress, almost everything else changes, and there are not many people are left that you can usefully talk to.'
(Against the Modern World, page 25)
And on pages 169-70 Sedgwick wrote, speaking of Islamic scholars such as Nasr who are actually influenced by Traditionalism, especially the form taught by Schuon and his eccentric Maryamiyya order:
'Only someone who knows the Traditionalist philosophy and is looking for it will recognize its presence in these books (eg Nasrs Ideals and Realities of Islam--discussed in the prior paragraph same page--C)Traditionalist interpretations are never presented as such but rather are given as the simple truth.
'There need be no dishonesty in this practice' Sedgwick charitably remarks, 'we all present things in the way that we see them, without feeling obligated to explain precisely how we have come to see them in that way....What most readers will be unable to distinguish between is Sufi spirituality and Maryami, or Traditionalist spirituality.
To a specialist in Sufism who is familiar with Traditionalism, almost every essay contains interpretations that are clearly Traditionalist but are never signaled as such. Many of these interpretations are open to dispute, to say the least. To the non specialist reader, however, neither the origin nor the questionable nature of the interpretations is evident.
Not everyone is happy when they discover Traditionalism behind these books. One Scandinavian scientist who had converted to Islam reacted with dismay on reading an article of mine which identified Traditionalist writers that she and others she knew had read unawares:
"Traditionalist books are everywhere..." she wrote. "Perhaps most scary is the subtle penetration of Traditionalist thinking without references...People pick up these ideas because they are appealing and pass them on..('This) is something that affects everyone who depends on non-Arabic (non-Urdu, non-Turkish) literature."
Another person had a slightly different take on the matter, telling Sedwick
"This 'subtle penetration' of Traditionalism also struck another observer, James W Morris, who found it more ironic than sinister. 'One rarely encounters academic specialists in the spiritual dimensions of religious studies who have not in fact read several of the works of Schuon' wrote Morris, but 'This wide ranging influence (by Schuon) is rarely mentioned publicly' because of 'the peculiar processes of academic canonization."
(against the Modern World pp 169-170)
Interestingly, a colleague of Sedwick's had tried to get him interested in Schuon, but before matters could go further, Sedwick was mailed information that revealed Shuons very troubled past. As soon as the friend realized that Sedwick knew this and worse, was shocked---the erstwhile friend abruptly dumped Sedwick!
'This was my first puzzle (about Traditionalism) wrote Sedgwick. 'Some of the major Western authors on Islam were followers of a man who went around dressed in a feather headress, or not dressed at all, painting some very unusual pictures.'