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Book Review


by Mark Sedgwick

(Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-515297-2)

A Review Essay by Wilson Eliot Poindexter

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, web edition 2009 © World Wisdom, Inc.

Editor's note: The following was originally published in
Sophia (Volume 11, No. 1, Summer 2005)

Réné Guénon, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt and other writers associated with the Traditional school represent an important yet understudied dimension of 20th century intellectual history.   Many studies of Guénon have been published in French and secondary literature on Frithjof Schuon has been on the rise over the last five years.  Nonetheless, a critical academic treatment of the Traditional school and the Perennial Philosophy so closely intertwined with it is still lacking, especially in the English-speaking world.  Against the Modern World would thus appear to be an essential contribution, helping to fill this academic lacuna.  But it is in fact a step in the wrong direction, serving more to obfuscate than to clarify.

What is Tradition?

The author does not grasp the core elements of Tradition and never provides a satisfactory definition.   In his one attempt to define Tradition, he writes:

The word “tradition” derives from the Latin verb tradere, to hand over or to hand down, and in an etymological sense a tradition is “a statement, belief or practice transmitted (especially orally) from generation to generation.”[1]  The Traditionalist movement with which this book deals takes “tradition” primarily in this sense, as belief and practice transmitted from time immemorial—or rather belief and practice that should have been transmitted but was lost to the West during the last half of the second millennium A.D. (22)

This definition fails to recognize that “Tradition represents doctrines about first principles, which do not change.” (Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Correspondence, 1946)[2]  Being based upon “first principles”, all Traditions referred to by Guénon, Coomaraswamy and others are of a religious nature, and the sine qua non of Tradition is that it be firmly rooted in divine revelation. Perhaps the best definition of Tradition is that provided by S. H. Nasr in Knowledge and the Sacred, the most “academic” presentation of Traditional teachings:

Tradition as used in its technical sense in this work, as in all our other writings, means truths or principles of a divine origin revealed or unveiled to mankind and, in fact, a whole cosmic sector through various figures envisaged as messengers, prophets, avataras, the Logos or other transmitting agencies, along with all the ramifications and applications of these principles in different realms including law and social structure, art symbolism, the sciences, and embracing of course Supreme Knowledge along with the means for its attainment.[3]

 Thus Tradition is always used with a view to the meta-historical transcendent Truth that is believed to be at the heart of all religions.  Indeed, this metaphysical aspect of Tradition is its central and defining element.  As Réné Guénon writes: 

...there is nothing and can be nothing truly traditional that does not contain some element of a super-human order.  This indeed is the essential point, containing as it were the very definition of tradition and all that appertains to it.[4]

There may be many definitions of “Tradition”, but the author does not accurately represent the definition employed by those he proposes to study.  As a result he is never able to grasp the central technical terms of their discourse, and those terms he does employ are poorly defined.

This lack of clarity is of great importance for the use of the term “traditionalist”.  Although “traditionalist” and “traditionalism” are now used and accepted by followers of Guénon, he himself applied the term to those who did not yet understand “Tradition”, maintaining that  “traditionalists” are

… people who only have a sort of tendency or aspiration toward tradition without really knowing anything at all about it; this is the measure of the distance dividing the “traditionalist” spirit from the truly traditional spirit, . . . In short, the “traditionalist” is and can be no more than a mere “seeker”, and that is why he is always in danger of going astray, not being in possession of the principles which alone could provide him with infallible guidance . . .”[5]

Thus for Guénon, the ability to understand true principles is what distinguishes a true Traditional scholar from a mere “traditionalist”.  Having missed this critical point, the author is not able to understand the central focus of Guénon’s project—rebuilding tradition by returning to pure transcendent principles.  In turn, he fails to understand that Guénon was opposed to nothing other than the absence of such principles, which for him characterizes modern Western civilization.  As Guénon expresses it: “The modern civilization suffers from a lack of principles, and it suffers from it in every domain; by a monstrous anomaly, it is, alone among all others, a civilization without principles.”[6] 

Guénon maintained that once metaphysical principles are renewed among an intellectual elite, then tradition and religion can be renewed:

Thus a return to tradition and a return to principles are in reality just one and the same thing; but clearly the knowledge of the principles, where it is lost, must first be restored before there can be even a remote thought of applying them.[7]

