On the Term “Wisdom Traditions”: Reflections on Its Significance for Muslims in the Modern Context

“Wisdom is the lost treasure of the believer, he may retrieve it wherever he finds it.”–Prophet Muhammad (saw)

Huston Smith, the great American Philosopher of Religion and Western Academic who  in many ways singlehandedly opened the doors for Western seekers to the wisdom traditions of both East and West was perhaps the first to coin the term “wisdom traditions”. This term is very apt for an Islamic appreciation of the religious traditions of the Other for multiple reasons. To focus on one reason, such an appreciation of the religous teachings of the Other uses the term “wisdom” which in Islam is considered a universally revealed quality which can not be delimited or confined to any one person or religion, but is defined by Prophecy or Prophetic Tradition as such. We find these revealed teachings in the following Quranic verses:

“For this We sent a Messenger to you from among you to recite our Verses to you and purify you and teach you the Book and Wisdom حكمة (Hikma) and teach you things you did not know before.” (Qur’an 2:151)

“Remember God’s blessings upon you, and what He sent down to you of the Book and the Wisdom (al kitab wal hikma) in order to enlighten you with it.”(2:231)

“He Gives Wisdom to whomsoever He Wills; and whoso is Given Wisdom  has been given abundant good; yet none remember save those with intellects” (2:269)

The first Quranic verse cited binds Wisdom to the agency of Prophecy and thereby roots any expression of authentic wisdom by any historical follower of a given Prophet–be that in the form of spiritual teachings, writings or commentaries on revealed scripture, or even medicinal therapies–in the Tradition of Prophecy. The second verse along with the first in which ‘Scripture and Wisdom’ are paired demonstrates the complimentary functions of Scripture and Wisdom: ie, one can be seen to explain, preserve and apply the other for generations of religious practitioners. The third verse universalizes the transmission of revealed wisdom to all of humanity and mentions that any human being who realizes such modes of wisdom has been given “abundant good” by God Himself , among whose many revealed Names in Islam is “Al-Hakim” (The Wise)!

Now, to appreciate the nature of wisdom and its diverse manifestations in space and time through the various revealed traditions in this Quranic sense, combined with the insights of the above hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) regarding the “lost treasure” of wisdom, allows a Muslim to firmly root all diverse, alien, and even ‘non-Islamic’* modes and expressions of spiritual wisdom as found in sages and revealed scriptures across religious frontiers in the reality of Revelation and Prophecy: or Tradition as understood in a universal and global sense. By way of example, to be able to recognize (or “retrieve”) the sayings of pure Non-Dualist Metaphysics of a Shankara as modes of a wisdom (hikma) elucidating pure tawhid (note that Pure Oneness/tawhid is non-Duality/advaita vedanta precisely) which at first sight may be unintelligible (aka “a lost treasure”) for a Muslim believer, can be very spiritually empowering. Such a process of “retrieval”  of a “lost treasure” for the believer can be a means of confirming a mode of Quranic and Prophetic discourse which can deepen one’s attachment to Islam through its universal openings and connection to other revealed or inspired “wisdom traditions”, which one is more capable of accessing in the modern and global context.

Moreover, to recognize the wise teachings of this same Hindu Sage for example as sacred when compared to certain modern or post-modern speculative philosophies is also to appreciate the difference between intellectual teachings which are rooted in the Sacred Tradition of Prophecy and those intellectual teachings divorced from the Sacred: ie, non-traditional. This distinction is equally empowering as it allows one to appreciate the difference between manifestations of sacred ‘wisdom’ and  profane ‘knowledge’ or ‘information’. In the Islamic worldview, any knowledge which was rooted in ‘tawhid’ (the awareness of the Reality of Divine Unity) was considered ‘Islamic’ and was easily integrated in the Islamic worldview regardless of where it was found. The saying of the Prophet whose extrinsic authenticity of ‘transmission’ is uncertain but whose intrinsic ‘meaning’ is sound comes to mind in this context: “Seek knowledge even unto China”. One need not look further than the many Muslim Philosophers and Sufis who were able to benefit from and integrate many of the teachings and sayings of Sages from religious traditions preceding Islam to make this point from an empirical or historical perspective.

What a profound change of attitude, approach, and understanding towards the “wisdom traditions’ of the Other (including traditional commentary and poetry traditions, and even traditional medicinal traditions) would such an appreciation entail, if Muslims were able to apply such universal principles as found in the Wisdom of their Revealed Sources and as found through various historical Muslim precedents in the Tradition, to the current context of religious dialogue and co-existence in the Modern West. Ofcourse, I am not advocating for syncretistic approaches to worship masquerading as ‘healing sessions’ for example. But what I am implying is that gaining an insight into the nature of Divine Reality from the teachings of a Sage (Hakim) of another ‘wisdom tradition’ can only reinforce, expand, and preserve a Muslim’s sense of the Sacred, whose Sacred Sources as well as existential context beckon him as a believer to assert his Prophetic right to finding the lost treasure of Sacred Wisdom in the Other.

All in all, such a ‘retrieval’ of a ‘lost wisdom’ can allow Muslims to be more inclusive of the Wisdom traditions of the Religious Other and view them as ‘extensions’ of a Prophetic or Traditional Wisdom that should not be confined  to one religious group (even one’s own religious group). Such a process of ‘retrieval’ which is both Prophetic and Quranic, allows the Muslim to be aware of the reality that not only where there is Islam there is Wisdom, but also and more profoundly, wherever there is Wisdom, there is ‘Islam’.

 

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[*Please note that the phrase “non-Islamic” is to be distinguished from “un-Islamic”. A truth  or form of wisdom can be ‘non-Islamic’ and not organically related to the formal teachings of the Islam of Muhammad (saw) and still be a mode or expression of Prophetic wisdom as found in the teachings of a Prophet preceding Muhammad (saw). As such, we would deem such truth or wisdom “Prophetic”, “Traditional” and/or even “Islamic” in a universal sense as witnessed in the last line of the above reflection. In contrast, an undertstanding which is “anti-Islamic” is always error or ‘misguidance’ from the point of view of Islam.]

 

Suggestions for further reading:

1. “The World’s Religions”, by Huston Smith. By far, still the best work on comparative religion in English. A pure classic and a pleasure to read.

2. “The Forgotten Truth”, also by Huston Smith.

3. “Islamic Life and Thought” and “Ideals and Realities of Islam”,  both by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. These landmark books respectively open such awareness of the Islamic view on the universality of Wisdom and Revelation.

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