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Chapter Nine: Principal Knowledge and the Multiplicity of Sacred Forms

Chapter Nine: Principal Knowledge and the Multiplicity of Sacred Forms

Verily, to every people there has been sent a prophet.


I meditated upon religions, making great effort to

understand them,

And I came to realize that they are a unique Principle

with numerous ramifications.


They worship me as One and as many, because they see that all is in me.

Bhagavad Gīta

One of the paradoxes of our age is that the manifestation of religion in different worlds of form and meaning has been used by the already desacralized type of knowledge, which has dominated the mental outlook of Western man in recent times, to destroy further what little remains of the sacred in the contemporary world. Modern man is encountering the other worlds of sacred forms and meaning in their full reality at the very moment when sacred knowledge and an interiorizing intelligence, which would be able to penetrate into the inner meaning of alien forms, having become so inaccessible. The result is that the multiplicity of sacred forms, which is itself the most definitive evidence of the reality of the sacred and the universality of the truth that each universe of form and meaning transmits in its own manner, has been employed, by those who deny the reality of the sacred as such, to relativize what has survived of the Christian tradition. The multiplicity of sacred forms has been used as an excuse to reject all sacred forms, as well as the scientia sacra which lies behind and beyond these forms. Had the West encountered other religions in a serious manner while a veritable intellectual tradition in the sense understood here still survived in its midst, the results would have been very different from the spectacle that “comparative religion” presents to the modern world.1 For an intelligence which has been illuminated by the Intellect and a knowledge which is already blessed with the perfume of the sacred sees in the multiplicity of sacred forms, not contradictions which relativize, but a confirmation of the universality of the Truth and the infinite creative power of the Real that unfolds Its inexhaustible possibilities in worlds of meaning which, although different, all reflect the unique Truth. That is why the revival of tradition in modern times and the attempt to resacralize knowledge have been accompanied from the beginning with concern with the multiplicity of traditions and their inner unity.2

What is remarkable is that even in the study of the sacred, the principle that only the like can know the like has been forgotten and the secularized mind has adopted every possible path and method to study the phenomenon and reality of religion and religions, provided the nature of the sacred as sacred is not considered seriously. That is why despite all the light that the traditional perspective brings to bear upon the study of religions, it is so widely neglected. Hardly anyone in Western theological circles has made use of the keys which tradition alone provides to unlock the door of the understanding of other worlds of sacred form and meaning without destroying the absoluteness of religion; for traditional metaphysics alone is able to see each religion as a religion and the religion, “absolute” within its own universe, while reconfirming that ultimately only the Absolute is absolute. The neglect in official academic, and even theological and religious circles, in the West of traditional doctrines concerning the study of religions, either through chance or deliberately, is one of the most amazing phenomena in a world which claims objectivity for its scientific approach and manner of carrying out the study of any subject, but which usually mistakes the reduction of all reality to what can be grasped by secularized reason for objectivity resulting from the miraculous functioning of the intelligence.3

If one meditates upon the structure of reality, consisting of the three grand theophanies of the Principle as the cosmos, man, and revelation in the sense of religion and also tradition, it becomes clear that since manifestation implies externalization, the penetration into the meaning of external forms in all three cases is essentially an esoteric function. To go from the form to the essence, the exterior to the interior, the symbol to the reality symbolized, whether concerning the cosmos, man, or revelation, is itself an esoteric activity and is dependent upon esoteric knowledge. To carry out the study of other religions in depth, therefore, requires a penetration into the depth of one's own being and an interiorizing and penetrating intelligence which is already imbued with the sacred. Ecumenism if correctly understood must be an esoteric activity if it is to avoid becoming the instrument for simple relativization and further secularization.4

To be sure, in traditional worlds esoteric knowledge did not have to concern itself with other universes of meaning and alien sacred forms, except in very rare and exceptional conditions. Usually this interiorizing knowledge concerned itself with the particular religious world in which it functioned, as well as the soul of human beings and the grand phenomena of nature. Traditional sages would speak of the essence or meaning behind the form of a particular verse of their sacred scripture or religious rite. Likewise, they might explain the symbolic significance of the growth of a plant toward sunlight or certain images and states of the human soul. Rarely would a Buddhist sage provide a sapiential commentary upon the verses of the Quran or a Hindu be concerned with the specific inner meaning of a particular Christian rite, even if they would in a general way accept the universality of the Truth in alien religious worlds. The exceptions did, however, exist, as when Islam and Hinduism encountered each other in the Indian subcontinent;5 but these cases remained more than anything else an exception and even then were not carried out in a barren desert where a living, homogeneous spiritual universe of form and meaning had ceased to exist. The full application of scientia sacra to the study of religions on a worldwide scale had to be preserved for modern times as both a compensation from Heaven for the secularization of human life and a cyclic event of the greatest importance, which signified the unraveling and explaining of the inner meaning of not one but all the living traditions of mankind in the light of tradition itself before the present human cycle terminates.

Strangely enough, although this traditional exposition of the various religions, their doctrines, rites, and symbols, and their relation to the Truth which they all contain inwardly and which they reflect has been neglected to a large extent in the modern world, the concern with the presence of other religions has been impossible to avoid. A sensitive and intelligent person today who is touched by those complicated sets of factors and forces which we call modernism cannot but be concerned with the multiplicity of sacred forms. And the more modernism spreads and the secularization of life increases, the more does this concern and awareness grow and even change in nature and kind.6 A Muslim in a traditional village in northern Syria or in Isfahan is aware of the presence of Christianity in a manner which is by nature different from the concern of a college student in America or Europe for, let us say, Buddhism. Hence, the constant occupation of a large number of scholars and theologians in the West and also in modernized parts of the rest of the world with the study of other religions, which is sometimes called the history of religions, sometimes comparative religion, and sometimes by other names,7 and the endless debate that continues about the appropriate method or methods to follow in the study of this crucial subject.8

From this pressing demand to have the meaning of the multiplicity of sacred forms explained, there have grown a number of approaches, most of which succeed only in debasing and trivializing even the most exalted subjects which they approach and which can explain the meaning of sacred forms provided the sacred nature of these forms has been extracted from them. In no domain, in fact, is the shortcoming of a secularized mind trying to grapple with what is really beyond its scope and power more evident than in the field of the study of religions, a shortcoming which has already had dire effects for certain schools of Christian thought and very disturbing consequences for the religious life of those who have been affected by it.

