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Oriental Dialectic and its Roots in Faith


Frithjof Schuon

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Winter, 1971). © World Wisdom, Inc.

Editor's note: The following is from an updated translation
of the essay, approved by the estate of Frithjof Schuon.

When comparing the literatures of East and West, one often has the impression that the critical faculties of Orientals and Westerners are situated on different planes; Westerners cannot help feeling shocked by certain peculiarities and inconsistencies in the dialectic of Eastern peoples: these include the use of weak arguments to support a strong thesis while ignoring strong arguments, or developing them insufficiently, as well as a common tendency—at least among some groups—toward exaggeration. It is tempting to conclude that spiritual zeal and a critical sense are mutually exclusive; it is quite obvious that this cannot be so in principle since two positive qualities are involved, but one is forced to admit that it is largely so in practice, and this is because of the unequal distribution of natural gifts in a humanity far removed from primordial perfection. In brief, the difficulty consists in combining spiritual subjectivity, which is concerned with salvific efficacy, and outward objectivity, which is concerned with the exactness of phenomena; we say “outward” and not “metaphysical” since metaphysical objectivity is included in spiritual subjectivity and in fact conditions it; otherwise it would not be spiritual. It goes without saying that this incompatibility—which is always relative—concerns collectivities and not necessarily individual people, but since it is present in the collective mentalities, it affects traditional language and even the most gifted of individuals.

Be that as it may, when the Westerner confronts certain extravagances of language in Muslim texts—for the Near East is more especially in question here—it is clearly not wrong for him to notice the existence of these imperfections, whether real or apparent; he is seriously deceiving himself, however, if he imagines that homo occidentalis is endowed with a critical sense fully operative on every plane or that the critical sense—or need for logical satisfaction—typical of the ancient Greeks in particular and Europeans in general is operative in every realm and thus constitutes an overall superiority. To be sure, the critical sense that prevents us from accepting an inconsistency, even one that is strictly verbal, is a mode of discernment; but it is not discernment as such, which operates on the most essential planes of human existence in such a way as to bring this existence into accord with its sufficient reason. The Westerner possesses a sense of exactness and proportion on the plane of facts and their expression—setting aside any question of ignorance or prejudice—but he makes it impossible for himself to benefit from this gift at the level of his ultimate interests; the most striking proof of this is the disintegration of Western civilization in general and modern thought in particular.

The implicit and symbolic nature of Oriental dialectic coincides in a certain way with sacred dialectic as such; as for the hyperbolism that is so frequently used, it may be a legitimate rhetorical means of spiritual suggestion, but at the emotional level it results from the temptation of the exiled soul when faced with the supernatural and its marvelous and immeasurable aspects. Pious exaggeration believes it may violate the principle of measure—which requires that a thing be expressed in conformity with the means of expression—because the essences to be expressed elude the narrowness of the terrestrial world and language; but the expression is at fault—strictly speaking—as soon as it attributes the limitlessness of essences to sensible forms, especially when it does so in a quantitative and unthinking manner. Perfect symbolism adopts an intermediate attitude: like a miracle it projects the marvelous into the formal order; but a miracle is not disproportionate, nor does perfect symbolism fail to maintain the measure proper to the formal order while showing forth the marvelous; it thus avoids appearing arbitrary, improbable, or absurd—all the qualities a certain type of religious emotionalism seems to have difficulty escaping.

At the level of sacred dialectic the Gospel provides us with examples of hyperbolic symbolism: when Christ says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven or that it is enough to have faith no larger than a grain of mustard seed in order to move a mountain, he is expressing himself in a typically Semitic manner. The point on the one hand is that it is impossible for the soul to enter Glory directly as long as it remains attached to perishable things—for it is attachment, not possession, that makes a vice out of wealth—and on the other hand that faith, insofar as it is sincere, contains within itself a supernatural and therefore humanly immeasurable power. Formal exaggeration has the function of suggesting a conditio sine qua non of salvation as far as wealth is concerned and a quality of effective participation in absoluteness in relation to faith. Similar remarks could be made concerning the injunctions to turn the other cheek and refrain from passing judgment, as well as other expressions of this kind, all of which are examples of an isolating dialectic in which a particular relationship is implicit.

*    *    *

According to certain devotees of Vishnuism, the Name of Rama is greater than Rama himself, and this is because “it is only by the power of this Name that the Lord is accessible”. There is no point in denying the flagrant contradiction contained in this proposition or in trying to cloak it in euphemisms; on the other hand one cannot in good conscience blind oneself to the obvious fact that the function of the formulation is to isolate a particular element of spiritual reality—in this case the Name of Rama—and then to underline its pre-eminence in connection with salvific effectiveness. It is as if one dared to assert that the Eucharistic host is greater than Christ because the host is in fact what confers grace in an immediate and quasi-material manner; this is an extraordinarily ill-sounding and paradoxical ellipsis, to say the least, and it can scarcely be justified by the desire to offer special devotion to the sensible manifestation of a saving hypostasis. In fact the Western mentality tends to be resistant to such contortions, and its restraint—considered in itself—is unquestionably a quality one would like to see given its full value in an equivalent spiritual realism.[1]

The traditions of India, Assyria, and Egypt provide us with examples of what has been called henotheism, which is a cult involving several divinities, each of whom is looked upon as the supreme God while it is worshiped.[2] When the Name of Rama is regarded in practice as the major divinity, one ends up replacing the worship of the transcendent God with that of the efficient God—to speak analogically and to the extent that such a distinction can be meaningful; only the emotional subjectivism of bhaktas could explain so great a “stroke of ingenuity”. If the Name of Rama possesses any effectiveness, it is only because it “is Rama”, an elliptical formulation that is as daring as possible within the framework of what is logically permissible; obviously the greatest homage one can render this Name is to recognize that it can be identified with the Named, not that it is more than the Named.

If henotheism is a phenomenon proper to certain religions of antiquity—though in Hinduism it is still alive—in a broad sense the henotheist mentality is characteristic of the entire East to one degree or another; we notice it whenever a single aspect is cut off from its context within a larger whole—the point being to stress some specific relationship—and then presented as a superlative within the limited framework of this same relationship. Thus the superlativism of Arab dialectic consists in emphasizing a given quality or defect by means of a logically unacceptable hyperbole while remaining silent about the particular relationship that makes the superlative intelligible; this is not unconnected with the importance the Arab and Islamic mentality attaches to the image of the sword and the experience of instantaneity: in sayings that begin “the best of things is . . .” or “the worst of men is . . .” or “he will have the greatest reward who . . .” or “he will have the greatest punishment who . . .”, thinking is comparable to the stroke of a sword; it is an act rather than a vision.

According to Islam, all the Prophets are equal in their dignity of prophecy and character of impeccability, though some are greater than others in relation to a particular grace; Muhammad is their synthesis, and since he is thus the first in his celestial reality he is the last in time, according to the principle of inverse reflection. What this means is that a certain aspect of the Muhammadan phenomenon—one that seems quite contingent—is interpreted as manifesting a unique and supereminent quality; now this is entirely in line with henotheist logic, for it is in just the same way—because of a given quality shared with the Absolute—that Vishnu, Shiva, or other divinities become alternatively or separately the supreme God. This obviously presupposes that the quality in question is really prefigured in a certain manner in God or that it indicates the supereminence in question by direct or inverse analogy; the degree of this supereminence may be directly divine as in the case of the Hindu gods or more relative as in the case of the Arab Prophet. The fact that this Prophet was the last founder of a world religion—and from a criteriological point of view it is sufficiently remarkable that he foresaw this fact since in his time Islam amounted to nothing, humanly speaking—is an objective sign, precisely; in the case of a phenomenon of this order of grandeur, a henotheistic interpretation is clearly acceptable, though of course only for Islam and not in every cosmic sector.[3] In a similar manner, if a given God or Goddess of Brahmanism appears as the supreme Divinity, this is because he or she rules a cosmic sector extending all the way from the devotee, through the particular Heaven of the God or Goddess, and right up to Paramātmā and including—on the earthly side—the whole form of worship offered to the specific Divinity.

