Western Sufism and Traditionalism


This article was published in Danish translation as "Vestlig sufisme og traditionalisme" in Den gamle nyreligiøsitet, Vestens glemte kulturarv [Old New Religiousness: The West's forgotten cultural heritage],  ed. Mette Buchardt and Pia Böwadt (Copenhagen: Anis, 2003), pp. 139-51, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publishers.

I slam is today very present in the West and in Western awareness as a result of immigration, politics, and conflict. Mainstream Islam in the contemporary Islamic world is somewhat political in its preoccupations, and much Islam in the West is even more political and radical than it is in the Islamic world. It is understandable, then, that a religion that seems to devote much of its energies to criticizing or even actually attacking the West has attracted relatively few Western converts, and that some of the most prominent of those converts were previously stern critics of the Western system, active in Communist or in even more radical circles.

While contemporary mainstream Islam has proved unattractive to most Westerners, Islam's ancient spiritual and mystical tradition--Sufism--has proved much more attractive. Sufi orders have been present in the Middle East for a millennium, and in the heyday of the Ottoman empire were a respected and important part of the religious establishment. Until about a hundred years ago, when they came under attack from modernist reformers, these orders provided Muslims with several varieties of spiritual experience in addition to that generally available in the local mosque. In many places, they were the context in which believers gathered to honor local saints, to join in recitation of special liturgies, or to listen to religious poetry and singing. Other orders provided direct and individual spiritual guidance under a spiritual master or "shaykh." A small number of very important orders were led by men seen as living saints, and were followed by devoted Muslims seeking the highest of all spiritual experiences--the encounter with God himself. Sufism in the Islamic world today struggles to survive in a hostile climate, but continues to provide all these varieties of spiritual experience,  though to an ever smaller number of people.

The closest parallel to the Sufi order in Christianity is the monastic order, but Sufi orders differ from monastic orders in that they almost always operate in society rather than in isolation, with their followers working and marrying and raising children in the normal way. Sufi orders also differ from monastic orders in that they only rarely require total commitment. For most Sufis, Sufism is an add-on to the regular religious practice of any Muslim, and sometimes no more than an occasional add-on. Finally, Sufi orders differ from monastic orders in that they have no central command--as one might expect in a religion from which hierarchical organization is generally absent.

Sufism originally reached the West in two ways: through translated texts and through actual Sufis. Of these two means of transmission, translated texts were the earliest (Goethe probably read some), but on their own produced no actual Sufism, just occasional awareness of its existence. It was only at the start of the twentieth century that actual Sufis began to appear in the West. Judged by the perspective of the Islamic world, these first Western Sufis were of a highly unusual variety, and this gave rise to a misunderstanding in the West of the nature of Sufism. This misunderstanding persists today, partly because nineteenth-century Islamic reformers (whose views remain hugely influential) have propagated a complementary misunderstanding. For many twentieth-and twenty-first-century Westerners, Sufism is a liberal and liberating alternative to Islam. For the Islamic reformers of the nineteenth century and for their successors today, Sufism was and is an illegitimate addition to Islam. For Sufis in the Islamic world, in contrast, Sufism is a part of Islam that can have no meaning in any other context. Historians generally support the latter view, of Sufism as a part of Islam.

The first Western Sufi to become famous was Isabelle Eberhardt, the intrepid female explorer of Algeria at the turn of the twentieth century who wrote romantic and very popular accounts of the desert for the French newspapers. Eberhardt had grown up in highly "alternative" and predominantly anarchist circles in Switzerland, and defied many of the conventions of her time. She dressed in men's clothes, smoked hashish, and took an extraordinary number of lovers. She also described herself as a Sufi, and thus gave a rather strange idea of what Sufism must stand for. In fact, it is probably true that the Sufi shaykhs whom Eberhardt visited were among the only Muslims with a sufficient understanding of the human soul and psychology to tolerate her behavior. Sufism was only one part of Eberhardt's complex persona, no part of which corresponded to Islamic norms.