Guénon did not “clearly dismiss” people not qualified for this elite as the author maintains (27).  Rather, he believed that the reinstitution of principles would provide benefits for all of humanity by allowing every domain of life to be rooted in eternal truths rather than transient fantasies.  As Guénon writes:

The purely intellectual task, which must first of all be fulfilled, is then really the first in every respect, being at the same time the most necessary and the most important, since on it everything depends and from it everything is derived; but when we use this phrase “metaphysical knowledge,” there are very few indeed, among the westerners of to-day, who have even the vaguest suspicion of all that it implies.[8]

Who is a Traditionalist?

Failing to grasp the essential religious and moreover metaphysical nature of the Traditional school, the author portrays it as an anti-modern movement rather than a pro-religious movement.  As a result, he devotes the entire book to peripheral aspects of the Traditionalist movement, never grasping the core teachings.  This approach leads him to confuse Traditional thinkers and non-traditional anti-modernists who exhibit familiarity with Traditional writings.  As a result of this confusion, he expands his definition of Traditionalist to a “person forming part of the movement deriving from René Guénon, or of a movement deriving from that movement.” [emphasis added]  This is so vast as to provide no clarity or precision.  As such, it is not a definition.  The author then commits the error of touting this truncated “definition” of Guénonianism as representative of “Traditionalism” as a whole.

Including all who have contemplated Guénon as Traditionalists, the author devotes an entire chapter (12) to the Neo-Eurasian political movement headed by Alexander Dugin, while there is no analysis of central Traditional figures such as Titus Burchhardt and Martin Lings.  To justify this approach, he invents the label “soft Traditionalist”, meaning “someone for whom Traditionalism was evidently important but not a determining influence, and for whom it had few visible consequences”. (38)  If Alexander Dugin is indeed a “soft-Traditionalist”, as the author states, (230) for whom Traditional writings were not a “determining influence” or “had no visible consequences”, how is it that Dugin is also cited as “a centrally important Traditionalist”? (221)  Movements such as Dugin’s that combine a misunderstanding of Tradition with a political ideology were foreseen and disavowed by Guénon himself as a way of “denaturing the idea of tradition”.[9]

A similar lack of discernment pervades the author’s treatment of other movements and figures treated in this book.  Foremost among them is the renowned Professor of Religious Studies, Mircea Eliade, also labeled a “soft-Traditionalist”.  In comparing Eliade and Guénon, the author writes:

What Eliade called “archaic” religions and Guénon called “tradition” had generally been termed “primitive” religion, a term that carried the evolutionary implication that these religions were somehow incomplete precursors of a more perfect later religion.  (191) 

Guénon, however, applied the term tradition to all religions, including Islam, which was for him the last revealed religion and which he cites as an example of an integrated traditional civilization still founded upon principles.[10]  Islam hardly qualifies as “archaic” in the sense that Eliade employed the term.  While Mircea Eliade may have been searching for the ultimate ur religion, Guénon never engaged in such speculation, always looking to the transcendent, not earthly, origin of religion.

It is well known that Eliade had extensive contact with prominent members of the Traditional school and took their writings very seriously.  Although these authors may have had a central influence in shaping his initial appreciation of non-Western religions, Eliade maintained that, “the sacred is a structure of human consciousness”.[11]  This understanding is clearly distinct from Guénon’s position that the sacred is “of a super-human order”.  As expressed by S. H. Nasr: “That Reality which is immutable and eternal is the Sacred as such, and the manifestation of this Reality in the stream of becoming and the matrix of time is that which possesses the quality of sacredness.”[12]  For Guénon, Coomaraswamy, Schuon and those who followed them, the Sacred can never be conceived of as an individual human construct or a social construct.  It is in fact the very reduction of the sacred to quantitative “human” norms that Guénon decries in The Crisis of the Modern World and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times; for it relegates objective reality to the discursive constructions of the human subject. 

The author goes on to claim that Eliade found support for his Traditionalist positions in the writings of Rudolf Otto and this “helped relieve him of the need to cite Guénon”. (191)  Many scholars have observed that Otto’s ideas influenced Eliade.  But the relation of the sacred to the irrational that pervades Otto’s thought is far from Guénon’s emphasis on “pure principles”.  One could hardly cite Rudolf Otto in place of Réné Guénon or in support of Traditional ideas. 

