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I can not recommend this book more , nor could I agree more with what T.S. Eliot wrote about it: "I have met with no more impressive work in the comparative study of Oriental and Occidental religion"
Huston Smith, probably the most eminent scholar of comparative religion studies in the US today and who wrote the introduction to this book, described Frithjof Schuon as: "The man is a living wonder; intellectually à propos religion, equally in depth and breadth, the paragon of our time. I know of no living thinker who begins to rival him..."
If you only read one book this year, this should be it
To find out more about Frithjof Schuon, visit URL: ...
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"Frithjof Schuon's Understanding Islam...delves into the depths of Islam... Schuon does not hesitate to draw parallels between Islam and other faiths, particularly Hinduism. He also takes the reader into the esoteric (or inner) essence of Islam, where traditions and laws are given unexpected twists. If you have ever had any doubts about Islam being a satisfying framework for intellectual inquiry, this book should lay them to rest."
This book presupposes a basic familiarity with Islam. Rather than being an encyclopedic source of information, it offers keys to elucidating the universal symbolism of Divine Reality as manifested within the Islamic revelation. At the same time, it gives excellent comparisons between different world religions viewed in their essentiality. Highly recommended for serious readers.
"Practical" in the sense that it is not solely an exercise in metaphysics but rather an apologia for Islam, written by a man who understood and appreciated its inner life better than most. Schuon states himself in his foreword to the book that this was not a description of Islam as much as an explanation of why Muslims believe in it.
If you are looking for a description of Islam, either from a social or historical standpoint, you are better off not starting with Schuon; there are any number of excellent books on the subject that can help you in that regard. But I know of no other western writer who can teach you more about the content of Islam than Schuon does, unless it is Professor Schimmel herself, and she wrote the introduction to this edition. Schuon starts by comparing the religious perspective of Islam with Christianity, and then proceeds to describe what function the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad and the mystical paths of Islam play in the interior life of Muslims.
The book itself is deceptively short. In fact, it is a very difficult read. Not infrequently, you will find it necessary to re-read paragraphs or even several pages in order to follow Schuon's train of thought. Repeated readings will probably be found profitable. Readers unfamiliar with metaphysics as an intellectual discipline will find the going even harder, and Schuon is not above drawing on medieval Christian thinking as well as Hinduism and Buddhism for analogies. Some readers may find his digressions and page-long footnotes distracting, but he is never really far from the point he is trying to make.
Interestingly enough, within the Muslim community there is some disparity in how the book is viewed. Some Muslim divines consider the book a valuable contribution to the understanding of their faith by Westerners. Others, frequently Western converts, seem to feel that Schuon's book,with its constant comparisons to other religions in general and Christianity in particular, is demeaning to Islam. Whether or not this is so, the book will certainly give you a lot to think about, and I recommend it to any serious student of Islam.
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This book brings together some of his earliest articles with the last of those belonging to his metaphysical prose works. Among the latter, "Between East and West" is a particularly interesting description of the flaws as well as the positive characteristics of the "average mentality" found among modern Orientals and Occidentals and their spiritual consequences. In a general way, Easterners are more sensitive to the symbolism or the spiritual intention of things than to the "objective facts" which are more convincing for Westerners. Schuon sets forth with precision and finesse how this contrast or oscillation between "faith" and "reason" shows itself not only among different groups of humanity but also within our individual souls.
One of the singular features of Schuon's perspective-and of a jnanic viewpoint in general-is the absence of a denominational zeal that wishes to convert or a moralizing approach that tends to elevate a particular human style to the level of a goal in itself. Whether one experiences this as a shock or as a relief, Schuon unwaveringly looks at the essential nature of things in all their degrees and modalities. And the immutable reference point is always the sense of the sacred. Reality is sacred, therefore man is a theophany or he lives below himself-in his thoughts, in his actions, in his sentiments and imagination: "...What is 'true' is what opens the door towards the Truth at once transcendent and immanent... There is the symbol and there is the 'fact': now the understood symbol is worth infinitely more than the misunderstood fact."
It is striking to find the same "faith-reason" or "symbol-fact" polarity in the chapter "Intellectuality and Civilization," written in the 1940's, at the beginning of the Schuon opus. Everyone can agree that intelligence is preferable to stupidity, just as truth is superior to error and illusion. The difficulty is that the modern definition of intelligence tends to limit it, either by specializing it into a kind of cerebral virtuosity or by flattening it into mere reason or, worse yet, the infra-reason of existentialism. Thus, as Schuon points out, to its great harm, today's culture ignores the cosmic laws that have always governed humanity. It replaces them with either an "idealism" or a "realism," both misconceived. "The first will always be above collective human possibilities, and the second altogether below them."