The study of “other” religions as a scientific discipline, in contrast to the kind of interest shown in Oriental doctrines as sources of knowledge to which reference has been made already, began from the background of a “scientism” which characterizes the early Religionswissenschaft. Religion was studied as fact belonging to various human cultures to be documented and described as one would study and catalogue the fauna of a strange land. The question of faith was of little importance; historical “facts,” myths, rites, and symbols were more attractive since such aspects of religion could be made subjects for scientific study more readily than what appeared as the nebulous question of faith. It was as if music were to be studied in its purely mathematical and physical aspects and then the results were to be presented as the scientific, and thereby the only correct and legitimate study of music because the qualitative or, properly speaking, musical aspect could not be studied scientifically. This approach amassed a great deal of information about religions but rarely succeeded in providing meaning for what had been studied. A world view devoid of meaning could not possibly have provided meaning even for that which in itself was impregnated with meaning. Soon, therefore, a Western world thirsty for the meaning of religion realized the shortcoming of this approach and sought new ways and methods for arriving at understanding of its meanings. Something of this way of studying religion, however, has survived to this day and also has left a negative imprint upon the study of non-Western religions which cannot be removed so easily. This approach has provided many facts about religion but has interpreted these facts in a totally secularized manner, with the result that it has played no small role in the spread of the process of the desacralization of knowledge itself. Parallel and often in conjunction with this “scientific” study of religion, there grew the purely historical treatment of religion based on the nineteenth-century historicism which was usually combined with evolutionism. According to this theory, all that appears in later religions is the result of historical borrowing since there is no such reality as revelation as traditionally understood. In this myopic perspective in which there is no logical nexus between cause and effect, no one bothers to ask how a person, no matter how clever, could amalgamate a few influences from Judaism and Christianity in some far away place in Arabia and create a movement which, in less than a hundred years, would spread from the Pyrenees to the borders of China, and which continues to give meaning to the lives of nearly a billion human beings today. Nor do they ask how the experience of an Indian prince sitting under a tree in northern India could change the whole life and culture in eastern Asia for the next twenty-five centuries. This complete lack of logic by those who claim to be using completely rational means of inquiry would have been understandable at least in the case of agnostics and atheists who, wanting to explain away the dazzling evidence of revelation at the origin of every tradition, took recourse to evolutionism. In this way, they hoped to explain the religious universe through purely historical causes without having to take recourse in the Transcendent in the same way that evolutionism in biology became “scientific” because it was the only way of evading the obvious evidence of the manifestation of a non-material reality or principle within the world of nature.9

What is more difficult to comprehend is the adoption of this point of view by many a Christian missionary or scholar who has written on occasion of the evolution of religion from the primitive level to its full development in Christianity and then has applied the historical method in its fullness to refute the authenticity of Islam as a message from Heaven.10 It is this perspective that has caused Islam to fare worse than all other major religions in the field of the history of religions or comparative religion; it is also the reason that scholars in that field have made hardly any important contributions to the domain of Islamic studies.11 But these scholars, who refute the authenticity of hadīth on the basis of the lack of historical evidence12 or who consider the Quran to be merely a collection of Judeo-Christian teachings distorted because of a lack of authentic sources, hardly realize that the same arguments could be turned against Christianity itself. This has in fact been done by those who have tried to refute Christianity or some of its major tenets because of the lack of archaeological evidence, as if the Spirit needed any proof for its existence other than its own nature which intelligence can comprehend inately if it is not mutilated or veiled by extraneous factors.

The excesses of historicism, especially in the domain of the study of religion, went so far in reducing that which is itself of innate significance from the religious point of view into insignificant historical influence, that a reaction began within the circle of modern thought itself in the form of phenomenology. This school covers a rather extensive spectrum which touches at one end the traditional perspective itself13 but which in many of its modalities falls into an error opposite to that of historicism, namely, the error of disregarding the unique reality of each manifestation of the Logos, of each revelation with the tradition, both historical and metahistorical which flows from such an opening of Heaven. In its insistence upon the value and meaning of each religious phenomenon in itself, irrespective of whatever historical origin it may have had, some phenomenologists became more or less collectors of religious ideas and symbols, as if they were going to place them in a museum, rather than interpreters of these phenomena in the light of the living tradition to which these phenomena belong. Moreover, this approach has been much less successful in dealing with an “abstract” tradition such as Islam than a mythological one. Likewise, it has not been able to distinguish between major manifestations of the Logos and less plenary ones, nor between living and thriving religions and those that have decayed.14 Finally, for most phenomenologists of religion there has been no metaphysical basis upon which they would be able to interpret the phenomena as the phenomena of a noumenal reality. Since phenomenon means appearance, it implies even etymologically a reality of which it is the appearance.15 But the post-Kantian skepticism of European philosophy made the knowledge of the noumena as being impossible or even absurd to pose as a possibility open to the human mind.

There have been those who have called themselves phenomenologists and who have spoken of their method as the way to unveil the outward meaning and to reach the noumenal or the inner essence of forms and phenomena and who have even called the phenomenological method the “unveiling of the hidden” (or the kashf al-maḥjūb of the Sufis).16 But they have been the exception rather than the rule. By and large, phenomenology in describing religious rites, symbols, images, and ideas has avoided the error of historicism but it has fallen into another error by divorcing these elements from the particular spiritual universe in which they possess meaning. Altogether the phenomenological school of comparative religion, especially as developed in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, is the opposite but complementary pole of historicism and belongs to the same world of desacralized knowledge which gave birth to both of them.17 In the same way that history can be used legitimately without falling into the error of historicism and that it is possible to have a historical view which is not historical in the limited sense of the term, it is possible to speak of phenomenology and use a method which is phenomenological without ending in that atmosphere of sterile fossil collecting which surrounds so many supposedly phenomenological works on religion, works which are themselves totally devoid of the sense of the sacred.

Yet another approach to the study of religions has been the one which sees in all religions the same truth, not of a transcendent order as tradition would assert but of an outward and sentimental kind which cannot but reduce religions to their least common denominator. Associated especially with certain movements which grew out of modernized Hinduism, this type of approach has characterized many of the modern syncretic and eclectic religious movements themselves, as well as various congresses and associations founded usually with the positive intention of creating understanding between religions but without the necessary intellectual perspective which would make such an understanding possible. What characterizes this type of approach is a kind of sentimentalism which opposes intellectual discernment and emphasis upon doctrine as being dogmatic and “anti-spiritual,” together with a supposed universalism which opposes the particularity of each tradition on the level of that particularity, thereby destroying the sacred on the tangible level in the name of a vague and emotional universalism which is in fact a parody of the universalism envisaged by tradition. In its most positive form this type of approach is associated with a kind of spirituality based upon bhakti or love that engulfs the multiplicity of sacred forms in the warmth of its embrace without being concerned with the distinctions inherent in these forms. At worst it is feeble sentimentality which leads nowhere and which is devoid of any substance. In any case, this approach is not capable of penetrating into the meaning of sacred forms because it does not even accept the significance of these forms on their own level. In a world permeated with spirituality, such as traditional India, such a perspective could exist as a possibility but it was always complemented by the perspective based on discernment and, in any case, it was protected by the cadre of tradition itself.18 In the modern world, it has usually served indirectly to further the process of the desacralization of knowledge and the destruction of the sacred itself by belittling the significance of both knowledge and forms even if they be of a sacred character.

Needless to say this kind of approach usually bases itself upon the mystical dimension of the religions which it studies, but its appreciation of mysticism is in the best of circumstances limited to that kind associated with love. In many cases, however, it treats that type of debased “mysticism” which is almost synonymous with incomprehension, unintelligibility, incoherence, and ambiguity and which stands at the opposite pole of the sapiential perspective which can itself be called mystical, if mysticism retains its positive character as that which is concerned with the Divine Mysteries rather than as used in its pejorative sense. It is against this oversentimentalized approach to the study of religions on the basis of a so-called universal spirituality, related to mysticism but devoid of intellectual content, that a reaction set in among many scholars of religion who began to point out the differences rather than the similarities between religions and various sacred forms, while keeping a critical distance from any claim of the existence of the unity underlying formal diversity. But these scholars have also usually been unable to distinguish between a unity which transcends forms and a supposed unity which disregards forms or rather seeks to melt them into a solution whose coagulation cannot but result in those conglomerates of religious ideas which characterize the so-called religious syntheses of the modern world. Metaphysically speaking, unity lies at the opposite pole of uniformity,19 and the reduction of religions to a least common denominator in the name of the religious unity of mankind is no more than a parody of the “transcendent unity of religions” which characterizes the traditional point of view.