The greatly expanded category of Traditionalists employed in Against the Modern World leads to loose associations that sometimes draw it into the realm of the absurd.  For example, the author includes the Feminist group Aristasia, which views the rise of masculine gods as the first phase in the decline of humanity because the female is the primary and inherently superior gender. (217)  This group is labeled a Traditionalist movement because its proponents make some reference to Guénon and oppose many aspects of the modern world.  In an odd way this label may be correct.  Aristasia is a perfect example of the “traditionalists” regarding whom Guénon writes, “Indeed it sometimes happens that people go so far as to apply the word “tradition” to things which are by their very nature as anti-traditional as possible . . .”[13]

Scholarly Method

Unable to grasp that Traditional perspective is grounded in first principles, the author often relegates himself to writing about rumor and conjecture from “anonymous sources” rather than analyzing the writings of those he proposes to examine.  He does not cite basic sources such as Jacob Needleman’s The Sword of Gnosis, Frithjof Schuon’s Esoterism as Principle and as Way or Logic and Transcendence, S. H. Nasr’s Knowledge and the Sacred, Titus Burckhardt’s Mirror of the Intellect, Ranjit Fernando’s The Unanimous Tradition, or The Essential Writings of A. K. Coomaraswamy, to name only a few.  In fact, more of the essential Traditional works are omitted than are included.  One wonders how a book with such egregious omissions could have passed the peer-review process.

The methodological shortcomings that lead the author to seek refuge in unreliable sources are evident from the beginning when he writes, “some sections of this book depend more on guesswork than is usual,” (viii) and, “I have entered into numerous areas where I have little scholarly right to be.” (viii) Unfortunately, guesswork is employed where readily available resources, in written and human form, could have provided important clarifications.  For example, there is no interview with Martin Lings who served as Guénon’s personal secretary for many years and was a close disciple of Frithjof Schuon, nor are Lings’ two articles on Guénon and Schuon cited.[14]  There is one interview with S. H. Nasr (10), but it does not appear to have involved any essential questions about his own involvement with the movement or his relationship with other Traditional scholars.  The several pages devoted to Nasr’s work in Iran (153-159) raise important questions that Nasr himself could have easily clarified.  The lack of interviews would not be of such concern if the author did not rely so heavily upon extensive interviews with people opposed to certain representatives of the Traditional school.  The opinions of such interviewees, many of whom remain anonymous, are not then balanced with other interviews or with readily available essays published in Dossier H: Frithjof Schuon[15] and the Traditional journals Sacred Web and Sophia, the latter of which has one volume dedicated entirely to Frithjof Schuon.[16]


The author’s foray into areas where he has “little scholarly right” is evident in his treatment of Islam, wherein he conflates Islam and Islamism.  He claims, “nearly all non-Traditionalist Muslims would assert unhesitatingly that there was no proper access to God, and no final truth, except in Islam.” (140)  Such a statement is compatible with Islamism, which it is noted “has no interest in Perennialism and commonly rejects Sufism.” (341, note 94)  But it does not categorize Islam.  Muslims from many countries and many walks of life do in fact accept the validity of other religions. The law of many Islamic lands has even required the protection of Jews and Christians.  In India this was often extended to Hindus.  The underlying religious tolerance of Islam is well expressed by Khalid Abou El Fadl:

Other than a general endorsement of human diversity, the Qur’an also accepted the more specific notion of a plurality of religious beliefs and laws.  Although the Qur’an clearly claims that Islam is the divine truth, and demands belief in Muhammad as the final Messenger in a long line of Abrahamic prophets, it does not completely exclude the possibility that there might be other paths to salvation.  The Qur’an insists on God’s unfettered discretion to accept in His mercy whomever He wishes.  In a rather remarkable set of passages that, again, have not been adequately theorized by Muslim theologians, the Qur’an recognizes the legitimate multiplicity of religious convictions and laws.  In one such passage, for example, the Qur’an asserts: “To each of you God has prescribed a Law and a Way.  If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people.  But God’s purpose is to test you in what he has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God [in the Hereafter], and He will resolve all the matters in which you disagree.”[17]  On this and other occasions the Qur’an goes on to state that it is possible for non-Muslims to attain the blessing of salvation: “Those who believe, those who follow Jewish scriptures, the Christians, the Sabians, and any who believe in God and the Final Day, and do good, all shall have their reward with their Lord and they will not come to fear or grief.”[18]

This may not be full-fledged perennialism, but it is far from the categorical rejection of other religions that the author implies is central to Islam.