Just as the chronological posteriority of the Arab Prophet may—or must—be interpreted in the cosmic sector of Islam as marking the principial anteriority of the Muhammadan Logos, so the human femininity of the Blessed Virgin, hence her subordination, can indicate a real celestial superiority in a particular connection: given the spiritual and cosmic supereminence of the personage, femininity appears in this case as the inverted reflection of pure essentiality, which amounts to saying that in her “transcendent body” (dharmakāya) the Virgin is the virginal Mother of all the Prophets; she is thus identified with divine Femininity or the Wisdom that was “in the beginning”.[4]

*    *    *

When Junayd opines—with a logic that has now been sufficiently described—that a moment’s forgetfulness of God compromises a thousand years of obedience, the very extravagance of the proposition allows one to see immediately that sincerity of faith is the premise from which he deduces the obligation to remember God always: to believe that God is One—to believe it sincerely and therefore totally—is not to forget it even for a moment; it is to plunge one’s whole existence into this conviction. To lose sight of Unity is to place oneself outside of unitary faith, hence outside of Islam, whence the invalidity of the rites accomplished in the past, even if they were performed for a thousand years. This totalitarianism or ostracism recalls mutatis mutandis that of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, who maintained that Baptism remains valid only in the context of a spiritual perfection that is renewed every instant: just as sanctity proves the efficacy of Baptism for Symeon, so perpetual mindfulness of God proves the sincerity of faith for Junayd;[5] the unicity of God demands the totality, perpetuity, and ubiquity of faith. When compared to the reality of the Essence, Junayd believes, all other things must shrink to the point of never excluding a consciousness of the One—if they do not in fact disappear altogether.

The following two examples bear witness to the same state of mind: a certain believer asks God for various favors not because he wishes to obtain them but “to obey the divine command” expressed in the Koran—as if in commanding or permitting personal prayer God was not considering the ends of this prayer and as if He could appreciate a form of obedience that disregarded the sufficient reason for the act commanded or permitted! In this case “command” is actually a rather grand word, for in reality God does not command us to have needs or make requests of Him but rather invites us out of mercy to ask Him for what we lack; we can pray for our daily bread or for a cure just as we can pray for inward graces, but there is no question of praying for the sake of praying because God ordered for the sake of ordering. The second example is the following: another believer, unlike the first, begins with the idea that everything is predestined, and he therefore abstains from formulating any prayers, in spite of the “divine command” this time, because “everything that must happen will happen anyway”—as if God would give Himself the trouble of commanding or permitting superfluous attitudes and as if prayer too were not predestined! To be sure, man is a “servant” (ʿabd), and servitude (ʿubūdiyah) includes obedience, but it is not just a matter of “art for art’s sake”; servitude exists only for the sake of its contents, especially since man is “made in the image of God”; to forget this is to empty the very idea of man of all its substance.

What the first of these believers undoubtedly has in mind is the virtue of obedience: he wishes to show that this virtue—or “mystical taste” (dhawq)—has priority over all logical motivations and secondary ends; looked at this way, obedience is obviously of greater importance than obtaining some desire. Disobedience is the very nature of the worldly man (dunyâwi); hence it is necessary to carry out an initial inversion or conversion (tawbah) and then to repeat it at every moment. The spiritual man is thus the perfect servant, even to the point of “disappearance” (fanāʾ); things have value only through obedience.

The same thing is true in the second example: it too signifies that one must not set any personal wish in opposition to divine decrees. Logically such an intention is absurd and unrealizable, but spiritually it means that the soul should seek to maintain itself in what might be called an ontological attitude; only the divine Will is real, and it is necessary to put oneself at the disposal of this sole Reality—an impracticable attitude, strictly speaking, but one that may have its value when considered as an intention or tendency. On the other hand one is in danger here of an individualism in reverse, leading in turn to an irresolvable sentimentalism and moral automatism, which are in fact incompatible with the metaphysical consciousness they are meant to convey; Christian humilitarianism offers numerous examples of the contradictions involved in an annihilation of self that is in fact an emotional inflation of the ego. In Islamic terms it could be said that even indirect individualism is a sin of “association” (shirk)—the association of something else with God—as well as a sin of “hypocrisy” (nifāq), and this is true from the moment one claims to acknowledge that “there is no divinity apart from the sole Divinity” and to extinguish oneself for this very reason, while in fact merely indulging in a noisy drama of annihilation.

But let us return to the perfect obedience, or fideism, that renounces any wish to understand beyond a certain intuition that has been deemed sufficient: according to this way of seeing and feeling, the attitude of intellectual—hence neutral and apparently “uncommitted”—observation is pervaded by a compromising undercurrent of outwardness and profanity, even impiety; from this point of view the critical spirit appears as something more or less sacrilegious and seems for this very reason to disrupt peace of heart and serenity of soul; it is therefore said that one must be contented with the taste of Truth, which has no need of the proofs required by doubt. Moreover, from the standpoint of fideism there is no need to verify “from without”—by a profane mental intervention—what is certain “from within”; the door must not be opened to the temptation of doubt and the vicious circle of an unproductive and finally destructive philosophical restlessness; thought will never satisfy thought. There is in this sentiment an incontestable truth—although in practice it favors an emotionalism lacking all sense of proportion—for discursive thought entails a grave danger, and this is because its own nature gives it no motive to stop, ratiocination being without end; its movement is like that of a spiral, and it can never exhaustively attain the Real.

Mental movement is quieted only in faith, which rejects it, or in gnosis, which integrates it and realizes its positive content; in both cases further movement may or may not come about, and if it is does—as at some point it must—it will in any case have a purely descriptive and provisional function, limited by either dogma or gnosis. The points of reference furnished by traditional doctrines have nothing to do with any sort of philosophical “research”, a research without serenity and without end and unaware of the very purpose of intelligence.

It is undeniable that fideism opens a door to sentimentality, but this does not conflict with spiritual effort, which is precisely what counts here; be that as it may, man is free to choose a path that is in conformity with his nature and with the role sentiment plays in it. And this is important: when a sentiment neither contradicts nor limits truth in any way—we mean spiritually sufficient truth—it is entirely legitimate; in this case it does not represent a natural fact that is simply to be tolerated but a passive mode of intuition or participation. If this were not so, the symbolism of love would not be conceivable nor would the use of music or poetry.[6]

*    *    *

Christian humilitarianism, which we mentioned above, presupposes an unfortunate equation of intelligence with pride;[7] it tends to reduce spirituality to alternatives that are too narrow when compared with the possibilities of human nature, and thus it excludes certain types of sanctity, even favoring inverted substitutes for these unfulfilled vocations. Like the obedientialism and sincerism of Muslims, humilitarianism is not unconnected with the absence of the notion of Māyā: in fact the prejudice that reduces spirituality, practically speaking, to the conviction of being the most vile of men presupposes an absolutization of human reality, and from this there is no escape—in the absence of an intellectual alchemy—except by a psychological crushing.[8] This amounts to saying that man is incapable of objectivity and that the soul never takes on the aspect of an objective phenomenon in relation to the intelligence; if someone counters that humility is precisely the fact of being objective with regard to oneself, we would reply that this is certainly so in principle but not in conventional, ascetic humilitarianism, which imposes on the soul—on every soul—the conviction of being not only relatively but fundamentally bad, and to a greater degree than any other soul. The fact that this formulation can be given a plausible meaning as a notion-symbol—in the sense that every sin is in a certain way sin as such—does not alter the fact that in passional mysticism humility leads to a moral automatism without intelligence and is generally applied with a sentimental prejudice devoid of every nuance of objectivity.

