You are here


Since the Gifford Lectures were first delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1889, they have been associated with the names of some of the most celebrated theologians, philosophers, and scientists of Europe and America, and have resulted in books which have wielded extensive influence in the modern world. Moreover, most of these works have been associated with specifically modern ideas which have characterized the Western world since the Renaissance and which have been also spreading into the East since the last century. When, therefore, some four years ago we were invited to deliver these prestigious lectures, it marked for us not only a singular honor but also an occasion to present the traditional perspective of the millennial civilizations of the Orient where we first received and accepted the invitation to deliver them. Being the first Muslim and in fact the first Oriental to have the occasion to deliver the Gifford Lectures since their inception at the University of Edinburgh nearly a century ago, we felt it our duty to present to the Western audience not a secondhand version of certain modern ideas or isms in pseudo-Oriental dress as happens so often these days, but in conformity with the world view which is our own, to expound some aspect of that truth which lies at the heart of the Oriental traditions and in fact of all tradition as such whether it be of the East or the West.

In the Orient knowledge has always been related to the sacred and to spiritual perfection. To know has meant ultimately to be transformed by the very process of knowing, as the Western tradition was also to assert over the ages before it was eclipsed by the postmedieval secularization and humanism that forced the separation of knowing from being and intelligence from the sacred. The Oriental sage has always embodied spiritual perfection; intelligence has been seen ultimately as a sacrament, and knowledge has been irrevocably related to the sacred and its actualization in the being of the knower. And this relation continues wherever and whenever tradition still survives despite all the vicissitudes of the modern world.

During the past two centuries, countless Western students of the Orient have been, whether intentionally or unintentionally, instrumental in the process of the secularization of the East through the destruction of its traditions by interpreting its sacred teachings through historicism, evolutionism, scientism, and the many other means whereby the sacred is reduced to the profane. The study of the East by the majority of those so-called orientalists who have been themselves influenced by the various waves of secularism in the West, far from being simply a harmless, objective exercise in scholarship, has played no small role in the transformation of the subject of their studies. Moreover, these scholarly efforts have hardly been carried out through either love for the subject or charity, despite many notable and honorable exceptions which have been labors of love and which have produced valuable studies of various aspects of Oriental civilization. Most modern scholarly works concerned with the East are in fact the fruit of a secularized reason analyzing and studying traditions of a sacred character.

In the present study our aim has been in a sense the reverse of this process. It has been to aid in the resuscitation of the sacred quality of knowledge and the revival of the veritable intellectual tradition of the West with the aid of the still living traditions of the Orient where knowledge has never become divorced from the sacred. Our aim has been to deal first of all with an aspect of the truth as such which resides in the very nature of intelligence and secondarily with the revival of the sapiential perspective in the West, without which no civilization worthy of the name can survive. If in the process we have been severely critical of many aspects of things Western, our view has not been based on disdain and hatred or a kind of “occidentalism” which would simply reverse the role of a certain type of orientalism that has studied the Orient with the hope of transforming its sacred patterns of life, if not totally destroying all that has characterized the Orient as such over the ages. In criticizing what from the traditional point of view is pure and simple error, we have also tried to defend the millennial tradition of the West itself and to bring to light once again that perennial wisdom, or sophia perennis, which is both perennial and universal and which is neither exclusively Eastern nor Western.

When the invitation to deliver the Gifford Lectures first reached us, we were living in the shades of the southern slopes of the majestic Alborz Mountains. Little did we imagine then that the text of the lectures themselves would be written not in the proximity of those exalted peaks but in sight of the green forests and blue seas of the eastern coast of the United States. But man lives in the spirit and not in space and time so that despite all the unbelievable dislocations and turmoil in our personal life during this period, including the loss of our library and the preliminary notes for this work, what appears in the following pages has grown out of the seed originally conceived when we accepted to deliver the lectures and represents a continuity of thought with the intellectual genesis of this work even if the material and human conditions altered markedly during the period of the realization of its original idea.

Since this work seeks to be at once metaphysical and based on scholarship, it consists of a text upon which the actually delivered lectures were based as well as extensive footnotes which both complement the text and serve as a guide for further research for those who are attracted to the arguments and theses presented in the text. Upon delivering the lectures in the stately capital of Scotland during the spring when the city of Edinburgh blooms with flowers of great beauty, we became convinced even more than before of the necessity of these rather extensive footnotes. The lively reaction of the audience and many meetings with its members after the lectures brought to light the keen interest displayed by many of them in pursuing the arguments presented in this work despite the fact that its point of view is that of tradition and different from most of what has been the concern of most of the other Gifford lecturers over the years.

In preparing this work we are indebted most of all to all of our traditional masters in both East and West who over the years have guided us to the fountainhead of sacred knowledge. We wish to express our gratitude especially to Frithjof Schuon whose unparalleled exposition of traditional teachings is reflected, albeit imperfectly, upon many of the pages which follow. We also wish to thank Miss Kathleen O'Brien who aided us in many ways in preparing the manuscript for publication.

From the book: