Reviews

A biography of the French philosopher René Guénon and a history of the Traditionalist movement founded by him, this exceptionally well-informed book, based on a long world-wide inquiry in international Traditionalist milieus, archives and multilingual bibliography, comprises several chapters devoted, in part or completely, to the mutual exchanges and misunderstandings between this particular, still understudied philosophical current and the world of Islam—in particular through a pioneering appraisal of Russia’s neo-traditionalist trends of the late Soviet and current period.  Traditionalism is introduced as “the exhilarating attempt to reinstate a divine order, the response of sensitive and intelligent individuals to an alien world, to a West in which they were as much dissidents as Dugin had been in the late USSR [16].”  Its history has been divided into three stages, reflected in the three parts of the book.  The first stage, up to the 1930s, is that during which Guénon developed the Traditionalist philosophy, gathering a small groups of followers.  During the second stage, attempts were made to put the Traditionalist philosophy into practice, in the two different contexts of Sufi Islam as an example of Oriental metaphysics, and of European Fascism as a form of revolt.  During the third stage, after the 1960s, Traditionalist ideas began to merge into the general culture of the West and to pass from the West to the world of Islam and to Russia.

After a complete and precise overview of the leading figures and institutions lying at the historical origins of Western Traditionalism (Chacornac, Coomaraswamy, de Pouvourville, Evola, Ivan Aguéli—a major intermediary between Traditionalism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Akbari tradition and Egyptian Sufism—, Isabelle Eberhadt, Titus Burckhardt, Frithof Schuon, the Theosophical Society, the Martinist Order and other Perennialists, the Universal Gnostic Church . . .), M. Sedgwick deals at length with the initial connections between European Traditionalists and diverse gnostic movements of the world of Islam, from the Shadhiliyya mystical path (in which Guénon was initiated by Aguéli in the early 1910s) to Frithof Schuon’s neo-Sufi ‘Alawiyya (with its branches in Switzerland, Rumania, and Indiana), to more recently Felice Pallavicini’s Ahmadiyya (the first dhikr of which was held in Milan in 1980), and the Maryamiyya developed first in Iran, then in Europe and in Northern America, initially under the aegis of the Iranian historian of science and philosophy Seyyed Hossein Nasr.  Far from limiting himself to the comment of theosophical texts and programmes as in the majority of the existing bibliography on Traditionalism, M. Sedgwick patiently reconstructs the maze of personal relations lying at the core of the Traditionalist network, reflecting the very logic of sometimes apparently tortuous individual itineraries.  Particular developments are devoted to Guénon’s isolation in Cairo—his contacts with scholars of Islam remaining always very limited, as well as his intellectual influence on Egyptian Islam.  Conversely, the author shows how Guénon’s experience of the realities of life in the east made his view of it more realistic and so completed the transition from the idealisation of the East found in Aguéli and Eberhadt to the idealisation of tradition as a concept independent of location.  Despite this change of views, however, Guénon’s early idealised picture of the East was to remain influential for many later Traditionalists who, like Guénon before 1930, often had little or no experience with it.

The narrative continues with an evocation of varied currents and trends that interacted with Guénon’s Traditionalism in the ongoing decades: the Fraternity of the Cavaliers of the Divine Paracelse, Freemasonry (essentially through Oswald Wirth’s experiment of reviving Masonic ritual by excising later additions, which attracted much interest in the French Grand Lodge), the Nazi Party and the SS (through the role of von Sebottendorf, though Traditionalism was to play a very limited role in either Italian Fascism or German Nazism, despite Julius Evola’s efforts for becoming the latter’s chief ideologist).  The post-wwii period is characterised by the quibble between Guénon and Schuon as to the proper nature of a Traditionalist Sufi order.  Guénon’s position was that esoteric practice must coincide with an orthodox exoteric framework:  A Traditionalist Sufi order in Europe should not differ from a Sufi order in the world of Islam, and the exoteric Islam of its followers should not differ from orthodox Islam.  Schuon’s view was more permissive:  He believed that esoteric practice was what really mattered and that its esoteric framework was less important.  The evolution of the Maryamiyya under Schuon’s leadership is depicted with detail, until the path’s dispersion, some disciples leaving it for other Sufi orders such as the original Algerian ‘Alawiyya, some leaving Islam for other religions or for none—“most founding their lives dislocated to a greater or lesser degree, some experiencing real suffering and personal tragedy [176]”.

