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Sufism: The Essentials – Mark Sedgwick (2000)

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Sedgwick wrote a few books about Sufism. I guess the title made me think that this is a book with Sufi texts. It is not really. The book is mostly an introduction to Sufism. Where in “Western Sufism“, obviously, the encounter with the West was central, here we have a little book with Sufism as it was and is in Muslim countries.

In this early book on Sufism you can read what Sufism is and how it came to be. The author has information about different branches and different orders and how these differences originated. Then there is a chapter about Sufism in Muslim societies and how that role changed from elite to pariah.

The book is interesting, but very basic and fairly thin (132 pages). There is some Sufi material to read, the Hikam of Ibn ‘Ata Allah, but these are only a few pages all the way at the end.

2000/3 American University in Cairo Press, isbn 9774248236

The New Age of Russia – Hagemeiser / Benzel (2012)

A while ago I ran into the name of Konstantin Serebrov, some Russian spiritual leader. He writes about a “Master G.” who appeared to be a man named Vladimir Stefanov. I looked around a bit for this Stefanov and I found a text of Mark Sedgwick as one essay in the present title. This concerns an academic title about esoteric currents in Russia. Interesting.

The book is 450 pages and contains texts by a long list of authors, only one of whom I knew. The authors write about esotericism in Russia in different eras showing how little I actually know about Russia. The interest in things esoteric had its ups and downs. As Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal writes:

In Russia, occultism surged in the revolutionary and early Soviet periods (1890-1927) and subsided when Stalin became the new God. It (occultism) revived in the wake of de-Stalinization (the 1960s and ’70s), and surged in the late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia (1985-2000).

Different regimes were (more or less) open to esotericism, sometimes openly. In other times the esotericists had to go underground because they (or some of them!) were severely persecuted. Many fled the country. I also had to get used to terms such as “the Thaw” which I guess I am suppose to know. This has nothing to do with the end of the Cold War, but is another description of the “de-Stalinization” from the quote. I suppose I learned a thing or two about Russian society in general along with a thing or two about esotericists in general.

Most authors, and perhaps the Russians themselves, go pretty easily from “magicians” to UFOs to fantasy writers and back. A few essays are about science fiction and fantasy writers which were only mildly interesting to me, even when the authors used novels to present their ideas (and I wonder why filmmakers are not included, but that aside). The most interesting essays can be found in the beginning where groups such as the so-called “Iuzhinskii Circle” (named after the apartment where they met) are spoken of. There were several small groups meeting (in hiding) to discuss all kinds of different subjects, but it is from this particular circle that the named Stefanov came, but also Alexandr Dugin.

Stefanov is mentioned in some of the essays. He was quite the character in the more intellectual type of esoteric groups. Whether it was him that introduced Guénon in Russia or that it was the writer Yuri Mamleev perhaps does not really matter as they met in the same circle, but here we have the (possible) starting point for the now-famous Traditionalist Dugin about whom Sedgwick’s essays speaks. Plus, Stefanov apparently read probably Russian esotericist most famous in the West: George Gurdjieff and used some of his ideas (I also saw these in Serebrov) and so we have another familiar name.

A maybe somewhat less familiar name, but still, is that of Nikolai Roerich (actually Rerikh) a relatively famous painter who tried to make a bridge to the far East. This is not so strange when you realise that Russia reaches all the way to the far East. Roerich hoped to make acquaintances and come to terms with all religions. He was not along (or the first) in this, so you also learn about Russia’s relationship to that far East. In these circles we also see very early expeditions into the Himalayas searching for hidden masters. Perhaps there we also have a source for the Eastern preoccupation of the Orient of the Theosophists. Blavatsky (quite consistently named “Elena” by all authors by the way) is also frequently mentioned, but she appears to be regarded more Western than Russian.

In any case, the book presents a wide and interesting overview of esotericism in Russia which goes from shamanism to paganism to all kinds of New Age type approaches and (new kinds of) psychology. It makes a very interesting read.

