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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Esoteric Islam

Pathways to an Inner Islam: Massignon, Corbin, Guénon, and Schuon by Patrick Laude (State University of New York Press) provides an introduction to the esoteric or spiritual "inner Islam" presented by Western thinkers Louis Massignon, Henry Corbin, René Guénon, and Frithjof Schuon. Particularly interested in Sufism--the mystical tradition of Islam--these four twentieth-century authors who wrote in French played an important role in presenting Islamic spirituality to the West and have also had an influence in parts of the Muslim world, such as Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Patrick Laude brings them together to argue that an understanding of their inner Islam challenges reductionist views of Islam as an essentially legalistic tradition and highlights its spiritual qualities. The book discusses their thought on the definitions of spiritual Islam and Sufism, the metaphysical and mystical understanding of the Prophet and the Qur<aµn, the function of femininity in Islamic spirituality, and the inner understanding of jihaµd. In addition, the writers' Christian backgrounds and their participation in the intellectual and spiritual traditions of both Christianity and Islam offer a dynamic perspective on interfaith dialogue.

Excerpt: The spiritual, mystical, and esoteric doctrines and practices of Islam, which may be conveniently, if not quite satisfactorily, labeled as Sufism, have been among the main avenues of the understanding of this religion in Western academic circles, and possibly among Western audiences in general. This stems from a number of reasons, not the least of which is a diffuse sense that Sufism has provided irreplaceable keys for reaching the core of Muslim identity over the centuries, while providing the most adequate responses to contemporary disfigurements of the Islamic tradition. It is in this context that we propose, in the current book, to show how the works of those whom Pierre Lory has called the "mystical ambassadors of Islam"' may shed light on the oft-neglected availability of a profound and integral apprehension of Islam, thereby helping to dispel some problematic assumptions feeding many misconceptions of it. The four authors whom we propose to study have introduced Islam to the West through the perspective of the spiritual dimension that they themselves unveiled in the Islamic tradition. These authors were mystical "ambassadors" of Islam in the sense that their scholarly work was intimately connected to an inner call for the spiritual depth of Islam, the latter enabling them to introduce that religion to Western audiences in a fresh and substantive way. It may be helpful to add, in order to dispel any possible oversimplifications, that these authors should not be considered as representatives of Islam in the literal sense of one who has converted to that religion and become one of its spokesmen.' None of these four "ambassadors" was in fact Muslim in the conventional, external, and exclusive sense of the word, even though two of them did attach themselves formally to the Islamic tradition in view of an affiliation to Sufism, in Arabic tasawwuf. The four of them experienced, at any rate, the spiritual influence of Islam in a very direct, profound, and powerful manner.

By contrast with some other areas of Western scholarly discourse on Islam, most of the greatest works of French Islamic Studies have been informed by an inquiry into the inner dimensions of Islam. 3 These terms cover a diverse range of phenomena, from popular tasawwuf to Shi'ite theosophy, but they all point to an understanding of Islam that breaks away from the reductionist view of that religion as a strictly legal, moral, and political reality. This may prima facie come as a surprise in light of the French and French-speaking intellectual and academic climate, one that has been most often characterized by its rationalist and secular bent, but most of the seminal contributions to the field published in the French language have tended to take the road of an inquiry into the supra-legal and supra-rational aspects of Islam, whether this be as a reaction against the rationalist and positivist ambience of French academia, or as a result of a residual but enduring influence of the Christian spiritual heritage. In this context, the current study focuses on two intellectual lineages within the domain of Islamic studies: One ran from the seminal and "revolutionary" contribution of Louis Massignon (1883-1962) to Islamic Studies and was continued, along a significantly different line—more gnostic than mystical, more centered on Shi'ism than on Sunni Islam—by his student Henry Corbin (1903-1978); the second originated with the works of Rene Guénon (1886-1951) in metaphysics and the study of symbols, and was pursued in a distinct way by the religious philosopher Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), whose notions of esoterism and tradition have played an influential role in redefining the nature of religious intellectuality among a significant number of contemporary Islamic and non-Islamic scholars. One of the theses put forward in the present book is that these two intellectual lineages are complementary in more than one way: On the one hand, Massignon and Corbin were both deeply rooted in the Christian tradition (Catholic in the former, Protestant in the latter) while being intensely involved in a scholarly redefinition of the academic study of Islam; on the other hand, both Guénon and Schuon developed their works outside of academic institutions and protocols, and were able to illuminate central facets of the Islamic tradition from the point of view of an actual participation in its spiritual economy. This book aims at introducing these four major figures to the English-speaking world by concentrating on their parallel and complementary contributions to a wider and deeper understanding of Islam as an intellectual and spiritual reality. Such a task is all the more important in that most of Massignon's work has not yet been translated, just as some important books by Corbin—such as his monumental En islam iranien, are not accessible in English. As for the books of Schuon, they are now widely available in English, but his correspondence and some of his unpublished writings are not, and his work has yet to give rise to a wide spectrum of in-depth studies. Finally, while most of Guénon's writings were recently or less recently translated, they remain poorly distributed in the English-speaking world.

