Understanding “Tradition” by M. Ali Lakhani

Understanding “Tradition”
by M. Ali Lakhani

“Tradition has nothing to do with any “ages”,
whether “dark”, “primaeval”, or otherwise. Tradition represents
doctrines about first principles, which do not change.”
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Correspondence, 1946

“…there is nothing and can be nothing truly traditional that does not contain
some element of a super-human order. This indeed is the essential point,
containing as it were the very definition of tradition and all that appertains to it.”
René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity

The terms “traditional” and “modern” suggest a distinction between the old and the new, the fixed and the changing, the hallowed way of the past and the progressive way of the future. The underlying polarity that it reflects is rooted in the metaphysical structure of reality, in the architecture of the Absolute inviolability of Substance and the Infinite possibility of Form. This underlying polarity is expressed in the dialectic of Necessity and Freedom. Necessity is the organizing principle of deployment, of projection and reintegration: all that exists emerges from and abides within the common ground of all reality, whose transcendental Substance is simultaneously both its Origin and its End, the criterion of all objectivity. Freedom is the creative principle of this deployment, expressing itself in an infinite variety of modes and modalities of Form and in the immanent potential of our own supra-personal subjectivity.

The terms “Tradition” and “Modernity”, as used by traditionalists like Seyyed Hossein Nasr, are not derivatives of the conventional differentiation between the terms “traditional” and “modern”, though the traditionalists’ particular usage of those terms is premised on the metaphysical structure described above. This can be confusing.

For Nasr, “Modernity” is “that which is cut off from the Transcendent, from the immutable principles which in reality govern all things and which are made known to man through revelation in its most universal sense”, while “Tradition”, by contrast, designates those immutable principles, the sophia perennis or primordial wisdom, which are rooted in the Transcendent. According to this definition, Modernity is not necessarily synonymous with the contemporary (or focused on the future), nor Tradition necessarily with the continuation of history (or focused on the past). Tradition, in this sense, is meta-historical: its only relation to the past resides in the linkage of a particular religious tradition to its original source, which is to say, the revelation that authenticates it, the foundational scripture and its expressive forms of worship transmitted through the protective medium of the particular tradition. But this relation between a particular tradition and its historical origins is in a sense merely incidental. The relation between Tradition as such and Revelation as such transcends history. Revelation “in its most universal sense” is not a historical event: it is based in the eternal present and is continuous. Its authentication is not reduced to one’s ability to retrace it to any particular point in history, rather its authenticity is guaranteed by its ability to resonate as true within the sanctum of the Heart, whose discerning faculty is the supra-rational Intellect. Knowledge is thus a resonance of the spiritual Substance that pervades the whole of creation, and whose presence reverberates within the undefiled Heart. Knowledge is not merely a form of intellectual taxidermy, rather a way of inhabiting the creature itself. It is to be fully human.

In common parlance, the terms “traditional” and “modern” suggest two differing attitudes towards the negotiation of change, the former resisting it, the latter embracing it. But “Tradition”, in the sense of primordial wisdom, is not necessarily resistant to change. The image of Shiva Nataraja embodies the ideas of both stillness (the fixed, or being) and movement (the changing, or becoming). “Tradition” is a combination of both these elements. It is at once static Equilibrium and dynamic Attraction, the classical realism of transcendence and the romantic idealism of immanence. Man is both a slave of change (being subject to the processes of time) and its master (being equipped to transcend it, spiritually). The quest for salvation is, at one level, a quest for peace, the freedom from change, but at another, it is a quest for creativity and freshness, the freedom from petrification. The term “traditional” can have a pejorative implication of excessive rigidity and formalism, while the term “modern” can mean that which is unprincipled or excessively individualistic. In these senses, both the traditional and the modern are opposed to “Tradition”, which recognizes the mutual interdependence of the organizing and creative principles of reality. When creativity ceases to conform to the hierarchies inherent in a spiritually ordered universe, volition becomes satanic and profanes Freedom. And when the demands of conformity stifle genuine spiritual expression, the intellect becomes tyrannical and profanes Necessity. “Tradition” recognizes that Necessity (the intellectual discernment that creative expression has a necessary organizing principle) and Freedom (the transcendence of creative expression in conformity to that organizing principle) are tethered together, and that intellectual discernment has moral implications. The human ethos is thus a dimension of the sacred structure of reality.

“Modernity”, in the sense understood by traditionalists, indicates a tendency to moral “hardness” and intellectual “opacity”. When reality is no longer perceived as metaphysically “transparent to transcendence”, there is no spiritual reality perceived that can resonate within the human soul, nothing to “melt” the heart into compassionate submission, the true and serene Freedom, whose tawdry counterfeit is a soul enslaved by passion, yielding to the momentary gratification of self-indulgence before its unsated appetites are drawn away by the next seduction.

