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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

Emir Abd el-Kader: Hero and Saint of Islam – Ahmed Bouyerdene (2012)

The fascinating life of Abd al-Qādir ibn Muḥy al-dīn (1808-1883) is described in this book which was originally published in French. Abd el-Kader was born in Algeria. His father, Muhyi al-Din al-Hasani had a tariqa (Sufi school) in the Qadiriyya tradition of Hasan ibn Ali (which explains the “al-Hasani” in his name). Raised a Sufi, taught in a variety of subjects and early to make the ‘big’ Hajj (not only a trip to Mecca, but also other (Sufi) sanctuaries in different countries). But then the French started to meddle in the area and Abd el-Kader suddenly had another occupation: he became an “Emir”, a “leader of the faithful” at the age of 22.

Abd el-Kader was so heroic that he started to gain respect even from his adversaries. For 14 years he led varying cooperations of tribes to try to keep the French in check. In the end he did not succeed and had to surrender after which he was taken prisoner in France. Even though this history is interesting, I was more curious about the man’s thinking and we are well passed half the book before we get to that. The event with which he made name in the West was when he prevented the massacre of Christians by Muslims.

Abd el-Kader was not only a pious man, but also a curious a well-read man with an interest that went outside Muslim subjects. While in France he met many people and he grew in his understanding of both Christianity and French / Western culture. He was even initiated into Freemasonry just before the Grand Orient de France removed the obligation of faith, which caused him to leave.

Be that as it may, in the second half of the book we follow a man who, after his incarceration in France, went into exile nearer to home, but with the freedom to again travel to Mecca and visit other countries. Bouyerdene has a look at his writings and in spite of spiritual maturity, Abd el-Kader finds a master for the next step on his spiritual path.

In the course of this history, you will learn about Muslim culture of two centuries ago, the role of the West in the region, the curiosity of some people in ‘the other side’, but most of all, about a fascinating man who was both of this world and of ‘the other’.

2012 World Wisdom, isbn 1936597179

Ye Shall Know the Truth: Christianity and the Perennial Philosophy – Mateus Soares de Azevedo (editor) (2005)

A Traditionalist book about Christianity is not too common. I am also reading a book with texts of Frithjof Schuon and Schuon is also featured quite a bit in this book, so that was perhaps a bit Schuon overkill. An amusing text in both books -though- is a text about how some forms of Protestantism -in the eyes of Schuon- are still a valid Tradition.

There are texts of authors that I know, such as James Cutsinger, Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings Ananda Coomarasway, Rama Coomaraswamy and René Guénon, but also authors unknown to me.

The book is divided in the sections “foundations”, “spirituality”, “sacred art”, “comparative religion”, “the universality of Christian mystics” and “the modern deviation”.

With such a big variety of authors and subjects it is not that strange that not all essays equally appealed to me. A nice surprise was the text of the Hesychast “Bisschop Kallistos Ware” which brings a lot of nuance to the relatively Jesus Prayer (mantra) of the Hesychasm. I also enjoyed “The Christians in Moorish Spain” by Duncan Townson.

A compendium with a wide approach. An enjoyable read.

2005 World Wisdom, isbn 0941532690

Universal Aspects Of The Kabbalah And Judaism – Leo Schaya (2014)

Of course there have been (and are) more Traditionalists than the handful I have reviewed before. I ran into a reference to Schaya who was a Traditionalist who wrote from a Jewish perspective. This is interesting, because Islamic and Vedantic approaches are much more common.

Schaya (1916-1986) was a Swiss from Polish parents who spent much of his life in France. His parents were non-practising Jews, but as a boy, Schaya was captivated by the mystical aspects of that religion. On encountering Frithjof Schuon, he moved to a Traditionalist perspective.

Schaya wrote mainly in French, also in German, but not many of his writings have been made available in English. The current title contains a collection of essays and talks, some of which had been translated before, some had not.

Schaya indeed proves to have a ‘very Traditionalist’ perspective. Fond themes appear to be the appearance of God to Moses and his people on the mount Sinai and the earlier encounter of Moses with the burning bush. Schaya brilliantly explains these famous Biblical events in quite a ‘Guénonian’ way with constant references to Jewish terminology. He dives into the depths of Jewish theology coupled with Kabbalah. Along his way, he frequently refers to Vedanta, but a lot more to Islam and Sufism, making comparisons and explaining aspects of either system with references to the other and both he exoteric and esoteric sides. Creation, the name of God, large subjects are dealt with with interesting perspectives.

The introduction of Patrick Laude says that many people find Schaya’s writing style difficult. I personally find him more easily to read than some of the books I read recently and even easier than Schuon.

All in all I find Schaya a very interesting author, so I am going to see what other works of his are available in English.

2014 World Wisdom, isbn 1936597330

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