Roger Gaetani is an editor, writer, and educator who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He serves as the vice president for World Wisdom, an independent publishing company focused on religious and philosophical texts. With Jean-Louis Michon, he edited the World Wisdom anthology on Sufism, Sufism: Love and Wisdom. He directed and produced the DVD compilation of highlights from the 2006 conference on Traditionalism, Tradition in the Modern World: Sacred Web 2006 Conference, and he has edited the book A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar by Amadou Hampâté Bâ about the African Sufi saint who promulgated the message of tolerance of other faiths. Gaetani has also translated (from the original French) and edited the book Introduction to Sufism: The Inner Path of Islam by Eric Geoffroy. Currently he is working on a children's book about Tierno Bokar.
Gaetani was born and educated in the United States (at Syracuse University and Indiana University) but spent a number of years in Morocco and Saudi Arabia as a teacher. While there, and in travels through other countries in Africa and Asia, he gained an appreciation for traditional cultures, thought, and art. Through these experiences, he became acquainted with the Perennialist school of thinkers, whose precepts he finds essential in explaining the most fundamental questions in comparative religion, modern civilization, and personal spiritual development.
As a longtime educator and developer of educational materials and programs, Mr. Gaetani views his editorial activities in a similar light. He seeks to publish materials that edify, inspire, and lead to very real individual growth.
Powell's Chris Faatz caught up with Roger Gaetani in early October for the following conversation.
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Chris Faatz: Roger, tell me a little bit about World Wisdom Publications and its mission. A few things have struck me: One is the sheer breadth of the list you publish, ranging from Native American spirituality to Hinduism, from Eastern Orthodoxy to Islam. Another is the emphasis on the Perennialist approach to understanding the world and our place in it. Is Perennialism what Huxley was referring to when he wrote The Perennial Philosophy?
Roger Gaetani: World Wisdom has been publishing books since 1980 that highlight the intelligence, virtue, and beauty of the great religious traditions. These aspects might be transmitted through the myths and tales of the American Plains Indians that fill the books of author-illustrator Paul Goble, or through the philosophy and spiritual insight of author Frithjof Schuon, or through the text, photos, and diagrams of Titus Burckhardt's book on the profound concepts behind the design of Chartres Cathedral. If a book is done well, the intelligence, virtue, and beauty of a spiritual tradition will shine through regardless of the format of the book or the target age of the reader. Those are the kind of books that interest us.
The breadth of our list — now that is a good observation. It ties in with the Perennialist approach that you mentioned. "The Perennial Philosophy" is a term that was used by Huxley, but it was used much earlier by others and has been explored in much more depth by some of Huxley's contemporaries, and by others that followed. Some closely related terms that are also used are the "Perennial Wisdom" or the "Perennial Religion."
The central idea of the Perennial Philosophy results from a simple logical chain of thought: There is a single Divine Reality that exists unchanged in all times and places. It communicates, by its very nature, with humanity through the sacred scriptures and/or traditional institutions of the great civilizations throughout history. Those civilizations, or to be more precise, those spiritual traditions, are diverse and seem to be addressed to just a particular segment of humanity. But if they are all actually infused with Divine Truth, this must mean that the differences can only be explained by the following: the Truth — which in itself is absolute and therefore unchanging — must take on a different shape or form to adapt itself to those different segments of humanity. The same Truth still underlies all of those religions at all times, but its form will differ from one area of the globe to another.
A good analogy has been used to describe this. The single Truth is like the undifferentiated white light before it enters a prism. After going through the prism, whose facets are like the different segments of humanity, the light breaks up into a myriad of different colors, which represent the distinct spiritual traditions of the world.