2012 Peter Lang GmbH, isbn 3866881975

De Weg Terug – Jan de Meyer (2022)

Jan de Meyer (1961-) is a Flemish sinologist (scholar of Chinese studies) who wrote several books and translated traditional texts. Some of his work is in English, most is in Dutch. This is one such Dutch title. Earlier I read Wat Kan Ik Leren Van De Taoïsten? (‘What can I learn of the Taoists?’) (2020). This is also a Dutch title, perhaps that was the reason I did not review it.

The title of the present book translates to ‘The way back’. It is about “Chinese hermits and Daoism”. Where the other title (‘what can I learn’) presents translations of classic, Chinese texts (with elucidations) about a list of subjects, ‘the way back’ is an in depth study into the subject of Chinese hermitage.

Early in the book De Meyer explains that Chinese hermitage is not quite the same as people retreating into a cloister. The book is mostly about people who have retreated to inhabitable areas, often mountains, to stay away from normal life. Some of these hermits also studied Confucianism, Taoism, or both. Some made a name of being wise. Then the irony occurs that some of these people fled the dangers of society (China has a violent past), when at the same time they are approached for public functions. The book seems to say that in ancient China you either worked for the government or you retreated from public life.

Spanning centuries upon centuries, De Meyer presents a long list of hermits, some (relatively) famous, some translated into a Western language for the first time. You encounter Taoism, some Confucianism, Chinese culture and politics and of course the life of the (un)common man and woman.

Just as in the other book, De Meyer has a very easy-to-read writing style with humour and obviously a massive knowledge about his subject. A book about people living in mountains may seem a bit dull, but ‘the way back’ is a very nice book about old and not-so-old Chinese culture.

2022 Athenaeum, isbn 9789025313029

Ontluikend Christendom – Daniël de Waele (2021)

The title would translate to something like “budding Christianity” or “nascent Christianity”. Probably “emerging Christianity” would be a clearer title, but doing away with the ‘feel’ of the original title.

In any case, here we have a book of almost 500 pages about “the cultural history of a new religion in a Greek-Roman world”. De Waele presents an extraordinarily detailed description of the time and area in which Christianity started and developed.

In the first chapters, the author describes daily life in the first centuries A.D. Marriage and the position of women among the Jews, marriage and the position of women among the ‘heathens’ and with the Christians. The same for the position of slaves and more particular subjects such as education, death and burial, religious life, etc. The author compiles his story from a staggering amount of sources and presents it in an easy-to-read narrative. It may sound a bit dull, but these early chapters already are quite interesting.

After about 200 pages De Waele goes to different kinds of Jews, compares their ideas and relations, etc. After that follow the Romans. De Waele effortlessly goes from describing laws and justice to explaining religious and mystic concepts. As far as I was already familiar with them, he does that very well too. The ideas of different Jewish, Jewish-Christian and Christian groups, their sources, etc.

For the development of Christian theology, De Waele also writes about different philosophical schools from Greece, Gnostic groups, all the way up to famous early Christian thinkers such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Saint Augustine (of Hippo).

Detailed yet easy to read, very well written and highly interesting. But… so far only available in Dutch.

2021 KokBoekencentrum, isbn 904353661X

Geschiedenis Van De Westerse Esoterie – Jacob Slavenburg & John van Schaik (2021)

Two productive Dutch authors teamed up for a history of Western esotericism. They created a volume of well over 700 pages which I read from cover to cover. It is in chronological order and even though there are chapters per subject, the book is not really presented as an encyclopedia.

700 Pages may make a thick book, when you aim to describe a history of esotericism spanning thousands of years, you are still down to a few pages per subject and that is indeed what happened.

Both authors have written (at length) about Gnosticism (old and new), Hermetica, early Christianity and similar subjects in the past. The chapters about these subject in the present title are concise, to the point and clear. Of course the range of subjects of the book is much wider. It shows (a bit) which movements and thinkers have the authors’ interests and which less so. For example, their information about Freemasonry is pretty weak. The history has holes, there are typos, misunderstandings and cut corners. The information about Rudolf Steiner is better, except, when it comes to his ‘Masonic adventures‘.