The first Sufi to establish a significant following in the West was equally unusual. This was an Indian musician, Inayat Khan, who arrived in Europe via America a few years after Eberhardt's death, at the start of the First World War. Khan propagated a view of Sufism as "the pure essence of all religions and philosophies," an essence to which Islam was almost incidental. A number of organizations in Europe and America continue his teachings to this day, and are best described as branches of a New Religious Movement. A similar view of Sufism also became widespread in the West as a result of the writings of Idries Shah, an Englishman of partly Indian extraction, who in 1964 published The Sufis, a very successful book which has remained popular ever since. Shah attracted a sizeable following in Britain, including the novelist Doris Lessing and the poet and novelist Robert Graves, but also elsewhere. Although Shah's vision of Sufism is somewhat more Islamic than Khan's, it would still be almost totally unrecognizable to any Muslim Sufi in the Islamic world.

Something very close to what such a Sufi would regard as "real" Sufism appeared in Europe shortly before the Second World War, in the form of a Swiss branch of a famous Algerian Sufi order, the Alawiyya. This branch was established by a Franco-Swiss textile designer and visionary, Frithjof Schuon. The Alawiyya spread to France and England and America, attracting many influential writers, academics, and other intellectuals, but remained almost entirely unknown because it kept its very existence carefully secret. This is in itself a departure from the norms of the Islamic world. Other departures followed, deriving in part from a series of visions in which, Schuon believed, the Virgin Mary entrusted him with a special mission, and deriving in part from Schuon's and his followers' intellectual origins in an entirely Western philosophical movement, Guénonian Traditionalism.

Guénonian Traditionalism has been one of the main influences on Sufism in the West. It was established by René Guénon, a French philosopher who at one point worked within the context of the Catholic Institute in Paris, but in 1930 left Paris for Cairo where he died some twenty years later, cited as a model of Muslim and Sufi piety by no less an authority than Abd al-Halim Mahmud, then rector of the Azhar and so the preeminent religious authority in Sunni Islam. Mahmud, however, had not read Guénon's books, and failed to appreciate the true nature of Guénon's Traditionalism. This derived ultimately from Perennialism, a religious and philosophical school established in Florence during the Renaissance. Renaissance Perennialism held that all the world's religions were expressions of a single original "perennial" religion, since lost to humanity. This hypothetical "perennial" religion is the "tradition" referred to in the title "Traditionalism."

Guénon's Traditionalism, however, was more than a revival of an old and by then somewhat discredited theory. He added to it a conviction that European civilization was in terminal decline, having lost even the memory of those eternal religious truths that are the only real basis of genuine civilization. Guénon and his followers were convinced that these truths could be recovered from surviving non-Western religions, principally Hinduism, and that individual Westerners could achieve real spiritual progress only by joining such surviving living repositories of spiritual truth as Sufi orders. Guénon, then, was using Islam and Sufism to an end that Rector Mahmud would never have recognized.

Central to Guénon's Traditionalism is a distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric. The exoteric consists not only of the profane things of this world, but also of the regular rites of religion--church services, communal prayer in mosques, and the requirements and prohibitions of sacred law. The esoteric is what lies within all this--the individual human relationship with God and all that goes with it, both in terms of possibilities and of techniques. The exoteric is within reach of all; not so the esoteric. The few who travel the esoteric path, maintained Guénon, must travel within the vessel of orthodox exoteric religion. Islam is the exoteric framework, and Sufism the esoteric path.

Guénon established the philosophy of Traditionalism and watched over its early practical expressions, but did not himself led any religious movement, exoteric or esoteric. This role was played, in the Sufi expression of Traditionalism, by Schuon. Schuon's Traditionalist origins and approaches, however, led to his following becoming progressively less Islamic as the years passed, and especially after Guénon's death. In Guénon's terms, many of Schuon's followers concentrated on the esoteric in a way that led them too far from the necessary exoteric framework. The Sufi order Schuon headed was never more than formally subject to its Algerian leadership, and soon became formally independent, changing its name from Alawiyya to Maryamiyya in response to Schuon's visions of the Virgin--"Maryam" is the Arabic form of "Mary." By the time of Schuon's death in 1998, Sufism had become almost incidental to a wider enterprise that involved Christians, Red Indian dances, and-- according to some reports--sacred nudity. At this stage, some of Schuon's followers had come to see him as, in some form, a divine incarnation.

