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Pathways To An Inner Islam – Patrick Laude (2011)

  • religion

In order to say a few things about esoteric Islam, the author chose to do that by presenting not Muslim thinkers, but Westerners. These are Louis Massignon (1883-1962), Henry Corbin (1903-1978), René Guénon (1886-1951) and Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998).

Even though the book is ‘very scholarly’ it immediately springs to the eye that the last two names are not those of academics. The first to are not too typical academics either. Corbin I recently encountered in Religion After Religion. Guénon is -of course- no new name for me, neither is Schuon.

Both Massignon and Corbin had encounters with Islam and Sufism firsthand but retained their Christianity. Guénon (as we saw in the Aguéli book) did receive a Sufi initiation and later in his life also became Muslim. Schuon went as far as to start his own tariqa after having been initiated into Sufism in Algeria.

Laude’s book is a tough read. Long sentences, very academic, but also diving deep into the ideas of the four men, comparing and commenting on them. I often had the idea that the book is quite a bit over my head. Also I remember less of it than I prefer.

It is not like Laude presents the four thinkers in separate chapters. Rather there are subjects which not only the four are quoted and commented on, but also their sources and other thinkers. The subjects are The Qur’an, The Prophet, The Feminine, universality and war. Laude also sets the ideas of the four in a contemporary context in which Islam has become quite a different thing than it was in the previous century.

An interesting but difficult book about the Islam and Sufism of four Westerners in which you will also learn a few things about Islam (mostly its history) itself.

2011 Suny Press, isbn 1438429568

A History Of Religious Ideas (3 volumes) – Mircea Eliade (1976-1983)

This massive work appears to be the last work that Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) wrote. It is a three times 500+ page history of religion. Very fitting for a historian of religions. I read in in three Kindle books, so here we have a review of 1500+ pages. This is not entirely accurate though, since each volume is for a fairly large part filled with notes and bibliographies.

I find the work rather odd. It ends as suddenly as is stops. No introduction, no conclusion or summary. Eliade wanted to present religious ideas in chronological order. Volume 1 is “From the Stone Age to the Eleusian Mysteries”. Volume 2 “From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity. Volume 3 “From Muhammed to the Age of Reforms”. That looks structed enough. It is not as structured as it looks though.

Eliade for some reason chose not to pick a subject and work it out entirely. Or perhaps stated otherwise, his logic of combining subjects is not the same as mine. For example, chapter 9 of volume one is about religion in India before Gautama the Buddha. Then come the Greek, Iran, Israel and the Greek again. Then in volume 2 it starts in the far East and then the Romans, Celts, again Greeks, Hinduism, Judaism.

Of some subjects Eliade presents a history, sometimes he summarises myths or religious texts and another time he presents persons and currents that were important.

The result is a bewildering amount of information on a bewildering number of subjects. Also in translation (the books were written in French) Eliade has an easy-to-read writing style and he manages to say something about large and often difficult subjects in relatively little space. Even in 1500 pages never can he really plunge into the deep. When you know Eliade, you will know that he would not have been satisfied had he really only scratched the surfaces of the subjects though. So by reading the three books from cover to cover, I basically got some expert information about a massive amount of religious subjects.

The books are not really presented as an encyclopedia, but I suppose the work is meant as a reference work. With the ‘cut-up subjects’ I am not sure it will (easily) work that way. On the other hand, Eliade has been a professor for most of his lengthy life, so I suppose he knew how a reference work should be structured better than I do.

I enjoy reading about religious and religious ideas, yet the reading often went fairly slowly. Not all subject have my interest to the same extend and of course, 1500 pages to read is quite a mountain to look up to. Yet I am glad that I ploughed through. Now I only have to think what I am going to do with all the marking and the notes that I made during the reading.

Volume 1 1981 University of Chicago Press, isbn 9780226204017; volume 2 1985 UoCP isbn 0226204030; volume 3 1988 UoCP isbn 0226204057

Islamic Life And Thought – Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2001)

  • religion

In this interesting book, the Traditionalist and born Muslim Nasr describes Islam from an Islamic perspective. Also he describes how Islam looks outside its own boundaries.

Being both Traditionalist and Muslim, Nasr points to elements of modern society, such as secularism, education, religion and strive. He does not write on behalf of a particular Muslim current, but is also clear about the fact that Islam is not a homogenous religion. The most interesting part (to me) is when he shows how Islam changed in different areas as it spread over the globe. Quite like that the Christianity of Southern America is different from the Christianity of Northern Europe, Far Eastern Islam is not the same as North African Islam.