Recently, a number of scholars have turned their attention to mysticism itself to show that even mysticism is concerned with particulars of a religion and its specific and exclusive forms and not with universal ideas as claimed by the proponents of the kind of universality of religion based on mysticism already mentioned.20 They claim that in Judaism, for example, the Kabbalists are concerned with the most detailed aspects of the Hebrew text of the Torah as are the Sufis with the Arabic text of the Quran, rather than with “abstract,” universal ideas. Such authors point to the importance of sacred language and scripture as the fountainhead of mystical doctrines and teachings. They underline the essential role played by the letters, words, sounds, syntax, and other aspects of the language used in sacred texts for the mysticism of the tradition in question. In a sense, such critics reassert the significance of sacred forms; to that extent, their criticism is just and is a necessary antidote to those ideas and teachings which present mysticism as the formless without indicating the crucial significance of sacred form as the absolutely necessary means for the attainment of the formless. Where most of these critics fall short is in their lack of awareness of precisely this fact, that sacred form is not only form as particularity and limitation but also that it opens unto the Infinite and the formless. The Kabbalists do begin with the text of the Hebrew Bible and not with the Sanskrit Upanishads, but when they speak of the En-Sof they are dealing with that Reality which one can recognize as the same Reality with which the Advaitist school of the Vedanta is concerned. The opposition of these scholars to the sentimentalism of the syncretists is, therefore, although partly correct, a pendular reaction to the other extreme and marks one more instance in the series of actions and reactions which characterize so much of mental life and scholarly activity in the modern world.

The reductionism inherent in what can be called the sentimentalist approach toward the unity of religions has found a new expression in many of the ecumenical movements within Christianity which have come to the fore during the last few decades. This is true not only of ecumenism within the Christian religion among various churches and dimensions but also as far as the rapport of Christianity with other religions is concerned.21 Although based often on the positive intention of creating better understanding of other religions, most of the proponents of ecumenism place mutual understanding above the total integrity of a tradition to the extent that there are now those Christian theologians who claim that Christians should stop believing in the incarnation in order to understand Muslims and have Muslims understand them.22 One could only ask why they should then remain Christians and not embrace Islam altogether. Many ecumenists expect people of different faiths to become transformed by the very process of carrying out a religious dialogue and that, through the continuity of such a process, religions themselves will become transformed.23 One does not, however, usually bother to ask into what they would be transformed, the assumption being that better understanding in itself is the final goal rather than understanding of another world of sacred form and meaning through the preservation of one's own tradition.

Such a perspective finally replaces divine authority by human understanding and cannot but fall into a kind of humanism which only dilutes what remains of religion. It is really another form of secularism and modernism despite the respect it has for other religions and the fact that it is carried out by men and women of religious faith.24 That is why the stronger the hold of religion upon a human collectivity or individual, the less is there usually interest in what is now called ecumenism in that circle or for that person. Rather than the totality of the inhabited world, and hence engulfing the whole of humanity, to which ecumenism should be directed by its very meaning (oikoumenē), much of modern ecumenism has become like an engulfing amorphous mass which aims at dissolving all forms and removing all distinctions from several different realities by drawing them within a single or at best composite substance. One can detect in this current movement of ecumenism that same lack of distinction between the supraformal and the informal which results from the loss of an integral metaphysics in the West in modern times.

The creation of a closer relation between religions implied by ecumenism has also had its direct or camouflaged political counterpart. Numerous attempts have been made to create dialogue between two or several religions with political goals in mind.25 This is especially true of Christianity and Islam26 and more recently Judaism and Islam.27 But it is also found in India as far as it concerns Hindus and Muslims and in other regions of the world as well. Despite the nobility of all attempts to create better understanding between people and the importance of realizing the significance of religious elements as underlying political and social realities, the use of religion as an instrument for political ends has caused these types of interreligious studies to end in either diplomatic and polite platitudes or false oversimplifications which have simply glided over the differences existing between different sacred forms. No amount of brotherly feeling is going to explain why Christians paint icons and Muslims do not and why each should respect the perspective of the other not through tolerance28 but through understanding.

The result of the refusal to follow any of these paths of understanding other religions is religious disputation, exdusivism, particularism, and finally fanaticism of which the modern world does not certainly have a shortage, since these traits are not simply the characteristics of premodern men, as champions of progress would have claimed a century or two ago. What is important to note is that usually those who are exclusivist in their religious world view and who oppose other religions are usually themselves of a religious bent. Their opposition to other religions arises precisely from the fact that they do possess faith and that religion does have a meaning for them. Those who attack this group for being prejudiced or fanatical and claim not to be so themselves because they have ceased to take religion itself seriously carry no advantage over the first group whatsoever. Nothing is easier than to be without prejudice about something which does not concern us. The problem arises precisely when one is deeply attached to a particular religion in which he has faith and within which he finds meaning in the ultimate sense. The criticism that can be made against the religious exclusivists is not that they have strong faith in their religion. They possess faith but they lack principial knowledge, that kind of knowledge which can penetrate into foreign universes of form and bring out their inner meaning.29 There are of course those who, discouraged by what appears to them as an insurmountable obstacle to intellectual understanding, seek to emphasize the pole of faith in interreligious dialogue,30 yet the element of knowledge remains indispensable because of the basic relation between knowledge and faith itself,31 as well as the role which knowledge alone can play in making intelligible an alien religious world.

This rapid glance upon the landscape of religious studies today in as much as they concern the variety and diversity of religious universes reveals the shortcoming of each prevalent method from the perspective of tradition and the sapiential view which lies at its heart, although each approach may carry some positive aspect or feature. Today, one is given the choice between an exclusivism which would destroy the very meaning of Divine Justice and Mercy and a so-called universalism which would destroy precious elements of a religion that the faithful believe to have come from Heaven and which are of celestial origin. There is the choice between an absolutism which neglects all the manifestations of the Absolute other than one's own and a relativism which would destroy the very meaning of absoluteness. One is presented with the possibility of reducing all religious realities to historical influences or of considering them as realities to be studied in themselves without reference to the historical unfolding of a particular manifestation of the Logos. One must either accept the other politely and for the sake of convenience, or at best for the sake of charity, or contend and battle with the other as an opponent to be rebutted and even destroyed, since his view is based on error and not the truth. One is faced with the alternatives of not studying other religions at all and remaining devoutly religious within one's own tradition (although this is not a viable alternative for those touched by the truth, grace, and beauty of other religions) or of studying other religions at the expense of losing one's own faith or at best having one's faith diluted and shaken.

Modern man faces these alternatives at a time when the presence of other religions poses an existential problem for him which is very different from what his ancestors confronted. In fact, if there is one really new and significant dimension to the religious and spiritual life of man today, it is this presence of other worlds of sacred form and meaning not as archaeological or historical facts and phenomena but as religious reality. It is this necessity of living within one solar system and abiding by its laws yet knowing that there are other solar systems and even, by participation, coming to know something of their rhythms and harmonies, thereby gaining a vision of the haunting beauty of each one as a planetary system which is the planetary system for those living within it. It is to be illuminated by the Sun of one's own planetary system and still to come to know through the remarkable power of intelligence, to know by anticipation and without “being there,” that each solar system has its own sun, which again is both a sun and the Sun, for how can the sun which rises every morning and illuminates our world be other than the Sun itself?

It is with respect to this crucial significance of the study of religions within multiple universes of sacred form that the pertinence of the traditional perspective and the principial knowledge which lies at its heart becomes clear for contemporary man faced with such a profound “existential” problem. The key provided by tradition for the understanding of the presence of different religions without relativizing religion as such is the result of one of the most timely applications of that sapience or principial knowledge which is itself timeless. Only this kind of knowledge can perform such a task because it is at once knowledge of a scared character and ultimately sacred knowledge itself.