The following chapters are devoted to an evocation of varied wakes of historical Traditionalism in the West before and after 1968, notably among academics.  The Central Eurasian dimension of Traditionalism appears since the movement’s very origin, linked as it is with the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the notion of the need to defend the “white races” against the “yellow race”—a leitmotiv of Guénon’s work in its first developments.  The Central Eurasian aspect is still dealt with by M. Sedgwick through short chapters on, respectively, Neo-Eurasianism in Russia and the world of Islam.  The penetration of Traditionalism in Russia is traced back to the funds of the Lenin Library and the contribution of the poet Evgenii Golovin to the still confidential diffusion of popularisation works by Louis Pauwels.  Golovin’s Soviet-era circle included Heydar Jemal and Alexandr Dugin, who were to become Russia’s two most important Traditionalists.  To them Traditionalism provided an intellectually satisfying explanation of the Soviet reality in which they lived and which they had rejected.  Although Jemal joined the Naqshbandiyya mystical path in Tajikistan in 1980—a fact documented only by Jemal’s retrospective, very imprecise allegations—, Sufism does not seem to have mattered to him.  The author’s analysis of Dugin’s contribution to the formulation of Neo-Eurasianism unfortunately ignores the history of this ideology through the twentieth century, especially its theorisation by Gumilev from the 1970s onwards.  Conversely, M. Sedgwick shows more interested in the place of Islam, considered in Neo-Eurasianism as the most solid bastion of tradition against the encroachments of the West.  Another aspect is the expansion of the Eurasia Movement and Party with Kremlin approval under V. Putin’s presidency.  Whence Jemal was seriously embedded in radical Islamism, Dugin preferred traditional Islam, which permitted Mufti Tal‘at Taj al-Din to welcome the Eurasia Movement as “our answer to supporters of Satanic Wahhabism.”  

The last chapter surveys the echoes—or lack of echo—of Traditionalism in the world of Islam, casting light on its rare wakes: the Moroccan Bushishiyya mystical path, in which the emphasis is not on Guénon and Traditionalism, but on Sufism; such figureheads of Iranian Islamism as Nasr-Allah Purjavadi, described as a hard Traditionalist with close links with the Ni‘matullahiyya mystical path, Reza Davari, a “soft” Traditionalist not deeply affected by Traditionalism, and ‘Abd al-Karim Sorush, familiar with Traditionalist ideas and writers but for whom Traditionalism was never of much interest.  A last paragraph on the contribution of Traditionalism to the rise of Islamism in Russia begins with the evocation of Heydar Jemal’s initial dept toward Julius Evola.  The author properly underlines that Jemal’s Traditionalist Islamism proved too extreme for many, the Party of the Islamic Revival splitting in 1992 over the issue of relations with Yeltsin and his project of Russian democracy.  Radical Islamism and Traditionalism are in general incompatible: they take fundamentally different views of religion.  

This unprecedented panoramic study allows M. Sedgwick to conclude that the role played by Traditionalism in the world of Islam and Russia, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the role commonly played by Traditionalism in the West differ fundamentally.  If in the West most Traditionalist groups are small and isolated, and Traditionalism remains marginal, in countries like Iran, Turkey and Russia Traditionalists are much more integrated in their societies and take part in the mainstream discourse.  Iran and Turkey, in contrast to Egypt and non-francophone Morocco, have an equivalent of Guénon’s Western audience—small but important, and Russia an even larger one.  It is not the presence of tradition in Iran and Turkey that allows Traditionalism into the intellectual mainstream, but the presence of modernity.  Similarly, it is not the presence of modernity that excludes Traditionalism from mainstream Western discourse, but rather the absence of any real Western interest in some of the central questions that interested Guénon—one of these questions, central for Iran and other countries of Islam today, being the choice of modernisation or isolation for the sake of traditional religion.  The concept of “cultic milieu” developed by sociologist Bryan Wilson has shown very helpful in understanding the conglomeration of alternatives to the dominant culture accumulated in Western Traditionalist circles.  In all, the book is a marvellous inquiry (in Herodotus’ meaning of this world) on the mutual porosity of a wide range of sometimes mutually contradictory anti-modernist ideological trends, from anarchism to fascism, and mutually opposed milieus, from dissidents to officers of secret services.  M. Sedgwick’s work also casts light on some of the essentially European, anti-modernist roots of a wide range of present-day Islamist currents and trends—the figurehead of Heydar Jemal hiding the forest of thinkers and activists of Islam who have appeared and prospered through Central Eurasia since the last decade of the Soviet period.

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: I-5.1.A-395