The Perennial Philosophy focuses on the universal Truth that underlies the countless spiritual texts, works of art and crafts, sayings of wise men and women, customs, and so on, that make up a traditional "world." We like this Perennialist approach to religion because it answers many questions (such as, How can all religions be true?) and highlights what is universal between religions, while almost all current academic approaches in comparative religion highlight differences, large and small, between them. That academic approach is certainly more capable of generating endless analyses and parsing of details, but does it give the reader a greater or lesser chance of actually sensing the existence of Truth in religious phenomena? For most academic approaches, I think it is fair to say that they are more concerned with data than Divine Presence in the religious texts and customs that they study. It is exactly the opposite for the Perennial Philosophy.
Sorry for the long answer, but it usually requires more than a few words to explain the Perennial Philosophy. I've only given a brief overview, really. So, to go back to the question, the breadth of the list reflects the Perennialist's love of finding spiritual gems from a wide variety of sources, which helps to prove the central point that manifestations of the Truth can be found far and wide as long as we know what we are looking for and we make the effort to do some digging.
Faatz: One of the key figures, it seems, in this movement is a man — an amazingly prolific scholar — named Frithjof Schuon. Can you tell us a little about him and his relation to your work?
Gaetani: Schuon was born in 1907 in Basle, Switzerland, and died in the U.S. in 1998. He was a very imaginative but also serious child, and he developed very early on the ability to express himself powerfully in words and drawings. From a young age he was drawn to stories of noble people and wonderful places but also to an active inner life of personal prayer. He kept these characteristics throughout his life, so that when he was old, a friend who was traveling to some exotic place overseas might ask him what he could bring back to Schuon as a gift, and Schuon would just ask for a children's book of prayers from that faraway place! Schuon had a very interesting life as a child and a young man, and he was even a prisoner of the Germans in World War II. But anyone interested in biographical details of his life could read the World Wisdom book Frithjof Schuon: Messenger of the Perennial Philosophy or the SUNY book Frithjof Schuon: Life and Teachings to learn more about him and his ideas.
Schuon became a major figure in what was called in Europe the Traditionalist school of thought. He wrote many articles for French journals of the time on a wide variety of subjects within the field of comparative religion. His work became notable for his ability to deal with matters of metaphysics and symbolism, as was the case with other writers in those journals such as René Guénon or Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, but also for his unique ability to write with great insight and authority about human nature, particularly regarding our spiritual capacities and challenges. His first major book was The Transcendent Unity of Religions, which appeared in English translation in 1953. About that book, T. S. Eliot commented that "I have met with no more impressive work in the comparative study of Oriental and Occidental religion." It is probably the work most associated with Schuon because it addresses many of the principles of the Perennial Philosophy.
So, World Wisdom originally started out as a small press publishing the English translations of Schuon's books. Since he was also an excellent and prolific painter and poet, eventually these other aspects of his work also appeared in World Wisdom books. Everything that Schuon did, whether prose or poetry or art, every piece that he composed has a spiritual dimension. It is quite remarkable. But along the way, World Wisdom expanded its catalog to include books by other writers who were associated with Schuon, such as Guénon, Coomaraswamy, Titus Burckhardt, Marco Pallis, Lord Northbourne, Joseph Epes Brown, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and William Stoddart, among others. We then added books by younger interpreters of the Perennial Philosophy such as Harry Oldmeadow, Patrick Laude, and Reza Shah-Kazemi. We expanded further into books on significant people in various traditions (for example, Angelus Silesius, Thomas Yellowtail, Sri Ramakrishna, Honen, Rumi). And now we've started a children's book imprint, Wisdom Tales Press, to tell beautiful stories with beautiful pictures to children.
All of this is related to Schuon in the sense that he laid out a very broad framework for spiritual exploration within the areas of philosophy, the arts and crafts, literature, history, culture… all those areas which our books touch on. From a quick glance at our books, it is obvious that we have no agenda to force a particular philosophy. Many of the books we publish are firmly grounded in a specific religion. For instance, our books on American Indians or on Christianity are like this, but the spirituality in those books is so powerful that it would be difficult not to benefit from it in some way, even if one practiced a different religion. In our book The Original Gospel of Ramakrishna, the Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna, for example, never refers to the Perennial Philosophy, but his life and teachings were so expansive that it is clear that he accepted the reality of universals within religions, and his own spirituality was deepened by that realization.