Tradition studies religions from the point of view of scientia sacra which distinguishes between the Principle and manifestation, Essence and form, Substance and accident, the inward and the outward. It places absoluteness at the level of the Absolute, asserting categorically that only the Absolute is absolute. It refuses to commit the cardinal error of attributing absoluteness to the relative, the error which Hinduism and Buddhism consider as the origin and root of all ignorance. Hence every determination of the Absolute is already in the realm of relativity. The unity of religions is to be found first and foremost in this Absolute which is at once Truth and Reality and the origin of all revelations and of all truth. When the Sufis exclaim that the doctrine of Unity is unique (al-tawḥīdu wāḥid), they are asserting this fundamental but often forgotten principle. Only at the level of the Absolute are the teachings of the religions the same. Below that level there are correspondences of the most profound order but not identity. The different religions are like so many languages speaking of that unique Truth as it manifests itself in different worlds according to its inner archetypal possibilities, but the syntax of these languages is not the same. Yet, because each religion comes from the Truth, everything in the religion in question which is revealed by the Logos is sacred and must be respected and cherished while being elucidated rather than being discarded and reduced to insignificance in the name of some kind of abstract universality.

The traditional method of studying religions, while asserting categorically the “transcendent unity of religion” and the fact that “all paths lead to the same summit,” is deeply respectful of every step on each path, of every signpost which makes the journey possible and without which the single summit could never be reached. It seeks to penetrate into the meaning of rites, symbols, images, and doctrines which constitute a particular religious universe but does not try to cast aside these elements or to reduce them to anything other than what they are within that distinct universe of meaning created by God through a particular revelation of the Logos. It is thus keenly aware, as are the studies of the phenomenologists, of the value and meaning of a particular rite or symbol irrespective of its historical origin and, at the same time, is fully cognizant of the meaning of the revelation in both the temporal origin of a religion and its subsequent unfolding in history. This perspective realizes what a particular rite, idea, or symbol means in the context of a particular tradition as it has become manifested in history and not just as something by and in itself as abstracted from a particular spiritual universe. It thus avoids the error of both historicism and that kind of sterile phenomenology mentioned above which shares with historicism the unpardonable defect of studying a sacred reality by abstracting the sacred from it. It also opposes firmly every form of reductionism or the sentimental unification or even rapprochement of religions, which would do injustice to the existing differences and the unique and particular spiritual perfume and genius of each tradition willed by God, to the necessity of discernment and acceptance of all that comprises a particular religion as coming from God and therefore not to be cast aside for any reason of a human order.

A key concept in the understanding of the significance of the multiplicity of religions is that of the “relatively absolute” which, although it might appear to some as being contradictory, is impregnated with meaning of crucial importance once it is fully comprehended. As mentioned already, only the Absolute is absolute, but each manifestation of the Absolute in the form of revelation creates a world of sacred forms and meaning in which certain determinations, hypostases, Divine Persons, or the Logos, appear within that particular world as absolute without being the Absolute in itself. Within that world, that “relatively absolute” reality, whether it be the Logos itself or a particular determination of the Supreme Divinity, is absolute without ultimately being the Absolute as such. If a Christian sees God as the Trinity or Christ as the Logos and holds on to this belief in an absolute sense, this is perfectly understandable from the religious point of view while, metaphysically speaking, these are seen as the relatively absolute since only the Godhead in Its Infinitude and Oneness is above all relativity.

Principial knowledge can defend the absolute character which followers of each religion see in their beliefs and tenets, without which human beings would not follow a particular religion. Yet principial knowledge continues to assert the primordial truth that only the Absolute is absolute and hence what appears below the level of the Absolute in a particular tradition as absolute is the “relatively absolute.” Thus the founder of every religion is a manifestation of the Supreme Logos and the Logos, its sacred book a particular manifestation of the supreme book or what Islam calls the “mother of books” (umm al-kitāb) and the sacred book, its theological and dogmatic formulation of the nature of the Divinity and the Divinity as such. It is only esoterism which can detect the trace of the Absolute in the multiple universes of sacred form and meaning and yet see the Absolute beyond these forms in the abode of the formless.

Each revelation is in fact the manifestation of an archetype which represents some aspect of the Divine Nature. Each religion manifests on earth the reflection of an archetype at whose heart resides the Divinity Itself. The total reality of each tradition, let us say Christianity or Islam, as it exists metahistorically and also as it unfolds throughout its destined historical life, is none other than what is contained in that archetype. It is the difference in these archetypes which determines the difference of character of each religion. Each archetype can be compared to a regular geometric figure like the square and the hexagon which are both regular geometric figures but which possess different characters and properties. Yet the archetypes reflect a single Center and are contained in a single all-encompassing circumference like so many regular polygons inscribed within a circle. They thus each reflect the Divine which is at once the Center and the all-comprehending circle while differing from each other in their earthly reflections.

There is, moreover, a kind of interpretation of the reflection of one archetype within the earthly reflection of another. If Christianity has a distinct archetype and Islam another, then Shī‘ism appears in Islam as a purely Islamic reality, yet reflecting that type of archetypal religious reality associated with Christianity, while Lutheranism represents a Christian reality but one which, it could be said, is the result of the reflection of the Islamic archetype within the Christian world.32 The same could be said of the bhakti movement in medieval Hinduism vis-à-vis Islam. In all these cases, the interpenetration of reflections of archetypal religious realities remains totally independent of historical influences which belong to a completely different order of cause and effect. It is in fact the lack of access to sapiential or sacred knowledge in modern studies of religions which makes it impossible to understand the reality of the archetypal world and of the vertical chain of cause and effect, with the result that every new phenomenon in a religious world is reduced to either historical influences or, even worse, socioeconomic causes.

This manner of seeing religions themselves as possessing archetypal realities with levels of manifestation down to the earthly and the interpenetration of the reflections of these archetypal realities within each other explains why each religion is both a religion and religion as such. Each religion contains the basic doctrine concerning the distinction between Truth and falsehood or Reality and illusion and a means of enabling man to attach himself to the Real. Moreover, although one religion may emphasize love, another knowledge, one mercy and the other self-sacrifice, all the major elements of religion must in one way or another manifest themselves in an integral tradition. Christianity as a way of love must have its path of knowledge in its Eckharts and Nicolas of Cusas. Islam which emphasizes direct access to God must have its intercession in the Shī‘ite Imams. And even Buddhism which emphasizes so much man's own effort in reaching nirvāna through following the eightfold path must have room for mercy which appears in both Tibetan Buddhism and Amidhism.33 It is for this reason that to have lived any religion fully is to have lived all religions and that in fact to realize all that can be realized from the religious point of view man can in practice follow only one religion and one spiritual path which are at the same time for that person the religion and the path as such.