Although the author has previously published a book on Sufism (Sufism, the Essentials, 2000), he does not grasp the central importance of dhikr, remembrance.  He criticizes Frithjof Schuon’s interpretation of 29:45, Recite what is inspired to you of the Book and establish ritual prayer, for ritual prayer preserves you from wrong and iniquity, and the remembrance of God (dhikrullah) is greater.  Regarding this verse, Schuon writes (in a passage that evaded the author):

The formula “the remembrance of God is greater” or “the greatest thing” (Wa la-dhikru ‘Llahi akbar) evokes and paraphrases the following words from the Canonical Prayer: “God is greater” or “the greatest” (Allahu akbar) and this indicates a mysterious connection between God and His Name; it also indicates a certain relativity — from the point of view of gnosis — of the outward rites, which are nevertheless indispensable in principle and in the majority of cases. In this connection we could also quote the following hadith: one of the Companions said to the Prophet: “0 Messenger of God, the prescriptions of Islam are too numerous for me; tell me something that I can hold fast to.” The Prophet replied: “Let thy tongue always be supple (in movement) with the mention (the remembrance) of God.” This hadith, like the verse we have just quoted, expresses by allusion (isharah) the principle of the inherence of the whole Shari’ah in the Dhikr alone.[19]

This in no way denies the necessity of the Shariah, rather, it emphasizes the necessity and centrality of dhikr.  Nonetheless, the author sees this interpretation accepted by Schuon and his disciples as “an indication of their distance from the Islamic mainstream.”  (note 115, p. 294)  But it is actually a rephrasing of an essential Sufi teaching.  As Shaykh al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi expresses it:

…every single man has any number of needs, but in reality all men need only one thing, which is truly to practice the remembrance of God (dhikrullah); if they have acquired that, they will not want for anything . . .[20]

Similar teachings can be found in hundreds of books from classical Sufi scholars such as Abu Nasr al-Sarraj, Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Jalal al-Din Rumi, Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-‘Arabi and Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri to name a very few.  So although Schuon’s emphasis may distance him from mainstream Islamism, it is at the very heart of Islam itself.

Misrepresentations of Traditionalist Scholars

Though the author distorts the ideas of Réné Guénon, Guénon is the only Traditional writer for whom he maintains respect.  He sees fit to cast aspersions upon other eminent Traditional scholars with little analysis.  For example, he acknowledges that A. K. Coomaraswamy had “a considerable reputation as a scholar”, (34) but then dismisses him as un-academic, relying upon the opinion of one former assistant to Coomaraswamy and a single review from The Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. (34-36) It would seem that a scholar of Coomaraswamy’s stature deserves greater analysis before being dismissed out of hand.  That the author has no real familiarity with Coomaraswamy’s work is demonstrated not only by the citation of merely one book, but also by the claim that “he had not trained as a philologist or a historian of religion.” (36) Coomaraswamy’s works display unparalleled linguistic capabilities, citing over a dozen languages, from Sanskrit to Latin to Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew.  Few scholars have been better qualified for the comparative analysis of ancient texts that is at the very heart of philology.

The author also implies that Joseph Epes Brown’s The Scared Pipe: Black Elks’ Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux is not an authentic academic work, but largely a Traditionalist fabrication:

The Sacred Pipe was written largely in Lausanne over a period of six months, with the benefit of Schuon’s Traditionalist understandings made available during a weekly review by Schuon of Brown’s draft as it developed.  The Sacred Pipe, then, resulted in the generally unsuspected passage of “soft” Traditionalism into mainstream academia.  (123)

It may be that Brown consulted Schuon, but The Sacred Pipe is considered by experts to be a faithful rendition of Brown’s interviews with Black Elk from 1947 to 1948.  It seems that the author casts aspersions on this book simply because Brown consulted with Schuon.  Such criticism is staggeringly incogitant in light of the wide acceptance this book has received, not only among established scholars but among Native American spiritual authorities as well.

