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Traditionalism Versus the Secular New World Order: An Alternative to "The Clash of Fundamentalisms" ?

Traditionalism, an extremely influential but little-known movement that has had a profound, even formative influence on Religious Studies during the past century. Founded by a French convert to Islam named Rene Guenon, traditionalism posits that depriving both social and individual life of its religious basis has a profoundly destructive effect on souls and societies, and that "secular modernity" leads straight to such horrors as Auschwitz and 9/11. Indeed, it may be that 9/11 was designed not only to launch a war on Islam, but on religion in general, setting the stage for a secular "New World Order" (the novus ordo seclorum on the dollar bill). The authors of 9/11 attempted to discredit religion by stirring up hatred between the religions, while replacing them with the counterfeit religions of militarism and state-worship; and they especially targeted Islam because Islam is the one great faith tradition that has retained much of its sacrality and power even in this corrupt age. Alongside these considerations, it is worth noting that issues of interfaith dialogue and the possible existence of deeper truths that unite the faiths have long been debated in traditionalist circles, and that anyone interested in such questions needs to be aware of that history.

My own encounter with Traditionalism came, appropriately enough, in the form of one of those Jungian synchronicities so beloved of Traditionalists. After spending several years devoting myself to English Literature and halfhearted flirtations with Zen, Existentialism, ExisZentialism, and so on, I finally decided to sell out in the only way an English M.A. can: By getting a certificate in the teaching of Composition, which would make me eminently employable in the California college system. I was squirming as I made my way into what I thought was my first Composition Teaching class. (What a pathetic way to sell out—angle for the worst-paid, lowest-status, most important job in academia.) I had arrived a few minutes late, so I snuck to the back of the room and sat down to listen to the lecture. As the topic veered from the sefiroth to the kali yuga to the emanation of evil from a nuclear facility the lecturer had recently visited, I gradually began to realize that either this was either a very unorthodox Composition class, or I was in the wrong room. As it turned out, I had come to the right room—just not the one intended. The lecturer was Dr. Jacob Needleman, metaphysician extraordinaire and editor of the Penguin Arcana series, and the class was on Kaballa.

Dr. Needleman steeped the class in traditionalist readings—Guenon, Schuon, and so on—as well as material on Kaballa per se. He had a funny, wandering speaking style, and I always had the impression that he could see right through my BS before I even gave it voice. My strongest memory was of an earnest statement he made about the necessity of monotheism: "There is at least this one thing that we must agree on: That there is only one God." Always the heretic, I raised my hand and objected, "Why is that? What's wrong with polytheism?" He just sort of shook his head, rolled his eyes, and said something along the lines of Louis Armstrong's proverbial definition of jazz: "If you don't know what it is, you ain't never gonna know." That class was right before the October, 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Walking home from the class, I noticed the oddest thing: Waves were beginning to roll across the asphalt parking lot, and cars were bobbing up and down like boats. A guy in a construction crane 200 feet off the ground was whirling around in an impromptu carnival ride. A shower of glass descended like a sudden waterfall from the top floors of a highrise apartment complex with a tinkling, crinkling noise like disintegrating windchimes. The image was jolted into my synapses, and years later, after I came to Islam and discovered the Qur'an, it was always evoked by the "Earthquake" Sura: "If the earth quakes with her quakings, and unburdens her violent birthings, and humankind asks 'what in the world is with her?'—on that day she will give us her news, inspired by her Lord; on that day human beings will be scattered forth to see the fruits of their deeds. Whoever has done a mote's worth of good will see it; and whoever has done a mote's worth of evil will see it."

It was Dr. Needleman's class that got me reading the Traditionalists, most of whom were Western converts to Islam affiliated with one strand or another of Sufism. They paved the way to my understanding that Dr. Needleman was right about the necessity of monotheism—at least for me. One God, one cosmos, one truth...at some level, that was the way it was...the way it had to be.

Besides reconnecting me with monotheism, the Traditionalists helped cure me of a certain kind of left-wing dogmatism based on unexamined faith in the eternal progress of free-thinking, secularized humanity, liberated from the obscurantist shackles of religion. Such naivete! On this point the neocons are right: the human being is a religious animal, and progress is an illusion. But they are wrong about religion also being an illusion, a tool for elite manipulation of the masses. Real religion—for example, the Islamic discursive tradition—is a valid body of knowledge, an approach to truth that works. Religion can be counterfeited, as it was on 9/11, just as a host can serve her guest a bowl of plastic fruit rather than the real thing. But sooner or later the guest discovers the ruse, and the host loses credibility and honor. When folks get fed up with the neocon lies—the Big Lie of the 9/11 ritual sacrifice, the pomp and circumstance of the spectacular state, the endless creation of illusory enemies—they will have been starved for truth so long that they will be truly ravenous. They will hunger for truth, yearn for truth. They will be dying, both figuratively and literally starved for truth, craving it with an attachment deeper than their attachment to life.

The Twilight of the Neocon Idols will come at precisely the moment when Peak Oil and environmental degradation rudely shatter the illusion of progress on which "modern civilization," especially its financial institutions, is built. The West's dominant secular-progressive worldview is an epiphenomenon of the great fossil fuel glut of the past two centuries. As the physical energy fades, materialist-progressive ideology will fizzle, sputter and die. A hunger for truth will drive global culture back toward the religion that has always sustained us, and future progress will involve the psycho-spiritual sciences, both traditional religious disciplines and more empirically-oriented parapsychology. We will will indeed leave earth and explore the universe, but we may do it in khalwa shacks and remote viewing labs instead of spaceships.

Western intellectuals who do not understand the reality encoded in religious discourse and symbol can learn much—and perhaps unlearn even more—from the Traditionalists. Below are links to some of my favorite Traditionalist sources, starting with Mark Sedgwick's excellent overview Traditionalists.org: "This website is devoted to academic research into Traditionalism and--especially--into the Traditionalists themselves."

The founder of Traditionalism was Rene Guenon, whose most famous book is The Crisis of the Modern World.

One of his most interesting followers was the late Martin Lings (d. 5/2005), whose translation of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW) is perhaps the most moving and readable in English, and whose book A Sufi Saint of the 20th Century is an indispensable resource for those interested in Sufism.

The best-known living Muslim traditionalist is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author of Man and Nature and a great many other excellent works. Man and Nature, published in 1968, was so far ahead of its time that the world has not yet caught up. Its clear view of the environmental crisis of desacralized civilization, the causes as well as the cure, anticipated the environmental movement that was born a few years later. Man and Nature, rather than Silent Spring, may one day be remembered as the ecology classic of the 20th century.

One of the great comparative religionists of our time is Huston Smith, who remains a Methodist yet prays the five-times-daily Islamic salaat. His book The World's Religions and his PBS series The Wisdom of Faith are excellent introductions to religious studies.

Another interesting scholar influenced by Traditionalism is William Chittick, America's foremost expert on the controversial Sufi theosophist Ibn al-'Arabi. His like-minded compatriot Michael Sells has also done excellent academic work on Islam and Sufism, including what may be the best introduction to the Qur'an for English-speaking non-Muslims, Approaching the Qur'an.


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