Last update: 2018-03-23 13:36:02
Book review of ‘Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, A Sufi Master’s Message. In Memoriam René Guénon, Fons Vitae, Louisville (KY), 2010
COREIS is an acronym that stands for Comunità Religiosa Islamica Italiana [Italian Islamic Religious Community]; it was founded in the mid-80s in Milan and over the years has managed to carve out a particular niche for itself within the variegated panorama of European Islam.
Is the identification of COREIS as Italian to be understood in a merely geographical sense? Anyone who has read anything written by Sheykh ‘Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini or by his son Yahya will be well aware that it is not so. The emphasis on Western roots is deliberate in both of them. The deeper reasons for this choice are now presented in the collection of essays entitled A Sufi Master’s Message, introduced by HRH Prince Ghazi Ibn Muhammad of Jordan. There is also a limited-edition Italian version available.
In a series of short chapters the author, a convert to Islam at the age of 25, presents and expounds in the light of his own personal experience some aspects of the thought of the French esotericist René Guénon, whose own tormented spiritual journey culminated in his decision to embrace Islam, taking the name ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya.
Pallavicini does not display any great tenderness towards the West in this book, lamenting, as Guénon did, the complete disappearance of the sense of the sacred under an arid rationality that is merely instrumental.
‘In the West, intellectuality has become intellectualism and logic has become rationalism or, worse still, psychologism’ (33)
In his opinion, even Western Christianity has been overwhelmed by this crisis, though a more authentic form has been preserved in Orthodoxy. The passage quoted continues even so in these terms: ‘In the East, intuition has created impulsiveness and fatalism has produced fanaticism’. A twofold crisis is thus diagnosed: ‘Churches today host little talk about God and only preach about peace, while in mosques there is an overabundance of talk about war’ (51).
Faced with this rather negative environment, Pallavicini has made a niche for himself and for his confreres (even when it is formulated in individual terms, the author’s approach always has a community character): that of a numerically small body that keeps faith with the primordial Tradition (dîn al-qayyima), of which all religions are an expression. The subject is of itself perfectly Islamic, given that Islam, chronologically ‘last’ with respect to Judaism and Christianity, sees itself as ‘first’ in the sense of a restoration of the original faith of Abraham which – declares the Medinan Qur’an – ‘was neither Hebrew nor Christian’ (3,67).
At the same time it also represents one of the key categories in the thought of Guénon, a great theoretician of the trascendent unity of all religions. As Cardinal Daniélou observed, this position necessarily involves a reinterpretation of the Christian fact, and in particular of the Incarnation and the sacraments, within the general category of the ‘sacred’. Eschatological tension, which has an important place in the Sacred Book of Islam, emerges forcefully in these writings, conceived in terms of the ‘last times’ when, as is affirmed by an Islamic tradition dear to Pallavicini, ‘the sun will rise in the West’.
On these same lines, Pallavicini emphasises that for Islam too the final restoration will be accomplished by Christ, something that in his view is generally undervalued by believers. For the author the theme of the primordial Tradition implies a rejection on principle of any hostility to Christianity of the kind that is often diffused among those born Muslims; for Guénonians ‘the path to conversion is generally unrelated to a rejection of Christianity’ (26). Experience shows that the opposite is also true: Muslim believers for whom conversion to Christianity does not represent a repudiation of the past, but a deepening of it, ‘weighing everything up and preserving what is worthwhile’, in accord with the noted Pauline principle.
These are two positions that mirror each other, alongside which is found, as an alternative, the rejection of the culture of provenience. In the history of the Early Church Tertullian and Justin illustrate the coexistence of these two attitudes. The emphasis on the original Tradition naturally raises the question of syncretism. Pallavicini decisively rejects it because he regards it as essential that we belong to a historical form of religion. ‘Awareness of the one overarching Tradition cannot excuse one’s lack of adherence to a single orthodox religion’ writes Ilham Allah Chiara Ferrero in the introduction (12).
According to the author, ‘you do the sacred yourself’ – which is typical of so many expressions of post-modern religiosity is symptomatic of the spiritual decadence of the present era. However, even if all religions are expressions of the same tradition, there is one of them, historical Islam, which for the author does so in the most complete manner. If this clarification closes the door to syncretism, it is not clear from the text whether the greater faithfulness to the Primordial Tradition is to be understood as an absolute, or in relation to historical conditions, which would open up the road to a relativistic reading.
The striving towards truth remains however the essential criterion to judge between the various expressions of religion: ‘to our eyes, the only good reason that should lead us to embrace a religion is because we believe it is true’ (58). From the basic option in favour of historical religion, Pallavicini sees a series of practical choices flowing: the emphasis on the esoteric chain of the brotherhood, respect for Islamic Law even in its formal and outward aspects that are not to be understood as concessions to exoticism, the care never to sunder the esoteric-exoteric duo, finally the emphasis on the theme of authority.
The influence of Guénon, the outstanding exponent of gnosticism in France in the first half of the Twentieth Century, is also much in evidence in the definition of the content of the primordial Tradition: this basically consists in referring each aspect of the existent to the One, as reflecting the light from which it comes, and overcoming the distinction between creator and creature. Individual existence is assessed negatively (‘Existence is ‘standing outside’ or a lack of acceptance, or a rebellion like Lucifer’s’, 43). The position connects in this way to one of the two principal forms of Islamic mysticism, existential monism, which Massignon distinguished from the current of testimonial monism for which the final objective is not the annihilation of the believer in God, but rather loving union. Evidently this second vision is closer to Christianity, in which of course ‘God will be all in all’ (a Pauline saying that the sheykh would surely subscribe to), but in which the space of difference is maintained to the end.
If COREIS is well known for a great number of dialogue initiatives, not only with representatives of Christianity, but also (something much more unusual) with representatives of Judaism, reading of this short volume makes it possible to grasp the motivation behind this commitment; it of course does have a political dimension, but it also draws on a precise theological and spiritual conception of the relations between the faithful of the various religious traditions and of their historic task at the present time.