This does not mean that at every moment of time all religions are actually in possession of all the possibilities inherent in them. Religions do not die since their archetype resides in the immutable domain and they are all possibilities in the Divine Intellect. But their earthly embodiments do have their life cycles. There are those religions of which we have historical records but which are “dead” in the sense that they can no longer be practiced. Although their forms and symbols remain, the spirit which enlivened these forms and symbols has left them and returned to the imperishable world of the Spirit, leaving behind a cadaver. There are other religions which, although still alive, are not fully and integrally alive in the sense that certain of their dimensions have become inaccessible. And there are still other religions whose ritual practices have decayed and in which the spiritual presence has given place to psychic ones. Therefore, the assertion that to have lived any religion fully is to have lived all religions does not mean that it is possible de facto to live fully every religion which happens to exist, especially as far as the esoteric dimension of tradition is concerned. As for the availability of this aspect of tradition today, surely one cannot assert that all religions can in fact be lived fully to the same extent.34 At any event, it is only sapiential or principial knowledge that can discern the actual state of a religion as the thirst for such a knowledge can determine what religion or path a particular person will in practice seek, without this choice in any way contradicting in principle the “transcendent unity of religions” and the authenticity of all orthodox traditions as coming from the same Source and revealing messages at whose heart resides the same truth. The “theoretical” (in the original Greek sense of theōria as “vision”) view of the universality of truth as found within the precincts of different worlds of sacred form is one thing, and the actual availability of means of gaining access to that truth in a particular moment of time and point in space quite another. In any case, from the initiatic point of view, it is in reality the way that chooses man and not man who chooses the way, whatever appearances might seem to convey from the perspective of the seeker.

The concept of the “relatively absolute” permits the traditional study of diverse religions to see the manifestation of the Logos in each religious universe as both the Logos and yet in its outward form as an aspect of the Logos as asserted already centuries ago by Ibn ‘Arabī in his Fuṣuṣ al-ḥikam (The Wisdom of the Prophets)35 in which each prophet is identified with an aspect of the wisdom issuing from the Logos, which Sufism naturally identifies with the Muḥammadan Reality (al-ḥaqiqat al-muḥammadiyyah).36 This key concept is also able to discern within each religious universe the way in which the reality of the Logos is reflected in the founder, or a sacred book, or the feminine consort of the Divine Act, or other theophanic realities of a religion.

In contrast to outward methods of comparison which juxtapose the prophets or founders, sacred books, etc., of different religions, the traditional method realizes the different levels upon which the “relative absolute” is to be found in each world of sacred forms. It sees Christ not only in comparison with the Prophet of Islam but also with the Quran, both the Quran and Christ being the Words of God in Islam and Christianity respectively. It sees the similarity of the role played by the Virgin Mary as the ground from which the Word is born and the soul of the Prophet which received and divulged God's Word as the Quran.37 It is able to comprehend the necessity for the presence of the feminine element of that reality which is the Logos in various traditions but in different forms and according to different degrees and levels of manifestations. It sees the presence of the Virgin in not only Christianity but also Islam as manifestation of a reality of a “relatively absolute” character in two sister religions and realizes the rapport of this reality to the feminine Kwan-Yin or the various consorts of Kṛṣna or Śiva in very different spiritual universes. It grasps the inner significance of the similarity between Śiva and Dionysius or certain aspects of Hermes and the Buddha. It might be asserted that these similarities have also been detected by scholars of religion who have in fact written much about them without any interest in, or claim of possessing, principial knowledge. This is true on the level of outward comparisons, but it is only principial knowledge or the traditional perspective that allows these comparisons to be made in depth and to be spiritually efficacious and to bring to light the relation that exists between primordial and archetypal religious types within different religious universes.

Another salient feature of much importance which needs to be repeated here is that principial or sacred knowledge of religion sees the meaning of each sacred form in the context of the spiritual universe to which it belongs, without either denying the significance of such forms on their own level or remaining bound to the world of forms as such. It sees the rites, symbols, doctrinal formulations, ethical precepts, and other aspects of a religion as part of a total economy within which alone their significance can be fully understood. Yet because at the heart of each religious universe resides the Logos which is also the root of intelligence, human intelligence is able to penetrate into these forms and comprehend their language as well as the innate significance of each and every syllable and sound of that language. It neither denies nor denigrates a single sacred symbol, rite, or practice in the name of some kind of abstract universal truth, nor does it create a simple one to one correspondence between various elements of the different religious universes.38 At the same time, it realizes that beyond all these forms there stands the one formless Essence and that the major elements of religion as such are found in every religion despite this formal difference. The traditional method of studying religions is concerned with forms as they reveal that Essence, or with accidents which reflect the Substance. It does not negate the significance of forms on their own level of reality but considers their relativity only in the light of the Essence which shines through forms and which can be reached only through the acceptance and living of those forms.39

The very concept of tradition, as described already in earlier chapters, implies the character to totality as long as a tradition has been preserved in an integral manner. The great truths, which concern aspects of the Divine Nature and also the nature of the recipient of revelation, man, must manifest themselves in one way or another in each religion despite the fact that each religion is the reflection of a particular archetypal reality. There is no religion without the sense of the loss of the perfection associated with the Origin and Center and no religion without the means of regaining that perfection. There is no religion without prayer in whatever mode it might be envisaged, including of course contemplative prayer, and no religion in which prayer is not considered as the means of remolding man. There is no religion in which reality is limited to the temporal and spatial experience of this world and in which there is not a Beyond to which the soul of man journeys (including even the Buddhist doctrine of no-self which implies a state beyond that of samsāric existence and the possibility for man of reaching that state). There are numerous other fundamental elements of religion which manifest themselves in one way or another in all religions, although not in the same way.40 Still, one cannot disregard in any way the fundamental differences which distinguish families of religion such as the Abrahamic, Indian, Iranian, or Shamanic from one another. But within these worlds with characteristic differences, each world possessing its own spiritual genius, the sapiential perspective is able to discern the presence of certain fundamental elements and to apply conceptual keys which concern the religious reality as such.

For example, there are three basic ways to God or relations between man and God, one based on fear, one on love, and one on knowledge, which in the practical spiritual life correspond to the three well-known mystical stations of contraction, expansion, and union.41 In one way or another these elements are to be found in all the great traditions of mankind, although they manifest themselves in each case according to the genius of the tradition in question, and even appear in time according to the traits of the historical unfoldment of that tradition. In Judaism the perspective of fear found in the Pentateuch is followed by that of love found in the Song of Songs and the Psalms and, only many centuries later, by that of the gnosis of the Kabbalists. In Christianity the ascetic attitude of the Desert Fathers based on the perspective of fear is followed rapidly by the spirituality of love; only toward the end of the Middle Ages is it followed by the real flowering of the sapiential dimension of Christianity whose full development was truncated by the revolt against Christianity in the Renaissance. In Islam again, the same cycle is to be seen but in a more rapid order, spirituality based on knowledge appearing earlier in the tradition. With all the major differences in the manner of appearance of these basic attitudes and types of religious and spiritual life in each tradition, however, the three elements of fear, love, and knowledge have had to be present in every religion, although each religion has placed greater emphasis upon one element: Judaism upon fear; Christianity upon love; Islam upon knowledge. Nor have these elements been absent from Hinduism, where they are characterized clearly as karma, bhakti, and jnîāni yoga, or Buddhism, where they are seen in different combinations and relationships in the Theravada, Vajrayana, and Mahayana schools, despite the nontheistic perspective of Buddhism.

Another example of this kind of application of metaphysical concepts as keys for the understanding of diverse religious phenomena can be found in the elements of truth and presence which characterize all religion. Every integral religion must possess both elements. It must possess a truth which delivers and saves and a presence which attracts, transforms, and serves as the means for deliverance and salvation.42 But these fundamental components of religion are not found in the same manner in every tradition. For example, within the Abrahamic family Christianity, in a sense, emphasizes presence and Islam truth, while truth is of course indispensable to Christianity as is presence to Islam. And within the Islamic tradition Sunnism places greater accent upon truth and Shī‘ism upon presence. The same two elements are to be found in Hinduism and Buddhism, where again certain schools emphasize one and certain schools the other of these fundamental components of what constitutes the reality of religion. Principial knowledge draws these keys from the “invisible treasury” of the Intellect and applies them to different worlds of sacred form in such a way as to make these worlds intelligible without either violating their particular genius or making them appear as opaque facts to be studied as either phenomena or historical influences.