Frithjof Schuon

The perfunctory dismissal of Coomaraswamy and the aspersions cast upon Brown’s academic integrity are inappropriate by any standard, especially for one with no expertise in either of their respective fields.  But the author goes to greater extremes in his treatment of Frithjof Schuon.  Accusations and aspersions drawn from anonymous sources, conjecture and innuendo pervade the book from the introduction to the conclusion. 

The degree to which the author incorporates his own speculations is well illustrated by the following passage: “According to one possible interpretation, Schuon at this stage [1970s] may have been wondering whether he was perhaps the prophet Elijah returned at the end of time, or alternatively, a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Kali.” (170) To substantiate this assertion he relies upon an oblique reference in Schuon’s autobiography, Erinnerungen und Betrachtungen, to a conference in Houston, Texas at which a paper on Elijah was presented by Leo Schaya.  The author claims that the article draws “attention to the relationship between the activities of the Maryamiyya and the eschatological function of Elijah”. (316, note 52)  Schaya’s “The Mission of Elias” is in fact a comparison of Elijah and Khidr and the eschatological expectations of the three Abrahamic faiths.  There is a brief reference to the writings of Schuon, but it does not compare Schuon to Elijah or imply that he is the Prophet Elijah returned.  Although Schuon had never even referred to the article itself, only to the conference, we are nonetheless informed, “here Schuon is at least quoting with approval an implicit comparison between him and Elijah.” (316, note 52)  This is a dire distortion of both Schuon and Schaya.

Building upon such distortions, the author portrays Schuon as a tragic figure whose form of universalism “lumps religions together indistinctly”. (129) His ultimate conclusion is that “Schuon also developed Perennialism into a universal mission of his own that led ultimately to disaster.” (267) To corroborate this claim he relies upon interviews with former followers of Schuon. (170-177)  But he never provides a single citation from any of Schuon’s books other than the autobiography.  Further investigation would have revealed that Schuon clarifies this important point in almost all of his writings, such as Gnosis: Divine Wisdom:

Seeing that there is but one Truth, must we not conclude that there is but one Revelation, one sole Tradition possible? To this our answer is, first of all, that Truth and Revelation are not absolutely equivalent terms, since Truth is situated beyond forms, whereas Revelation, or the Tradition which derives from it, belongs to the formal order, and that indeed by definition; but to speak of form is to speak of diversity, and so of plurality; the grounds for the existence and nature of form are expression, limitation, differentiation. What enters into form thereby enters also into number, hence into repetition and diversity; the formal principle — inspired by the infinity of the divine Possibility — confers diversity on this repetition. One could conceive, it is true, that there might be only one Revelation or Tradition for this our human world and that diversity should be realized through other worlds, unknown to man or even unknowable by him; but that would imply a failure to understand that what determines the difference among forms of Truth is the difference among human receptacles. (emphasis added)[21]

In other words, religious forms cannot be joined together in the realm of manifestation, i.e. in this world; their only unity lies in the transcendent formless Truth from which they emanate.  It seems unlikely that a man who maintained this in all of his writings, from the first to the last, the private to the public, would have “confused the accurate, Perennialist observation of the transcendent unity of religions with a foolish and impossible attempt to recreate a single unified religion on earth.”  (Sedgwick, 177)  Further investigation into the subtleties of Schuon’s thought would have helped prevent this dire misrepresentation.

Rather than analyzing Schuon’s ideas, the author goes into many details of Schuon’s life, from a failed love to scurrilous and derisive accusations that were dismissed from a court of law in 1991.  But in all instances he disregards essential material.  For example, he portrays tense relations between Schuon and the followers of Schuon’s Shaykh, Ahmad al-Alawi, after Shaykh al-Alawi’s death, implying that Schuon did not have the right to become a Sufi Shaykh by the name of ‘Isa Nur al-Din. (88-90)  But he neglects to mention that Schuon and his followers in Lausanne maintained good relations with Shaykh al-Alawi’s successor, Shaykh ‘Ada Ben Tounes, and his followers.  As Titus Burckhardt wrote of one meeting with Shaykh al-Mahdi Ben Tounes, the son of Shaykh ‘Ada Ben Tounes:

