By Dr. Nazi Ahmad Zargar
Perennial Philosophy is a belief that at the core of all the great religions and wisdom traditions is the same mystical experience of Ultimate Reality. The Latin expression Philosophia Perennis, ‘perennial philosophy’ signifies the totality of the primordial and universal truths. The term was coined by Agostino Steucho (1496-1549), bishop of Kisamos and a Vatican Librarian, to refer to the prisca theologia or philosophia priscorium of Marcilio Ficino, a unifying philosophical system based on a synthesis of Platonic principles and Christian doctrines. It was given currency in the early eighteenth century by the philosopher Leibniz. “Thus, the modern notion of a perennial philosophy, says Jorge N. Ferrer in The Perennial Philosophy Revised, “should be regarded as product of the ecumenical interest of the Christian tradition in the Neoplatonic Renaissance (Marcilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Nicolas de cusa, Agostino, Steuco, etc.) in finding unity and harmony amidst a multiplicity of conflicting world views (Schimitt, 1966)”.
More recently, the phrase has been used in a broader way to refer to the idea that all of the world’s great religious traditions are expressions of a single, saving truth. Comparing this truth to a perennial flower, a perennialist asserts that there is one divine source of all wisdom, which has repeatedly blossomed forth throughout history. The major religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are different forms of that wisdom and are sometimes referred to as paths leading to the same summit or dialects of a common language. The perennialist ideas were in fact already introduced in the West first by Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society founded in 1875, and later by Swami Vivekananda in 1893 but it was not until the twentieth century when Aldous Huxley published his book ‘Perennial Philosophy’ (1945) that perennialist ideas reached the masses and became popular beyond esoteric and academic elites. Its best known and the most authoritative exponents, however, are Ananda Coomaraswamy, Rene Guenon, and especially Frithjof Schuon whose Transcendent Unity of Religions (1948) has been of signal importance in defining the contemporary prennialist viewpoint.
Schuon makes a difference between the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of religion. While the exoteric signifies the outwardly divergent theologies of religions, the esoteric signifies the inward metaphysical and symbolic meanings of these contrasting theologies. The Hindu tradition, for example worships many gods, Buddism speaks nothing about God, Christianity believes that God is a Trinity while Islam explicitly rejects all these and believes that God is One and Only. But, according to the perennial philosophy, such contrast and conflict lies in the theologies of the religions whereas beyond this dogmatic letter there lies the deeper spiritual meaning which is same in all religions.
Schuon draws a horizontal line between esoteric and exoteric in the following manner:
The above picture tells us that “religions are alike at heart or in essence while differing in form. It shows that in God at the apex, religions converge, below they differ. Hence, it is believed that theologies are intrinsically divisive and as such theological approach often creates division among the religions.
The perennialists like Huxley, Rene Guenon, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy or Frithjof Schuon are of the conviction that the “Single Truth”, which the perennial philosophy talks about, is found at the heart of the mystical teaching of all the world’s religious traditions. All these authors claim that whereas the esoteric dimensions of religious traditions, are at times, even incompatible, their esoteric or mystical dimensions reveal an essential unity that transcends the outward doctrinal pluralism. Hence, it is claimed that, the mystics of all ages and places transcend the different theological systems of religions and access a direct intuitive understanding of reality (gnosis).
What is wrong with perennial philosophy?
It has been argued that perennial philosophy, by being so universalist and essentialist, ends up doing violence to the traditions it tries to cohere. After all the religionists and the mystics, as well themselves do not agree that all religions are talking about the same ultimate reality.
What does Islam say about the universality of Truth?
So far as the fundamental truth of religion is concerned, it seems that Islam also upholds that the timeless principles and eternal truths hidden in the depths of all authentic (revealed) religions are the same. The Qur’an emphasizes that Islam, in no sense, is an innovation but a mere continuity of the faith of all the true prophets. It also emphasizes the fundamental unity of all the revealed religions and also inculcates the reverence for their human founders. (see 2:136). The Qur’an propounds that same Din was revealed to Ibrahim (Abraham), Isma‘il (Ishmail), Ishaq (Isaq),Ya‘qub (Jacob), and all other prophets which was finally revealed to the last of the true prophets, Muhammad (PBUH). However, the prophets differed in their Shara‘i (theologies) and minhaj (ways). This clearly testifies that the esoteric dimension of revealed religions is same while their exoteric theologies differ.
What does Islam say about perennial philosophy?
But, at the same time the Qur’an, in unequivocal terms, states that the faith of Islam, constituted of both the belief and the Shari‘ah law, is the only way to felicity. The gist of all the Qur’anic teachings regarding the components of Islam as faith, action and spiritual experience is best explained in an authentic hadith of the Prophet wherein the Archangel, Jabreel(A.S) asks the Prophet(PBUH) few questions including the three main as under: O Muhammad, tell me about Islam (the exoteric dimension of Islam).The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said: Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, to perform the prayers, to pay the Zakah to fast in Ramadan, and to make the pilgrimage to the House if you are able to do so. He said: You have spoken rightly. He said: Then, tell me about Iman (the esoteric dimension of Islam). He said: It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, the Last Day, and to believe in God’s precise measurement and His just decrees on everything, including (what may be perceived as) good or evil. Then Jibril asked said: Then, tell me about Ihsan (which signifies the spiritual essence of Islam). He said: It is to worship Allah as if you are seeing him, and while you see Him not yet truly He sees you. (Sahih Muslim)
This hadith clearly brings home the importance of the outward worship in Islam. Every Muslim and even non-Muslim knows that practicing the Sunnah of the Prophet is must for a true Muslim. Not only faith but also action is the only way to najaat. The above hadith states in clear terms that exoteric dimension of Islam is by no means less important. The al-Din which has ultimately been revealed to the final Messenger constitutes both the esoteric and the exoteric which are collectively necessary for the ultimate felicity of a believer. The holy Qur’an states in unambiguous terms:
“If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah), never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter He will be in the ranks of those who have lost (All spiritual good).” (3:85)
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, a famous commentator of the Holy Qur’an, while explaining the Islamic position about the primordial Truth and the Islamic concept of al-Din in the shade of the above Qur’anic Ayah, writes:
“The Muslim position is clear. The Muslim does not claim to have a religion peculiar to himself. Islam is not a sect or an ethnic religion. In its view all Religion is one, for the Truth is One. It was the religion preached by all the earlier prophets. It was the truth taught by all the inspired Books. In essence it amounts to a consciousness of the Will and Plan of Allah and a joyful submission to that Will and Plan. If anyone wants a religion other than that, he is false to his own nature, as he is false to Allah’s Will and Plan. Such a one cannot expect guidance, for he has deliberately renounced guidance”.
The Holy Qur’an says:
By (the Token of) Time (through the Ages). Verily Man is in loss. Except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual teaching of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy. (103: 1-3)
So, in light of the above ayah, not only faith but al-a‘mal al-salihah (virtuous deeds) are necessary. And the virtuous deeds include the deeds which have been termed in the Shari‘ah as virtuous.
Does perennial philosophy ,by any means, lead us to conclude that it is only Islam which stands as to be the only way open for having genuine belief and it is only through believing in the last prophet Muhammad(PBUH) that mankind can achieve the ultimate najaat in the hereafter? If yes, How ? If no, the perennial philosophy is not al-Din and it cannot be any fruitful exercise to explain Islam through the language of perennialism. Rather , the best approach to explain Islam on its own grounds and let Islam explain itself through its methodology.
In fact, perennial philosophy leads to the abolition of the prophetic practice thereby reducing Islam to just faith. It leads the Muslims to a life having no cultural identity of their own. And, since Islamic culture is nothing but the Sunnah of the holy Prophet, perennial philosophy aims at ‘relieving’ the Muslims from the ‘fetters’ of the Sunnah to get assimilated in the dominant western culture and meet the same fate Christianity in the West has already met.
—The author is an Assistant Professor at the, Department of Religious Studies, Central University of Kashmir. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org