Faatz: It seems to me that a lot of the books published by World Wisdom address Islam, including at least one by Schuon. Something really struck me in the foreword to Schuon's book World Wheel, written by Annemarie Schimmel. She writes: "People often ask me: 'Why do you like Islam?' and my regular answer is: 'Because Muslims take God seriously.'" Is that the same reason that World Wisdom so obviously takes Islam seriously?
Gaetani: That's a good question. First, there is the very simple reason that the authors we have published have found Islam so fascinating and then send us books on it! But I would interpret Schimmel's comment as a reaction to her time spent in Muslim countries, where there was, at least at that time, a very clear sense of a culture that was still entire, a cohesive and all-encompassing civilization. This is what she, and we, refer to when we talk about a "tradition." Muslims who still live in the atmosphere of the Islamic tradition take God seriously when they take a drink of water only after saying silently or quietly, "In the Name of God." They take God seriously when they give a coin to a beggar, knowing that this is a religious duty and not just a fleeting act of the moment. Anyone who lives a tradition fully, such as a Hasidic Jew, a Tibetan Buddhist, or a Sun Dancer from one of the Plains tribes, is no less serious about God. Like many Muslims, their actions are enclosed in a sacred space.
However, Islam is a religious form that has several aspects that make it particularly attractive to the writers that we publish: First, it is a monotheistic religion and its basic form and practices are fairly easy for readers in Europe and America to comprehend. Second, it has had a long and rich history, full of saints and sinners, heroes and villains, artistic accomplishments, laws and theology, sciences, and more; it is a very deep well from which an author can draw examples! Finally, and maybe most importantly, for centuries there has been a very real tension in Islam between exoterism and esoterism. That is, between the letter of law (and between what we would call "fundamentalism" today) and the doctrines and practices of mystics, those Sufis who have looked to the "religion of the heart" as their primary guide. Islam is a very rich ground for thinkers to explore.
Gaetani: As you said, the three faiths share the same monotheistic heritage and share a great deal of their sacred history, mythologies, and symbolism. Christianity and Judaism share the Old Testament, and many of the stories and figures found in it are found in the Quran as well. Sometimes there are slight differences between the Islamic retelling and sometimes it is precisely the same.
Actually, the similarities in their shared sacred histories are stunning, especially when taking into consideration the current antagonisms. The Yahweh of the Old Testament is clearly the Father to whom Christ prayed, and this is without any doubt the "Allah" upon whom Muslims call. There is no doubt of this. "Allah" in Arabic means, literally, "the (sole) God," which was an ancient name that helped the pagan pre-Islamic Arabs distinguish this one divinity from their many polytheistic idols. Islam views itself as based on the natural and necessary revelation that restored to the Arabian people their focus on a single God, which had been lost over time. I say that it was natural in that it was part of a continuum of revelation, of God's "speaking" to humanity, which began with the Jewish prophets, continued with the mission of Jesus, and was furthered and completed with the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad.
Schuon and other Perennialists have noted that a characteristic of the Judaism which Christ sought to reform was its complex, law-driven set of rules and regulations that was stifling spiritual virtues. This resulted in a religion, Christianity, which had almost no rules and regulations, only one revealed prayer (i.e., the Lord's Prayer), and which focused almost entirely on furthering the inner life. The character of the Islamic form, as revealed in the Quran, is a balance between the two. It has a well-developed system of laws to govern a society, but it also has a well-articulated system of ethics and a consistent call for a deep inner life.
