With the term ’intellectual confusion’ coined by R. Guénonfn1 is meant the inability of the modern mind, especially in the West - but not only there, to transcend the material world and discover the roots of the Sacred.

Excerpts From:

Al-Azhar Sufism in Modern

Egypt: The Sufi Thought

Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi'* pt.1 - ed. OmarKN

This account refers to the Egypt of the 1950ies to 1970ies. A present-day sketch is [ here ].
We regret the violent events of 20130814, orchestrated by the Egyptian army and deep state.

The 2013 Egyptian coup d'etat took place on 3 July 2013.

Ensuing protests in favour of Morsi were violently suppressed culminating with the dispersal and massacre of pro-Morsi sit-ins on 14 August 2013, amid ongoing unrest; journalists[27] and several hundred protestors were killed by police and military force. Muslim Brotherhood members claim 2,600 people were killed.
Source: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Egyptian_coup_d%27état)


§1 R. Guénon and the Sufism of Sh Al Azhar A.H. Mahmud
§2 The Metaphysical Doctrine of Sh A.H. Mahmud
§3 Sh A.H. Mahmud's Interpretation of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ
§4 General Conclusions

§1 René Guénon and the Sufism of Shaykh Al Azhar A.H. Mahmud

AVIn many of his ideas on tasawwuf Mahmud is indebted to the genius of the French metaphysician and Sufi thinker, R. Guénon. Shaykh A.H. Mahmud was the first thinker in Egypt to introduce the life and thought of Guénon to the Arab public. p.219
[See §5 in pt.2 where he discusses R. Guénon's thoughts.fn2]

AVShaykh A.H. Mahmudfn4 argues that one of the major consequences of the encroachment of Western culture in the Muslim world is the contemporary confrontation between traditional principles of the present Muslim culture and anti-traditional culture.fn75 Mahmud agrees with Guénon's argument that there are Orientals who are more or less completely Westernized and who have forsaken their tradition and adopted all the aberrations of the modern outlook, and these denatured elements are led astray by the teachings of European and American universities.fn76

Shaykh A.H. Mahmud's task, it seems to me, in finding a solution for this problem of confrontation is much harder than Guénon. Guénon extricated himself from the West and dwelt in Cairo dissecting the problems of the Western world from the outside.

Shaykh A.H. Mahmud was engaged in an ongoing cultural battle in Egypt with the secularist thinkers whom he viewed as the continuation of Western domination in Egypt. Mahmud considered the restoration of traditionalism in the Islamic East with the aid of the intellectual ’elect’. He argued that the ’elect’ should equip themselves, as an integral part of their mental formation, with the major principles of metaphysical knowledge. p. 220

Both Guénon and Mahmud perceived ’the pure intellectual elect’ - those who possess the intuitive divine qualities - as the real movers of history.

Shaykh A.H. Mahmud agrees with Guénon's definition of the elect: The elect can only be the few, and their power, or rather their authority, being due to their intellectual superiority, whereas democracy is based on the inherent tendency to sacrifice the minority to the majority, and therefore quality to quantity and the elect to the masses.fn77 Does that mean that both Guénon and Shaykh A.H. Mahmud want ’the elect’, as it is the case with philosophers in Plato's Republic, to rule the world? And are ’the elect’ superior in their nature as well as function to the prophets as traditionally understood?

To begin with, the role of ’the elect’ in Shaykh A.H. Mahmud's and Guénon's sense is to restore the traditional roots of the modern world. Their function supersedes politics - it is mainly inspirational and guiding in nature. In addition, Mahmud believed that the role of ’the elect’ is to reflect on the true Islamic tradition in a secular environment which is progressively hostile to religion, and where Sufism is perceived as a complicated system of superstition and innovation in religion. In explaining the concept of the elect, Mahmud says that, ’it is in the nature of things that there should be an aristocracy; it is the concept of the elect - those people who are divinely gifted by an acute sense, a sharp intelligence, and by a spiritual instinct.’fn78

The superiority of the nature of ’the elect’ is a divine gift. In this sense God chooses whoever He wants for this purpose regardless of the person's financial status or social background. In such a perspective Shaykh A.H. Mahmud addresses those people who, whatever be their class background, are willing to work for the restoration of traditionalism in society.