Within the framework of a real contemplativity—one so impervious to the world and ambition that the world withdraws from it—the question of knowing whether we are good or bad pertains to Māyā; it is fundamentally insoluble and thus a matter of indifference; although we cannot help seeing evil in ourselves and indeed must endeavor to do so—though without involving our soul to the point of falling into fruitless individualism—the only thing that counts definitively is the element of absoluteness determining our spiritual life. And it is the very insistence on the positive elements of spirituality that regulates what is morally problematic; unable as we are to solve the insoluble question of our own worth, it is God who solves it for us, and this He does through the elements of absoluteness to which we give pride of place.

To see in this doctrine an invitation to relax in our effort is to lose sight of two things: first, that the struggle for virtue is not an end in itself and that there must therefore be a spiritual context within which virtue takes precedence over struggle; second, that it would be senseless to struggle toward a goal that virtue itself would forbid us to attain. All these considerations converge upon the crucial problem of the encounter—in part inevitable and in part contradictory—between religious individualism and universal Reality.

*    *    *

There is an element that opposes the critical sense—in fact if not by right—and this is what we might call “inspirationism”: it consists in piously abstaining from corrective or questioning mental interventions when one is receiving the flow of even ordinary inspiration—which is necessarily produced whenever a person writes with sufficient authority on a spiritual subject—and not just of inspiration in the highest sense of the term. The idea that God dictates what we must write—by virtue of our vocation—may lead to a degree of negligence or carelessness regarding the form and even the value of arguments as well as to a corresponding insensibility to these things; the extreme opposite would be a meticulous logic devoid of any inspiration—treating things from the outside with neither sufficient knowledge nor a “mandate from Heaven”—and this is the case with philosophy in the current sense of the word. Given all its dialectical risks, inspirationism is a two-edged sword—in principle if not always in fact—but it is understandable in the case of Semites of the nomadic type, who with their prophetic mentality are as if suspended from the divine Word as it descends from Heaven.

Quite apart from any question of Western incomprehension, it seems to us that most of the things in Oriental texts that seem arbitrary, absurd, and “unreadable” are to be ascribed to inspirationism, positively or negatively as the case may be; and when the cause is positive, this is because there really is inspiration. Semitic revelationism and Aryan intellectionism: from these are derived respectively inspirationism and objective dialectic, then imperturbable fideism and a critical sense, and finally—at an extreme limit, which is excessive and disproportionate—the blind automatism of religious moralism and a philosophical logic devoid of all normally human intuition and thus much more aberrant than the moralism. This asymmetry between two opposed but in a certain sense complementary extremes is explained by the fact that there is an inequality between their positive sources, namely, Revelation and Intellection or objective and formal religion and immanent and supraformal religion; since the supraformal is the quintessence of the formal, its weakening in human consciousness results in counterfeit and perversion—corruptio optimi pessima—whereas the most unintelligent fideism does not in principle cut itself off from either truth or grace. This allows one to understand the fideists’ condemnation of the philosophical point of view, even when they are wrong in detail; they reject truths that are in fact inaccessible to them, but in doing so they condemn a tendency.

We are well aware in saying this that many arguments could be turned against us to invalidate our thesis, which is only an approximation; but it is a necessary approximation, without which important phenomena that are troubling at first sight would remain unexplained and might even seem inexplicable—unless they were explained in the most erroneous manner, as has happened in fact, or were concealed beneath euphemisms in themselves detestable and in the long run more compromising than useful.

*    *    *

Muslim hagiography is one of the fields that cause the gravest difficulties for the Western reader; too often the impression is given that pure and simple facts, in their exact and measurably outward aspect, are of little importance to the authors; only moral and mystical intentions seem to count, and history appears to be reduced to a sort of didactic ideography, which must be as incisive as possible. The great virtues dominate everything: sincerity, poverty, generosity, trust; the saints are there simply to demonstrate these virtues, not to be humanly credible; and God is all-powerful. The content of the facts, their moral and spiritual purpose, and their effectiveness against hypocrisy are what is important; facts in themselves are mere signs, like the letters of the alphabet.

One of the characteristic features of Islam is its insistence on total trust in God and an almost exclusive recourse to Him; the saint wishes to depend on God alone. A certain type of hagiography seeks to illustrate precisely this, using a whole series of transparent and striking images that are nonetheless de facto excessive and unintelligible; their gratuitousness seems intended to compensate for their extravagance, and conversely. It will be said that legends are legends, but this evasive generalization does not take into account the problem of the form of the symbol; for it is not enough that a symbol should signify or transmit something: it must do so in a way that does not conflict with common sense.[9] We should doubtless pay tribute to the spiritual idealism of the hagiographers in question, but we also have to admit that the reaction of the Western reader is justified, for he is unlikely to be receptive to the attractions of a hyperbolism he will readily describe as infantile, rightly or wrongly as the case may be.[10]

The conclusion to be drawn from these considerations is that Oriental consciousness, deeply anchored in the mystery of a salvific faith that is nearly irresistible, more readily accepts the risk of a minor contradiction than of a lack of faith; for illogicality and improbability with regard to detail harm neither the unitary truth, which guarantees every possible truth, nor the perfection of faith, which together with truth leads to salvation; on the other hand an overly meticulous logic and a too demanding critical sense contain the poison of doubt—at least at the level of the average man—and seem to set themselves directly against unconditional faith and divine Omnipotence;[11] it is therefore better to exaggerate and accept the risk of absurdity than to run the risk of apostasy. Truth is static whereas faith is dynamic: this difference explains why the Muslim, and even the Oriental in general, attaches more importance to faith—short of immutable truth itself—than to exactness of facts; fideism does not conflict with intelligence, since it is not opposed to contemplation, but with doubt, profanity, and pride, which are all the greater in the case of a diminished intellectual stature. The equilibrium between truth and faith is similar to that between doctrine and method or between mind and soul; the well-disposed mind accepts truth abstractly, but this is a very different thing from the soul’s accepting it concretely to the same degree or according to the same rhythm; the following words are addressed much more to the soul than to the mind: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Over and above its particular content, faith is our disposition to believe divinely possible what is humanly not.

Some have felt compelled to conclude that the sacred history of Islam does not merit belief, but it is the opposite that is true, for in sacred history facts themselves are held to be so sacred that exactness is part of faith. No one is more meticulous—we would almost say more pedantic and rationalistic—than the Arab when it comes to questions of genealogy and the transmission of sayings and events, whether canonical or simply neutral; in the first case it is piety itself that compels exactness, and in the second it is indifference;[12] the human margin, which permits enthusiasm to mix symbolic or didactic stylization with historical truth, appears only a posteriori when the sacred facts have been guaranteed. As for this difference in principle between the sacred foundations and the subsequent human margin, the situation is roughly the same in both Christianity and Judaism, for this is a phenomenon that results from the very nature of religions apart from any question of psychology.

In speaking of the poison of doubt, we are in no way referring to a specifically intellectual doubt, that is, a doubt arising from the nature of intelligence and relating to things that are subject by their very nature to a possible uncertainty; on the contrary, the doubt we are thinking of comes from a prejudice that is basically passional, for in all rationalism reason seeks to be absolute and revolts against its limitations; like hatred, doubt can be cold, but even so it remains rooted in a sort of passion. Faith is peace of heart arising from an almost boundless certainty, and by its very nature it therefore falls outside the jurisdiction of doubt; human intelligence is made for transcendence, for otherwise it would be nothing more than an increase in animal intelligence. Apart from the content that completes it, faith is our disposition to know before knowing; indeed this disposition is already knowledge in that it is derived from innate wisdom, which it is precisely the function of the revealed content of faith to revive.

Following these generalities, let us return to hagiography. Besides the absurd, which in religious literature may be the shadow of a subjective beauty that escapes our retrospective investigation—even the sharpest vision is unable to perceive perfumes and melodies—there is also an obsession with precedent and example, and this explains many things: just as the Sunnah is full of incidents that surprise us because of their paradoxical or banal character, but which are always justified by the argument that they serve as examples for the faithful, so the lives of the saints exhibit features which suggest that the hagiographer, or the saint himself, intended to provide a paradigm of the most striking possible kind for a very particular situation in order for virtue and the sublime to penetrate into every possible human context. The dominant note is on the level of faith and consists in a passionate scruple of sincerity; the key to the enigmas can be found in a heroic concern for sincerity.