At the last majlis (prayer gathering) Shaykh Al-Mahdi asked ShaykhIsa to give a mudhakkarah (sermon); but, out of modesty, the latter refused.  I then proposed to Shaykh Al-Mahdi that I read one of ShaykhIsa’s latest mudhakkarah, and ShaykhIsa allowed me to do so.  When I had finished, there was at first silence; then Shaykh Al-Mahdi rose, took off his burnous and put it on ShaykhIsa’s shoulders, whereupon he spoke of the companions of the Prophet, of those who lived in his time and those who lived later and concluded that the last of them was ShaykhIsa. (letter to Paul Gervy, 1954)[22]

One could read many things into this encounter.  The least it says is that Shaykh al-Mahdi Ben Tounes recognized Frithjof Schuon as a Sufi Shaykh.  The author’s footnotes demonstrate that he was in contact with Jean-Baptiste Aymard, who co-authored the book in which this letter is reprinted, Frithjof Schuon: Life and Teachings.  This is thus information to which the author most likely could have gained access.

To further impugn Schuon’s credentials, the author misrepresents the method of invocation Schuon prescribed for the adherents of his Sufi order, the Maryamiyyah.  He briefly mentions Schuon’s Six Themes of Meditation, “Death and Life,” “Repose and Action”, and “Knowledge and Being” (92) and later implies that they were in some way non-Islamic. (128)  But again he provides no analysis and neglects to inform the reader that these were six modes for invoking the Arabic Name of God, Allah.  If he had the access he claims to many former members of the Maryamiyyah Order, he should have been able to obtain the texts wherein Schuon often employs Islamic terminology to explain these themes.  Furthermore, the themes are fully discussed in the last chapter of Stations of Wisdom.  Here Schuon refers to them as “renunciation and act, peace and fervor, discernment and union”,[23] topics that are discussed as various spiritual states or stations in many classical Sufi texts.

Continuing this line of argument, the author cites the Romanian Traditionalist Michele Vâlsan as one of Schuon’s leading detractors. (129) Vâlsan had been a follower of Schuon who objected to Schuon’s more esoteric interpretation of Islam and separated with a few other disciples around 1950, forming a new Sufi order.  The author portrays Vâlsan as “closer to mainstream Sufi Islam” (133) and cites Vâlsan’s objections to Schuon with approval.  Then he notes that, “by his death in 1974 he [Valsân] had perhaps 100 followers, a respectable number, only rarely exceeded by shaykhs in the Islamic world.”[24] (134)  (This number is often exceeded by Shaykhs in many parts of the Islamic world, but that is another issue.) Here again, the author fails to tell the full story.  As Jean-Baptiste Aymard and Patrick Laude have written:

What many of Schuon’s detractors do not know is that several years later, in 1958, Michel Vâlsan went to Lausanne and, in a gesture of superb humility, apologized for everything that had happened, and suggested reintegrating his group with Schuon’s. Though touched by the offer, Schuon declined, for, as he wrote, he “did not want to reap what (Sidi Mustafa) had sown” and did not wish to have under his authority men who were integrally Guénonian and somewhat hesitant with regard to his own perspective.” (letter to Leo Schaya, September 3, 1958)[25]

Such negligent and erroneous treatment of Coomaraswamy, Brown and Schuon illustrate the degree to which the author excludes vital information from his presentation.  His analysis of the teachings of most Traditional scholars is practically non-existent and his account of their personal histories is fragmented at best.

The excessive focus upon the personal lives of Traditional scholars leads the author to believe that their undisclosed personal and intellectual associations pose serious questions about the authenticity of their perspective.  As if the failure to mention what Church or Synagogue a Christian or Jewish scholar attends constitutes a grave deception.  He thus writes of their works:

Not everyone is happy when they discover Traditionalism behind these books.  One Scandinavian scientist who had converted to Islam reacted with dismay on reading an article of mine which identified Traditionalist writers that she, and others she knew, had read unawares: “‘Traditionalist’ books are everywhere,…” she wrote.  “Perhaps most scary is the subtle penetration of ‘traditionalist’ thinking without references.…People pick up these ideas because they are appealing and then pass them on…”  (169)

Indeed, the Traditional perspective has been far more influential in academia than most have suspected.  This, however, may be due to the fact that many of their ideas do find correspondences within the world’s religions.  Something recognized by such eminent scholars as Mircea Eliade and Huston Smith.  What Sedgwick refers to as “subtle penetration” is in fact not so subtle, and certainly not sinister, no matter how many Muslim Scandinavian scientists are scandalized by it.  That a new perspective that challenges many academic norms is spreading within academia gives one hope that, despite the peculiar prejudices of academia, new perspectives are able to slowly work their way into the cannon, challenging students of all disciplines to consider the world in new ways.