I had hoped to encounter more recent information, that the authors had used sources which I had not yet had in my hands. I did not really read anything new. Still the book made a nice read. A summery and retrospect of subjects I read about sometimes long ago. The authors point to some red threads/people and because everything is in one book, make cross references.

Like I said, it is more of a book to get you started on subjects, a general introduction to a wide variety of subjects ranging from Greek philosophy, to mysticism to the Ordo Templi Orientis to New Age. The book is in Dutch and there is some stress on the Netherlands. it comes in a good looking hardcover.

2021 Van Warven, isbn 949317574X

Western Sufism – Mark Sedgwick (2016)

Franz Farwerck joined Inayat Khan’s Sufi order in 1922. Some time ago I was reading Sedgwick’s book about Ivan Agueli who was another Westerner who became Sufi and who even initiated René Guénon. This was another order, so I wondered what Sufism was ‘available’ in the West in the early 20th century. With a little searching I ran into another book by the same Mark Sedwick.

Western Sufism is a term that Sedgwick uses for the ‘Western form’ of Sufism. This can either be brought to the West by Eastern Sufis or a system developed by a Westerner based on or inspired by Sufism.

The book begins with a lengthy investigation into Neoplatonism and “Emationism” and the reception in ‘Muslim minds’. He works towards the first Sufis, how either or not Sufism is connected to Islam and the short-lived Jewish form of Sufism. Sedgwick also looks at the political and radical elements of some Sufi orders and then describes how on the wings of Blavatasky’s Theosophy, Sufism found its way to the West.

The earlier mentioned Agueli was not the first, nor the last, Western to convert to Islam and later become Sufi, He was the first Westerner to initiate another Westerner (Guénon). He joined an existing tariqa and ‘worked from there’. Even though Agueli was not a Traditionalist himself, under influence of Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, a ‘Traditionalistic’ form of Sufism would rise that (mainly in followers of Schuon) still exists today.

Then we had people such as the Indian Inayat Khan (1822-1927) who was initiated into a Sufi order (but also in Hindu orders) and travelled the West as a musician. In the end he would found a Sufi order which had some schisms, some of which still exist today.

As Sufism reached the West, two developments started to emerge. One part of Western Sufism started to move towards Islam, another away from it. The latter is what Sedgwick called the “universalistic” branch. In both ‘camps’ there were moderate and more radical groups. As Islam became better known in the West (often because of members of Sufi orders), the view on Islam developed. Islam itself (outside Sufism) also developed which on its turn changed the attitude towards Sufi orders of Western non-members.

The Netherlands have played a large role in the reception and development of the Sufism that came from Inayat Khan. Sedgwick described how the organisation(s) fared after Khan’s death in 1927, but that did not tell me much about how Farwerck would possibly have developed his view on the order.

You will encounter many more people than the few in this review, giving an idea how big the penetration of Western Sufism into Western society actually was.

The book is interesting as you will learn how an element of Islam had an ever-developing relationship with the West, influencing both Islam itself and the view of the West on it. Western Sufism thrived in the ‘esoteric wave’ that was caused by the Theosophical Society, went down when that wave came to rest, but just like Theosophy, different Western Sufi orders may have gotten smaller, but they survived and still exist.

2016 Oxford University Press, isbn 019997764X

Anarchist, Artist, Sufi – Mark Sedgwick (editor) (2021)

  • history

Ivan Aguéli (1869-1917) was born as John Gustaf Agelii. The name was somewhat familiar to me, as Aguéli had ‘something to do’ with René Guénon. I ran into this biographical compendium, edited by none less than the editor the Traditionalists blog and author of Against The Modern World Mark Sedgwick. Time to learn a bit more about the anarchist, artist and Sufi from Sweden.

Aguéli was -like I said- born in Sweden. He was foremost a painter. A restless soul. After studying under different Swedish masters, Aguéli moved to Paris were he emerged himself in the Symbolists scene. Also, like other symbolists, he went around in Paris’ ‘occult scene’ of the day.

As the title of the book says, Aguéli was also an anarchist and he was involved in the Paris student riots of 1893. This put him in jail for a few months, months which he used for intense studies. These studies brought him in touch with Islam. Aguéli travelled to Cairo and found his Shayk, only to become one himself taking the name ʿAbd al-Hādī al-ʿAqīlī (usually Abd al-Hadi or Abd al-Hadi al Maghrabi (“al Maghrabi” means ‘the Westerner)).

