Monday, January 20, 2014

The Perennial Philosophy (Sophia Perennis)

When I came to Islam, I had come out of a period of searching that caused me to recognize a certain universal pattern to reality. This was particularly true after a near-fatal car accident in 2009, when I found that my consciousness had changed. I began to realize that for all of my life my vision had been narrowed. I had become insular in faith and life. Yet, how was I to proceed down a deeper spiritual path, and what road was I to take? I wanted something bigger, and at first that seemed to involve picking and choosing from different ideologies/faiths/philosophies. I didn't immediately understand that I was skimming an exoteric surface. This was not taking me any deeper, but was simply showing me the outward appearance of different manifestations of the ONE or the Absolute. After much searching, my commitment was to Islam, and as I often tell people when I'm asked about my conversion process, there are many factors which led to the decision, and had my life path been different, I might have easily adopted a different faith without falling out of step with the universal or ultimate "being". I realize this at my deepest level while being no less committed to the Islamic path. Yet I also know that to go deeper I needed to be on a specific path - one that had its roots in a universal reality that transcends all of the patterns and "progress" we see in human societies and existence.

My goal when committing to a particular faith path was/is awareness, knowledge, love and unity with the underlying divinity, the reality, the ONE, Allah, God, Being, whatever name we choose to call it. I believe that all of us are at base concerned with some sort of ultimate reality, whether we claim spirituality or not, and that ultimately we are searching for the same essence, whatever symbols, linguistic terminology or philosophies we use to describe it. For in the end, we all want authenticity, we want to know the true nature of things.

This also resonates with what has become known as the "Sophia Perennis" or Perennial Philosophy. There is nothing new about this "Philosophy" and I hesitate to even give it a label, but for purposes of commenting on the ideas contained, it is necessary to do so. This Philosophy, is not concerned so much with what humanity can accomplish, but what it is meant or created to accomplish. It is described as:  "both absolute Truth and
Frithjof Schuon
infinite Presence. As absolute Truth it is the perennial wisdom (sophia perennis) that stands as the transcendent source of all the intrinsically orthodox religions of humankind." It is concerned with underlying truth - a truth that has been obscured by modernity in an overwhelming emphasis on the exoteric, down to the way that religion itself is manifested. Yet the perennial philosophy does not discard religion (or as it describes it "tradition"). In fact, the need for this new articulation of something that has never left us is - as Frithjof Schuon describes it - because of the "totalitarian rationalism" of modernity, post-modernity.

It is not a reactive philosophy, in the sense that the reactivity of the various fundamentalist strains - particularly as seen in certain quarters of the Abrahamic faiths - are reactive to modernity by becoming more insular and violently protective of exoteric notions of faith. This protection is lacking of the esoteric. The Perennial idea seeks to expand our vision by allowing us to realize that there is a universal truth expressed by one Creator. This Creator manifests itself in different exoteric ways throughout history in this lower world, the world of forms. Diversity is a part of the universal plan. Diversity in fact points to the true idea of unity, which is a unity of foundation if you will, or better a unity of a higher foundation. As we progress through levels of consciousness we realize how illusory are the forms through which we perceive our world. These forms though, serve as symbols pointing to the ultimate and can also serve as a delineation between those things that lead to the ultimate and what can pull us away from that ultimate into the illusory world of forms or the world of the ego. More simply expressed, these symbols serve as a guide to right and wrong, good and bad in this lower form of consciousness where forms assume a dualistic manifestation. So, precisely for that reason, there is truth in traditional forms, and the traditional forms in faith - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., cannot be discarded. These faiths have survived throughout the centuries because they are of the nature of divine revelation. They are self-contained systems of living that share a universal truth.

The Sophia Perennis expresses the idea that a focus on forms in the modern world is to the detriment of the underlying symbolic truth of these revealed faiths. Yet there is a yearning in the modern world for this truth. We all look for purpose in life, and we all want to achieve a higher state of being, despite the language we might use to describe what "higher" means. From the equality of humanity expressed through the ideas of Socialism, to the attainment of success of the individual in Capitalism, we can see it in the world of economics and politics. There is equally a desire to return to a "purer" form of life, before "agrarian civilization" that we can find expressed in the ideas of Jared Diamond and others. What is lacking in this modern world is the esoteric. We are back to the totalitarian rationalism that Frithjof Schuon speaks of. The exoteric dominates our lives, and it is precisely this fact that is at the base of the argument which the Sophia Perennis makes against the idea of evolution as the nature of the universe. While it is true that humanity is making progression in the exoteric world through outward "innovation" in technology, it is at the expense of the esoteric, and in this sense there is a DE-evolution in humanity. We have lost the sense of who we are - of our humanity. This is exemplified in the way religions practice and clash in our world just as much as it is in the lack of the idea of the transcendent altogether.

The reason that there is conflict in our world is because form by nature will delimit parts of the universal archetype. Yet we live in this world, so we cannot escape form. Traditional faiths allow us to get past the form to the higher reality, and we cannot break these revealed forms. They are the sole route to truth in this world. Therefore, it cannot be stated enough how important it is to respect the revealed forms. As a Muslim who believes in an underlying unity, I must still practice my Islam. This is the key to Perennialism. It is not a new idea in that it proposes a new faith. Again, Sophia Perennis is not some system which brings a new faith, religion or tradition. It is more of an articulation of reality. It is pointing out more than ever why it is important to follow a revealed path. Yet it also equally emphasizes that there is a deeper understanding to a particular revealed path, and with this understanding comes a tension due - again - to the world of forms.

The tension can be seen here in that while practicing my Islam, I also acknowledge that this might not be the path for everyone, and that there is truth in other paths. I respect my Christian heritage and family knowing that it also comes from the same truth as Islam. The Qur'an itself teaches this, telling Muslims that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has come as the Seal of the Prophets and Islam has come as the culmination of all rightly guided faiths. Realizing and being able to hold this tension is key to the reduction of conflict through religion, and is key to the very fundamentals of the religion itself - virtue, love, humility, respect, etc...

There are three metaphysical truths which the Sophia Perennis expresses as doctrine, way and method. It describes doctrine as discernment of the truth from illusion. The way is a life "addressed to the soul" for conforming itself to the nature of the Real. The method is the technique that one uses to concentrate and focus on the real as one's ultimate life goal. When dealing with an Absolute that is bigger than any of us can conceive, there will be different manifestations of the Real in our world. We cannot follow all of these manifestations. Yet we can attain to the true reality while still realizing and respecting that there are other equally valid ways of attaining to that reality.


Lings, M. (2007). The underlying religion: an introduction to the perennial philosophy. Bloomington: World Wisdom.