It is in this sense that “Tradition” and “Modernity” are placed in opposition. The traditionalist is not necessarily opposed to the “modern” as conventionally understood, only to “Modernity” as the converse of “Tradition” in the particular sense defined above. A traditionalist may be “modern” in the use of dress, language, modern amenities or technologies, and yet will necessarily be opposed to “Modernity” in the sense of its denial of transcendence or sense of the sacred. Correspondingly, not all that appears “traditional” accords with “Tradition”. So, for instance, fundamentalism, though it may don traditional garb and use traditional language, is the very antithesis of “Tradition”, which eschews fundamentalism’s reduction of the spirit to the letter, its excessive formalism and exclusivism. “By their fruits shall ye know them”, not by their appearances.

Words and labels, in the end, often conceal reality by abstracting it. At their best, they act as symbols, arousing meaning that lies dormant within us. “Tradition” and “Modernity” are ultimately aspects of our selves: “Duo sunt in homine”, taught St. Aquinas, a teaching that resounds throughout traditionalist discourse and within each human soul. There is in the end an element in each soul that must be overcome for the greater good. “Tradition” invites each of us to fulfil our full human potential, to perceive the outer world with the inner eye, with compassion, and to conform the will to the intellect, thereby overcoming the usurping tendencies of the Promethean self, integrating Truth, Goodness and Beauty in our lives in order to achieve Everlasting Life.

“Fundamentalism”: A Metaphysical Perspective by M. Ali Lakhani

“Fundamentalism”: A Metaphysical Perspective
by M. Ali Lakhani

“…In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?”
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, III.ii.77

History is replete with examples of those who have desacrated and degraded religion, sadly and ironically in the name of religion itself. Wars, massacres, persecutions, and the destruction of sacred works of art, have all been sanctioned by religious authorities throughout recorded history, fueling skepticism about the legitimacy, and claims to moral authority, of traditional religion. The infamy in history of the Crusades or the Inquisition, or more contemporary examples such as the demolition of Babri Masjid or the Bamiyan Buddha, and countless political wars rooted in religious differences—including the more recent turmoils in the Middle East, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka—all add to the evidence of the skeptics. But these actions, many of which are forced to wear the badge of religion, are in fact defamatory of authentic religion. We must be careful not to reject an authentic tradition on account of those abuses and violations perpetrated by its counterfeit in its name. Not every act done in the name of religion is in fact true to its spirit. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between genuine religion and its counterfeit, between the “fundamentals” of a religion and the “fundamentalist” offences committed in its name.

The term “fundamentalism”, however, is anomalous and its usage fraught with difficulty. Though one can speak of many types of “fundamentalism” (for example, political, economic or scientific), the term is primarily associated with religion. In the context of religion, the term was originally applied to an early 20th Century Christian revivalist group known as the “Fundamentalist Movement”, whose views were characterized by religious rigidity and evangelism, but in recent years, particularly dating to the time of the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s, the term has come to be extended to other religions, so that one now speaks, for example, of Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or Muslim “fundamentalists”. The term has come to be laden with connotations of political and religious extremism or militancy, which the media frequently labels as “terrorism” (one is reminded here of the comment by Robert Fisk that terrorism is in fact “a political contrivance. ‘Terrorists’ are those who use violence against the side that is using the word.”). This is particularly true in the case of Islam, which has been demonized in the aftermath of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, by being depicted as a threat to modern American civilization by writers within the dominant media, such as the influential Samuel P. Huntington for whom this portrayal was an important component to his thesis of the “clash of civilizations”. The deconstruction of the media’s portrayal of religious (particularly so-called Islamic) “fundamentalism” in the West by writers such as Edward Said has yielded important insights. The language employed by the dominant media reveals its own biases. It is selective to brand, for instance, a veiled Muslim woman as an “Islamic fundamentalist”, falsely implying that she would condone violence carried out in the name of her religion, while avoiding the term altogether in the case of the Jewish settler who guns down worshipers in a mosque in Hebron, or a Catholic car-bomber in Belfast, or a Protestant extremist who detonates a bomb killing innocent civilians in Oklahoma. “Fundamentalism” is a term that disguises a host of complexities. It reflects the dominant culture’s modernist bias towards secularism and individualism, which are largely rejected by the traditional cultures that it labels as “fundamentalist”. And it ignores the nuances that reflect the complexities underlying what it labels as “fundamentalism”. What, for instance, does the term reveal when applied equally to the Taliban’s desacration of Buddhist artefacts and to the Iranian government who opposed that desacration? It is far too simplistic to understand the term to refer merely to the monolithic culture of religious violence that is commonly denoted by its use within the dominant media. One has to seek a deeper understanding of the term.

This editorial proposes a definition of religious “fundamentalism” from the perspective of traditional metaphysics. There are two features that distinguish “fundamentalism” in this definition: in its inward aspect, though not synonymous with the formal, it is formalistic to the point where the “spirit” of religion is sacrificed to its “letter”; and in its outward aspect, though not synonymous with the exclusive, it is exclusivist to the point where it denies any religious pluralism premised on transcendent unity. Each of these aspects needs elaboration.