It is hard to say how many contemporary Muslims are as open minded as Nasr or certain parts of Islam in the past. Of course within Islam things like Hermetism and Alchemy have been preserved because some authors found them worth studying. Muslim philosophers have studied the classical Western philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, but these are not things we hear much of nowadays.

What Nasr is far from happy about, is the influence of contemporary Western thinking on Muslims with Western style education on universities and Muslims who know more about market economy than about the deeper layers of their own religion.

What you get from this book is a nice overview of the vast subject of Islam in times past and more recent and also (possible) Muslim approaches to contemporary questions. It comes across me (practically a layman in the field) somewhat idealised, but nonetheless interesting.

2001 Kazi Publications, isbn 1930637144

Autobiography Of A Sadhu – Rampuri (2010)

De Western guru of Aki Cederberg published his autobiography through the same publisher a decade earlier.

Baba Rampuri was born William A. Gans in 1950. Like Cederberg, his longing for genuine spirituality brought Gans to India around his 20th. Contrary to Cederberg, Gans nevermore left.

Rampuri’s autobiography is an interesting read. On his way to India he meets a Frenchman who has spent more time in India already. The Frenchman gives the young Gans some suggestions. The American starts to crisscross India and in no time the three months that his visum is valid have expired. He manages to prolong his stay.

Gans visits several gurus, gets immerged in the spiritual life of India and at some point decides to look for a guru that the Frenchman suggested. He was expected and is almost immediately pressured into being initiated. A unique event as Westerners usually are not allowed to join.

Now called Ram Puri, Gans describes the hard life of an Indian mystic, how he is taught and what he is taught. This makes vivid descriptions of a life completely alien to a Westerner and beautiful stories about Hindu Gods, Goddesses and Baba’s.

After a while Rampuri is sent on the road to meet other gurus, but he is supposed to be present at the Kumph Mela for another initiation into the tradition that his guru connected him to. Meeting both friendliness and severe resistance Rampuri gets his initiation.

Life is not all fun and joy and we follow Rampuri’s travels, but also the ‘travels of his mind’. His Western upbringing keeps bringing up doubts and whatever he does, he remains an outsider.

Towards the end there is a major turn of events which almost makes me wonder if this is actually an autobiography or rather a novel!

Rampuri’s autobiography is a very nice read, interesting and entertaining. It has both a Western and an Eastern attitude, being initiated into a tradition of storytelling, Rampuri is a storyteller.

2010 Destiny Books, isbn 1594773300

European Paganism – Ken Dowden (2008)

The author apparently wanted to make an overview of literal evidence for pre Christian practices all over Europe. His area goes from the far North to Greece and from Ireland to the Easternmost parts of Europe.

The subjects are thematic. Landscape, elements of that landscape, statues, shrines and temples, rituals, calendar, Gods, priests and important points in life and in the year.

The book reads a bit like the mythology books of 150 years ago. As in: ‘The Romans did this and the Slavs this.’ Dowden mostly uses written sources and looks at them critically. For Germanic information he mostly uses Jan de Vries.

So “European Paganism” became a bit of an inventory. You can check what sources are available on a wide variety of subjects and in many cases Dowden sketches how credible the source is. There is not much new information, but some of his sources are not the best known.

Dowden does refer to Dumézil and his theory several times and here and there has an uncommon opinion such as stating that Thor in many cases is the God of the Thing (p. 286).

Even though the author seems positive critical towards paganism and shows the colored information from Christian sources, he does say on page 2017: “If, on the other hand, we are convinced, as I am, that the pagans were wholly deluded in supposing various gods to exists and that ontologically, in the cruel light of day, they were worshipping nothing.”

2008 Routledge, isbn 0415474639

The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2007)

Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a contemporary Traditionalist and born Muslim. He was born in 1933 and is still around, 87 years of age.

As the title suggests, this is a collection of his writings. The book was compiled by fellow Traditionalist William Chittick and has a foreword by Huston Smith.

Chittick made three divisions in the book. The first part is about religion, the opening texts is called “Living In A Multi-Religious World”. Then we have a larger part specifically about Islam and the last part is about Tradition.

Of course there are similarities between Nasr and other Traditionalists, but this book reads nothing like a book of Guénon or Coomaraswamy. Nasr is more academic on one side, and more traditional religious on the other. Of course he was born a Muslim in a conservative Muslim country (Iraq), so Islam is the basis of his thinking. And an interesting thinker he is! Nasr’s academic career obviously made him very well acquainted with different religions. Also he does not shun authors who were not Muslims from birth, such as Frithjof Shuon. Moreover, the different branches of Sufism are dealt with alongside the various kinds of ‘mainstream’ Islam.