The average Muslim, however, would not instinctively think of the Islamic revelation as this kind of balance but would see it as a return to the primordial religion of Abraham, and even Adam. These, and other major figures of the Old Testament, would be considered Muslims since they adhered firmly to the belief in the one God. From an Islamic perspective, Jesus is seen as a prophet of tremendous importance; he was born of a virgin birth and performed miracles, but he, too, is seen as a Muslim who, in his prophetic career, pointed people to the one Father. It is not a great leap to say that Islam, in fact, probably shares more with Judaism (because of the intense focus on monotheism and law) but also with Christianity (because of its recognition of the exalted character of Jesus and of the inner life) than either of those two great faiths share with each other. Since the very beginning, Islam has declared its respect for the "People of the Book" — meaning Jews, Christians, and some others — who were to be particularly protected when Muslims were in a position to govern them.
Faatz: At one time, Islam ruled a vast area across North Africa, Arabia, and Europe. In many ways, it was one of the most enlightened periods in human history, characterized by tolerance, ethical conduct, and scientific and philosophical inquiry. Would you speak to that? What happened with that "peak" in Islamic history?
Gaetani: That is a good segue from the last question. The Muslim civilization in Spain and other places during the Middle Ages illustrates how Muslims were expected to live with those "People of the Book."The courts of kings included Christian and Jewish councilors. Christian people would be attended by Muslim doctors. Jewish poets were free to recite their poems. Christian teachers taught at universities. There certainly were tensions at times, but this spirit of civility and collaboration existed in multiple places and lasted for centuries.
The reasons for the rise or fall of such a civilization are very complex and bound up with religious and political considerations that can be very confusing. However, one thing is clear: in all of those times and places, the three main religions concerned — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — were all experiencing periods of great tolerance and respect for their respective mystical traditions. A community that was receptive to Jewish mysticism (the Kabbalah), Christian mysticism, and Islamic mysticism (Sufism) was a community that was well inoculated against the influence of polarizing fundamentalisms which opposed both mysticism and outside religions.
When Isabella and Ferdinand expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain during the Inquisition, purifying their land for Christians only, Muslim countries in North Africa, such as Morocco, accepted those refugees of both faiths. The same sort of thing repeated itself elsewhere. Wherever the fundamentalists, whether they were Christians or Muslims, came to power, the days of peaceful coexistence and mutual benefit were over.
Faatz: What about Muhammad? He's referred to as the "Seal of the Prophets." What does that mean? What is his relation to Jesus, or Moses? What is the nature of his revelations?
Gaetani: I've already explained a lot of this, so I'll just cover a few things. To Muslims, Muhammad is, indisputably, just a man. For a Muslim to worship Muhammad would be an act of heresy. Frankly, I am amazed at how some ignorant views on the status of Muhammad in Islam have been propagated in the West despite clear and simple evidence, but I suppose this is probably a studied ignorance and more a product of propaganda and not a search for truth. So Muhammad was a man, but as a prophet, he was a man who communicated in a more or less direct way with God, and as a "messenger" he was the channel through which the Islamic revelation, the Quran came.
Schuon commented that in Christianity, God's message was manifested in the person of Jesus, while in Islam, the message was manifested as a scripture. This helps to give some idea of the incredible regard a Muslim has for the Book. It is equivalent to the regard Jews have for the Sefer Torah, the scrolls that are placed in the Holy Ark in synagogues.
Muhammad is considered to have been a person who was selected for the task of messenger because his character was so pure; he was an uncontaminated vessel into which the Divine Message could be poured, as it were. So, like Jesus and Moses, he was both prophet and messenger. Islam views him as a brother, in a sense, to the other prophets and messengers, and the Quran says that God does not hold one messenger above another. Muhammad is distinguished by being the "Seal of Prophethood," meaning that his message was to be the last major revelation of its kind between God and humankind. A cycle in the history of humankind's interaction with the divine realm came to a close, which is a concept that would not seem foreign to Hindu philosophers, for example. For Christians, the critical cycle ended with Christ's time on earth.