Our previous works have focused upon the role of Sufism, Shi'ite gnosis or spiritual knowledge, and spiritual hermeneutics in the redefinition of Islam propounded by Massignon and Schuon. This inquiry extends to the

works of Corbin and Guénon to shed light on such central questions as the complex relationship between Sufism and Christianity, the spiritual dimension of Quranic hermeneutics, the role of the feminine in Islamic spirituality, the spiritual implications of the concept of jihad, or striving, and the universal horizon of Islam as most directly manifested in the Schuonian notion of the "transcendent unity of religions." What has been stated so far indicates clearly that the current study addresses pressing questions that are most relevant to our present-day international predicament since studies in Sufism and Islamic spirituality have been widely recognized as most conducive to bridging the gap between Islam and the West, opening the way to fruitful dialogue between Islam and the Christian traditions, reconnecting a section of the younger Islamic intelligentsia with its own spiritual heritage, and providing original answers to the challenges of modernization and fundamentalism by unveiling and explaining the inner and universal dimension of Islam.

"Pathways to an inner Islam": The title of this study is already suggestive of our main intent. The pathways that we have in mind are to lead us to hidden layers of meaning and consciousness. This is the essence of Sufi knowledge and practice: kashf al-mahjub, the unveiling of the hidden.This implies that Islam is a two-leveled tradition characterized by the coexistence of a zahir and a batin, an outer form and an inner essence. These two levels are the keys to what Martin Lings has refered to as the three-dimensionality of Sufism. Those who limit Islam to a two-dimensional understanding and practice of its forms do not err in affirming the zahir but are misled in denying the batin. Doing so they deprive religion of what constitutes its raison d'etre, the divine dimension of height and depth, of transcendence and immanence: transcendence because the meaning of religion lies above the letter of human understanding, immanence because the substance of Islam, like that of the Qur'an, is an inexhaustible wealth of reality.

By referring to "pathways" in the plural, we do not only allude, moreover, to the fact that all of the works that we propose to study are, out of necessity, interpretations of Islam. We also suggest that Islam includes a variety of perspectives and aspects. Our point is not to deny the diversity of Islam but to point to the centrality and essentiality, in fact the necessity, of the batin. We also contend thereby that the four authors who are the subject of our inquiry, despite the important differences that separate them, or make each of their contributions unique, do share in a same vision of Islam as a spiritual reality. Islam is one and diverse at the same time. It is one in the basic concepts and practices of its creed, but diverse in the modes and levels of understanding it. As the Shaykh `Abd al-Qadir al-Jazair puts it in his Mawaqif "God manifested himself to the Muhammadan community itself through multiple and

diverse theophanies, which explains that this community in its turn includes up to seventy-three different sects, within each of which one should further distinguish other sects, which are themselves varied and different, as anybody familiar with theology can observe it."" By virtue of its unity, Islam is profoundly egalitarian, but but virtue of its diversity it asserts distinctions of ranks, as well as degrees in understanding and actualization of its meaning. Contrary to what many contemporary advocates of Islam have claimed, the metaphysical leveling down of Islam, as expressed in the creed of "no reality but God's Reality," is not exclusive of a spiritual hierarchy among men, and among Muslims. Some ahadith make explicit references to spiritual distinctions such as that between ahl al-jam' and ahl al-karam, the people of common rank and the people of noble rank, the latter being identified by the hadith with the "people of the sessions of invocation" (ahl al-majalis al-dhikr). It must be emphasized that if these people are "superior" in some way, it is only because, and to the extent that, they have consented to be poorer, and ultimately nothing, before God's Unity. As we hope it will be clear to the readers of this study, the works of Massignon, Corbin, Guénon, and Schuon have provided illuminating insights into the content, goal, and meaning of these "sessions of remembrance" in which the quintessence of Islam is distilled in the pure affirmation of the One.

This study has provided us with glimpses of a rich and integrated, if diverse, vision of Islamic spirituality; a metaphysical and mystical picture of inner Islam has emerged from an overall converging and often complementary set of insightful works of meditation and spiritual interiorization of Islam and Sufism. In the wake of Louis Massignon, Henry Corbin, René Guénon, and Frithjof Schuon, we have been able to trace the lineaments of a genuinely inward understanding of Islam while "reconstructing" the organic coherence of a distinct view of this religion that sheds light on the most profound layers of its spiritual universe, the universal horizon of its tenets, and the urgent relevance of its lessons for the modern world, East and West.