Though the writing style can be engaging at times, this study lacks any real substance. The author fails to analyze the content of most Traditional writings, and misrepresents the content of many others.   One is never sure that he himself understands what Tradition means for those who profess it.  Unable to comprehend the core elements of his study, he never comes to appreciate its full importance.  This is best demonstrated when he writes,

 …every non-Traditionalist scholar who has looked at Traditionalism…has come to much the same conclusion: these people are not serious.  They ignore history, and they ignore anything that does not fit their theories. (271)

100 pages earlier he writes, “Schuonian authors are usually acknowledged experts in some field.” (168) It is indeed very rare for scholars who are not taken seriously to become “acknowledged experts”.

The author’s blatant self-contradictions aside, the international recognition received by many Traditional scholars belies his claim.  For example, the author includes Huston Smith among the “soft-Traditionalists” (165-66) and cites his 1989 Plenary Address to the American Academy of Religion as an example of his subtle “Traditionalism”.  Indeed, Huston Smith has openly praised leading Traditional authors, writing of Schuon, “In depth and breadth, a paragon of our time.  I know of no living thinker who begins to rival him.”[26]  Regarding Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s Knowledge and the Sacred, he writes: “… intellectual historians may one day rank it with William of Moerbeke’s Latin translations of Aristotle in the thirteenth century, Marsiglio Ficino’s of Plato in the fifteenth, or D. T. Suzuki’s 1927 Essays in Zen Buddhism as a landmark showing that a new stage in cross-cultural understanding has been achieved.”[27]  Now, either Smith is not a representative of the Traditional school, as some maintain, or he is.  In the first case, one of the most renowned scholars of religion recognizes the importance of the Traditional movement and takes it very seriously.  In the second, the American Academy of Religion and thousands of professors who have assigned his Religions of Man in college classrooms recognize the importance of this particular Traditional thinker.  Either way, it is an excellent example of the Traditional perspective being taken very seriously in the highest ranks of academia.  Other examples include Joseph Epes Brown, who is recognized as one of the 20th century’s leading scholars of Native American Religion, and Martin Lings, whose Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources is used in universities the world over and whose A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century is still one of the best academic studies of the life and teachings of a Sufi Shaykh.

The recognition received by S. H. Nasr alone is enough to prove the absurdity of the claim that the Traditional school is not taken seriously.  Nasr was the first Muslim to be included in The Library of Living Philosophers, a series that includes such luminaries as Albert Einstein, John Dewey, Bertrand Russel, Martin Buber, Karl Popper and Hans-Georg Gadamer.  Scholars from around the world representing many academic disciplines read Nasr’s writings and provided in-depth responses for this volume.  Nasr has delivered perhaps the two most esteemed lecture series in academia, Gifford (1981) and Cadbury (1994).  His books have been published by Harvard University Press and Oxford University Press, among others.  He served as the General Editor for the SUNY Press series on Islam, is a member of the Council of 100 Leaders on Western-Islamic Dialogue and is invited to lecture at the United Nations and at major universities the world over.  It is difficult to find a living scholar who has received greater recognition and is taken more seriously.

The overabundance of errors, misrepresentations and disinformation in Against the Modern World would take an entire book to clarify and refute.  This essay has only been able to focus upon the most obvious and systemic shortcomings.  In his prologue, Mark Sedgwick states, “As a historian, I am convinced that a carefully told story is in itself a path to understanding, and that conviction underlies the book that follows this prologue.” (17)  His ultimate failure is that he does not take the Traditional school seriously, does not want it to be taken seriously and therefore does not take the time to analyze its teachings or tell its story carefully.  He has ignored most of the primary literature, much of the secondary literature and anything that would complicate his personal theories.[28]  In doing so, he has squandered a golden opportunity to provide a detailed analysis of a perspective that is gaining increasing acceptance in many academic circles.  One hopes that future investigations into the Traditional school will serve to clear the waters that this unfortunate book has now muddied. 