Muslims would say that Muhammad's title as the Seal of Prophethood has been borne out by history in that Islam is the last major religion that has sprung out of a revelation. The nature of the revelation is, to put it succinctly, the nature of the Quran, but there is another important aspect of Islam that is related to Muhammad. This is the Hadith, the collection of Muhammad's sayings and the reports of his personal actions and behavior that were recorded during or shortly after his lifetime by his companions. In these, Muhammad speaks and acts only as a particular man, not as God's agent, if you will, and in them he gives a great deal of instruction in how to interpret Quranic verses as well as how to conduct oneself in everyday life, but he also devoted a great deal of time discussing how to put one's soul in order. Where the Quran is not explicit on something, Muslims will look to the Hadith next. These are not, as I said, considered revelations by Muslims.
Faatz: Can you tell me a little more about the Koran? I've read bits and pieces, in passing, and find it lovely and inspiring and providing a sublime ethical ideal. But I know also that there are portions that extol warfare and — now, I may not have this right — the extermination of the infidel. How does one balance the two, if my understanding is true, the tolerance versus the warlike aspect? And, how would you define that much-maligned word, jihad? On what plane, in what area of one's life, does that take place?
Gaetani: It can be hard for us to read and understand the Quran. Like almost all scriptures, it was not revealed all at once. Some verses were revealed in response to very particular historical events, such as a lost battle or a campaign of slander; others recapitulate sacred history, as I said earlier; some lay out inheritance laws; and some are clearly of mystical import. These are just some of the types of verses found in the Quran.
The individual verses were put together into chapters, or surahs, according to subject and for other reasons. Thus, a Quranic chapter rarely progresses in a straightforward, logical manner, any more than a soul develops in such a manner. It is much like the Old Testament in this way. It contains plenty of fire and brimstone warnings to sinners, but it balances this with, for example, appeals to a person's sense of wonder and awe when perceiving the beauties of nature, such as a sunrise or the power of the sea. There are sometimes rhymes in verse endings, but not everywhere. The overall language of the Quran strikes readers of Arabic as of unrivaled majesty and power.
I would have to say that none of the verses extol warfare. Warfare is depicted only as a reaction to a situation where other responses don't work. Verses about war typically contain conditional phrases like: "but if they attack you, then slay them" or "you may kill those who wage war against you."
To the pagan Arabs, as to many other warrior societies, participating in war was in itself a way of accruing honor. The Quran changed this. Wars were honorable only where the cause was just. Many other common acts of war were forbidden in Islam, such as mutilating the dead, destroying crops, and other things that today we would call collateral damage.
It has to be remembered that the Quranic verses about war were revealed in reaction to frequent critical situations that confronted the young Muslim community. For example, Muslim trading caravans were attacked and merchants killed, or their small numbers of soldiers were opposed by vastly superior forces. These aggressive pagan enemies were the "infidels" of the Quran, not the "People of the Book" I spoke about before. It is antithetical to Islam to massacre populations of other people, which has generally been proven throughout history.
Have there been atrocities and massacres? Certainly, but these are not, as many are inclined to believe, acts of ethnic cleansing, but rather the result of the age-old actions of overzealous warlords seeking revenge, and so on. Tolerance is the normal Islamic instinct, and this is supported in the Quran and the Hadith. For proof, we only have to look at the many instances of Muslims protecting non-Muslims, such as the Emir Abd el-Kader of Algeria, who protected thousands of Christians in Damascus from out-of-control mobs in 1860.
The concept of jihad is an interesting one. Literally, the word means "effort" or "struggle." It was applied in early Islamic history to those desperate battles against the pagan Arabs trying to neutralize the threat of the monotheism taught by Muhammad. (It threatened their business. The pagan Meccans were merchants whose city was a center of trade for pagans from the entire region who wanted their idols to have a respected place where they did business.) So the Muslim warriors were referred to as "those who exert themselves (in the way of Islam)." They needed to reach deep into themselves for the courage and stamina to face overwhelming odds. This was the jihad.