Schuon's later Traditionalism, then, was neither particularly Sufi nor particularly Islamic. Over the first half century of its existence, however, his Sufi order gave rise to other, more Islamic, Sufi orders. Some of these orders were headed by men who had formally dissociated themselves from Schuon because of what they saw as departures from proper Islam; some formally remained followers of Schuon, but distanced themselves from his less Islamic views and practices. These two varieties of Sufi order deriving from Schuon are today present in several European countries, in North and South America, and also in parts of the Islamic world. For reasons that are still not understood, the distribution of Schuon's and other Traditionalist Sufi orders in Europe closely follows the old Protestant-Catholic fault line. Guénon's and Schuon's books are read and appreciated in France, Italy and Spain, and also in Hungary, but are little known in Germany or Scandinavia. England and America lie somewhere in between: Guénon and Schuon are read there, but not widely. No Danish or Norwegian Traditionalist groups are known, though there is some interest in Sweden. This is appropriate, since one of Guénon's earliest associates was the Swedish painter Ivan Aguéli, whose Sufism was little known until the publication of Torbjorn Säfve's semi-fictional account of Aguéli's life (Ivan Aguéli: En roman om frihet) in 1981.

Schuon's most important follower, now the shaykh of the most important Islamic branch of the Maryamiyya Sufi order, was Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Author of numerous books on Islam, Sufism, and religion, Nasr is currently a distinguished professor of Islamic studies in America, and is taken increasingly seriously as a philosopher as well. Although Iranian by birth, he went to highschool and university in America, and was introduced to the works of Guénon by a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Schuon's Maryamiyya.

On his return to Iran, Nasr taught at Tehran University, where he became professor of philosophy. His teaching concentrated on Iranian esoteric philosophers such as Mulla Sadra, until then ignored in the Iranian university system, but since then central to it. Nasr also founded and directed the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, a Traditionalist school of advanced studies that quickly became internationally renowned. He also established the first non-Western branch of the Maryamiyya, and introduced Traditionalism and Traditionalist perspectives into the mainstream of Iranian philosophy and intellectual life. All these activities were, however, brought to an end by the Iranian Revolution. Nasr had enjoyed excellent relations with the court and had carried out various confidential missions for the empress. As a consequence, Nasr was seen as an enemy of the revolution, whatever the positions taken in his writings and speeches. These had in fact generally been in favor of the Islamization of Iranian life along traditional lines, though hostile to the modernist and socialist elements in the Islamist opposition to the Shah.

In exile in America after the revolution, Nasr continued to write. Translations of his books introduced Traditionalism into the progressive intellectual discourse of Turkey and Malaysia and--as the memory of Nasr's association with the detested Shah faded--his books again became popular in Iran. From the 1990s, Traditionalism came again to play a part in parts of the Iranian public debate. Nasr, then, was the means by which an essentially Western understanding of Sufism and Islam reached the Islamic world. Similarly, the barely Islamic versions of Sufism as a "pure essence" that had been propagated by Inayat Khan and Idries Shah also began to appear in the Islamic world towards the end of the twentieth century, though this version was never as widespread or influential as Nasr's Traditionalism.

Nasr's writings and the branch of the Maryamiyya that he heads are, at the time of writing, the most important expression of Traditionalist Sufism. Other expressions are in general restricted to one country, as for example the Ahmadiyya of Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, based in Milan. Pallavicini was among those who separated himself from Schuon, and his Sufi order derives from a respected Malay shaykh in Singapore; it has less than a hundred followers. Pallavicini has however become well known in Italy, initially as a result of his participation in inter-religious dialog with parts of the Catholic Church. Although he was largely unsuccessful in interesting the Vatican in a Traditionalist conception of the unity of all religions on an esoteric level, Pallavicini's views  received extensive press coverage. Pallavicini's somewhat later proposal to build a mosque in Milan led to petitions and demonstrations organized by anti-immigrant groups, and so to more press and television coverage. It is ironic that anti-immigrant groups should target a Sufi order consisting exclusively of Italians, the fundamental philosophy of which derived ultimately from not only from the European Renaissance, but actually from Italy.