Modern man suffers both individually and collectively from the pervasive illness of relativism. Then, precisely because of his malady, he bitterly rails against centuries of saints, sages and pious men before him. The rejection of the religious traditions goes hand in hand with the loss of what Schuon terms "integral intelligence," one that is proportioned to total Truth, which is necessarily eternal and spiritual. To read Schuon is to be reminded that this total Truth is always at hand, for those who seek it with the eye of the heart.
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One has to conclude that with Schuon it is just the opposite: that the reality of things is a coherent totality which can be described, so that to touch on one aspect of its nature with insight is virtually, in a way, to assimilate or understand the whole. There is a kind of "spiritual geometry" in Schuon's perspective, a hierarchical framework of degrees and dimensions that is applied to an astonishingly wide range of topics. While it is can be found in each of his articles, this book presents it in a particularly balanced and ample way, so that it is like a key to opening the richness of the author's opus. Schuon looks at the essential nature of things, and in doing so the "cultural accretions" that obscure words and the realities they articulate fall aside. One is left face to face, as it were, with naked Truth. As one reviewer has said,
"Schuon's thought does not demand that we agree or disagree, but that we understand or do not understand. Such writing is of rare and lasting value." (London Times Literary Supplement)
Schuon begins in the first chapter with restoring the original meaning of the words "orthodoxy" and "intellectuality." Orthodoxy, far from its modern connotations of a kind of superficial conformity, of prejudice or "mental laziness," is "the principle of formal homogeneity proper to any authentically spiritual perspective... To be orthodox means to participate by way of a doctrine that can properly be called 'traditional,' in the immutability of the principles which govern the Universe and fashion our intelligence." Then there is intellectuality, which has for many Westerners become synonymous with a predilection for dealing with very abstract notions or with "creative thinking," whereas Schuon insists that human intellect "is a receptive faculty and not a productive power.... It is a mirror reflecting reality in a manner that is adequate and therefore effective." Such a foundation does not, however, lead to any kind of rarified atmosphere in which one is obliged to walk on sublime "intellectual stilts." In fact, one of the most refreshing aspects of Schuon is his ability to see the value-even necessity-of the entire range of human faculties, which he summarizes as intelligence, free will and beauty of soul.
"'Objectivity' is often discussed in our times, but it is readily reduced to a purely volitional or moral attitude.... Now intelligence is intelligence and passion is passion; the difference exists, or the two terms would not exist." In saying this, Schuon is not simply retreating into tautologies. Rather, such statements are indicative of a kind of implacability when it comes to pointing out, however inconvenient this may be, that the reigning "emperor"-modernity and all its trappings-really has no clothes, and Schuon gives false idols nowhere to hide.
Are people of our times compelled to choose between a belief in God that seems ridiculously naïve or acceptance of a modern outlook that has shown itself to be inhuman and ruinously destructive of the earth itself? These essays argue cogently that this is not the case. "At a time when the forms of the spirit are threatened as much by man's thoughtlessness as by a preconceived hostility, what is essential is to place in a sapiential setting the truths by which man has always lived and by which he should go on living; if there is an 'exact science' embracing all that is, it resides above all in consciousness of the realities underlying both the traditional symbols and the fundamental virtues, which are the 'splendor of the true.'"
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I would also recommend "Every Branch In Me", which bulids upon the same themes found in this book. Enjoy!
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Here in these selections you have the heart of the Perennial Philosophy that lies at the core of all legitimate religions and spiritual paths. The translation from the original French is good and flows smoothly and poetically.
Central to all is the realization that the reason that humankind exists is for its individual members to transcend the material world and make connection with God. This is to find the center where heaven and earth meet. Deep contemplative prayer is prescribed as the best path to this center. Indeed, to the centered man, all of life becomes an ongoing prayer, a contemplation of the Divine. Moreover, after one finds the center, one is able to return to the outer world and put its dissonances into perspective, for they are nothing compared to the Absolute. Further, once true connection has been made, the material world becomes transparent and one sees the symbolic meaning and archetypes that are reflected in the mirror of matter.
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Like most of Schuon's books, this one is divided into several sections, with chapters that are more or less independent of each other, as well as being of varying importance. The initial chapters, in the section entitled "Sophia Perennis," deal with the fundamental metaphysical principles that are like the warp on which all the Schuon opus is woven. There is an inescapable rigor here that, precisely, is necessary in order for the entire structure to have a solid foundation. But, as the author states in the introduction, one need not necessarily read the chapters sequentially. The reader is free to select the articles that immediately capture his attention, and the diversity of topics is indeed quite appealing.
