What is wrong with a Kashmiri “critique” of Perennial Philosophy?

By Maroof Shah

Contemporarily, Kashmir is known for many things including firing in the air for nothing, for the sake of firing perhaps. Since it creates needless disturbance and scares some people, one needs to take note of it. As such I am hereby investigating one such case that greeted readers of Kashmir Reader on Eid day. The reference here is to “What is Wrong with Perennial Philosophy?” (Kashmir Reader 2/9/17)by Dr Nazir Ahmed Zargar, our respected Sufi scholar. Let us examine what is factually, interpretatively, methodologically, historically and ethically wrong with the essay.
First , the essay demonstrated that the author has merely heard about perennialism from hearsay accounts rather than read it from its proper sources and he doesn’t even mention the key writings that plainly refute his introductory genealogical notes and series of concocted charges. Introductory paragraphs in the write-up have been largely lifted or cut and pasted from secondary or tertiary sources in fact. The author quotes, not from perennialists, but from a plainly misinformed and distorting review of Ferrer “Perennialism Revisited” and another bad review by Jules Evans of the this bad review of Ferrer (it means tertiary source and that too an unauthentic one) and even fails to acknowledge his twin sources in many ideas and sentences (he puts inverted commas on only one sentence from Ferrer) he presents in first five paragraphs.
Even the title of the write-up seemingly borrows from the title of that review and only drops definite article as it is titled “What is Wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?” How unacademic and distortionary are the reviews of Ferrer and Jules Evans is evident on a cursory reading – mixing perennilaists with New Age spirituality which has been subject to such severe criticism in perennialist writings, clubbing Sam Harris and Maslow with metaphysicians of the first order and bringing Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy in the same genre that has never been source or even recommended reading for understanding perennial philosophy of the Masters such as Abdul Wahid Yahya and Isa Nuruddin, two of founding fathers of twentieth century formulation of ancient timeless metaphysics. Following questionable sources, Dr Nazir has, shockingly, discussed theosophists, Vivekanada and perennialist masters in the same breath. Let us now see what is wrong with each subheading of the piece.
“What is wrong with perennial philosophy?” It states that perennialists do violence to uniqueness of different traditions which don’t agree on views of Ultimate Reality. What is wrong with it is: (1) it is lifted from elsewhere (same distorting sources) and attributed to the author and (2) it is based on elementary misreading betraying gross lack of familiarity with the perennilaist corpus itself. Since perennialists recognize religions differ much on theological and legal planes and since theological lenses see things from a distance and distort in a way, they can’t agree. However they agree on the metaphysical/esoteric plane that really accesses/meets/assimilates Ultimate Reality. Let Dr Nazir show one point on which they differ.
Perennialists assert religions are united only at the transcendent plane (i.e., assert wahdat-i-din as opposed to wahdat-i-adyan) that seeks to ignore clear differences among religions and seeks spurious unity at a lower level) because originate and end there – the plane that metaphysics based on discoveries of intellective intuition and not reason treats. And, perennialists have noted the uniqueness of different traditions and that explains why they have written whole books on separate traditions. We thus find more than a dozen books on Islam by Nasr, four seminal works on Islam and Sufism by Schuon (and one each on Buddhism and Christianity) and three great works by Martin Lings on perennial philosophy, biography of the Prophet(PBUH) and of a great Sufi.
“What Islam says about Perennial Philosophy?” What is wrong with this is its amusing title betraying the author’s essentialist rendering of Islam and taking himself as the advocate of Islam’s position or standard “revealed” interpretation as if perennialists who have converted to Islam and have great scholarly credentials in traditional Islamic languages and sciences have been blind to Islam’s view of perennial philosophy. It is itself an amusing thesis that Islam has a view about this or that science or school of fiqh, kalam, mysticism, philosophy. If this is the case, we must wrap up and judge in the light of this manual that presents Islam’s standard view/interpretation every development within the Islamic tradition itself.