To understand how the inward aspect of authentic religion differs from that of “fundamentalism” as defined here, a starting point is perhaps to consider the object of religion. Faced with the mysteries of existence and death, humanity has sought throughout history to understand the nature of reality and existential meaning. All authentic religion, premised on the transcendental origin and end of reality, holds that human beings may, by the grace of revelation and intellection, discern the underlying unity and integrity of reality which is embedded within our very selves, and that such knowledge, where it permeates our being, is transformative, unitive and salvific. It is the spiritual ground of reality, realized in us, that imbues us with a sense of the sacred, transforming our perception of manifest reality into a theophany in which we participate, not as separate creatures but as the Divine Self, the Eternal Witness, the only Existent. This is the inward aspect of religion, its heart or core. Considered from this standpoint, the object of religion is an alchemical transformation that corresponds in all religious lexicons to an intrinsic beauty or virtue that radiates as compassionate piety. This piety expresses itself in a sacred relationship between humanity, as Trustee, and the theophanic creation, as Beneficiary, whose spiritual radiance we, as transcendent beings, are privileged to both witness and express. This notion of piety and its concomitant obligation of stewardship—in Qur’anic terminology, Amanah or the Divine Trust—are in fact far removed from the dry formalism of “fundamentalism”. It is important to note, however, that this definition does not reduce fundamentalism to exoterism. In all authentic religions, form is a necessary component of tradition, celebrated in its scriptures, rituals and liturgies. It is not the adherence to these forms, but the loss of their kardial significance, that is indicative of fundamentalism. Formalism, in the sense of deracinated religion, is the inward gaze of fundamentalism.

To understand how the outward aspect of authentic religion differs from that of “fundamentalism” as defined here, we note that religion as such admits of two approaches to the Divine: as Truth and as Presence. The first stresses the transcendence of Absolute reality, the Supreme Principle, and approaches the Divine through Knowledge. The second stresses the immanence of Infinite reality, the manifest Self, and approaches the Divine through Love. Outwardly, these approaches may sometimes appear to clash, but inwardly they are perfectly compatible. Truth is the transcendent aspect of Presence, and Presence is the immanent aspect of Truth. These polarities are in fact complements of each other, and no religious conception of the Divine is complete without including both. In Islam, for example, this is one of the central meanings of the principle of tawhid. While an authentic religious tradition may emphasize one approach to the Divine over another (for example, Judaism and Islam will generally favor Truth over Presence and are therefore iconoclastic in matters of artistic expression, while Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity will generally favor Presence over Truth, and are therefore iconodulic), it will not do so at the expense of religious pluralism. The commitment to a particular religious tradition, while entailing subscription to its creed and submission to its forms of worship, does not mandate the rejection of other genuine religious approaches. The infinity of Divine expression, and the consequent diversity of religious typologies, are dictated by the very structure of reality itself, whose transcendent and esoteric unity are the underlying foundations of its pluralism. The rejection of such pluralism is the outward gaze of fundamentalism.

From this it can be seen that “fundamentalism”, as the term is defined here, is a form of reductionism—the “spirit” reduced to the “letter”, multiple expressions of Truth reduced to one. But, it may be objected, surely all orthodox doctrines are reductionist by virtue of their very orthodoxy. And here it becomes important to distinguish between “orthodoxy”—or “right thinking” according to the doctrines and principles of traditional metaphysics—and “fundamentalism”. Where fundamentalism isolates or ignores aspects of reality, mistaking the part for the whole, orthodoxy, by contrast—though it may emphasize a particular part—views reality as a whole, embracing all its aspects. These aspects, though they may appear to be opposed, are reconciled and accommodated within the traditional “principle of complementarity”, which regards reality as a synthesis of polarities, a coincidentia oppositorum. To claim that orthodoxy amounts to reductionism is to fail to perceive any distinction between dogma (the necessary component of doctrine—necessary as a corollary of transcendence) and dogmatism (the fallacy of doctrine, deriving from its reductionist tendency). This is one of the errors of post-modernist deconstructionism.

But traditional orthodoxy is not itself immune from a tendency to reductionism. There are many diverse expressions of Truth, which are potentially salvific or redemptive in content, though these may sometimes appear to be orthodoxly unsound from the point of view of a particular tradition, or even from within the same tradition. Thus, it is as erroneous to claim that “Pure Consciousness cannot say ‘I’” (Sri Ramana Maharshi) as to claim “I am the Truth” (al-Hallaj). Either both these statements are true, or neither is. Not only “I am in the Father” but also “the Father is in me”. Or again, not only La illaha but also illa’llah. God cannot be reduced to an aspect of reality, though every aspect of reality is an aspect of God—because God is absolute reality. Similarly, orthodoxy cannot be reduced to a “zero-sum” view of reality. Truth, in the end, must embrace all gradations within reality, though these may be ordered hierarchically. Any expression of reality that falls short of the Absolute, Unconditioned, Supreme Principle is nonetheless an aspect of reality, on pain of denying that the Absolute is also Infinite. Yet it is not Reality itself, on pain of denying that Reality is hierarchically transcendent. Orthodoxy cannot be so rigorous as to deny, in the name of Truth, the humanity of man—notwithstanding his potential divinity; just as it cannot reject that potential in the face of the imperfections of man. This then is the challenge of traditional orthodoxy: to avoid the tendency to reduce a particular doctrine—which may be an aspect of Truth—to Truth itself; or to reduce Truth to an abstraction that devalues or denies the experiential reality of Presence.