Pathways to an Inner Islam

Massignon, Corbin, Guenon and Schuon 

~Patrick Laude 

An introduction to four Western figures influenced by Sufism who wrote about an esoteric or spiritual “inner Islam.”

Pathways to an Inner Islam provides an introduction to the esoteric or spiritual “inner Islam” presented by Western thinkers Louis Massignon, Henry Corbin, René Guénon, and Frithjof Schuon.

Particularly interested in Sufism—the mystical tradition of Islam—these four twentieth-century authors who wrote in French played an important role in presenting Islamic spirituality to the West and have also had an influence in parts of the Muslim world, such as Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Patrick Laude brings them together to argue that an understanding of their inner Islam challenges reductionist views of Islam as an essentially legalistic tradition and highlights its spiritual qualities. The book discusses their thought on the definitions of spiritual Islam and Sufism, the metaphysical and mystical understanding of the Prophet and the Quran, the function of femininity in Islamic spirituality, and the inner understanding of jihaµd. In addition, the writers’ Christian backgrounds and their participation in the intellectual and spiritual traditions of both Christianity and Islam offer a dynamic perspective on interfaith dialogue.

“Few questions could be more important for a contemporary understanding of Islam than the authority and interpretation of sacred texts, the role of women, and the nature and legitimacy of war. Laude addresses each of these issues, among others, with admirable sophistication.” 
— James S. Cutsinger, Author of Advice to the Serious Seeker: Meditations on the Teaching of Frithjof Schuon

SUNY Press

See: Whole Book online

From Chapter 2:

The very mention of an inner dimension of Islam brings to the fore the question of the definition of Sufi sm and the related assessment of its relationship with Islam at large. These matters were central to European Islamology in the twentieth century, and they continue to be vital to any integral understanding of Islam in our times. It is no exaggeration to say that the four figures upon whom we have chosen to focus were literally molded by their personal relationship with Sufism, and that their understanding of Islam cannot begin to be envisaged outside of a consideration of the doctrines and disciplines of what has been called “Islamic mysticism.” It may not be without importance to specify that a definition of Sufi sm within the category of mysticism is far from being agreed upon among the very participants of this intellectual and spiritual tradition. Such foremost contemporary experts in Sufism as William Chittick have, for example, been reticent to make use of this term, primarily because of the connotations of vagueness, sentimentality, and irrationality that the word too often carries in its wake. In his own time, René Guénon was adamant in rejecting the term “mysticism” and refusing to apply it to metaphysical doctrines and initiatory paths of the East on account of the fundamentally
“passive” character that he assigned to mystics, by contrast with practitioners of initiatory disciplines, such as tasawwuf precisely, whom he described as being devoted to an exclusively “active” and methodical spiritual way.

While one can understand how the circumstances in which Guénon had to introduce his ideas to European twentieth-century audiences could lead him to systematize such distinctions, it remains nevertheless true that not all mystics, including Christian ones, are exempt from making use of specific methodical supports, as the history of medieval Christianity amply demonstrates. It is no less undeniable that not a few paths that are technically akin to the kind of initiations Gu.non has in mind do involve an element of “passivity” in their methods, if only because no such methods could be effective without a measure of “receptivity” on the part of the initiate, and above all because the human side of the spiritual equation is necessarily passive in relation to the Divine. As Massignon suggestively put it, “before God every soul is feminine.” It must be added that other students and authorities of Sufism or tasawwuf, such as Arberry or Martin Lings, had no qualms in using the term mysticism to refer to their object of study. Based on its Greek etymology indicative of “silence” (mu.: to remain silent), and thereby suggesting a transcending of verbal, external means of apprehension and transmission, the term mysticism may refer to a set of doctrines and practices postulating a supra-rational mode of knowledge—not irrational and denying the validity of reason on its own plane, but simply pointing to its epistemological limits— leading to a type of spiritual knowledge through identification, whether in the mode of a nondualistic unity or a dualistic union through love. In parallel, mysticism is most often understood as additionally involving a set of ritual and methodical practices, and a conformation of the soul through a spiritual and moral discipline of action and being.

Provided one agrees on the essentials of this definition, there is no decisive reason to refrain from characterizing Sufi sm as a form of Islamic mysticism. Whether in the form of an ascetic discipline centered on the fear of God and punishment—characteristic of early developments of “Sufi sm without a name,” or in the mode of an ecstatic station of love for the One Beloved—as epitomized by Mansūr al-Hallāj and Jalāl-ad-Din Rūmī’s poetic utterances, or else in the metaphysical concepts of a doctrine of nonduality or unicity—as developed in the treatises of Muhyid-Dīn Ibn Arabī or ‘Abd-al-Karīm al-Jīlī, tasawwuf undoubtedly fulfills the mystical requirements and norms that have been set out. Moreover, it has been, and continues to be, a concrete spiritual reference and principle of spiritual action for a vast number of Muslims who strive to come closer to God through practices that intensify or deepen their conformity to the sharī’iah under the spiritual direction of a shaykh and in the context of initiatory brotherhoods, or turuq.