Traditionalism's influence in the contemporary West extends beyond these various Sufi orders. Research on conversions to Islam in France and Italy suggests that the works of Guénon frequently play an important part; arguably, only marriage to a Muslim is a more frequent cause of conversion to Islam. These Guénon-reading converts to Islam frequently do not join any Traditionalist group or Sufi order (and so are hard for the researcher to count), but generally carry Traditionalist perspectives with them into their new religion.

Non-Muslim Traditionalists include many of Schuon's later followers, And others who attempted to recover tradition in non-Sufi contexts, Including Freemasonry. For Traditionalist Freemasons, purified Masonic ritual represents an esoteric path that can be combined with the exoteric practice of Christianity. Traditionalism has in this way made a major contribution to a the mainstream of Masonic reform and revival. There are also two non-religious varieties of Traditionalism, one political and the other scholarly, both of which started before Schuon's Sufi order, and also before Guénon himself had begun to place the emphasis on Sufism that he did towards the end of his life. Accordingly, neither of these other movements has much to do with Islam.

Political Traditionalism was established in the 1930s by an Italian, Baron Julius Evola, on the basis of Nietzsche as well as of Guénon. Evola was less interested in esoteric aspects of the original religion of humanity--Guénon's and Schuon's primary focus--than in other varieties of esoterism (including magic) and in what he saw as the decadence of contemporary Western civilization. Although concerned by spiritual and esoteric questions as much as Guénon was, Evola focused not on religious practice but on spiritual virtues, for example those of medieval chivalry. He initially hoped to transform Europe through the possibilities that then seemed available, notably the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and the SS. Mussolini however disappointed Evola by being insufficiently radical, and the SS rejected Evola's proposals as too different from their own ideology. Evola's only real impact during the Second World War was during a brief period as Mussolini's chief adviser on race. This period ended when the Italian government summoned Evola back from Berlin after realizing the possibly frightening implications of Evola's unusual racial theories, which were based not on biology but on esoteric spiritual criteria. Fascist Italy's racial policies thereafter followed more familiar Nazi lines.

Although often described as a Fascist, Evola was something else (and quite possibly something more frightening). Because he was something other than a Fascist, he was not implicated in what many Italians saw as the fiasco of Italian Fascism. In the postwar period there was little competition to Evola for the role of Italy's principal political philosopher of the far right, and his books became the chief intellectual inspiration of Italian rightist terrorist groups during the 1960s and 1970s. Those readers who remember the bombing of Bologna railway station and similar outrages of the time may be surprised to learn that the ultimate objective was the restoration of a quasi-medieval spiritual and chivalrous order.

After the suppression of political violence (of both left and right) in Italy, Evola's writings entered the cannon of the European radical far right, and today are to be found on the websites of countless minor far-right groups from Italy to Germany. The fault line between Catholic and Protestant Europe that defeated Guénon's Traditionalism has not restricted the spread of Evola's political Traditionalism. One important point needs to be made here. Evola drew on Guénon, and although Evola and Guénon corresponded, Guénon took little or nothing from Evola. Serious readers of Evola are thus led sooner or later to Guénon, but readers of Guénon are not led to Evola. Traditionalist Sufism is almost without exception apolitical.

The radical far right is at present marginal to European politics, and so political Traditionalism is marginal in Europe. One exception to this is Russia, where the collapse of Communism gave rise to a much more varied and confused political scene than elsewhere. One of Russia's better known radical political philosophers is Alexander Dugin, a former Soviet dissident who once belonged to a small Traditionalist group established in Moscow during the 1960s. Dugin's Traditionalism derives more from Evola than from Guénon, and has been adapted from various other sources to create a philosophy appropriate for contemporary Russia, for example by emphasizing Russian Orthodoxy rather than Sufism as the repository of esoteric truth.

