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Mark Sedgwick

Sufism: The Essentials – Mark Sedgwick (2000)

  • history

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

Traditionalism: The Radical Project For Restoring Sacred Order – Mark Sedgwick (2023)

Almost 20 years after Against The Modern World, Sedgwick thought it was time for an updated history of Traditionalism. Both books are histories of Traditionalism. Both books deal with ‘Traditionalism in practice’. Still, the books differ.

The reader gets a history of Traditionalism, of course starting with René Guénon. Well, first Sedgwick is going to tell you in what tradition Guénon can be placed, thus describing Neoplatonism, Renaissance Perennialism, etc. Then the author moves to the most eye catching element of Traditionalism: the critique on modernity.

In part II Sedgwick starts to describe what he calls “core projects” of Traditionalism. Personally I never had the idea that there ever was such a thing as “projects”. Of course some of the Traditionalist authors (or perhaps all of them) had their centres of gravity, but Sedgwick also describes projects which he had to distill from various writings.

Guénon’s “project” was “self-realization”. Schuon’s “project”, “religion” and Evola’s “project”, “politics”. Roughly spoken, perhaps indeed. Then we get other “projects” such as “art” (Coomaraswamy, still agreed), “gender” (here things become fuzzy), “nature” (mostly Nasr) and “dialogue” (Schuon, Smith). There is also a “post-Traditionalism” “project” “the radical right”.

Guénon certainly was the intellectual, critical of religion. Evola was more interested in political action. Schuon “rehabilitated religion”. In Seyyed Hosein Nasr, Schuon’s “project” was stretched and extended. Nasr was the first Traditionalist indicating environmental awareness. Schuon also had ‘followers’ in authors, scholars and religious leaders who took his “transcendent unity of religions’ to heart and who investigated different religions, comparing them, not on the abstract level of Guénon, and who brought religions together in dialogue. This is a logical outcome of Traditionalist thought, but a “project” of Traditionalism or rather the projects of individuals and groups, some of whom had an interest in Traditionalist thinking?

Like in the other book, I have the idea that Sedgwick stretches the subject to describe the influence of Traditionalism on elements of our own time and age, however indirect. Then again, Traditionalism isn’t a philosophy of the past and Traditionalist thinkers did and do influence (academic) thinking, so I guess we are just talking about a “project” of Sedgwick himself.

Shortly the ‘traditional’ Traditionalists, their lives and thought (but not as much about their lives as in the previous book) and then rapidly on to more contemporary thinkers. There is a bit too much stress on the political side of the story, but I guess also there we see a preference of the author. So you can read about Alain de Benoist, Alexandr Dugin, “alt-right”, etc. Also, more interesting to me personally, yet shorter, Nader Ardalan, a Traditionalist architect; Keith Critchlow who wrote about geometry and John Tavener, a composer; and even a little about “music scene Traditionalism“.

The book is not a crash course in Traditionalist thought, but -as mentioned- a history of that thought. It is a readable book, fairly interesting and it does touch open some new related subjects.

2023 Oxford University Press, isbn 0197683762

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

Against The Modern World – Mark Sedgwick (2014)

I have known about this book since it came out, but I do not remember why I never bought it. Perhaps it was first published as an expensive academic publication? The colofon says: copyright 2004, but first issued as a paperback 2009. In that case I still could have bought it 8 years ago.

The subtitle is “Traditionalism and the secret intellectual history of the twentieth century”. That already implies that the book is not just a biography of the most famous Traditionalists. It looks a bit like the author had to stretch the concept a bit to fill the book though.

The book starts with chapters about “Traditionalism” and “Perrenialism”. In these chapters you will find the biography of René Gunénon. His adventures in esotericism and occultism, his pursuit of an academic career and eventually how he started to walk his own path. It shows that Guénon was but a man with his own failures. Sedgewick portrays him as an armchair esotericist who writes about Hinduism without ever having been to a Hindu country or even met a Hindu. Also it took a long time before Guénon actually became a practical Traditionalist. His early initiations into orders that often did not fit his later frames were all abandoned and Guénon did not follow an exoteric religion until he moved to Cairo and that was not even his own idea.
Also in these chapters you will learn about Ananda Coomaraswamy and the way these two persons were in contact with a whole range of people.

The next part of the book is about “Traditionalism in practice” and here we first follow Frithjof Schuon and his Sufi order that at some point started to drift away from ‘Guénonian Traditionalism’.
After this we move to the political dimension of Traditionalism and (of course) focuses of Julius Evola.

In the last part, Sedgewick describes how Traditionalism spread over the world through (neo-)Sufi orders, the academia (Mircea Eliade) and people with Traditionalist leanings, but not Traditionalists per se. Especially in that last part the information gets a bit ‘thin’. Stories about people and organisations who may have never read a single Traditionalist book, but shared elements of the philosophy are described along with currents that fit the book better in my opinion.

Overall the book is fairly interesting. The writings of some Traditionalists get some context. In what phase did Guénon, Schuon, Nasr, etc. write a certain book? It is somewhat interesting to see what became of Traditionalism, but I agree with critics that Sedgewick focuses quite a bit on politics that are only vaguely aligned with Traditionalism, such as certain currents in Russia.

The book is ‘de-mystifying’ in the regard that Sedgewick does not shy to describe the mistakes and flaws of the people involved. Some will call him anti-Traditionalist for that, but to me, Sedgewick does not come across that way; not entirely in favor either, but I think he is a genuinely interested scholar.

“Against The Modern World” makes a descent book to get some context to Traditionalism from a non-Traditionalist author.

2009 Oxford University Press, isbn 0195396014