’The elect’ in Guénon's sense lead a socially - exclusive life; in Shaykh A.H. Mahmud's sense, they lead an active social life in society by basing intellectual orientation on the Qur'an and the Sunnah. This can partly explain why Shaykh A.H. Mahmud, as ’an aristocratic thinker’, was to preach the application of the Shari'ah in the 1970's. This action won him both religious and secular antagonists.

Some religious-minded people did not understand how a Sufi thinker could fight for the application of the Shari'ah when he was supposed to ’contemplate God quietly’. They saw an apparent contradiction between tasawwuf and the Shari'ah. Others considered him to be a tool of the state fulfilling its religious policy. It is only when we grasp the traditional perspective of Mahmud that we can understand his attempt to achieve the autonomy of al-Azhar from the bondage of the state after its sharp decline as both a religious and educational institution during the rule of Nasir.

§2 The Metaphysical Doctrine of Shaykh A.H. Mahmud

AVBoth Guénon and Shaykh A.H. Mahmud present metaphysics as the means par excellence through which man can attain correct understanding of the principles of knowledge. To both of them, the esoteric and metaphysical doctrines of Islam, which are universal in nature, affirm the genuine nature and (p. 221) traditional character of the past messengers who have carried essentially the same message.

Both Guénon and Shaykh A.H. Mahmud affirm that the manifestations of this essential message were many, corresponding to different historical and geographical circumstances. But from a metaphysical point of view, the Principle is one. Metaphysical knowledge is the supreme condition any human being can achieve, since eternal and universal truth are the backbone of such knowledge.

Shaykh A.H. Mahmud argues that the true value of modern Muslim culture resides in the integration of these universal principles and truths with the multiplicity of social forms of cultural and ethics. He says that the metaphysical doctrine is no more, in principle, than the science of Reality. This science distinguishes between the principle and the manifestation - or between God and the world.fn79

In his comment on metaphysics, Shaykh A.H. Mahmud says that, ’tasawwuf is the knowledge of metaphysics.’fn80 This knowledge is not a closed system of theoretical concepts that can be merely comprehended rationally. A higher stage, whose source is divine, can allow the gifted to relate to it through their intellectual intuition.

In his various articles on Sufism, Shaykh A.H. Mahmud explains the fundamental divergence between rationalism , as it has been used in the West since the Renaissance, and intuition or pure Intellect that is emphasized in Islam. He treats rationalism as an insufficient means of knowing the principle of metaphysics.

He agrees with Guénon that rationalism is nothing else than the negation of any faculty of a super-individual order.fn81 Shaykh A.H. Mahmud comes close to Seyyed Hossein Nasr's view that rationalism, as it developed in the West, became a veil which separated man from God and marked the human revolt against heaven.fn82 It should be noted that in his treatment of human reason he does not denigrate intelligence as a major faculty of man; his major concern here is to affirm the divine roots of intelligence.

The senses and human reason, devoid of divine inspiration, are unable to attain the knowledge of metaphysics. This does not mean that the doors of such knowledge are inaccessible to the lay Muslim - Shaykh A.H. Mahmud says this knowledge can be attained by any Muslim with a conviction to do so. In addition Mahmud offers the Prophet ﷺ and his life as the archetypal spiritual life that ’was full of spiritual combativeness.’fn83

The presentation of the doctrinal works of Shaykh A.H. Mahmud in a traditional Islamic form would no doubt make these ideas acceptable to the wider populace since this populace is still attached to the traditional origins that Mahmud is trying to formulate.

One might assume that these ideas were accepted in the 1950's and 1960's in Egypt. This was not the case. Although Shaykh A.H. Mahmud fulfilled the task of giving an intellectual justification for the need of Sufism and metaphysics, the major problem he faced was that not only were the traditional roots of society attacked from the top, but there was also an indigenous group of intellectuals of Western educational formation and inspiration. The challenge of the doctrinal teachings of Shaykh A.H. Mahmud was twofold: on the one hand, it was an attempt to justify the doctrines of (p. 222) metaphysics to the Muslim rationalist in an intellectual and speculative way.