So, by extension, it has come to mean a war in the cause of the religion. And, to the great frustration of most Muslims, the term has been appropriated by fundamentalists to give the appearance of Islamic sanction to their actions, which are transparently un-Islamic to most Muslims. Any act of jihad that indiscriminately kills civilians of any religion, and in particular women, children, and the elderly, is, without any doubt, outside of the mold of the Quran and the Hadith. Any Islamic scholar who says otherwise has been compromised or corrupted or is not properly informed.
To underline the broader meaning of jihad than the one we in the West have come to understand, returning from a battle, Muhammad once made what has become a famous statement. He told his soldiers that they were returning from the "lesser jihad," namely the effort of battle in the cause of Islam, to undertake the "greater jihad," namely the struggle within their own souls for spiritual advancement in their civilian lives. This is the traditional sense of jihad, and in that sense it appears that Islamicist terrorists, guerillas, and the like, have once again narrowed the original intent of the meaning of something in Islam to suit their own twisted agendas. They clearly have silenced the voice of their Muslim conscience that would call them to that greater jihad and have identified solely with the martial and lesser aspect of jihad, which is much more agreeable to individuals who have decided to let their bitterness rule their intelligence and morality.
Faatz: A militant fundamentalism is a problem not just in Islam, but also, obviously, in Christianity, in Judaism with the settler movement in Israel/Palestine, and even in Hinduism, which may have been the world's most tolerant faith (outside the Jains). What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism, and how does it relate to what World Wisdom refers to as "Traditional Islam"? What exactly is Traditional Islam? What about Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" theory?
Gaetani: Let me get a plug in regarding that question on the roots of Islamic fundamentalism. World Wisdom published what we consider to be the single most incisive study on the subject. It was edited by Joseph Lumbard of Brandeis University and it is titled Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition. There are many different essays in it looking at the problem from many angles. It is very difficult to summarize the conclusions of the various authors in a single comment, but I'll try: the most important cause of this modern brand of Islamic fundamentalism that is so divorced from Islamic ideals is its narrowing of the broad Islamic universe of ideas that I mentioned earlier.
How can a set of beliefs be considered Islamic if there is no place for mercy or compassion? Anyone who knows Islam knows that these are two of the most cited attributes of God: the Compassionate, the Merciful. The God of Islam states that his Mercy takes precedence over his Rigor. This current fundamentalism is so misguided and unmeasured that it results in an inversion of Muslim values.
It is this turning away from the fullness of the tradition that is the root cause of the current "betrayal of tradition." Traditional Islam is a broad tent that accommodates within itself exoteric theologians and esoteric Sufis, common people and aristocrats. It includes the arts, which are hated by these fundamentalists but which communicate the message of the civilization to the populace much better than martial slogans. Typically, true esoterists, who we refer to as "Sufis" in Islamic countries, exert a moderating influence on the society, as we saw in the great civilizations of Andalusia and elsewhere; where Sufism has been crushed, fundamentalism has grown.
Now, concerning Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" theory, there are probably some useful aspects of it, but for it really to be compelling it would necessitate the existence of real civilizations. Living, breathing traditions, in the sense I've been using the term, have always been at the heart of civilizations, and these have broken down. What civilization is left in the societies of the West? The same is equally true for most countries that have primarily Muslim populations. Is it truly civilization that connects European societies to America? Or, instead of a cohesive civilization, is it just television and multinational marketing and economic interests that tie one society to another these days?
It seems to me that when the time comes that countries need to compete for scarce resources, Huntington will find a sudden resurgence in the power of economic motivations in the clashes between groups of people, and that this will trump any kind of tension between so-called civilizations. Will religious fundamentalisms spread and wreak increasing havoc on the peace of peoples? Maybe. But we should consider the fact that fundamentalisms have always existed but that it is only through the means of modern media that we are so intensely aware, and fearful, of its existence in faraway places. As an historical phenomenon, I am not so sure that it will spread rampantly. This is because of its innately aggressive character that will be opposed from outside by nations under threat and, at the same time, from within by people under its stifling rule.
