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THE GARDEN OF TRUTH The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition:

THE JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE

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Seyyed Hossein Nasr

The Garden of Truth, from: John Robert Colombo

I was browsing the shelves devoted to New Books in a favourite Toronto public library when chance led me to The Garden of Truth. The title struck me as odd, hardly idiomatic, so I reached for the green-jacketed book and read its subtitle: “The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition.” The byline read: Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Needless to say I borrowed the book from the library, and I now have three weeks to digest its contents. Twenty-one days is hardly enough time.

The dust-jacket describes its author as “one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic thought and spirituality.” He was born in Tehran, raised in the United States, educated at MIT and Harvard, and holds the position of University Professor of Islamic Studies at The George Washington University, an educational institute located (according to its website) in Washington, D.C., “four blocks from the White House.” I heard Dr. Nasr speak at the conference on Traditionalism held in Edmonton two years ago and on that occasion I was much impressed with his presence and with the respect shown to him by the conference organizers, the Ismaili Muslims of Alberta and British Columbia. It was not so much what he said that seemed important but how he said it.

“The present book is the result of over fifty years of both scholarly study of and existential participation in Sufism,” Dr. Nasr begins. Two hundred-odd pages later, he concludes, “It is for those who understand such teachings to transform theoria into actual experience …. ” I am not about to review the book, but I will offer the following bibliographical details:

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition. New York: HarperOne / HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. xvi + 256 pages. US$24.95. It includes notes, brief bibliography, and an thoughtful and helpful “Glossary of Technical Terms.”

G.I. Gurdjieff is mentioned once, in passing. The reference occurs on page 109, at the point where Dr. Nasr is describing the shaykh or spiritual master who is a link in a chain of initiation or otherwise a self-initiate: “the function may descend from Heaven upon the person. In both cases there is need of divine investiture.” He explains, “Throughout history many people have pretended to be masters and at no time as much as now, especially in the West.” He notes the increasing “number of so-called Sufi circles in both America and Europe that disassociate [dissociate] Sufism from Islam and that claim as so-called masters some whose attachment to the traditional claim of transmission of esoteric power and authority (silsilah) is either absent, suspect, or mysterious hidden.” Here I will quote him at length:

“A case in point is Gurdjieff, who claimed in the early twentieth century in France to be disseminating Sufi teachings without ever demonstrating his attachment to an authentic Sufi chain. Or one could mention Idries Shaw, who sought to teach Sufism independent of Islam in America and Europe. The authenticity of a master is judged by the quality of his or her disciples for as the proverb states, a tree is judged by its fruit. But there are also some external criteria for determining who is a real master, such as orthodoxy in the deepest sense and not only on the formal plane, familiarity with the doctrine, mastery in being able to cure the ailments of the soul, spiritual authority, and an element of sanctity. The master may be old or young, male or female, Arab, Persian, Turk, or from any other ethnicity but in all cases must exude something of the Muhammadan grace, or barakah, and display knowledge of the path for which he or she is the guide.”

This passage summarizes the traditional objection to the claim that Gurdjieff received Islamic initiation or showed its effects. Dr. Nasr does so deftly and without the pyrotechnics of Whittal Perry in Gurdjieff: In the Light of Tradition (1978).

In passing, let me make an interesting observation about The Garden of Truth. The book’s index has no entries for Traditionalism itself, or for its chief exponent René Guénon, though there are three entries for Frithjof Schuon. Two of the latter’s books are listed in the Bibliography, none of Guénon’s.

John Robert Colombo is a Toronto author and authologist whose latest books are a collection of poems, End Notes, and Gordon Sinclair: A Commentary on His Books. He has two new websites: one personal one and one professional one .

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