On the other hand, it was an attempt intellectually to restore Islamic traditionalism to its position among the young generation who had been lost to secularism. Shaykh A.H. Mahmud hoped to influence educational institutions which he saw as crucial networks of culture . Yet, since the cultural policies of the universities were directed by the upper echelons of the state, Mahmud had great difficulty in asserting his ideas.

As part of his metaphysical doctrines, Shaykh A.H. Mahmud attacked a current popular among the spiritually-oriented, who claim that the rules of the Shari'ah do not apply to them. Mahmud maintains that this phenomenon that he calls bida' or religious innovation is not the work of laymen but that of lawyers and judges.fn84 Some of these men are very influential in society.

In this he agrees with Guénon who, contrary to this stream, considers Sufism the complementary esoteric side of the Shari'ah. Shaykh A.H. Mahmud refers to the ideas of the great Sufis in Islam and confirms the point of view that both the Qur'an and the Sunnah are the starting point of any Sufi initiation of knowledge. The true Sufis, Shaykh A.H. Mahmud says, ’follow the Qur'anic text and the Sunnah of the Prophet in both his words and deeds. They also know from history that the Prophet ﷺ was the supreme example in his life performing the rites of Islam until the end of his life.’fn85 And that - in words and deeds - the Prophet ﷺ was the embodiment of the Qur'anic ethics.

Like all traditional thinkers who have written on the subject of Sufism, Shaykh A.H. Mahmud considers Islam to have three complementary dimensions: First, Islam or the complete submission to God Who is the One and the Real; second Iman or the belief in the major metaphysical doctrines of Islam as verified in the Qur'an, and third Ihsān , or excellence, which is the spiritual path leading to the recognition of the One. (p. 223)
[ The above paragraph is the beginning of chapter §6 ’What Is Sufism’,fn3 followed by the chapter of ’Mahmud's Theory of Spiritual Stations,’]

§3 Shaykh A.H. Mahmud's Interpretation of the Prophet of Islam ﷺ

AVShaykh A.H. Mahmud's goal was to prove that the metaphysical doctrines of Islam which were reflected in the Prophet as the Perfect Man (al-insān al-kāmil) … can still be followed in a modern situation.…

In his capacity as a Prophet, his aim was not only to rise up against the injustices of the existing order, but to create a new one. The Qur'an is the original source of ethics, and Muhammad was the historical manifestation of such ethics.

Shaykh A.H. Mahmud seeks to reassert the traditional notion of Islam that in ’the Muslim environment, ethics is an integral part of religion; its source is Qur'an.’ fn100 The study of the Prophet's ﷺ life and his embodiment of Qur'anic ethics is, thus, the only way for the traditional Islamic culture to strengthen itself and meet the challenges of the modern world.

Complementary to his human nature, Mahmud asserts that Muhammad ﷺ was the Prophet of mercy. This is in accordance with the Qur'anic verse, { We sent thee not, but as a Mercy for all creatures.} Sura 21-107 …

Shaykh A.H. Mahmud … discusses the universal qualities that can serve as a model for every Muslim. He argues that as the ’Perfect Man’, Muhammad never succumbed to hardships.

Shaykh A.H. Mahmud defends the Prophet ﷺ and his life against those interpretations which consider the Prophet a great hero and charismatic personality, whose rise to power and social prestige was more due to material circumstances than to ’abstract’ metaphysical doctrines.

(In this respect, he) does not view the Prophet ﷺ as a charismatic leader in the Weberian sense since this kind of charisma would be derived from personal genius and not from a divine revelation. He maintains that Islam is a liberating force that can free man from the slavery of material desires and worldly possessions. Muslims should follow in the footsteps of the Prophet ﷺ, and should seek to realize the integration of man within the social order. The Prophet ﷺ never preached that men should abandon the social order and live a monastic way of life. … (p. 226)

§4 General Conclusions

There was a great revival of popular Sufism in Egypt in the late 1960's and the early 1970's. Shaykh A.H. Mahmud's principal formulation of Sufi theories were, first authentically Islamic, and second, a response to a historical situation in which Sufism became relegated to a secondary place in society.