It is only this type of knowledge that can take into account the amazing multiplicity of sacred forms and meaning without either becoming lost in this forest of multiplicity or reducing this multiplicity to something other than the sacred, thereby detroying its innate significance. It is also principial or sacred knowledge alone which can combine a perspective wed to the vision of a metahistorical reality with one centered upon the deployment and unfoldment of this reality in the matrix of time and history. Only this type of knowledge of religions can remain respectful of all that is discovered historically—but of course not as interpreted from the historicist point of view—without reducing that which by nature comes from the Eternal and is the call of the Eternal to that which is temporal and changing.

Needless to say, the study of other religions in this manner is essentially of an esoteric character. Man cannot penetrate into the inner meaning of a form except through inner or esoteric knowledge. Principial knowledge in fact cannot be attained save through esoterism in the sense that this term was defined and discussed earlier. One might say that only serious esoterists can carry out interreligious studies on the deepest level without sacrificing either the exoterism or the certitude and “absoluteness” associated with a particular religious world. Sages and gnostics would be perfect persons to choose for a veritable inter-and intrareligious dialogue if only they were available. One might say that total religious understanding and the complete harmony and unity of religions can be found, to quote Schuon, only in the Divine Stratosphere and not in the human atmosphere. Of course not all the faithful or scholars who study another religion are esoterists or saints and sages, but since man needs the stratosphere in order to survive in the atmosphere, it is vital today more than ever before to consider this view from the Divine Stratosphere in the question of religious dialogue or confrontation. In this as in several other domains, the presence of the esoteric dimension of a tradition is indispensable for the preservation of the equilibrium of the tradition in question, for it alone provides certain answers to questions of crucial importance, some of the most important of which in the modern world involve the multiplicity of religious universes and sacred forms.

In seeking to understand the significance of principial or sacred knowledge for the understanding of religious diversity, it is interesting to turn to those instances of religious encounter which do not belong to the modern period and which involved knowledge of a precisely sacred rather than profane character. Some of these encounters have been of a polemical, theological nature of which many examples abound especially in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources, there being a whole category of writings of this kind in Arabic literature.43 With these writings and their content we are not so much concerned here, although they are also of great importance in showing to what extent the intensity of faith in a world impregnated by the presence of the sacred influences the rational faculty of veritable theologians when compared with many a secularized mind which characterizes itself as theological today. But of more immediate concern are the instances when a sage, possessing principial knowledge and participating in a sapiential tradition, has confronted another religious universe as can be found in the case of a Nicolas of Cusa, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, and of course, in the Indian world, the numerous Sufis who tried to gain a direct understanding of Hinduism and vice versa. The translation of sacred texts from Sanskrit into Persian by such figures as Dārā Shukūh or commentaries written by a Muslim sage such as Mīr Findiriskī upon a basic work of Hinduism such as the Yoga Vaiṣiśtha44 are not cultural phenomena of passing interest. They represent episodes of human history which are of great significance for contemporary men because they present cases in which, far away from the secularist context of the modern world, attempts were made by men of faith to understand other religions even across major barriers such as those which separate the Abrahamic world from the Indian. In this domain the Islamic tradition presents a particularly rich heritage which is of importance not only for contemporary Muslims, who sooner or later will become more seriously concerned than they are today with what is called comparative religion, but also for the West.45 Such instances can help Western scholars distinguish, for the sake of their own studies of other religions, between elements which concern the innately difficult task of crossing religious frontiers and those which involve a secularized mind and a desacralized concept of knowledge with the help of which many a modern scholar is seeking to make the same journey often under more “urgent” circumstances. These cases also present examples of how an intelligence impregnated with the sense of the sacred has approached the presence of other worlds of sacred form starting from a point of departure different from that of most modern scholars of comparative religion, whether they be themselves theologians or out and out secular scholars.

Even if these overneglected instances are fully studied however, still there is no doubt that it is only in the modern world that principial knowledge has been applied to the worlds of sacred form in detail in as much as they concern contemporary man as a religious being. Since such an undertaking would not have been necessary in normal times, it was left until the hour of the setting of the sun for tradition to decipher in principle and in detail the languages of diverse religions, which are in reality different languages speaking of the same Truth, or even dialects of the same Divine Language. Thus it prepares the ground for the rising again of the Sun which, according to the eschatological teachings of many a tradition including the Islamic,46 will mark the unveiling of the inner meaning of all sacred forms and their inner unity and the realization of the religious unity of mankind.

The task achieved by tradition in the study of different religions is, therefore, an indispensable element for the life of religion itself to the extent that contemporary man experiences both the secularizing influences of the modern world and other religious universes. It is only the traditional method and way of studying religions, based on the sacred conception of knowledge itself, that can go beyond both polite platitudes and fanatical contentiousness. Only through an intelligence rooted in the sacred and a knowledge which is of the principial order and attached to the sacred can the sacred be studied without desacralizing it in the process.

An immediate fruit of the resacralization of knowledge would be the expansion of the type of study of religions already carried out by the masters of traditional doctrine so that the study of various religions would not be simply a relativizing process and in itself an antireligious activity. Only a scientia sacra of religion, and not the science of religions as usually understood, can make available to contemporary man the unbelievable beauty and richness of other worlds of sacred form and meaning without destroying the sacred character of one's own world.

Sacred knowledge issuing from the One is able to penetrate into various worlds of multiplicity which have also issued from the One and to find therein not a negation of its own point of departure, of its own traditional foundations, but the affirmation of the transcendent Truth which shines through and across the different universes of sacred form that this Truth has created. In this manner sacred knowledge provides the most precious antidote for a world withered by the blight of the depletion of the sense of the sacred from all life and thought, an antidote which issues from the Divine Mercy itself.

  • 1.

    One could say that had such a sapiential tradition survived, the modern world would not have come about, the homogeneity of the Western tradition would not have been broken, and the presence of other religions would not have to be taken into consideration in a way at all differing from what we observe in other epochs of history. There is no doubt, in fact, that the presence of other traditions today as a reality which concerns man in an “existential” manner is deeply related to the special predicament of modern man. Therefore, we pose this condition only theoretically in order to bring out the fundamental difference between the evaluation of the sacred by a sanctified intellect and by a secularized one.

  • 2.

    The significance of this theme in the writings of the traditional authors is to be found already in the definition given of tradition which concerns eternal truth or wisdom as such. The number of articles and works by traditional authors on the study of religions and their “comparison” also attests to the centrality of this subject as far as tradition is concerned. See, for example, Guénon, Introduction to the Study of Hindu Doctrines; Coomaraswamy, “Paths that Lead to the Same Summit,” in the Bugbear of Literacy; and esp. the numerous works of Schuon such as his Transcendent Unity of Religions and Formes et substances dans les religions. See alo M. Pallis, “On Crossing Religious Frontiers,” in his The Way and the Mountain, pp. 62–78.

  • 3.

    The opposition of objective knowledge to the sacred and the destruction of the sacred quality of religion on the pretext of being objective and scientific lie at the root of that error which was originally responsible for the reduction of the intellect to reason and metaphysics to a purely human form of knowledge that means ultimately the subhuman.

  • 4.

    It is precisely in this sense of “esoteric ecumenism” that Schuon deals in his latest book, Christianisme/Islam—Visions d'oeucuménisme ésotérique (in press), with the Christian and Islamic traditions.

  • 5.