The book contains 13 essays of different authors. There is some overlap between the texts. The texts are divided over the subjects Aguéli as anarchist and artist and Aguéli as Sufi. In the last chapter Sedgwick also says a thing or two about Aguéli’s influence on Traditionalism.

Aguéli was an interesting character, but it is obvious that he was not just a ‘proto-Traditionalist’. Sure, before René Guénon he had converted to Islam. As a matter of fact, it was Aguéli who initiated Guénon in Paris in 1911! Contrary to Guénon, Aguéli identified himself as a Muslim (Guénon only did so after he moved to Cairo in 1930). There is a bit of irony in here too. The Shayk that Aguéli found, had a fairly modern/Western system. Aguéli wrote for magazines that also Guénon wrote for. He influenced Guénon’s thinking, but Guénon went quite a different way.

Aguéli was an avid writer and he translated many Sufi texts for the first time to a Western language. He had something with languages too, learning as many as 16! Even though Aguéli was pushed out of the history of Traditionalism, he not only influenced Guénon, but also Frithjof Schuon.

To the end of the book two letters and two texts of Aguéli are published showing a mature thinker at an early age.

All in all Sedgewick’s book makes an interesting book about an interesting person.

2021 Bloomsbury, isbn 1350229563

Occult Paris – Tobias Churton (2016)

Another Churton. This time about Paris during the “Belle Epoque”. According to the author an unexposed part of esoteric history, at least in the English language.

As you may know, the late 19th century had an ‘occult revival’. Movements such as Theosophy rose, different systems of ‘high grade’ Freemasonry came into being. Martinism, neo-Rosicrucianity. Much of this can in one way of another be traced back to “Belle Epoque” (“Beautiful Epoch”) Paris.

Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) lived just before this time, but he was one of the inspirators. What Churton mostly concerns is the “Symbolist” movement. Painters, poets, composers, etc. apparently longed back to a time of magic. Bookshop, meetings, groups and movements were formed by people with similar interests where they met, discussed, inspired each other and indeed, held seances too.

In Churton’s book you will not only meet Edmond Bailly, Fabre d’Olivet, Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, Stanislas de Guaita, Lady Caithness, but most of all Joséphin Péladan and Papus. (And many others.)

The movement oddly went from a more occult orientation to a more artistic one and back. Of course there were several big egos, clashes, schisms and the like, so you will learn about Rosicrucian movements that were basically magical organisations, while others appear to be more art-movements. Or were they? Gnosticism, Cathars, Martinism, Freemasonry, magicians and philosophers all these things oddly ran through each other with Paris as focal point, also when we are talking North America and Russia.

Churton has presented another interesting book about a interesting part of history. I do not know if it was a story formerly untold, but it sure was a nice read with here and there some subjects to dive into deeper.

2016 Inner Traditions, isbn 162055545X

Reformation, Revolution, Renovation – Lyke de Vries (2021)

The dissertation of De Vries (1990-) on the Rosicrucians for her philosophy study in Nijmegen was turned into an academic publication on the esteemed publisher Brill. This makes this yet another expensive publication, but apparently Brill wanted to make this book better available, since you can download a free version on the book through the publisher’s website.

When I got the book I wondered if it would bring any new information. There have been classic and detailed publications about the subject, also from my own country. Think Carlos Gilly, think Govert Snoek; recently I read Tobias Churton. Actually, De Vries indeed did dive into a hardly explored element of the subject: the Rosicrucian call for a general reformation.

Universal reformation is by definition all-embracing and encompasses a wide range of activities, including plans to reform, amongst others, religion, politics, philosophy, medicine, and education. (p. 22)

Thus De Vries sets out to investigate what reformation(s) the Rosicrucians stood for. Contrary to other authors, De Vries is of the opinion that Rosicrucians were not Lutheran. She compared the manifestos and the people who (presumably) wrote them and compared them to Lutheran (“millennialistic” / “chiliastic”) texts and concludes that there are big differences. The most important being that Rosicrucian texts are actually optimistic as they hint towards a golden time after the end of the world.
This optimism also shows in the political area.
Philosophy, medicine and education are in grave need for reformations. Based on Paracelcus, but mostly followers of Paracelcus, new ways of medicine and theology are supported.