What were the reasons for the revival of Sufism? One should note that Sufism never disappeared in Egypt in spite of its organizational weakness as has been discussed before. On the cultural level, it exerted a great deal of influence on some of the best minds in Egypt, who, in spite of their Western (p. 227) education, remained attached to this form of Islam. Furthermore, the ideological apparatus of the Nasir-regime that was interested in replacing Sufism and even Islam with the ideas of Arab nationalism and socialism, went through various stages of transformation in the period from 1952 until …

(Some have argued) that Mahmud was strongly identified with those currents of Sufism that insisted on the teaching of the existence of an enlightened aristocratic elite.fn103 Some of the disciples of this ’elite’ were close to the Muslim Brothers. They are in favour of establishing an Islamic state where they would be the guardian of a kingdom following the Islamic rules after getting rid of Westen normative models of rules.

In the author's opinion, such a criticism neglects the fact that Shaykh A.H. Mahmud's distinction between aristocratic Sufism and popular Sufism is not based on social or economic criteria. It is true that Shaykh A.H. Mahmud stood for the establishment of an Islamic state, but not in the manner that the lkhwān envisaged. He never supported political or social violence. His was a call to apply the Shari'ah through constitutional means.

…(And) as seen earlier, Shaykh A.H. Mahmud's labour ethics and theory of lawful gain are derived from the Qur'an. Man is a responsible being. Man is required, therefore, to search for legal ways of earning a living. Sufism is the antithesis of laziness and social seclusion. In that sense, Mahmud argues that being rich from one's labour does not contradict asceticism or Sufism.(p. 228)


* Islamic Quarterly 32, 1988; p. 207-234
When the author used ’Mahmud’ it was here replaced by ’Shaykh A.H. Mahmud.’

fn1 We borrow the term ’intellectual confusion’ from R. Guénon - mainly from his book The Crisis of The Modern world, translated by A. Osborne (London, 1948). By this term, Guénon means the inability of the modern mind, especially in the West, to transcend the material world and discover the roots of the Sacred. Although the roots of traditional Islamic culture are still strong in Egypt, what appears on the surface is somewhat different. Those who are in control of the mass media and the major publications in the country propagate secular notions either in the name of Arab nationalism or socialism or capitalism.

fn2: §5 René Guénon On The Modern World

fn3: §6 Sufism According To Shaykh A.H. Mahmud

fn4: The Life of Shaykh al-Azhar Abdul Halim Mahmud (1910 - 1978)

fn75: CMW113 [not sourced]

fn76: CMW60 [not sourced]

fn77: A.H. Mahmud, Manhaj al-islah al-islami fi al-mujtama' (Cairo n.d.) p.16
See also his book al-Islam wa-al iman, Cairo, 1984; pp. 5-33.

fn78: CMW60

fn79: CMW113

fn80: A.H. Mahmud, al-Tasawwuf, p.344 (not sourced)

fn81: ibid.

fn82: CMW60

fn83: A.H. Mahmud, al-Tasawwuf, p.302

fn84: ibid; p.243

fn85: ibid; p.248

fn100: A.H. Mahmud, al-Madrasah al-Shādhiliyyah al-haditha wa imamuha Abu al-Hasan al-Shādhilī, Cairo, 1982; p. 116

fn103 M. Gilsenan, ’L’Islam dans le l’egypte contemporaine: religion d’état, religion populaire’ Annales, # 3-4, 1980, pp. 598-614

CMW = R. Guénon, The Crisis of The Modern World, London 1948

 → Go to pages [ pt.2 ] [ Intro Sh Abd Al Wahid Yahya - R. Guénon ]

see also:
The Life of Shaykh al-Azhar Abdul Halim Mahmud (1910 - 1978)