    This encounter, despite its exceptional qualities, is nevertheless of great importance for the present day debates between religions of the Abrahamic family and those of India, although it has not been taken as much into consideration by those concerned with the theological and philosophical implications of the relation between religions today as one would expect.

  • 6.

    One can discern this phenomenon in Europe itself where in countries such as Spain serious interest in other religions and the study of comparative religion has increased to the extent that the hold of Christianity upon the people has become weakened. Likewise, in the Islamic world the study of comparative religion has attracted most interest in those countries such as Turkey where modern educational institutions have witnessed the greatest amount of development and where there is a fairly extensive reading public which is already modernized to some degree and not strictly within the traditional Islamic framework.

  • 7.

    Including the “science of religions” in the sense of the German Religionswissenschaft.

  • 8.

    The appropriate methodology for the study of religions has been of concern to most of the leading Western scholars of comparative religion, such figures as J. Wach, M. Eliade, H. Smith, and W. C. Smith. The last has been particularly concerned with the appropriate method of studying other religions in the light of its meaning as religious activity. See, for example, W. C. Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind, New York, 1963; The Faith of Other Men, New York, 1963; and Towards a World Theology, Philadelphia, 1981, esp. pt. 3, which deals with the theological and “existential” significance of the study of religions from the point of view not only of Christianity but of other faiths as well.

  • 9.

    The use of methods and philosophies in the study of religion in a fashion which parallels what one encounters in science is to be seen from the nineteenth century onward and the founding of the so-called science of religion which is imbued with the same positivism that characterizes the prevalent scientific philosophies of the day. The same can be said about the role of evolutionary concepts in the study of both religion and nature.

  • 10.

    With the rise of evolutionary philosophy, and its application to the study of religions, many Christians thought that they could use this method to their own advantage by studying other religions as stages in the gradual perfection and growth of religion culminating in Christianity. This approach, however, left Islam as an embarrassing postscript which, according to the same logic, had to be more perfect than Christianity.

    The purely historical and evolutionary approach cannot in fact be used as the means of defending any religion, including Islam, in which certain modern apologists have taken recourse to nearly the same arguments as those used by nineteenth-century Christian apologists concerning other religions. This is so because once a purely historical argument, based on the perfection of religion in time, is offered, there are those who claim that with the passage of time newer religious messages become more suitable and go “beyond” Islam or that Islam itself has to evolve into a higher form! The traditional Islamic doctrine of Islam's finality and perfection as the last religion of this cycle of humanity must not be confused with this nineteenth-century evolutionism which has infiltrated into the minds of many Muslim modernists anxious to defend Islam before the onslaught of Western orientalism or the attacks of certain Christian missionaires.

  • 11.

    This subject has been already dealt with by Ch. Adams in his, “The History of Religions and the Study of Islam,” American Council of Learned Societies Newsletter, no. 25, iii–iv (1974): 1–10.

  • 12.

    There is a principle in Islamic philosophy according to which the lack of knowledge or awareness of something cannot be proof of the nonexistence of that thing (‘adam al-wujdān lā yadullu ‘alā ‘adom al-wujūd). Many modern scholars seem to ignore completely this principle, in fact reversing its tenet and insisting that what is not known historically could not have existed, thereby ignoring completely oral tradition and the whole question of transmission of knowledge and authority which lie at the heart of the very concept of tradition.

  • 13.

    The interpretation of H. Corbin of phenomenology as the unveiling of the inner meaning of the truth (the ta'wīl of Islamic sources) and some of the earlier works of Eliade He close to the traditional perspective, while there are a number of Scandinavian scholars of religion who call themselves phenomenologists but whose perspective is, to say the least, very far from that of tradition with its concern for the reality of revelation and the particular universe that each revelation brings into being.

  • 14.

    This lack of discernment between plenary and minor manifestations of the Spirit and the various stages of the actual condition of various religions is to be found in the works of even such an eminent scholar as Eliade, who interestingly enough has made contributions to nearly every field of religious studies except Islam.

  • 15.

    The contemporary philosopher O. Barfield has returned to this traditional theme in his Saving the Appearances; a Study in Idolatry, London, 1957, although treating it in an evolutionary context which destroys the permanent relationship that exists between appearances and their noumenal reality, irrespective of what Barfield calls the transformation of human consciousness from original participation to final participation. See his chap. 21.

  • 16.

    Such is the characterization given by Corbin of phenomenology. See his En Islam iranien, vol. 1, p. xx.

  • 17.

    Structuralism, which is associated with the anthropological works of C. Lévi-Strauss but which has now penetrated into the fields of philosophy, literary criticism, history, etc., is based on the tenet that all societies and cultures possess a permanent, unchanging, and common structure. Some have interpreted this view as being conducive to the traditional perspective and opposed to the antitraditional historicism that has dominated the social sciences for so long. While the latter part of this assertion is true, there is no guarantee whatsoever that structuralism leads to the traditional teachings any more than does phenomenology if the appropriate metaphysical knowledge is not available. One can say, however, that if there is such a knowledge then certain intuitions of structuralism can be integrated into the framework of that knowledge as can those of phenomenology.

  • 18.

    For the Hindu bhaktis the tradition provided the necessary intellectual cadre and, in a sense, the tradition thought for them. It is for this reason that, once cut off from this essential framework and its protective embrace, the type of bhakti spirituality can lead to dangerous aberrations on the intellectual plane and finally to the kind of perversion of tradition in the name of the unity of religions which is so widespread today and which is most often identified with one movement or another of Indian origin.

  • 19.

    On the fundamental distinction between unity and uniformity see R. Guénon, The Reign of Quantity, pp. 63–69.

  • 20.

    See, for example, S. Katz, “Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism,” in S. Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, New York, 1978, pp. 22–74; and also idem, “Models, Modeling and Religious Traditions” {in press).

  • 21.

    Although at the beginning many of those, like L. Massignon, who were concerned with ecumenism within the orbit of Christianity, were genuinely interested in the spiritual significance of other religions, soon ecumenism became identified practically with modernism within the church. In many cases during the past two decades, ecumenism has become the caricature of the concern of tradition for the transcendent unity of religions.

  • 22.

    See, for example, J. Hick, “Whatever Path Men Choose is Mine,” in Hick and B. Hebblethwaite (eds.), Christianity and Other Religions, Philadelphia, 1980, pp. 171–90.

  • 23.

    L. Swidler, the editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, one of the leading journals in America on the question of dialogue between religions, and a person earnestly interested in better understanding between religions, writes:

    By dialogue here we mean a conversation on a common subject among two or more persons with differing views. The primary goal of dialogue is for each participant to learn from the other.… Each partner must listen to the other as openly, sympathetically as he or she can in an attempt to understand the other's position as precisely and, as it were, from within, as possible. Such an attitude automatically includes the assumption that at any point we might find the other partner's position so persuasive that, if we would act with integrity, we would have to change our own position accordingly. That means that there is a risk in dialogue: we might have to change, and change can be disturbing. But of course that is the point of dialogue, change and growth.…
    In conclusion let me note that there are at least three phases in interreligious dialogue. In the first phase we unlearn misinformation about each other and begin to know each other as we truly are. In phase two we begin to discern values in the partner's tradition and wish to appropriate them into our own tradition. For example, in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue Catholics have learned to stress the Bible and Protestants have learned to appreciate the sacramental approach to Christian life, both values traditionally associated with the other religious community. If we are serious, persistent and sensitive enough in the dialogue we may at times enter into phase three. Here we together begin to explore new areas of reality, of meaning, of truth which neither of us had even been aware of before. We are brought face to face with this new, unknown to us, dimension of Reality only because of questions, insights, probings produced in the dialogue. We may thus dare to say that patiently pursued dialogue can become an instrument of new revelation.
    From the Foreword of Swidler to P. Lapide and J. Moltmann, Jewish Monotheism and Christian Trinitarian Doctrine, Philadelphia, 1981, pp. 7–15.