[1] Réné Guénon, Orient et Occident, p. 187.

[2] Cited by Ali Lakhani, Editorial, “Understanding Tradition”, Sacred Web 9 (2002).

[3] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Knowledge and the Sacred (SUNY Press, 1981), p. 68

[4] René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times, trans. Lord Northbourne (Sophia Perennis et Universalis, 1995), p. 253.

[5] Ibid.  p. 252.

[6] Réné Guénon, East and West, trans. Martin Lings (Sophia Perennis et Universalis, 1995), p. 165.

[7] Ibid. p. 166.

[8] Ibid. p. 176.

[9] Réné Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p. 254.

[10] Ibid. p. 72.

[11] Mircea Eliade, The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion, (University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. i; idem, A History of Religious Ideas, Vol I, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, trans. W. Trask (University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. iii.

[12] Knowledge and the Sacred, pp. 75-76.

[13] Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p. 254.

[14] Martin Lings, “Réné Guénon”, Sophia: A Journal of Traditional Studies, Volume 1, Number 1 (Summer 1995); Martin Lings, “Frithjof Schuon and Réné Guénon”, Sophia, Volume 5, Number 2 (Winter 1999).

[15] Dossier H: Frithjof Schuon, edited by Jean-Baptiste Aymard and Patrick Laude (L’Age d’Homme, 2001).

[16] Sophia: A Journal of Traditional Studies, Volume 4, Number 2 (Winter 1998).  Other essays that could have provided more perspective are: Frithjof Schuon, “Réné Guénon, Definitions”, Sophia, Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1995); Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “Frithjof Schuon and the Islamic Tradition”, Sophia, Volume 5, Number 1 (Fall 1998); idem, “Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998)”, Sacred Web 1, (1998); Scott Korn, “The Illumination of Frithjof Schuon”, Sacred Web 8 (2002); Patrick Laude, “Seyyed Hossein Nasr in the Context of the Perennialist School” in Beacon of Knowledge: Seyyed Hossein Nasr”, ed. Mohammed H. Faghfoory (Fons Vitae, 2003); and Terry Moore, “Frithjof Schuon and Seyyed Hossein Nasr—Beacons of Knowledge” in Beacon of Knowledge: Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

This list only includes the most obvious articles.  The author failed to cite dozens of other articles that analyze Frithjof Schuon’s writings on everything from religious art to the Christian Trinity.

[17] Qur’an 5:49.

[18] Qur’an 5:69, 2:62. Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Place of Tolerance in Islam (Beacon Press, 2002), pp. 16-17

[19] Frithjof Schuon, Sufism: Veil and Quintessence (World Wisdom Books, 1981), p. 77.

[20] Al-Shaykh al-Arabi al-DarqawiLetters of a Sufi Master, trans. Titus Burckhardt (Middlesex: Perennial Books Ltd., 1969), p. 37.

[21] The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Element Books, 1991), p. 149.

[22] Cited by Jean-Baptiste Aymard and Patrick Laude, Frithjof Schuon: Life and Teachings (SUNY Press, 2004), p. 37.

[23] Frithjof Schuon, Stations of Wisdom (World Wisdom Books, 1995), p. 147.

[24] Here one is left to wonder how it is that Vâlsan having around 100 disciples at the time of his death is a sign of success, but Schuon having several hundred disciples on five continents is not. Instead, the author labels Schuon’s Maryamiyyah Order “a disaster”. (268)

[25] Frithjof Schuon: Life and Teachings, p. 33.

[26] From the back cover of Frithjof Schuon’s Logic and Transcendence (Perennial Books, Ltd. 1975.

[27] From the back cover of Knowledge and the Sacred.

[28] That the Traditional perspective would be subject to such attacks was predicted by Guénon when he wrote: “It is always easy for a man to belittle what he has no knowledge of, and, when he is incapable of reaching it, assumed contempt is actually his best means of consoling himself for his impotence, and it is, moreover, a means that is at everyone’s disposal.” East and West, p. 174.