In a sense Massignon and Corbin, on the one hand, and Guénon and Schuon, on the other hand, belong to worlds of meaning that are clearly discrete and even at times divergent. The academic context, premises and modi operandi of the former strike a sharp contrast with the esoteric inspiration that nourishes the latter. In that sense, moving from Massignon and Corbin to Guénon and Schuon is like changing planets. This impression must be qualified, however, by the strong existential and spiritual undertones of the former's scholarship. To a large extent, Massignon and Corbin initiated the very possibility of a new kind of Islamic studies informed by the categories and framework of reference of religious faith and spiritual commitment. The spiritual "substitution" of Massignon, with its emphasis on a sympathetic understanding of Islam from within, and Corbin's phenomenological thrust have contributed to revolutionize and fertilize a field of studies that had shown signs of "scientific" sterilization and reductive historicization. Massignon's and Corbin's works launched a bridge of renewed and liberating scholarship that allowed some to reach to the spiritual and mystical side of understanding Islam. It is on this "other" side that Guénon and Schuon have worked to illuminate the innermost and universal strata of Islamic spirituality. As such, their works may be perplexing, challenging and perhaps even unsettling to many academic readers.

Moreover, inasmuch as Massignon and Corbin considered their object of study from a point of view crystallized around Christian points of reference, they also tended, as a result and as if in contradistinction, to perceive Islam in the perspective of its confessional specificity—albeit obviously not irrespective of its common grounds with other religions, while Guénon and Schuon's consideration of Islamic spirituality sub specie universalitatis, as it were, have offered, by contrast, a unique point of view from which to understand Islam "top down" or "inside out." These differences of outlook amount less to irreducible differences than to complementary enrichment. There are many bridges from Massignon's work to Schuon's output, for example, not one of the least being a certain "resonance" of the spiritual meaning and function of the feminine in the modern world, a Marian flavor so to speak. Thus, our authors may provide a wider range of readers, academics or not, with convergent insights and fruitful connections, thereby affording access to a wealth of metaphysical and spiritual teachings and practices.

The ideologization of religion that contemporary analysts have witnessed, and the subsequent framing of religious manifestations in an almost exclusively geopolitical context, does not bode well in terms of reaching the plane of the "inner Islam" that Massignon, Guénon, Corbin, and Schuon had in view. In point of fact, however, for that very reason this inner Islam is all the more needed, as an important complement to, or correction of, the popular, ideological and mediatic images and concepts of Islam that circulate in the communicative frenzy of our information age. The primary commonality of all the contributions that we have studied lies in their stessing the primacy of inwardness for any transmission, permanence, confirmation, or "restoration" of the outward structures and realities of Islam. Instead of making use of Islam as the primary ideological component of a collective affirmation of identity in reaction to the perceived, or real, infringements of the modern West, our authors' contributions bear witness to the existence, validity, and effectiveness of a spiritual assimilation of the substantive marrow of the tradition as a necessary precondition and informing principle for any serious "rebuilding" of Islam in the modern world. Meditating these works cannot but make one sensitive to the ways in which the inner, far from being reducible to the ethical product of outer structures, is in fact the prerequisite for any integrative understanding and effectual treatment of the latter.

One of the main challenges of Islam today lies in its ability, or lack thereof, to remain faithful to the absoluteness of its message, while being able to negotiate the terms of its survival in a world that has, by and large, abandoned traditional benchmarks and normative, sacred institutions. Those who claim to fight for a restoration of outer forms and structures do so in a way that is almost invariably predicated on a literal, exterior, understanding of these forms, manifesting thereby no or little understanding of the ihsani and "irfani foundations of tradition." Such a counter-traditional way of understanding the task of revitalizing and reasserting the message of Islam cannot but bear at least ambiguous, if not utterly poisonous, fruits in a context in which the intellectual principles and living examplars of the tradition are far from being readily available. It bears repeating that Islam, or any other religion for that matter, is not an ideological recipe for success in the modern world, but a sacred means of realizing the human vocation in the world by transcending the latter inwardly.

Away from any sense of political vying for power and confrontation, the perspective of inner Islam opens the way to a greater, deeper understanding of both the diversity and the essential convergence of world religions. Assimilating the spiritual keys it provides amounts to moving away from the external exclusiveness of formalism, and cultivating a concentration on inner modification and purification. Thanks to such a subjective assimilation, a greater understanding of and receptivity to, other faiths becomes possible. Objectively speaking, this approach also has the merit of looking at Islamic forms in a way that emphasizes their intention, their finality, rather than their formal status qua forms. Such an understanding and assimilation of Islam may enable one to reach a degree of intuition of the meaning of other forms. While it allows one to reach a more central, primordial zone of Islam, thereby asserting the essential specificity of this religion, it does so in a way that fathoms the depth of this formal specificity while perceiving it in the universal light that shines through it, as it were.

There is no question that inner Islam cannot be externalized as such on the collective level. However, it can and must be the sap of Islam as a whole. In the history of Islam, Islamic spirituality and mysticism, primarily in the forms of this manifold and multilayered phenomenon called Sufism, have played an integrative and vivifying function in the permanence and development of the religion, including its more external dimensions. An increased receptivity to the message of inner Islam, and a wider attempt at making it a living reality, would contribute in not a small degree to re-centering the focus of the Islamic community and providing it with authentic means of engaging and understanding other faiths.