  • 24.

    We do not mean to imply that all movements for the rapprochement of religions, which in an etymological sense are ecumenical, are part of this type of ecumenism which comprises a distinct movement within both the Catholic and the Protestant churches.

  • 25.

    This is not meant in a pejorative sense since it is perfectly legitimate to use every possible means to create peace among peoples provided that religious truth is not sacrificed in the process. The truth cannot be sacrificed for anything even if it be peace, for a peace based upon falsehood cannot be a worthwhile or lasting one.

  • 26.

    As far as Christianity and Islam are concerned, there have been formal and official meetings and conferences involving the Catholic church, the World Council of Churches, and individual Protestant churches outside the World Council. See, for example, the journal Islamochristiana, published by the Pontificio Instituto di Studi Arabi in Rome, which contains exhaustive information about Christian-Islamic conferences and dialogues as well as some articles of scholarly interest on the subject. As for the World Council of Churches, and its activities in this field, see S. Samartha and J. B. Taylor (eds.)/Christian-Muslim Dialogue, Geneva, 1973; also Christians Meet Muslims: Ten Years of Christian-Muslim Dialogue, Geneva, 1977. There are many other works of concerned scholars in this domain including K. Cragg who has translated into English the City of Wrong: A Friday in Jerusalem by Kamel Hussein, Amsterdam, 1959, and written many works on Islamic-Christian themes including Alive to God: Muslim and Christian Prayer, New York, 1970; and The Call of the Minaret, New York, 1965; also D. Brown, Christianity and Islam, 5 vols., London, 1967–70; and from the Islamic side H. Askari, Inter-Religion, Aligarh, 1977. M. Talbi, M. Arkoun, and several other Muslim scholars have also been active in this process during the past few years, but strangely enough from both sides little use has been made of the sapiential perspective in making the inner understanding of the other religion possible.

    One of the most devout Catholics and, at the same time, great scholars of Islam whose concern with Christian-Islamic understanding could have served as a beacon of light for later Catholic scholars, but who has not been as much followed as one would expect, was L. Massignon. See G. Bassetti-Sani, Louis Massignon—Christian Ecumenist, Chicago, 1974; also Y. Moubarak (ed.), Verse et controverse, Paris, 1971 (the editor, here pursuing a series of questions and responses with Muslim scholars, is a former student of Massignon and tries to reflect some of his teacher's concerns for Islamic-Christian understanding.

  • 27.

    Serious religious dialogue between Islam and Judaism independent of Christianity has begun in earnest only recently because of the prevalent political conditions in the Middle East. But they are bound to be of the greatest import if taken seriously and in the context of the traditional framework of both traditions.

  • 28.

    Although tolerance is better than intolerance as far as religions other than our own are concerned, it certainly is far from sufficient for it implies that the other religion is false yet tolerated. Understanding of different universes of sacred form means that we come to accept other religions not because we want to tolerate our fellow human beings but because those other religions are true and come from God. This perspective does not of course mean that one should tolerate falsehood on the pretext that someone or some group happens to believe in it.

  • 29.

    In normal times when each humanity lived as a separate world, obviously such a knowledge was not necessary except in exceptional circumstances. The necessity of such a penetration into other worlds of sacred form and meaning increases to the extent that the modern world destroys the religious homogeneity of a human collectivity.

  • 30.

    W. C. Smith must be mentioned esp. as one of the most notable among the academic Western scholars of religion who have emphasized the importance of faith in the study of religions. See, for example, his Faith of Other Men; Belief and History, Charlottesville, Va., 1977; and Faith and Belief.

  • 31.

    On the relation between faith and knowledge see Schuon, Stations of Wisdom, chap. 2, “Nature and Argument of Faith,” and his Logic and Transcendence, chap. 13, “Understanding and Believing.”

  • 32.

    This question is treated by Schuon in several of his recent works including Formes et substance dans les religions.

  • 33.

    On this difficult question see M. Pallis, “Is There Room for ‘Grace’ in Buddhism?” in his A Buddhist Spectrum, chap. 4, pp. 52–71.

  • 34.

    There are of course many factors which determine an act as profound as that of conversion, but from the point of view of the universality of tradition, it can be said that conversion can be perfectly legitimate for a person seeking a type of sapiential and esoteric teaching or spiritual instruction not available in his or her own tradition. In such a case the person makes the conversion without refuting the truth of the tradition that he or she is leaving behind but in fact with the hope of coming to know even that tradition better than before. In any case, conversion from the sapiential point of view is never wed to proselytism of any kind without its denying the reality of the dynamics of religious missions, propagation, and conversion on the exoteric level.

  • 35.

    See Ibn al-‘Arabī, Bezels of Wisdom, especially chap. 15. On his Logos doctrine see Burckhardt, Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, pp. 70ff., and his introduction to De l'Homme universel of al-Jīlī.

  • 36.

    On the “Muḥammadan Reality” see Ibn al-‘Arabī, op. cit, pp. 272ff.

  • 37.

    Such profound morphological and metaphysical comparisons are to be found in all traditional writings on comparative religion but most of all in the works of F. Schuon, esp. his Transcendent Unity of Religions; Dimensions of Islam; and Formes et substance dans les religions.

  • 38.

    For example, orientation in a sacred space is an essential part of religious rites but it does not mean that it has the same significance or even the same kind of significance let us say, in the rites of the American Indians and in the Christian Mass.

  • 39.

    On this theme see Schuon, Formes et substance dans les religions, esp. pp. 19ff.

  • 40.

    We do not of course mean that all elements are repeated in all religions or that, for example, time, creation, or even eschatological realities are the same in every religion.

  • 41.

    These phases are dealt with in a general manner as far as Christian mysticism is concerned by E. Underhill in her Mysticism, A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness, New York, 1960, pt 2.

  • 42.

    See Schuon, Islam and the Perennial Philosophy, chap. 1, “Truth and Presence.”

  • 43.

    Called al-Milal wa' l-nihal in Arabic of which the work of al-Shahristānī is the most famous. Milal is the plural of millah and is used here to refer to theological views of various religious communities; and niḥal the plural of niḥlah meaning philosophical school or perspective.

  • 44.

    The case of Mīr Findiriskī, who taught Avicenna's Shifā' and Qānūn in Isfahan, composed an important work on alchemy, was an accomplished metaphysical poet, and wrote a major commentary upon the Yoga Vaiṣiśtha, is of particular interest in the encounter between Islamic and Hindu intellectual traditions and deserves to be studied much more. On Mīr Findiriskī see Nasr, “The School of Isfahan,” in A History of Muslim Philosophy, vol. 2, pp. 922ff. F. Mojtabā'ī undertook a most interesting Ph. D. thesis at Harvard University on Mīr Findiriskī and his commentary upon this Sanskrit work, but as far as we know, his work has never seen the light of day.

  • 45.

    See S. H. Nasr, “Islam and the Encounter of Religions,” in Sufi Essays, New York, 1975, pp. 106–34.

  • 46.

    According to Islam when the Mahdī appears before the end of time, not only will he reestablish peace but he will also uplift the outward religious forms to unveil their inner meaning and their essential unity through which he will then unify all religions. Similar accounts are to be found in other traditions such as Hinduism where the eschatological events at the end of the historical cycle are also related to the unification of various religious forms.

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