But we must now consider the historicity of the accounts themselves; some of the facts are difficult to judge—as when we confront an apparently gratuitous miracle or someone who at first sight seems needlessly vindictive in character—for we may be unaware of motives that are important and decisive in the eyes of Heaven even though we may know the principle of the heavenly criteria; a guide in this context is the fact that the Oriental perceives serious effects in what seem to be minor causes, as if imitating a certain divine way of looking at things, if such an expression is permitted; the Bible provides more than one example of this. It must also be said that celestial patterns of operation are not the same in every age—ancient miracles occurred more easily, so to speak, and were often more terrible, depending on the case, than later miracles—and that the accounts give us only the facts without being able to do justice to all the factors, whether objective or subjective, that condition them.

*    *    *

Just as a Christian likes to question his conscience: Is not my humility pride? so a Muslim plunges into this scruple: Is not my sincerity hypocrisy? In both cases—as we have already seen—the question is humanly insoluble on the plane of volitive and sentimental individualism where it is situated; whence a tension or perplexity, which doubtless contributes to the creation of overburdened legends. But these legends or facts—and above all the perplexities they express, whether in an adequate or a stylized fashion—also have the value of catalyzing paradoxes of the sort that Zen Buddhists call kōans: the inward tension ends sooner or later with the tearing of a veil, unity invades the soul, and duality disappears with hypocrisy. There is obviously a prefiguration or anticipation of this liberating grace in pure intellection inasmuch as it introduces an element of impersonality into the soul, which presupposes that we are concerned—subjectively as well as objectively—with something other than an inoperative philosophy: for only the truth delivers, and only contemplation purifies the heart.[13]

Whatever the general style of Islam as a Semitic monotheism, it is nonetheless astonishing that many Sufis—in fact the majority, though perhaps not the greatest among them[14]—express themselves in the style of a voluntarist and emotional individualism, whereas Sufism itself is by definition founded on gnosis and fashioned by it; the reason for this is that the majority of men, even at the level of sanctity, are “psychics” and not “pneumatics” and are therefore subject indirectly to the regime of fear, and it would be hypocrisy or temerity on their part to express themselves otherwise than they do; it is true that many of them could subsequently have changed their mode of expression, but they sought to remain faithful to what their individual substance demanded of them at the start, especially since it is better to appear less than one is than to be less than one appears. Two other factors to consider here are religious solidarity, which demands or favors a common language, and the symbolism of love, which readily rejoins the language of sentiments and emotions.

*    *    *

We have spoken about a de facto incompatibility between the zeal of faith and a certain critical sense among average men at all levels;[15] faith is adequate, hence objective, in its essential content, but it is not necessarily so on the surface, whereas a critical sense can be accompanied even in the most important spheres by the narrowest subjectivity, hence by illusion, and logically this prohibits it from attacking the minor weaknesses of believers. The situation is somewhat similar in art, where symbolism and naturalism are in certain ways opposed to each other: no one would think of criticizing a sacred image for its lack of anatomical precision; expression and sacred value are what take precedence. It is not impossible for a sacred image to coincide with nature without thereby losing its hieratic quality, but this is a quite precarious possibility, requiring the convergence of a variety of conditions that in fact are very hard to realize;[16] human nature being what it is, it is more common for a naturalistic work to be the fruit of a visual and artistic experience that is profane in character and for a sacred symbol to remain within the holy childhood of an ideogram. Be that as it may, there is a metaphysical principle that prevents a manifestation of the sacred from reaching the extreme of total perfection so that the flow of the formless is not arrested; this principle explains many discrepancies in the Scriptures and liturgical arts, and it is not unrelated to the imperfections of expression we often encounter in traditional dialectics.

In all fairness we would like to insert the following points concerning the thorny problem of pious illogicalities: whatever price must be paid for the impulsivity and occasional lack of reflection in Arab idealism, a Muslim never loses contact with the fundamental tenor of his religion, at least as long as he is a believer; by contrast it is easy for the religious Westerner to lose touch in practice with the fundamental tenor of his faith, entrenching himself behind the simple alternatives of morality and the demands of religious practice while betraying—because he is “civilized”—the very tendencies that serve as the foundation for these alternatives and this practice. A machine is a good thing as long as one loves God, and a republic is good as long as it favors religion; but it does not seem to enter the minds of the vast majority of believers that a machine de facto kills the love of God and that a republic de facto stifles religion. When these evil effects are finally acknowledged, the blame is placed first of all on human nature and then on some imagined decadence of religion; it is never placed on the real causes, which are considered a priori neutral because they are outside the simplistic moral alternatives and practical rules to which religion has been reduced as well as outside pure theology. Irreversible material factors have caused the world of the machine—which some people suppose to be “Christian” since a machine does not commit adultery and since everything effective must come from Christianity—to be imposed everywhere, and this favors the secular element throughout the globe as well as a technocratic worldliness, which is clearly the antithesis of any love of God.

This utilitarian worldliness—whether frankly impious or deceitfully Christian—cannot be established by normal dialectics; it requires arguments that endeavor to replace reality with imaginative suggestions of the most arbitrary kind. The falsely moralizing tendency so common in modern language is at least as obnoxious as thoughtless hyperbolism, and much more so in certain cases: it consists in seeking to justify an error or evil by applying flattering labels and in seeking to compromise a truth or positive fact by applying derogatory labels—often using false values such as “youthfulness”— without the labels having the slightest connection with the things to which they are applied.[17] Another dialectical vice or abuse of thought is the inversion of causal and logical relationships: people say that it is time to invent a new ideal that will stir the hearts of men or that a new mentality must be forged that is capable of finding the world of machines beautiful and the world of sanctuaries ugly or that prefers the new mass or the new religion to the old mass or the religion of all time. Like the moralizing tendency, this inverted and inverting form of reasoning is totally foreign to Oriental dialectic and traditional dialectic in general, for obvious reasons.

We would also call attention in passing to “dynamic” reasoning, which subordinates the discernment of a fact to finding a practical solution—as if truth did not have its own reason for being and its own value—and utilitarian reasoning, which subordinates truth as such to the material interests of physical man. None of this is in fact incompatible with a certain critical sense on some outward planes; and if this is so, the opposite must also be possible, namely, a disproportion between spiritual discernment and a rashly impulsive and hyperbolic language.

One further digression may be permitted here on the subject of scientism since we have already mentioned the extraterritoriality represented for the European Christian by what he calls “civilization”: if the Bible does not specify that the earth is round, this is simply because it is normal for man to see it as flat and because collective man cannot tolerate even the idea of a spherical earth, as history has more than sufficiently proven.[18] Science is natural to man, but what is most important is to choose between the different levels in light of the axiom: “My kingdom is not of this world”; all useful observation of the here-below expands science, but the wisdom of the next world limits it, and this means that every science of the relative that does not have a limit determined by the absolute, hence by the spiritual hierarchy of values, ends in supersaturation and explosion.

This said, let us now return to the question of Oriental dialectic.

*    *    *

The elliptical or synthetic character of the expressions of Revelation may lead in certain climates to a rather incongruous sort of thinking, which registers, transmits, and emphasizes rather than reasoning in accordance with the rules of an explicit and horizontal logic. For example, one may be surprised to read that the Prophet, after expounding some of the principles of Islam to a group of Bedouins, adds that certain kinds of vessels—including gourds—are forbidden; in order to understand this disproportion, it is necessary to take into account the general style of the Islamic Revelation, which proceeds in an occasionalist fashion, if one may put it this way, and which at the same time—as if by compensation—expresses profound things by means of commonplace things. Like the Koran, the whole Sunnah is comparable to a rain of highly disparate signs, symbols, and supports, which are provoked by occasional causes and thus appear without order, emanating instead from a homogeneous and invisible network of important factors; a Muslim is aware of this occasionalism, which rests on the surface of a profound homogeneity, and this is why he willingly refrains from seeking to impose a mental order on the heavenly rain of truths both great and small and of rules both directly and indirectly salvific.

It is reasonable to assume that this outwardly disparate and discontinuous mode of revelation has determined the style of Sufi dialectic to a certain extent, a dialectic that readily conforms to celestial paradigms and proceeds by vertical inspirations rather than horizontal links; one sees this, for example, in writings such as the Futūhāt al-Makkīyah of Ibn Arabi as well as in poetical works like the Ilahi Nāmah of Farid al-Din Attar and the Mathnawi of Jalal al-Din Rumi. A Muslim loves to mingle the small with the great, the incidental with the essential, metaphysics with semantics—according to inspiration and occasion; his style of literary expression is the style of carpets with varied and uneven patterns, and not that of the masterpieces of architecture; one could say that he mistrusts the grandiose, which seems to him to suggest the titanic and luciferian, rather as the Bedouin of the desert mistrusts the equivocal glories of large towns, which are for him disturbing replicas of legendary Babylon.

It is appropriate to recall three factors that must never be forgotten when reading Muslim authors; we have referred to these elsewhere. First there is ellipsism, which concerns the question of implicit relationships; Arabs—always including Arabized peoples—have the habit of not specifying the precise connection they have in mind, a connection that nonetheless gives a sentence its entire meaning,[19] and this is precisely because the connection is something of which not even the author is conscious, rather in the same way that the visual background may not impinge as such on the consciousness of an onlooker who is fascinated by some spectacle. Then there is hyperbolism: the image is exaggerated for the sake of its percussive force, hence its effectiveness. Finally there is symbolism: one must interpret the constitutive elements of the image—which may be absurd—in order to uncover the truths it conveys and seeks to communicate, truths that justify the formal absurdity from the point of view of the Oriental author. In the case of Sufi authors it is also necessary to keep in mind their use of symbolic expressions, whose keys must be known, as well as the games they play with the semantic values of verbal roots or the numerical value of letters; but these difficulties are perhaps not as important as the others we have mentioned.

A secondary but by no means negligible element of Muslim language is a certain preoccupation with symmetry and ornamental embellishment: instead of limiting himself to expressing his thought in a direct and simple manner, a Near Eastern writer often feels the need to wrap it up in all sorts of allusive flourishes, rather as a craftsman covers a jug or tool with ornamental designs. Ornamentation—the play of forms—is an innate need of man, and the whole question is to know where and when it is possible or appropriate to apply it; from the purely utilitarian point of view, which condemns on principle all ornamental treatment of objects or words, it is profane in its tendency and wrong in its conclusions; it amounts in fact to a misunderstanding not only of the spiritual and the sacred but even simply of the human. Far from being a vain amusement as this point of view believes, however, decoration is related to the “musical”—not the “mathematical”—pole of universal Substance: it is derived from the “divine play” (līlā), and its role is to communicate an influence that would seem to cause matter to vibrate and become transparent. Ornamentation is a characteristic feature of sacred style, whether in relation to objects or words; of course this style also—and even essentially—includes modes of simplicity, but there is no doubt that in a considerable number of its expressions it manifests a tendency to give sensible form to the musical vibrations that unfailingly accompany the truth and are communicated by it in an implicit manner; every liturgy is meant to reflect the majesty and inner infinitude of sacred things. In this spirit the Muslim writer, who never departs from the religious style, makes his thoughts at once heavier and lighter by means of Koranic or poetic detours, especially in the introductory parts of his texts; the Westerner is not particularly sensitive to this if only because he makes much less a cult of language than the Arab.

Finally, the tendency to occultation in many Muslim texts—if one may call it that—is explained in large measure by a preoccupation with not revealing a truth in a situation where its immediate delivery might seem to put an end to its meaning; it is important to avoid exhausting the basis of a given thought and to preserve an element of enigma, which serves to ensure both life and freshness. A propensity to describe the infinitely varied aspects of the relationship between the Creator and the creature is then added to this somewhat diffident and veiling dialectic; to observe this play of reciprocities, whose combinations are multiple, is no doubt a very special way—in keeping with a certain spiritual temperament—of deepening one’s knowledge of God and the soul, and it permits an unhurried, gradual, and cautious assimilation of truths that are considered too precious or striking to be handed over all at once.

*    *    *

The movement back and forth in Sufi writings between the point of view of proximity and that of distance or between the obvious and the baffling or between everything and nothing—this chain of paradoxes and indefinitely divisible and multipliable shades of meaning—stems above all from the confrontation of the individual as such with the Absolute as such. This confrontation is at once impossible and inevitable; in any case it obliges us to combine extremes in one fashion or another.[20] Islam expresses the extremes separately and independently of each other, hence by antinomianism: its dialectic is one of signposts pointing to an unexpressed center. With a didactic or moral concern from which they never waver, Muslims readily acknowledge that the Prophets themselves tremble in the face of death and Judgment; in saying this, their aim is simply to highlight the incommensurability of the relationship between the contingent and the Absolute and to show that the Prophets, who are not and cannot be the Absolute, are obliged to play the role of contingency on the stage of the religious cosmos. But one also finds references to privileged souls to whom God has shown in advance their place in Paradise and to whom other graces of this kind have been granted, and this proves that the trembling of the Prophets is only an illustration of our human nothingness before God and in no way excludes the most remarkable favors; the paradox—from which, moreover, no exoterism can escape—is that ontological relationships are expressed in psychological terms and by means of an isolating dialectic, which as a matter of principle passes over in silence opposing and complementary aspects.

Islam appeared in an ethnic environment that knew only violent wills and chivalric virtues; the men of the desert possessed certain religious concepts but knew nothing of doctrinal speculation. Early Muslims, like Semitic peoples of the nomadic type in general, put the accent on faith, act, virtue and not a priori on thought as an independent and disinterested intellectual phenomenon, whence the underlying question: what sort of thinking is the most “pious”, the most obedient, the most meritorious, and thus the most salvific? It is as if truth as a whole were anticipated by faith; to think about it is to interpret it, and according to the Koran interpretation (taʾwil) belongs only to God; thought is like a scission in faith, a dualistic process that appears to set itself up against the divine Evidence. Christianity shares this point of view to a certain extent, mutatis mutandis, as is proven especially by its polemical monologues against the Hellenists and also, more intrinsically, by certain excesses of theology, where an initial rejection of thought is combined with an obligation to think—with the help of a sometimes questionable reference to the Holy Ghost.

*    *    *

It has been said and said again that the asceticism of Sufis did not originate in the Koran or Sunnah, to which it seems to be foreign, but in Christian or Hindu influences;[21] the root of this misunderstanding can be traced to the fact that Sufis recommend not only poverty, which the Prophet practiced, but also abstinence,[22] which the Prophet did not habitually practice; the Westerner considers such counsels or rules in light of a moral alternativism, which cannot be applied to Muslim asceticism. According to Sufis, the enemy of spiritual progress is the “soul inciting to evil” (al-nafs al-ammārah), the passional soul; the mortification of the passional soul is not motivated by the intrinsic evil of natural pleasures, which Christianity in practice accepts,[23] but by the more or less profound perversion of this soul, which is incapable in fact—though not in principle—of grasping the sacramental quintessence of the experiences of our earthly nature. The Prophet is not an example of methodical mortification, which he did not need, but of a contemplative alchemy of the pleasures inherent in human life,[24] which obviously has no connection with the distractions of the world; the retrospective proof of the contemplativity of the Prophet in every aspect of life is precisely the existence of Sufi asceticism, for there is no effect without a cause, and if the Prophet were not the cause there could be no another in this system of compossibles. In order to imitate the Prophet, hence to follow the Sunnah perfectly, the ordinary man—whose heart has not been “washed by the angels”—needs to mortify soul and body insofar as his will and intelligence have been perverted by passion;[25] in this way Sufi asceticism reconnects with the Sunnah by the simple logic of things.