Dugin's Russian Traditionalism provided much of the ideological justification for an apparently unlikely alliance, established towards the end of the Yeltsin years, between what remained of the Russian Communist Party and one of Russia's major radical right groups, the Patriots of Alexander Prokhanov. At one point this alliance looked as if it might become significant in Russian politics, but faded after the election of President Putin. Dugin then shifted his approach from confrontation with the Kremlin to cooperation. At the time of writing he heads a foreign-policy think tank that seems to be well regarded by the Kremlin and also by parts of the Russian security services and army high command. He has recently launched a political party, the Eurasian party, the significance of which remains to be seen.

The central theme of Dugin's writings, think tank, and party is that Holy Russia embodies tradition and spiritual virtue as identified by Guénon and Evola. The Atlantic alliance dominated by America embodies its contrary--the spiritually empty shell of true civilization that Guénon left for Cairo in 1930. Dugin sees as inevitable a major conflict between a traditional and spiritual Eurasian block under Russia, and a modernist and spiritually desolate Atlantic block consisting largely of America. This thesis is in some ways the Russian equivalent of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations thesis, according to which the conflicts of the post-Cold War period would be not between ideologies but between civilizations, for example between America and Islam. Dugin's thesis has proved as Attractive to Russian strategists as Huntington's did to American ones.

Scholarly Traditionalism is even further from Guénon than political Traditionalism, to the extent that it is even disputed to what extent it exists. Its central figure is Mircea Eliade, a Romanian intellectual who in 1958 became professor of the history of religion at one of America's most important academic institutions, the University of Chicago. As a young man, Eliade belonged to a group of prewar Romanian Traditionalists, some of whom were oriented towards Guénon and some more towards Evola. Many of the Guénonian Romanians became Sufis, and an important Sufi order in Paris was for many years headed by a former Romanian diplomat who remained abroad after the Communists came to power in Romania. During the 1930s, many of the Evolian Romanians--including Eliade--were involved in the Legion of the Archangel Michael. This was a spiritually oriented political movement that during the Second World War changed its nature to became barely distinguishable from the Nazi Party. For obvious reasons, this branch of Traditionalism dispersed after 1945.

Eliade's early politics were little known when he was appointed to the University of Chicago, since from the start of the Second World War he had distanced himself from political activity. What remained with him from his Romanian years was a non-Sufi version of Guénon's attempt to reassemble the original religion of humanity, carried out in more rigorous and academically respectable. Rather than tradition, Eliade studied "archaic religion," and rather than speak of the perennial unity of humanity's original religion, he wrote of the "unity of the traditions and symbols" that are "the foundation of constituted consciousness and being." The terminology is different, but the basic ideas are much the same.

Through Eliade, something of Traditionalism passed through into mainstream American religious studies, as that discipline was being constructed during the last half of the twentieth century. Non-Christian religions were originally studied in Europe by theologians as a branch of heresiology, an approach that was hard to sustain in the 1960s. A later approach, typified by Max Weber, studied religion almost as social pathology, and by the 1960s seemed to promise few new discoveries. The alternative approach of comparative religion that rules today might well have triumphed even without Eliade's influence, but was championed by Eliade. For many decades religious studies were indelibly marked by Eliade's methodology, which was in itself a product more of prewar Romanian Traditionalism than of any other influence.

The contemporary impact of Traditionalism is not limited to Eliade's religious studies, Evola's politics, and Schuon's Sufism. Traditionalism has merged with other influences to enter the general culture of the West in often unsuspected ways. It underlies much of E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, one of the key books of the 1970s, and inspired VITA, a London art school that is one of the projects of Prince Charles. It also lies at the base of an unusual British feminine group, Aristasia. Members of Aristasia see feminism as the ultimate triumph of patriarchy, "extirpating femininity even from the heart of women herself." Aristasians reject feminism and attempt as much as possible to live in a parallel world which excludes everything that has happened since the mid 1960s. This parallel world also excludes not only actual men, but also the very idea that a male sex exists.