Faatz: All the world's great religions have their mystical side. Islam had Sufism. What is that movement, roughly speaking, and how does it manifest itself in the Muslim world?
Gaetani: That's a hard question to answer without writing a whole book. Annemarie Schimmel's incredible book Mystical Dimensions of Islam couldn't cover it all in its 527 pages, so my answer is certainly going to be "rough"! In very simple terms, Sufism is a way of life for Muslims who have a calling to go beyond the prescribed formal religious practices to deepen their spiritual lives. Muhammad privately transmitted some of these elevated spiritual doctrines and methods to those of his companions whom he considered ready for them; these then taught another generation in the same way, and so on through the centuries in an unbroken chain of transmission.
Over time, the teachings crystallized into written and not just oral teachings, and different Sufi orders emerged, somewhat like the various Catholic orders except that Sufis usually have families and children. So, in this late stage of Sufism's development, one Sufi might belong to the Naqshbandi order and practice silent meditation and invocation of sacred formulae, while another might belong to the Helveti order and practice the dance of the whirling dervishes (which, incidentally, is just another term for "Sufi"). The Sufis stay within the exoteric Islamic framework, performing the regular prayers, the fast of Ramadan, and so on, but they also include Sufi practices in their spiritual lives to expand their minds and their hearts with the goal of coming closer to God on a personal level. The orders include working-class people and scholars alike, and accommodate both. An order is headed by a shaykh, a person who has "realized" God and who has the vocation of leading others to the same goal. The status of a shaykh is quite similar to that of the rabbi of Hasidic branches of Orthodox Judaism.
Sufism was at one time an integral part of Muslim cultures from Indonesia in the east to Morocco in the west. In some places it continues to thrive, but it is under pressure in some places where authorities worry about their gatherings and in other places where fundamentalists persecute the orders. In addition, its appeal to young people has waned as they have other distractions that capture their attention. This is unfortunate because Sufis are people who lead intense inner lives, purifying themselves of vices and of distractions from their consciousness of God's Presence, while still leading normal lives on the outside. These are the people who experience God on a level beyond the formal limits of their religion, and so they are the ones most likely to find kinship with people seeking God through other traditions.
The thing that is most important to a Sufi is the inner life. The thing that is most important to many or most fundamentalists is the outer life of action. It's clear which are the more likely kindling for internal or external conflagrations and deprivations. Some Muslim countries have recently begun efforts to revitalize Sufi orders because they have realized their moderating influence on the society in the face of fundamentalism.
Faatz: I've been reading a book you edited, A Spirit of Tolerance, the biography of a Sufi saint from Mali, Tierno Bokar. It's enormously inspiring and uniquely beautiful. Would you say something about this and, maybe, about the horrible things happening in the north of Mali today with the attacks on Sufi tombs?
Gaetani: That book was written by the famous African writer Hampâté Bâ and translated into English by Jane Casewit. Bâ was a student of Tierno Bokar, a Sufi master. Tierno Bokar, like many great Sufi teachers, wrote down none of his own words, but his students remembered and recorded them, and that's what this book is, along with Hampâté Bâ's skillful narrative and his biography of Tierno Bokar. It is certainly very beautiful and inspiring. It's a wonderful example of someone, Tierno Bokar, who was raised in a typical African Muslim environment, which, among its virtues, also included ethnic and sectarian tensions. Bokar transcended those tensions and biases through his entirely Islamic inner development. He became the central virtues of Islam. Then he taught his students to think and develop in the same way. The love and the charity that he exhibited to all people of all religions and even to animals reminds one of St. Francis of Assisi or Swami Ramdas or the Dalai Lama.
