Trajectories of Western Islam Part I: Traditionalism

Generally speaking, two trajectories of Islam have influenced the masses of Western Muslims in the last century: Traditionalism and Spiritualism. By Western Muslim, I mean those whose backgrounds are not immediately from the Muslim world. For those of us who learned about Islam in the 20th century we know how deeply one or both of these currents have shaped our view of Islam, even if it has not been articulated in the way that I will discuss in the next few posts.

Islam & Traditionalism

While we commonly think of Islam’s contentious relationship with the West, Islamic influence has been penetrating Europe since the Middle Ages. Muslim dominance in Andalusia and the spread of Islam in Eastern European lands such as Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans are examples of this penetration going back several centuries. Though it is well documented that Muslim influence is what brought Europe physically out of its Dark Ages, less is known about Islam’s spiritual influences. [1]

We can say that overt displays of Islamic influence was taboo in Europe following the Spanish Inquisition and during the Crusades. However, Islamic spiritual influence began to emerge as Europeans conquered Muslim lands. The first handful of known European converts to Islam appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, it was not until the early 20th century that we saw an actual movement of European conversions to Islam under the banner of Traditionalism. This was due to the direct and indirect influence of Rene Guenon.

Traditionalism, in Guenon’s conception, required an initiation into an established religious tradition with an unbroken chain to the source. For those Europeans who were influenced by his writings and had direct meetings or correspondences with him like Frithjof Schuon, Jean Reyor (Marcel Clavelle), Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, etc. he encouraged to embrace Islam and join a Sufi order. While many followed through with this conversion, they often considered their practice as a means to sophia perennis (perennial wisdom).

Though Guenon was credited with the founding of Traditionalism, it was really Schuon on those that followed him that took the concept in the direction of what we now know as Perennialism. Schuon and the early Traditionalists embraced Islam and joined the order of the Algerian shaykh, Ahmad al-‘Alawi, primarily because he was based in France and spoke French. After the shaykh’s death, Schuon quickly rose through the ranks and became the shaykh of the order. As explained by Mark Sedgwick, this was because of his visions and an ambiguous ijaza he received from al-‘Alawi’s immediate successor.[2]

As shaykh, Schuon began to take on unorthodox beliefs and practices. Some particularly alarming examples of these were:

  • his enduring infatuation for his former girlfriend named Madeleine, which he brought into the beliefs of the order saying, “Whoever does not love Madeleine is not of the order!”[3]
  • his attachment to religious artifacts like a Sanskrit copy of the Baghavad Gita and a statuette of the Virgin Mary.[4]
  • his tendency to make major decisions based on his own interpretations of visions he had, such as a trance that overtook him the day of Shaykh al-‘Alawi’s death, his waking up with certainty that he had become the shaykh, and his vision of the (naked) Virgin Mary, which caused him to change the name of the order to the Maryamiyya.[5]
  • his habit of walking around naked and painting pictures of the Virgin Mary in the nude.[6]
  • his “verticle marriage” to a woman already married to one of his followers.[7]

Needless to say, the Islam in his sufi order did not last and he and many of his followers ended up taking other spiritual paths. However, what became of Traditionalism under Schuon would foreshadow or parallel much of what we hear about “goofy sufis” in the U.S.

The Faults of Traditionalism

The faults of Traditionalism in the European context was due to two main factors: 1) secrecy and 2) lack of knowledge:


Mark Sedgwick gives a few reasons for the Traditionalists’ use of secrecy: 1) “Secrecy is a part of the Western or occultist conception of initiation,” 2) to avoid the hostilities of “unsuspected… powers,” 3) Islam was a temporary step towards a greater goal, 4) people feared scorn from the society and losing their livelihoods if they lived openly as Muslims, and 5) there was no Islamic infrastructure (mosques, schools, etc.) in most European societies in those times.[8]

The first three reasons, secrecy and insulation, is what allowed for abuses and distortions. First, their understanding of initiation, or lack thereof, implied secrecy, whereas a careful reading of Guenon’s writings would reveal that initiation implied a serious commitment to a religious tradition that entailed taking spiritual instruction by a learned person in that tradition.

Secondly, Guenon’s attack on Theosophists and occultists, as well as his soured relationship with the Catholic Church, was perhaps necessary or inevitable, but it stirred much animosity in European circles of religious thought. The solution was to create the insulated communities thought sought to preserve and protect their beliefs from people that could challenge or potentially obstruct their movements.

Finally, because their initiation into Islam was seen as temporary, there was no need to be consistent with their beliefs or practices. It was open to change depending on the time and circumstances.

Lack of Knowledge

The temporary nature of the Islamic initiation also reflected their lack of knowledge of the tradition. The shaykh (or master of any other tradition for that matter) spent his whole life learning, practicing, and mastering the tradition in order to remain steadfast on it and teach it to others. The notion that one can ascend to that level by simply having visions should be cause for alarm. Furthermore, moving on to another path would place them at square one of another tradition, which would take another lifetime to master, remain steadfast upon, and teach others.

As for the fact that they would have received scorn and lost their livelihoods is a serious concern, which turned out to not be true. Von Meyenburg, a follower of Schuon, was discovered to be a Muslim by his Swiss employers and they did nothing.[9] Such a revelation could have been grounds for making their presence known in the society and gaining acceptance if that was a concern. Likewise, they could have built the infrastructure they wanted had that been a concern.

Perhaps, one justification was that they were not soundly educated in the tradition of Islam. It should be remembered that resources by which one could become educated on non-European religions was quite scarce in those times. Even if there were resources about such religions they often did not give much insight into how one might use them for devotional purposes. The problem of translating an ancient tradition into modern European languages is one that exists to this day. The only solutions were to travel to the East, learn the language(s) and learn the traditions from spiritual masters in those lands or attach oneself to a master or a student of a master in one’s homeland and learn directly from him. Such a theme will re-emerge later when I discuss contemporary Traditionalism in the U.S.

In the next post, I will discuss the second trajectory of Western Islam, Spiritualism, particularly among 20th century groups in the U.S.


[1] See W. Montgomery Watt, The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe, Islamic Surveys 9 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001).

[2] Mark J. Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 88-93.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] Ibid., 92-3.

[5] Ibid., 88, 92, 149, and 151.

[6] Ibid., 150-1.

[7] Ibid., 152.

[8] Ibid., 91-2.

[9] Ibid., 92.

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