The fact is all we have is interpretations of Islam and no such thing as pure, uninterpreted Islam as Hazrat Ali(RA) pointed out against his Kharijite critics. We have the whole tradition of tafsir that is originally taʾwīl – few people know that one of the most widely influential classical commentaries by Tabari is titled Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʾwīl āy al-Qurʾān. So, interpretation or taʾwīl is central to the Muslim endeavour of comprehending Islam. And, interestingly , the perennialist case draws heavily from hadith-i-Jibriel quoted by Dr Nazir for supporting Quranic exclusivism. The Quran nowhere allows absolutization of exoteric dimension (“Shariah” as the term has been lately used in Muslim scholarship in contrast to tariqa, ma’rifa and haqiqah) of Islam for salvation but links salvation to Din which is also called Islam in its universal sense of submission to Truth and grounds every revealed tradition. The Quran in fact does the opposite of what Dr Zargar makes it say. It links salvation to common timeless metaphysical/esoteric elements characterizing Din and not to shariah which is used in the plural and maintains that salvation can’t be denied if belief in Allah and last day is there along with righteous action is there and we know that revealed traditions agree on these three points and differ in exoteric theologies and laws – ordinarily classed under shariah. When the Quran says that religion before God is Islam only and no other religion is acceptable, it means Islam in the sense of submission to God/Reality which in fact the definition of religion we find elsewhere in world religions (e.g., Catholic Encyclopapedia precisely records this definition). The Quran says prophets before Muhammad brought Islam and even material world is Muslim. It is clear that here Islam is not meant in the sense delimited in Hadith-i- Jibriel (the question of affirming Muhammad’s (SAW) could not arise before the coming of the Prophet, as doesn’t the question of shariah understood as precise forms of pillars of Islam). Here it is the universal metaphysical kernel of submission to Truth that is the key demand of Ad-Din that is meant when Islam is seen as the only religion acceptable to God. We know Islam is best defined as The Religion and not a religion among other religions and this is understandable only if we identify common esoteric/metaphysical essence that defines The Religion.
“What does Islam say on the universality of truth?” Nothing is wrong with the para under this subheading except Dr Nazir’s glaring contradiction with his own point of denial transcendent unity of religions elsewhere in the write-up. His last line “esoteric dimension of revealed religions is same while exoteric theologies differ” is precisely what perennialists advocate – no more , no less. And the only point of distinction that doesn’t make Dr Nazir a perennialist is his failure to see that salvation is tied to what is common between revealed religions – esotericism as himself recognizes – and not exoteric theologies. If one affirms universality of Din and religion of submission to Truth as the primordial religion of which all revealed religions are different historical formulations, one is a perennialist.
The concluding paragraph is the worst case of false charge leveled because one takes fancy as guide. Not only do perennialists affirm the Sunnah but give the concept a metaphysical depth that answers major critiques of hadith/sunnah. I have found one of the most profound and eloquent defenses of Sunnah and every prophetic tradition in the pages of Schuon and Nasr.
The concluding line that perennilaists want to assimilate Islam with dominant western culture is inexcusable slander and shows that the author has not cared to check even the most basic premise of perennilaists which assertion of Tradition and consequent critique of dominant western culture. It is like accusing Jamat-e-Islami of hatred of Islamic identity and State.
I wish Dr Nazir notes and critically appraises the contribution of perennialists to almost every important branch of Islamic tradition – from seerah to tafsir to symbolism to Sufism , metaphysics to art to literary criticism to philosophy/hikmah. In fact, the most profound/most influential books on Islam, Islamic Art, and Seerah published during last 100 years have been authored by perennialists. He should also explain how perennialists have been amongst the most devoted practitioners of the prophetic sunnah if they don’t believe in it in theory (the chapters discussing the Prophet and Sunnah in Understanding Islam of Schuon constitute, arguably, the most profound defense of the Prophet (PBUH) and sunnah in the history of Islam). He should also note that, in academic discourse, perennialists are characterized in terms of commitment to form or letter of religion/Islam and their emphasis on authentic initiatory connections to Sufi silsilahs. Otherwise badly written – mostly plagiarized – polemical pieces betraying/concealing their origin in hearsay or fancy or unsympathetic secondary/tertiary sources on perennialism will only serve to question his scholarly credentials. One needs to know/examine (instead of imagining) the patient to be able to say what is wrong and then treat. One is required to be a good student if not a scholar of certain discipline one wants to dismiss in authoritative tone.

—The author can be reached at: marooof123@gmail.com

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