We have dealt with this important point in this context because it demonstrates the implicit or elliptical quality of the Eastern mentality, which in turn helps to explain why it is so easy for misunderstandings to occur, misunderstandings of the sort that have led to more than one erroneous and fruitless theory.

*    *    *

The question of the miracles of Muhammad is a stumbling block—and by no means the least—for the Westerner: on the one hand it has been falsely concluded that the Koran denies the Prophet the gift of miracles while on the other hand the only miracle that ever seems to be considered is the cleaving of the moon. First of all a few words need to be said concerning miracles as such: there is nothing mysterious or problematic about these phenomena in themselves; the so-called “natural” laws of a lower degree of Existence can always be suspended through the intervention of a higher degree, whence the perfectly logical term “supernatural”; but this higher degree has its own laws, which means that the miracle is “natural” on a universal scale while being “supernatural” on an earthly scale. The purpose of the miraculous phenomenon is the same as that of the Revelation it accompanies or as a result of which—or in the shadow of which—it is produced: to elicit or confirm faith.

If someone objects that a miracle in itself proves nothing and that the truth as such is sufficient, we would reply that this is indeed true but that it is not the point. What counts here is the de facto effectiveness of a phenomenon in the interest of truth, or rather in the interest of the soul to whom the truth is addressed; it is similar to the case of holy war—legitimate holy war, not its counterfeit—where the end really justifies the means, which implies that the means must not exceed the limits assigned to them by the spiritual nature of the end. It is not a question of knowing whether it is logical to accept a truth because of a miracle: what matters is that a miracle has the gift of actualizing a liberating and quasi-existential intuition in support of the truth; the truth makes itself tangible to man through the miracle and unveils dimensions that the reason and imagination of earthly man have difficulty grasping; in this sense the miracle is a manifestation of mercy.

But there is still the problem of the particular nature of miraculous facts; here we shall limit ourselves to distinguishing sensory miracles from active miracles. An active miracle is one of healing, destruction, transformation, changing of place; a sensory miracle is one of vision or audition; and this brings us to the most misunderstood of the miracles recorded in the Sunnah, namely, the cleaving of the lunar disk mentioned in the Sūrah, “The Moon”. This miracle is similar to the one related in Chapter 10 of the Book of Joshua, in which the sun and moon stand motionless for an entire day, and it is similar as well to the solar miracle at Fatima in Portugal, which occurred in the twentieth century no less: in cases such as these the miracle does not alter the form or movement of the heavenly bodies but rather the trajectory or distance—as the case may be—of the luminous rays;[26] the miracle is enormous since no man has power over light, but it does not affect the cosmic order.[27] It is important to consider the following principle: God does not perform a miracle for nothing, and He does not exceed certain proportions, whatever the appearances may suggest; the miracle must remain proportionate to man, and this would not be the case if the earth stopped turning, given the unheard of physical consequences that would logically be brought about by so great a departure from the natural order and the disproportionate chain of miraculous interventions this departure would require. The question remains as to where exactly the limits of the disproportionate are situated in relation to heavenly Action, whether in some specific case or in a general manner; “and God is wiser.”

*    *    *

The works of Ibn Arabi offer an especially paradoxical example of Oriental dialectic and esoteric thought, and this consists in what we might call a hermeneutics of inversion: what this means is that he contrives to reverse the meaning of Koranic verses that have a negative content in order to extract the most profound meaning possible. This paradox, which we cannot leave unmentioned here, obliges us to consider certain preliminary questions of a general nature.

Exoterism consists in identifying transcendent realities with the dogmatic forms—and if necessary with the historical facts—of a given Revelation, whereas esoterism refers in a more or less direct manner to these same realities. But since the relationship of a symbol to its content is that of a manifestation to its principle, there is at once analogy and opposition between the two levels: esoterism supports exoterism because it is its substance, but it also contradicts it in some respects because it goes beyond it; in reality the contradiction is from the outset on the side of exoterism, just as creation is at the same time in conformity with God and opposed to Him. Nevertheless, just as the All-Reality does not abolish the logic of cosmic situations, so the apparently paradoxical prerogatives of esoterism cannot abolish the axioms of exoterism on its own plane, unless perhaps in a fragmentary fashion and in isolated cases.

From this aspect of opposition or this contradictory dimension, Ibn Arabi seems to draw the following conclusion: since the Absolute is One and this One is infinite and perfect, the supreme Truth must be one and positive, and it therefore cannot contain antinomies such as good and evil or heaven and earth in its substance; the Koran contains these antinomies only secondarily and extrinsically but not in its uncreated substance. For every verse expressing an opposition or evil, there is an interpretation that cancels it; this means that for every negative sentence there is a positive interpretation referring directly or indirectly to the ever virginal Essence. When the Koran speaks of the fire of hell, Ibn Arabi—without wishing or being able to reject the immediate meaning—does not hesitate to interpret it on the plane of quintessential Truth as the fire of divine Love; for ultimate Truth can encompass only the essential, namely, Beauty and Love. Leaving aside all metaphor, it may be said in fact that the fire of hell is a mode of the quality of love inherent in the one Substance but that it is experienced “in the cold state” and by inversion because of the perverted nature of a given human receptacle; this line of thought leads us in fact to the Islamic doctrine of causality, according to which there is only one single Cause, one single Object, one single Subject. There is only one single Heat that burns, one single Fluidity that flows, one single Breath that penetrates and animates; this is the meaning of the Hanbalite and Asharite negation of secondary causes and natural laws. Every burning, whether beneficent or not—depending on its cosmic degree and mode—is therefore derived from the divine Fire, which cannot but be positive and beatific; the ocean symbolizes the divine Passivity, the receptive, virginal, and maternal pole of Being, and for this very reason it is identified from an essential and participative standpoint with the divine Ocean.

The quintessential exegesis of the Koran, of which we have just cited an example, is in itself independent of every question of dialectic, but what is not independent is this author’s use of ellipsis: Ibn Arabi often refrains from taking the precautions that might have prevented a misunderstanding of his intention, and the result is that divergent interpretations—one esoteric and the other exoteric—come close to being confused with each other, or at least they give the impression of being confused, to the detriment of the immediate and plausible meaning of the sacred text. One could no doubt explain this by saying that this author always writes under inspiration, according to his own testimony, and inspiration ignores oratorical precautions and often even logical links.[28]

Nonetheless, the argumentation of the Shaykh al-Akbar is not always up to the level of its metaphysical intention: his thought is sometimes too hasty or expeditious even though his soul may be gripped by a perception of the one and only Beauty, which penetrates and absorbs everything. It is this perception—concrete and permanent—of the Divine Beauty that constitutes “faith” for Ibn Arabi, for in Islam the notion of faith extends from simple fervor to the most elevated of spiritual stations, and it is therefore attributed to both angels and the elect.[29]

It is important to distinguish between an outright paradox and an ellipsis that merely resembles one: it is more than probable, not to say obvious, that the elliptical character of many Oriental formulations aims to leave it to the hearer or reader to discover the implicit meaning and that it provides in this way a means of spiritual dissection, for “science is not for everyone”, as Dionysius the Areopagite says.

*    *    *

In Muslim spirituality of the non-sapiential type, the classical alternative between Paradise and God leads to the compulsive reasoning of a unilateral logic, such as is expressed in the intention not to desire Paradise but to desire only God or to prefer to go to hell by the will of God than to go to Heaven by our own will—an alternative that may catalyze a thirst for the Absolute in some souls in heroic mode but conceals the fact that there is not only distinction but also identity of essence between the created and the Uncreated, namely Beatitude, whatever its modes or projections. The “Garden” is not only what is other than the “Gardener”; it is above all a plane of reverberation of the divine Beauty: every paradisiacal phenomenon transmits the divine Substance, Heaven being the place of the beatific vision and of all modes of participation and union. One could say that there is a degree of Paradise that is situated in God[30] and an aspect of God that is situated in Paradise;[31] this is the mystery of reciprocity between the created and the Uncreated, which is visually expressed by symbols such as the Chinese Yin-Yang or the primordial interlacings transmitted by Nordic art. When the Koran promises Paradise it imposes no restriction as to the possible degree of union; on the other hand overstating a wish for the divine Gardener at the expense of the heavenly Garden logically amounts to wanting to be God; now the mystery of identity—of “unity of being” (wahdat al-wujūd)—should not be expressed in this way, for it cannot be the object of an individual and emotional wish.