De Vries not only looked at the manifestos and other writings of Johan Valentin Andreae (1586-1654) and Tobias Hess (1568–1614), she also looked at the early responds in detail. This way it becomes obvious that everybody read the manifestos in a different way. One respondent picks elements to support his own agenda, another one does the same. This way the “Rosicrucian furore” becomes somewhat confusing. It certainly was not a homogenous movement.

Lyke de Vries’ book takes you on a journey through 16/7th century thinking. Sometimes radical, sometimes provocative. A world in transition where reformers clash with the establishment, an establishment that some are part of themselves. The book is mostly a ‘history of ideas’ so to speak.

Indeed, a somewhat different angle to the subject. Reformation, Revolution, Renovation The Roots and Reception of the Rosicrucian Call for General Reform makes an interesting read.

2019 Brill, isbn 9004250220

The Invisible History Of The Rosicrucians – Tobias Churton (2009)

Another Churton, and I have bought yet more. Obviously, in this book Churton takes a look at the Rosicrucians, a history often told.

As in his other works, Churton used recent (and less recent) scholarly publications, especially those of Carlos Gilly and Susanna Åkerman. He frequently refers to the Ritman Library (aka Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica aka Embassy Of The Free Mind). Churton is connected to the Exeter University where there is a seat for Western Esotericism. Still Churton does not read ‘dry scholarly’, quite the contrary actually. I have just started a very recent academic publication about the Rosicrucians and Churton does not even seem to be a source there. Does he move just outside the usual suspects of Rosicrucian scholars?

It is not like his book is one of those popular ‘alternative history’ books with much spectacle and little substantiation. And even though -more than in his other books- he uses other publications for his information, there is also again his own information and approach.

Churton puts the Rosicrucian furore in a bit of a cadre. astronomy (supernovas), upcoming science, radical individuals and groups, etc. Even though he looks at people and how they relate to each other his conclusion is that there was no Rosicrucian brotherhood. This is somewhat annoyingly repeatedly stressed towards the end.

What there was were people with ideals, certain interests, people who saw that the world was running in the wrong direction. Not even central among them was Johan Valentin Andreae, the author of the Fama, the Chemical Wedding, perhaps also of the Confessio, but also of a load of other writings that are often left aside by authors on Rosicrucian history. Churton does look at Andreae’s other writings and thus paints an interesting picture in which the Rosicrucian craze is a bit of an embarrassment for Andreae. The manifestoes were not published at Andreae’s wish, but because somebody got hold of a copy and took it to a publishing house. What Andreae was really after and what the publication of the manifestoes thwarted rather than helped is something you get an idea of reading Churton’s book.

Of course there was more to the Rusicrucian furore than Andreae and there was much more to Andreae than Rocrucianism. Churton describes how thinkers such as Andreae, but also Jan Amos Comenius and others saw the need of a reformation much wider than the Reformation, a development that just may have influenced the ‘start’ of early Freemasonry.

Towards the end of the book the author starts describing ‘neo-Rosicrucian’ organisations and people. This is a bit of a history of Western esotericism after 1730. “Fringe” Freemasonry (Churton seems to see ‘high grade’ Freemasonry as “fringe”), famous esotericists, Rosicrucian groups, Crowley, all things mildly related and yet very much unrelated as there was no historical Rosicrucian brotherhood, fills the last chapters of the book.

Churton paints a bit of a larger picture than what you are often presented. Especially more of the person of Andreae was an interesting read. All in all, I do not think I learned a whole lot of things new. Churton’s book is a bit of an ‘easy read’ about the subject, a bit of an updated Frances Yates so to say. If you want a not too dry book about the subject with fairly updated information, scholarly in background and easier to get than academic publications, this could be a title to look at.

2009 Inner Traditions, isbn 159477255X