As said, Nasr’s writing is quite academic. He can be somewhat extensive and his style is not really light reading. I liked the texts in which we see a modern Muslim looking at the world better than the Traditionalist texts at the end, but Nasr is good in the comparative approach and that is something I enjoy reading.

The book is undoubtedly meant as an introduction to the author and I guess you indeed will get a good idea of Nasr reading this book.

2007 World Wisdom, isbn 1933316381

Zingeving In Het Westen * Peter van Abspoel (2016)

I do not often buy books spontaneously, but when my eye fell on a cover with an image of the Berserkr of the Lewis chessboard together with the words “zingeving” (literally: ‘giving meaning’) and “strijdersethos” (‘warrior ethics’) my attention was caught. It quickly became clear that this is not my ‘usual literature’, but it appeared that the author has something to say about the importance of tradition and the loss of it. I decided to take it home.

The author is an anthropologist who spent much time in Africa. The subject of his investigations started to move more towards the West and Van Abspoel is of the opinion that he has such different view on certain developments in Western society, that he needed to write a book about it.

The book is divided in three parts, “tradition”, “warrior ethos” and “Christianity”.
In the first, the author explains what he means with the term “tradition” and what is it in his opinion. This part is interesting. Van Abspoel’s approach is somewhat ‘technical’ which brings another way of looking at the subject. There is a “non-reflexive” way of knowing that has to be transferred to the next generation in order to keep the world in sync with universal harmony.

Then it comes. The author mostly uses Dumézil to say that Germanic society did not have a ‘first function’ and the entire society revolved around passion and blood-lust. The warrior class worked themselves up and became the “first function” in the scheme of Dumézil, the second were the farmers, the third the slaves. The Gods were warrior Gods and even the afterlife was all about fighting.
Apparently Van Abspoel missed Odin’s role as a seeker of wisdom and that of magician. Where are Balder and Forseti? What about the Goðar and Völva?
Even in the books of Dumézil the author could have found that Tyr and Odin are the Teutonic couple of sovereignty.
Still, the author is of the opinion that the adventure seeking Germans were the reason that the West grew to be anti-traditional. The thesis and the way Van Abspoel supports it are interesting, but I cannot get my head around the fact that a substantial part of the book is based on a onesided theory and a onesided use of Dumézil.
Rather than saying that Dumézil denied the existence of a sovereign “function” in Teutonic religion, Van Abspoel could have used Dumézil’s remark that the Teutonic pantheon ‘dropped half a function’ and that in society there was (indeed) a big role for the warriors, and worked from there. Now I do not believe Teutonic society was as bloody and anti-egalitarian as Van Abspoel describes it, but I may have been less annoyed by the founding of his theory based on half-read Dumézil.

That said, the ‘furor Teutonicus’ (according to the author) made Germanic tribes disregard tradition, because tradition is about harmony, which would hold back the adventurous Teutons. This way of looking at life, resulted in our hasty society with little regard of the past and the constant rat-race modern man is part of.

With the dawn of Christianity there initially was a return to a traditional way of looking at things (up until the Reformation). Van Abspoel describes how Jesus Christ did not so much try to do away with everything there was and replace it with a new religion, but rather how Christianity gave new color to certain traditions.

Van Abspoel is a fairly ‘technical’ writer. Perhaps his book is meant for a scholarly audience rather than the general public. He founds his theories with many details and there are many repetitions and cross-references in the book. With an approach that was new to me and a theory that I cannot entirely follow, this makes the book quite a touch read here and there.
The most interesting thing of the book, to me, is the way Van Abspoel approaches tradition and explains its importance, even in our own day and age.

As you can judge from the title, the book is written in Dutch, so the audience will be somewhat limited. Perhaps this is a title that Dutch-speaking readers of this website may put somewhere on a ‘future reading list’. It is perhaps too scholarly and little ‘practical’, but one that may make you reconsider some of your own ideas and that is always a good thing.

2016 Vantilt, isbn 9789460042713

Spiritual Body And Celestial Earth * Henry Corbin (1977)

However in writing style, this book is a much easier read than the recently reviewed Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, this new title proved to be quite a read. It is not like it is extremely big (372 pages a large part notes and biography) and I thought I knew a thing or two about Mazdeism and Shi’ite Islam, but this book constantly gave me a feeling of information overload with descriptions that I did not (immediately) understand or failed to see the connections aimed at. Still the book makes a nice read and some of the traditional texts that are published are beautiful, but it is not like I have a clear idea of what this book is actually about.