Certainly the expressions in question have plausible meanings: to wish for God alone is to refrain from turning something else into the object of a passionate inclination, hence of a desire in the proper sense of the word; for to “wish” is not necessarily to “desire”. Accepting help from God alone means not considering the giver or gift in isolation from God; it is thus a question of concrete perspective and not outward behavior. When Sufis choose the “Gardener” and not the “Garden”, they intend to show that their fundamental tendency is toward the Uncreated and not the created, since it is in the Uncreated that our immortal nature has its roots, and one can accept this way of speaking. But one has a right not to accept the abuses of language found in some authors, who mix unrealistically what is proper to human individuality with relationships that go beyond it and do not concern it directly.

There is a key to this kind of paradox, however, and it is spiritual heroism; to this can be added another, no less significant key, namely the disposition to ecstasy; catalyzing paradoxes are related to this disposition, as is musical emotion in a different sector.[32] Some may conclude that this justification invalidates our earlier criticisms, but the point of view we put forward then retains an intellectual right to existence, and therefore it had to be formulated; if there is a justification for paradox, it is in any case relative and not absolute, subjective and not objective.

In Muslim esoterism there is a margin of subjective improvisation situated between volitive and sentimental individualism and intellective contemplation; this margin leads to confusions of level, disproportionate juxtapositions, and extravagant misconceptions, all of which reflect the perplexities and vicissitudes of the naturally dualistic mental faculty and the just as naturally passionate soul when it attempts to grasp the Transcendent and Immutable. The Imam Shadhili is one leading figure who remained untouched by this normally problematic margin: he did not assume that sincerity implies the obligation to wear a patched garment (muraqqaʾah) or that it entails wanting God alone and accepting help only from Him even on a plane where we clearly depend on relative values and intermediate causes;[33] like every adept of gnosis, he did not suppose that in the world of multiplicity we could or should escape the law this world represents; to try to do so is to disguise an existentially unavoidable pluralism as a form of unitarianism. Placing himself in opposition to the margin of individualism that is in question here, Ibn Arabi remarked with pertinence that humility is too noble a quality to be exhibited before men.

In this realm of ideas one is tempted to say—in a quite simplified and approximate fashion and as an indication, not a definition—that Christians are Trinitarian at the expense of a sense of the Absolute whereas Muslims are unitarian to the point of jeopardizing common sense: on the one side there is a humanization of the divine through a divinization of the human, and conversely, while on the other there is an obsession with being consistent coupled with the fact that inconsistency is inescapable.

*    *    *

Platonists and Vedantists are interested first and foremost in the Real—in what truly is rather than in what we can or must or will do; they do not dwell on the subjective accidents of realization; they provide an objective formulation of the principles of realization, as they must, but this is not emphasized in a definitive manner; on the contrary the emphasis is placed on a metaphysical description of the Real and its gradations. Semites, on the other hand, stress a subjective way of attaining what is; the Real is enclosed in a dogma, and the whole emphasis is placed on the unfolding of the subjective experiences of realization. There are certainly exceptions on both sides, with or without reciprocal influences, but grosso modo the intellectual differences between Aryans and Semites—these terms are employed with obvious reservations—is as we have just described them.

One must distinguish between inspiration and intellection: the first comes from the “transcendent Other” and the second from the “immanent Self”, which is the Intellect; it would be a mistake to describe inspiration as “supernatural” to the detriment of an intellection described as “natural”, for while it is true that intellection is innate in the man who possesses it, it is still a grace, though a static and not a dynamic one. In the case of the Aryan it is a tendency to intellection that seems to predominate—rationalism being the caricature of this—whereas it is a tendency to inspiration that characterizes the mind of the Semite: Hindu wisdom presents itself above all as an intellection even—and already—in the Upanishads, which nonetheless incontestably depend on inspiration; on the other hand Semitic wisdom readily takes an inspirational form, and this should be remembered when confronting the discontinuities and extravagances that are so frequently a feature of the spiritual dialectic of Muslims.[34] As we have pointed out more than once, instead of presenting things in their static and impersonal simultaneity, this mode of expression seems designed to provoke inspiration in the reader—at least an elementary or virtual inspiration—by means of powerful and striking suggestions.

*    *    *

There are two further points we wish to emphasize in conclusion. The first concerns an unfortunate lack of proportion that is characteristic of theological thought: it is because of the passional human type—the “psychic”—that God must appear as completely inscrutable and because of the irrational willfulness of man that an arbitrary will has been attributed to God. Anything we may find displeasing in a given theological portrait of the divine Nature is simply the indirect projection of the faults of man onto God: God can appear illogical to the extent man is absurd; having abandoned the obliging idols of paganism and having come to understand that the role of God is to be master and not accomplice, impulsive and insatiable man ends up respecting only a seemingly despotic Divinity. The picture of God painted by “psychics” or intended for them exhibits elements of unintelligibility that are directly connected to the intellectual and moral blindness of man.

The other point we wish to mention is this: for many Westerners—in some places in fact the majority—logic or criticism becomes an automatism having no relationship with the object of investigation; people declare a given example of Oriental thought to be lacking in logic while simply ignoring certain obvious truths inherent in it, and this is something completely different from a critical sense that is adequate to its object and able to identify real inconsistencies in full awareness of what is involved. It should go without saying that a critical sense is of value only insofar as it flows from real knowledge; remove this knowledge, and there remains only a corrosive poison; this is precisely the origin of the profane outlook arbitrarily called the “Greek miracle”. Completely opposed to this is what might justifiably be called the Hindu or Vedantic miracle, which consists in a sense of proportion that is perfectly balanced with a sense of the sacred.


[1] It should not be forgotten, however, that Christianity itself is Oriental. The cult of the “Heart of Jesus” is at the very least an example of what happens when worship is directed toward a single aspect of the Hypostasis, if not of the subordination of essence to form. In the expression “Mother of God”—the intention of which was to strike a blow against Arianism—the ellipsis is of the most daring kind since it seems to subordinate the Absolute to the relative, and it is scarcely less extraordinary than the Vishnuite hyperbole exalting the Name of Rama.

[2] The term “henotheism” is from Max Müller; the expression “kathenotheism”, proposed by the same author, seeks to bring out the successive nature of worship in these cults.

[3] This leads us to mention in passing a subject of the greatest importance: every Revealer inwardly perceives his identity with the total Logos, though he does not necessarily perceive himself as having the same degree of identity as other Revealers unless the perspective he incarnates requires it; he will therefore see the others as carrying out particular functions not only of the total Logos but of himself as well since he knows he is concretely identified with this Logos; this is the source of the notion of the “mandate of Muhammad”, for example, which is understood as including all celestial Messages.

[4] A Sufi—probably Ibn Arabi—has written that the divine Name “She” (Hiya), not in use but nevertheless possible, is greater than the Name “He” (Huwa); this refers to the Indetermination or Infinitude, both virginal and maternal, of the Self or “Essence” (Dhāt).

[5] In a similar way a Muslim author has maintained that fasting is valid only if it is accompanied by various kinds of inward abstinence; this opinion is unacceptable, however, from the point of view of the Law.

[6] It is sometimes claimed that Oriental music—Hindu music in particular—is not sentimental but intellectual, which is ridiculous; music is sentimental by definition—which is not a criticism and still less an insult—but within this framework it acts as a vehicle for spiritual modalities transcending the level of psychic phenomena.

[7] Originally directed against the “wisdom of the flesh”, this equation could have been salutary, but because of its sentimental exploitation it has tended instead to favor the rationalist reaction.