The essays of the second section are in a way applications of the above-mentioned Sanskrit ternary to the microcosm that is man. Human nature is thus will-intelligence-sentiment or activity-knowledge-love. These articles focus on the third dimension of the soul, on the nature and role of the virtues, morality and sentiment. If, as mentioned above, the reader may begin with any chapter, one reason is the fact that the same spiritual realities ultimately make themselves known in each of the three human faculties. And this has some very interesting consequences. For example, most of our contemporaries are accustomed to thinking of sentiment only in terms of an individual subjectivism. But Schuon insists on the element of veracity in noble-thus normal-sentiments: "Like intelligence and will, sentiment is a faculty both of discrimination and of assimilation.... In reality, sentiment is a state of awareness which is doubtless not mental, objective and mathematical, but vital, subjective and so to speak musical..." In other words, something is not good or true because we love it. Quite the contrary, the True and the Good have an existence independent of our own, and to be aware of them is to love them and to tend toward them. Schuon is a master of describing these inter-relationships in all the myriad ways that we encounter them, whether at the level of ideas or in the inward life of the soul, with its private struggles and joys.
This book also contains several essays devoted to aesthetics and art. The chapter "Foundation of an Integral Aesthetics" is a landmark in this domain of Schuon's writings. From his very first book (The Transcendent Unity of Religions, 1953), the author has emphasized the importance of the fact that it is sensible forms which symbolically correspond most directly to the spiritual Intellect within us. The French have a saying, "Extremes meet." And because of the inverse analogy connecting the domain of the archetypes with the material plane, there is thus both a "science" and an "art" of the beauty of forms. According to their degree of harmony with a celestial perfection, earthly forms are projections of and receptacles for divine realities. At this point, one could not be farther from the notion that beauty is simply a matter of personal taste. At first glance, we may seem to be robbed of our sovereignty by Schuon's thesis that forms are beautiful only insofar as they manifest a Truth which utterly transcends our individuality. But he also reminds us that Beauty is not only rigor but music as well, and that it is only through the blissful extinguishing of our noisy ego in the overwhelming reality of the Beautiful that we find peace, harmony serenity.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it makes clear what the author states in the opening paragraphs, that "esoterism resides not only in the choice of ideas, but also in the manner of envisaging things."
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As in his many metaphysical books, the author often makes references to other religions when illustrating a point. Parallels in the spiritual worlds of Shinto, Zen and ancient India appear here. Whatever the similarities and differences between one another, every traditional universe is marked by a sense of totality. There is an all-pervading sense of the sacred at the antipodes of the modern mentality that reflexively treats the world and life as blind "matter" which can be manipulated more or less at will, rather than as forms of the Spirit which command our respect and have principles to teach.
Schuon gives eloquent explanations of the rites and symbols central to North American shamanism, especially that of the sacred pipe. Although the practices of various tribes differed in many details, there is clearly an underlying homogeneity to their beliefs which has made the Indians themselves the symbol of a distinctive spiritual type. The author's colorful paintings are a moving complement to the text. They portray the archetype that has given rise to the Indian genius for combining heroism with a priestly dignity in harmony with the beauty and innocence of nature.
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But Schuon's books are not easy reading. Anyone unfamiliar with his books might want to begin with an introduction to his works as found in James Cutsinger's Advice to the Serious Seeker, or an intorduction to Schuon's basic world-view (quite different from the modern one!) as found in Martin Lings' Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions or E.F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed. A few of Schuon's easier works such as The Play of Masks, The Transfiguration of Man or Echoes of Perennial Wisdom might also be read by way of introduction.
The following chapter is crucial for an understanding of this book: "...one should recall that a religion is what Buddhists term an upaya (then this footnote: "the upaya is a 'skillful means' by which Heaven seeks to win souls; since souls are in illusion, the 'means' necessarily takes on something of the illusory, hence the diversity of doctrines, methods and religions..."), and that it has for this reason a certain right to defensive reflexes which, while objectively inadequate, are nonetheless logically appropriate for the religious axiom they serve and are justified by their effectiveness pro domo..." (their effectiveness, that is, in saving souls). As in most of Schuon's books, the author discusses at length the divergences between the various "skillful means" by which heaven has lured souls, while clarifying what pertains only to the "form" (or shell) of a religion and what pertains to its "substance" (kernel). In their forms, the religions necessarily diverge; in their substances, they unite by leading their adherents towards the Absolute and Infinite Reality. This is what Schuon termed the "Transcendent Unity of Religions", which was also the title of his first book; the different religions, then, are analagous to so many paths to the summit of a mountain. Each path is necessarily very different at the base, but as they converge upon the summit, the spiritual traveller notices the self-same Source and Goal for each path.
In Form and Substance of the Religions, Frithjof Schuon speaks as one who is already at the summit, peering downwards and illuminating the way for those trying to climb towards their eternal Source in the darkness of the modern world. He clarifies and justifies the differences in religions, the essential and non-essential aspects of religions, and, while fully appreciating and elucidating what pertains to their "form", leads one to a recognition of the common "substance" of the religions -- that which, being essential, constitutes the one common "thread" that runs through each revelation as a string holds together the beads of a rosary. As we meditatively read this book, we are gradually drawn up to the Divine Summit by one who, as he wrote this book, seems to have been already there.