The author starts with about 100 pages with his own introduction, descriptions, etc. The subject at hand seems to be the concept of two cities, Hurqalya and Jabalqa, which are part of what Corbin calls the Mundus Imaginalis or “Imaginal world”. Many speculations have been made about the nature of these cities and its inhabitants. After a few of these speculations, Corbin prints “selections from traditional texts” which make out the next 170 pages. The texts are from authors from the 12th to the 19th centuries. Of most of them I never heard, but a better-known author that seems Corbin’s favorite is Shihabuddin Yahya Suhrawardi.

I cannot tell you a whole lot about this book. Perhaps the audience that Corbin aimed at is better versed in near Eastern religion and philosophy than myself. As a layman I can say that the part that Corbin wrote himself is informative enough (but I do not remember much of it) and the traditional texts vary from very dry to more mystical texts, the latter of which I prefer to read.

1977/1989 Bollingen Series, isbn 0691018839

Swedenborg And Esoteric Islam * Henry Corbin (1995)

I had heard of the French author Henry Corbin (1903-1978) a couple of times and I thought it was time to read something of this author whom some regard as a Traditionalist, others certainly do not. He definately was a scholar in comparitive religion.

I set out for titles that are well available and potentially interesting. The thin (160 pages) “Swedenborg And Esoteric Islam” is one of the two books that I got.

The title of this book suggests that Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had something to do with esoteric Islam, that the former was influenced by the latter or vice versa, but that is not what this book is about. Corbin taught Islamic studies at the Sorbonne University and he deeply studied Swedenborg. He certainly found resemblances, but that does not mean that there are direct links between the two subjects of this book.

The translator Leonard Fox says in his introduction that Corbin does not have an easy writing style. He sure is right about that! The book does not make an easy read. It is a bit like a mash of information not too well structured to easily make sense. Yet the book makes a good read. As for Islam, the author mostly focusses on Isma’ilism, a branch of Shi’ism (also: Shia Islam), but other forms of Islam are also written about.

There are chapters about the Hermeneutics of Swedenborg, that of Isma’ilism and of course there are comparisons between the two. Sometimes Corbin goes so deeply into a subject, that it is hard to figure out how this information fits into the whole of the book. The subjects that are dug out in both ‘systems’ mostly are the story of Noah and the flood and what Corbin called the “imagninal world”.

It is quite interesting to see much distinct philosophies used to explain each-other. This way of working brings some surprising comparisons and unexpected clarifications even when the book requires some effort to read.

1995 Swedenborg Foundation, isbn 9780887851837

The Essential Vedanta * Eliot Deutsch & Rohit Dalvi (editors) (2004)

For a long time I had wanted to read texts of the Advaita Vedanta and a while ago I ran into this title. The title is promising. The subtitle is too: “A New Source Book of Advaita Vedanta”. That sounds like some sort of ultimate collection of Vedantic texts. It is published by a Traditionalistic publishing house which was also a reason to purchase it.

The back cover quotes Richard Brooks saying: “[This book] is overall an excellent collection of Advaita philosophic literature”. Indeed it is “philosophic”. The book proves again that I do not have a whole lot of feeling for philosophy, whether Western or Eastern. I guess I expected more religious type of texts, but the texts are actually very much philosophical.

The best part of the book are the 80 page introduction and the short summery at the end. These texts are written by the editors, nicely to the point and well-structured. The rest of the book is filled with texts of Vedantic thinkers from many upto a few centures ago. The names are well-known and lesser-known (at least, to me), the most famous of course being Samkara. Especially in the first part of the translated texts, they are very long. Towards the end there are some shorter texts. There are translations that have been published before and translations that were not available until this book came out. The editors compiled the translations and did not make them themselves. Inspite of the number of different translators, the translations are nicely consistent in style and choice of words/terms. Perhaps the book costed quite some editing.

Like I said, the texts are very philosophical. Different views are combed through, other ways of thinking analysed and all that in (mostly) long stretched texts with many repetitions. I found it hard to keep my attention on more than a few occasions. I prefer to read more to the point texts or -like I said in the beginning- religious texts.

Perhaps this book is indeed the (or: an) ultimate book about Advaita Vedanta and I just had other expectations of the sort of texts that this ‘current’ produced and I should just get myself a translation of Vedas. When you are interested in Eastern philosophy, this book may be a good one to read up on Advaita Vedanta from very old to old.

2004 World Wisdom, isbn 0941532526