[8] According to Olier, humility means “wishing to be not only known but also treated as vile, abject, and contemptible. . . . The truly humble soul does not believe anyone can despise it because it sees itself as beneath words. . . . It suffers with affliction the least things that are done for it and that appear to suggest it is held in some esteem” (Introduction à la vie et aux vertus chrétiennes, Chapter 5). An awareness of our ontological nothingness and personal limitations is here transposed into the language of sentimental individualism; this attitude, which is as contradictory as the most excessive obedientialism, reduces mysticism to an infantile level, impoverishing it in the same way that Asharism damages theology. Let us recall that Asharism has a tendency to reduce the divine nature to Omnipotence alone, forgetting that while God can certainly do everything He wishes, He nonetheless does not wish to do everything He can.

[9] Lest there be any misunderstanding, we are in no doubt as to God’s capacity to restore the life of a camel that has died in the desert, but we do doubt His willingness to perform a miracle on behalf of someone who refuses human help in the name of an easily reversible mystical scruple.

[10] According to Ibn al-Arif, who merely recounts what he himself had heard, certain accomplished saints had the power to cause a mountain to disappear simply by making a sign; it might well be asked: first, what sort of a saint would want to do this; second, what circumstances would make the disappearance of a mountain desirable; and finally, what God’s motive might be in granting so exorbitant a charism (karamah); but one must go further and endeavor to discern the same mystery of faith that is expressed in Christ’s words about the grain of mustard seed, the mountain, or the sycamine. Basically it is a question of depicting the “possible impossibility” involved in moving from the relative to the Absolute: “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Hyperbolism nonetheless remains a two-edged sword and a most problematical resource unless it is handled with circumspection; the literal meaning does exist after all and has its rights, whatever lack of sensibility may be shown in this respect by symbolist narrators, who slip from biography into parable.

[11] “The ignorant man, the man without faith, and the man given to doubt are destined to perdition. Neither this world, nor the next, nor felicity are for the man who is given to doubt” (Bhagavad-Gītā, 4:40).

[12] Arab historians—who are scarcely preoccupied with hagiography—display an exemplary exactness to the point of having provoked the accusation of dryness, lack of imagination, and sterility; Ibn Khaldun is a typical and distinguished example.

[13] This is especially the tendency of the Imam Shadhili and his successors. As his direct disciple, Shaykh Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi said: “Knowledge is inherent in the heart, just as whiteness is in white and blackness in black.”

[14] These are not necessarily the most famous, though they doubtless are in most cases. Niffari, a wandering dervish of the tenth century who was highly esteemed by Ibn Arabi, was a pure adept of gnosis, but he is less famous than certain contemplatives of the passional type.

[15] It should be stressed that we are speaking here about the average, though it should nevertheless not be forgotten that there are also extrinsic absences of discernment, which become conventional and are unconsciously accepted even by minds that are otherwise perfectly objective; indeed on the secondary plane with which we are concerned, effective discernment is very often dependent upon exceptional circumstances.

[16] Perfect naturalism in a sacred portrait would require above all else that the image represented the quasi-superhuman model as it was in reality; it is precisely traditional stylization that makes up for the absence of this possibility.

[17] Propaganda in favor of theological and liturgical innovations—and against those who are not taken in by them—is a particularly sickening example of this technique.

[18] If Galileo had been sensitive to the fundamental intention of the Christic message, there would have been no reason for him not to notice that the earth turns—assuming he would still have discovered this—but he would never have demanded that the Church immediately insert this fact into theology before the discovery had been brought to the attention of the learned world of his time, to say nothing of the common people. Be that as it may, one should not seek to inflict the movement of molecules on theology or pretend to “leave God outside the laboratory”; what one must do is prevent the molecules from becoming a religion and science from being left outside of God.

[19] Non-vocalized Semitic texts, in which it is impossible to distinguish the active from the passive voice and sometimes even one word from another, prefigure this habit in their own way, as does Kufic script, which omits diacritical points and thus confuses consonants, the very pillars of the language.

[20] Christianity eases or even suppresses this dilemma by humanizing God, thus simplifying Him in a manner of speaking, but in this way it creates difficulties of another order, difficulties resulting from Trinitarian theology and lying at the origin of the divergences between Catholics, Orthodox, Arians, and Monophysites.

[21] This second hypothesis is excluded for historical reasons.

[22] The majority of Muslims do not speak of sexual abstinence—marriage being “half the religion”—but in practice Sufis impose abstinence on their disciples by subjecting them to conditions that make conjugal life impossible, or they submit themselves to such conditions. None of this has in fact any connection with Christianity.

[23] Let us note that Christ was not opposed to marriage and that the penitential sentiment, which wrongly objectifies a subjective weakness of fallen nature, has its origin in a passage from Saint Paul—one not dictated by the Spirit, as the Apostle makes clear. A minority of Muslim ascetics shared the Pauline point of view, arguing that men and women were better at the time of the Prophet than in the ages of decadence.

[24] This thesis appears to the average Christian as a baseless speculation; he should nevertheless keep in mind that for the Muslim it is of an almost pre-logical clarity, for not to accept it is to condemn oneself in advance to understanding nothing of Islam. To pretend that Islam is a religion directed toward the pleasures of this world is in fact a simple calumny, for what it essentially advocates is poverty, almsgiving, fasts and vigils, and frequent prayer, and it proscribes music, dancing, profane poetry, and theatrical performances; if it accepts sexuality, it is because of the fundamentally sacramental character of union and because of the generosity it implies and develops; Islam actualizes this characteristic by its religious dispositions and combative heroism, love and death being in a certain way complementary.

[25] The situation is the same, for example, in the case of Vishnuite ascetics who worship Krishna, the divine lover of the gopis. A purgative discipline must not in any case be confused with an ascetic way of life, which a contemplative may not in any way feel to be a privation.

[26] It will be said that this is simply a question of interpretation; perhaps, but even so it seems to us that the theory of miracle must take into account the possibility we have just described, especially since “it is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in a [determined] orbit” (SūrahYā Sīn” [36]:38-39).

[27] In the case of Joshua, it is probable that the miracle did not affect the rays of light but the temporal state, which is extendable and reducible in relation to a given subjectivity—whether singular or collective—and thus without a disruption of the cosmic environment.

[28] According to the Egyptian hagiographer Abd al-Wahhab al-Sharani, the ideas of Ibn Arabi have been poorly interpreted simply because of the subtlety of their expression, and one should examine these ideas only after having traversed the stages of initiatic ascesis, or else lose faith or die as a result. This opinion is plausible in itself, though it is flawed because of a certain voluntarist and characteristically Semitic bias, for the rights of the intelligence are inalienable when it is sufficiently acute and sufficiently informed to function in a given realm.

[29] Whereas for Christianity, which is founded on the mystery of love and not directly on that of faith—although there is here no essential difference—faith comes to an end in Heaven since the elect enjoy the beatific vision.

[30] An ineffable degree, which has been designated by the phrase “Paradise of the Essence” (Jannat al-Dhat).

[31] We cannot forestall the probable objections of theologians; for lack of time, we are sometimes condemned to ill-sounding syntheses.

[32] According to Dhu al-Nun, music can lead to God or impiety depending on our way of listening to it. The same is true mutatis mutandis for poetry, dance, figurative art, and sexuality, whence the divergent possibilities of religious and spiritual methods.

[33] He himself represented this attitude in that he wore costly garments, advised his disciples to remain in their professions even when these were administrative and lucrative, accepted the fact of wealth as long as it was accompanied by sobriety and generosity, and forbade begging, and yet at the same time he was a saint “knowing through God” (ʿārif biʾLlāh).

[34] Ibn Arabi declares, “The composition of the chapters of the Futūhat is not the result of a free choice on my part or of a deliberate reflection. In fact God dictated everything to me, and I wrote by the angel of inspiration.” And he specifies that the passages that seem to interrupt the logical sequence of the exposition corroborate in fact its deepest meaning.

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