Traditionalism is also incidental to several contemporary Western Sufi orders. The last quarter century has seen the arrival in Europe and America of Sufi orders that--like Schuon's original Alawiyya--are Western branches of mainstream Islamic orders, but that--unlike Schuon's order--remain under the control of Sufis in the Islamic world. As a consequence, they are much closer to "regular" Sufism, though all make some unavoidable concessions to the Western environment in which they are operating. A Sufi order that insisted on immediate compliance with all Islamic social and cultural norms would have difficulty in recruiting many Western followers.

The Bouchichiyya, for example, is a Moroccan Sufi order that has been unusually successful on its home ground in recruiting "modern," educated followers. Its shaykh comes from an old and traditional family of shaykhs, but many of its senior members are university professors, and many of its ordinary members come from the Westernized, French-speaking elite. This is a milieu where Sufism is generally regarded as an alarmingly primitive folk custom. Faozi Skali, a Moroccan from this milieu, discovered Guénon while a student in Paris, and under the influence of Guénon's books became a Sufi and a Bouchichi. He now runs the Bouchichi branch in France, expanding its reach through a variety of cultural activities well calculated to appeal to thoughtful Frenchmen and women--Sufi singing, handicrafts sales, conferences, and so on. He and many of his followers are Traditionalists in the sense that they take their view of the modern world from Guénon, but post-Traditionalists in the sense that their spiritual and religious life is nourished not from Guénon or Schuon but from a regular Sufi order in the Islamic world.

A second Sufi order that resembles the French Bouchichiyya is the Naqshbandiyya Qubrusiyya, arguably the most important Sufi order in the West today. This order is run by a Turkish Cypriot, Muhammad Nazim, and has thousands of followers worldwide, especially in Turkey, England, Germany, and America. Like the Moroccan shaykh of the Bouchichiyya, Shaykh Nazim has probably never read Guénon, but many of his followers have. They take their world view not from Guénon but from their shaykh, but in some respects their shaykh's world view fits well with that of Guénon. For Shaykh Nazim, religions other than Islam are of little interest, but modernity is much as Guénon saw it--the end of a process of decline where nothing of true value is left, a stage of degeneration that cannot last much longer. A somewhat over-literal understanding of this view led some of Shaykh Nazim's European followers to await the first day of 2000 on top of the Lebanese mountains, equipped with canned food, candles and donkeys to see them through the initial stages of the end of the world.

This review of Sufism and Traditionalism has concentrated on Traditionalism to the exclusion of several other forms of contemporary Western Sufism. Today, two other strands continue to prosper: the non-Islamic strand that dates from Inayat Khan at the start of the twentieth century, and the strand represented by almost purely Islamic orders such as Shaykh Nazim's. In this latter strand, Traditionalism is sometimes relevant to individuals, but not of importance to whole orders. It seems likely that, with ever increasing mobility between the Islamic world and the West, it is this Islamic strand of Sufism that will become most important in the West during the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, it is also possible that the twenty-first century will see Traditionalism becoming ever more important outside Western Europe--in Russia, in Turkey, and in Iran. Traditionalism seems to benefit from globalization.

Mark Sedgwic k



  • Dugin, Alexander 1996: Metafisiki blagoivesti: pravoslavnyi esoterizm , Moscow.
  • Evola, Julius 1993: Rivolta contro il mondo moderno , Rome: Edizioni Mediterranee.
  • Guenon, Rene 1999: La crise du monde moderne , Paris: Folio.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein 1990: Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man , London: Unwin.
  • Rocca, G. (ed.) 1988: 'Abdul-Hadi: Ecrits pour La Gnose , Milan: Arche.
  • Safve, Torbjorn 1994: Ivan Agueli: En roman om frihet , Stockholm: Man.
  • Sedgwick, Mark 2004: Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century , New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Schuon, Frithjof 1975: The Transcendent Unity of Religions , London: Harper and Row.
  • Skali, Faouzi 1993: La voie soufie , Paris: Albin Michel.



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