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Book Review


(World of Islam Festival Publishing Co. Ltd. Cloth £6. Paper £3.75).

Review by Martin Lings.

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Autumn, 1976). © World Wisdom, Inc.

The title gives the author a free hand to demonstrate once again that he is unsurpassed—and I would add unequalled—as a writer on comparative religion. In particular it may be noted that although this book revolves round Islam, it is remarkably illuminating also, both expressly and implicitly, about Christianity in its deepest and most universal aspects.

Like his other works on Islam, this also is centred on Sufism. But if it is true that Sufism is the heart of Islam, it needs to be added that there is within Sufism a heart within the heart. An important feature of the chapter on “Form and Substance in the Religions” and others is a definition of that inner heart which is the Islamic mode of what the author terms ‘esoterism’—a word he reserves for this highest, deepest and inmost aspect of religion. If it would not be true to say that the terms perennial philosophy and ‘esoterism’ are altogether synonymous we can none the less speak of a virtual identity of perspective. Both perspectives in fact coincide by being rooted directly in the Divine Essence; and it will be clear to the reader that the Summit-Centre-Depth of the Divine Nature is the great criterion which ultimately dominates all the theological conclusions to be found in these chapters.

The transcendence of the author’s perspective is far-reaching in its consequences, for qui peut le plus peut le moins.[1] It is not irrelevant to recall here Jung’s famous remark that the soul is the object of psychology and unfortunately also its subject (rather as if the body were to set itself up as an authority on bodily health and sickness). It goes without saying that Jung’s definition can only be applied to modern psychology. In the past, the world over, it was taken for granted that the sage, that is, the metaphysician in the full sense of the term, was the psychologist par excellence precisely because he could look at the soul from a metaphysical and therefore supra-psychic level; and although this book does not set out to be a treatise on the soul, the reader will be struck by its wealth of psychological insight, and will have more than a suspicion that the soul, while being the object of this insight, is not itself the subject.

By way of example we may mention “the altogether new light” which—so the publishers justly claim—is thrown here on the origins of Shi‘ism. One has indeed the impression that here, at long last, is the basic explanation of that strange and puzzling phenomenon in the history of early Islam.

What might be called the ‘solving of riddles’ is a characteristic feature of the author’s writings, and in many cases the gratification of the reader is mingled with surprise that so many centuries should have had to elapse before a truly satisfying answer could come out. The questions answered here are on a diversity of planes. The following is related to the already mentioned enigma of Shi‘ism, though it is by no means identical with it. How was it possible that the saintly Companions of the Prophet should have been literally at daggers drawn with each other not long after his death? On another plane, what is meant by the reiterated Quranic accusation that Jews and Christians have falsified their scriptures? The answers usually given by Muslims have always seemed, to the Jew and the Christian, to show an elementary lack of psychological understanding. But the accusation itself does not stem from individuals but from the Revelation. In other words, it cannot be dismissed, and it is here treated at some length.

On yet another plane there is what has perhaps been the most urgent of all questions throughout recorded time. Why does Good and Almighty God allow evil? The author first of all formulates the classical error on this theme: “According to Epicurus and those who followed him, no theodicy is possible for the following reasons: either God wishes to suppress evil and cannot, in which case He is good but not powerful; or else God is able to suppress evil but does not wish to, in which case He is powerful but not good; or He is neither able nor willing to suppress evil, in which case He is neither powerful nor good; or again He is both able and willing, in which case evil does not exist; but evil does exist.” Needless to say, this has been many times partially answered. But in view of the fundamental importance of the issues involved, I would go so far as to suggest that the full and altogether satisfying answer given here is no less than a major event in the history of theological formulation or, to put it more simply but no less truly, the history of human thought.

Readers of Schuon will already be familiar with his readiness to give every standpoint its due; and in this book also they will find that same freedom from what he calls ‘alternativism’, a fault which has characterized certain theologians who, to use his own words “know, metaphorically speaking, that a given object is not white and consequently conclude that it is black as if this were the only choice.” He is keenly aware that when faced with religious writings of the past, even those of the mystics, both Eastern and Western, some twentieth century readers find it difficult not to be put off by certain extravagances and inconsequences of expression. A typical modern ‘intellectual’ (I use the epithet in its current incorrect sense) is in some ways almost the opposite of those for whom the treatises in question were written. Throughout this book, as in his other writings, the author goes more than half way to meet such readers, though, needless to say, he does not allow them to have the last word. “If the exaggerations of the Saints are no longer convincing in our age, this is—apart from negative reasons—largely because men have learned to think, in some way despite themselves and as the result of historical inevitability;[2] now to be able to “think” does not mean in this case to discern the value of things in depth, but simply to submit phenomena as such to a certain minimum of logical analysis, frequently to the detriment of understanding their content, whereas men were formerly more sensitive to contents or intentions and less to the logic of forms.”

If saints can exaggerate, lesser men can do worse: “Let a spiritual idea be launched with all the vehemence required to make it psychologically effective, and in the end it will perforce be accompanied by a train of pious absurdities; it behooves the wise man to discern what is essential without letting himself be discouraged by the accidental, hateful though it may be.”

The last three chapters are on Paradise and we might almost say ‘for’ Paradise in the sense that they serve to correct certain “hasty and simplistic depreciations of Paradise” which are liable to engender “spiritual pretentiousness”. The idea that the joys of Paradise could have the danger of making a blessed soul “content with the Garden instead of thinking only of the Gardener” receives short shrift, and such a saying as “it is better to think of God in hell than to forget Him in Paradise” receives no shrift at all. Yet the author does justice to all that is positive and true in the minds of the depreciators by reformulating it in a way which accords not only with logic and metaphysics but also, we might add, with ‘spiritual common sense’.

The final chapter, “The Two Paradises” is perhaps the crown of the book, not least because it touches us so nearly.

The Quranic doctrine of the hierarchy of four Paradises, with two for each person, is here expounded in a way which shows that this duality—surprising at first sight and contrary to what is normally imagined—is in fact altogether in the nature of things and could not be otherwise.

In conclusion it may not be amiss to quote a passage from the penultimate chapter on “The Forbidden Fruit” which transmits one of the author’s fundamental messages, not new in itself but new in virtue of its manner of expression, namely that although none of the different ‘formal’ religions can do perfect justice to the Divinity, such adequacy being the prerogative of ‘supraformal Truth’ alone, these religions are none the less an indispensable means of access to that Truth and cannot be by-passed.

“The gravest result of the fall is…the closing of the “eye of the Heart” or the loss of the inward Revelation and thus of Intellect’s integrity, and hence also the loss of the “state of grace” and the corruption of the soul. The inward and timeless Revelation is present still, but it is hidden away beneath a sheet of ice which necessitates the intervention of outward Revelations; but these cannot have the perfection of what might be termed “innate Religion” or the immanent philosophic perennis. Esoterism by definition takes account of this situation; heretics and philosophers are often aware of it too, in their fragmentary way, but clearly they do not wish to understand that the religions in fact provide the key to pure and universal Truth.… This inward Truth is, we repeat, de facto inaccessible without the help of outward manifestations, objective and prophetic.”


[1] Editor’s note (2010): In employing this French proverb, literally “He who can do more can do less,” Dr. Lings was pointing out that Schuon’s unique facility in grasping transcendent aspects of things also enabled him to grasp aspects of human  psychology, which would have to be considered ‘lesser’ in comparison with the transcendent.

[2] In the way that an old man cannot help being experienced. [Reviewer's Note].