The section of A Spirit of Tolerance that deals with Tierno Bokar's sayings includes some wonderful parables that transmit lessons that a person from any religious tradition whatsoever can apply to their own spiritual growth. These are in very simple language and they often convey something of the spirit of Africa to those of us who live elsewhere. It's a great book, but it took a lot of work to research all the cultural references, which I put into some editor's notes to help readers understand all the cultural and Islamic nuances of the story.
The situation in that part of Mali today is very sad. It was the existence of Sufism that allowed a spirit like that of Tierno Bokar to flourish, and his message of tolerance to spread. Fundamentalism is making an appearance there now too. Tragically, they may be destroying physical structures such as Sufi tombs, but more importantly, they are destroying structures for inner development that lead to an atmosphere of peace. Their goal will have to include disrupting the Sufi chain of transmission that was so nobly maintained by someone like Tierno Bokar.
Faatz: Like myself until recently, I'm sure that many of my readers are limited in their knowledge of Islam by what they read in the press. What books or even articles would you recommend to help deepen their knowledge, to spur their exploration?
Gaetani: The World Wisdom website has an online library with a broad collection of chapters on Islam. There is also the Studies in Comparative Religion website that has hundreds of free articles from the journal, many on Islam. I'm sure that readers will find something there.
As for books, Vision of Islam by Sachiko Murata and William Chittick is a well-organized introduction that covers a lot of ground. I also like The Islamic Tradition by Victor Danner, another introductory text. The illustrated book Introduction to Traditional Islam, by Jean-Louis Michon, is very special. His writing is quite poetic, but he still gets at the facts and information. However, at the same time, through the illustrations and some of the areas he explores, he gives you the vicarious sense of what it would be like to live in the kind of sacred space created by traditional Islamic civilization. It's a very "experiential" book.
Finally, for those who already have some background in the major elements of the Islamic religion, I'd suggest reading Frithjof Schuon's Understanding Islam, which brings readers to that same sacred space and in a deeper way than many readers have ever experienced before. It might help to have read the simpler but also excellent book Ideals and Realities of Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr as a kind of preparation to reading Schuon, since this book very much parallels Schuon's exposition.
Faatz: Let me just break away from Islam for a moment. What other books from World Wisdom do you find inspiring? I love The Original Gospel of Ramakrishna and the collection of Sri Anandamayi Ma. Are there others that I'm missing? Are there some that you turn to again and again, personal favorites?
Gaetani: Those are good choices! The Essential Swami Ramdas might also appeal to you. Just being objective about it, I'd have to say that there is so much choice from among the wide range of World Wisdom books that it would have to depend on what I am looking for at the moment. I would open The Golden Age of Zen for information about that school of Buddhism or In the Heart of the Desert for information about the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity.
I am very proud of our collection of books on American Indian spirituality, particularly of the Plains tribes. There is something very elemental and thus inspiring about the Indians' connection to the divine through the natural world, and so many of our books deal with this. Two of our small illustrated books, Indian Spirit and The Spirit of Indian Women, have had an impact on many people because of the photographs and words of people from that vibrant culture. The Essential Charles Eastman is, in its way, like the Tierno Bokar book, both an inspiring biography and a clear reflection of this great writer's mind and soul, and I think it speaks very directly to Americans.
For myself, I return most often, probably, to the spiritual poems of Frithjof Schuon. Short books like Road to the Heart or The Garland would have good examples. In this poetry that is meant for teaching, Schuon touches on the same themes that he covers in his prose books but in a very different way. It's like getting short, concise bits of spiritual nourishment through the haiku of the Japanese masters.
That is my personal inclination, but for newcomers to our books, I'd suggest checking out our illustrated books for inspiration. They've won many awards and are simply beautiful. You couldn't go wrong with the small book The Sermon of All Creation: Christians on Nature for great, inspiring quotes paired with stunning photos.
Books mentioned in this post